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Cristian Butnariu

The Rise and Fall of

Nicolae Ceasescu

Summary of Contents

Chapter One – 06

Chapter Two – 09

Chapter Three – 16

Chapter Four – 23

Chapter Five – 27

Chapter Six – 30

Chapter Seven – 38

Chapter Eight – 51

Chapter Nine – 68

Chapter Ten – 76

Chapter Eleven – 86

Chapter Twelve – 132

Chapter Thirteen – 149

Chapter Fourteen – 165

Chapter Fifteen – 180

Chapter Sixteen - 214

Editor’s note:

We have read with great interest the article “The Revolt of the Romanians” by Pavel Campeanu published in The New York Review of February 1, 1990, and we were pleased to learn that he also is the anonymous author of “Birth and Death in Romania,” a thoughtful and harrowing account of the hardships of living under the Ceausescu regime, published in the October 23, 1986, issue of The New York Review. The events of the dramatic last few weeks in Romania, and particularly the indiscriminate violence against the population unleashed by the Securitate on behalf of the deposed dictator, as a result of which thousands died, explains why Mr. Campeanu had to withhold his authorship of the courageous 1986 indictment of the Ceausescu regime.

Mr. Campeanu’s new article about the fall of Ceausescu contains valuable information about, and some shrewd insights into, the psychology of one of the worst dictators of our time. What Mr. Campeanu has to say about Ceausescu’s character—based on first-hand knowledge, since both he and Ceausescu were political prisoners for anti-Nazi activities during World War II, sharing a cell for some time and then being inmates in the same Special Penitentiary near Timisoara for two years—is of great interest and might serve for a more extensive moral portrait of a Communist tyrant.

The overall picture of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania offered by Mr. Campeanu remains, however, incomplete: it has little to say about the background against which one should attempt to understand Ceausescu historically, including the grotesque but ultimately horrifying “cult of personality” he was able to organize.

Very briefly, we would like to point out that Mr. Campeanu’s account, while rich in facts (hence its undeniable narrative qualities and dramatism), does not present an analysis of these facts or suggest a broad historical-political framework for such an analysis. After all, Ceausescu did not emerge out of the blue: his rise to prominence can be understood only against the background of the Romanian communist political culture, with its unrepentant Stalinist features: the cult of the leader, a conspiratorial mentality, fanaticism and anti-intellectualism, and, more than anything else, an endemic deficit of legitimacy. In the absence of such a framework, a reader who is not aware of the post-war history of Romania might come to the conclusion that the Ceausescu phenomenon was an aberration, a tragic accident, or, metaphorically speaking, the successful high-jacking of a society by a ruthless individual and his small clique of henchmen. Actually, according to Mr. Campeanu, the accession to power of Ceausescu—the actual “high-jacking” took place later, when his position was secure—was due to his ability to dissemble, to hide his real hateful character. Mr. Campeanu writes: “The vicious side of [Ceausescu’s] character, which was so clear to us young political prisoners, he somehow managed to hide from others, including Gheorghiu-Dej, the future leader of the Romanian Communist party and of the country…. In March 1965, before his death, Gheorghiu-Dej appointed Ceausescu as his successor.”

This is Mr. Campeanu’s only mention of Gheorghiu-Dej, the Stalinist Romanian leader for nearly two decades, under whose harsh rule hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were sent to the Romanian gulags (including the pharaonic Danube-Black Sea Canal, where tens of thousands lost their lives during the 1950s). Gheorghiu-Dej, who ruthlessly eliminated his rivals (Ana Pauker, Teohari Georgescu, Vasile Luca) or savagely murdered them (Lucretiu Patrascanu), and who rejected the de-Stalinization initiated by the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party (1956), was actually the originator of “national Communism” in Romania, as a means to preserve the Stalinist structure of the party and its rule. Profiting from the Sino-Soviet split, it was Gheorghiu-Dej who started the nationalistic policies which Ceausescu continued, acquiring the reputation of an anti-Kremlin maverick. It was also Gheorghiu-Dej who, in his opposition to the Russians, and in order to acquire a measure of badly needed popularity, started the quasi-liberalization of the mid-1960s, from which Ceausescu profited to consolidate his power until 1971, the year when he felt secure enough to launch his own version of a Chinese-style mini-cultural revolution. What should be clear is that Ceausescu (whether he managed to fool Gheorghiu-Dej about his character or not), inherited an effective Stalinist system of government, which was in the process of changing its “international” (read pro-Soviet) orientation for a “national” one. As Mr. Campeanu certainly knows, it was Nicolae Ceausescu who, as a Politburo member and as Central Committee secretary in charge of personnel affairs (1955–1965), presided over the ruthless anti-intellectual witchhunts in the late 1950s. It was also he who displayed unique cruelty in suppressing peasant rebellions during the forced collectivization of Romanian agriculture. In other words, these features of Ceausescu’s political make-up were well-known even before his appointment as party leader in March 1965. As soon as he became Secretary General, in typical Stalinist style, Ceausescu started purging the party of Gheorghiu-Dej’s supporters and promoted his own men, increasingly his own family and clan, to achieve absolute power after 1971.

Mr. Campeanu ignores these systemic antecedents to Ceausescu’s rule. A man with Ceausescu’s despicable character, but also with a long Party career, could not have come to power, and have exerted power unchallenged for over two decades, without a well-functioning Stalinist system, a system capable of temporary tactical retreats (as was the quasi-liberalization of the mid-1960s) without losing its grip on the levers of power or its totalitarian inner logic. Far from inventing the repressive mechanism, Ceausescu carried it to its nightmarish extreme.

As for the recent anti-Ceausescu popular revolution (which was more profoundly an anti-Communist revolution), we think that Mr. Campeanu’s account is factually correct but that it lays too much emphasis on certain internal events which “precipitated the downfall of Ceausescu” (such as the March 1989 open letter signed by six former party officials, the unorganized activities of dissident intellectuals, or the November Party Congress—which was actually a non-event), while paying too little attention to the international situation, specifically to the downfall of hardline regimes in all the neighboring countries as a result of popular uprisings, certainly a contagious example, and most importantly, to the Soviet renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine, which made it clear to the Romanians that, for the first time after World War II, they were free to rebel without fear of a foreign intervention. Paradoxically, even though Ceausescu became famous in the West as an anti-Soviet maverick, his horrendous regime was in fact protected, particularly during the Brezhnev years, but also thereafter, by the possibility of a Soviet intervention. Only during the last two or three years of utter desperation was a Soviet intervention—thought to be the only way to remove Ceausescu from power—contemplated with some ambiguous, rather bitter hope by some Romanians. Fortunately, such an intervention, which would have been a catastrophe for the national psyche of the Romanian people, was neither possible (from the point of view of the Russians) nor necessary.

Pavel Campeanu replies:

First, I’d like to thank the four signers of the letter for taking interest in my recent article and commenting on it. In view of present conditions in Romania, my response is shorter than I would have liked. Their favorable comments notwithstanding, they regret 1) that I did not put my analysis within a “broad historical-political framework” and 2) that I did not deal with the “systemic antecedents of Ceausescu’s rule.”
These two criticisms are perfectly justified and I have no disagreements with the additional background supplied by these correspondents. The article did not address—and did not intend to address—either of these two themes. When I was writing the article in December 1989 my main concern was to explain why other Eastern European countries were able to transform themselves through political means, whereas the Romanians had to pay dearly in human lives and material destruction. The answer lies less in the general nature of Stalinism (which pervaded the country) than in the particular brand of Stalinism that the Romanian autocrat imposed upon the social organization of the country.

Between June and December 1989 the disintegration of neo-Stalinism in Eastern Europe reached an unprecedented stage with unimaginable speed. Europe seemed to have entered the final stage of de-Stalinization. Elsewhere, de-Stalinization was carried out without violence, but in Romania violence was the direct result of one man, who was by historical accident, at the moment of the uprising, the absolute ruler over society. Would there have been as many deaths if instead of Ceausescu Romania had been ruled by a Jaruzelski, a Kadar, or a Husak? This is why I concentrated on the links between the personality of the tyrant, the nature of his power, and the bloody repressions of December 1989.

These three factors far outweighed any consideration for the systemic antecedents of the Ceausescu dictatorship. Since my first book published in the United states (The Syncretic Society, M.E. Sharpe, 1980), I have raised questions about the systemic nature of Stalinist social organization; but aside from this general theoretical issue, the central problem in my article was not how Ceausescu’s dictatorship came about but how the violence during Christmas, when I was drawing up my analysis, threatened to precipitate Romania either into civil war or foreign military occupation.

As the January 26 letter from my compatriots across the ocean suggests, we are no longer troubled by such fears. As far as I understand, our theoretical approaches are not incompatible or opposed to one another, but are simply different. When current tensions are relaxed enough to allow us to claim our own past, the time will come for reflections on this complex moment of our history that will be far broader and more diverse than the brief analysis undertaken during the tragic events of December.

Chapter One

Did Nicolae Ceaușescu Call for Military Intervention Against Poland in August 1989?

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev visited Romania in May 1987, a remarkable 180-degree turn had occurred both in Romanians’ perception of the Soviet Union and its relationship to Romania, and in the West’s view of Nicolae Ceaușescu. This change in attitude hinged on the evolution of Nicolae Ceaușescu himself: if in 1965 Ceaușescu presented a young, dynamic face of Communism compared with the ageing, reactionary Brezhnev, now, 22 years later, it was Gorbachev who had assumed Ceaușescu’s mantle and the latter that of Brezhnev. In a speech broadcast live during his visit to Bucharest on 26 May 1987, Gorbachev presented to the Romanian public his concepts of glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’) – and in so doing offered implicit criticism of Ceaușescu’s resistance to reform.

The enthusiasm for reform could be seen in the queues, witnessed by this author, that formed in July 1988 in front of the Aeroflot offices in Bucharest as Romanians were admitted five at a time—not to purchase airline tickets, but to pick up free copies in Romanian of the Soviet leader’s report to the nineteenth conference of the Soviet Communist Party, coverage of which had been restricted in the Romanian media to those measures which had already been taken in Romania. Ceaușescu, the arch-nationalist, had succeeded in making some Romanians look to the Soviet Union for hope. At the same time, Gorbachev’s ascent significantly diminished the Romanian leader’s value to the West as a thorn in the side of the Soviets.

Whilst Ceaușescu continued to argue for reform of the Warsaw Pact and a reduction in its budget, his internal policies attracted widespread international criticism. It was the deteriorating human rights situation in Romania that threatened US-Romanian relations in the early 1980s. The resulting US alienation from Romania in 1987 and Ceaușescu’s growing irritation with American expressions of concern about his treatment of his opponents led him in February 1988 to renounce Most Favored Nation status before suffering the indignity of having it withdrawn by Congress or by President Reagan. Ceaușescu’s action showed that he would not submit to pressure from any direction, west or east.

He appears, however, to have cherished hopes that Reagan would grant MFN treatment without the Jackson-Vanik amendment but in doing so completely failed to appreciate how negative his image had become in Congress as well the constitutional impediments facing the US president. Ceaușescu had declared defiantly in December 1982 that he would pay off all foreign debt by 1990, and to achieve this introduced a series of austerity measures unparalleled even in the history of East Central European Communist regimes. Rationing of bread, flour, sugar, and milk was introduced in some provincial towns in early 1982, and in 1983 it was extended to most of the country, with the exception of the capital.

The monthly personal rations were progressively reduced to the point where, on the eve of the 1989 revolution, they were in some regions of the country one kilo of sugar, one kilo of flour, a 500-gram pack of margarine, and five eggs. At the same time, heavy industry was also called upon to contribute to the export drive, but because its energy needs outstripped the country’s generating capacity drastic energy saving measures were introduced in 1981, which included a petrol ration of 30 litres per month for private car owners.

Other strictures stipulated a maximum temperature of 14 degrees centigrade in offices and periods of provision of hot water (normally one day a week in apartments). In the winter of 1983, these restrictions were extended, causing the interruption of the electricity supply in major cities and reduction of gas pressure during the day so that meals could only be cooked at night.

It is perhaps not surprising that scholars of Cold War History, inured to the indignities imposed by Ceaușescu upon his people, read sinister motivations into his concerns over the entry of Solidarity into the Polish government and the appointment of its representative Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister in August 1989. Ceaușescu’s expression of those concerns were in stark contrast to his mantra of “no external involvement in the domestic affairs of others,” a constant slogan displayed on banners at his public engagements in Romania. Indeed, the principle had been invoked nine years earlier during the Polish crisis of 1980.

At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact’s Political Consultative Committee in Moscow on 5 December, Leonid Brezhnev declared that the gathering demonstrated that “we all back the Polish leadership in its efforts to overcome the crisis which appeared in this country.” But, he warned, “if the situation in Poland does not stabilize . . . much to our regret all of the measures taken to help Poland of which we spoke about before [i.e. economic assistance] will not yield the desired results.” Ceaușescu had been more guarded in 1980. He spoke at the time of the delicate problems facing the Polish government and argued that they should be addressed by the Poles themselves. In his view, the most important requirement before the Polish Party – should be to regain the trust of the working class, of the popular masses, to organize them and, together with the working class, to act against the antisocialist and counterrevolutionary forces, using all of the means at the disposal of the socialist state

The Polish crisis had been a major item on the agenda of the meeting of the Committee of Defence Ministers of the Warsaw Pact, held in Warsaw on 2–4 December 1981. The majority of ministers argued that the problem had only one solution: military intervention. The Romanian defence minister, Constantin Olteanu, with the backing of his Hungarian counterpart, Lajos Czinege, was opposed to such action: “What is happening in Poland is strictly a domestic problem of this state… Romania is not in favour of military intervention there.’

Gorbachev, at the meeting of the Consultative Political Committee of the Pact held in Bucharest on 7–8 July 1989, spoke of reforming the alliance; he underlined the need “to respect the independence of fraternal parties” and ruled out “the use of force or the threat of force.” For his part, Ceaușescu expressed his concern about events in Poland and about the fact that the Polish Party was losing its grip on the situation. At the same meeting of the CPC he called upon – the socialist state members of the Warsaw Pact and all socialist countries to analyse and solve together the present problems of socialist construction, the means to better collaborate in preparation for crisis and ensuring the economic and social development of all peoples on the path of socialism.

On 19 August, what the Romanian embassy in Warsaw termed “the considerations of the party and state leadership of the Socialist Republic of Romania, respectively those of comrade Nicolae Ceaușescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and President of the Socialist Republic of Romania ….in connection with the present situation in Poland and the formation of the government of the Polish People’s Republic” were relayed to the Polish ambassador in Bucharest and a similar message sent to the Hungarian Party. The replies received from both Warsaw and Budapest suggest that Ceaușescu had proposed a joint action of the Warsaw Pact “using all means to prevent the elimination of socialism in Poland.” Both governments disputed Ceaușescu’s reading of events in Poland and firmly rejected his alleged proposal of Pact action.

The Polish reply pointed to the common position adopted at the Warsaw Pact meeting in Bucharest in July, one agreed in the final communiqué by Romania, in which it was stated that “there is no universal model of socialism and no one has a monopoly of the truth.” There was consternation in both Warsaw and Budapest at the new position taken by Bucharest, one which contradicted Romania’s traditional stance within the Pact. In the Hungarian reply this about-turn was emphasized: - The Romanian point of view cannot be understood if we bear in mind, in particular, the systematic public promotion by Romania of the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs, the sovereignty, [and] the relations between the socialist countries. The present Romanian position is in total contradiction to the view expressed by the above principles, which provided the basis upon which, for example, Romania established her policy in 1968 regarding the events in Czechoslovakia.

The controversy over Ceaușescu’s call for Warsaw Pact “action” is fuelled by the absence of an original official document in Romanian conveying Ceaușescu’s appeal, a lacuna which allows a range of speculative interpretations. The four documents presented by Larry Watts, three of which have been published previously (albeit not in English, while one of them is an incomplete version of Bulgarian provenance), and the response from Adam Burakowski seek to inject some clarity into the discussion. Watts argues that “the documentary evidence provides little support for taking Soviet, Polish, and Hungarian affirmations of Romania’s advocacy of military intervention at face value.” However, neither he nor Burakowski consider the recently published report of the meeting between Ceaușescu and the Soviet ambassador to Bucharest Evghenie Mihailovic Tjazelnikov. Invited by the Romanian leader to his villa at Snagov, some 20 miles north of Bucharest, at 11 pm on 19 August 1989, and in the presence of Romanian Foreign Minister Ioan Totu, Tjazelnikov was asked by Ceaușescu to transmit to Gorbachev his appeal for “urgent measures” to be taken to prevent “the liquidation of socialism” in Poland. Ceaușescu claimed that the entry of Solidarity into the Polish government “played into the hands of the United States and NATO” and that therefore he requested Gorbachev to see his way to meeting him on the following day. The reply came from the Soviet Politburo, transmitted by Eduard Shevardnadze to his counterpart Totu, in which it considered the best course to be to allow the Polish Workers’ Party to resolve the situation itself.

Watt’s argument would gain traction if a Romanian document proving his contention were to surface. Without such corroboration it is difficult not to interpret Ceaușescu’s appeal to Gorbachev for “urgent measures” as support for some sort of Warsaw Pact intervention in Poland. It was the direct challenge to Communist domination by political change in Poland that led Ceaușescu to see the value of the Warsaw Pact. His conversion to a form of the “Brezhnev doctrine,” and his aversion to perestroika and glasnost widened the gulf between him and Gorbachev. In private, Gorbachev made no secret of his distaste for Ceaușescu, whom he called “the Romanian dictator,” and when the two men meet for drinks at Ceaușescu’s residence during Warsaw Pact gathering in Bucharest in July 1989, the two leaders traded barbs and Raisa Gorbachev had to intervene to calm spirits.

Dennis Deletant is Visiting Ion Ratiu Professor of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University and Emeritus Professor of Romanian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College, London. An officer of the Order of the British Empire (since 1995) for his services to British-Romanian relations and a recipient of the Romanian Order of Merit with the rank of commander for services to Romanian democracy (since 2000), he is the author of several volumes on the recent history of Romania, including Ceauşescu and the Securitate: Coercion and Dissent in Romania, 1965-89 (1996), Romania under Communist Rule (1998), Communist Terror in Romania: Gheorghiu-Dej and the Police State, 1948-1965 (1999) and Ion Antonescu. Hitler’s Forgotten Ally (2006).

Chapter Two

What Nicolae Ceausescu can teach us about Despotism?

Before his fall and swift execution, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu treated his subjects like laboratory rats.

Those who govern will always try to tax, control, or eliminate institutions that conflict with their warped views of how other people’s lives should be ordered. His secret police kept meticulous files on people’s political opinions, sex lives, friends, and work.  They kept samples from every typewriter to identify anonymous letters and manuscripts, and tried to satisfy Ceausescu’s ambition to tap every phone in the country.  They continually updated a blacklist of people’s names that could not be spoken aloud or printed, not even in crossword puzzles.  Terrified into submission, a third of all Romanians informed on their neighbours.

Minority cultures were to be eradicated.  The country’s two million Hungarians were forbidden to teach their language or history.  Germans and Jews were allowed to emigrate to West Germany and Israel—but only if somebody paid ransom for them in hard currency.

Ceausescu razed ancient churches and monasteries, historic buildings, and entire villages to build his vision of a socialist society filled with “agro-industrial complexes.”  He called the programme “systemization,” and a main feature of it was shoddy high-rise housing.  No room in any home was allowed more than one 60-watt lightbulb.

Science was just another sphere of life for the government to control and twist.  Elena Ceausescu, the dictator’s wife, passed herself off as a scientist.  Party literature slavishly described her as “a remarkable scientist of world repute, who makes an inestimable contribution to the development of science, education, and culture in our homeland.”  Mrs. Ceausescu, who had studied chemistry briefly, instigated a government decree that nobody should study the subject longer than she had.  So for two decades, the study of chemistry was all but eliminated.  A defector from the foreign-intelligence service says the esteemed scientist Elena Ceausescu was especially fond of a treatment called Radu, in which imprisoned dissidents were bombarded with radiation in the hope that they would die of cancer after being released.

State television, which broadcast just two hours a day, reported largely on the “Hero of the Nation’s Heroes” and his wife. Newspapers and radio were also simply mouthpieces of the regime.

An odious assortment of leaders—left-wing and right-wing, religious zealots and atheists—have been assaulting civil society in countries around the globe. Literature, art, film, and law were all eliminated or hijacked by the government.  No aspect of life was beyond the reach of the state, not even sex and reproduction. The government outlawed abortion and birth control and decreed that all women should bear five children.  Every woman had to submit to gynecological examination four times a year, and the police watched pregnant women to make sure they didn’t terminate their pregnancies. The Communist Party Central Committee set up Orphanage No. 1, which exported abandoned babies to earn foreign currency.

Society existed for Romania’s rulers to shape and control. The party was the state, and the state was everything.

Civil Society

Romania’s rulers could not tolerate civil society—private life independent of the party and the state. The term civil society, which has come to the fore recently as democratic revolutions have multiplied in Europe and Africa, is really another term for the private sector. But it’s the private sector broadly defined to include not just businesses but individuals, groups, clubs, associations, cooperatives, and unions.  Where free people can associate as they please, there is civil society.

Some of these voluntary organs of civil society get involved in political life by acting as lobbying groups, entering what’s called “political society.” But many others simply get on with their business. They offer friendship and support, share skills and ideas, and build community life.

But the organisations in civil society do something else, too. Simply by existing, they combat statism. They decentralize power from the state to individuals and their voluntary groups, which allows personal freedom to flourish. And this is exactly what social engineers can’t stand.  Social engineers dream of a homogenous, ideal society, whether it be classless, raceless, racist, private-propertyless, or holy. So diversity must be smashed. It’s no fun to rule over people who are doing their own thing.

Unfortunately, Ceausescu, for all his infamy, wasn’t unique. An odious assortment of leaders—left-wing and right-wing, religious zealots and atheists—have been assaulting civil society in countries around the globe. A few have disappeared in the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe and, more recently, in Africa. But many remain.

The Tools of the Trade

How do social engineers assault civil society? They pass laws to outlaw organisations, or they order their secret police to harass groups until they disband. Through subsidies, favours, and patronage, they turn once-independent groups into organs of the state or the party. Or they overwhelm civil society with incessant propaganda in schools and the media.

An essential ingredient of their propaganda is self-glorification. They put their faces on money, stamps, TV, and enormous posters. They declare themselves presidents for life, give themselves glorious titles, and surround themselves with sycophants.  Ceausescu’s party literature called him the “morning star of Romania’s national revolution” and “the national hero who with boundless devotion serves the supreme interests of all our people.”

A member of Zimbabwe’s parliament, Tony Gara, recently called President Robert Mugabe “the only other son of God.” ZANU party newspaper advertisements call Mugabe “the most authentic, consistent and revolutionary leader.” Zaire’s president, Mobutu Sese Seko, calls himself “the one who is and shall always be.”

If they rule as a group, they give themselves verbose titles, like the “State Law and Order Restoration Council,” the name of the paranoic military junta that rules Myanmar, formerly called Burma. They transcribe their speeches into equally verbose books, such as The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions Within Myanmar and Traitorous Cohorts.

The confidently speak for a whole nation. As Life President Hatings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi explained:  “The Malawi style is that Kamuzu says it’s that and then it’s finished.”

Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi was more loquacious:

I call on all ministers, assistant ministers, and every other person to sing like parrots.  During Mzee Kenyatta’s period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune until people said: This fellow has nothing to say, except to sing for Kenyatta.  I said: I did not have ideas of my own. Who was I to have my own ideas?  I was in Kenyatta’s shoes, and therefore, I had to sing whatever Kenyatta wanted.  If I had sung another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone?  Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward.”

Social engineers are suspicious of ideas in general and foreign ideas in particular.  Pol Pot, who led Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge, ordered the destruction of all libraries, schools, theatres, and radio and TV stations. A less drastic and more common method of controlling the spread of ideas is to own or control all the media, restrict access to foreign publications, and curb travel and emigration.  Albania’s rulers, for example, made “flight from the state” a crime.

They label their critics “enemies” and then silence them. Fascists outlaw communists. Communists outlaw fascists. Reactionaries outlaw revolutionaries.  Revolutionaries outlaw reactionaries. In Albania, “fascist, antidemocratic, religious, war-mongering, or antisocialist propaganda” was a crime. Cuba imprisons those who spread “enemy propaganda.”

To preserve the façade of national unity—a unity that they define and impose—social engineers persecute dissenters as enemies of the people or the state.  Iran executes members of “atheistic and hypocritical mini-groups.” Somalia punishes those declared to be “exploiting religion for creating national disunity or subverting or weakening state authority.” Vietnam punishes “subversive activities against the power of the people.” Malawi’s Forfeiture Act allows the president to seize all possessions of any citizen who has acted in a matter “prejudicial to the State.”

This is all in the great tradition of Albania, where back in 1961 the prime minister, Mehmet Shehu, decreed:  “For those who stand in the way of unity, a spit in the face, a sock in the jaw, and, if necessary, a bullet in the head.”

Propaganda, thought control, and the relentless march toward unity are just the start.  Social engineers supplement them with direct attacks on private associations. As in Ceausescu’s Romania, any autonomous institution that offers a counterweight to state and party power or encourages independent action or thought must be either abolished or hijacked. This means restricting everything from organized religion (Cuba’s dictator banned the Bible) to self-help groups (Poland’s dictators outlawed groups for battered women, abused children, and alcoholics).

Groups that aren’t crushed are made subservient to the party or state. Consider women’s organisations. In civil societies, women’s groups fight the status quo from many directions: some lobby for abortion rights and affirmative action, and some call for a return to traditional family values. In socially engineered societies, the whole notion of independent movements is turned on its head. Women’s groups become another tool for the rulers, who use them to indoctrinate, mobilise, and persecute,  President Hastings Banda of Malawi has established a cult of thousands of women dancers who wear dresses emblazoned with his portrait and sing his praises whenever he appears in public.

The Women’s League in Zimbabwe, an arm of the ruling party, sings and dances for President Robert Mugabe. It also tries to solidify his rule. In 1985, the league joined another arm of the party, the Youth Brigade, in widespread assaults on government opponents.  In 1990, Women’s League representatives appeared on state television to urge the government to fire teachers who supported the opposition Zimbabwe Unity Movement.

Social Engineering at Home

Of course, you don’t have to look far afield to see government control of civil life.  The architects of white supremacy in South Africa also controlled or shut down private associations that got in the way of their grand plans.

They strangled the private sector with countless boards and commissions and spun a web of censorship, forced removals, bannings, pass laws, and economic restrictions in an attempt to create a racial version of Romania’s “systemization.”  Personal choice, markets, and civil society interfere with totalitarian plans, so social engineers of all stripes crush them.

The South African government, however, never completely succeeded in crushing civil society. The National Party rulers lacked the totalitarian will to silence all independent bodies.  White institutions, of course, retained more freedom than others.  But even blacks were spared the full force of the totalitarian jackboot—or skillfully ducked out of its way.

Through some of the darkest days of apartheid’s social engineering, the government left space—and people seized space—for independent-minded churches, universities, private schools, literature, family-planning clinics, research groups, business chambers, human-rights watchdogs, alternative printing presses, street theatre, burial societies, stokvels, and shebeens.

Newspapers—though barred from reporting on much police and army brutality, state secrets, and the utterances of outlawed activists—were allowed scope to express their opinions on the government’s political, economic, and human-rights policies. This some did with an intensity and frequency that would be punishable by death in a totalitarian state. The government permitted many foreign magazines to circulate. Typewriters and photocopiers, and later desktop computers, were unrestricted, allowing some independent writing and research.  Still, South Africans have to strengthen independent institutions—and add many more—to move from authoritarianism to lasting democracy.

Of course, all governments restrict the institutions of civil society in one way or another. But there are degrees of repression.  And the more diverse and independent civil institutions are, the more likely it is that society will be able to resist the authoritarian tendencies of its rulers and preserve freedom.

Free people need space to breathe, away from a suffocating government.  South African democrats should fight to make important segments of society off limits to state planners and party functionaries.

Free people need space to breathe, away from a suffocating government.  South African democrats should fight to make important segments of society off limits to state planners and party functionaries.

The kind of civil institutions that should be kept numerous, diverse, private, and independent include:

  • Churches.

  • TV and radio stations.

  • The press.

  • Universities and schools.

  • Parent-teacher associations.

  • Trade unions.

  • Business and industry and chambers of commerce.

  • Medical and legal associations and other professional bodies.

  • Civic associations.

  • Youth clubs.

  • Women’s groups.

  • Service clubs and charities.

  • Human-rights monitors and journals.

  • Sports clubs, cultural organizations, and scientific bodies.

  • Libraries and museums.

These groups should be able to operate on their own property, organized under rules they set for themselves.

The task of building a vibrant civil society will not be easy.  Just as the government is easing its control over civil life, some government opponents are gearing up to slap on new controls.

A big stumbling block is the monopoly mentality prevalent among activists, particularly in organizations aligned to the African National Congress.  Representatives of these groups forever call for “unity”—a unity that they define.  It is a false unity, which requires coercion against any who resist it.

A single nonracial teachers’ union, a single nonracial cultural body, a single women’s league, youth league, trade-union federation, soccer body, lawyers’ association—these belong in a one-party state, not in a tolerant civil society.  In its calls for these mass bodies, the hard left shows how little respect it has for independence and diversity…

War of Position

Since the late 1980s, civil society in South Africa has been subjected to a sophisticated attack by the Mass Democratic Movement, the organization that fronted for the ANC before it was unbanned in 1990.  This attack is based on a communist strategy, called the “war of position,” that firmly and unashamedly rejects a liberal society—and twists the concept of civil society.

In an article discussing the South African Communist Party’s 1989 policy document The Path to Power, South African Labour Bulletin managing editor Karl von Holdt explained that the “war of position” was developed in the 1920s by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist.  Gramsci recognized that churches, schools, trade unions, political parties, culture, sport, and the media could be outside the state and independent of it.  But he didn’t welcome this.  He rejected it—because he (correctly) saw that these autonomous bodies would prevent the state from totally controlling society.

Von Holdt writes:

“ … argued that civil society was like a system of trenches and forts that protected the [liberal] state from onslaught.  Under these conditions a strategy of war of movement, ie insurrection, such as that used by Bolsheviks, could not succeed.  What was needed, instead, was a protracted ‘war of position,’ through which the Communist Party could establish its hegemony in civil society.

The ‘war of position’ was not a war with physical weapons.  It was a strategy for struggling to establish ideological and organizational leadership in institutions of civil society—the trade unions, the media, the co-ops, the schools, cultural and sports clubs, etc.”

Gramsci never saw the war of position as a replacement for armed struggle and insurrection.  It was a complementary weapon of struggle to achieve socialist victory, or so-called people’s power.

Von Holdt writes approvingly that South Africa has become chronically ungovernable because of the success of the Mass Democratic Movement’s campaign to control civil society through strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and marches:

In fact, the MDM has already established a rich practice and tradition of ‘war of position,’ even if this has not been fully theorized in relation to the question of power.  We have here a concrete elaboration, in practice, of Gramsci’s schematic concept of war of position.  Over the last decade or more the strategy of the MDM has consisted of:

  • Building powerful, militant mass organisations at the workplace and in the communities and schools, with the aim of constantly challenging oppression and exploitation, and building people’s power.

  • Establishing a broad multi-class liberation alliance under the hegemony of the ANC.

  • Extending the influence of this movement into many spheres, such as sport, culture, education…

These strategies, taken together, have entrenched the MDM within South Africa’s relatively advanced society, and made it impossible to dislodge.

You couldn’t ask for a more honest explanation of what many groups on the left have been doing over the past decade.  The question, though, is whether this is what ordinary people have been fighting for.  Did they know that they were fighting to trade National Party hegemony over civil life for the hegemony of some “democratic” movement?

If it’s civil society people want, they are going to have to start calling for individual liberty, the freedom to associate, and the freedom to own property that the state can’t trample on.  As British journalist Timothy Garton Ash says in his first-hand account of the revolutions in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland:

1989 was the springtime of societies aspiring to be civil.  Ordinary men and women’s rudimentary notion of what it meant to build a civil society might not satisfy the political theorist.  But some such notion was there, and it contained several basic demands.  There should be forms of association, national, regional, local, professional, which would be voluntary, authentic, democratic, and, first and last, not controlled or manipulated by the Party or Party-state.  People should be ‘civil’:  that is, polite, tolerant, and, above all, nonviolent.  Civil and civilian.”

Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute in Washington, adds:

What we are witnessing in the East is a series of antigovernment revolutions.  Certainly East Europeans want to be able to vote—who, having lived in a totalitarian state, would not?  But they also want to be free to travel, to speak out, to choose their jobs, to accrue wealth, to practice religion, and to engage in a myriad other human pursuits without interference from the state…They want to be free to choose not just more politicians but the course of their lives.

Those who govern will always try to tax, control, or eliminate institutions that conflict with their warped views of how other people’s lives should be ordered. And no constitutional clause in guaranteed to stop them. Ordinary people will have to fight nonstop for their individual rights and always be on the lookout for budding social engineers. Glorification of the state and calls to mobilize and unite the people should set alarm bells ringing.

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