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What Nicolae Ceausescu (and His Grim Death) Can Teach Us about Despotism

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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.

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 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 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.

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 organisations, 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 organisations aligned to the African National Congress.  Representatives of these groups forever call for “unity”—a unity that theydefine.  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:

[Gramsci] 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 antigovernmentrevolutions.  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 mobilise and unite the people should set alarm bells ringing.

This piece ran on Libertarianism.org

Don Caldwell

Don Caldwell

Don Caldwell is the author of No More Martyrs Now: Capitalism, Democracy, and Ordinary People . He died in a car accident shortly after this book was published in 1992.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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