Commentary Magazine

The Idealism of Milovan Djilas

In the period shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the Communist underground in Yugoslavia was shaken by a fierce literary and intellectual conflict. At the time, the leader of literary Marxism in Yugoslavia was Miroslav Krleza—the Croatian novelist, poet, and critic. Along with such Serbian writers as Milan Bogdanovic and Marko Ristic, Krleza had been editing several magazines which, when they were not being suppressed by the censors, had begun to develop the position that literature must become independent of party dogma, specifically of the prevailing Stalinist doctrine of “socialist realism.” Though Krleza had been one of the leading figures in Yugoslav Marxism during the past two decades, he was now violently attacked for this heresy and was soon excommunicated by the underground party’s Central Committee. The leaders of the attack against him were two untalented writers, Radovan Zogovic and Jovan Popovic, and an intransigent Stalinist intellectual by the name of Milovan Djilas. In the course of the polemics that raged back and forth, Krleza published a pamphlet titled “Anti-barbarus,” which characterized this “troika,” and particularly Djilas, as fanatical barbarians, who sought to destroy the growth of culture and to keep the country submerged in primitive backwardness and illiteracy.

When I saw Krleza in Zagreb in 1945, he was waiting to discover what his fate would be in the new age of Yugoslav Communism. Tito and Djilas were then visiting in Zagreb but refused to meet with Krleza, much less reinstate him; knowing Djilas, Krleza expected the worst. When this veteran Marxist was eventually accepted again by the party, it was through the personal influence of Tito; and so far as I know Krleza and his old enemy Djilas have never been reconciled. Today, Krleza is the leading writer and academician of the Communist establishment, while Djilas is in jail for embracing the cause of free speech—a cause which until 1953 he had single-mindedly fought against and despised.

In order to understand the career which has led this tormented and searching man from a fanatical Stalinism to an outspoken anti-Stalinism (during the period of the Moscow-Belgrade rupture) and finally into a complete repudiation of Titoist Communism (of which he was probably the chief architect) and a conversion to the ideals of Western democracy, it is necessary to cut through some of the vague heroic aura that currently surrounds his figure in the West and to see him, early and late, as the product of a particular web of personal and cultural circumstances.



To Begin with, mere is Djilas’s Montenegrin background. A mountainous and primitive region, Montenegro has had a long history of clans and tribes who exterminated each other mercilessly in the name of some principle of justice, the Partisan War during and after the Nazi occupation being only one of the bloodier chapters in the region’s annals of violent civil strife. Much of the character of this patriarchal society, with its almost Spartan asceticism and rigidity, was formed by indigenous religious influences. In the Montenegrin mountains, as in those of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christianity was not controlled by the Byzantine Church—as it was in the regions to the southeast—nor by the Roman Catholic Church—as it was in the regions to the northwest. From the early 10th to the 15th centuries, this area was the stronghold of the Bogomil Manichean heresy which developed an inflexible hostility to the religious and cultural influences of both East and West. Balkan Bogomilism, whose followers called themselves the true Krstjani, not only refused to be drawn into the orbits of Byzantium or Rome but also preserved a fierce religious anarchism that saw in all visible things, including organized churches and formalized services, the work of the devil, and only in the invisible world the presence of God. The typical Bogomil was as grimly severe with himself as he was pessimistic about the world, from which his only escape was through an unyielding attachment to a completely abstract God.

One of the most impressive and influential figures of Montenegrin culture was the 19th-century poet Petar Petrovic-Njegos. Though a Greek Orthodox bishop, Njegos was in spirit a Bogomil. He left behind in his poetry a powerful critique of the split between Western rationalism and Eastern mysticism and richly adumbrated the Bogomil view that the “world is a component of evil discordance” and “human life . . . a terrifying nightmare.” Among the most faithful readers of this Montenegrin seer was Milovan Djilas, who has spent some of his recent years in prison writing a long and penetrating study of Njegos.



The Major purpose of Njegos’s life lay in combating the spread of Islam which the Turks had brought with them into the South Balkans. During the fanatical crusade he carried on against the Islamic influence, Njegos demanded the death of all Montenegrins who had forsaken Christianity, and ruled that anyone who did not seek vengeance upon the apostates was not a true Christian. Njegos’s merciless demand for religious purity had in it much of the old Bogomil xenophobia as well as a strong tincture of 19th-century Slavophilism. He was no less hostile to the impact of Western positivism upon the South Slavs than he was to the spread of Eastern mysticism, and believed that the cynical imperialism of the Western powers toward the Balkans was as menacing as the ruthless despotism of the Ottoman Empire. If Njegos continued to affirm that the world was beset by unbridgeable contradictions which man was too weak and God too remote to resolve, he was also attracted to the idea that what possibility there existed of salvation could come only from “holy Russia”—the great mother of the Slavs.

However grim this vision of life and however dubious its faith in Russia’s destiny, the writings of Njegos had a powerful effect upon the young nationalists and Marxists who were to spring up in the Balkans. The ancient fervors and mirages of an indigenous militant orthodoxy were rooted in their souls as intimately as they had been in the souls of the Old Believers and of the Bogomil or Bosnian Krstjani. The idealism of the generation of intellectuals that preceded Djilas’s was nationalistic, and they took as their mission in life the destruction of the declining Ottoman Empire in the south and of the Austro-Hungarian in the north. Inspired by 19th-century revolutionary and nihilistic literature, the Gacinovics and Princips were also animated by a Dostoevskian vision of a Slavic messianism that would regenerate the West once its decadent regimes had been demolished. The principal figure of this generation was Gavrilo Princip, who literally fired the shot that began World War I. Survivors of his generation such as Ivo Andric, the Nobel Prize winner, and Vaso Gubrilovic, a leading Yugoslav scholar, still believe that Princip’s action was not only understandable but legitimate.

Essentially anarchistic and mystical, this intelligentsia was unprepared to organize a new social and political order that would satisfy the masses. With the creation of Yugoslavia after the First World War, the militants who had fought the Balkan Wars and the world war to liberate their country rapidly lost influence, and the new state was molded by the Serbian monarchy, bureaucracy, and church according to their own interests. Members of other nationalities—Macedonians, Montenegrins, and particularly Croats—became second-class citizens, and the Serb intelligentsia itself was eliminated from political life. However, the combination of a parvenu bourgeoisie and a weak and petty monarchy proved unable to govern this country of flaming nationalities. In the ensuing years of strife and violence, the nationalist intellectuals began to be drawn in other directions. Some of them, particularly among the Montenegrins, looked to the example of the Russian Revolution as a way of ending the corrupt and incompetent rule in Belgrade. A considerable number of the ultranationalists thought they saw the wave of the future taking form in Fascist Italy and later in Nazi Germany. In general, the disaffected opted for one or the other of these extremes, and few intellectuals were attracted either by the possibility of social democracy or of enlightened anti-fascist conservatism.

The Spanish Civil War provided the final catalyst in this split. The ultranationalists joined Franco and the international fascist cause, while the Communists and left-wing populists rallied to the Spanish Republic. Under the leadership of Tito and others, Balkan students joined the international brigades, and hoped to continue the battle in Yugoslavia when they returned. Later, in the Yugoslav mountains, many of these “Spaniards”—who had been indoctrinated both in guerrilla warfare and Stalinism—were indeed to continue much the same battle which, just as in the countryside of Castile and Catalonia, was fought more ruthlessly against socialists and anarchists than against fascists.



It is only out of this evolving heritage of religious, ethnic, and political fanaticism that the tragic figure of Milovan Djilas begins to emerge in anything like a true perspective. As a Montenegrin intellectual, Djilas’s background was typically narrow, his education irregular and superficial. As a child of both his grim, virtually anarchic country and the fanatical, nihilistic tradition of Slavic radicalism, his instinct was always to rebel in the name of some abstract ideal of justice and truth against the existing laws of society and the prevailing forms of culture. Every new contact he made with the realm of ideals would press onward through a period of total belief to one of radical disaffection, provoking a new protest and renewed rebellion, without satisfaction or conclusion. His intransigent idealism has always been empowered less by the sentiment to construct than by the compulsion to destroy.

To Djilas, as to many of his pre-war comrades, Marxism appeared to be the only way out of the bog of relativism into which he had been led by his early confused groping with Western thinkers. As a coherent concept of the unfolding and fulfillment of history, Marxism offered him and his restless associates a new religion, complete with myths and regulations and opportunities for power, just at the time that they were emerging from a culture still possessed by an equally rigid but backward dogmatism—and they gave to their new creed an absolute authority that excluded the possibility of nuance, much less of doubt. Further, having seen the ideal of the national state betrayed into an ugly copy of the Western bourgeois establishment, Djilas and his generation, enamored of absolute justice and equality, were powerfully attracted to the promise of happiness that was already being prepared for in the Russia of Lenin and Stalin, where Slavs like themselves were finally solving the mystery of man’s redemption.

Though Djilas was himself coldly critical of romantic Slavophilism, he relates that when he first saw Moscow he experienced a sense of kinship with his Montenegrin forebears, the prince-bishops like Njegos, who had frequently come to this city for aid and inspiration. His Marxism was thoroughly Russian—derived from the glosses of Lenin and Stalin and not from the original works of Marx and his Western interpreters. Only the Russian grasp of the revolutionary process seemed to him applicable to a country such as Montenegro where the basic issue, as he repeatedly has said, was how to bring justice into a society that had never known it. Moreover, any concept of justice that was meaningful to the Eastern Slavs would have to possess nothing less than the radiance of a universal, spiritual truth about human nature. Like Dostoevsky, Djilas would have little truck with the Western interpretation of justice, regarding it merely as an iron yoke of dehumanized formalism. On the other hand, in the distant Russia of the Bolsheviks, mankind was now experiencing the development of a truly human and equal justice.

Armed then with a crusading spirit that was fed and justified by Montenegrin tradition and Soviet propaganda, Djilas pursued his career in the Communist party. In prewar Yugoslavia he militantly rallied the student youth and quasi-intelligentsia and fought against any tendencies toward deviation. In Montenegro and in Bosnia during the war, and afterward throughout Yugoslavia, he was perhaps the most merciless of the party’s persecutors and inquisitors, which is saying a good deal. Nothing seemed to stop him. My own impression of Djilas during those years was that of a man driven to persecute entirely by his violent passions and instincts, and by an unqualifiedly passionate faith in Stalinism. While many of his comrades were Stalinists out of cold resolution and raison d’état, Djilas was driven neither by personal opportunism nor national advantage. To him, Stalin was simply “the sun, without which the earth would freeze,” and his support was that of the zealot who, though now in power, had never learned to deal with political reality in terms of pragmatic issues and responsible statesmanship.

Nor was he any less compromising when he finally realized in the late 1940’s that Stalinism was a system of “profound internal contradictions,” committed ineluctably to injustice and inequality. Though Djilas’s conversion is usually associated with the break between Tito and Stalin, the truth is that he was the first and the most fervent in the councils of the party to advocate the reforms that came to be known as Titoism, just as he was the only important official who resisted, five years later, the “normalization of relations” between Moscow and Belgrade and the virtual return to the doctrines and policies, both domestic and foreign, of 1948. In the first instance as in the second, there was little in Djilas’s revolt that can be ascribed to personal advantage. I have heard many of the Yugoslav heroes of Marxism admit that inasmuch as their goal of power has been achieved, disappointing as it may be, they do well to accept it. Krleza and Andric, for example, are content to live today in a state of affluence, and are uninterested in the ideas of those in power and in the conditions of the masses. To Djilas, who appears to have been first repelled by Stalinism in witnessing the corruption of the Bolshevik officials in Belgrade and who defected from Yugoslav Communism in opposition to the same processes taking place in its hierarchy, there has never been any possibility of temporizing. Always true to his character of the Montenegrin rebel, he repudiated the power he had helped to create and returned to poverty and eventually to prison. Almost alone, he followed a course of public criticism of the hierarchy and attacks upon its policies in the name of democratic reforms. What he hoped to gain during those brave months in 1953 is uncertain; but what is clear is that Djilas could do nothing other than continue to give witness to the falsehood of the old cause and continue to assert his willingness to risk his life for the new one.

Djilas’s Bogomilian conversion has not touched the “new class,” nor has it been cherished by the populace. The general feeling in Yugoslavia is that Djilas would lead his followers along a road which has no end. To those who never shared his earlier faith, he appears to be a useless and dangerous Don Quixote, capable of bringing about a tragedy even more cruel than the one through which they have already passed. If anything, they are inclined to ask—“Why did he not change things while he was in power, instead of now when he is playing the role of disarmed prophet?” In short, Djilas’s influence would probably be utterly negligible were the Communists secure enough to refrain from throwing him in jail every time he gives an interview or writes a new book. Were he permitted to go abroad, Djilas would get the special reception that the West reserves for disarmed prophets: first recognition, then slow death. Meanwhile, the Communist police behave like the old Royalists in their stupidity and blindness.



Yet the issue is not quite so simple. In the rank and file of the Yugoslav Communist world there is constant struggle. A Communist party out of harmony with the Communist world must be in a state of continuous tension. The old Stalinists were thrown in jail or expelled long ago; they are now doubly disreputable since Khrushchev has more or less adopted Tito’s anti-Stalinist line. Those Stalinists who remain are coming to realize that the nature of their relations with Moscow and their ideological position must be reconsidered. Yet they also know that they cannot travel the road of Djilas—toward freedom of speech and social democracy—for despite the fact that Tito is now saying things similar to what Djilas began to say in the mid-50’s (in one of his recent speeches, Tito berated the Yugoslav Communist establishment and its amoral behavior in even stronger terms than Djilas), he has never hinted at the possibility of a defection from Communism. Thus it is within the Communist framework that the Yugoslav intelligentsia believes it must work toward greater freedom.

In the eyes of Djilas, however, no good can ever come to Yugoslavia from the Communist state. For him, Communism—any kind of Communism—is death. “Those who wish to live and to survive in a world different from the one Stalin created, and which in essence and in full force still exists, must fight.” These are his final words, so much his own, so much an echo of a self-isolated community of True Believers who have never ceased to struggle against the powers of darkness, both in the world and in themselves.



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.