What Nicolae Ceausescu (and His Grim Death) 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 gynaecological 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.
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 infamny, 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