Separation of Powers, Theory of the

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Separation of Powers, Theory of the


a bourgeois political-legal doctrine that holds that state power is not a single entity but rather a composite of different governmental functions (legislative, executive, and judicial) carried out by state bodies independently of each other.

The idea of separation of powers, which had been expressed by such classical and medieval thinkers as Aristotle and Marsiglio of Padua, was formulated as a doctrine in the mid-18th century by Montesquieu. The theory of the separation of powers, which is related to the theory of natural law, played a progressive historical role in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against absolutism and the arbitrary rule of kings. The doctrine was used in a number of countries to justify a compromise between the bourgeoisie, which had won control over the legislature and judiciary, and the feudal-monarchical circles that had retained executive power. According to F. Engels, the theory of the separation of powers is “nothing but the profane industrial division of labor applied for purposes of simplification and control to the mechanism of the state” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 5, p. 203).

With the establishment of the capitalist system the principle of the separation of powers was proclaimed one of the fundamental principles of bourgeois constitutionalism. This was first reflected in the constitutional documents of the French Revolution. The principle of the separation of powers was followed in drawing up the US Constitution of 1787 (still in effect), which established a strong presidency largely independent of Congress. In actuality, the principle was not consistently followed in the constitutional practices of the capitalist countries. For example, the system of checks and balances, widely used in the “presidential republics,” is a significant divergence from the theory. Under this system the legislature is dependent on the executive branch because of the right of the head of state to veto legislative enactments and because of the judicial review of the constitutionality of laws.

Marxist-Leninist theory rejects the theory of the separation of powers because it ignores the class nature of society. The existence in a socialist state of state bodies with different jurisdiction means that a certain division of functions in exercising state power is essential while maintaining the unity of state power.


Istoriia politicheskikh uchenii, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1960. Pages 235–36, 274, 282.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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