A short biography of writer and revolutionary syndicalist from Romania, Stefan Gheorghiu.
89 years ago, on the 19th of March 1914, at the Filaret hospital in Bucharest, the writer and revolutionary unionist Stefan Gheorgiu died at the age of 35.
”The bad things we suffer from, will not be removed by those above us, but by our will, strength and determination”– Stefan Gheorghiu.
Ștefan Gheorghiu was born on 15th of January 1879 in a family of workers in the city of Ploiești, Romania. His father was a carpenter and his mother a factory worker. Even since childhood he had a profound feeling of justice which didn’t allow him to tolerate social differences. His desire for knowledge was tremendous. He was very interested about the ”hajduks” tales, the thieves of Romania, who stole from the rich to give to the poor and because of the persecution by the police, had to retreat and live in the woodlands. Nevertheless, Ștefan Gheorghiu arrived at the front in the worker’s movement of Romania. At the age of 14 he began his apprenticeship as a carpenter, where he quickly came in contact with unionist and anarchist literature and other socialist works. The ideas developed from these works met with his own aspirations, and together with the social reality of the workers, formed the key element in the agitation and clarification of this skillful and assertive unionist militant.
His activities are as numerous as his jobs. He started with “The Worker’s Club”, from Ploiești, where he made his first agitation in 1897, which became perhaps the most important in the development of the Union against social classes. His contemporary and biographer, Mihai Gh Bujor said: "He went to the workers as one of their own and was also accepted as such". Only through his determination and continuity the formation of the first trade unions are achieved: cooks, waiters and tanners in Ploiești. He always argued that the means in which the worker must trust are: solidarity, protest and direct action. Among his fellow friends and companions in the struggle, included the local group of anarchists from Ploiești; with their leader Petre Popescu, he went several times to agitate at the oil extraction fields from Valea Prahovei. There, as in other industries, a feudal system dominated, where workers were dying like flies due to frequent explosions of the oil extraction pumps. Capitalists used the army and the gendarme against dissatisfied workers. Wages were set and paid at the bosses will. These working conditions are reported in his series of articles called "From the Prahova Hell", published in “România Muncitoare”, the collective newspaper of the trade unions and the social democratic party. At the congresses about the ongoing state repression against the formation of unions, Gheorgiu participates as the delegate of the trade unions from Ploiești and Câmpia. There, he takes the side of the federalists and opposes the centralists, who want to decide the fate of the local autonomy of unions.
The Marxist Christian Rakovsky demanded that the strikes should not be organized by the local unions, but from the central headquarters in Bucharest. Gheorghiu manages to block this attack on local autonomy with his old comrade, Constantin Mănescu.
In 1907, the peasants, due to poverty, started a bloody rebellion against their oppressors, burning farms and their houses, so the management was forced to leave Bucharest. During this time, Gheorghiu was on their side and was trying to help them with all his strength. He asked the labor movement, which was small in number, to support the peasants. The leadership of the worker’s union is hesitant and criticizes him. Rakovsky and the "gray eminence", Constantin Dobrogeanu-Ghenea, the leader of the Romanian Social Democratic Party, feared a wave of repression against the unions and decided that they would stay neutral. However, workers from Valea Prahovei, in solidarity with the peasant uprising, organized a strike and dissolved the local union leadership. Even the radical railway workers sabotaged the transport in Moldova, an example being in Pașcani. Groups of workers even tried to free the peasants that were taken prisoners by the army. Our documents show that, in 1907, the ruling class feared a social revolution. But it did not materialized and the peasant uprising, through this defeat, lost more than 11.000 participants and their families. After a few weeks, the general strike in Galați started, where workers attended in large numbers. General Antonescu, who later became the head of the country and ally of Hitler, smashed it violently. Maybe if the peasants and workers would have protested at the same time and coordinated together, the result had been different. After the massacre of the peasants, Panait Muşoiu, an anarchist and militant of the labor movement, called for an investigation of the atrocities committed against them. Gheorghiu, as a lifetime friend and distributor of Muşoiu’s printed materials, such as "Revista Ideei", published for 16 years, answered to the call. From the knowledge he acquired, he composed a speech which he held in numerous worker’s unions in many towns.
In his lectures, he talks about different places, such as the rational free school which was created in the image of anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer. His passion for such a school not only makes him very loved, respected and popular among workers, but it’s asked for an implementation plan in the parliament. Restrictions and arrests become more frequent, often accompanied by beatings, received from employees in uniform. Over time, the preventive arrests became even longer, so do the legal proceedings, and in the end he is restricted to leave his hometown, Ploiești. Gheorghiu ended in the attention of the country’s most powerful people who made the political decisions with a thorn in the eye. The chief of the intelligence agency „Siguranța” was informed daily of his activities. Finally, the fear of his activities and his brilliance became so great that he was arrested on false pretenses. From Câmpia he is transferred to the Ploiești prison, where the rebel sailors who participated in the Potemkin uprising were being held. So that Gheorghiu doesn’t hear about them, he is put into a single cell. However, they manage to communicate, and on the anniversary of the uprising they sang together the “Internationale”. The worker’s movement reacts at the arrest of Gheorghiu. In Bucharest, a mass meeting is organized, attended by thousands of workers that demand in their resolution his immediate release. At the same time, the movement was required on other fronts. In 1907, the Romanian state expels foreign socialists, mostly Jews, but also German, Bulgarian and Hungarian. In doing so, the movement lost hundreds of revolutionary comrades. Finally, the state announced the charges against Gheorghiu. Supposedly he had committed high treason. The fact that when he was arrested he had in his pocked the military incorporation order will ensure that the military court is going to issue the death penalty. From Ploiești he is sent to the military prison in Galați. He is thrown in a cell alone with no bed. They take his clothes and shoes and they threw cold water on the floor many times. From here he develops the pneumonia which will be fatal. Dozens of workers gathered daily in front of the military prison from Galați and demanded his release. In 1907, the congress of the unions is organized in Galați, in solidarity with Gheorghiu. In his absence, he is voted as member of the general counsel for the general trade union committee. This was a clear signal to the state that the worker’s movement fights for the freedom and life of Ștefan Gheoghiu. The union finally manages with the help of the socialist lawyer N.D.Cocea, to inspect the incriminating documents. When they present the case at the military court, the state is forced to withdraw the charges. The recruitment order does not make you a soldier and therefore cannot be considered high treason. Gheorghiu is released, but he is very ill. Weak and spitting blood, he leaves the court building, where hundreds of workers are expecting him.
Now, added to his activities in Ploiești and Valea Prahovei, are the port cities of Galați and Brăila, where he organizes relentless agitations for the organization of workers into unions and supports people in strikes to resolve disputes between them and vătafii (a kind of slave sellers, who controlled the port and were acting in behalf of the capitalists by negotiating wages, working hours and corporal punishments). He was present at the great strikes of 1910-1913/14 as an agitator and organizer. Many times the army declares a state of emergency in Brăila and uses armed violence against workers. Finally, Ștefan Gheorghiu manages, in December 1913, to form the transport workers union named „Uniunea Sindicală a Muncitorilor de Transport pe Apă și Uscat din România”. At the congress of its formation, he is elected as president and is given the task of dealing with the union’s newspaper called „Tribuna Transporturilor”. At its formation, the union already had 5.ooo members, of wich 3.5oo were from Brăila. Among those who contributed in editing the newspaper, putting effort until exhaustion, were Gheorghiu, Constantin Mănescu, social-democrat Iuliu Neagu-Negulescu (with whom, in 1911, Gheorghiu had a heated dispute after Negulescu published an anti-Semitic article in the newspaper „Poporul Muncitor”) and the writer and unionist Panait Istrati. With the famous writer (Panait Istrati), Gheorghiu befriended in 1909. They traveled together to Alexandria, Egypt, where they met with former socialist militant Hermann Binder from Galați, expelled from Romania, in an attempt to treat his pneumonia. After many years, Panait Istrati still said about Gheorghiu : "My only best friend". Istrati proposed to write his biography titled "The Agitator". A year after the death of Gheorghiu, he remembered him in a passionate article in the newspaper „Tribuna Transporturilor”. The monthly newspaper clearly contained anarcho-syndicalist positions. Mentioned in its pages, was the need for independence of the unions from the political parties, Gheorghiu presenting the concept of "labor market" which is a very important part in unionist social organization. Since the formation of the union, the headquarters in Bucharest was against Gheorghiu, but failed to stop its formation. Gheorghiu, an obvious representative of anarchism, even if there was no self-proclamation as such, later fell, in 1912, out of favor with the party and union leadership. There were other disputes and attacks by the Marxists. In 1910, in a speech in front of several thousand workers in Bucharest, he defends the anarchist Gheorghe Stoenescu-Jelea, who in 1909, was blamed for the attempted assassination of the Prime Minister Brătianu, considered the main culprit in the massacre of peasants in 1907. Jelea was found guilty after the trial and was sentenced to perpetual prison in Bucharest. Shortly after, he was found dead in his cell by the prison guards. Gheorghiu did not doubt for a second that Jelea was assassinated at the request of the state while the trial was still pending. In the midst of bourgeois hysteria and propaganda, he spoke in his defense. The Marxists and Rakovsky considered that Jelea was working for the police and had infiltrated among anarchists and therefore, they distanced themselves. In 1912, Gheorghiu, together with unionists Constantin Mănescu and Alexandru Vodă, published from Ploiești, the manifesto „Război-Războiului!
Using explicit words, this manifesto, published on the eve of World War I, is directed towards workers, asking them not to become the „objects of the rich” and if they become soldiers, to disarm themselves. The manifesto isn’t just anti-militarist, but also attacks nationalism. The union and the party leadership prohibits the printing of it in its newspaper „România Muncitoare” and sends two delegates, from the left wing, to make the unionists withdraw the manifesto. The union leadership justifies this by the fact that they wanted to defend the union from possible state repression. The delegates were ignored and the manifesto was published in at least two editions, in a slightly censored pamphlet form and distributed on the streets.
The manifesto was signed by “The Unionist Propaganda Group from Ploiești”, whose secretary was Gheorghiu. Once the unions across the country heard about the attempted censorship, many local unions solidarized with the unionists and pressured the union’s leadership and the party. The leadership began to reduce the attacks on the manifesto, and published it in „România Muncitoare” until, in the end, they were forced to write positively about it. However, Ștefan Gheorghiu, Mănescu and Vodă are sued by the state prosecutor. „Război-Războiului!” still occupies an important place in the history of the labor movement in Romania, even if its authors, the unionists, are deliberately hidden. In 1913, the trial starts. Gheorghiu was already dying, although devoting all of his strength to the general strike against the implementation of cranes in Brăila, involving tens of thousands of workers. Through speeches, organizing activities and preparing commentaries, he still had to go before a judge in Ploiești. The judge retains him for 5 days in custody, and then punishes his comrades with monetary penalties. Back in Brăila, where the military declared again a state of emergency and the working population was being exposed to the terror instigated by the police and army, he calls for a mass protest and promises the workers and their families that he would continue the fight until victory. From the neighboring Galați, hundreds of workers arrive to join the protesters in Brăila. A revolutionary atmosphere is settled. The Minister of Interior of that time, Take Ionescu, declares that he would rather turn the city into dust before complying with the demands of the workers. The government gathers and sends more troops in the area to act as strikebreakers. In an appeal to the military, Ștefan Gheorghiu asks them not to shoot the workers but to join them. The speech ends with "Down with the power... Long live the armed people." But eventually his power is exhausted, and on October 27th 1913, "Tribuna Transporturilor" announces that he is seriously ill and cannot continue his activities as the secretary of the union. On November 22th, in a letter to his comrades, he announces that he’s not able anymore to continue his work for the union and is forced to withdraw from his official duties. The comrades take him to the Filaret hospital in Bucharest. They also support the medical costs. But still, the tuberculosis he acquired from his arrest in Galați ends his life. On the 19th of March 1914, Ștefan Gheorghiu dies.
On the day of the burial, several hundred workers gathered in front of the hospital and led his lifeless body, in an open coffin, in a demonstration through the city, passing by the headquarters of the "România Muncitoare" union to the city’s outskirts. At the march, workers attended with red and black flags, and sang the “Worker's Marseillaise” and the “Internationale”. In Otopeni, the coffin is loaded into a truck and transported to Ploiești. At the local cemetery in Bolovani 4.000 workers attended. A few hundred also came from Bucharest to attend the funeral. The funeral is held with no priest or Christian symbols. At the end, the “Internationale” is sung. The speeches make it evident that they knew the capitalist state is guilty of murdering Gheorghiu. Meanwhile, in Botoșani, Gheorghiu's wife, Janeta Maltus-Gheorghiu, held a speech to the workers who gathered there. Janeta Maltus, anarchist, feminist and agitator, married Stefan Gheorghiu a few years before in Brăila, so she couldn’t be deported by the Romanian state because she was Jewish. For many years she held speeches about his life and struggle.
After the death of Gheorghiu, his image was adopted firstly by the social-democrats, then by the communists. After the Communist Party took power in 1945, they named their party school after him. In our days, most people that heard of Gheorghiu consider him a communist. But he never was one. All of his life, Gheorghiu was a worker and a unionist fighter with obvious anarchist positions. Historical justice demands that he must be freed from the communist assimilation and shown his libertarian and anti-authoritarian features.
From his struggles, we can draw today many lessons about what methods should be used in the fight against capitalism and the state, and to form a free and solidary union. The fight to improve and reform exploitation is not sufficient, but capitalism together with exploitation must be defeated and removed in a revolutionary manner. Otherwise one cannot find a solution to the workers problems but only a postponement.
In the struggle against the implementation of cranes in Brăila, which took place almost 100 year ago, Ștefan Gheorghiu realized what rationalization means to the workers life. He wrote: " As long as the perfectionist system of labor is owned by corporations, as long as there is a capitalist organization of labor, the system will turn against the existence of the worker, it will throw him in the street without the option of finding a job elsewhere".
This truth is confirmed until today. It would be good if the following convictions would materialize: "We have only our own strength; we must have confidence in our work and our own power to educate. Organization and education are the finalities where our toil must aim. We live in the century of science. However the methods of struggle of the ruling class are the same as 1,000 years ago. Let’s tear down the mask that keeps us in darkness, let us take care that the worker no longer looks above at idols or politicians, but believes in himself. For the worker, emancipation is the sword that will cut the heads of all evil in our days.
Institut für Syndikalismusforschung : http://www.syndikalismusforschung.info