STANFORD — The 27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, to open Tuesday in Moscow, is not likely to provide much thrilling copy. Serried ranks of stolid delegates will pack the Kremlin's Congress Hall to applaud an endless series of interminable speeches, and to pass every single one of the agenda's resolutions unanimously. No debate as we know it, no open sign of dissent.
To most American observers, whose own political processes are paraded in public down to the last detail of their President's intestines, the Soviet political game looks not just boring, but incomprehensible. There's no fun in a match where the final score is known beforehand. In reality, behind the marble face of the congress, the final touches will be made to changes that could affect our world every bit as much as the American presidential election. But to understand the game, one has to know the rules and the jargon. And the rules bear no relation to our own.
The first thing to realize is that the Soviet Communist Party (the CPSU) is not a political party at all as we know the term. According to the Soviet constitution, it is the legal "guardian of the state." In effect, though not in name, it is the executive branch of government, where all decisions are made. Similarly, the Soviet state (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) is not the sovereign administration that we may imagine. In effect though not in name, it is the administrative branch of the party, bound to execute the party's decisions. In this dual system, where the organs of the party duplicate and control all the organs of the state, in all spheres and at all levels, the CPSU is the dominant partner.
Hence the party leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who heads the party's Politburo but holds no senior position in the state hierarchy, is undoubtedly the chief executive. Gorbachev, as general secretary of the party, gives marching orders to everyone in the so-called party-state, since the state as well as the party is largely staffed by party members.
Gorbachev's comrades in the Politburo collectively form the nearest thing to a Western-style cabinet, while his fellow secretaries, at the head of the departments of the party's secretariat, determine government action in each of their respective spheres of policy. Just as the party's Politburo issues directives to the supreme organs of the Soviet state--the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and the Council of Ministers--so the party secretaries issue directives to the Soviet ministers. (It would be a revelation to most Americans to learn, for example, that Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, would not be in charge of foreign policy, unless, like Andrei A. Gromyko before him, he did not simultaneously enjoy a seat in the Politburo.) One's position in the party is what counts. State offices are secondary.
At a lower level, the party's Central Committee gives orders to the Supreme Soviet, the chief legislative body of the Soviet Union, which meets only two days per year--time enough to rubber-stamp the bills prepared by the party.
And so it goes all the way down the ladder--in the republics, the cities, the provinces, the villages: the local party leader controls the local state organs. The captain of the village football team takes his orders from the secretary of the party's sports committee.
All Soviet institutions work on the same iron principle. The director of a state factory is subject to the head of the party cell within his organization. Even the KGB (Commission for State Security) is controlled by a special security branch within its own organization, designed to keep activities in line with the orders of party leaders.
The "castration of the state" is an essential feature of the system. The Soviet president does not preside over anything of first importance; the Soviet prime minister is not the head of government and Soviet ministers are not necessarily the top men in their spheres of policy. Soviet marshals of the military kind are not in command of the armed forces. And Soviet ambassadors are not necessarily in charge of their embassies. All state officials are front men. Everyone and everything is in the power of the party: the "dictatorship of the proletariat."
The second thing to realize is that the party is subject to military-style discipline, its members sworn to obey the orders of the higher party organs without question. Just like good soldiers, all good Communists must do what they're told. What this means in practice for a nominally elective system is that the party leadership can order the comrades, on pain of expulsion, to nominate the candidates for all state elections, to exclude all candidates not favored by the leadership and thus to ensure a perfect election result in advance.