Why half of Romanians hark back to Communism: what I would have said next on GBNews

Many readers of this website may have seen my appearance on GBNews debating with a Romanian pianist about communism. The debate was unfortunately cut short and I did not manage to develop my point about why so many people in Romania today actually have a positive view of the old regime that collapsed back in 1989.

I started by pointing this fact out, but was not able to elaborate further. Here I want to put in writing what I would have liked to have expanded on.

 

The old regime, which we would define as a “deformed workers’ state”, i.e. one with a nationalised and centrally planned economy – where capitalism had been snuffed out – but with power usurped by a bureaucracy standing above the working class, had its positive elements. What were these?

Well, healthcare was universally free. In the postwar period hospital services were expanded to the whole country for the first time in Romania's history. As a result of better healthcare facilities and a general improvement in living conditions, between 1950 and 1970 – decades of relative social and economic improvement – the country saw a dramatic fall in child mortality rates, and so on. Tuberculosis, malaria and many other diseases were eradicated. The welfare provided by the old regime benefitted a large section of the population, particularly the working class and poor.

All this explains people’s attachment to the “Communist welfare system”. In fact, according to a November 1999 opinion poll conducted by the Center for Urban and Rural Sociology, 49.7 percent of the population were then of the opinion that “the state should provide everyone with a job and a decent standard of living”, and 57 percent were of the opinion that “communism was a good idea wrongly put into practice”. [My emphasis]

Most of the people responding in this way were working class and poor, peasants, women and the elderly. This opinion did not dwindle over time. In 2006, another poll revealed that 53 percent still considered communism a “good idea”. Similar figures appeared in a poll in 2014.

These are the polls I was referring to during the GBNews programme. When I was going to explain why there was still such a favourable view of Communism today in Romania, the presenter of the show cut me off and turned to the other guest on the show, Cornel Oprea, who admitted in his answer that the elderly looked with favour on the old regime, before going on to explain why young people should not vote for Revolutionary Communists today.

Now, this point about the views of the elderly is not an unimportant detail. In his reply, Cornel tried to play down the widespread support that there still is in Romania for communism, and concentrated on his experience of the regime, stating how terrible things were.

It was clear to me that Cornel’s presence on the show was simply to be there as a “Romanian who had experienced communism” and state how bad it is and that it cannot work. I must say, I was left wondering how much Cornel had actually experienced of the old regime as it collapsed 35 years ago, which would have meant he would only have childhood memories, not like those of the older generation.

I wanted to ask him a question: “The elderly are precisely that generation in Romania today who lived the longest under the old regime. If it was as bad as Cornel stated, why is it that so many still hark back to it?”

It is true that in the last seven-eight years of that regime, Ceausescu imposed severe austerity to pay off the foreign debt and there were severe shortages. It was in these conditions that the regime went into crisis and collapsed. But for previous decades many people had benefited enormously from the planned economy, in spite of the bureaucratic nature of the regime.

The answer to my question can be found by posing another question: What has Romania become since the collapse of the old regime? Since 1990 the population has shrunk by almost 20 percent, in large part due to emigration. Within two years of the old regime collapsing, unemployment tripled. A large part of the economy was privatised, with the private sector expanding from 16 percent of the economy in 1990 to 55 percent by 1996, including widespread privatisation of the hospitals.

All of this has had the effect of polarising wealth inside Romanian society, with extremes of poverty at one end, and accumulation of wealth in the hands of a minority at the other end. As a consequence, in 2022 Eurostat found that Romania had the highest proportion of its population at risk of poverty out of any country in the EU. A few bullet points will suffice to elaborate on this:

  • In 2022, Romania contained both one of the regions with the highest per-capita GDP in Europe and one of the regions with the lowest per-capita GDP in the EU.
  • According to the IMF, regional income disparity in Romania has grown since the 2000s and is among the worst in the EU, with much of the wealth concentrated in Bucharest.
  • The World Bank says that Romania has the largest gap in employment rates between men and women of any country in the EU.
  • As of 2018, Romania had the lowest per-capita healthcare spending in the EU.
  • In 2010, Romania had the most households in Europe without access to a private toilet or safe water supply. 

On top of this we have the rampant corruption of today’s capitalist Romania. Again, a few bullet points will suffice:

  • In 2016, according to the National Anti-Corruption Division, more than one thousand people were sent to trial for corruption offences, including three ministers, 17 parliamentarians, 47 mayors, 16 magistrates and 21 CEOs.
  • In the 2014 EU Anti-Corruption Report, 57 percent of the Romanians were most likely to say they were personally affected by corruption.
  • Anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, as of 2019, ranks Romania the second-most-corrupt country in the EU (after Bulgaria).
  • The number of people being charged with bribery has increased in recent years.
  • 45 percent of Romanians surveyed by Transparency International said they thought corruption had increased in 2023.
  • 20 percent of Romanians admit to having had to pay a bribe to use a public service in 2023.

These concrete facts explain why so many people look back to “communism” as a system that catered more for the needs of ordinary working-class people. I explained in the TV show that what we had in Romania was not genuine communism, but a bureaucratic caricature. To quote again a poll referred to above, the same people who look back to the old regime consider communism a good idea but that it was “wrongly put into practice”.

We would add that what was missing was workers’ democracy, workers’ power. What was required was to maintain the planned economy but place control in the hands of the working class. So as true communists we would defend all the positives of the old regime, the real benefits for working-class people, but we would take political power out of the hands of the bureaucracy and establish a healthy workers’ state.

This is what was required across the whole of the former Eastern European bloc and in the Soviet Union. And this, combined with socialist revolution across both the advanced capitalist countries and in the former colonial world, would have laid the basis for a harmonious transition over time to the genuine communist society we aspire to. Instead what we had was the very same bureaucrats of the old regime – who had until then presented themselves as “Communists” – rapidly abandoning ship and becoming either capitalist oligarchs or loyal servants of the western imperialist bourgeoisie, exploiting and oppressing the working class.

That is not what the Romanian – and Eastern European – workers want. And that explains why in spite of all the propaganda about capitalism being good for you, the workers of these countries understand better.

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