By Melinda Butterfield
On Christmas Day 1989, during a long-planned military coup in Romania (and the illegal U.S. invasion of Panama), a tribunal of hooded judges held a hasty “trial” and quickly executed Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu and his partner, Elena Ceaușescu.
The corporate media trumpeted the counter-revolutionaries’ denunciation of the Romanian communist leader as “the anti-Christ,” and the restoration of capitalism as a triumph of democracy.
Since then, Ceausescu has become a kind of Eastern European bogeyman, the subject of much vampire fiction (since Romania includes Transylvania, home of the fictional Dracula, and Wallachia, home of the historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes). And there is a cynical pseudo-documentary, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.
The film, released on DVD in the U.S. a few years ago, is a sort of political riff on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, with capitalist apologists hamming it up over historical footage of the murdered Romanian leader.
Tellingly, the back cover of the DVD features a picture of Ceausescu holding hands with Korean leader Kim Il Sung – in the anti-communist and racist intellectual milieu of U.S. imperialism (and post-‘89 Romania), anyone who is friendly to People’s Korea must automatically be awful!
Why, 30 years after his death, does the imperialist ruling class still hate Nicolae Ceausescu so much?
The common response, including from most of the Western left, is that Ceausescu was a “tyrant,” obsessed with suppressing dissent and building a cult of personality, until he was brought down in the “revolution” of December 1989.
Self-proclaimed socialists (often at odds with one another on other subjects) will agree that he betrayed the working class and Marxism and got what he deserved.
But peel back the layers of propaganda, cover-up and anti-communist bias, and a very different story emerges.
There are three reasons for the continuing demonization of Ceausescu:
1) His origins as a poor peasant and communist militant who became head of a state of a strategically important country;
2) Despite numerous mistakes, he never abandoned his revolutionary communist aspirations, and was inspired by the examples of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea;
3) His rejection of pressure to adopt Gorbachev-style capitalist reforms and determination to get the IMF noose off Romania’s neck.
Ceausescu was born into a poor peasant family in the village of Scornicești on January 26, 1918. At age 11 he fled his abusive alcoholic father, becoming an apprentice shoemaker in Bucharest.
His revolutionary political activity began shortly afterward, and he was jailed repeatedly in his teens. He spent World War II as a political prisoner under the fascist regime, eventually meeting the communist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej in the Târgu Jiu internment camp.
Following Romania’s liberation by the Soviet Red Army, Ceausescu became leader of the Communist Youth, and later a minister of the socialist government. He joined the Communist Party’s Central Committee in 1952 and succeeded Gheorghiu-Dej as party leader and head of state in 1965.
Ceausescu’s wife, Elena, also came from a poor peasant family. Much like Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, she is routinely dismissed as an opportunist hanger-on, but was actually an important political leader, co-thinker and partner to her spouse.
For a prime example of anti-worker, anti-peasant outlook of the 1989 coup, not to mention unbridled misogyny, look no further than the transcript of the “trial” of the Ceausescus, which includes gems like this:
Following their murders in 1989, the class bias and disgust dripping from the counter-revolutionaries was reported approvingly by the corporate media. Here’s Silviu Brucan, a leader of the National Salvation Front, quoted by the Financial Times:
“Romania was run for the past 20 years by someone with four years of elementary school classes behind him … [The Ceausescus] were much worse than the members of the nouveau riche. The nouveau riche can be vulgar, but they come generally from members of the lower middle classes and they have limits. But when a proletarian rises so far, the desire for wealth and power becomes much stronger. … Ceausescu’s government was one of absolute mediocrity. He could not spell, she [Elena] could not read …”
The language of the “democratic” coup-makers comes from their fascist ideology. Labeling Ceausescu as a vampire, blood-sucker and anti-Christ comes straight from the anti-Semitic, anti-Roma and anti-communist playbook. The comparisons were eagerly snapped up by Western media and governments, then “trickled down” into popular culture.
The Ceausescus’ bodies were dumped in an unmarked earthen grave. When supporters discovered the site, they erected a makeshift headstone and memorial. Finally, in 2010, the government agreed to their children’s request to confirm the identity of the remains and be reburied in a proper grave.
Romania and the socialist camp
Rewind before the mid-1980s and Ceausescu seems an unlikely candidate for this level of demonization.
Imperialism considered Romania under the Ceausescu government to be a weak link in the Eastern European socialist bloc.
Despite membership in the Soviet-led economic and military alliances, the Socialist Republic of Romania was determinedly independent and pursued this independence in part by making various concessions to the Western imperialists – in return for Most Favored Nation status and IMF loans.
Like Tito’s Yugoslavia, Ceausescu’s government was willing to “play ball” with the West – though to a lesser extent – in order to defend its fiercely guarded independence (though this strategy turned out to be a dangerous one that ultimately aided the reactionary forces).
In the early years of his leadership, starting in the mid-1960s, Ceausescu was viewed as a “liberalizer,” and even joined the West in condemning the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia.
Romania was far from the most “repressive” (i.e., self-defensive against imperialist-inspired dissent). It was the very fact that Romania was a “half-way house of socialism,” with a military and bureaucracy largely carried over from the old monarchy and fascist regime, which paved the way for the socialist government’s destruction.
From the mid-1960s onward – that is, from the moment Ceausescu succeeded Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej – socialist Romania, like the rest of the socialist camp and International Communist Movement, was caught in the whirlwind of the Sino-Soviet dispute.
Though Ceausescu’s sympathies were with the more revolutionary political line of the Chinese leadership in this struggle, Romania was in a difficult position – not only because of its geographical proximity to the Soviet Union and economic ties to the Eastern European bloc, but because the shift toward anti-capitalist social relations after World War II relied on the intervention of the Soviet Red Army rather than a Romanian revolutionary victory.
All Eastern European socialist countries shared this dilemma, with the exception of Yugoslavia and Albania, where communist-led partisan forces were able to seize power.
In 1971, Ceausescu embarked on a historic visit to several Asian countries, including the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where he met with Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Kim Il Sung.
Inspired by the level of revolutionary political enthusiasm he saw among the masses, successes in independent economic development, and the high level of discipline among party cadres, he returned to Bucharest eager to emulate their example.
The visit prompted a noted speech by Ceausescu on July 6, 1971, which became known as “The July Theses.” Much of its content is reflected in a report Ceausescu made about his trip to the Executive Committee of the Communist Party on June 25, which focused on the state of diplomatic relations between the USSR and China.
Thereafter, the Romanian communist leadership attempted to put the brakes on the drift toward bourgeois liberalization and instead develop mass mobilization, Marxist political education, and intensification of a unique revolutionary national identity.
Ceausescu visited socialist North Korea again in 1978. The DPRK held a special appeal for him, and it is not hard to see why. Like Romania, Korea was a small, underdeveloped country that had been dominated by competing large powers for centuries. Under Kim Il Sung’s leadership, socialist Korea had placed an enormous amount of energy into independently developing its unique national character for the first time.
The DPRK had also successfully maintained its revolutionary system and independence, developing its socialist economy while navigating the treacherous waters of the Sino-Soviet dispute, and was on good terms with both China and the USSR.
But the Korean example couldn’t be imported wholesale to Romania as Ceausescu seemed to hope. For one thing, despite his honorable history as a communist militant and political prisoner, Ceausescu was no Kim Il Sung – he had not led a revolution, nor was he a great Marxist thinker and guerrilla strategist.
More significantly, though, was the problem discussed earlier – the treacherous and transitional social underpinnings of Romanian socialism, which got its impulse from liberation by the Soviet Red Army rather than from an indigenous revolution, and where the old state machinery had not been thoroughly smashed and replaced with one based on the working class and poor peasantry.
Economic development and entrapment
While Ceausescu was attempting to turn internal Romanian politics in a more revolutionary direction, his government continued to maneuver with the Western powers and accepted loans from the IMF.
Throughout the 1970s, Romania rapidly developed as an industrial nation and built housing for its people. All the while, however, the debt noose was tightening – just as it was in Poland and many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
By the mid-1980s the “debt trap” was in full force; interest on the loans had reached unsustainable levels and West was demanding major concessions from the planned economy.
At the same time, the Gorbachev government in Moscow was pushing hard on its Eastern European trading and military partners to enact capitalist reforms and “open up” to Western imperialism.
Romania pushed back against the pressure for bourgeois reforms. It also embarked on two bold plans: first, to pay back the IMF loans quickly and in full, to get out from under the bankers’ boot-heel; and second, to urbanize backward village life throughout the country by the year 2000.
Incredibly, the Romanian government actually succeeded in repaying its debt to the IMF in full – but at a harsh cost to the workers, who were subject to austerity in the effort to regain economic independence.
By now the forces of counter-revolution were in full swing. Fascist elements of the military, members of the old ruling class, the new bourgeois government in neighboring Hungary, Gorbachev’s treacherous regime, and of course, the imperialists, all played their part.
Six months before the “spontaneous” uprising of December 1989, these forces had coalesced around the so-called Council of National Salvation, headed by military generals.
In retrospect, what happened next was clearly a dress rehearsal for subsequent “color revolutions,” particularly in Yugoslavia: The Hungarian government and Western media claimed an uprising and subsequent “massacre” of thousands in the border city of Timisoara; the socialist government’s security forces (the only ones drawn from the masses, and therefore loyal to socialism) were blamed; bodies were dragged out of morgues to stage propaganda shots for the Western media.
The Communist Party of Romania was outlawed. The entire Central Committee was put under arrest. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed and white terror swept the country, with unknown numbers of communists murdered or imprisoned.
As the story moved off the front pages, the number of “victims” declined from thousands to hundreds (and an unknown number of these were from the other side). The “uprising” cover story began to fall apart as coup leader General Nicolae Militaru was caught on video admitting the long-term planning for the coup.
But the dirty job was accomplished. The fictional “Timisoara Massacre” has passed into political legend like the “Tiananmen Square Massacre” before it: real because it has been repeated so many times that “it must be true.”
A last word from the Jackal
Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, known in the bourgeois media as “Carlos the Jackal,” is a Venezuelan communist revolutionary who joined with the Palestinian national liberation movement and led a number of high-profile guerrilla actions in the 1970s and 80s. He is currently a political prisoner in France.
Like the former Romanian leader, comrade Ilich Ramirez has been demonized by the imperialist media and turned into a bogeyman of spy novels, Hollywood films and video games. So it seems appropriate to give him the last word.
In 2010, the Spanish newspaper El Pais interviewed Ramírez. One of the topics discussed was the guerrilla’s time in Romania and his impressions of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Characterizing Ceausescu as “a great patriot and very supportive,” Ramírez said: “We were received there very warmly and with honors. … He received us because we were both on the same side.
“The Romanian president was not a brilliant political man,” said Ramírez, “but he can never be accused of being opportunistic or selling out.”
Sources and further reading:
Special mention: The blog A Vallenkano in Romania, run by a Spanish communist in Romania, is an invaluable resource for studying socialist Romania and current perspectives on its history.