In this video, I outline how governance worked within the Soviet Union.
Two caveats: While single party states are rare today, it used to be a common form of government and every country handled it differently. I am only trying to explain how the Soviet Union worked. And I am focused here on the party apparatus and bureaucracy – I am not going to discuss the security services, even though they were important to the functioning of the state.
To begin by summarizing, just as a reminder, the Soviet Union did hold regular elections, but candidates from only one party were allowed to run. That is the “single party” part of the single party state, but what really characterizes the system is the size of the party, the size of the state and their complete integration with each other.
Party institutions were either created parallel to state organizations or fused with them. So, for example, there would be party representatives within the state ministries (like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and military (most famously, launching Soviet nuclear weapons required keys from both the local military commander and a party representative (aka political officer or commissar)).
These institutions were very hierarchical and were embedded everywhere. There were party youth organizations (for different ages), related unions of all professions (like writers or musicians), just everywhere. And they operated through a system of central planning – more on this in a moment.
The organization of the Communist Party itself was complicated. To over-simplify, on paper, the most important organization was the party Congress. This was a group that met every five years to approve the party program and membership of different committees. The Central Committee was selected from this group, and the leader of the Soviet Union was technically the General Secretary (sometimes called First Secretary or Premier) of the Central Committee. A smaller group of advisors, known as the Politburo, was selected separately to advise the General Secretary. Each of these organizations grew in size over time, with the Party Congress eventually having around 4500 delegates, the Central Committee around 300 members, and the Politburo anywhere from 10-25 members.
The USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – was formally a federal state made of 15 constituent republics, and this party structure was duplicated within each republic (except Russia, which was run by the federal party). Within each republic, there were party committees from the neighborhood level to the city to the district (oblast) level.
FYI, party membership was not required of citizens – in fact, you had to be approved by a local committee to become a member – but it was considered politically advantageous. By 1986, one source estimates around 10% of the population were party members.
And I’m skipping a discussion of the actual formal state institutions, including the elected legislature (the Supreme Soviet, soviet meaning committee). Like the federal nature of the Soviet state, these didn’t matter until they did in 1990 and 1991.
The state bureaucracy was called the apparat (state apparatus) and the people who worked in it apparatchiks. These could be party officials or regular bureaucrats and generally took on a negative connotation similar to “functionary.” The communist party (at different levels) had the authority to appoint around one-third of the positions in the apparat. The list of people who could be appointed to these positions was the nomenklatura. This term tended to refer to the elite or well-connected within the system.
The Soviet system generally and economy particularly operated based on a system of central planning. The broad goals of the leadership would be set in five year plans, but the planning process operated on a continuing basis. The State Planning Commission (abbreviated Gosplan) would gather data from state-owned companies and agricultural collectives on their inputs and outputs, capital needs, etc. They would collate it and send it to the party, which would decide on new targets. These could be general (shift attention from mining to plastics, for example) or specific (increase capital expenditures to 21%, for example). These targets would then be sent back to the heads of enterprises, who would need to implement them. Managers would receive bonuses for reaching targets and would be audited to ensure they were providing accurate information.
This didn’t work. Managers had few actual incentives to report accurate information (it was a particularly severe example of a principal-agent problem) and the combination of poor information and unrealistic planning expectations led to misallocation of resources. This led to everything from famine under Stalin to the routine shortages of consumer goods that the Soviet Union was famous for. Managers would need to rely on informal networks of suppliers to ensure they could meet production quotas, while consumers would rely on the black market for essential goods. Corruption was prevalent, although it was more petty corruption – bribes required for basic services or to turn a blind eye on an audit – than the grand corruption we see today.
And this is one of the main legacies of the Soviet state today. The Soviet Union left its successor states a bureaucracy that was simultaneously huge – all companies, hospitals, schools, ministries, everything – and weak. Since it operated largely through either party or informal channels, the state was ill-prepared to actually implement policy. And many of its employees were inculcated into a system that prioritized compliance over competence.