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Soviet Union


Western political scientists define legitimacy as the acceptance by the people of their government's right to rule. Legitimacy emerges from a broad range of sources. In democratic countries, the citizenry holds governments legitimate because citizens participate in the selection of their rulers, and these governments are subject to laws that the people or their representatives have made. Tradition also is a persuasive source of legitimation because it places the origins of institutions and political values in a distant and mythical past. Other governments may acquire legitimacy because they have proved themselves able to ensure the well-being of their people. Legitimacy also may emanate from an ideology (such as communism, fascism, religious orthodoxy, and nationalism) whose adherents portray it as the key to understanding human history and resolving all social problems. In reality, the legitimacy of any government emanates from a combination of these sources.

The legitimacy of the CPSU, too, derived from various sources. The party has managed to recruit a significant percentage of members having occupations carrying high status in Soviet society. In addition, the party has served as a vehicle of upward mobility for a significant share of the citizenry. By joining the party, members of the working class could ensure a secure future for themselves in the political apparatus and access for their children to a good education and high-status jobs. The party also justified its right to rule by claiming to embody the "science" of Marxism- Leninism and by its efforts to lead society to full communism. In addition, the CPSU appealed to the patriotism of the citizenry. In the more than seventy years of the party's rule, the Soviet Union has emerged as a superpower, and this international status is a source of pride for the Soviet people. Finally, tradition bolstered the legitimacy of the CPSU. The party located its roots in Russian history, and it has incorporated aspects of Russian tradition into its political style.

The CPSU is an elite body. In 1989 it comprised about 9.7 percent of the adult population of the Soviet Union. Among the "movers and shakers" of society, however, the percentage of party members was much higher. In the 1980s, approximately 27 percent of all citizens over thirty years of age and with at least ten years of education were members of the party. About 44 percent of all males over thirty with at least ten years of education belonged to the CPSU. Hence, in the words of American Soviet specialist Seweryn Bialer, males over thirty with at least an elementary education formed a "strong, politicized, and involved stratum which provides a buttress of the system's legitimacy within society."

Among certain occupations, party saturation (the percentage of party members among a given group of citizens) was even higher. In 1989 some occupations were restricted to party members. These positions included officers of youth organizations, senior military officers, and officials of government bodies such as the ministries, state committees, and administrative departments. Occupations with saturation rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent included positions as mid-level economic managers, scholars and academics, and hospital directors. Low saturation existed among jobs that carried low status and little prestige, such as industrial laborers, collective farmers, and teachers. Thus, the party could represent itself as a legitimate governing body because it commanded the talents of the most talented and ambitious citizens in society.

The CPSU derived some legitimacy from the fact that it acted as a vehicle for upward mobility in society. People who have entered the party apparatus since the 1930s have come from a working-class background. The party widely publicized the working-class origins of its membership, which led members of that class to believe they could enter the elite and be successful within it (see Social Composition of the Party , this ch.).

Another source of party legitimacy lay in Marxist-Leninist ideology, which both promises an absolute good--communism--as the goal of history and shrouds its understanding of the means to that goal with the aura of science. The party justified its rule as leading to the creation of a full communist society. Hence, the CPSU claimed that the purpose of its rule was the common good and not the enrichment of the rulers. The party also identified Marxism-Leninism and the policies that it developed on the basis of this ideology with the absolute truth of science. The CPSU maintained that the laws of this science hold with the same rigor in society as the laws of physics or chemistry in nature. In part, the party justified its rule by claiming that it alone could understand this science of society.

Soviet society has not reached full communism, and so the party has altered its ideology to ensure its continued legitimacy despite the inability to fulfill the promises contained in Marxism- Leninism. One modification has been the rejection of some of Marxism-Leninism's original ideological tenets. For example, in the early 1930s the party renounced an egalitarian wage structure. A second modification has been the indefinite postponement of goals that cannot be realized. Thus, the party continued to assure the populace that the achievement of economic abundance or the completion of proletarian revolutions in developed Western countries would take place, but it did not specify a date. A third modification has been the ritualization of some of the goals whose fulfillment the party has postponed. American scholar Barrington Moore has written that on party holidays CPSU leaders reaffirmed various ideals that no longer served as guides for policy. For example, in his first public address as general secretary in 1984, Konstantin U. Chernenko averred that concern for the development of the new Soviet man remained an essential part of the CPSU's program. In the late 1980s, few accorded that goal much practical import, but the reaffirmation of that objective probably reassured the party faithful that the new leadership would remain true to the CPSU's ideology and traditions.

The party attempted to strengthen its legitimacy with appeals to the pride Soviet citizens feel for their country. The party has led Soviet Russia from the devastation the country suffered in the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War (1918-21) to victory in World War II over an ancient Russian enemy and then to superpower status. In 1989, moreover, the CPSU could still claim to lead a world communist movement (see Communist Parties Abroad , ch. 10). Since World War II, Soviet influence has extended to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. A feeling of patriotic pride for these accomplishments united the Soviet elite, and it bound the elite to the masses.

The CPSU has incorporated aspects of traditional Russian culture into its political style. The party drew upon Russia's revolutionary tradition and represented itself as the culmination of a progressive and revolutionary movement that began with the "Decembrists' revolt" of 1825 (see War and Peace, 1796-1825 , ch. 1). Most aspects of this revolutionary tradition centered on Lenin. The fact that the state preserved his remains in a mausoleum on Red Square echoed an old Russian Orthodox belief that the bodies of saints do not decay. In addition, the regime bestowed Lenin's name on the second largest city of the Soviet Union, a bust or picture of Lenin decorated all party offices, and quotations from his writings appeared on billboards throughout the country. All Soviet leaders since Lenin have tried to show that they follow Lenin's policies. The CPSU has sought to maintain and strengthen its legitimacy by drawing upon the legacy of this charismatic figure.

Another element of old Russian culture that has entered the CPSU's political style was the cult of the leader (also referred to as cult of personality--see Glossary). The Soviet cult of the leader appropriated a cultural form whose sources lay deep in the Russian past. Cults of saints, heroes, and the just tsar had long existed in Russia. In the 1920s, the cult of Lenin emerged as part of a deliberate policy to gain popular support for the regime. Joseph V. Stalin, who built the most extensive cult of the leader, was reported to have declared that the "Russian people is a tsarist people. It needs a tsar." Stalin assumed the title of generalissimo during World War II, and throughout his rule he was referred to by the title vozhd' (leader). Other titles appropriated by Stalin included Leader of the World Proletariat, Great Helmsman, Father of the Peoples, and Genius of Mankind.

Soviet leaders since Stalin have also encouraged the development of their own cults, although on a smaller scale than that of Stalin. These cults of the party leaders replicated that of the just tsar. Like the cult of the just tsar, who was depicted as having remained true to his faith of Russian Orthodoxy, the cults of party leaders such as Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev represented them as leaders who remained true to their faith in Marxism-Leninism. Like the just tsar, who was depicted as being close to the common people, these leaders represented themselves as having the interests of the common people at heart.

Data as of May 1989

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