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Prophet in the Ruins

In the middle of the Bosnian war, I went to see Milovan Djilas at his apartment in Palmoticeva in Belgrade. Years before, my parents had passed a copy of The New Class to some Yugoslav friends during a summer holiday in Dalmatia. Djilas’s book gave me my first encounter with the public power of words: here was a book so dangerous that my parents and their Yugoslav friends could not even discuss it in private. So when I showed up at his door thirty years later, there must have been some awe still in my expression.* He opened the door himself, a compact old man with a distracted and melancholy air, wearing faded corduroys, the jet black hair he once had in his Partisan days now turned white, his once-erect bearing now stooped, his pace shuffling. His wife, Stefica, had died recently, and he was alone in the dark apartment with his books and his memories. He offered me vodka and when I declined, he recalled how he had turned down Stalin when offered vodka. “What kind of people are you?” Stalin shouted. “We were partisans,” said Djilas to me, with an ascetic smile.

He told me how he had set off at the war’s end in an American Jeep to establish the new border between Croatia and Serbia. “I was a Montenegrin, after all,” he told me, “and so I was supposed to be impartial.” What principle, I asked him, did he use to decide which villages should go to the Croats and which to the Serbs? “The ethnic principle,” he said.

As we talked, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries were laying siege to Sarajevo and the city was dying in the cold and the dark. I asked him why his country had been torn apart. Because Tito had failed to allow democracy in Yugoslavia, because he turned out to be “both the master and the slave of the privileged Communist class.” He said it all with the gloomy relish of a man who had lived long enough to see history prove him right. And nationalism? He insisted that it was not an intrinsic folk emotion but an alien virus, a language game imported from the German lands in the nineteenth century and used by politicians to consolidate a new form of authoritarian populism in the Balkans.

The West’s greatest mistake, he then told me, had been to “satanize” the Serbs. He knew well enough what evil deeds his people had done, but he also knew—and the Dayton process was to prove him right—that the only road to a Balkan settlement runs through Belgrade. He viewed the collapse of Yugoslavia with the Olympian calm of a man who had seen poverty, war, power, and the inside of a prison and had survived it all. His detachment broke down only when he spoke of the historical revival of the Ustashi in Croatia and the Chetniks in Serbia. “We must be the only country in Europe,” he told me, his voice heavy with contempt, “actively rehabilitating fascist collaborators.” As he showed me out, he said wearily, “The Second World War is not over, not here.”

When I saw him, he was already preparing his last work, Fall of the New Class, a collection of the most important parts of his old books—the meetings with Stalin, a precis of The New Class together with new reflections on the collapse of Gorbachev, and an essay on why all attempts to reform communism were bound to fail. This is the work which has now been published, with an epilogue in the form of an interview with Djilas by Vasilije Kalezic, a chronology of his life by his son, Aleksa, and an introduction by the translator, John Loud.

The old man was proud of his work as a writer but he has been betrayed by his translator. Mr. Loud writes that “other translators or editors have done the author a great service in virtually rewriting him so that he ‘reads well’ (or tolerably well) in English.” I can’t judge the accuracy of his own translation, since I do not read Serbo-Croatian, but the English is stuck in some lamentable no man’s land between languages. Djilas has also been let down by his editors. The book cries out for a full-length analytical introduction to Djilas’s life and work and for an introduction to each piece that sets it in context. Somebody must have been asleep when this book progressed through the august house of Knopf, for the editing is sloppy and incoherent. Fall of the New Class is unworthy of the amazing life it purports to commemorate.

Djilas was born in a dirt-poor Serb village in Montenegro in 1911, to an out-of-work army officer and an illiterate peasant woman. He was so ashamed of his homespun clothes on his first trip north to Belgrade in 1929 that when the train stopped in Sarajevo he jumped out and bought himself a cheap new suit in the marketplace. Once in the capital, he fell in with Communist students struggling against the secret police of the royalist dictatorship. Alongside Joseph Kardelj, the Slovenian schoolmaster, Edward Rankovic, the Serbian journeyman tailor, and Josip Broz Tito, the suave Croatian who had been to the Moscow Party schools, Djilas became one of the four blood brothers who made the Yugoslav Communist revolution.

On the eve of the Second World War, the Party had barely two thousand members. By war’s end, it had seized power. From the beginning, Djilas and Tito understood the war as an opportunity to finish off their domestic rivals, the Croatian Ustashi and the Royalist Serbian Chetniks. The Partisans spent as much time liquidating their domestic opponents as they did engaging the invaders. Somewhere between 1.7 and 1.8 million Yugoslavs lost their lives between 1941 and 1945, most of them in the civil war with their Yugoslav brothers. The fighting against both Germans and fellow Yugoslavs was savage: a constant struggle by isolated, outnumbered units to break out of encirclements in the ravines and bare mountains of Bosnia. Djilas himself clubbed German prisoners to death and slit their throats with a pocketknife; forded streams in the dark to take out machine-gun nests on the other side; nearly died of hunger, dysentery and typhus, pleurisy and pneumonia. There were times, he later recalled, when they were so filthy, wet, and bedraggled that their weapons were the only way you could tell the fighters were human beings.

He later claimed that the Partisans held down twenty German divisions, though subsequent historians believe the figure was nearer eight, and fighting did not preclude serious attempts at collaboration. Djilas met with high-ranking German officers in Sarajevo and other places in Bosnia in March 1943 and told them that the Chetniks, rather than the German army, were the Partisans’ main enemy. He proposed a truce with the Germans and even offered to fight the British if they landed from the Adriatic. Apparently, local German commanders were interested, but Hitler countermanded them, and the negotiations resulted only in limited prisoner exchanges. After the war, the Partisans suppressed the story. It was impossible to square collaboration with the myth of the great national uprising against the foreign invader.

Djilas also kept the truth of these meetings from his Soviet ally even though he himself held Stalin in idolatrous regard. Tito dispatched Djilas to Moscow in 1944 to negotiate aid from the Soviets and he met with Stalin in the Kremlin and then at a dacha outside the city. Djilas’s portrait of Stalin, published in 1962 as Conversations with Stalin, is the most telling glimpse we have of the monster in the flesh: small, paunchy, with black and irregular teeth and “watchful, wary, yellow eyes.” His conversation was coarse and scornful. Of Churchill, Djilas heard Stalin sneer:

Churchill is the kind of man who if you’re not watching will sneak a kopeck right out of your pocket! Yes, a kopeck right out of your pocket! Right out of your pocket, by God!

Passing through the corridor to the dining room of his dacha, Stalin stopped before a map of the world and, gesturing to the Soviet Union all colored in red, he remarked that Britain and America would “never be reconciled to letting a large space like this stay red—never. Never!” During that dinner, Molotov brought Stalin Churchill’s cable announcing the D-Day landings the next day: “Oh sure, there’ll be a landing—if there’s no fog!” Stalin jeered. He doubted the landings would occur at all. “They might stumble across some Germans!”

Back home, Djilas watched the Red Army storm into Belgrade in late 1944, raping countless women in its path. Djilas got into a shouting match with the Red Army commander over his troops’ behavior and Stalin got wind of the quarrel. At their next meeting, he forced a furious Djilas to drink a toast to the Red Army. These encounters marked the beginning of Djilas’s exit from communism, yet to the end of his life, Djilas’s portrait of the dictator remained an ambiguous combination of loathing and awe, mixed with a drop of pity. At their last meeting, Stalin put on some recorded dance music and did a few tired steps of a jig, then stopped, out of breath, while his entourage stared shamefacedly at the carpet.

At one of these meetings, Djilas asked Stalin whether the concepts of the nation and the people were the same. Molotov said they were, more or less. “Nonsense!” Stalin roared across the table. “They’re different things! You already know what a nation is, a nation is the product of capitalism with given characteristics, all classes belong to it, whereas a people—a people consists of the working persons of a given nation, working persons with the same language, culture, and customs.” In one sense, the old monster was right: in time, the peoples rose up and destroyed the Yugoslav state.

At the end of the war, Djilas approved but personally did not take part in the extermination of the Chetniks and Ustashi who fled northward with the retreating German army. So many were killed near the Austrian-Slovenian border in the winter of 1945 that for years afterward peasants there kept finding corpses thrown to the surface by underground rivers. The killings were a “sheer frenzy,” he later admitted, which contributed to the resentment of the Slovenians and Croatians toward the state that Djilas and Tito created after the war. In 1948, when Djilas confessed his misgivings about the purges and executions of 1945, Tito retorted, “We put an end to it once and for all!”

Having been the most pro-Soviet and Stalinist of the Yugoslav leaders, Djilas became one of the chief architects of the break with the Russians in 1948. By then, the blood brothers had ruthlessly eliminated their domestic challengers and had grown impatient with clumsy Soviet attempts to infiltrate the Party and state apparatus. Here too Djilas led the way, denouncing the Soviet system as “state capitalism” and moving the Party toward what came to be called workers’ management. Still, the break bitterly divided the Yugoslav Party. Once again, Djilas approved the harshest of measures. Goli Otok, a grim and bare island outcrop in the Adriatic, was used as a prison to house the Yugoslav Communists who sided with Stalin. For all the bravado of their challenge to the Soviets, the Yugoslavs were deeply apprehensive that the Russians might attack them. Djilas remembered walking with Tito in the garden of one of his palaces in 1948, as they weighed the possibility of a Soviet invasion. Tito said, with “bitter exaltation”: “To die on one’s own soil! At least a memory remains!” It never came to that, for Tito correctly judged that the Americans would never allow the Russians to advance to the shores of the Adriatic.

The break with Moscow, Djilas later wrote, “initiated an epochal disintegration of world communism into national parts.” Once it was admitted that there might be divergent national paths toward utopia, “all the other props pitch and sway—indeed the whole edifice totters.” The East German revolt of 1951, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and the Gomulka reforms in Poland were made more possible by the Yugoslav break in 1948.

When Stalin died in March 1953, Tito was holed up in his private island fortress of Brioni, enjoying the fruits of dictatorship. Even when Rankovic, Kardelj, and Djilas arrived for a Party meeting, Tito’s security detail lounged in every room. The cult of the leader now began to oppress Djilas. The “Old Man,” as Tito was called, was increasingly unapproachable. “It was as if everything had been said in advance, all decisions made. I found myself psychologically and mentally disoriented, disengaged.” Rankovic was running the secret police, Kardelj was in charge of the Party. Djilas was left to run the state newspaper, Borba. All around him, Partisan comrades, who had lived for years in caves and forests and dined on nettles and horse meat were now settling into their villas, building summer houses on the Adriatic, and monopolizing the private boxes at the Partisan soccer stadium. He himself had a new wife, an infant son, Aleksa, a villa in Dedinje, and, according to a New York Times report, a taste for fast Western cars.

But the new privileges caused him deep unease. It was as a despairing revolutionary, watching the revolution sicken and die, that he began writing a series of increasingly sharp criticisms of Party practice in Borba, in the autumn of 1953. He tore into the Party for its “intrigues, mutual scheming and trap-laying, pursuit of posts, careerism, favoritism, the advancement of one’s own followers, relatives, ‘old fighters’—all of it under the mask of high morality and ideology.” The revolution, he wrote, “must find new ideas, new forms. Without creation, the Revolution is only a glorious tradition, but not life. The Revolution must transform itself into democracy and Socialism, into new human relationships, if it is not to be destroyed.” At first, when he sounded out Tito for support, the Old Man was distracted by other things—especially his failure to seize Trieste from the Italians in late 1953—but he made it clear where the line was: “We aren’t ready yet for democracy; the dictatorship has to go on.”

No party had a monopoly on truth, Djilas persisted, or on the right to represent the people. “Every limitation of thought, even in the name of the most beautiful ideal, only degrades those who perpetuate it.” The brotherhood was appalled. Kardelj exploded, “You want to change the whole system!”

It is doubtful that Djilas was actually aiming at that. The Borba article that actually brought about his expulsion concerned a relatively minor issue. Djilas described how a young actress, recently married to a Partisan hero, was humiliated by Party wives in an official box at the Partisan soccer stadium. The young wife was “chicken meat,” they whispered, and so young that she couldn’t possibly know the smell of gunpowder. Djilas witnessed the scene and its petty cruelty seemed to sum up everything that had gone wrong with the revolution:

All they needed to know was that she belonged to another world and had sneaked illegally, they would say, into ours. We were the ones who had gone to war, it was we who had gained political power and the freedom we now enjoyed. We’re the ones who went to work after the war and achieved high office, it’s we who drive around in autos or take parlor cars when we travel by train. We go to special stores for our food and clothing, spend the summers in secluded villas and summer homes. Isn’t it obvious that we must be exceptionally meritorious?

In January 1954, Tito, Kardelj, and Rankovic demanded that Djilas recant. As they drummed him out of the Party, he declared, “From my boyhood until now I have been a free man and a Communist and I hope to remain so until the end of my life.” At first, he naively supposed he could remain both. Even so, the parting with the blood brothers was hard. Kardelj, who led the attack upon him, whispered at the end, “Nothing in my life has been more difficult than this!” and even the Old Man referred to his comrade, more in sorrow than in anger, by his old Partisan nickname, Djido. They never saw each other again.

Djilas was now forty-three years old, an outcast, forbidden to publish in his own language or take any part in the life of a country he had helped to create. His dissent from the regime, which began as a revolutionary’s call to renew his comrades’ commitment, now led him to question the revolution itself. With considerable courage and self-discipline, he remade himself as a writer. The New Class, written in 1955 and 1956, was the most serious attack on the bureaucratization of a revolution since Trotsky’s, and it drew on several Trotskyite themes, arguing that instead of abolishing the class system, the revolution had replaced the old bourgeoisie with a new class of exploiters. The New Class also predicted the collapse of workers’ management. “We cherished a notion that workers’ self-management would give rise to a new democracy of some kind. No such dream could ever have come to pass, though, since freedom cannot be reduced to a bigger piece of bread.”

Djilas and his wife, Stefica, spirited the manuscript abroad and the book was published in dozens of foreign editions. Thereafter Djilas survived on his foreign royalties. He was the first dissident since Trotsky to challenge the Party-controlled state from the very summit of Communist power; the first to apply Marxist categories to the sociology of his own autocracy; the first to risk political death by publishing abroad.

The brothers’ revenge was swift and determined. After publication of The New Class in 1957 and then again after the appearance of Conversations with Stalin in 1962, Djilas was convicted of subversion and served nine years of imprisonment in Belgrade’s Central Prison. The conditions were hard even for an austere revolutionary: numbing cold in a solitary cell, a single hour of exercise around a bleak prison yard, a single visit every month from his wife, Stefica, and their son, Aleksa. In all this, he kept himself alive and alert by writing: millions of words on prison toilet paper, recurrently confiscated by the prison guards.

On his release in December 1966, the world looked rather like the one he had predicted. National variations of “socialism” were developing nearby: goulash communism under Kadar in Hungary; the first signs of the Prague spring under Dubcek; Ceausåüescu’s defiance of Brezhnev. Inside Yugoslavia, the old triumvirate were still in power but already the Slovene, Croatian, and Serbian parties were beginning to go their own way into ethnic separatism, and by now the Old Man was helpless to stop them. By the early 1970s, Djilas was finished with communism, dogmatically convinced, as he told anyone who came to see him at his flat, that there was no truth to Party dogma. Little by little his Partisan generation died off: first Rankovic, then Kardelj, and finally, in 1980, the Old Man himself.

After that, the country they had constructed together began to disintegrate. Djilas might have been expected to watch the regime’s decomposition with relish. Instead the spectacle deeply depressed him. He always believed that it was ideological weakness and moral disillusion more than economic failure that doomed communism. That and the failure to democratize. With no experience of democracy, the society faced the passing of Tito without the slightest knowledge of how to peacefully mobilize citizens to take part in elections on non-ethnic lines. A state built on police terror, charisma, and Partisan lies could not last any longer than the brothers who had created it. When they died off, the state disintegrated into the component national groups of the south Balkans. At the end of his life, in an essay included in Fall of the New Class, Djilas wrote:

When revolutions occur, ethnic identities do get hammered down, only to bounce back with elemental force unless precisely defined relationships have developed in a society: democratic institutions, a free economy, a middle class. In this regard communism left behind it a desert.

Yet, in his time, Djilas had believed that communism would dissolve ethnic hatreds and replace them with a new national identity based on “brotherhood and unity.” All of these hopes proved delusive, not least because he himself did so much to undermine the moral legitimacy of communism in his own country. In the end, of all the blood brothers, he enjoyed the bitter privilege of historical vindication. But when it came, the nation he had built lay in ruins around him.

He died in April 1995 in Belgrade and was buried in his native Montenegro. By then the death of communism was an old story, and all his heroic stubbornness was quickly forgotten. In a funeral oration at his grave, one of his old friends said that he was a great writer whose misfortune was to have been a politician. This gets it wrong. It was his politics which made him a writer, and it was his writing which saved him from his politics. He was one of the founders of a police state; he had contributed to the vicious bloodletting which eventually destroyed his country; but he had repented of his ruthlessness and had paid for his apostasy with hard years in prison. In the end, this aloof, ascetic, and passionate Montenegrin proved stronger than the system he challenged. He changed history by insisting openly that you cannot be both a Communist and a free man.

  1. *

    This encounter is described more fully in my Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), pp. 50-53.

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