Progress of a Revolutionary

Rise and Fall

by Milovan Djilas, Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by John Fiske Loud
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 424 pp., $24.95

This is the fourth and presumably last volume of the autobiography of Milovan Djilas, the only man in the communist world who, having reached the highest circles of Party power and privilege, felt morally obliged to repudiate the entire system that he helped to install. As a consequence he was stripped of office, spent nine years in prison, and has remained until today forcibly isolated from his compatriots and shunned by the official representatives of all foreign countries.

Living in the heart of Belgrade and writing for foreign publishers (at home all his works are taboo, even his translation of Paradise Lost) Djilas has survived through the power of his writings and the reputation they have given him. In 1954, after Djilas’s downfall, President Tito told foreign journalists that he was “politically dead: the most terrifying death of all.” Today when Tito and virtually all his other wartime associates are literally dead, Djilas is not only alive, but so strong a presence that three scholars have just been sentenced to prison principally for the crime of attending a discussion group in a private apartment where Djilas addressed them. The group had been meeting for seven years, and its members were arrested only when the seventy-three-year-old Djilas took part for the first time.

Generations of Yugoslavs have been brought up to believe that Djilas is treachery incarnate. Yet last year, at the thirtieth anniversary of his downfall, the Belgrade Student Center produced a skit describing how the Communist bureaucrats fawned on Djilas while he was still on top, and then sneered at him and traduced him the moment Tito’s favors were withdrawn. Djilas has already published three books dealing with his personal experiences during the period covered in the present volume, from 1945 until he left prison in 1967. The most famous was Conversations with Stalin, based on personal encounters about which Djilas now adds some interesting supplementary details. In The New Class, Djilas became the first to identify the emergence of the privileged nomenklatura as an essential element in all the communist one-party systems. Tito: The Story from Inside gave a memorable firsthand account of Tito’s policies, behavior, and appearance during the time when Djilas and he were constantly in each other’s company.

The new volume, which is over four hundred pages long, consequently omits some of Djilas’s best stories and contains much material that is of interest mainly to people with a close knowledge of leading Yugoslav artists and politicians at the time. Those who are interested in Djilas’s life but are unfamiliar with the Yugoslav background, or are daunted by more than 1500 pages of autobiography, will find useful Stephen Clissold’s scholarly and succinct biography: Djilas, The Progress of a Revolutionary.1 Moreover, Clissold writes lucid prose, in contrast to the English version of Djilas’s book, which sounds as if it was translated by someone for whom English was not his first language. Otherwise he would not have Djilas, at the start of his career, describe himself…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.