The ‘command-administrative system’ appears to have gone down in the historical record as economic, political and legal aberration, not worth a backward glance, let alone sustained analysis. But from a critical legal standpoint, the legal-institutional project of mature Stalinism is a uniquely compelling instantiation of post-liberal legality — sharing a toolkit of legal concepts, processes and approaches with other 20th century post-liberal legalities, but applying and combining them innovatively to build an uncanny mirror world, recognisably familiar yet radically other. Stalinism stands as a monument to the Soviet legal imaginary in its radical scope and Promethean ambitions, notwithstanding its limitations and flaws (‘revolutionary betrayal’ for critics on the left or categorical failure for critics on the right).
Once Lenin had brought civil law in by the back door to serve the needs of New Economic Policy, the die was cast. The legal basis of the Soviet economic system ironically amounted to a sweeping colonisation of private rights for public purposes, ‘taking public’ not just the means of production (property) but companies, contracts, and commerce itself. The USSR was in many ways the ultimate factory owner’s rather than workers' state and Stalin’s ‘revolution within the revolution’ was a corporate revolution, reverse-engineering the contemporary US corporate economy and scaling the multi-divisional firm up to the size of the state. Far from a revolutionary repudiation and transcendence of property relations, ‘socialist ownership’ represented their apotheosis. Never before had a state set out to own everything and to direct virtually all production and exchange. Pace Pashukanis, bourgeois rights and their commodity origins proved indispensable to institutionally realised (‘actually existing’) socialism.
Scott Newton is a lecturer in Laws of Central Asia at SOAS, University of London.