In the spring of 1967, I took a train from Ceausescu’s Romania to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Travel in Communist countries switched the imagination into overdrive. The books of Walter Krivitsky, Anton Ciliga, Victor Serge, George Orwell came menacingly alive. To ring someone up and propose a meeting was to do that person no service. Each encounter brought with it shades of the prison house. In Romania, I had met a former political prisoner, one of thousands sent to cut reeds in the Danube delta up to their necks in water in all seasons. In Yugoslavia, the people I knew were nationalists, whether Serb, Croat, or Slovene. They led me to the window to point out the secret policemen on watch in the streets below. They also spoke with awe of the foremost dissident in the world, Milovan Djilas. Nobody had done more than he to expose the reality of Communism.

One afternoon in Belgrade, the poet Miodrag Pavlevic introduced me to his favorite bookshop. It was an intimate place. But as we entered, he began at once to back away with the gestures of an actor. Picking over second-hand books was Alexander Rankovic, for years the chief of the secret police, with a sinister Beria-like reputation as a torturer. Recently pushed aside, he might well have been arrested and executed. Flabby and expressionless, the man had a putrid color. Under the prewar royalist regime, Rankovic had been in prison with Milovan Djilas. Communists in the underground, and then together as partisans in the war, the two had been colleagues as well as rivals—either might have succeeded Tito. Djilas was even titular Vice-President of Yugoslavia. These two men represented the kind of fates which awaited even—or perhaps especially—Communist personalities.

When Hitler’s Germany invaded Yugoslavia, the Communist Party had consisted of a miniscule group of conspirators. Its leader, Tito—a man of mixed Croat and Slovene origins, and really called Josip Broz —was a loyal Stalinist with five years of service in Moscow behind him. Brilliantly seizing the opportunity to resist the Nazis in the name of nationalism, Tito built a mass movement whose ultimate purpose was a Communist revolution. Djilas was already close enough to him to be sent on confidential missions to Stalin. In a number of books, he was to describe in detail the primary partisan struggle against the Germans, as well as the secondary but simultaneous struggle against the royalists and their movement. Losers, the royalists were eliminated by firing squads or in scenes of mass murder, or driven into exile. Stalin put the matter with customary terseness: “Tito is a smart fellow! He has no problems with enemies—he has got rid of them all.”

Throughout this protracted period of bloodshed and revolution, Djilas was an exemplary Communist. A pitiless class warrior, he raised no objection to the killing of royalists and other supposed enemies. Almost alone among the Yugoslav party leadership, he had studied Marx and Lenin profoundly, finding in these texts the justification of expedient violence. His early articles are as impersonal as the work of a committee. At the center of Marxist policy-making was that imponderable thing, the balance of forces, and Djilas was as good as anyone in his generation at assessing strengths and weaknesses in friends and enemies alike.

After 1945, Stalin imposed his grip on central and eastern Europe, anticipating the inclusion in the new Soviet bloc of much of the Balkans. Local Communists were so many instruments for taking power in his name. But the Yugoslavs had fought the Germans as nationalists, and they were not about to sacrifice their independence. They decided instead to rule their own country as they judged best. A frustrated and furious Stalin continued to take it for granted that he could command obedience, by force if need be, boasting that he had only to shake his little finger for Tito to fall into line.

The Soviet-Yugoslav break in 1949 was a turning point in the history of the Communist movement. Tito proved that nationalism was not only strong enough to survive but also able to divide a Communist world that proclaimed itself systematically and ideologically unified. In due course, China and Albania were similarly to adopt brands of Communism at variance with Moscow. Communism in practice, as Djilas now realized with a growing sense of outrage, was Russian imperialism under the disguise of ideology. What was an honest man to do about that? Precedents of dissent within the movement were truly intimidating. To question the party and its purposes was “factionalism,” and Lenin himself had decreed that this was the most unforgivable of sins. Any open split was bound to tarnish the party’s aura of invincible authority and so threaten its monopoly of power. Stalin had taken the measure of Lenin’s warning: factionalism for him came to its natural conclusion in the Moscow show trials of the Thirties and the murder of anyone minded to express an opinion of his own. Pressured and tortured into making public confessions, these unfortunate men lost honor as well as life. A small number managed to defect from the Soviet Union, or—like Trotsky—were expelled. These were almost all murdered in the end by Stalin’s agents. No help could be summoned at home or abroad. A massed choir of fellow travelers arose in the West to maintain that the accused were guilty as charged, and deserved to die.

The Yugoslav stance towards Stalin was factionalism at the state level. In his determination to stamp it out, Stalin arranged for another series of show trials, in which Communist leaders in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Bulgaria were denounced on trumped-up charges. These men had devoted their lives to the cause. Like their predecessors in the Thirties, they pleaded guilty to treason and espionage. Once more the fellow travelers agreed that they deserved to go to the gallows as traitors and foreign agents. One fellow traveler was an anonymous correspondent for the London Times, no less, sorrowfully certain that these men had betrayed Communism.

To Djilas, national independence had to be defended, no matter what the cost. Compromise was excluded. It was a question of character. Djilas began to write articles in the party press questioning the perfection of Communism, still to be sure in the turgid idiom of Marxism. This was enough to set in motion the series of events which made a historical figure of him. Early in 1954, the Yugoslav Party Central Committee was convened. At that meeting, Tito spoke sarcastically of his old friend and colleague. Impeccable service to the cause was now no use to Djilas. Facing the accusation of factionalism, he half-apologized for his articles—he never forgave himself for this —but he would not backtrack. His party card was number four. Turning it in at this point, he committed himself to becoming a victim. The whole proceeding had the formality of an equation in algebra.

As the crisis mounted, Djilas hit on a novel idea. He gave an interview to The New York Times. Nobody in his position had previously imagined that the Western media might be recruited as an ally to fend off persecution by generating support in the outside world. Publicity could be converted into protection. In the wake of this example, other dissidents adopted the tactic on a scale and with a sincerity which at last informed public opinion in the West. Truth from then on gathered enough power to expose Western fellow travelers as self-deceivers, liars, or worse. So bold a step, though, was certain at the time to lead to a show trial. The interview was duly considered evidence that Djilas had sought to “undermine the people’s authority.” Given a suspended sentence, he immediately raised the stakes, smuggling out to New York the manuscript of a book, The New Class. Now the charge became nothing less than an attempt to “undermine socialism as an idea.” In 1957, as this book was published, he began a nine-year sentence, returning to the very prison where the prewar royalist regime had detained him.

A sensation at the time, and now a classic, The New Class remains an abiding criticism of Communism. Its argument is straightforward, and Djilas’s status as Tito’s right-hand man made it all the more powerfully convincing: Communism was not the just and egalitarian social system that it claimed to be, but a grabbing of spoils and privileges by a small number of unscrupulous people. Those in control of the party and the state enjoyed and displayed powers and dynastic ambitions even more arrogantly absolute than the monarchs and aristocrats they had dispossessed. Twenty-five more years were to pass before a Russian, Michael Voslensky, in his book Nomenklatura (1980), substantiated the view that Communism in the Soviet Union from its foundation had pretended to an idealism which in practice was only organized corruption, and this was perfectly well accepted and policed by those gaining personally from it.

Still in prison, implacably defiant, Djilas smuggled out the manuscript of his next book, Conversations With Stalin, an account of his wartime missions to the Kremlin. Published in 1962, this made even more of a sensation. Such famous men as Churchill had penned memorable portraits of Stalin, but they were adversaries, even if reluctant admiration crept in. Djilas, in contrast, had been a true believer in Stalin, awed and excited to go on pilgrimage to someone he had visualized more as a deity than as a man. The observations have the immediacy of a thriller, acknowledging Stalin’s intelligence, his directness and rough humor, the underlying passion and irrationality. Those yellow eyes of his were like a tiger’s, pinpointing every minute shift of expression in others. But the vulgarity and blatancy of the man in private encounters, and especially at mealtimes among his henchmen, generated a terror all the more terrifying because so much remained unspoken. Here was eyewitness testimony which has certainly molded the portrait of Stalin for posterity.

A man with an acute sense of danger, according to Djilas, Tito came to terms with Stalin’s successors. Towards the end of his life, he no longer bothered to dress up the Communism of the nomenklatura with any ideology, awarding himself palaces and racehorse studs and yachts, as well as a chestful of medals on a fancy uniform which Hermann Goering might have coveted. Djilas despised the corruption and the vanity. But the breach with Tito more profoundly involved different assessments of nationalism. In the manner of his teacher Stalin, Tito claimed that Communism offered a more comprehensive identity for Yugoslavia than nationalism. He knew better than anyone, though, how he depended on Rankovic and the secret police to enforce this identity. Things would see him out, and that was all he asked for. In total contradiction, Djilas understood that this misrepresentation of nationalism was too unreal to last in the long term, and would almost certainly end in bloodshed and war, perhaps even world war. This led him to support the Hungarians and Czechs in their uprisings of 1956 and 1968, and finally the Solidarity movement in Poland. Sometimes Tito tried to exploit Djilas and his reputation; more often he threatened to imprison him again. So far as is known, the two former friends never made personal contact again. After Tito’s death in 1980, Djilas wrote a biography of him, but it is a thin and rambling book. This was an anticlimactic ending to a prolonged duel between a despot and a free man, dramatic enough to carry Shakespearean overtones.

The name was in the Belgrade telephone directory. He invited me at once. The house was on Palmotic Street, small but cosy, crammed with many books in several languages. In a place of honor, a white porcelain bust of Lenin occupied a whole shelf. A man of slight build and somewhat nondescript features, he had an even unhealthier color than Rankovic, with what he called “the look of a convict.” Only a few months earlier, he had served out his nine-year prison sentence. “Prison,” he said, “is to go to extremes, rather like the monks who used to go to the desert to think. For two years it is good to think, more than three is bad for the nerves.” The authorities had allowed him books and paper, and even underclothes from his American publisher. He showed me the manuscripts of a huge novel he had written in prison, and his translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. His eyes were deep-set, a glimmer more of black than brown.

“I know nothing about you,” Djilas said, “you may be a spy or provocateur. But if you have any influence, use it to tell the Americans that they must win the war in Vietnam.” America alone, he argued, had the strength to stand between the Soviet Union and China. If it withdrew, if it failed, in his revision of the domino theory, then Vietnam and the rest of Asia would fall to one or other of the two great Communist powers. A merciless battle for supremacy would ensue. Each and every country within reach would be compelled by whatever means were necessary to take sides. Yugoslavia—and England come to that—did not have the power to protect their independence in such circumstances.

The man’s courage and stamina made a lasting impression on me. Unbreakable, a willing martyr if need be, he was evidently never going to compromise his opinions. I did not report his view of the Vietnam war in print, for fear that it might well lead to his re-arrest. I would be writing in safety; he would be running the risk. Years more had to pass before it was plain that publicity in the Western media threw an effective cover over dissidents and promoted their subversive work. Some little time afterwards, though, lecturing in Berkeley, California—another closed society, in its way— I did repeat what Djilas had said about the American role in Vietnam, and accordingly found myself labelled a fascist.

In several of his books, Djilas proclaimed himself a writer by vocation, and a politician only under the pressure of events. He was a literary artist, he hoped, and his fiction would last. His novels and short stories today seem mechanical and professorial, the products of the Marxist doctrine of social realism, whereby each character is obliged to exemplify a predetermined social status, with all attitudes and behavior thereby accounted for. Autobiography brought the prose alive. In Land Without Justice (1958), he described with affection and detail the isolated village in Montenegro where he was born in 1911. It was still a countryside of spontaneous rebellion against authority, of chieftains and bandits and feuds, of honor lost and won. Sudden and violent death was in the nature of things. His great-great-uncle had been a famous outlaw, his great-grandfather and both grandfathers had been murdered, and his father, an army officer, was suspected of plotting against the monarch. Cruel as they might be, such were the customs of his country.

All over Europe, people had become Communist through a belief in equality. Not Djilas. A belief in justice had made a Communist of him. A romantic nationalist through and through, a Montenegrin from the mountains, he had initially conceptualized Communism as the fulfillment of the ever-thwarted aspirations of his people to a better life. He did not need to agonize in apologetics over his break with the party in the manner of the intellectuals of the period who contributed to that celebrated collection of essays, The God That Failed (1950). The injustice of Communism was irreconcilable with a conscience like his.

That tacky porcelain bust of Lenin in his bookcase indicated that he had never quite outgrown the flawed visions of his youth. To the end of his life there was in his writing a submerged but detectable bent towards revolution, in the heroic mode, with waving banners and an orator declaiming to the crowds below. Experience of course had disillusioned him. No such absolute good as justice could ever be achieved, but still a man owed it to himself to behave as though it were possible. By virtue of their history and tradition, Montenegrins especially owed it to themselves.

With what truth it is hard to say, Djilas claimed to have had some part in introducing workers’ self-management, which was supposed to be the uniquely Yugoslav contribution to Communism. But he preferred grand theory to small print. During the Seventies, he further analyzed and refined the argument of the New Class. Various selected writings of his have been published showing step by step how his thinking evolved. His last book, Fall of the New Class,[1] on which he was working up to his death in 1997, is a similar anthology of a lifetime’s work—or a recension, to borrow Evelyn Waugh’s elegant word for the final version of his trilogy of war novels.

Under the ideology, Communism was really about power: that was the basic conclusion to which Djilas came after a lifetime close to the core of the movement. Terror and mass murder, cults of personality, the Soviet satellites, the Cold War—everything hung together in a play of power which could not be otherwise in a totalitarian state. Who whom? in Lenin’s chilling remark. Who was in a position to do down whom? Lenin’s reduction of humanity to such ciphers laid down the whole dreadful course of what was to come. No innovator, Stalin was a most attentive pupil. Neither mad nor wanton, Stalin merely put into execution a project of restructuring society already well and truly launched. Personnel were required for the task, and they could be recruited only on the basis of inducement and reward. Purporting to be the masses, the New Class was actually a palace elite, completely set apart. This was a flaw inherent in the nature of Communism, bound to corrupt its everyday practice. Even anti-Soviet observers took their time to absorb the paradox that the nomenklatura had always cynically exploited the country, yet the system demanded no less of them.

Generally speaking, dissidents wrote about themselves and their cases, particularizing and adding the stories of the unfortunates they met in prisons and camps. The impact of The Gulag Archipelago (1974), for example, derives from the way that Solzhenitsyn accumulates the chapter and verse of injustice done to so many specific individuals, whose fate might otherwise stay unrecorded. Djilas kept a prison diary, most of which consists of abstract reflection, perhaps because he was so much in solitary confinement. Strange and even slightly inhuman as it seems, this brisk attitude to persecution is surely some survival from his own Communist formation. Persecution, he implies, is only to be expected. A free man has no time to waste lamenting; he has to set an example of endurance.

Dissidents, indisputably, helped to discredit and bring down Communism. But how significant a factor were they? Were they, as Vladimir Bukovsky once put it, “only playing games”? If the New Class was both the midwife and gravedigger of Communism, its basic contradiction was bound one day to bring the whole system down in ruins, in which case people in the position of Djilas had only to sit back and wait. Refusal to take this easy opt-out is Djilas’s claim to greatness, to an exceptional place of honor on the roll of the chosen few who have dared to defy tyranny.

In due course, Soviet dissidents also learned to contact the Western media; they too gave interviews and smuggled out their manuscripts, placing the authorities in the dilemma of either having to give way or to be perceived by the watching world as the intolerant policemen that they were. It became general knowledge that whoever expressed some reasonable and normal opinion in the Soviet Union was likely to end up in the Gulag or locked away in a provincial asylum, to be given drugs which did indeed drive him mad.

Towards the end of his life, Djilas received permission to travel freely, speaking at international conferences, publishing widely, perhaps the most sought-after commentator anywhere on Communism. Time and again in an essay, he could hit on a striking phrase, for instance calling Stalin “a bundle of nerves sticking out in all directions” or pointing in Solzhenitsyn to the “fusion of literary gift and the morally scrupulous.” The more he reflected, the more certain he became that Lenin and Leninism were the root of the evil to come. Commissioned to write the history of Communism, and granted access to all the Soviet archives, Dmitri Volkogonov—a Soviet general, and another one-time true believer—was to reach the same conclusion, and it looks set to take its place in the history books.

Not even Djilas, though, was able to predict the tame whimper with which Communism finally came to its end. Gorbachev, in his view, was sincere, to be respected, but a man of narrow vision, a die-hard Leninist. Someone like that could never understand that corruption and the party’s power were two sides of a coin. The harder he tried to perfect Leninism, the more destructive its inherent contradiction proved to be. Factionalism was still as important as ever, Djilas writes, for it did indeed “chew away at ideology and the system from within.” Glasnost, or openness, at last gave the more and more militant dissidents their chance of a public hearing at home. The New Class had always enjoyed the privileges of ownership, and, as the system began to fall around them, they made sure to obtain title too, in a gigantic process of stripping the nation’s assets which continues to this day. At least Djilas lived long enough to observe that events confirmed his central insight into Communism, and his last word was as simple as it was summary: “Communism overthrew itself.”

The Soviet Union expired with minimum bloodshed. Post-Tito Yugoslavia, in contrast, has been torn over ten years by a series of civil wars. Its former constituent peoples have turned in savagery upon each other. Nothing of Communism has survived. Hints are scattered here and there in Djilas’s final writings about the country’s many intercommunal hatreds, but nowhere does there seem to be either an account of their origins or any prescription to resolve them.

The omission is a puzzle. He knew that war and bloodshed were latent in the society. NATO waged an offensive campaign against Serbia, which in the time of the Soviet Union would indeed have led to the world war he once feared. As ever, his own country is at the mercy of chieftains and bandits and feuds. Modern weaponry is deployed for the ancient customary ends of ethnic cleansing. Ever the romantic nationalist, he appears to have become stuck in the heroism of the past, refighting his battles and indifferent to the fact that the very same romantic nationalism was conditioning another generation in turn to fight its deadly battles.


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  1. Fall of the New Class: A History of Communism’s Self-Destruction, by Milovan Djilas, translated by John Loud; Knopf, 432 pages, $30, $16 paper. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 2, on page 4
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