OBITUARY : Milovan Djilas

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The Independent Online
Few politicians have experienced such extremes of success and defeat as did Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav politician and writer.

Imprisoned for his Communist activities in the kingdom of Yugoslavia before the Second World War, Djilas became one of Marshal Tito's leading partisan commanders during the war and one of the architects of the new Communist regime when the war ended. That was the peak of his success. He became disillusioned with the Tito regime because of its failure to live up to his vision of a socialist society. He then wrote a series of critical articles that resulted in his being expelled from the Yugoslav Communist Party and sent to prison - the same prison as he had been held in by the monarchy. He spent nine of the next 10 years in prison and was only released under an amnesty in 1966.

From then until his death Djilas enjoyed a sort of semi- freedom, unable to publish his views or to travel abroad but able to make his views known occasionally in the Western press. Although unable to play an active part in Yugoslav political life, he remained a severe critic of Soviet-style Communism, and as such was one of the first to begin its destruction.

Unsuccessful as a politician, Djilas achieved considerable distinction as a writer. His autobiographical works - Land Without Justice (1958), dealing with his childhood in Montenegro, and Memoir of a Revolutionary: wartime and power (1973), dealing with his career as a leading Communist - are remarkable documents, written with great skill and of lasting historical value. They constitute the most outspoken and honest account of a Communist revolution by a participant. His prison years were spent translating Milton's Paradise Lost into Serbian. Had he not been drawn into the maelstrom of Yugoslav politics Djilas would undoubtedly have achieved even greater fame as a writer.

There were three qualities in Djilas's character that led to his break with Tito and Communism: his romanticism, his honesty and his lack of personal ambition. Coming from Monte- negro, a land of rival clans, blood feuds and worse, he was drawn at once into the work of the illegal Communist Party when he arrived in Belgrade as a student in 1929. ``There was a romantic rebelliousness in everything we did,'' he said. In a very short time he became one of the three young men - with Edvard Kardelj and Alexander Rankovich - who formed a sort of inner cabinet around Tito, to whom they looked up as their senior: ``Stari'', the Old Man. They remained his closest advisers throughout the war. Djilas was devoted to Tito and remained an admirer despite the suffering the Yugoslav leader inflicted on him. ``I cannot say we are friends, but neither can I say we are enemies,'' he said in 1968. But Tito never forgave what he regarded as a personal betrayal by ``Djido''.

It was also his romanticism that made the young Djilas an uncritical admirer of Stalin and the Soviet Union. ``Devotion to Stalin was for us the same as devotion to Lenin, the Revolution and Communism,'' he said of his early years. Stalin's 1939 pact with Hitler was swallowed as yet another instance of Stalin's ``infallible wisdom''.

But it was his honesty that forced Djilas to change his mind once he had been brought face to face with the Soviet dictator and the Soviet system in 1944 and 1945. In his account of those meetings in his Conversations With Stalin (1962) he said that Stalin ``has the glory of being the greatest criminal in history . . . a monster who, while adhering to abstract, absolute and fundamentally Utopian ideas, has in practice no criterion but success - and that meant violence and physical and spiritual extermination.'' However much Tito may have shared this view of Stalin, he could not allow it to be voiced when he was trying to restore good relations with Moscow.

Djilas said of the compulsion he felt to speak the truth: ``I had to follow that road, even if my steps were confused and indecisive. Otherwise I would not remain a man in my own eyes. For if I know something with certainty and I am convinced of its truth, how can I deny it, hide it from my closest friends; from the world and from myself?''

Such admirable sentiments are not likely, however, to help a man up the political ladder. For that he needed the pragmatism and cynicism of a Tito or the blind subservience of Kardelj and Rankovich. Djilas was doomed from the moment the Yugoslav Communist Party ceased fighting the enemy in the mountains and became the dictatorial instrument of power in peacetime. The fact that he had no great political ambitions only served to hasten his downfall.

Yet he made a crucial contribution to political thinking far beyond the frontiers of Yugoslavia and especially behind the Iron Curtain. His first book, The New Class, published in the West in 1957, when he was already in prison, was the first serious critique of Soviet-style Communism to be heard in the Communist world since the war. He argued that ``the society that has arisen as the result of Communist revolutions or of Soviet military action is torn by the same sort of contradictions as other societies. The result is that Communist society has not only failed to develop towards human brotherhood and equality, but that out of its party bureaucracy there arises a privileged social stratum which, in accord with Marxist thinking, I named the New Class.''

In the face of the initial assault on him launched by Tito and his former comrades and friends Djilas broke down and indulged in ``self-criticism''. Because of the enormous pressure put on him and his attachment to the Cause, he admitted the error of his ways. ``At the very moment when I should have been great I turned out to be small,'' he admitted. But he soon pulled himself together and stuck to his guns till the end of his days.

Djilas was too honest a man to be a successful politician - a Communist politician at any rate. He was not even a great political thinker. But he will be remembered for his denunciation of the ``new class'' in Communism and for his painstaking history of the revolution in Yugoslavia.

Christopher Russell

Milovan Djilas, politician, writer: born Podbisce, Montenegro 12 June 1911; member, Yugoslav Politburo 1938-54; President Yugoslav National Assembly 1953-54;books include Struggle of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia 1948, On New Roads to Socialism 1950, The New Class 1957, Land Without Justice 1958,Montenegro 1964, Parts of a Lifetime 1975, Tito 1980; married 1937 Mitra Mitrovic (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1948), 1952 Baric Stefanija (one son); died Belgrade 20 April 1995.