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Soviet Congress Just Fig-Leaf Democracy?

By Albert L. WeeksAlbert L. Weeks, professor of international relations at New York University and the author of several books on Soviet politics, has just completed biographies of 500 Soviet officials. / June 5, 1989



A PLUCKY representative to the Congress of People's Deputies, a truck driver from Kharkov, seized the opportunity at the body's first session to compare Mikhail Gorbachev to Napoleon. But the deputy, Leonid Sukhov, chose the wrong Bonaparte to establish the parallel. It was the ``elected'' Emperor Napoleon III, the first Napoleon's nephew, who is Mr. Gorbachev's analogue. Many Soviet intellectuals feel that, just as in midcentury France under the empire, something less than rule by the people is being sold in the form of the mere trappings of democracy. As Andrei Sakharov put it late last year, officially decreed, allegedly democratic Soviet electoral reform succeeded in strengthening the unchecked office of president so as to threaten the rise of a ``second Stalin.'' Mr. Sakharov and others also question the motives behind the regime-sponsored ``law state.'' Law, they point out, is a two-edged sword: It can blaze a trail to democracy or it can cut down the tender shoots of popular rule. A recent decree, for example, clamped down on democratic activism in the form of speech and writing.

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Critics also accuse the leadership of playing democratic games meant more for show than providing the people with substantial, effective democratic instrumentalities. Gorbachev's well-greased election as president by the Soviet Congress was described by one deputy (the economist Gavril Popov) as a ``victory for the [party] apparatus.'' History professor Yuri Afanasyev called it the product of an ``aggressive, subservient majority that overturned all of the people's decisions.''

In comparing Gorbachev to Napoleon I, Sukhov needed to brush up on Karl Marx's analysis of the political machinations of Napoleon III. Marx described the rigged 1848 ``popular'' election of Napoleon III as president of France and of the National Assembly as a triumph of ``fig-leaf democracy.'' The ``bourgeois legality'' underlying the French ``law state'' and its putatively democratic institutions, Marx insisted, did not mask the ``political fraudulence'' of pseudo-democratic elections and the underlying class inequities of French society and the bureaucracy.

Similarly, advocates of radical Soviet reform, like the members of the virtually outlawed Democratic Union (but also some outspoken Communist Party deputies), deplore what they call the partial, ``hypocritical'' steps made by the party nomenklaturists, whose privileges and bureaucratic prerogatives are ``bourgeois.'' The aim of these ``elitists,'' critics say, is to keep the bureaucracy safely entrenched while offering mere democratic ``caviar to the general [population].''

Forty years after Emperor Napoleon III played such games, Marxists such as Vladimir Lenin noted in retrospect that a similar trick was perpetrated in the Germany of Wilhelm I in the 1880s. When Chancellor Bismarck unfurled his far-reaching, paternalistic, social-political reform program, branded by the Marxists ``police socialism,'' it was no secret that Bismarck had concocted the program to protect his authoritarian rule by throwing reformist crumbs to the populace. It was a two-headed tactic designed to devalue the political coinage of the radical Social Democrats while also serving as a lightning rod for workers' grievances.

Still later, advisers to Czar Nicholas II had something similar in mind when they yielded to liberal noblemen and intellectuals' demands for an electoral law and parliament (Duma) to counter czarist autocracy. The Duma, court politicians thought, would take the wind out of the sails of the growing labor and socialist movement. Alienated subjects would begin to feel that the government was theirs rather than a plaything of the Romanovs.

In all there were four Dumas from 1906 to 1917. However, the farsighted statesmen who had favored democratization under the monarchy were obliged to watch apprehensively as each successive Duma became less representative, thanks to electoral-law restrictions. Disenfranchised parties and deputies became increasingly disillusioned and alienated and, therefore, politicized.

Finally, court reactionaries, out of fear of the people, converted the Duma into a ``consultative chamber'' resembling a Western medieval king's council. As the people's access to democratic representation was steadily pinched off, the working classes became increasingly vulnerable to appeals from the extreme left.

Apparently cognizant of this notorious history of the devolution of the democratic process in Russia, democratic activists within and outside the Congress of People's Deputies today are determined to make their ``Duma'' increasingly democratic as the ``democratic experiment'' in Soviet Russia continues apace. Some advocates of genuine democratization have gone further, demanding that some alternative popular tribune be established - an ``independent deputies group.''

Meantime, a vociferous 30 percent minority within the Congress seems committed to preventing any reactionary ``Thermidore'' that would block the path of the rolling ball of liberty. The struggle to keep up the ball's momentum is now under way.