Commentary Magazine

Anatomy of a Moral, by Milovan Djilas

The Uniqueness of a Rebel
Anatomy of a Moral. The Political Essays of Milovan Djilas.
Praeger. 181 pp. $2.95.


This volume contains translations of the articles written by Milovan Djilas in the last months of 1953 in the official newspaper of the Yugoslav League of Communists, Borba, of which he was then the director. In them can be traced the development of his ideas from the critical analysis of the Soviet system to the conclusion that dictatorship by a Communist party (even the Yugoslav party) is incompatible with socialist progress. The essay which gives its name to the book, and is longer than the others, appeared in the review Nova Misao, also edited by Djilas. It was a savage attack an the new snobbery and respectability of the Communist upper caste, and especially of their wives, and was based on the case of the young actress wife of a Communist general who was boycotted and insulted by the wives of his colleagues. This essay, written in an immoderate style which does not entirely come across in translation, brought the rage of the party bureaucrats, already annoyed by Djilas’s political articles, to the boil, and compelled Tito to call the special meeting of the Central Committee in January 1954 which expelled Djilas from its ranks and deprived him of his public offices. These articles are preceded by a twenty-page Introduction by Abraham Rothberg, the editor of the book, which usefully describes the background and gives an account of the 1954 Central Committee meeting.

Djilas is an outstanding example of a social group that has played, and will continue to play, a leading part in the politics of the 20th century—the revolutionary intelligentsia of an underdeveloped society. The cadres of Tito’s Army of Liberation of 1941-44 were largely composed of former students of the Yugoslav universities (especially of Belgrade) who in their student days had acquired that combination of Narodnik outlook and Marxist doctrine which brought them into the underground Communist party. Many came from the mountainous provinces of the South and Center—Bosnia, Montenegro, and Dalmatia—in which most of the fighting against the occupying forces and their allies took place, and which were the home of as “underdeveloped” a society as could be found in the whole Mediterranean Basin. Of the Communist leaders who survived the war, Djilas was the clearest type of the revolutionary intellectual. He was always interested in ideas, but this did not make him an unpractical dreamer: he could be as ruthless as any of his colleagues, and those Westerners who had some experience of him in those years found him a harsh and single-minded fanatic. When the war ended he was one of Tito’s innermost circle of leaders (though not “the second-ranking Communist in Yugoslavia,” for both Kardelj and Rankovic were senior to him in the hierarchy).

The most interesting thing about Djilas is that he chose to challenge the regime at a time When he stood just below the apex of the power elite. Consideration of his own’ interests would have kept him where he was, as the chief mouthpiece of ideological orthodoxy. But he acted against his interests and according to his convictions. When his reflections, in the years from the breach with the Cominform to the end of 1953, led him to conclude that the party dictatorship no longer served a useful purpose, he did not hesitate to say so.

In this Djilas is unique among all Communist leaders since 1917. The greatest of Communist rebels, Trotsky himself, did not oppose the regime created by the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1923 he disagreed on important issues of policy with the troika, and political controversy became still further embittered by personal conflict. The more fiercely Trotsky was persecuted, the more radically he criticized important features of the regime and of its leaders’ policies—the bureaucratic organization of the party, “socialism in one country,” the whole strategy of the Comintern in China. But he never questioned the necessity of dictatorship by the Bolshevik party over the peoples of the Russian Empire, never upheld freedom of opinion and organization as matters of principle. Djilas’s proposal, that the party be reduced to a “union of ideologically united men,” a debating society which should abandon its monopoly of power and “‘wither away’ as a classical party,” would have been summarily rejected by Trotsky. Djilas saw that concentration of power in one centralized party is bound to deprive of liberty not only the “class enemy” and the people at large, but also the members of the party. He argued that Lenin’s methods “were adapted to a specific time . . . the period of preparing for the struggle for power.” Once the revolution had triumphed, however, these methods were no longer suitable. “Our progress can proceed in two directions,” he wrote in Borba on January 4, 1954, “towards a Leninist form of state and parity which cannot be democratic today, at towards a renunciation of that form for a more democratic, free and decentralized form of political life and struggle.” Trotsky never saw the need to abandon Lenin’s party dictatorship. He clamored for “inner-party democracy” without understanding that “dictatorship of the proletariat,” “democratic centralism,” and prohibition of “fractionalism” made freedom even within the party impossible. This is not to say that Djilas is in general a more profound thinker than was Trotsky, still less that he can compare with him as a stylist. But in the vital matter of political freedom, Djilas is the more perspicacious of the two.

As for the other notable Communist rebels, all have been forced into opposition by the attacks of colleagues or superiors: they have not, like Djilas, chosen to oppose from conviction. Zinoviev and Kamenev broke with Stalin when—too late—they discovered the web of intrigue Which he had spun around them. Bukharin became a rebel only after Stalin had decided to abandon the policies in which he believed. Tito resisted such demands from Moscow as conflicted with his conception of Yugoslavia’s interests, but in public he loyally supported the Soviet Union until Stalin pronounced anathema upon him. Gomulka was denounced by his colleagues for policies which until that moment had had full approval in Moscow. Nagy only mildly disagreed with Rákosi in the 1940’s. Recalled to power in 1953, he carried out policies in which he himself believed but which also had Moscow’s blessing. He was dismissed in 1955 because Rákosi exploited the fall of Malenkov to recover power, not because he had disobeyed Moscow’s orders. In 1956 Nagy was brought to power again by revolutionary forces over which he had no control. That, when forced to choose between his party and the revolution, he chose the revolution, is to his credit, but it does not make of him a systematic rebel.

Of these men, Trotsky, Tito, Gomulka, and Nagy were the equals of Djilas in courage, and Trotsky was in most respects his intellectual superior. But none understood so clearly the essential political problem, or chose, as Djilas did, gratuitously to sacrifice a position of unchallenged power for a conviction reached by his own reasoning.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.