These are baleful times for Yugoslavia. In what may be his final passion of foreboding for his country, the patriarch is trying to reverse in a few months all the trends toward disintegration but also toward libertarianism that have developed in recent years. Last year, Tito tried to suppress nationalism in the Yugoslav republics by overthrowing the leadership of the Croatian League of Communists and instituting the succession of political trials and dismissals that is still going on. This year it is the Serbs, the strongest and most cannily tolerant of the communities in Yugoslavia, who are being assailed for their liberalism.
Tito is seeking to restore the strict and centralized authority of the Party in a society that has become too plural to accept it. He is trying to draw a distinction, which perhaps exists only in his own mind, between self-management in factories controlled by their workers and the political self-management of republics, of districts, of individual men and women who declare their own interests and try to make them prevail. Hastily revising history for the sake of this distinction, Tito now announces that the famous Sixth Congress of the Yugoslav League of Communists in 1952, which introduced the program of self-managing socialist democracy, was vitiated by a “euphoria of democratization.”
If what Tito is doing is mistaken, what other coherent idea or line of criticism in Yugoslavia offers promise for that terribly near future in which he is no longer there? It is hard to find one. The atomization he speaks of is real enough. Ideas touted in Belgrade or Zagreb are wild and empty. Those who as members of the Party most furiously defend the association of self-management with political liberty are also those who believe—with almost absurd fanaticism—in the virtues of a free-market economy open to every wind of international competition that blows.
They are like fighting Darwinians. When you say that it is madness for Yugoslavia to pretend that it is Switzerland, that Western Europe will simply fall upon a “free” Yugoslav economy and swallow it industry by industry until the country becomes a colony of Brussels, they retort, “So let it happen.” Only in Yugoslavia could communists go to the barricades for what amounts to the restoration of capitalism. The Trotskyite critic Ernest Mandel observed the other day that “it isn’t even state capitalism they are trying to restore, but good old private capitalism.” One can take his statement even further, and say that they would restore good old Krupp-and-ITT economic imperialism.
Milovan Djilas, living in Belgrade and watching this mounting confusion, has at least the satisfactions of Cassandra. In The Unperfect Society (1969), he wrote, “No one can doubt that Tito’s successor will take over direction of a state that is disunited and neglected, and that may be abandoned to the cupidity of Soviet pan-Russian imperialism…” and, “Only the vision of a new Yugoslavia within which national communities are associated by agreements as between foreign states, and in which all citizens have political freedom, offers any prospects for a more stable state community.”
But how does one cross the swamps that separate modern Yugoslavia from such a promised land, and led by whom? By Djilas, perhaps? In the same book, written four years ago, he is touchingly ambiguous about this. “However much I crave power, I hope with all my heart that this cup will pass from me…yet these unidealist challenges and difficulties spur and guide my energies towards power—towards the materialization of ideas, towards duty, towards glory….” It may be that Djilas is pacing about those narrow, bleak streets behind the old Serbian parliament building in the gathering conviction that his hour is near. That seems unlikely, whatever he may believe. The ultimate successor to Tito must have a power base and a skill at alliance and compromise which this lonely Montenegrin would disdain.
Djilas, as it seems to me, is going to be remembered as a historical writer rather than as a politician or political thinker. The New Class (1957) is a shallow book, The Unperfect Society a vigorous kicking of the dead horse of communist dogmatism. But Conversations with Stalin (1962) is the most remarkable memoir of postwar Eastern Europe that we possess. And the books about Montenegro, memoir and fictionalized history, are becoming part of Europe’s self-understanding.
Land Without Justice, now reissued as a paperback, was first published in the West in 1958. Djilas wrote it, together with The New Class, when he was living under a suspended sentence in 1955-1956. Later, when his imprisonment at Sremska Mitrovica began, Djilas reorganized much of the autobiographical and historical matter of Land Without Justice into the long novel Montenegro (1962).
It was Njego, the last prince-bishop of Montenegro and also a poet, who called his tiny country a “land without justice.” Foreigners have preferred the uncritical romanticizing of Tennyson: “Great Tzernagora! Never since thine own / Black ridges drew the cloud and brake the storm / Has breathed a race of mightier mountaineers.” The Montenegrins, a branch of the Serb race, preserved their independence and Christianity through centuries when their brothers suffered the domination of the Turks. They fought, raided, resisted. They maintained their ancient society of clans, their heroes and their blood-feuds, their epic poetry. They were extravagantly patriotic and courageous. They were also riven by famous treacheries and capable of hideous cruelty. When Djilas was a child, Montenegro was rising toward its final glory and tragedy. Resistance to the overwhelming Austrian invasion in 1916 was followed by the base surrender of the king, and then by the unification of Montenegro with Serbia into what was to become Yugoslavia.
Even without war, it was not a place in which men died in their beds. In the clan of the Djilases, Milovan’s paternal great-grandfather, both his grandfathers, his father, and his uncle were killed, most of them by murder. Both his own brothers were to die in the Partisan movement. Njego himself said that “who wishes to live eternally is a martyr in this world.” Many of Djilas’s ancestors were themselves guilty of famous assassinations. It was this prefeudal people, among the last groups in Europe to live in what must have been the life of the high Iron Age, that emerged through the collapse of the Hapsburgs into a world of politicians in celluloid collars, of secret protocols, monoplanes, and chemical trusts.
Djilas is concerned with this emergence. He describes it here in the lives of men and women he knew, outlaws and peasant women, mounted chieftains and shopkeepers’ wives, village poets and small-town schoolmasters. For all of them, the end of Montenegro as an independent kingdom was also the end of transparently obvious right and wrong. The outlaw was no longer just an outlaw, but a political rebel. The Turk-slayer and the avenger of an insult were turning into simple murderers. Honor and tradition no longer provided answers.
Djilas’s own father became a gendarmerie commander under the Belgrade government. His loyalty to the unification with Serbia, always a Montenegrin dream, now stood in conflict with the outraged Montenegrin patriotism which held that the new age was debasing all that was simple and good in the people. Vendetta killings were carried out with a new hysterical sadism and cruelty. After the murder in 1924 of the chieftain Boko Boković, the local population wrongly blamed the Moslem minority and attacked them in an orgy of massacre, torture, and plunder. Djilas’s own father, to his later shame, went with them. “It seemed as if men came to hate other humans as such, and that their religion was only an excuse for their monstrous hatred. The times had unnoticeably become wicked, and the men with them.”
That comment raises the most interesting aspect of Djilas’s history and fiction. This is, broadly, his attitude toward questions of free will, moral responsibility, and social determinism. When he presents his own moral outlook, Djilas does so as a Manichaean. The story “Tsar Dukljan” in the collection The Stone and the Violets tries to express this view through legend. Tsar Dukljan, the lord of darkness, builds a fort and God’s saintly emissary Ilija is unable to overcome him. In the end, God himself is obliged to intervene with a thunderbolt which breaks the fort and hurls Dukljan to the depths of the river Moraca—where, however, Dukljan remains alive and preparing his inevitable escape. “So long as men are a blend of good and evil, then all one’s life is a wrestle with Dukljan, since one bears him in oneself. But life is also divine, a confirmation of the power of man over him, that is, over himself….”
Dukljan, Ilija, and God certainly take care of moral responsibility. They do so by constructing a religious imperative for ceaseless moral struggle that can never be finally successful. What they do not account for is why Dukljan is at one time chained under the Moraca, at another in his fortress: in other words, how social change makes a given action with traditional sanction good today and evil tomorrow without modifying the subjective moral consciousness of the actor. Djilas, on the other hand, is very good indeed at explaining this.
It has always struck me that Djilas, though repenting so vigorously of his dialectical materialism, is one of the purest Marxist writers around. Montenegro, above all, reveals this delicate understanding of the interplay between objective change and individual awareness. There are many examples, one grotesque enough to be memorable. In old, whole Montenegro, it was a big joke for one outlaw to put a live cat into the trousers of another outlaw. Everybody had a great Homeric laugh over the howls of the pinioned victim and the shrieks of the cat. After the end of the kingdom, when outlaws and war lords were installed as a rude imitation of civil servants, two brigands tried it again on a third. But it was no longer funny. The laughter did not come. Without their understanding what had happened to them, their eyes met in hatred and they resolved to kill each other.
Land Without Justice also abounds in this sort of perception. “Old Montenegro was all out of joint. Her mountains and crags still stood, but she herself had fallen, sunken in hatred and blood, seeking but unable to find herself.” This is the moral Djilas draws after telling the story of his own father, one of the Montenegrin exofficers whose energy and courage ran to waste and excess after the war, a new-made commander of gendarmerie to whose house the outlaws would come softly in the night for food.
For Milovan Djilas, no man was more courageous than his Uncle Teofil. This Teofil had fought bravely at the battle of Mojkovac, the last stand of the nation against the Austrians, and then emigrated with those who planned to restore an independent Montenegro. He returned, an elderly man, and was kicked and slapped by a local police sergeant. This was clear traditional ground for a vengeance killing. Even Djilas’s father urged Teofil to take to the mountains. But he did not. After struggling with himself, he went back to his small holding, ploughed, and began to raise a family. “The strongest are those who renounce their own times and become a living part of those to come.”
With the exception of the title piece in The Stone and the Violets, these stories were written in prison at Sremska Mitrovica. Like most of Djilas’s fiction, they are grave and realistic, often so close to actual political or personal events as to enter the borderland between invention and memoir. The final piece, “About Marko Miljanov,” is an impassioned essay about a nineteenth-century Montenegrin chieftain, almost an illiterate, who left his king to live in exile rather than continue to serve a government whose behavior he found “abominable and repellent.” He became, with great pains, a writer and produced several books about his country.
Examples of Manliness and Heroism was the first. It is easy to see, and Djilas means it to be easy, what strength Djilas drew from the tale of Miljanov during his years at Sremska Mitrovica, and not only from the story of his deliberate fall from power to renunciation and reflection. Most of his own short stories are about manliness and heroism (those qualities monotonously claimed by all Montenegrins) and their opposites. Djilas tells the story of his two brothers, already tenderly undertaken in Land Without Justice, and in the story “The Brothers and the Girl” he recounts the love of these two young communists for the same woman, with the implication—perhaps a monstrous one, if the girl could tell her own version—that the collision of loyalties that she brought about contributed to the foolhardiness that brought death to one and the resignation under torture of the other.
“An Eye for an Eye” is the confession of a Serb from the north, who sees his women raped by Hungarian soldiers and becomes a member of a band whose atrocities, conceived as “classic” vengeance, become horrible out of any proportion. The most satisfying piece in the collection is “The Ambush,” no more than the story of a Montenegrin gentleman evading a group of outlaws with the help of a miller’s wife, but put together with an economy that is not habitual with Djilas.
At this point, there is heard the grinding of teeth from Belgrade. Why is it, Yugoslav intellectuals ask, that Djilas is regarded as a celebrated Yugoslav writer abroad? In his own country, his fiction attracts little notice these days, and not merely because it does not get published there: it can be bought in Italy or West Germany and taken home without much trouble. The truth is rather that his kind of writing is now profoundly out of fashion in Yugoslavia, where, especially since about 1955, literature has developed in many new and experimental directions. Writing by the generation that “made the revolution” seems to command little attention.
In Contemporary Yugoslav Literature, which is a comprehensive and in many ways brilliant account of the cultural scene since the war, the young critic Sveta Lukić does not mention Djilas as a creative writer at all. His trials are only discussed as events that obstructed younger writers anxious to win the right to be more honest about their own society. For Lukić, Djilas remains essentially the ideologue who in 1952, as the Party leader most concerned with cultural affairs, wrote: “Leave politics to us politicians, while we leave aesthetics to you writers. It is obvious which of these is more important….” Lukić may be thinking of Djilas, as well as of the much-translated and prize-laden Ivo Andrić, when he complains that Western publishers take only Yugoslav novels which are “Balkan, oriental, peasant and…include dark motives, killings and primitivism.”
Lukić provoked a great row with this book when it came out in Yugoslavia. He was attacked for talking about a “Yugoslav literature,” which deeply offended the Croat writers among others. He was accused of inventing a spurious concept of “literary life” in order to give disproportionate space to his own café cronies in Belgrade. He gave the authorities offense by what seemed to be rank ingratitude for the extensive liberty that writers in his country do enjoy.
He is talking about what he calls “socialist aestheticism.” By this, Lukić means the cultural stage that succeeds socialist realism, when Stalinist dogmatism in its most ambitious form has been driven out of the arts. Under socialist realism, the writer is told what he should be writing about. Under socialist aestheticism he is merely warned of things he had better not write about, and otherwise left to himself.
Every socialist society in Eastern Europe which has gone through de-Stalinization has experienced this change to some degree. To be left alone seems at first a luxury beyond price. But it is a blessing that, in its own way, turns sour. Sveta Lukić comes down to particulars by discussing the Yugoslav experience after the Party publicly gave license to “free creativity” in late 1954. He concludes that in the end this condition of qualified freedom—the fence forbidding access to the really important topics of social concern still remains, of course—leads writers off into escapism and fantasy.
In Yugoslavia as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, “socialist aestheticism” encouraged the novelist and scriptwriter to “avoid dealing with reality in a critical way.” The status of the writer was “very high theoretically, but in reality worthless,” while economic security made him “passive and conformist” and anxious to avoid the risk entailed in facing the real social problems of the day. Fear of a restoration of Stalinism remained so exaggerated that many intellectuals denied any social relevance to art at all.
The destruction of the Stalinist cultural machine also destroyed the unity of culture, however artificial that was. Lukić observes that Yugoslavia in the Fifties reproduced the pattern of many advanced societies, as culture split into “serious” and “popular,” into high art and entertainment-plus-sport. The mass of Serbs and Croats predictably chose cowboys and football, while the writers—the traditional conscience of their nation—fell into despair. The regime further unsettled them by encouraging the most ruthless criticism of Soviet social reality (this license has since been revoked) while forbidding them to do the same at home. It was clear, to Lukić at least, that the Party wanted a relative intellectual freedom in order to “score foreign policy goals against the Soviet Union,” but had less interest in cultural liberties as a value in themselves.
But “socialist aestheticism” is now declining, in Lukić view, and as more and more writers climb through the fence and return to a new and more authentic realism, so the incidence of censorship and literary suppression and confiscation soars. His own conclusion is that the writer’s freedom must be constantly extended if Yugoslav literature is to escape from mediocrity. If this prospect is somehow ruinous to President Tito’s ideas of social order, or to folksy local novelists who might no longer earn a living, so much the worse for Tito and the folksy novelists.
Sveta Lukić, like those economic Darwinians I quoted at the outset, wants his own free-market economy in letters. Western writers could warn him, with sympathy for his struggle against bureaucracy and manipulation, that such a free market can produce its own unplanned unfreedoms. We had “capitalist aestheticism” long before the malady spread to the lands of socialism.
November 30, 1972