To repeat the successes and not the mistakes of the past, it is important to understand that past. For this reason I think studying the economic & state systems of previous socialist experiments is highly important.
That said, I am by no means an expert on the Soviet System. Therefore I will only make some remarks on their system instead of attempting to make a thorough critique.
Elections under Lenin
The Lenin era democratic system was based on the All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Local soviets (worker councils) would send delegates to a Congress which created laws & decided policy. While the congress was not in session a Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) ran the government.
Elections under Stalin
The Stalin era democratic system replaced the Congress of Soviets with the Supreme Soviet which held elections every 4 years. The local Soviets decided only local issues while people could be elected to the Supreme Soviet directly instead of being sent as delegates.
Problems & Positive Features:
Without going into too much detail the Stalin era system was much more developed then the Lenin era system and all around can be called more democratic. However I think it was still flawed.
The Stalin era system actually copies the Western parliamentary system to a notable degree with its parliament (Supreme Soviet) & local organs (worker councils) but makes it more democratic in many ways while also limiting the rights of bourgeois forces.
1. Role of the Local Soviets
I think limiting the Soviets to deciding only local issues was a mistake. Having them send delegates to the parliament would have kept a stronger bond between work places and democracy & it would have better facilitated worker control on all levels of society. It would have kept the delegates more accountable also.
2. Selecting candidates
The Stalin era system of picking candidates for elections had positive elements. Having communist party chapters, komsomol, army units, women & student groups and co-operatives pick candidates; in short selecting candidates collectively was a good idea. It is more democratic, makes it more difficult for right-wingers & corrupt careerists with no social base to run.
Lenin states in The State and Revolution:
“Marx, referring to the example of the Commune, showed that under socialism functionaries will cease to be “bureaucrats”, to be “officials”, they will cease to be so in proportion as—in addition to the principle of election of officials—the principle of recall at any time is also introduced, as salaries are reduced to the level of the wages of the average workman…”
Needless to say this was not done in the Soviet Union. An official could earn 1000 rubles or if they held multiple positions which was possible they could earn more, while the lowest collective farmer or manual laborer could earn as little as 300-400 rubles per month. It is important to note that a skilled expert, manager or scientist could earn the same as a politician. Many of these inequalities were simply inherited from the previous capitalist system.
Why was this inequality not done away with? Lenin answers in the same work:
“Abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely, is out of the question. It is a utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy, this is not a utopia, it is the experience of the Commune, the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat.”
The elimination of the old state machine, all its remnants cannot be done over night. Secondly when writing his work Lenin was talking about revolution and socialism in an industrial country. Naturally in a backward country the elimination of the old bureaucracy would have to be even more gradual. As only 20% of the country was literate when the Bolsheviks took power, it was simply impossible for ‘all to govern in turn’ while such conditions existed. It was impossible to elect all officials. A transition, a raising of the cultural level had to take place.
I’m perfectly aware of the difficulties the Soviet government faced, but in my opinion the relative inequality in wages (though incredibly small in comparison with capitalist nations) was a problem. Economic incentives for individuals in production (as long as restricted & regulated) are not a problem, but privileges for political elites are. The principle of electing all or almost all officials could have been implemented after the old bourgeois experts & managers had been completely removed (i.e. in the late 30s, 40s or 50s).
The reason why such democratic reform did not take place was the struggle between two tendencies in the party: the Proletarian line of Stalin (which in the 1950s was in the minority) & the right-wing bourgeois line of the Revisionists, supported by centrists and bureaucrats (which managed to take power).
4. Contested Elections
The Soviet Union banned the opposition parties for violently opposing the Bolshevik Revolution or supporting the White Army etc. etc. etc. and never allowed opposition parties after that point. In the mid-1930s Stalin argued for contested elections. However this proposal was not accepted in the end.
Liberal critics claimed that Stalin’s move was merely a propaganda stunt, as he knew the Communist Party would win and therefore was willing to grant legal status to a powerless & marginal opposition that had no chance to take power. This is rather ironic considering that is precisely how most Western capitalist countries deal with their oppositions. The Communist Parties are tolerated in the West, as long as they don’t threaten Capitalism. If they begin to pose a threat Mccarthyism kicks in, or perhaps a military coup.
In any case, despite the Soviets not doing so, many other socialist countries (e.g. the GDR) had multiple parties. As far as I know there were no immediate negative consequences for this.
The question of allowing bourgeois opposition is a different one. My guess is that such opposition forces would immediately become puppets of foreign capitalist powers and should then be outlawed as organizations of foreign agents and traitors.
The context in which the Soviets banned the other parties was very specific, this cannot be over emphasized. First of all it was during a violent civil war and therefore more acceptable. Secondly, Russia (and other Eastern European countries) didn’t have a long history of parliamentary democracy to begin with. They were used to monarchy, despotism and right-wing dictatorship.
In our current context (long history of parliamentarism & time of peace), banning the opposition would be an entirely different matter. Venezuela has chosen not to do so even though their oppositionists are clearly paid by the USA.
The question of should we allow a left-opposition or a right-opposition is a difficult one but boils down to this: the Proletariat must be in charge, anti-proletarian forces cannot be allowed back in power. The vanguard status of the Communist Party is also of immense importance but this status has to be earned over and over again. Further more this vanguard status does not necessarily have to mean that the party holds monopoly control over the state.
The party is an ideological leader, but if the conditions are there, the people themselves should administrate the state as much as possible. All are in agreement about this. In Communism this should become the norm, but to reach this stage it should be facilitated already in the transitional period of Socialism.
State and Revolution
Click to access state-and-revolution.pdf
Stalin and the Struggle for Democratic Reform
Constitution (Fundamental law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics