The Controversy on the Preamble to the Constitution and Its Effects

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Zhang Qianfan, Yanhuang Chunqiu

Apart from a few countries such as the United Kingdom, etc., at present, more than two hundred countries and regions in the world all have their own written constitutions. The absolute majority of federal countries also have more than a constitution, for example, the Unites States has as much as 51 constitutions, apart from the federal Constitution, and every state has its own constitution. Constitutions are the basic fundamental law of a country; their highest authority is reflected in the clauses provided in its texts. Furthermore, many written constitutions have a preamble. Whether or not the preamble to a constitution has a legal effect similar to that of the text itself, is disputed in international legal circles and domestic legal circles, and has not yet been determined.

I, The general situation of constitutional preambles in various countries worldwide

The constitutions of various countries worldwide are rich and varied; their preambles are diverse as well. When considering the constitutions of various countries worldwide, the following characteristics may be discovered:

First, constitutional preamble is only a general term, it is not always called preamble in every constitution. Generally speaking, “we call the text before the first official article of a constitution its preamble” [1]. Preambles generally adopt descriptive terms, or mainly contain descriptive terms, this is different from the legal normative formulations in the text of the constitutions. Because constitutions in various countries differ in thousands of ways, the paragraph (or paragraphs) of descriptive text before the real text  is also different in regard to the terminology used in the constitutions of various countries. Some are called preambles, such as the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic of 1958, some are called foreword, such as in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany; some are called introduction, such as the Constitution of the French Fourth Republic of 1946; some do not have a title, with there only being a paragraph of descriptive text before the constitutional text, such as the US Constitution, the Constitution of the Italian Republic, the Constitution of the Swiss Federacy, etc. [2]. Furthermore, there may still be other names.

Second, constitutional preambles are not indispensible. Let us not go into the matter that a typical constitutionally governed country such as the United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, even countries that have a written constitutions do not necessarily have preambles in those constitutions. Even in the same country, constitutions formulated at different times may have had one at some point and none at another. According to statistics data published domestically in 1982, of the 141 current constitutions around the world, 94 had a preamble (57 of those used the term “preamble”, and 37 did not use the term preamble), and 47 did not have a preamble [3]. One third of all constitutions did not have a preamble. Another statistic indicates that in 1987, among the 151 written constitutions worldwide, 95 had a preamble [4]. 56 constitutions did not have a preamble, which amounts to 37% of total. 1997 statistics on constitutional preambles from 107 countries from across the world (with the exception of Africa) indicate that 79 constitutions had a preamble, and 28 did not have a constitutional preamble, or 26.2% [5]. Among the 56 countries in Africa, there were at least seven countries, including Angola, Botswana, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mauritius, whose constitutions did not have preambles; the Constitution of the Cook Islands replaced the word preamble with “interpretation” and “definition”, which rather resembles US-style legislation, but in fact, this isn’t a “preamble” in the general sense. Thus, it can be seen that a quarter to a third of constitutions of the countries worldwide do not have a preamble. In fact, not having a preamble may also be considered as one method of having a “preface”. Because normal laws generally do not have a preamble, at the most, they only contain a sentence indicating the subject or time of formulating promulgating the law, or the first article explains the basic objective and value orientation of the law. As constitutions are laws as well, it is not necessarily impossible that preambles are dealt with in this manner.

Our country’s four constitutions since 1954 have all had preambles. But the legal scholar Mr Zhang Youyu, who participated in the formulation of the Constitution, said when explaining “The Basic Spirit and Main Content of the Draft Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (the 1954 Constitution”: “Why must the Draft Constitution for our country (first draft) have a preamble? […] Preambles can he there nr not. The reason why we must have a preamble is because we are in a transitional period, some things that should be provided in the Constitution cannot be written into its text. The basic task of the country during the transitional period and the conditions for implementing the Constitution (such as the united front, the unity of the people nationwide, the unity of all ethnicities, international unity), can all not be written into articles, and if they were written into articles, they could not be written as clearly and incisive as if they would have been put into the preamble. Furthermore, for example the background engendering the constitution, the process of the revolutionary victory, foreign policies, etc., can also not be written into articles, it is a bit more appropriate to put these into the preamble” [6].

Third, constitutional preambles can be long or short. Constitutional preambles in various countries worldwide are written with long and short texts, with complex or simple content. For example, the Constitution of the Swiss Federacy is relatively short, it is less than 100 words; the Yugoslavian Constitution’s preamble was the longest, containing more than 10.000 words. Taking the abovementioned 1997 statistics of constitutional preambles in 107 countries worldwide (excluding Africa) as an example, among the 79 countries having constitutional preamble, the median number of words in the preambles (meaning the value in the middle of the ranking, not meaning the average number) was 247 [7]. Six countries among them had constitutional preambles exceeding 1000 words in length. China was ranked third, the preamble of the 1982 Constitution had 1792 characters, and was only second to the South Pacific Papua New Guinea and the South American Trinidad and Tobago. Naturally, not a few African countries’ constitutional preambles are also fairly long. Generally speaking, these countries either have a long history (such as Egypt), and therefore may enumerate their own “fine cultural traditions” that are well-known all around; or they have only just obtained national sovereignty and independence, and therefore, the rulers may take great pains to stress their own “great achievements and contributions”, using this as a theoretical basis for the legitimacy of their rule. Constitutional preambles’ magnificent narratives generally have come about in such a manner, in former days and at present, the “glorious achievements” occupied the absolute majority.

On the contrary, a constitution that carries forward the past, forges ahead and  faces the future is generally concise and to the point. For example, the preamble of the federal Constitution of the United States, promulgated in 1788, only has a trifling 52 words (not counting eight punctuation marks), which translate in merely 81 Chinese characters (together with eight punctuation marks: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The preamble of the 1949 Basic Law of the German Federacy is even more succinct, and only has 72 characters: “Conscious of their responsibility before God and man, Inspired by the determination to promote world peace as an equal partner in a united Europe, the German people, in the exercise of their constituent power, have adopted this Basic Law.” The preamble of the 1958 Constitution of the French Fifth Republic is somewhat larger, numbering 124 characters: “The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789, confirmed and complemented by the Preamble to the Constitution of 1946. By virtue of these principles and that of the self-determination of peoples, the Republic offers to the overseas territories which have expressed the will to adhere to them new institutions founded on the common ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity and conceived for the purpose of their democratic development.” The three countries represent the main constitutional models in the world, but the three constitutional preambles together only number 277 characters in Chinese.

In comparison, the constitutional preambles of Socialist countries are generally quite long. At present, there are five countries in the world that clearly proclaim themselves to be Socialist countries through their constitutions; China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba, the median character count of their constitutions is 724. If we consider other countries to be “non-Socialist” countries in the constitutional sense, [8], the average length of Socialist countries’ constitutional preambles is 3.4 times the length of non-Socialist countries’ constitutional preambles [9]. (The ’82 Constitutional Revision Committee Assistant-Secretary Zhou Youyu said in an article published in 1982 that: “The new Constitution is a Chinese-style Socialist constitution. That is to say, it is socialist on the one hand, but it isn’t ordinarily Socialist on the other, it is Chinese-style Socialist, it is a Constitution adapted to the needs of new times, it is by no means invariable.”) The reason that there is such a difference between both, is mainly because the preambles in the constitutions of Socialist countries not only include historical cultural traditions and revolutionary achievements, but also provide for the country’s phase-type programme and basic policies; non-Socialist countries’ constitutional preambles only rarely include content in this area. In the abovementioned 1997 statistics on the 79 constitutions having a preamble, about one fifth includes content on national independence and similar historical achievements, but they mostly only touch upon this with one sentence, only 10 countries include this sort of “grand narrative”, and among those, 5 are the abovementioned Socialist countries.

Thus, it can be seen that the length of constitutional preambles mainly depends on the content and nature of the preamble. Naturally, this rule also has exceptions, such as the preamble of the 1996 Constitution of Cameroon, that is a “grand narrative”, nevertheless, for the largest part, it provides for the basic principles and values of the Constitution.

II, The component elements of constitutional preambles.

Seen from the global level, the constitutional preambles of various countries usually provide for the subjects formulating the constitution, the objective for formulating the constitutions, constitutional principles and the position of the constitution, but this can also not be generalized. For example, the Constitutions of the US, Germany and France all start with the word “the people”, indicating that the people, in the final sense, are the subjects formulating the constitution, but in fact, this is “firing a false gun”, the subjects giving effect to the constitution have not been concretely explained, in fact. In the United States, the then 13 states’ congresses or constitutional conferences approved the constitutional draft one by one; in Germany, the constitutional draft took effect when two thirds of the parliaments in the Länder passed it; in France, it was submitted for popular referendum, and actually has a bit of a “People’s Constitution” flavour.

The US federal Constitution’s preamble clearly states the objective for drafting the Constitution: “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. In Germany and France, the constitutional preambles only “express determination”, and do not clearly provide the objective of the Constitution. The preambles of the US federal Constitution and the German Basic Law do not clearly provide constitutional principles, and the French Constitution at the same time provides for the principles of human rights and sovereignty, in fact, this is an abbreviation of Article 17 of the “General Declaration of Human Rights” and Article 18 of the Constitution of the French Fourth Republic. The Chinese and the four other Socialist constitutions do not provide for the objective of formulating the constitution and the principles of the Constitution itself.

The preamble of China’s 1982 Constitution clearly provides at the end that the Constitution is “the basic law of the country, and has the highest legal effect. The people of all ethnicities in the entire country, all State organs and armed forces, all parties and all social organizations, all enterprise and undertaking organizations, must take the Constitution as the basic norm of life, and bear the responsibility to uphold the dignity of the Constitution, and guarantee the implementation of the Constitution”. In comparison, the three constitutional preambles from the US, Germany and France do not clearly provide that the constitution is the “basic law” and has “the highest legal effect”. Because this is the meaning of the title “Constitution” itself, without needing to go into details, the effect that constitutions are higher than normal laws naturally will clearly emerge in constitutional litigations and other concrete processes of application. Naturally, in countries where constitutional governance is fundamentally insecure, preambles stressing the constitution’s effect at some point is, in fact, without harm.

Because non-Socialist counties lay a particular emphasis on procedural legitimacy of the subjects and processes of formulating a constitution, as well as the objective for formulating a constitution, constitutional principles and other forms of value legitimacy, and only rarely base legitimacy on historical achievements or political achievements, the absolute majority of constitutions do not mention the name of any particular party or person. Liberal democratic countries normally implement a multi-party system, it would naturally not do for constitutional preambles to mention particular political parties, and it is also impossible for them to mention these, the governing party of the past may have been put out to pasture years ago, the governing party of the future may not yet exist at the time of constitutional formulation. How could they be accounted for? In fact, when the US federal Constitution was drafted, there were no mass political parties in the modern sense anywhere in the world, the so-called “Federalist Party” and “Anti-Federalist Party” in fact were both small groups within Congress, they basically did not have a function of mobilizing mass electorates, consequently, the Constitution is still the way it is both in terms of its preamble and its text, and does not even mention half of the word “party”. Naturally, on this issue, the US Constitution is a bit “out of date”. In view of the fact that parties are indispensible tools in democratic governance, modern constitutions, such as the Basic Law of the German Federacy and the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic generally provide for common principles for political parties in their texts, but it would be impossible that concrete parties are mentioned.

Every constitution is inseparable from a certain political theory that is its guiding ideology, but liberal democratic constitutions also do not raise to specific thinkers, otherwise, there would be a suspicion of a personality cult. Liberal democratic societies themselves respect plurality, and will not completely lock the basic values and principles of their constitutions into the words of one or some thinkers. Even to the earliest founders of liberalism themselves, they will not kneel and bow in workshop, first and foremost because there are very many outstanding liberalist thinkers, and people believe that deciding to adopt any one of them or not to adopt any one of them inevitably will mean they are drawn into endless disputes over trifles. For example, Kant’s thinking about “dignity” has engendered an important influence on the German Basic Law, Article 1 of the Basic Law provides that “Human dignity shall be inviolable”. But Kant’s thinking was inspired by Rousseau, if the constitutional preamble would mention Kant, should it them also mention Rousseau, and so on and so forth? Besides, thinking of “dignity” did not just originate with Kant, it also comes from Christianity and social-democratic theory, could it be that specific religions must also be written into the constitution? There can be no correct answer to this sort of question. If they would be submitted to some power for resolution, that would completely go against the spirit of liberalism. Furthermore, anyone’s thoughts cannot be completely perfect and consistent in every way; writing some person into a preamble undoubtedly gives prominence to the essence of his theory, but there will be no way to completely separate this from its dregs, could it be that dregs then also must become a part of a country’s constitution? Finally, in liberal democratic countries, there isn’t any sort of thinking that can obtain the endorsement of everyone, insistently demanding that some person is written into the Constitution equals an artificial instigation of ideological dispute.

As it is so troublesome to find “treasure ground” in a constitutional preamble, it is perhaps better not to write about anyone at all. According to statistics, in the abovementioned 79 countries having a constitution, only 9 refer to revolutionary leaders of national heroes [10]. Washington undoubtedly is the first hero founding the state in the US, but where is his shadow in the Constitution? Besides, he was also a general and a president, and was not a thinker, writing a military man into the constitution is perhaps not gospel for this country. Locke was an influential thinking inspiration influencing the independence and constitutional establishment of the US, Montesquieu’s tripartite separation of powers directly established a framework for the federal Constitution, but in the constitutional preamble, his name cannot be found either, to say nothing of the “youngster” Madison who pioneered federalism. Even in African countries, only a few constitutional preambles mention specific parties or people. For example, the preamble of the Libyan Constitution of 1969 repeatedly mentions the Libyan Revolutionary Command Committee that “in the name of the Libyan Arab people”, “in the name of the Libyan people” or “in the name of the will of the masses” formulated the Constitution [11].

The constitutional preambles of Socialist countries generally do not give high regard to the subjects of formulating the constitution, or the objectives and basic principles of the constitution, but they mainly establish the legitimacy of rule on the historical achievements of the nation’s independence, and the founders of the governing party and ideology.  The five Socialist constitutional preambles all clearly mention the governing party and its leaders [12]. For example, the preamble of the 1972 North Korean Constitution provides that “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Korean People shall, under the leadership of the Worker’s Party of Korea, support the magnificent leader Comrade Kim Il-sung as the eternal chairman of the republic, safeguard, carry forward and develop the thinking and achievements of Comrade Kim Il-sung, and see the Socialist revolutionary cause through until the end.”

III, The issue of the effect of constitutional preambles

Starting from the first written constitution in the world, formulated in the US in 1787, until Germany formulating the Weimar Constitution in 1919, in this period, no one paid attention to the issue of the legal effect of constitutional preambles (or the binding force of the law). For example, Anschütz was the authority of the Weimar Constitution, in his explanatory volume that is considered to be the code of that Constitution, he believed that this preamble of this Constitution was “mere formality”, “it is merely declarative in nature, and is not imperative”, “it is merely for historical record”. Even so, Carl Schmitt, a legal scholar regarded as a Nazi, put forward a different view, he noticed that the preamble of the Weimar Constitution contained a paragraph: “The German people united in every respect and inspired by the determination to restore and confirm the Reich in liberty and justice, to serve peace at home and peace abroad, and to further social progress, has given itself this constitution.” He believed that this was not simply a record of historical facts, that was without legal significance, but that it provided a proclamation of the basis engendering the Constitution, and clearly put forward that the power to formulate a constitution lay with the people, and consequently, he believed that this had legal effect [13]. Because of this, international legal scholars began to dispute the legal effect of constitutional preambles, and no final conclusion ahs been reached hitherto.

Some special situations exist in constitutions of various countries across the world, for example, the Constitution of the French Third Republic took the 1789 “Declaration of Human Rights” as preamble; the 1946 Constitution of the French Fourth Republic listed relevant political, economic and social principles into the preamble in the form of articles; the 1958 Constitution of the French Fifth Republic declared in its preamble that “The French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the Rights of Man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789, confirmed and complemented by the Preamble to the Constitution of 1946. By 16 July 1971, the Constitutional Council recognized “the legal effect of the preamble of the Constitution” in its judgement concerning a case on free association, affirming the judicial value of the constitutional preamble. Therefrom, the preamble of the French Constitution is considered to have effect, bringing an end to theoretical discussion [14]. However, the French Constitution turned out to be a special case. Scholars from the United States, Japan and other countries still greatly dispute constitutional preambles. In Japan, “The dispute whether or not the preamble of the Constitution has legal effect revolves around the question whether or not it can directly become  norm for judgements utilized in courts”. Sensu stricto, the preamble of the Constitution of Japan cannot directly be a norm for judgements in courts, the Supreme Court has consistently avoided this question, legal scholars are divided into two viewpoints on the constitutional preamble, those affirming and those denying that it has legal effect, but those denying this are somewhat in the majority.

Concerning the issue of the legal effect of the preamble to China’s current constitution, domestic legal circles have continuously been in dispute. Professor Pu Zengyuan pointed out: “As for the nature of the preface, whether or not it is a legal norm, whether or not it has legal effect, there have been two kinds of opinions. One opinion believes that the preamble has an explanatory, interpretive and declaratory function, and does not have a mandatory nature itself. Another viewpoint is that it is equal to the text of the articles in the Constitution, and has legal effect.  The current French Constitution proclaims in its preamble that the French people are loyal to the human rights and all principles concerning national sovereignty provided in the “Declaration of Human Rights” of 1789, affirmed and supplemented by the preamble of the 1946 Constitution. It may be seen that this preamble has legal effect. Looking from the angle that the preamble is a component part of the Constitution, it cannot be held that it is not a constitutional norm. But the preface is, in the end, not equal to the text of articles, especially when starting from the real situation in our country, which content has been written into the preamble and which content was listed in the articles has been considered to some extent. I believe that generally speaking, the preamble governs the entire Constitution, its meaning is more important and it is self-evident that it has legal effect” [15].

At the lecture meeting of 14 December 1983, organized jointly by the China Law Society, the Chinese Society of Political Science, the Beijing Municipal Law Society and the Beijing Municipal Constitutional Research Association to remember the first anniversary of the promulgation of the new Constitution, Professor Zhang Youyu, who was the Assistant-Secretary for the ’82 Constitutional Revision Committee pointed out that: “The content of the preamble generally is descriptive, declaratory and programmatic, it mainly narrates the historical process and real situation of formulating the Constitution, proclaims the objective for drafting the Constitution, the basic principles and requirements of the Constitution, its progressive orientation, principles and policies, etc., both the overall text and the concrete articles of the Constitution have legal normativity and a mandatory nature, which is common legal effect. Also, the constitutional preambles of some countries have the same legal effect as that of the overall text and the concrete articles, for example, the Yugoslavian Constitution. In some other countries, constitutional preambles do not completely have common legal effect, only some sentences related to some issues are considered to have legal effect. Therefore, it is difficult to say that the preamble certainly has legal effect or does not have legal effect, and there are also many different opinions internationally.

With regards to the preamble of our country’s new Constitution, we believe that it does not have common ‘legal effect’. Its content mainly narrates the history and current situation of revolution and construction, it points out the direction for the future and the basic principles to be followed, it stipulates the basic system of the State and put forward the tasks, principles and policies of the State. Only its last paragraph says that this Constitution ‘is the basic law of the country, and has the highest legal effect. The people of all ethnicities in the entire country, all State organs and armed forces, all parties and all social organizations, all enterprise and undertaking organizations, must take the Constitution as the basic norm of life, and bear the responsibility to uphold the dignity of the Constitution, and guarantee the implementation of the Constitution’. Here ‘must’ is used, but no concrete provisions were made, no punitive provisions were made either. This is somewhat different from common “legal effect”, which can be seen when comparing it with the provisions of Article 5 of the General Principles of the new Constitution. Article 5 is the direct basis dealing with the issue of observing and violating the Constitution, and has direct “legal effect”. The preamble is not a direct basis, and it isn’t so that these issues could not be dealt with without the provisions of the preamble. Hence, it can be said that the preamble does not have common legal effect. The leadership of the Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought were written into Article 2 of the General Principle of both the 1975 and 1978 Constitutions. They have been deleted from there in the new Constitution and written into the preamble, which states in a narrative manner that: “In the future, the basic task of the country is to concentrate forces and conduct Socialist modernization. The people of all ethnicities in China will continue, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and under the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, persist in the people’s democratic dictatorship and persist in the Socialist Path, “[and] build the country into a Socialist country with a high degree of civilization and a high degree of democracy”. Doing so, in my understanding, has also indicated that matters written into the preamble and into the General Principles do not have the same legal effect [16].”

The relevant content mentioned in these paragraphs, had already been clearly explained by Zhang Youyu on 17 May 1982 in a talk at the PLA General Political Science Institute on studying and discussing some issues in the constitutional revision draft: “The Draft Constitution changes “the proletarian dictatorship” in Article 1 into “the people’s democratic dictatorship’, it deleted “the Chinese Communist Party is the leading core of the people in all of China. The working class  implements leadership over the country through its own vanguard, the Chinese Communist Party. The guiding ideology of the People’s Republic of China is Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought’ in Article 2. […] In Article 56, ‘Citizens must endorse the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party’ is also deleted. Does this mean that we do not want the proletarian dictatorship, do not want the leadership, and do not want Marxism-Leninism or Mao Zedong Thought? Or can it perhaps be said that we only want a ‘Socialist path’, and do not want to completely persist in the Four Cardinal Principles? This is not the case. Because first, the people’s democratic dictatorship essentially is the dictatorship of the proletariat. Under the present circumstances, using ‘the people’s democratic dictatorship’ is more appropriate than using ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, because the bourgeoisie, as a class, no longer exists. […] Second, this is not to say we do not want the leadership of the Party. The leadership of the Party has been realized through the Party’s correct path, principles and policies, and the work of Party organizations, especially as it is closely linked to the masses, does political and ideological work well and through the model function of Party members. This is something that Comrade Mao Zedong said many times. It does not simply rely on ordering people about for its leadership, that is to say that the Party’s leadership over the country and the people is mainly a political leadership and not an organizational leadership, it is not a hierarchical leadership relation, and it is also not a leadership relation such as the one between Party organizations and Party members. In the 1978 Constitution, this provision followed the provisions of the 1975 Constitution, this provision did not exist in the 1954 Constitution. Following it here would be inappropriate. We must persist in the leadership of the Party, but cannot use reliance on the Constitution as a coercive regulatory method.  Now, the deletion of these inappropriate articles does not mean a renunciation of the Party’s leadership, it is the exact opposite, only in this way will it benefit the improvement and strengthening on the Party’s leadership, and can the function of the Party be given freer rein. Third, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought are the guiding ideologies of our country, but to resolve ideological issues, we cannot use coercive methods, therefore, it is inappropriate to include rigid provisions in the articles of the Constitution. There are two sorts of opinion on this issue, some people believe that it can also not be written into the preamble, because there are religious believers among the people, would writing it into the preamble not be contradictory to the freedom of religious belief? It is not contradictory. Writing it into the preamble means that in principle, this is how things should be done, it is not to coerce people with religious belief to renounce those beliefs, it inly requires that Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought are not opposed. Therefore, writing them into the text and writing them into the preamble is not the same, not writing them into the preamble would mean that we would not want the leadership of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, and the Four Cardinal Principles would become three. As they absolutely had to be written, it was good to write them in the preamble. There is also an opinion in another aspect: Marxism-Leninism can be written, but Mao Zedong Thought cannot be written, because Comrade Mao Zedong made mistakes in his later years. This issue has been resolved. Mao Zedong Thought has its own specific meaning, and does not refer to all individual thoughts of Comrade Mao Zedong. […] The Four Cardinal Principles cannot be dealt with in the same way. The people’s democratic dictatorship and the Socialist bath are part of the social system, and related to the regime of the country, therefore, they must come with concrete provisions in articles. The leadership of the Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism do not form part of the social system, they are not issues related to the organization of the regime, therefore, implementing their main spirit in the articles will do, it is not necessary to provide for concrete provisions in the articles.” [17]

At present, domestic scholars still dispute the issue of the effect of the constitutional preamble. Starting from the real situation of constitutional preambles of various countries across the world, there mainly are the following viewpoints [18].

(1) The non-effect theory holds that constitutional preambles do not have legal effect. Their reasoning mainly is: 1. The constitutional preamble does not have normative effect because it is overly abstract. Various countries have used many broad principles in their constitutional preambles, this principle-type content lacks clarity, a determined normative scope and normative counterparts, and its difficult for the public to use it as a norm for concrete acts, and for judges to directly use it to decide cases. Furthermore, the principles in the preamble are often made concrete in the constitutional articles, the preamble therefore has even less need for effect. 2. A factual narrative does not have effect. These factual descriptions are used to express a sort of abstract value system. Although this has an important meaning, it is not possible that there is no need for legal norms to structure these. 3. Constitutional preambles do not have effect because they lack the structural conditions to be legal norms. Constitutional preambles’ content is sweeping and principles-based, it rarely has a form that truly conforms to the structure of legal norms. From the point of view of legal scholarship, if they are made into normative documents with effect, it will be impossible to find the three component conditions of presumption, handling and judgement within them, hence, they cannot be held to have effect.

(2) The effect theory believes that constitutional preambles have legal effect. Their reasons are mainly: 1. Preambles are a component part of the Constitution, and should have effect, furthermore, nearly all constitutions have provided that they themselves have the highest effect. As an integral legal document, a constitution not only includes the official articles, but also includes the preamble. As the articles and the preamble are both similarly valid component parts of the constitution, it cannot be said on the topic of effect that only articles are discussed, and preambles aren’t. 2. The revision of constitutional preambles abides by the procedure for constitutional revision, and therefore should have effect. 3. The constitutional preamble bears an important function, it constitutes a normative basis for constitutions and laws. It cannot only act as guidance for constitutional governance itself, but also is a powerful theoretical basis for the correct interpretation and application of the articles of a constitution.

(3) The partial effect theory believes that the legal effect of constitutional preambles is based on the content they contain, conclusions must be derived from concrete analysis, and it should be determined whether or not a preamble has effect in view of the different circumstances: 1. The part recording historical facts is completely without legal effect; 2. The part affirming basic principles must be integrated with provisions in the text of the constitution before it has legal effect; 3. the normative part has complete legal effect.

(4) The vague effect theory believes that the analysis of the “partial effect theory” with respect to the content of constitutional preambles must be affirmed, but does not agree with the formulation of “partial effect”, advocating that it should be replaced with “vague effect” This viewpoint mainly is aimed at the notion that the principle-type content of constitutional preambles must be integrated with other articles to gain effect, but that its characteristics cannot be separated rigidly. It believes that because of the vagueness of this partial effect is a more accurate description of the indeterminacy of this partial effect, and at the same time provides conditions to integrate this partial effect with concrete articles.

It can be seen from the above viewpoints that the difference in viewpoints is mainly caused through angles of judgement; from the angle of whether or not the form of the constitutional preamble itself meets the conditions for legal effect, many hold a negative opinion; when analysing matters from the angle of facts and policies,  the majority has an affirming opinion. But there aren’t many differences to speak of on the point that historical narratives do not have legal effect. One example is the opening sentence of the preamble of the 1982 Constitution: “China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world. The people of all ethnicities in China have jointly created a brilliant and glorious culture, and have glorious revolutionary traditions.” No one could see which sort of legal effect this might have.

 IV, A constitutional preamble text that is just right

To summarize, the constitutional preamble does not necessarily have legal effect, but it often reflects the basic position of a Constitution, consequently, caution must be exercised in relation to what to write and what not to write. A constitutional preamble that is just right should clearly indicate the subjects formulating the constitution, the objective for formulating the constitution and the basic principles of the Constitution, just that will do. In these areas, the oldest still effective written constitution in the world is not an out-dated template. It is not the US federal Constitution of 1788, but the 1780 State Constitution of Massachusetts – that’s right, a local constitution. Naturally over more than 230 years, the text of this state constitution has been “reborn and fundamentally changed”, the extent of its revision is much greater than that of the federal Constitution, but the preamble has been maintained in its original state. The preamble of this state constitution is longer, containing 381 characters, and is entitled “the objective of government, the form of government and its nature”: “The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying in safety and tranquillity their natural rights, and the blessings of life: and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter the government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, prosperity and happiness.

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a constitution of government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation, and a faithful execution of them; that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity, deliberately and peaceably, without fraud, violence or surprise, of entering into an original, explicit, and solemn compact with each other; and of forming a new constitution of civil government, for ourselves and posterity; and devoutly imploring His direction in so interesting a design, do agree upon, ordain and establish the following Declaration of Rights, and Frame of Government, as the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In these trifling three hundred-ish words, the subjects formulating the constitution (the citizens of Massachusetts), the objective of formulating the constitution (guaranteeing the people’s natural rights and happiness), the constitutional principles and the nature of the body politic (a voluntarily shaped social contract, where law serves the pubic interest, with order and justice) and other basic elements have been explained concisely. Naturally, the above-mentioned preamble’s final paragraph may be simplified a bit more; the constitutional principles could be further developed, and the whole still could be reduced to 200 words. Such a preamble would give the people a solemn and serious impression, and let the people believe that the following text is a legal duty that the country will earnestly implement.




[1] Cai Dingjian, Xianfa jingjie [The Essence of the Constitution, Legal Publishing], 2004, p. 99.

[2] Dong Fanyu, ‘Guanyu xianfa xuyan ji qi falü xiaoli [Concerning the Constitutional Preamble and Its Legal Effect]”, Zhengfa Luntan [Politico-Legal Forum], 1987, no. 1.

[3] Chinese Academy of Social Science Legal Research Institute National Law Research Department, Reference Department: Xianfa fenjie ziliao [Material on Constitutional Analysis], Legal Publishing, 1982, pp. 1-4. See also Li Buyun (ed.), Xianfa bijiao yanjiu [Comparative Constitutional Research], p. 81.

[4] Dong Fanyu, ‘Guanyu xianfa xuyan ji qi falü xiaoli [Concerning the Constitutional Preamble and Its Legal Effect]”, Zhengfa Luntan [Politico-Legal Forum], 1987, no. 1.

[5] Wang Huiling, ‘Xianfa Xuyan de Dingliang Fenxi [A Quantitative Analysis of Constitutional Preambles]’, Falü Kexue [Legal Science], 2008, no.1.

[6] Arranged by the Beijing Municipal Constitutional Drafting Discussion Committee Office on 7 June 1954, see Zhang Youyu, Xianzheng Luncong [An Essay Collection on Constitutional Governance], Mass publishing, 1986, vol. 2, pp. 27-28.

[7] Ibid. Median is not average, but is the middle value of the sequence. For example, if the constitutional preambles of China, the US and France are listed according to increasing length, the order is US, France, China, then the median value is the number of words in the French constitutional preamble, and not an average of the length of the three constitutions.

[8] Naturally, this does not exclude the fact that some countries, in fact, implement a Socialist economic programme, both developed countries (such as the three Scandinavian countries) and developing countries (such as Venezuela) are no exceptions. Wang Huiling’s article calls the remaining countries “capitalist”, this is not sufficiently rigorous here, because “Socialism” and “capitalism” do not constitute two categories that, stricto sensu, are mutually exclusive.

[9] Wang Huiling, ‘Xianfa Xuyan de Dingliang Fenxi [A Quantitative Analysis of Constitutional Preambles]’, Falü Kexue [Legal Science], 2008, no.1, pp. 57-68.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Furthermore, there is the preamble of the 1995 Constitution of the Central African Republic that the formulation of the Constitution has been “animated” by the founder of the Central African Republic, Barthelemy Boganda. The preamble of the 1990 Constitution of Mozambique mentions that the Central Committee of the Liberation Front has declared independence, and looks back at a glorious history, affirming  “the determinant role of [the Liberation Front] as the legitimate representative of the Mozambican people.”

[12] Wang Huiling’s article also mentions five such constitutions, but he included Egypt and not North Korea. In fact, the Egyptian Constitution did not clearly mention a political party or an individual.

[13] Dong Fanyu, ‘Guanyu xianfa xuyan ji qi falü xiaoli [Concerning the Constitutional Preamble and Its Legal Effect]”, Zhengfa Luntan [Politico-Legal Forum], 1987, no. 1.

[14] Chen Xixin, Zhang Yugai: ‘Xianfa de xiaoli The Effect of the Constitution”, in Li Buyun, ed., Comparative Constitutional Research, Taipei, Weibo Cultural International Publishing, 2004, p. 195.

[15] Pu Zengyuan, ‘Xiancao xuyan de jiben tedian [The Basic Characteristics of the Preamble of the Constitutional Draft’], Zhengzhi yu falü congkan [Politics and Law Serial], 1982, no. 1.

[16] Zhang Youyu, ‘Jinyubu yanjiu xin xianfa, shishi xin jianfa [Further Researching and Implementing the New Constitution’], Zhongguo faxue [China Law Studies], 1984, no. 1.

[17] See Zhang Youyu, Xianzheng Luncong [An Essay Collection on Constitutional Governance], Mass Publishing, 1986, vol. 2, pp. 138-140.

[18] Id. note [14], p. 188-197.

(The Author is a professor of constitutional law at Peking University)




第二,宪法序言并非必不可少。姑且不论像英国这样典型的宪政国家可以没有成文宪法,即便是有成文宪法的国家,其宪法也并非一定要有序言。即便是同一国家,在不同时期制定的宪法,也存在时有时无的情况。据国内1982年出版的一份材料统计,世界各国现行141部宪法中,有序言的94部(其中标有“序言”二字的57部,没有标明“序言”二字的37部),没有序言的47部。注3 无序言的宪法约占总数的33%。而另一份统计则显示,在1987年前后,世界151部成文宪法中,有序言的宪法为95部。注4 亦即56部宪法无序言,约占总数的37%。而一项以1997年前后世界各国(除非洲外)107个国家的宪法序言的统计,其中有序言的宪法为79部,没有规定宪法序言的28部,占26.2%。注5 而在非洲的56个国家中,也有安哥拉、博茨瓦纳、加纳、津巴布韦、莱索托、毛里求斯等至少7个国家的宪法没有序言;其中库克群岛宪法以“解释”和“定义”代替序言,颇像一篇美式立法,实际上不是通常意义的“序言”。由此可见,世界各国宪法中有四分之一到三分之一是没有序言的。事实上,没有序言倒也不失为“序”的一种方式。因为普通法律一般是没有序言的,至多只有一句话说明制定与颁布法律的主体与时间,或在第一条说明法律的基本目的和价值取向。既然宪法也是法,对序言的处理也未尝不可如此。
第三,宪法序言可长可短。世界各国宪法序言文字有长有短,内容有繁有简。如瑞士联邦宪法序言较短,不足一百字(字符);南斯拉夫宪法序言最长,长达一万多字。以前述1997年前后世界各国(除非洲外)107个国家的宪法序言的统计为例,其中有序言的79部宪法,序言字数的中位值(指排序中间的数值,不是指平均值)为247,注7 其中有6个国家的宪法序言超过1000字。中国排名第三,1982年宪法序言1792字,仅次于大洋洲的巴布亚新几内亚、南美洲的特立尼达和多巴哥。当然,非洲不少国家的宪法序言也都相当长。一般来说,这些国家或者历史悠久(如埃及),因而可以如数家珍般地罗列自己的“优良文化传统”;或者刚刚取得民族主权独立,因而执政者会不厌其烦地强调自己的“丰功伟绩”,作为其统治合法性的理论基础。宪法序言中的宏大叙事一般是这么来的,往昔和今日的“辉煌成就”占了绝大部分。
相比之下,社会主义国家的宪法序言普遍较长。目前世界上有5个国家,通过宪法明确宣布自己是社会主义国家:中国、越南、老挝、朝鲜、古巴,其宪法序言的中位值是724。如果将其他国家作为宪法意义上的“非社会主义”国家的话,注8社会主义国家宪法序言的平均长度是非社会主义国家宪法序言的3.4倍。注9 (八二宪法修改委员会副秘书长张友渔在1982年刊出的一篇文章中说:“新宪法是一部中国型的社会主义宪法。就是说,它既是社会主义的,又不是一般的社会主义的,而是中国型的社会主义的,适应新时期所需要的宪法,它并不是一成不变的。”)两者之间之所以有如此差别,主要是因为社会主义国家宪法的序言不仅包含了历史文化传统和革命成就,而且有的还规定了国家阶段性纲领和基本政策;非社会主义国家的宪法序言则很少规定这些方面的内容。在上述1997年统计的79部有序言的宪法中,大约有1/5包含民族独立等历史成就的内容,但是大都一句带过,只有10个国家包含此类“宏大叙事”,而其中5个是上述社会主义国家。


既然在宪法序言中得到一席“宝地”如此麻烦,还不如谁都不写。据统计,在上述提及的79部有序言的宪法中,只有9部提到革命领袖或民族英雄。注10 华盛顿无疑是美国第一开国英雄,但是宪法里哪有他的影子?再说他是元帅、总统,而不是思想家,把一个军人写入宪法恐非这个国家的福音。洛克倒是影响美国独立和立宪的思想启蒙人,孟德斯鸠的三权分立直接为联邦宪法确立框架,但是宪法序言里也找不到他们的名字,更不用说首创联邦主义的“小字辈”麦迪逊。即使在非洲国家,也只有极个别宪法序言提到特定党派或个人。例如利比亚1969年宪法序言屡次提到,革命指挥委员会“以利比亚阿拉伯人民的名义”、“以利比亚人民的名义”或“以大众意志的名义”制宪。注11
社会主义国家的宪法序言一般不重视制宪主体、宪法目标和基本原则,而把统治合法性主要建立在民族独立的历史成就、执政党和意识形态缔造者之上。5部社会主义宪法序言都明确提到了执政党及其领袖。注12 例如朝鲜1972年宪法序言规定:“朝鲜民主主义人民共和国和朝鲜人民将在朝鲜劳动党的领导下,拥戴伟大领袖金日成同志为共和国的永恒主席,维护、继承并发展金日成同志的思想和业绩,把社会主义革命事业进行到底。”

自1787年美国制定世界上第一部成文宪法始,至1919年德国制定魏玛宪法,期间没有人注意过宪法序言的法律效力(即法的约束力)问题。例如,安修兹是魏玛宪法的权威,在其被认为是该宪法法典的典型注释书中,认为这个宪法序言是“具文”,“只具有宣言的性质,而不具有命令性”,“只不过是历史的记述而已”。然而,被视为纳粹法学家的卡尔·施密特提出了不同见解,他注意到威玛宪法序言中有一段话:“德意志国民团结其种族,一德一心其期改造国家,永存于自由正义之境,维持国内外之和平,促进社会之进化,爰制兹宪法。”他认为这已经不是简单记述历史事实,在法律上并无疑义,而是宣布了为宪法的产生规定了根据,明确指出宪法制定的权力在于国民,因此认为是有法律效力的。注13 由此,国际法学界对于宪法序言的效力开始有了争议,且迄无定论。
一、无效力说认为宪法序言不具有法律效力。其理由主要是:1. 宪法序言因其过于抽象而不具有规范性效力。各国宪法在宪法序言中多用一些宽泛的原则,这些原则性内容缺乏明晰确定的规范范围和规范对象,公众难以之作为具体行为之准则,法官难以之直接定案。而且,序言中原则多在宪法条文中得到具体化,序言更无效力之必要。2. 事实性的叙述不具效力。这些事实性叙述用以表达一种抽象的价值观,虽然有着重要的意义,但是不可能也无须用法规范加以调整。3. 宪法序言不具备法规范的结构要件而无效力。宪法序言内容笼统而原则,少有真正合乎法规范结构的形式。从法理学来看,如果作为有效力的规范性文件却从中找不到可认为是假定、处理、制裁三要件的构成成分,那就不应认为其具有效力。
二、有效力说认为宪法序言具有法律效力。其理由主要是:1. 序言作为宪法的组成部分,应有其效力,且几乎所有的宪法都规定了自身的最高效力。宪法作为一个完整的法律文件,不仅包括正式条文,同时也包括序言部分。条文和序言既然同样是宪法的有效组成部分,那么就不应在效力问题上只谈条文而不论序言。2. 宪法序言的修改遵循了修宪程序,应有效力。3. 宪法序言承担着重要职能,具有构成宪法法规的规范性基础。不但其本身可以作为宪政的指针,而且也是正确解释、适用宪法条文的强有力的理论依据。
三、部分效力说认为,宪法序言的法律效力须根据它所包含的内容,从具体分析中得出结论,视宪法序言的不同情况判定其是否具有效力:1. 它记载历史事实的部分完全没有法律效力;2. 确认基本原则的部分须和宪法正文的规范结合起来才有法律效力;3. 属于规范性的部分具有完全的法律效力。



注1 蔡定剑:《宪法精解》,法律出版社2004年版,第99页。
注2 董璠舆:《关于宪法序言及其法律效力》,《政法论坛》1987年第1期。
注3 中国社会科学院法学研究所国家法研究室、图书资料室编:《宪法分解资料》,法律出版社1982年版,第1~4页。转见李步云主编:《宪法比较研究》,第81页。
注4 董璠舆:《关于宪法序言及其法律效力》,《政法论坛》1987年第1期。
注5 王惠玲:《宪法序言的定量分析》,《法律科学》2008年第1期。
注6 北京市宪法草案讨论委员会办公室1954年6月7日整理,见张友渔:《宪政论丛》,群众出版社1986年版,下册第27~28页。
注7 参见同上。中位值(median)不是平均值,而是排序中间的数值。譬如中国、美国、法国三国宪法序言长度的升序是美国、法国、中国,那么中位值就是法国宪法序言的字数,而不是三国宪法序言的平均长度。
注8 当然,这并不排除某些国家实际上施行社会主义经济纲领,无论发达国家(如北欧三国)还是发展中国家(如委内瑞拉)都不例外。王惠玲的文章将剩下的国家称为“资本主义”,在这一点上不够严谨,因为“社会主义”和“资本主义”并不构成严格意义上相互排斥、非此即彼的两大范畴。
注9 王惠玲:《宪法序言的定量分析》,《法律科学》2008年第1期,第57~68页。
注10 同上。
注11 另外,还有中非1995年宪法序言提到,宪法制定受到建国者Barthelemy Bog anda的“激励”。莫桑比克1990年宪法序言提到解放阵线中央委员会宣布独立,回顾光荣历史并承认解放阵线“作为莫桑比克人民合法代表的决定性作用”。
注12 王惠玲的文章也提到5部这类宪法,但是其中有埃及而没有朝鲜。实际上,埃及宪法并未明确提及政党或个人。
注13 董璠舆:《关于宪法序言及其法律效力》,《政法论坛》1987年第1期。
注14 陈欣新、张玉凯:《宪法的效力》,见李步云主编:《宪法比较研究》,(台北)韦伯文化国际出版有限公司2004年版,第195页。
注15 浦增元:《宪草序言的基本特点》,《政治与法律丛刊》1982年第1期。
注16 张友渔:《进一步研究新宪法,实施新宪法》,《中国法学》1984年第1期。
注17 见张友渔:《宪政论丛》,群众出版社1986年版,下册第138~140页。
注18 同注14,第188-197页。


2 thoughts on “The Controversy on the Preamble to the Constitution and Its Effects

    […] The Controversy on the Preamble to the Constitution and Its Effects (Zhang Qianfan, Yanhuang Chunqiu, 10 June) […]

    […] by franc-parler. For example, the constitutional scholar Zhang Qianfan recently published an article in which he analyzed the preambles of different constitutions, concluding that it is not necessary […]

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