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Lenin's Last Zealot

Lenin's Last Zealot

The oppressive legacy of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania's last communist leader, still fuels the modern-day ethos of anti-capitalism.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Adam Tismaneanu

More than a century has passed since Lenin’s death on January 21, 1924. The funeral took place on January 27 in frigid, inclement weather. Joseph Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev were running the show and they acted together as the Grand Priests of Leninism. Lev Trotsky was conspicuously absent, and they had made sure he would not be in Moscow for the funeral. He was in the Caucasus in a sanatorium; the Politburo (via Stalin) urged him not to rush to Moscow. In fact, not attending the quasi-religious ceremony was a symbolic debacle. Newsreels and photographs immortalize Stalin’s presence and Trotsky’s absence. 

Celebrated as the Teacher of the World Proletariat, he was the founder of the first “workers’ and peasants’ dictatorship” led by a revolutionary Marxist party—his party. He saw himself as the true interpreter of the Marxian creed. He defended his revolutionary vision against all odds—stubbornly, jealously, vindictively. As a polemicist he was ruthlessly vitriolic. He banned factions within the Bolshevik Party, but he had himself been a serial factionalist.

It would be intellectually dishonest–one might even call it a dialectical trick–to write about Marx in the form of a comprehensive balance sheet, as if Lenin had never existed or was just an aberration who had nothing to do with Marx’s philosophy. That’s not to say that Lenin was the only legitimate heir to the author of Das Kapital. Of course he was not. But for the political religion founded by Marx, Lenin was the first and arguably only successful disciple. The founding father believed in immanent triumph, not in transcendent mirages. 

Italian revolutionary thinker Antonio Gramsci’s analogy works quite well: Marx was Jesus while Lenin was St. Paul. In this respect, Polish philosopher and intellectual historian Leszek Kołakowski remains the best guide in the efforts to assess the political, moral, and social consequences of the doctrine associated with Karl Marx’s ideas and struggles: A theory that had claimed to result in universal emancipation ended up as a justification for universal bondage.

Lenin’s funeral coincided with an intensification of the fierce struggle for the late leader’s mantle. No Bolshevik luminary could claim to be a new Lenin. Rather, the competition was for the title of his true apostolic heir. Who would be the best interpreter of the Leninist gospel? The history of Bolshevism under Lenin’s guidance had been one of permanent purges (chistkas) of those engaging in factionalist struggles. Since late 1923, Trotskyism was denounced as a heresy with an ailing, bed-ridden Lenin absent from the political decisions. In turn, Trotsky accused Stalin of being responsible for the “bureaucratic degeneration” of Lenin’s party. Each faction accused the other of Bonapartism. 

In his eulogy, Stalin pledged unconditional dedication to “fulfilling Comrade Lenin’s behests.” In the forthcoming years, he smashed all oppositional groups. First, the Trotskyists, then the “United Left,” than the “Right.” In 1939, at the 18th Party Congress, all but two of Lenin’s Politburo members had been executed as “traitors, wreckers, filthy spies.” The two were Stalin himself and Lev Trotsky, a political refugee in Mexican exile. On August 21, 1940, NKVD agent Ramón Mercader hit Trotsky’s skull from the back with an ice pick. The founder and first commander of the Red Army died two days later.

In late 1924, celebrated Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovski published a poem titled “Vladimir Ilich Lenin.” It was a lyrical expression of the cult that was to define the communist political religion for the forthcoming decades. In this exalted view, Lenin bequeathed to the world at least three major inventions: the Bolshevik Party, the USSR, and Leninism. To investigate these legacies, the political destiny of the last Leninist zealot to serve as leader of an East European country is a prime example. 

Nicolae Ceaușescu was born 106 years ago on January 26, 1918, in the Kingdom of Romania. He joined the Communist Party of Romania, section of the Communist International, in 1933, the same year Hitler came to power. He learned the Leninist dogmas via Stalin’s writings, which he strenuously studied during the seven years he spent in prisons and camps throughout the 1930s–40s. He never abjured his strong belief in Stalin’s definition of Leninism as “the Marxism of the era of proletarian revolutions and imperialist wars.” 

The purge of the Muscovite faction headed by Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca in June 1952 was a godsend for Ceaușescu, an extremely ambitious member of the party leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s  inner circleIn March 1953, Lieutenant General Ceaușescu participated, as a member of the Romanian delegation headed by Gheorghiu-Dej, in Stalin’s funerals. In April 1954, Ceaușescu joined the Central Committee to supervise cadre policy. He had internalized Stalin’s famous adage, “Cadres decide everything.” 

At the same time, his commitment to the Marxist-Leninist dogmas was unbreakable. The year of 1956 confronted world communism with major crises—Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in February, the Polish October unrest, and the Hungarian Revolution dealt major blows to the unity of the Soviet Bloc. For Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceaușescu, Khrushchev had gone way too far with de-Stalinization. In the last years of Gheorghiu-Dej’s life, Ceaușescu acted confidently as the real supervisor of the party bureaucracy. 

When Gheorghiu-Dej died unexpectedly on March 19, 1965, from fast-developing lung cancer, his closest confidant, Prime Minister Ion Gheorghe Maurer, nominated Ceaușescu to succeed as party leader. This was the result of some Byzantine maneuvering meant to eliminate any other potential candidate. Well known, even popular within the apparatus, Ceaușescu ingratiated himself with party veterans whom Gheorghiu-Dej had marginalized and pledged to restore the Leninist norms of collective leadership that his predecessor had neglected.

The 9th Romanian Communist Party Congress, held in July 1965, allowed the new leader to enhance Romania’s autonomous course within the Soviet bloc, the world communist movement, and international affairs in general. Mao Zedong would send General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping to attend the event, while the Soviet delegation was headed by Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev. In just a few months, the young general secretary had become a major player in global communist disputes.

For the subsequent twenty-four years, Nicolae Ceaușescu held absolute power in Romania. He managed to do so because he understood Leninism not only as a technique to seize power, but also as an instrument to maintain a total grip on the party and state elites. He was unswervingly committed to strengthening the constitutionally enshrined Communist Party’s “leading role.” 

In 1968, when the Czechoslovak Communist Party embarked on the Prague Spring democratization, Ceaușescu supported their reformist course in order to assert his opposition to the Kremin’s doctrine of “limited sovereignty” for its Warsaw Pact allies. For Ceaușescu, national independence was a non-negotiable value. To be sure, his notion of popular sovereignty had nothing in common with a liberal concept of democracy. On August 21, 1968, Ceaușescu reached the climax of his domestic popularity and foreign prestige when he vehemently condemned the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. On that occasion, he proclaimed a new doctrine of national self-defense involving the armed resistance of the whole nation against a foreign (i.e., Soviet) aggression. 

By the time the 1970s rolled around, Ceaușescu’s cult of personality appeared to be growing exponentially and, especially after 1980, it also included the cult of his wife Elena. This was obviously a non-Leninist practice but not necessarily an anti-Leninist one if the Romanian Communist bureaucratic caste continued to enjoy its power. On various occasions, corruption became so truly outrageous that the leader actually criticized abuses of power. At the same time, he and his family treated the whole country as their personal property—this explains the course taken in the early 1980s towards a dynastic succession. The presidential couple’s youngest son, Nicu, a physicist by training and communist youth leader, was groomed to one day walk in his father’s footsteps as party leader.

Outside of Romania though, the radical changes in the USSR after Mikhail Gorbachev’s election as general secretary in March 1985 would send shockwaves through the entire Bloc. The more the Soviet leader was pushing toward de-Stalinization, the more reluctant were the once Soviet-backed East European dictators to emulate what they regarded as a suicidal strategy. Ceaușescu acted as the spokesperson for the disgruntled Warsaw Pact neo-Stalinist relics (Erich Honecker of East Germany, Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Miloš Jakešof Czechoslovakia, even the senescent János Kádár of Hungary). 

Relations between Ceaușescu and Gorbachev went from bad to worse. The Romanian leader treated the much younger Soviet general secretary condescendingly. He saw Gorbachev as inexperienced, theoretically underprepared to craft the right policies in a real Leninist manner. He regarded the whole perestroikaphilosophy as dangerously reminiscent of the right-wing deviations of the 1920s and ’30s in the USSR. He must have remembered his own conversations with Mao and the Chinese leader’s condemnation of the renegade Khrushchev. Now, Ceaușescu was championing the crusade against the renegade Gorbachev.

Ceaușescu remained faithful to the main tenets of Leninism until his execution on Christmas Day in 1989. When Lenin created Soviet Russia, the International became the country’s state anthem. It was replaced by a “homegrown” song in 1943, precisely the same year that Stalin disbanded (albeit not entirely) the Communist International. Ceaușescu and his wife Elena would sing the International as they were executed by firing squad. In his view, the primary duty of the Communist Party was the rejection of the market economy in favor of an all-embracing plan, accompanied by a vision of the world in Manichean, binary manner. For Ceaușescu, relaxing the ideological competition with the capitalist West meant capitulation to the class enemy. 

A window into Ceaușescu’s Leninist loyalties appeared most notably during a conversation with Gorbachev in 1988. Ceaușescu asked the Soviet Communist Party General Secretary whether he had read Lenin’s writings of 1903. It was a sarcastic question to which Gorbachev answered sarcastically, “No.” 1903 was the year when Bolshevism was born because of the schism between Lenin’s radical faction and the Menshevik moderates. It was hard to imagine two more different mindsets than Ceaușescu’s and Gorbachev’s.

In his mind, Ceaușescu was convinced that, in opposing Gorbachev’s reformist course, he was defending Leninism against the neo-Menshevik heresy. He was convinced that Gorbachev’s was pushing toward the Communist Party’s liquidation. As a true Leninist who had spent multiple years in prison and suffered for his beliefs (unlike Gorbachev), the Romanian leader was suspicious of any form of spontaneous political activities. He resented the very idea of civic self-empowerment. In his last speech on December 21, 1989, Ceaușescu lambasted the imperialist circles, East and West, for trying to destroy socialism. 

In this new demonology, Gorbachev had acted as a Judas, a traitor to Soviet and world communism. As a genuine Leninist, a last Mohican of a beleaguered tribe, Ceaușescu saw it as his duty to fight until the very end for the ideals he had espoused when he was a fifteen-year-old shoemaker’s apprentice in capitalist Romania. 

In linking the breakdown of Leninism to the revolutionary events of 1989, we can better understand the post-Soviet world. Furthermore, of all the Warsaw Pact leaders, Ceaușescu was the only who tried to articulate a rebuttal of Soviet revisionism. He did it by emphasizing the global contradictions of capitalism and the need to resist Western hegemony. In this respect, whether his name is mentioned or not, Ceaușescu’s legacies continue to haunt what can be called the ethos of anti-capitalism.

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park). Adam Tismaneanu is a freelance writer and independent researcher. They are currently co-authoring a new biography of Nicolae Ceaușescu to be published in 2025.

Image: Nicolae Ceauşescu gives a speech in 1986. (Wikimedia Commons: Romanian National Archives)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEconomicsPolitical PhilosophyRussia