The New Social Order

Romania Table of Contents

The Peasantry

The share of the labor force employed in agriculture decreased to less than 30 percent by 1981, and this decline was accompanied by the destruction of many aspects of the peasant way of life. By 1963 more than 95 percent of all arable land was controlled by the state, either through collective or state farms. As a result, small-scale agriculture was no longer available to support the traditional peasant way of life, and the family was no longer the basic unit of production and consumption. The peasants who remained on the land were forced to participate in large-scale, statemanaged agriculture that paralleled other socialist enterprises. The peasants were permitted to till small "private" plots, which in 1963 accounted for about 8 percent of all arable land. But even cultivation of these plots was subject to state interference. Initially some violent protests against collectivization occurred, but on the whole, protest took the form of plummeting yields. This process not only adversely affected living standards for town and country alike, but increased party penetration of the countryside, further reducing peasant autonomy.

Several other factors contributed to the rural exodus and the decline of the peasant class, among them substantial wage differentials between agricultural and nonagricultural sectors. In 1965 peasant incomes were only half the national average. Although the state tried to remedy the situation by establishing minimum incomes in the 1970s, remuneration for agricultural laborers remained well below that for industrial workers. In 1979 the average agricultural worker's income was still only 66 percent of the industrial worker's, and during the 1980s it rose to only 73 percent. A persistent and wide disparity also existed between rural and urban standards of living. In the mid-1970s, the majority of rural households were without gas, not even half had electricity, and more than one-third were without running water. Even in the 1980s, washing machines, refrigerators, and televisions were still luxury items, and peasant expenditures for them and other nonbasic items and for cultural activities remained conspicuously below those of industrial workers. In addition, rural citizens received lower pensions and child allowances and had much more limited educational opportunity.

Despite Ceausescu's nationalistic glorification of peasant folklore and values, in the mid-1980s the Romanian peasant remained very much a second-class citizen. Adults perceived their lowly status and encouraged their children to leave the land. Young people were inclined to do so and showed a decided preference for occupations that would take them out of the village. The regime was unable to prevent this development because it lacked the investment capital to both provide amenities to the countryside and to continue its industrialization program. Consequently the quality of the agricultural work force deteriorated to the point of inadequacy. As the young, educated, and ambitious abandoned the fields for the factories, the laborers left behind were older and, increasingly, female. Although they constituted only 14 percent of the national labor force in 1979, women made up 63 percent of agricultural labor. The average age of adult male farmers rose to 43.2 years in 1977. Furthermore, the men who remained on the land were generally the least capable and were unable to meet even the minimum requirements of industrial work.

Many of these peasants were apathetic and, according to Ceausescu, willing to spend their time drinking and gambling in local pubs instead of working on the cooperative farms. A 1981 survey showed that some 34 percent of all agricultural cooperative members had avoided doing any work whatsoever for the cooperative during that entire year. Consequently the regime had to mobilize soldiers, urban workers, college, high-school, and even elementaryschool students to work in the fields at planting and harvest time.

Ironically the systematization program, which placed plants and factories throughout the countryside to equalize living standards, actually made the situation worse. Even as demands were made for the peasantry to increase agricultural output, commuting from village to factory became a fairly widespread practice, drawing the best labor from an already deteriorated supply. As a result, many peasant families were transformed into extended households whose members participated in both farming and industrial work. In such families, at least one member commuted to a factory and worked for wages, whereas others worked on the cooperative farm to secure the privilege of cultivating a private plot. The factory wage raised the family's standard of living, and the plot provided fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products that the family could consume or sell for extra cash. Even when members of the family had permanently migrated to nearby cities, these mutually advantageous economic ties were maintained, somewhat ameliorating economic conditions in the countryside.

Some observers argued that this rural-urban nexus boosted support for the regime in the countryside and contributed to political stability throughout the 1970s, when commuting workers constituted some 30 percent of the urban work force (50 percent in some cities). Although commuters provided labor without aggravating the urban housing shortage, having a large number of peasants in the factories had certain disadvantages. The poorly educated and relatively unskilled peasant workers could not be fully integrated into urban industrial society. Most were deeply religious, and their lives centered not on work but on Orthodox rituals and family. Commuters were often absent because of village celebrations or the need to tend the household plot.

Peasant commuting also brought an increased awareness of the differences between rural and urban living conditions--particularly during the 1980s, when the overall standard of living sank to nearly unbearable levels. Rural areas were the most harshly affected, and despite the regime's efforts to restrict migration to cities, the process continued, albeit at a slower rate. In the late 1980s, the disappearance of the peasantry as a distinct class appeared virtually inevitable.

The Proletariat

Creation of a class-conscious proletariat was a primary goal of the PCR. Explosive growth in the industrial sector, which continually garnered the lion's share of investment capital, ensured the transformation of the economy and, consequently, the social structure. In 1950 industrial workers represented only 19 percent of the employed population. By 1988 the proletariat accounted for some 60 percent of the working population.

The ranks of the working class swelled with peasants from the villages, some as commuting workers, but most as migrants who took up permanent residence in the cities. In 1948 only 23.4 percent of the population lived in cities, but by 1988 over half were urban dwellers, most of whom had been born and raised in the countryside. In the late 1970s, some 60 percent of residents in the seven largest cities had rural origins. These workers exhibited roughly the same traditional peasant characteristics as peasant workers who retained residences in the villages. They were members of the Orthodox Church, parochial, poorly educated, and relatively unskilled. Values inculcated by church, family, and village were not easily pushed aside, and rural-urban migrants had tremendous difficulty adapting to the discipline of the industrial work place. As a result, alcoholism and absenteeism were recurring problems. Moreover, neither commuters nor rural-urban migrants were interested in the political activity demanded of a class-conscious proletariat. In contrast, the small prewar industrial working class was a much more urbanized, skilled, and politically active group, which felt an affinity with the new regime not shared by those of peasant origin.

As industrialization and urbanization progressed, the working class became more differentiated by type of industry and work process and by age group and social origin. The working class as a whole continued to exhibit very little class consciousness or solidarity. Over the years, as the standard of living slowly rose, the working class was accorded special advantages, and the circumstances of workers improved compared to other social groups. Socialist income policies reduced wage differentials between blueand white-collar workers, so that by the 1970s many skilled workers earned as much or more than their better-educated compatriots. Likewise, urban workers gained the most from comprehensive welfare and social services introduced under socialist rule.

Although it was never a significant source of political leadership, the working class initially was generally satisfied with its special status and at least tacitly approved of the regime and its policies. Later years, however, witnessed a growing discontent among the rank and file of the proletariat, much of which was related to working conditions. The most common complaints concerned poor pay and slow advancement. Increasingly workers blamed the regime and the bureaucratic centrally planned economic system for problems in industrial enterprises. They believed that the system's waste and inefficiency not only affected wages and promotions, but also contributed to the precipitous decline in the standard of living. Although the late 1980s brought increases in wages, compared to other East European countries, wages remained quite paltry. Small as the increases were, they created inflation because of the scarcity of consumer goods. The regime sought to relieve workers of a portion of their "disposable income" by forcing them to buy shares in their factories, which was tantamount to confiscation and forced saving in that there was no popular control over these funds. The regime's inability to shorten the forty-eight-hour work week also provoked discontent, especially in light of the calls for citizens to devote an increasing number of hours to unpaid "patriotic work" on their day off.

In 1989 almost all Romanian workers belonged to trade unions, which were organs for worker representation in name only. In reality the unions, which were controlled by the party after 1947, functioned as transmission belts carrying directives from the central administration to the rank and file and as tools of political socialization to inculcate desired attitudes and values. Workers had to join trade unions to receive social welfare and many fringe benefits.

In 1971 workers' councils were established at enterprises, ostensibly to involve workers in economic decision making but in reality to shore up support for the regime. Few workers viewed the councils positively. Data collected in the mid-1970s indicated that only one-third of workers actually submitted suggestions to their council, and of those who did so, only 40 percent thought their recommendations could influence enterprise policy. Most workers did not even know who their representatives were and did not participate in the councils, which were dominated by the same persons who directed other party, state, and mass organizations.

Although workers shunned officially sanctioned channels, they covertly expressed their dissatisfaction through low productivity, absenteeism, and general apathy. The older and most skilled workers seemed least satisfied and frequently changed jobs in search of better positions and higher wages. By the late 1970s, some workers were airing their grievances in mass protests. In 1977 some 35,000 miners in the Jiu Valley went on strike to protest food shortages and new regulations that forced older workers to retire with reduced benefits. In 1979 roughly 2,000 intellectuals and workers attempted to form a free trade union and called for improved working conditions, abolition of involuntary labor on weekends, official recognition of a national unemployment problem, and an end to special privileges for the party elite.

Working-class discontent continued to grow in the 1980s. The majority of older workers expressed dissatisfaction with pay and wanted stronger links between individual productivity and wages, objecting to the pay system that penalized all workers if the enterprise did not fulfill its production plan. Forced "patriotic labor" continued, and each citizen was required to work six days per year at local public works or face stiff penalties. Complaints about inequitable distribution of resources among social groups became more frequent, and the perquisites for the party elite, such as chauffeured limousines and palatial residences, drew bitter criticism. In late 1987, mass demonstrations and riots occurred in Brasov, the second largest city. Angry workers protested pay cuts for unfilled production quotas, energy and food shortages, and the regime's repression. They burned portraits of Ceausescu, ransacked city hall and local party headquarters, seized personnel records, and looted party food shops. There were rumors of similar incidents in other major cities as well.

Although public protests were swiftly and brutally suppressed, worker dissatisfaction continued to smolder. But the majority of workers, perhaps because of chronological and psychological ties to a peasant past, were predisposed to react to even the most dire conditions with passive hostility rather than active opposition. At the close of the 1980s, the working class was sullen and dispirited to the point of apathy.

The Intelligentsia

Traditionally the Romanian intelligentsia--the educated elite of society--had been the children of the landed aristocracy who had moved to cities to become poets, journalists, social critics, doctors, or lawyers. Given the country's overall backwardness, any education beyond the elementary level accrued special privileges and high social status. The intelligentsia played a leading role in the life of the nation, providing a humanistic voice for major social problems, shaping public opinion, and setting value criteria. After 1918, as the aristocracy declined, the class of intellectuals and professionals grew stronger. Throughout the interwar years, many of them occupied high political positions and were quite influential.

During the first decade of communist rule, the old intelligentsia were all but eliminated. They lost their jobs, and their possessions were confiscated. Many were imprisoned, and thousands died or were killed. Those who survived the purge were blackmailed or frightened into submission and collaboration with the new regime. The intellectual arena was cleared of any opposition to communist power and policies, leaving the ruling party free to create a new intelligentsia--one that would be unquestionably loyal, committed to the communist cause, and easily manipulated. The traditional role of the intelligentsia had been irreversibly changed.

The party set out to educate a new intelligentsia that would meet the needs of the crash program of industrialization. The number of people with secondary or higher education rose dramatically. From 1956 to 1966, the total number of Romanians with a higher education increased by 58 percent, and the number of students enrolled in universities more than doubled. A quota system that favored the children of peasant and proletarian families ensured the desired social composition of this rapidly expanding student population. Children of middle-class families were kept to a minimum by a selection system that allocated more points for social origin than for academic qualifications. At the same time, the establishment of the new political system, with its many institutions necessary for administering the centrally planned economy, required an ever-increasing number of white-collar workers. The regime was eager to pull these workers from the ranks of peasantry and proletariat, regarding them as more politically reliable. By 1974 more than 63 percent of nonmanual workers were sons and daughters of proletarian families. This prodigious social advancement produced a highly diverse intelligentsia. The intellectual elite was composed of two main subgroups--a creative elite similar to the traditional intelligentsia involved in scholarly and artistic pursuits, and a new technocratic elite involved in industrial production and management.

In contrast to the interwar period, when the intelligentsia shared the political stage with the ruling establishment, the role of intellectuals in socialist Romania became one of total subservience to the ruling elite. This reversal was particularly stifling for the creative intelligentsia, whose new mission was to paint a picture of socialism that was pleasing, reassuring, and convincing to both the masses and the regime. Under such conditions, freedom of expression and creativity evaporated. As a reward for conformity and demonstrated ideological commitment, the new members of the creative intelligentsia received social and material privileges. Despite reduced wage differentials between white- and blue-collar workers and despite the regime's emphasis on the more technical professions, the new intellectual elite exhibited a marked disdain for manual labor. The intellectuals showed a marked preference for the same fields their predecessors had most highly regarded--philosophy, history, literature, and the arts. It was toward these endeavors that they encouraged their children. The interests of the intelligentsia were strikingly at odds with party canon, which maintained that the intelligentsia was not a class but a separate social stratum working in harmony with the proletariat and performing the leading creative, executive, and administrative roles.

As the technical intelligentsia grew larger and had a more powerful voice in management, its members too were seen as a threat to political authority. Although increasing the quality and quantity of industrial production was the goal of both the PCR and the technical intelligentsia, the means to that end was common cause for disagreement between loyal but technically incompetent apparatchiks (party careerists) and the younger, better educated technocrats. Indicative of the rancor between the two was the latter's undisguised contempt for General Secretary Ceausescu.

Until the late 1960s, the PCR leadership, despite some mistrust and aversion toward intellectuals, acknowledged that the cooperation and participation of skilled professionals was critical for the country's economic development. But with Ceausescu's rise to power, hostility toward the intelligentsia grew. In the early 1970s, an anti-intellectual campaign was launched to eradicate "retrograde values." Ceausescu criticized the intelligentsia for their bourgeois and intellectualist attitudes. Members of the technical intelligentsia were accused of resisting party policy, and thousands were dismissed from research and administrative positions and reassigned to more overtly "productive" work. Writers and artists were denounced for works that did not proclaim the achievements and goals of socialism and aid in the creation of the new socialist man. The Writers' Union purged members who did not show renewed commitment to ideology and patriotism.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as the Ceausescu personality cult permeated society, cultural conditions became increasingly repressive. The media were reorganized to allow for more stringent control, and the number of correspondents sent abroad was sharply reduced. (By 1988 there were none in the United States.) Western journalists increasingly were refused entry, and those who were admitted had very limited access to information. Foreign journalists who dared to be critical were kept under police surveillance and frequently expelled.

As nationalistic overtones grew more strident, restraints on scholars wanting to study in the West increased. The length of time permitted for research was reduced from ten months to three months. In later years, the regime consistently refused to allow students or scholars to take advantage of academic opportunities abroad. The number of United States lecturers in Romania under the Fullbright program dropped from ten to five, and the number of Romanian lecturers in the United States decreased from thirty-eight in 1979 to only two in 1988.

As the anti-intellectual campaign continued into the 1980s, intelligentsia membership in the PCR declined sharply. In the late 1960s, before the onset of the ideological campaign, roughly 23 percent of PCR members were from the intelligentsia. By 1976 the figure was only 16.5 percent. At the end of the 1980s, the intelligentsia was the least satisfied of any social stratum. Probably neither the technical nor the creative elite would have argued for the more heroic version of socialism, with its devotion to egalitarianism and the disappearance of class differences. On the contrary, members of the intelligentsia strongly believed that they deserved certain privileges. They were especially unhappy with salary levels, the party's stifling control over their careers, and their insecure position in society.

Despite the high level of discontent among the intelligentsia, there was relatively little overt dissent against the regime. In 1977, following the Helsinki Accords, a dissident movement involving several intellectuals under the leadership of the prominent writer Paul Goma did surface. After publicly condemning the regime's violation of human rights, many members of the group were arrested, interrogated, or confined to psychiatric hospitals. Later that year, Goma was exiled to the West. In the 1980s there were sporadic cases of dissent, but most intellectuals expressed their dissatisfaction by withdrawing into their private lives and avoiding, as much as possible, participation in institutionalized forms of public life.

The Ruling Elite

Before the Soviet imposition of a communist regime in 1945, party membership had been negligible, but immediately thereafter membership soared, reaching 250,000 by the end of that year. Most of the new members were from the working class or peasantry, or claimed to be, and by virtue of their social origins were considered politically reliable. Most joined the party for opportunistic reasons rather than out of new-found loyalty to the communist cause. These workers and peasants, although relatively uneducated, were hastily inducted into the nomenklatura-- lists of key party and state positions matched with politically reliable candidates. They were immediately eligible for some of the most powerful positions the party had to offer, and they soon had cause to develop a sense of loyalty to the political establishment and its communist principles.

After the first decade of communist rule, the PCR membership included about 5 percent of the population over twenty years of age. Most of the members were over forty years old. The social composition of the party in 1955 revealed the favored position of the working class; though workers accounted for only 20 percent of the general population, they represented 43 percent of the membership. Peasants, the majority of the population, were underrepresented at only 34 percent--still a remarkable figure when compared with their political position in the ancien régime. The intelligentsia, although overrepresented with 23 percent of the membership for their 9 percent of the population, had less influence than before the war.

By the mid-1950s, a new political elite had emerged--the apparatchiks. Most were increasingly dogmatic functionaries, primarily of peasant origin, who had from the beginning occupied the key posts of the nomenklatura. As such, they had served as the driving force behind the massive social and economic transformation of the country and had risen to positions of relative comfort and security. By the late 1950s, however, the old guard was beginning to lose key positions to a growing class of better educated and more competent technocrats. It was a more liberal climate in which technical skills were better appreciated, and important appointments were based more on qualifications than on political loyalty. For a while the apparatchiks successfully resisted this trend, but as a result of the demand for technical competence, many were demoted to less important positions or removed to the provinces. The rapid growth of higher education provided an ever-increasing number of young technocrats to replace the apparatchiks. After Ceausescu consolidated his power, however, the period of political liberalization came to an end. By 1974, with the anti-intellectual campaign well under way, the apparatchiks were again firmly entrenched.

The social composition of the PCR in the 1980s affirmed that the battle against the intellectuals had been won. In 1987, 80 percent of the 3.6 million PCR members were of working-class or peasant origins. Approximately 10,000 of these members constituted the central nomenklatura--the true political elite. This elite, especially its core--the Political Executive Committee--was empowered to steer societal development in the direction it deemed necessary and became the sole arbiter of the nation's social values.

That poorly educated bureaucrats dominated the party and government had severe consequences for society. The low standard of living and cultural repression of the 1980s were directly attributable to the attitudes and values of this ruling elite, who were anti-intellectual, antitechnocratic, hostile to change, and increasingly xenophobic and isolationist. More specifically, these prejudices were the attitudes and values of President Ceausescu, who presided over probably the smallest ruling elite in Romanian history. Ceausescu surrounded himself with apparatchiks who unabashedly contributed to his personality cult, and he installed members of his immediate and extended family in the most powerful party and government positions.

The political elite enjoyed a lifestyle much different from that of most citizens. Members of this group lived in palatial homes expropriated from the previous elite, were cared for by servants, protected by bodyguards, and whisked to work in limousines. They had exclusive access to special shops and commissaries that offered a wide variety of food and luxury items. Ceausescu lived in regal splendor. His residence in suburban Bucharest was protected by guards and traffic blockades. Several castles and palaces were renovated for his personal use and were no longer open to public visitation. He and his entourage travelled in a fleet of luxury cars, for which all traffic was stopped.

The conspicuous perquisites enjoyed by Ceausescu and his circle created resentment among the population, which was suffering from economic and cultural atrophy as well as political repression. Dissidents of various backgrounds called for the abolition of special privileges for the ruling elite, and by the late 1980s disaffection was evident at all levels of society.

In the past, nationalism had played an important role in the legitimacy of the ruling elite and in mobilizing support for its plans for the country. By the late 1980s, however, nationalistic fervor was waning. The Soviet Union appeared much less threatening, and more than a few Romanians were drawn to Mikhail Gorbachev's political and economic reforms. Ceausescu's periodic mobilization campaigns during the 1970s and 1980s had damaged relations between the ruling elite and the rest of society to the point that more and more citizens were reluctant to rally around the PCR and were less accepting of its close-fisted political control and economic policies. Average citizens were weary of sacrificing to build a socialist utopia for posterity and would have preferred a higher living standard in their own lifetimes.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress