Thirty years ago, the socialist government of Romania was overthrown in a military coup d’etat.
Industrialization had transformed the lives of millions of Romanians during the country’s socialist period. But the later years were marked by strict rationing and frequent shortages as the government sought to pay off its foreign debt. Romanian people hoped that their lives would improve after 1989. But life today is much worse than even the most economically-deprived times of the 1980s. A 2010 poll revealed that 63 percent of Romanians say that life was better under socialism.
Romania’s capitalist politicians search everywhere for a scapegoat to evade self-incrimination. The Financial Times states that “Romania has evolved into a democracy and strengthened ties with the West, joining EU and NATO. But its transition was always incomplete.” What is meant by “incomplete” is never defined.
Communists, and executed President Nicolae Ceausescu in particular, are the usual targets. As part of the ongoing demonization campaign, former military prosecutor Dan Voinea made a ludicrous statement to the Financial Times: “The communists remain in power until this very day, but without the names.”
A Marxist approach requires us to understand the struggle between the working and owning classes. When the communists came to power, they dispossessed the wealthy nobility, clerics and bourgeoisie of their property. Land was collectivized, as well as all major industries, and the economy was centrally planned. Millions of dwellings were built for workers, and everyone had the right to a job.
The socialist Romanian government transformed a largely agrarian society, and made great gains in industrial production. What’s more, they accomplished this feat within mere decades while under constant attack by the West. The capitalist account of Romania’s history ignores the vast achievements of socialism only to focus on its problems and shortcomings, many of which originated from the global situation at the time.
Romania’s socialist origins: Armed insurrection spurs Red Army’s arrival
Unlike the popular revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba and others that brought communists to power, the key factor to Romania’s socialist transformation was the victory of the Soviet Union in World War II.
During the war Romania had been ruled by a fascist military dictatorship in an alliance with Nazi Germany. General Ion Antonescu was not a passive supporter of Nazi Germany. His support was originally based on the fascist Iron Guard. Antonescu sent hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities to their deaths in concentration camps. This included Jewish and Roma people, as well as communists. Romania’s military was a key participant in the fascist invasion of the Soviet Union, which eventually took 27 million Soviet lives.
As the war went on, internal resistance to the dictatorship grew even as communists were driven underground. The Soviet Union began to turn the tide of war, delivering defeat after defeat to the fascist alliance. On Aug 23, 1944, a broad anti-fascist coalition led by the Communist Party arrested the dictator-general and locked him in a safe. This insurrection sped the Red Army’s advance into Bucharest days later. The Romanian army switched sides in the war and now fought as an ally of the Soviet Union.
Like so many other countries in Eastern Europe, post-war governments were primarily shaped by the militaries that liberated them from fascism – the Soviet Union in the East and the U.S. / Britain in the West. The U.S. and British governments made clear that they would tolerate no governments other than those specifically chosen by the imperialists in their “sphere.” This was evident in the cases of Italy and Greece in particular, where the British military directly intervened to crush the communists, who had led the partisan resistance to fascism and were already in control of many areas.
But instead of a capitalist government, the Soviet Union oversaw the formation of socialist governments in Eastern Europe that would serve the interests of the working class.
The Soviet Union had been pushed to the verge of annihilation not just by the German military, but by the resources and industrial capacity of essentially all of continental Europe. The Nazi war machine had relied on the militaries of Romania, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia, as well as key agricultural and oil output from Romania. Fascist resurgence was a possibility too deadly for the Soviet Union to allow.
After years of fascist dictatorship, there was no pre-war “democratic” government to go back to. The largely-discredited monarchy and bourgeois parties had the support of the West, but these very parties had been responsible for Romania’s fascist takeover.
Key support from the Soviets, whose Red Army remained in Romania after the defeat of the fascists, was given to the National Democratic Front, a coalition led by the Romanian Communist Party (PCR).
The Communist Party’s general secretary, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, had been a railway worker and PCR militant. He was born in 1901, and began working at the age of 11 years old, a situation all too common for youths of his time. For his part in organizing strikes in 1933 he was sentenced to 12 years’ hard labor. While in prison he was elected to the central committee of the PCR.
Nicolae Ceausescu, another party leader, was born in 1918, and was a shoemaker’s apprentice in Bucharest from the age of 10. He began revolutionary activity early, and was in and out of prison organizing strikes and sabotage against the Nazi-allied government. At age 22, Ceausescu was in Jilava prison when it was invaded by members of the fascist Iron Guard, who slaughtered 64 of the other prisoners before they were stopped.
In 1946, nearly 7 million people voted for the National Democratic bloc. This election had the highest number of participants in the country’s history. The new government forced the abdication of the reactionary monarchy. Two years later the PCR would merge with the social democrats to form the Romanian Workers’ Party (PMR).
‘Not just a dream’; industrializing an agrarian society
The tasks of the country were enormous. Industrial output was halved by the war and the population had been reduced from nearly 20 million to less than 16 million. More than 700,000 had died. The vast majority of the people were peasants who worked on farms, and had a life expectancy of 42 years.
At once the government set upon an electrification plan, and laid the foundation for the development of industry. Farmland owned by a small, rich minority was confiscated and collectivized. Extravagant castles and mansions were seized from the parasitic nobility and used for museums and other public institutions.
Four decades of socialist development would transform Romania from a country that imported 90 percent of machinery to a country that manufactured its own. Social services and education radically improved health: life expectancy increased by 30 years. More than 5 million jobs were created, and industrial output rose by more than 650 percent since 1950.
Housing was a major priority for the state. By 1980, the socialist government had built 4.6 million homes for people. Scanteia newspaper reported how a communist of the old underground “felt the need to touch and caress the bricks of the first apartment blocs to be built for steelworkers, so he could convince himself that they were not just a dream”.
Pregnant women and mothers were accorded rights that even bourgeois reviewers noted as “comprehensive and generous.” Women were given fully-paid maternity leave of 112 days. And with no loss to benefits, “mothers were permitted to take a leave of absence from work to raise a child to the age of 6, or they could request half-time work.”
Still a developing country suffering from centuries of underdevelopment, Romania strove to become a medium-developed country and narrow the gap between it and the West. For Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu after him, lessening ties with Moscow was seen as necessary to attain that goal.
Division in the socialist camp
After the war the Soviet Union imposed war reparations on the country (along with other formerly fascist states) to repay part of the immense damage caused by the war. Although the aggregate reparations amounted to just one-fifth the actual cost of destruction suffered by the Soviet Union, these reparations strained the fragile economy of Romania. This likely did not improve the public view of the USSR. There were still Soviet troops in Romania, and Moscow exercised a direct intervention in the economy through the Sovrom joint-stock partnerships over Romania’s major industries.
Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent shifts in the Soviet Union impelled the divide further. Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceausescu negotiated the buyout of the Sovroms at great cost.
But in 1955, Romania joined the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, also known as the Warsaw Pact, with the USSR and other countries of the eastern European socialist bloc.
At the same time, Romania’s leaders began to establish economic ties with capitalist and imperialist countries in order to lessen ties with the Soviet Union. In 1958 with Chinese support, Gheorghiu-Dej negotiated the removal of Soviet soldiers from Romanian soil, the only East European country to do so. As the Sino-Soviet split divided the Socialist Bloc between Moscow and Beijing, Bucharest maintained neutrality.
In 1964 the PMR adopted Gheorghiu-Dej’s theses that emphasized national independence and sovereignty, equal rights, mutual advantage, non-interference in internal affairs, and observance of territorial integrity. When Gheorghiu-Dej died in 1965, Ceausescu redoubled the steps towards nationalism. The PMR renamed itself the Romanian Communist Party (PCR), and the country became the Socialist Republic of Romania to signify a step forward.
1970s and 1980s; ‘Maverick’ Romania turns West
The 1970s was a period of tremendous growth and development for the country. Vast natural resources paired with Western trade concessions and foreign credit brought Romania’s most prosperous years since World War II.
But in many ways the country’s leadership held positions that were reactionary and opportunistic. The “independence” put forward by Gheorghiu-Dej and later Ceausescu became more and more allied with U.S. imperialism. Romania recognized West Germany, and became the only socialist country to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. When the CIA overthrew the democratically-elected socialist president of Chile, many socialist countries severed diplomatic relations. Yet Romania maintained them.
These steps convinced the U.S. government that Ceausescu could be influenced and worked with to a certain extent. He was labelled a “maverick” by the U.S. press and internal CIA documents. They eagerly sought to distance Romania from the Soviet Bloc. In 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon made a state visit to Romania, the first visit of a U.S. president to a socialist country, three years before his famed visit to China.
Romania would go on to join imperialist financial agreements including taking loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The U.S. welcomed each of these moves, but other than high interest loans they gave Romania nothing of substance in return. What the U.S. really wanted was the overturn of the progressive social system and the return of capitalist exploitation and oppression.
But the coup d’etat of 1989 could not have succeeded without an accumulation of errors on the part of the country’s leaders. The government’s vacillation between the imperialist and socialist camps was one such example.
The late 1970s and early 1980s ushered in a series of crises that rocked the Romanian economy. A devastating earthquake hit Bucharest in 1977, followed by the global economic crisis. For much of the 1970s the Romanian government had been able to export key commodities like oil at high prices. But when prices slumped, suddenly Romania lost a significant source of revenue. Foreign credit that had previously offered an attractive path to development became an obstacle to the country’s survival.
Romania borrowed from the IMF, whose loan terms are designed to enslave governments in a cycle of debt by imposing crippling interest rates and severe austerity on the people. They remain a key tool for imperialists today that limit a country’s development. For the Romanian government, foreign debt had become a trap from which they desperately worked to extricate themselves.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the Romanian government rationed electricity, heat, gasoline and food – the first time since the early postwar years. Agricultural goods were exported to pay down the loan, rendering certain food items like meat and milk scarce. People arrived home in the cold winter only to have the heat shut off after a few hours. Even radio and television transmissions were restricted to preserve energy.
These were difficult years for the Romanian people. Other countries like Poland and Hungary which had taken out similar loans were not even able to pay the interest. Romania paid back the principal as well.
Meanwhile the capitalist reforms in the Soviet Union gave fodder to reactionary elements across Eastern Europe. At the same time, the West’s cultural cold war continued, particularly enticing young people in the socialist camp with pro-capitalist propaganda.
December 1989 and the military coup d’etat
By April 1989, the Romanian government declared the country free of Western debt. The Grand National Assembly enacted a ban on taking on any further foreign credits. Yet the rationing of food and energy continued. Perhaps this was an effort to impel the economy further, but these austerity measures were self-defeating.
These decisions made by the country’s leaders could only have further isolated much of the working class.
The imperialist media seized upon any sign of discontent in the Socialist Bloc. So did the U.S. government, which had financed counterrevolutionary organizations throughout Eastern Europe since the end of World War II. The imperialists carefully studied each manifestation. A 1987 classified CIA document outlined a number of possible situations that would lead to the downfall of the Romanian government given the prospect of the coming winter. Stunningly, one of the scenarios in this “winter thinkpiece” would play out almost exactly as occurred two years later: In this scenario, a group of striking workers would establish a national organization to coordinate protests. “Pragmatic” opponents of the Ceausescus in leadership would remove him from office, with support of the Securitate or military. The new government would ease restrictions on food and energy to placate most workers.
Instead of a strike in a major factory, the disturbances would arise around a reactionary Hungarian cleric in the western city of Timisoara. And one such “Council of National Salvation” was formed not from any workers’ group but from the top military brass, who began operating as a council six months before the coup.
Timisoara is a cosmopolitan city in western Romania near the Hungarian border. In 1989 there were 1.7 million Hungarians who lived in the region. Bourgeois elements in Hungary long promoted counterrevolutionary propaganda, including alleged grievances against the Hungarian minorities.
The eviction of a counterrevolutionary cleric on Dec. 16 sparked protests in Timisoara. Confrontations ensued between rightwing protestors and security forces, but there were few casualties. There was no massacre as was repeated by the imperialist press. The New York Times published hysterical reports of “mass graves in Timisoara” holding thousands of people, and the Hungarian media claimed that 60,000 had been killed. All of this was later revealed to be false.
Protests grew around the country. On Dec. 20 the military, foreshadowing its coming betrayal, withdrew from Timisoara. This was a boon to the counterrevolution; mobs of people ransacked the local Communist Party headquarters. The unrest was serious enough for Ceausescu to cut short a state visit to Iran and return to the capital.
Up to this time, the clandestine counterrevolutionary Council of National Salvation had been operating for 6 months prior. Their pre-December activities are not known, and there were a number of such councils. The most prominent included a former ambassador to the United States; a disgraced PCR politician who would become the new government’s president; and at least 4 military generals, including a retired general who had made previous attempts against Ceausescu.
On Dec. 21, Ceausescu appeared before a mass rally in Bucharest. He announced considerable increases in the minimum salary, child subsidies and pensions. He denounced the actions in Timisoara of a group who wanted to place the country again under foreign domination. In what would be prophetic words, Ceausescu spoke: “Some would like again to reintroduce unemployment, to reduce the living standards of the people, and in order to dismantle Romania, to dismember Romania, to put our independent people and nation in danger.”
His speech was interrupted by protestors, and his disoriented response to the heckling was disproportionately publicized by the imperialist media. People remained in the streets, and clashes with the authorities took place. Imperialist propaganda outlets like Radio Free Europe broadcasted false reports of a “massacre” in Bucharest, and workers from around the city poured into the streets the next day. Many of the people protesting had legitimate grievances that were built up over years of austerity.
But the protests quickly devolved into fascist violence when the military defected. Rightwing mobs set fire to the National Archives and the university library. Crowds attacked Ceausescu’s home, forcing him and his wife Elena to flee the capital in a helicopter. Their pilot abandoned them on a country road where they were soon captured.
The military-led NSF seized control of the television stations and declared themselves the new government.
Military brass, a historical source of counterrevolution, were at odds with Ceausescu’s plan to integrate them into civilian work. “For years,” wrote rightwing academic Vladimir Tismaneanu in the New York Times, “troops have been forced to engage in such demeaning activities as raising crops and supplying manual labor for grandiose Ceausescu projects.”
Long held at bay by the socialist government, the terror of the bourgeoisie raised its head. On Dec. 25, 1989, a secret military tribunal charged Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu with fabricated crimes that included “genocide” and “destroying the country’s economic and spiritual values.” Moments later as he was led to his death, Nicolae Ceausescu sang the Internationale. He and his wife were executed by firing squad.
Chaos ensued in the following days. The entire leadership of the Communist Party was imprisoned. Communists were disappeared and even lynched in the streets. Some in the Securitate, whose origin came from the peasantry, put up an armed resistance to the military coup. They were hunted and executed.
Privatization and poverty, the American way
Within days the “socialist” NSF outlawed the Communist Party. Addendums to foreign treaties that called for states to guarantee full employment, housing and education were abolished.
The U.S. government was quick to intervene. As early as January 1990, Washington instructed its Bucharest envoy “to take preliminary actions to encourage the process [of privatization].” Special attention was given to the bourgeois media. The U.S. Embassy issued an urgent request for up-to-date video equipment for the television station. Prior anti-communist laws prevented the U.S. government from directly providing the equipment.
Embassy cables gloated over how the counterrevolution “has made it possible to pursue, in numerous heretofore unthinkable ways, our fundamental policy goals in Romania.”
One of those goals was the domination of Romanian polity by U.S. legal norms. The Embassy’s work plan included distributing 10,000 copies of the U.S. constitution in the Romanian language to all members of the new parliament after the elections. U.S. legal experts would “advise” Romania in the creation of the new constitution and legal codes. Newly-minted Romanian politicians would be exposed to representatives from U.S. political parties and private businesses.
Trade and economic meetings would convince Romanian officials that the economic benefits the U.S. can offer were contingent on the new government adhering to the American view of elections and the upholding of so-called individual rights to exploit the collective.
The U.S. military, which already had planned military-to-military contacts, would transform the Romanian armed forces into a “professional and non-political” corps based on a “commander – commanded” relationship.
Overnight, independent and sovereign Romania became a U.S. neocolony. A new law approved 100 percent foreign ownership of investments. State-owned enterprises, which had fueled the country’s generous social services, were sold to foreign capitalists.
Gone was the law banning foreign debt. Negotiations with the IMF began in 1993, with the requirement for the Romanian government to enter its currency into the world market, making Romania more susceptible to the tumult of global capitalism.
By 1994, half of the population lived on less than $160 a month. Price controls over food were removed. Inflation hit 300 percent. Unemployment, which previously did not exist, haunted millions. In desperation, 4 million people turned to a pyramid scheme called Caritas. The pyramid scheme was allowed to operate by the new government, and millions of families lost a collective $1 billion. The leu, Romania’s national currency, sank to 1,748 to one dollar.
Alleged discrimination of ethnic minorities was used to topple the socialist governments. But the new capitalist governments relied on the support of the racist right wing. Fascist violence against Roma, ethnic Hungarians and Jewish people erupted across the country. In a 1993 New York Times article, Henry Kamm detailed the quickly emerging racist attacks on the Roma. Using a slur for the Roma people, Kamm wrote: “The millions of Gypsies of Eastern Europe have emerged as great losers from the overthrow of Communism… Many of the economic and social protections that Gypsies enjoyed in Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia collapsed, permitting a revival of the open prejudice and persecution that have marked the history of the Roma, as Gypsies prefer to call themselves…”
Capitalism restored, social conditions deteriorate
The coup plotters’ aim, despite their claims of “democracy” and “freedom,” was never to improve the standard of living for Romanian workers.
As difficult as the years of rationing were, the quality of life for Romanians today is much worse.
More than 85 percent of all individual work contracts in Romania pay less than the minimum needed for survival, even as costs continue to climb. Many have left the country in search of an economic future. Since 1989 Romania experienced the highest levels of emigration of all European countries: 3.5 million people have fled, more than 5 times the number of deaths in World War II. Today, the diaspora represents one-fifth of the country’s own labor force.
Foreign corporations reap mega-profits from the artificially low wages of Romania. The restoration of capitalism promised wealth and freedom for the country, yet today Romania remains among the poorest countries in the European Union. Romania’s economy and natural resources have been completely opened to foreign capital for exploitation. Almost every industrial measure peaked in mid to late 1980s, and then bottomed out after the 1990s.
The Romanian government today is loyal to U.S. empire. There are now U.S. military bases in the countryside and in Romania’s principal ports. When the U.S. demanded that all NATO countries contribute 2 percent of their GDP, Romania was the first to raise military spending. By U.S. accounts, actions taken by the Romanian government in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks to support U.S. interests have been “almost too numerous to list”.
When the government was toppled in 1989, many Romanian people looked to the U.S. government as a source of hope. They were convinced that the years of austerity were finally over. Some believed that now, they too would have access to abundant consumer goods and an American lifestyle.
This false image of abundance was intentionally cultivated by the imperialists to weaken the Socialist Bloc. If the imperialists could convince workers in socialist states that the U.S. was the “land of opportunity,” they could seriously weaken the stability of socialism. Defeat of the socialists in the cultural war was an important factor in the overthrow of socialist governments.
Faced with the daunting task of industrializing agrarian societies, socialist governments in addition had to produce consumer goods for its population while under technological and economic embargo, and under constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Furthermore, they had to do this within the span of just decades. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, had enriched themselves through centuries of capitalist exploitation, including the enslavement of millions of Africans and the Indigenous.
History did not cease in 1989. Capitalism’s restoration in Romania and the former Socialist Bloc has brought with it all its inherent contradictions. It is bound to reignite mass struggle. The words of the socialist Internationale, written 150 years ago and translated into nearly every language, continue to inspire the fight of the oppressed for emancipation: “The earth shall rise on new foundations; we have been naught, we shall be all.”
Long live the struggle for socialism!
Marcy, Sam. “Reactionary Coup in Romania”. 4 Jan. 1990. Workers’ World. www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/marcy/1990/sm900104.html. Accessed 16 Dec 2019
Oțetea, Prof. Andrei. A Concise History of Romania. English edition edited by Andrew MacKenzie. London, Unified Printers and Publishers. 1985.
Rotaru, Constantin. Socialism și capitalism în teorie și practică fiscală. Editura Karta-Graphic. Ploiești, 2011.
Serban, Rodica. “A Grand, Historic Accomplishment of the People, for the People––New Modern Homes”. Scînteia. 7 Apr 1989. Quoted in JPRS Report: Eastern Europe. Foreign Broadcast Information Service.