Evolution of Soviet “Rights-Talk,” part 2: Stalin and the 1936 Constitution

[Continued from: Evolution of Soviet “Rights-Talk,” part 1: Lenin and the 1918 Constitution]

Stalin and the 1936 Constitution

This stamp from the Soviet Union celebrates the long-lived “Stalin” Constitution of 1936.

The violence and social upheaval of the 1930s might suggest legal instability, but as Benjamin Nathans points out, the “Stalin Constitution” created during this turbulent (and for some, traumatic) era had relative longevity and stability, and it “served as the foundational text for virtually all post-Stalinist discussions of rights and other constitutional issues” for the years to come.[16] The language of rights being given exclusively to “toilers” in the 1918 Constitution was modified, and rights were given to all citizens as long as these rights “correspond to the interest of toilers and the strengthening of the socialist system.”[17] To the “Soviet claim that the 1936 Constitution was ‘the most democratic in the world,’” Nathans points to the extensive program of economic and social rights laid out in Section Ten.[18] These rights included “the right to employment, to leisure, to material security in old age and in the event of illness or incapacity to work, and to education, up to and including higher education,” and unequal distributions of these rights “based on gender, race, and nationality were forbidden.”[19]

The public criticism surrounding the draft 1936 Constitution shows a nascent, evolving, rights-based thinking (as opposed to Burbank’s “empire-based thinking”) among different levels of society, even though a thread of “a certain neo-corporatism” remained.[20] For example, members of collective farms recognized that the draft constitution included “fine distinctions among the material rights” granted to workers versus collective farmers and “complained bitterly about their prospective exclusion.”[21] Yet others “protested the granting of equal rights to kulaks, priests, and other ‘right-less’ groups” because it seemed to be a “retreat from dictatorship of the proletariat toward a ‘bourgeois’ order.”[22]

The push for class-based rights might have looked like the estate-based system in its broadest brushstrokes, but the meaning of this class-based system specifically inverted the social order of the ancien régime, and though expressed through “the idiom of corporative claims,” these rights specifically did not acts as “claims of immunity against state intrusion,” as one might expect from a privileged estate “or claims on behalf of the entire citizenry” as one might expect in an Anglo-American context.[23]

From the 1936 Constitution on, Nathans describes how the Soviet rights discourse moved away from the “neo-corporative approach to rights” toward an “all-people’s state,” a process that “was never completed.”[24] This “all-people’s state” would never be a facsimile of an Anglo-American rights discourse where “private property had served as prototype . . . and sometimes prerequisite . . . for ‘rights’” and society was deemed to be in a perfected state.[25]  Instead, in the Soviet Union labor “performed an analogous function” whereby labor acted as “the gateway to other rights and the linchpin of the rights/duties nexus,” and rights served to push society towards a more perfect condition instead of “guard[ing] some a priori metaphysical dignity allegedly inherent in the current, imperfect version of the human.”[26]

Though Nathans asserts, “the notion that there is not enough Soviet legal history should be laid to rest by the proliferation of constitutional discourse” that he describes, there is certainly not enough analysis, or even recognition of, this legal and constitutional discourse by historians. Nathans’s greatest problem is that the questions he poses cannot be satisfied in a twenty-four-page text.

Source: Bucknell University Soviet Constitution of 1936, http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/const/1936toc.html.


[16] Benjamin Nathans, “Soviet Rights-Talk in the Post-Stalin Era,” in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, ed. Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 170-171.

[17] Ibid., 171.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 171-172.

[20] Ibid., 172.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 173.

[24] Ibid., 188-189.

[25] Ibid., 189.

[26] Ibid.

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