Socialist Legality

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

As Marxists, the Bolsheviks understood the role of law as an instrument through which the bourgeois ruling class defined and defended its hegemony. The communist revolution, it was assumed, would destroy the capitalist state and its laws, leaving workers free to administer themselves without legal restraint. But the October Revolution had ushered in not communism but rather the beginning of a transitional period of undetermined length and character. Lenin, among others, was quick to realize that the new regime needed not only a repressive apparatus in the form of the Cheka, but also a legal structure capable of combating crimes against the workers’ state. Nevertheless, among the Bolsheviks this instrumentalist conception of the law continued to be challenged beyond the civil war by an “eliminationist,” anti-law view as well as by the extraordinary powers of the Cheka’s successors. Tensions between these different approaches and the blurring of the distinction between a formal legal structure embodied in the Commissariat of Justice (Narkomiust) and the court system on the one hand and the extra-judicial powers of the political police on the other would persist throughout the 1920s.

On February 6, 1922 the All-Russian Executive Committee (TsIK) decreed the abolition of the Cheka and its replacement by a State Political Administration (GPU). Unlike its predecessor, the GPU did not have the authority to adjudicate and punish political offenders through administrative sentencing. However, supplementary legislation in August 1922 restored to the new political police agency the power to exile abroad and inside the country participants in “counterrevolutionary activity,” and these powers were further extended in the decree of TsIK’s Presidium of November 15, 1923 (ratified by TsIK on October 24, 1924) which established a Unified State Political Administration (OGPU). In the meantime, the TsIK also promulgated a Criminal Code for the RSFSR. The Code delineated crimes against the person (theft, robbery, assault, etc.) that were quite traditional in their conceptualization, but also what were defined as counterrevolutionary crimes, economic crimes (including speculation, that is, the “artificial raising of prices of products”), and crimes by officials of the state. These and the stipulated punishments were based on the three principles of analogy, judicial discretion, and class favoritism.

Of the three, class bias was the most controversial and was subjected to frequent modification. The fact, as reported by Pravda, that Moscow’s jails were filled with poor, unemployed people who had engaged in illegal trade to survive was an acute embarrassment and led to the expansion of the class bias principle in the Fundamental Principles of Criminal Legislation, issued in October 1924. However, almost immediately prominent voices, including that of Nikolai Bukharin, were raised against special leniency for workers who had committed crimes, and in 1927 the provision for discrimination by class was removed from both the Fundamental Principles and the Criminal Code. Even while these controversies persisted, Bolshevik legal theorists were anticipating the abolition of “bourgeois” notions of civil liberties and private property, and with them, the “withering away of the law.”

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17 Moments in Soviet History – Socalist Legality, by Lewis Siegelbaum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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