Workers Vanguard No. 1037
10 January 2014
Proletarian Power Opened Road to Social Emancipation
The Russian Revolution and the Roma
Capitalist Europe: State Persecution, Fascist Terror Target Gypsies
In Hungary, racist thugs firebomb their homes and shoot at fleeing victims. In the Czech Republic, neo-Nazi stormtroopers threaten to exterminate them in gas chambers. In the Slovak Republic, an off-duty cop on a mission to “restore order” shoots and kills three of them. In Bulgaria, racist assailants wearing brass knuckles attack them. In France, thousands last year suffered eviction under the government led by Socialist Party president François Hollande. In each case, the victims have one thing in common: they are all Roma (Gypsies).
From one end of the continent to the other, Roma are falling prey to heightened violence and xenophobia as the countries of the European Union (EU) reel under the effects of the capitalist economic crisis. In mid October, Greek cops seized a four-year-old girl and arrested her parents, accusing them of kidnapping on the assumption that Gypsies could not possibly have a fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter. A few days later, Irish authorities took a page from this playbook, ripping two light-skinned Roma children from their parents. Encouraged by state persecution of the Gypsies and feeling the winds of official racism in their sails, fascist skinheads in Serbia got into the act, attempting to abduct a fair-skinned Roma child.
The racist frenzy against the ostracized and historically persecuted Roma, who number 10 to 12 million in Europe, has been drastically escalated in recent months by governments of both the left and the right with the aim of deflecting workers’ anger away from the capitalist class enemy. As Trotskyists, the International Communist League has always opposed the EU as an imperialist trade bloc that was established to further the exploitation and immiseration of the workers and the oppressed, including Europe’s millions of immigrants, under the domination of German as well as French and British capital.
Although the EU’s legal framework includes the 1985 Schengen agreement, which supposedly guarantees the free movement of peoples in member countries, capitalist “Fortress Europe” has increasingly stepped up repression of immigrants and severely gutted the right to asylum. When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, their citizens, including many Roma, were restricted from working in Germany, France and Britain. While these restrictions have now been formally lifted, a furor stoked by Britain’s Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government against Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants shows that they will continue to be hounded from one corner of Europe to the other.
As our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France explained in a leaflet issued last October (see “French Government Crackdown on Roma, Immigrants,” WV No. 1035, 29 November 2013):
“In a precapitalist economy, the Gypsies occupied a marginal economic niche as artisans, peddlers and artists. With the development of capitalism, they were pushed to the margins of society, enduring abuses that culminated in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Gypsies by the Nazis. The truth is that decaying capitalism is incapable of ‘integrating’ the Roma and all the more so in periods of crisis.”
Europe’s Gypsy populations do not comprise a single nation based on a cohesive territory or even a common language. Their character is similar in some ways to the position of European Jews in feudal society, who, playing an economic role as merchants and money-lenders, constituted a “people-class,” as analyzed by the Trotskyist Abram Leon. While Gypsies were even more socially marginalized, the two share a long record of suffering brutal victimization and hatred.
In defending the Roma against the capitalist state and fascist gangs, we seek to mobilize the working class to demand the recognition of their languages, dialects and culture; to champion the right of both nomadic and sedentary Roma to equality in education, housing and employment; and to demand full citizenship rights for Roma wherever they live. Ultimately, only socialist revolution will make possible the full, voluntary assimilation of Roma into European society with full and equal rights. This was the prospect offered by the Russian October Revolution of 1917 led by the Bolshevik Party.
The Prospect of Emancipation
Migrations of Gypsies to what would eventually become the territory of the Soviet Union occurred at different times in history. In the tenth century, a Gypsy people known as the Liuli began to move into an area of Central Asia that would later be part of the tsarist empire in order to escape Muslim assaults in their original homeland in northern India. In the early 15th century, Gypsies moved into Ukraine. Later in that century, persecution in Germany forced Gypsies to migrate into Poland and Lithuania, where Polish officials demanded that they be expelled. Russia annexed these territories in the 18th century.
In a 1931 work titled Tsygane Vchera i Segodnia (Gypsies Yesterday and Today), Alexander V. Germano, the Soviet Union’s leading Roma writer and intellectual, outlined the history of the European Roma as a bloodstained chronicle of persecution and alienation. Gypsies were burned at the stake, hanged, massacred and exiled. With villagers and officials relegating them to living temporarily on the outskirts, nomadism was reinforced as a way of life. Reduced to the status of pariahs, many Gypsies were forced into slavery or serfdom, resulting in cultural backwardness and political exclusion.
In tsarist Russia, Gypsies were subjected to police measures and discriminatory laws. In the mid 18th century, Empress Elizabeth issued a decree forbidding Gypsies from entering the capital of St. Petersburg and its environs. In 1783, the Senate sought to prevent Gypsies from moving from one landowner to another. Subsequently, it decreed that wandering Gypsies would be placed under surveillance and returned to their original districts.
Some Russian Roma were able to enjoy relative prosperity and stability because they belonged to Gypsy choirs, which were popular among the nobility up until this class was crushed by the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, the waning years of the tsarist autocracy also coincided with increased oppression of Roma. For example, in 1906 the tsarist regime and several other European governments signed on to an agreement with Prussia to persecute nomadic Roma populations.
Understanding that the capitalist ruling classes foment racism and nationalism to divide and weaken the workers of different backgrounds and thus to maintain their hold on power, the Bolsheviks irreconcilably opposed anti-Semitism and all national, religious and ethnic oppression. The “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia,” adopted shortly after the October Revolution, proclaimed “the right of the peoples of Russia to free self-determination” and “the abolition of any and all national and national-religious privileges and disabilities.” The declaration committed the workers state to “the free development of national minorities and ethnographic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.”
Animated by the Bolshevik program of combating national chauvinism and uniting the workers of the world against the capitalist-imperialist system, the early Soviet state made a heroic effort to bring progress, modernity and freedom to the Roma peoples. As historian David M. Crowe remarked in A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia (1994):
“The 1920s saw something of a Gypsy renaissance take root in Eastern Europe and Russia as Roma intellectuals struggled to carve out a niche for the Gypsies in the new nations. Though their efforts to create organizations and publish works in Romany were admirable, they were crippled by inexperience and lack of financial support as well as centuries-old prejudice and indifference. The most remarkable, lasting gains for Roma came in the new Soviet Russian state.”
While the Roma in Soviet Russia would go on to progress in ways unimaginable in the capitalist world, their advances were also circumscribed and in part reversed under the Stalinist bureaucracy that seized political control in 1923-24. While the Bolsheviks under V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky had upheld the equality of all nations and languages as part of their program for world socialist revolution, Stalin’s regime would increasingly be marked by Great Russian chauvinism as it promoted the nationalist, anti-Marxist dogma of “building socialism in one country.” Even in 1922, it was Stalin’s assault on the national rights of the Georgians that prompted Lenin to argue for his removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party.
It is necessary to understand that despite the political counterrevolution, the Soviet Union remained a workers state. Although distorted by the rule of a privileged bureaucracy and subjected to the immense pressures of the hostile imperialist powers, the collectivized, planned economy resulted in enormous social advances for the Soviet peoples, particularly the more benighted, as in Central Asia. In his groundbreaking analysis of the Soviet Union under Stalin, Trotsky observed in The Revolution Betrayed (1936):
“It is true that in the sphere of national policy, as in the sphere of economy, the Soviet bureaucracy still continues to carry out a certain part of the progressive work, although with immoderate overhead expenses. This is especially true of the backward nationalities of the Union, which must of necessity pass through a more or less prolonged period of borrowing, imitation and assimilation of what exists.”
The Struggle for Enlightenment
From sedentarization campaigns to the education of Roma children in their own language and the creation of vibrant cultural institutions, the Gypsies in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution made truly substantial strides. Among the major catalysts of this social transformation was a group of Gypsy activists, whose efforts are documented in a new book by Brooklyn College assistant professor Brigid O’Keeffe, New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union (2013). The heirs of Moscow’s prerevolutionary Romani intelligentsia that originated in the Gypsy choirs, these militant youth were energized by the revolutionary fervor in which early Soviet Russia was steeped.
A prominent leader of this work was I.I. Rom-Lebedev, who along with his friends organized a Communist Youth League (Komsomol) cell for Roma in Moscow in 1923 to promote enlightenment and combat fortune telling, begging and other practices inimical to productive labor. With the assistance of their trade union, the youths created a red corner in Petrovskii Park filled with books and journals, aiming to transform Roma into conscious Soviet citizens. A year later, the Komsomol comrades participated in the formation of an Action Committee of Member-Founders of the Gypsy Proletarian Society, which included three activists who had served in the Red Army, three Communist Party members and three Komsomol members.
In July 1925, the Action Committee received approval from the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) to form the All-Russian Gypsy Union (ARGU). Within a year of its founding, the ARGU’s influence had spread well beyond Moscow Province, leading to the formation of affiliates in Leningrad, Chernigov, Vladimir and Smolensk. Meanwhile, letters from Roma throughout the Soviet Union began to pour in to Moscow’s ARGU chapter, which by early 1926 claimed 330 members.
The Soviet Union’s first Gypsy collective farm was formed near Rostov in 1925 by a group of Roma who had supplied the Red Army with horses during the Civil War. Soon thereafter, the ARGU worked with the People’s Commissariat of Agriculture and the Nationalities Department of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee to establish the Commission on the Settlement of Toiling Gypsies, aiming to encourage Roma to abandon nomadism. Before long, Gypsies began to settle on lands set aside by each Soviet republic. Between 1926 and 1928, an estimated 5,000 Gypsies settled on farms in the Crimea, Ukraine and the North Caucasus. This was out of a total Roma population estimated as anywhere from 61,000 to 200,000, including nomadic Roma and others with settled lives in the cities and their outskirts.
Despite the efforts of the state and the militant activists, many Roma resisted moving to state lands. In addition to being atomized and largely illiterate, the Gypsy masses mistrusted authority, having suffered centuries of brutal oppression and ostracism. Not unlike women Communists who donned the veil to deliver the Bolsheviks’ message of emancipation to the women of the Muslim East, Gypsy Union activists went among the Roma to win them over. A poster written in both Russian and Romani explained Soviet efforts to liberate the minority peoples of the former empire from backwardness. It declared that while the tsars had oppressed nomads, imprisoning them in irrationality and alienation, now nomadic tribes with the help of Soviet power “are beginning to settle on land, to take up agriculture. They have their own land, their own farmstead, woods, villages, their own schools.”
Indeed, it was in the sphere of education that the Roma achieved some of their most impressive gains. A 31 October 1918 decree by the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) titled “On National Minority Schools” had declared that Gypsies, like all Soviet nationalities, had a right to an education in their native language. In January 1926, the Soviet Union’s first Romani-language classrooms were established in Moscow, inside existing Russian elementary schools. Students were instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, drawing, crafts, music, physical education, history and civics, and efforts were made to establish literacy centers for adults. Romani-language schools would also be established on collective farms where Roma settled.
Teachers also struggled valiantly to teach another subject: hygiene. Both inside and outside of the classroom, Roma children and their parents were taught the importance of washing, brushing their teeth and combing their hair. The Moscow Department of Education was alarmed at the high rate of malnutrition and illnesses such as anemia, tuberculosis and typhoid fever among Roma children. But neglect of basic hygiene was by no means confined to the Roma; it reflected the generalized material want and ignorance that pervaded early Soviet Russia, an overwhelmingly agrarian society that had inherited centuries of backwardness.
Lacking Romani-speaking teachers or even a Romani alphabet, pupils were initially taught in Russian. To surmount such hurdles, Gypsy Union activists, together with a linguist at Moscow State University, spearheaded a drive to create a Romani alphabet and standardize the language. A May 1927 Narkompros decree directed that the new alphabet be based on Cyrillic script with a few modifications, a break from the earlier Soviet practice of developing new alphabets, such as for Turkmen, based on Latin script.
Before long, the first Romani-language textbooks were published. A magazine in Romani, Romany Zoria (Gypsy Dawn), debuted in November 1927, followed by Nevo Drom (New Road), a reading primer intended for use by adults. The first Romani grammar book for use in Gypsy classrooms, Tsyganskii Iazyk (The Gypsy Language), appeared in 1931, while a 10,000-word Romani-Russian dictionary was published in the late 1930s. O’Keeffe asserts: “Although nearly all of the early Soviet Romani educational initiatives were terminated by the eve of World War II, many Romani students had already emerged from the practical and political education that they received in the late 1920s and 1930s as literate, integrated Soviet citizens.”
Paralleling the fight for Roma education was the struggle to assimilate Gypsies into the working class, resulting in the establishment of several industrial artels (cooperatives) in Moscow. By 1931, there were 28 Roma artels in the capital employing 1,350 workers. Crucially, two of the earliest and most successful, Tsygkhimprom (Gypsy Chemical Manufacturing) and Tsygpishcheprom (Gypsy Food Production), did not exclusively employ Roma. At Tsygpishcheprom, Gypsies labored alongside workers of at least eleven other nationalities.
Despite the modest progress, the Council of People’s Commissars and other leading Soviet bodies had grown skeptical of the Gypsy Union. In March 1927, the Moscow Control Commission’s Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate conducted a surprise inspection of the ARGU, concluding that its leadership was top-heavy with profiteers, stage performers and white-collar workers and that its membership consisted heavily of speculators on the horse market and other non-proletarian elements. In response, Gypsy Union leaders protested that their work had been hampered by skeptical, intolerant and mistrustful state officials.
When the ARGU was disbanded in February 1928, the NKVD declared that it had failed to adopt concrete measures to combat “fortune telling, begging, gambling, drunkenness, and other particularities of the Gypsy population.” Besides the fact that such social ills were hardly “Gypsy particularities,” eradicating them would require years of struggle in the best material circumstances, not to mention in the backward conditions then prevailing in Soviet Russia. Despite the ARGU’s dissolution, its members would go on to play a prominent role in Soviet life, contributing to the Roma cultural awakening of the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Roma Rights Rolled Back
The Roma would not be spared the massive social dislocations that accompanied the First Five Year Plan and the campaign to forcibly collectivize agriculture launched in the late 1920s. While Trotsky and the Left Opposition had been fighting for planned industrialization and voluntary agricultural collectivization to strengthen the USSR’s socialized economy, the regime of Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin encouraged the kulaks (rich peasants) to enrich themselves. By 1928, the kulaks’ growing self-consciousness had become a dagger pointed at the workers state, as seen in their blockade of grain to the cities, posing the threat of famine. The bureaucracy then abruptly turned against the kulaks. Having laid none of the technical or economic foundations, with Stalin’s characteristic brutality the Soviet state moved to collectivize the peasants and initiate an adventurous rate of industrialization. This turn foreclosed the immediate threat of capitalist restoration in the USSR.
In the midst of the ensuing chaos, thousands of Roma fled to the already overcrowded urban centers. Among them were many Vlax Roma, a people that had immigrated to Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from Romania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike the relatively established Russka Roma, the Vlax Roma often spoke no Russian. Now, with no other choice but to squat in tent cities on the edge of Moscow, they were deemed “foreigners” by the authorities. From 28 June to 9 July 1933, the secret police rounded up 1,008 Romani families in Moscow—5,470 people in all—and deported them to West Siberian labor colonies.
Such deportations coincided with attacks on the right of the Roma to be educated in their own language. In 1932, the first teacher-training courses for Roma had commenced in Moscow’s Central Institute for the Advancement of Qualified Education Cadres (TsIPKKNO). Eight months later, 15 Romani students graduated and awaited placement in schools throughout the vast stretches of the Soviet Union. Before long, however, some of the students began to complain of employment discrimination. In response, TsIPKKNO terminated the program. Other instances of discrimination and protest by Roma students followed. Finally, in January 1938 the regime issued a decree, “On the Liquidation of National Schools and National Departments Within Schools,” that led to the end of instruction in Romani. The decree also spelled the closure of schooling in Assyrian, Estonian, Finnish, Polish, Chinese and several other languages.
By this time, the bureaucracy was increasingly exhibiting the nationalism inherent in its doctrine of “socialism in one country.” After the Nazis rose to power in Germany, posing an imminent danger to the Soviet Union, in 1935 the Stalinists adopted the policy of the People’s Front, directing Communist parties to politically support and sometimes even join “progressive” capitalist governments that were supposedly friendly to the USSR. The Stalinists’ explicit renunciation of the need for workers revolutions abroad to spread proletarian rule to the economically advanced capitalist countries went hand in hand with their embrace at home of the putrid nationalism that the Bolshevik Revolution had rejected from its first breath.
Appeasement of imperialism served only to weaken the workers state in the face of its class enemies. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the very existence of the workers state was in question. While Trotskyists opposed all the imperialist powers in the war, they called on the Soviet proletariat and the workers of the world to fight in defense of the Soviet Union in its hour of danger. Meanwhile, the Stalinist regime dubbed the USSR’s military struggle the Great Patriotic War in a bow to Russian nationalism.
An estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Soviet Gypsies were slaughtered by the Nazi invaders during the Pořajmos (the Gypsy Holocaust). Soviet Roma played their part in combating and eventually defeating the fascist scourge. The Theatre Romen, the world’s first professional Roma theater, staged performances for the Red Army, while some of its troupe members became soldiers. Roma were also part of Soviet partisan units in Belorussia and Ukraine, prompting the chiefs of the German army field police to demand the ruthless execution of Gypsy bands suspected of being partisan supporters.
Notwithstanding bureaucratic rule, Soviet Roma achieved a high level of assimilation and cultural development in the years following the war. David Crowe cites Gypsy scholar Lajko Cherenkov’s observation in the early 1970s:
“It is rare to meet a Rom in the USSR to-day who cannot read and write, while before the war among certain groups, for instance those in Bessarabia, nobody could. Most of the young generation to-day are finishing eighth or tenth class, and one cannot distinguish in towns between Rom and other nationalities in this respect.”
East European Roma Under Stalinism: Integration at the Bottom
The victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany laid the basis for the overturn of capitalist property relations in East Europe and East Germany. By 1948, deformed workers states modeled economically and politically on Stalin’s Soviet Union had been created through the agency of Soviet forces and the domestic Communist parties. Exceptionally, the Yugoslav deformed workers state issued out of the victory of Marshal Tito’s partisans. The destruction of capitalist rule in these states brought significant gains for the Roma populations. But their treatment at the hands of the ruling bureaucracies was uneven and contradictory, varying from country to country.
Before the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) assumed power in February 1948, that country’s government ministers had called for harsh and restrictive measures against the Gypsies. The KSC, in contrast, stated that its ultimate goal was to integrate the Roma with the rest of the population and raise their economic, social and cultural level to that of the Slavs. But while the new Communist regime correctly blamed previous capitalist governments for reinforcing the low social and economic status of the Roma, it initially took only halting steps to improve their lot and integrate them into the workforce and the broader society. In 1958, the government enacted a law punishing nomads with deprivation of liberty for six months to three years while also condemning racist bigotry against Roma.
While a struggle against nomadism was necessary, the KSC bureaucracy, like its Moscow brethren, implemented it through bureaucratic fiat as opposed to advocating voluntary assimilation. This fact should not blind anyone to the substantial gains for the Roma. Recognizing that some 67 percent of Slovakia’s Gypsy population of 153,000 lived in settlements that were unfit for humans, the KSC regime in 1965 initiated a program to demolish the substandard housing, resettle Roma in the more prosperous Czech lands and provide them with subsidies and loans to buy new homes. The resettlement policy continued throughout the 1970s, resulting in a dramatic improvement in Roma living conditions. By 1980, more than 70 percent of Roma lived in apartments, while the proportion of people living in unfit housing had dropped to 49 percent from 80 percent a decade earlier.
Progress was also made in the area of education. From 1971 to 1980, the percentage of Roma children who finished public school rose from 16.6 to 25.6, while the number of those attending colleges and universities increased from 39 to 191. In the same period, adult literacy rates jumped to 90 percent. Meanwhile, by the early 1980s, over four-fifths of the Roma were working in industry.
But such gains came with a price. The resettlement program was inadequately funded and it also fostered growing resentment toward the Roma arrivals in the Czech lands. Then in 1972, the government of Gustav Husak inflamed racist sentiments by passing a decree encouraging Roma women to be sterilized. The pretext for this cynical and outrageous campaign was the supposedly “unhealthy” size of the Roma population. Although constituting one of the largest Roma cohorts in East Europe, the Czechoslovak Gypsies accounted for less than 2 percent of the country’s population by 1980.
More backward and destitute than relatively industrialized Czechoslovakia, and with only a minuscule prewar Communist Party, overwhelmingly rural Romania was far less hospitable to its Roma citizens. As early as the 12th century, Gypsies began to arrive in what would become the Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, regions that would eventually form part of modern Romania. By the late 14th century, Gypsy families had become enslaved to local monasteries, inaugurating a centuries-long descent into slavery that would come to an end only in 1864. Although life improved after emancipation, the Roma remained impoverished pariahs, oppressed by boyar landowners and resented by hard-pressed peasants. The Roma also fell victim to government indifference and outright racist terror. In 1941, the dictator Ion Antonescu called for the elimination of national minorities. An ally of Nazi Germany during WWII, he oversaw the slaughter of tens of thousands of Gypsies, many of them victims of the fascist Iron Guard.
Romania under Stalinist leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej pledged to respect the educational, linguistic and cultural rights of the country’s nationalities. However, education remained elusive for large swaths of the Gypsy population, despite their increasing urbanization. While some 43 percent of Roma over the age of eight were enrolled in primary schools in 1956, schooling beyond that level was negligible. By 1966, only one Romanian Gypsy attended a university!
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Gheorghiu-Dej regime took some measures to address the high illiteracy rate among Gypsies. A 1983 study under the Nicolae Ceausescu government went further, defining goals for redressing the many problems besetting the Gypsy population, from illiteracy, bad housing, unemployment and crime to lack of hygiene, high rates of infant mortality and the prevalence of venereal disease, typhoid fever and tuberculosis. A special law emphasized the need to find jobs for Roma in construction and agriculture and mandated that public officials help them build homes. But under the demented Ceausescu, whose independence from the Kremlin won him the plaudits of the U.S. and other imperialist powers, the regime robbed the state of the resources necessary for housing, educating and caring for the Roma by spending billions to pay off the country’s debt to foreign bankers.
As Romania’s working people faced increasing impoverishment, the Stalinists wallowed in Romanian nationalism, with particularly dire consequences for the Roma and the Hungarian minority. In 1966, the government enacted a decree banning abortions for women under 45 who had not yet produced four children, a special blow to the poorest and largest families. In 1989, it was revealed that because of this vile policy, orphanages were overflowing with more than 100,000 children, disproportionately Roma. Ceausescu’s regime also carried out forced resettlements. While mainly targeting the Hungarian population, this policy led to the destruction of entire Gypsy neighborhoods, forcibly resettling their inhabitants in large apartment buildings frequently located in urban ghettos.
As the Hungarian Roma expert István Kemény remarked, the Roma had been integrated in a certain sense by the early 1970s, but “at the very bottom of the social hierarchy” (cited in Crowe, A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia). To one degree or another, this statement aptly describes the position of Roma throughout the degenerated and deformed workers states.
Counterrevolution: Catastrophe for Workers, Minorities
The Stalinist regimes’ sporadic and contradictory efforts to assimilate the Roma and foster a climate of full equality ran aground amid material shortages and economic dislocations. These maladies themselves stemmed from the relatively low productivity of the bureaucratically ruled workers states and their hostile encirclement by the economically more powerful imperialist countries. When the terminal crisis of Stalinism in East and Central Europe struck in 1989-92, the International Communist League fought, to the best of our ability and resources, to forge the revolutionary parties needed to win the battle against capitalist counterrevolution and for proletarian political revolution against the disintegrating bureaucracies. However, the workers, whose consciousness had been poisoned by decades of Stalinist misrule, failed to act decisively against counterrevolution, leading to the overthrow of those workers states.
During our interventions into the events in East Germany and the Soviet Union, we warned repeatedly that capitalist restoration would revive all the old crap of social reaction against women, Jews, immigrants, ethnic minorities and oppressed nationalities. In 1990, skinhead fascists began to target Gypsies and Vietnamese immigrant workers in Czechoslovakia. In Romania following the overthrow and execution of Ceausescu in December 1989, anti-Gypsy pogroms became the order of the day. With the government and the media in the forefront, Romania’s Roma were labeled “a social sore” and “the dregs of society,” echoing Hitler’s ravings against the Jews.
Bereft of a revolutionary leadership, many workers were susceptible to such poison. In “East Europe: Reaction and Resistance” (WV No. 505, 29 June 1990), we reported a mass mobilization of Romanian miners that put down counterrevolutionaries in Bucharest, after which some miners infected by venomous racism went on to attack Gypsy quarters.
From the Balkans to the Baltics and in Russia itself, the nationalist torrent that helped destroy the workers states reached a bloody apex in the aftermath of that defeat. Everywhere, the Roma were hounded, attacked and forced to flee for their lives. As Isabel Fonseca noted in her 1995 book, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey: “The most dramatic change for Central and East European Gypsies since the revolutions of 1989 has been the sharp escalation of hatred and violence directed at them. There have been more than thirty-five serious attacks on settlements in Romania alone, mainly in remote rural areas, and mostly in the form of burnings and beatings.” Not surprisingly, several Roma who spoke to Fonseca in the town of Constanta in 1991 looked back favorably on life under Ceausescu.
The wave of violence, combined with intense Roma poverty, forced tens of thousands to flee to Germany. Once there, the desperate Roma were set upon by howling neo-Nazi gangs, who burned down their hostels as police watched. The government of reunited capitalist Germany went on to sign an agreement with Romania in September 1992 to deport Romanians—primarily Roma—back to their homeland.
In an article in Women and Revolution No. 38 (Winter 1990-91) titled “Fourth Reich Racism Targets Immigrants—Stop Persecution of Gypsies!” we sounded the alarm that the Roma “are fleeing Eastern Europe in fear of their lives.” The article went on:
“They are the No. 1 victims of the torrent of all-sided murderous racism engulfing Eastern Europe with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the plunge into an uncontrolled market economy. Bourgeois ideologues hail the ‘death of Communism,’ but with the return of capitalist exploitation has come the resurrection of all the nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-Communist murderous scum which dominated the region before the victory of the Red Army in 1945.”
For the Socialist United States of Europe!
The ICL fought to the last to defend the gains of the October Revolution against capitalist restoration. In contrast, virtually all of our leftist opponents fell over themselves to support the forces of counterrevolution in the name of “democracy,” “freedom” or “national independence.” Today, some of these groups complain that the Roma are mistreated in post-counterrevolution Europe. A case in point is Sozialistische Alternative (SAV), German section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), to which Socialist Alternative in the U.S. belongs. In the second part of an article on the Roma in sozialismus.info (4 February 2013), SAV writes about the period following capitalist restoration in East Europe:
“For the most part, Roma were the first to be laid off because they were generally more poorly educated and had a lower level of education. Most Roma received nothing from the blessings of capitalism and were therefore among the first and biggest losers of the transformation. Out of need, many thus increasingly turned again to their family structures. That there are Roma who have to collect garbage or engage in crime to maintain themselves is not their fault. No, it is the fault of the capitalist economic system, which proves incapable of guaranteeing them a suitable standard of living.”
One would never know from these lofty truisms that the CWI’s Russian affiliate stood on Boris Yeltsin’s barricades in 1991 as this U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary led the final assault on the workers state that had issued out of the October Revolution. Or that the CWI’s sections have helped fan the flames of racist bigotry on their home turf. In 2009, the British Taaffeites played a prominent role in a reactionary construction workers strike at the Lindsey oil refinery against the hiring of workers from elsewhere in the EU. Captured in the slogan “British jobs for British workers,” which was wielded during the strike, this poison is now being dished out especially at Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, including many Roma.
As the Spartacist League/Britain reports in “EU Austerity Fuels Racism: Irish State Abductions of Roma Children” (Workers Hammer No. 225, Winter 2013-2014), previous restrictions on the types of jobs that Bulgarian and Romanian citizens could take in Britain, where as EU citizens they could visit visa-free, expired as of January 1. As this deadline approached, the Tory-led government rammed through a host of measures restricting the rights of Bulgarians and Romanians to claim unemployment and housing benefits. The Labour Party, which had authored the job restrictions, responded that these racist measures came too late!
The rulers of EU heavyweights Germany and France, together with those of dependent countries like Greece that are chafing under the imperialist bankers’ dictates, use the Roma and other desperate immigrants as scapegoats for the mass unemployment, austerity, poverty and other ills generated by the capitalist system itself. Only the overthrow of capitalist rule through workers revolution can rid the continent of these evils, paving the way for a Socialist United States of Europe in which all peoples will have a free and equal place.
To achieve this goal, the ICL fights to build revolutionary internationalist workers parties whose mission is to instill in the proletariat the consciousness that it is the historic gravedigger of the capitalist system. As Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done? (1902), revolutionary socialists must act as “the tribune of the people,…able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects;…able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation…in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.” As vicious state repression and pogromist attacks sweep Europe, defense of the Roma and all immigrants is a key immediate task of the workers movement.