League Against Usury
League Against Usury
Liga contra Cametei
Liga împotriva Cametei
|Founded||August 17, 1929|
|Headquarters||Carol Street 62, Bucharest|
|Political position||Center-left to far-right|
Dobânda este un furt ce nu trebuie plătit|
("Interest is theft that we should not cover")
The League Against Usury (Romanian: Liga contra Cametei, LCC, or Liga împotriva Cametei) was a single-issue, mainly agrarian, political party in Romania. Formed as a political answer to the Great Depression, it involved itself in the fight against "usury" (or predatory lending), bringing together politicians on all sides of the political spectrum. Its prominent backers and activists included leftists such as Nicolae L. Lupu and Ion D. Isac, independents such as Pantelimon Erhan, Stefan Frecôt, George Tutoveanu and Eraclie Sterian, and some affiliates of the interwar far-right. The LCC channeled protest votes, and competed in this with fascist movements such as the Iron Guard, ambiguously supporting economic antisemitism.
Although perceived as an upsetting contender, the LCC effectively seconded the Democratic Peasants' Party–Stere. Under its auspices, it managed to obtain one seat in the Assembly in the election of June 1931. The League's fiscal proposals were embraced by the government of Nicolae Iorga, which also drew in former LCC cadres, while other activists left the League to openly embrace fascism. After involving itself in support of continued debt relief policies, and failing to win any seats in later elections, the LCC finally dissolved itself in late 1932.
The LCC was created by the jurist Eftimie "Volică" Antonescu with support from various politicians and journalists. Its constitutive congress was held at Antonescu's home in Bucharest on Saturday, August 17, 1929. According to one account, the movement may have had roots that predated the Great Depression: a League of the same name (later LCC chapter) was reportedly formed in 1928 by the Gorj County landowner Alexandru A. Magherescu. Voted in as LCC president, Antonescu had first stirred controversy in 1918, when he acted as a prosecutor selectively investigating wartime abuse. His career in politics saw him crossing the floor: he had been a member of the Conservative and National Parties, and afterwards defected to the National Liberal Party. Elected for the Senate seat in Gorj, he had criticized the governing National Peasants' Party for its handling of the Depression, and also for its passage of multiple and conflicting laws.
The LCC's generic goal was the fight against "usury", structured into three lesser objectives: phasing out interest rates, canceling foreclosures, and auditing the "usurers". In one of it manifestos, the LCC demanded quick state intervention and the reevaluation of interest at 1%; according to the peasants' own claims, interest rates could climb as high as 40% or even 100% in 1930. That year, Antonescu sent out a public notification to the Romanian Regents, who were looking after King Michael I. The text, which later became the LCC's producerist platform, spoke of bankers, civil administrators, and industrialists as "parasites", and called for tax cuts on the less wealthy. A peasant militant from Dolj detailed that agenda and proposed measures against the state apparatus, noting that a functionary could earn as much as 50 agricultural workers.
Historian Armin Heinen explains the economic mechanism leading to the establishment of the LCC as follows: "The agrarian reform of 1917–1921 created a need for currency, which could only be supplied by bank loans. Agriculturists had contracted high-interest loans, either to compensate the former landowner or to furnish their new or extended property with basic supplies, or merely—given the entirely too small plots they were left for production—to ensure their living income. As an effect of the economic crisis, produce prices fell [...]. The peasants could no longer make their payments, and consequently their properties were put up for sale." These issues were aggravated by Western protectionism, which prevented exports, and by Soviet predatory pricing, which reduced demand.
The Antonescu program was met with skepticism by various other specialists. A laissez-faire economist, Al. D. Neagu, argued that the League presented "inefficient, unjust and momentary palliatives" to a systemic crisis, none of which could reactivate demand. Neagu also notes that the LCC's claims about usurers were largely dealt with by laws which limited repossession, and that its program was "economically and morally unjustified". Jurist Nicolae Dașcovici also suggested that measures such as those endorsed "by the League against Usury agitators" meant "a continuous and quickened fall of trust by the capital [market]—and as such implicitly the worsening of credit ratings." The "one cure", he proposed, was "liquidating the insolvent".
Growth and eclecticism
The LCC was a complex and eclectic movement. The left-wing journalist Petre Pandrea, who attended LCC meetings, saw the party as a "provisional alliance" of "the kulak and the hired hand". Its sympathizers included Nicolae L. Lupu, leader of the Peasants' Party–Lupu (PȚ–L) and a left-wing critic of National Peasantist economic policies. According to historian Pompiliu Tudoran, both Lupu and Antonescu's parties should be regarded as "center-left". Lupu played a noted part in setting up the League, but was not present for its constitutive congress, being held up by partial elections in Hunedoara County. According to Pandrea, he had created around him a "popular myth" as a savior, but had never promised his peasant constituents any concrete form of debt relief.
Lupu's faction within the LCC was represented by Ion D. Isac. An educationist and decorated veteran, Isac was both the organizer of the League's branch in Gorj and chair of the national secretariat. Also joining the LCC in 1929 was a politically independent poet, George Tutoveanu, who published denunciations of the bankers and stated that his party's mission was "to fight against suffering." In May 1930, the LCC inaugurated in Bucharest its own political newspaper, Jos Camăta ("Down with Usury"). From November 14, it had Constantin C. Iarca as its editor. From October, it had a chapter in Bessarabia, supervised by Pantelimon Erhan. Elsewhere, the League also won the adherence of Sterie Ionescu, who founded in Caracal the newspaper Desrobirea ("Emancipation"), "at the service of plowmen, traders, and the League against Usury". On November 3, 1930, the LCC had absorbed into it ranks Eraclie Sterian's Association of Mortgaged Owners and Debtors. By 1931, it had a branch in Năsăud County, with the mechanic Mihai Buta as one of its prominent members.
With its specific attacks on Jewish creditors, the LCC also had radical-right tinges: Heinen sees it as an "antisemitic and markedly right-wing" party, or "protest movement". The LCC's branch in Bukovina included a Colonel Ioan Niculcea, who also sympathized with the National-Christian Defense League (LANC). In summer 1930, the latter movement had instigated "agrarian troubles of an antisemitic character", with Niculcea as an active instigator. In mid 1930, Niculcea was arrested alongside the LANC's Nichifor Robu and Dumitru Scriculeac, a measure which only resulted in more confrontations between their supporters and Romanian Police. However, as noted at the time by La Revue Slave, the LCC also challenged the core antisemitic tenets, by showing publicly that the "usurers" were highly active in Oltenia, where Jews were virtually non-present. In that region, the LCC was especially focused on denouncing the National Liberal banking monopoly. Eventually, in 1931, a LANC newspaper warned voters that the League was a "wolf in sheep's clothing", and merely a front for Lupu's party.
In other contexts, the LCC was regarded as a quasi-socialist movement or a front for the banned Romanian Communist Party (PCdR). As Pandrea notes, Lupu was suspected of being a "Bolshevik" by the banking lobby, but was merely a Romanian "Kerensky", his policies ones of compromise with the lenders. In one such report of January 1931, Argeș County authorities denounced the LCC as a front for both the PCdR and the Social Democratic Party (PSDR).
Such charges were disregarded by members of both groups. In its manifestos, the PSDR, which sided with the National Peasantists, dismissed the League and the PȚ–L as opportunistic movements, "created for the love of pork barrels". A more radical position was taken by the PCdR, whose 1931 congress listed LLC among the "fascist and semi-fascist" organisations used by the bourgeoisie and landowners in order to channel the discontent of the masses. With Communists taking power after World War II, this view became replicated in official historiography. However, in the 1960s, party historians such as Gheorghe Ioniță also reclaimed the League as one of the "democratic organizations created, steered, and influenced by the [communist party]". Researchers C. and F. Dumitrescu reached a similar conclusion, namely that the PCdR had a "tight connection" with the League.
Despite being joined by antisemites, the LCC was also open to members of various ethnic minorities. Its regional chapter in the Banat was led by Stefan Frecôt, a dissident and French-speaking member of the Danube Swabian community, who was also briefly the national LCC's Vice President. In Bukovina, where the LCC formed itself under the presidency of Dorimedont "Dori" Popovici from May 1930, its affiliates included non-Romanians such as Carol Weltman, Victor Orobko, and Rudolf Müller. Ukrainian peasants were noted participants in Niculcea's anti-Jewish riot at Seletin.
1931 election and later history
The League acknowledged Carol II's return to the Romanian throne, and "appealed to the sovereign that he take debtors under his protection." By March, the League and the Association of Mortgage Debtors were proselytizing with large-scale awareness campaigns, often developed around agricultural shows. These offered venues for airing LCC slogans, including: Dobânda este un furt ce nu trebuie plătit ("Interest is theft that we should not cover"). Carol toppled the National Peasantist cabinet in April, assigning Nicolae Iorga as his Prime Minister. As the latter noted, the appointment coincided with great turmoil, during which the LCC was preparing "an actual peasants' revolt" at Gorj. This was also suggested by Pandrea, who recalled the "1907 atmosphere" and "pre-revolutionary" feel of the LCC congress in Craiova. According to journalist Calman Blumenfeld-Scrutator, the "extraordinarily energetic" League was also especially strong in the Banat, where it looked like a real threat to the establishment.
In the June 1931 general elections, convened by Iorga, the LCC ran under a sun cross logo (⊕). It formed a loose alliance with the left-wing agrarian Democratic Peasants' Party–Stere (PȚD–S). The latter registered on separate lists, but only put up candidates in Bessarabia. By then, however, some members of the far-right wing had left the League: Col. Niculcea set up a Beetroot Cultivators' Collective (Obștea Cultivatorilor de Sfeclă), which caucused with the fascist Iron Guard. Far-right groups were nominally repressed during the election, with both Niculicea and Robu returning to jail, but Internal Affairs, then under Constantin Argetoianu, failed to take significant action on that front. At the time, the bulk of its surveillance activity was still focused on the LCC, the PCdR, and the Peasant Workers' Bloc.
According to Scrutator, the LCC policy of presenting in peasant candidates "makes insomniacs from both the leaders of government organizations as well as those of the opposition." As noted by historian Niculae Petrescu, the Democratic Peasantists had more to gain from their partnership with the LCC, increasing its share of the vote nationally. However, the alliance only received 2.8% of the vote nationally, winning them six seats in the Assembly of Deputies. The LCC took one seat and the PȚD–S took five. The party also formed a cartel with the PȚ–L, which granted it as a favor an extra seat, representing Gorj. Here, the two groups had gathered 3,940 votes between them. The courtesy seat went to Isac, who had been arrested for sedition during the campaign, forcing the authorities to release him.
The Democratic Nationalist Party (PND) and its allies emerged victorious from the campaign, returning Iorga as Prime Minister. His new administration incorporated former LCC cadres, appointing Tutoveanu as the prefect of Tutova County. The LCC also ran in the partial elections for the Assembly seat in that county (April 1932), separate from Lupu's own PȚ–L. The seat was taken by the Iron Guard's Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who won 26% of the vote; the LCC had 13.7%, and the PȚ–L 6.2%. According to Heinen, the League still managed to draw votes away from the Iron Guard's niche, upsetting its growth.
The LCC opted to present its own candidates in the elections of July 1932. It thus denounced the PȚ–L alliance, allegedly because Lupu had refused to assign an eligible position in Alba County to Antonescu. The group failed to win any seats, but its leadership still met in August 1932, when it presented a new set of political demands. Largely rendered ineffectual by the adoption of debt relief and anti-usury legislation under the Iorga cabinet, it supported the application of such laws once they were placed in peril by the National Peasantist government of Alexandru Vaida-Voevod. At the time, it was speculated that the LCC would form a "spontaneous" alliance with the PND and other parties. However, the LCC voted to dissolve itself later in 1932.
An association called League Against Usury still existed in 1934 in Bucharest, collaborating with the Association of Mortgaged Owners and Debtors on a Front for Urban Reclamation (Frontul Asanării Urbane). The LCC's Gorj chapter, presided upon by Magherescu, had merged into Argetoianu's Agrarian Union Party, while Sterie Ionescu founded a Front of Debtors, and, in 1935, sought to reestablish the National Agrarian Party. Before the general election of December 1937, the sun cross logo was taken up by a Radical Peasants' Party, under Grigore Iunian. Antonescu himself set up another group, the (allegedly fascist) League for the Defense of Private Property. By the start of World War II, he reemerged as a right-wing critic of the Iron Guard, whom he accused of fomenting violent dissent among his students. Isac remained in national politics with Lupu's party, also setting up a Ploughmen's Syndicate; he withdrew from public affairs during World War II, but was for a while promoted under communism.
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