Milovan Djilas was second only to Tito in the communist hierarchy of postwar Yugoslavia. In the war years, he had gained a reputation as a warrior-intellectual who could think dialectically under machine-gun fire. In Tito’s government, he served as minister without portfolio and styled himself as the state philosopher. His colleagues in the Central Committee learned to forgive his eccentricities and smile at his jibes at their private lives. But lovable ‘Djido’ had a rage for moral purity. His break with Tito was the culmination of criticisms he had been refining for nearly a decade. As he saw it, the communist leadership had abandoned the Partisan practice he most cherished – relentless self-criticism – and consecrated instead a social hierarchy that could be justified only in wartime. Although he came to see himself as Trotsky’s heir, Djilas wasn’t prepared to form a political faction to demand more democratisation of the state: his revolt rested on his private sense of morality. This made him a natural candidate for heroism in the West, but a vexing figure in Belgrade, where, as the people’s ideological fervour waned during his long imprisonment, it became harder for the regime to claim it still harboured ideals more exalted than a single man’s integrity.
Djilas was born in 1911 to a peasant family in the highlands of Montenegro, which had just become an independent state. His older brother, Aleksa, introduced him to a type of socialism that seemed to address the poverty of the region and to suit the egalitarianism of the local clans. ‘It was not communism,’ Djilas later wrote, ‘but, rather, a deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life, and to escape a hopeless monotony.’ He dreamed of becoming a poet in Paris, but had to settle for Belgrade, by now the capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where he arrived as a teenager in a new wool suit, determined not to be taken for a provincial. At Belgrade University, he fell in with a literary crowd. He approved of the social realists, tried to reconcile the surrealists with communism, and wrote essays attacking Wildean aesthetes. He also became an active member of the Communist Party, responsible for organisation at the university. King Alexander’s secret police arrested him in 1933 for carrying a gun he planned to use to break party members out of jail. He won the respect of the underground for his courage under torture. In Yugoslavia, as elsewhere across Europe, prisons were the school of revolution. In his three years in Sremska Mítrovica, he was introduced to the communist canon in cell-block study groups. ‘When a Montenegrin rebel meets Marxist-Leninism,’ he wrote, ‘the recognition is instantaneous and satisfying.’ Solitary confinement deepened his commitment to communism:
A prison is a house of love, a house of wild desires and mindless jealousies. There passions are comparable in their intensity only to an impassioned devotion to an idea. Although the political criminal imprisoned for an idea, like the common criminal suffers and burns because of sensual deprivation, he burns from his idea as well. Yet the political prisoner has an advantage, however, doubly inflamed. While burning for or in an idea neither banishes nor mitigates other passions, it certainly outshines and outranks them. The political inmate is master of himself to the degree that he is devoted to his idea body and soul.
Before his arrest, Djilas had taken against the permissive behaviour of Belgrade communists. Aleksandra Kollontai’s ‘glass of water’ theory was popular at the time and members had begun to think of sex as a basic physiological need, like the need for a glass of water: the ruling class had denied this fact of life, they claimed, in order to turn women into property. At first Djilas tried to follow along. When he fell in love with Mitra Mitrović, who would become his first wife, he resisted the glacial sort of courtship they would both have preferred. Instead he took her to his rooms after a lecture in a quick attempt to ‘shed her “bourgeois prejudices”’. After he learned she had another suitor, also a party member, the two men agreed that they shouldn’t be distracted from their political duties, and wrote her a joint letter withdrawing their interest. ‘We thought that this was the most honest and revolutionary approach,’ Djilas wrote in his Memoir of a Revolutionary, ‘since she was behaving like a real “bourgeois” type, trying to catch a husband.’
By the time he was released from prison in 1936, the practice of free love was becoming problematic, opening up the communists to fascist and royalist propaganda. Having assumed a higher place in the party hierarchy in prison, Djilas helped implement a ‘new position’, more in keeping with his austere sensibility. ‘A new type of relationship was in the making,’ he wrote, ‘free in attitude and word, but with a secret “non-communist” need for maximum fidelity.’ This was a return to a more Leninist attitude to sexual conduct; simultaneous partners and casual affairs were taboo. The leadership could now expel members for ‘errors’ in their sexual relations. In his Memoir, Djilas tells of a libertine fellow-traveller, ‘Paternoster’, who was admired for his anti-fascist activities but made the mistake of sleeping on and off with two party women. After they filed complaints against him, Paternoster was thrown off the back of a train. ‘Personally I didn’t feel the least guilt over this case,’ Djilas wrote. ‘I am not denying that this approach offended certain human sensibilities. But it was clear to me from the start that human sensibilities had to be sacrificed to those other, party sensibilities.’
Tito, sent back from Moscow after a stint in the Comintern, took over leadership of the Yugoslav communists in 1937. The party had been routed by Alexander’s secret police and devastated abroad in the Soviet purges. As war approached, no one would have bet on the Partisans to prevail in any sustained confrontation with the SS and the Wehrmacht. They were few in number, lacked supplies, and delayed mobilisation for too long. Tito had stuck to the party line of perceiving the war as a necessary and welcome clash between imperialist powers: as communists linked with Moscow, the Partisans had to look on Germany as a nominal non-aggressor as long as the Nazi-Soviet Pact held. It was only when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 that their position became free of ambiguity. But by then they were fighting a war on all fronts: from outside, the Germans and Italians; from inside, the fascist Ustaše and the royalist Chetniks, who were determined to exterminate the Partisans and collaborate with the invaders in order to reap the spoils of any postwar settlement.
Tito tasked Djilas with managing propaganda and logistics. He began by reactivating the small group of Partisans who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Following Mao’s strategy in the Long March, Djilas retreated to the mountains and drummed up enough local support to deliver surprise counterattacks. He spent the war roving up and down the Dinaric mountain chain, patching together intelligence networks and platoons of students and shepherds, who fought remarkably well against ‘Heidelberg professors and the descendants of Hanseatic patricians’. Djilas and his entourage hid in safehouses, ran secret printing presses in forests and dragged around chests of silver to cover their costs. In Wartime, he describes his progress in cool, clinical scenes , which at their best recall Malaparte. In one episode, he enters a town where his brother and some peasants have killed a truckload of Germans: ‘I was shown helmets punctured by bullets. The Montenegrins jeered: “What a miserable empire! You can pierce their helmets with buckshot!” Whereas I was thinking: What did the brain under the helmet feel when the bullet pierced it?’
Djilas was above all intent on keeping intact the moral purity of the resistance. He instituted a policy of buying rather than confiscating food from peasants, and he didn’t allow the Central Committee, including Tito, to have more food than the men under their command. There were thousands of women in the ranks, and strict sleeping and conduct codes were issued. After returning from one mission, Djilas was furious to find Committee members having affairs with their secretaries and dolling up their wives and mistresses in stolen jewellery. ‘Hierarchical precedence grew with the revolution,’ he writes in Wartime, ‘and apparently became as important and necessary to it as fervour and egalitarianism.’ Already Djilas could sense that Tito had a different moral temperament: he was willing to tolerate a laxer code, both for himself and his forces, so long as it didn’t directly affect the waging of the war. Djilas, by contrast, believed that war and the possibility of death nurtured Partisan virtues as peacetime never could.
By 1943, the prospects of the Partisans had brightened. Western newspapers began to report that Tito was more intent on fighting the Germans than Draža Mihailović’s Chetniks were. Roosevelt stuck with the royalists for a while longer, but Churchill shifted his support to the Partisans and sent his son Randolph to fight alongside them (Djilas expected an eminence, only to be disappointed by his least favourite species, the charming drunkard). In a show of good faith, Stalin himself ordered a few fighter planes to undertake suicide missions over the German divisions in Yugoslavia, and in 1944 agreed to host a delegation of Partisans at a summit in the Kremlin. The composition of the delegation spoke to the Partisans’ dogged idealism. It included a military commander, an atomic physicist, a sculptor, and Djilas, who, as the party functionary and speaker of Russian, having learned it in prison, would handle the negotiations in Moscow. His mission was fivefold: to borrow $200,000 for weapons and equipment; to secure aid from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration; to have medals cast to decorate Partisan heroes (he carried the design in his pocket); to get official recognition of the Yugoslav communist state from the Soviets; and to sound out Stalin’s attitude toward the Partisan revolution.
In Conversations with Stalin, Djilas recaptures his excitement and apprehension about the assignment. He travels to Moscow by way of various remnants of the British Empire, which he sees through communist eyes. In Cairo, the American head of UNRRA, Herbert Lehman, seems a capitalist out of a comic book, with a Russian gangster for an interpreter. In Baghdad, Djilas and his team marvel at the false consciousness of British soldiers, who are willing to shed blood and conquer a desert in the name of imperialism. On the final leg of their trip, as they fly from Tehran over the Soviet Union, Djilas is overwhelmed by an unexpected rush of pan-Slavic feeling: ‘It was as though I was returning to a primeval homeland, unknown but mine.’
The book is one of the few accounts by an outsider of Moscow under Stalin. Few foreigners were able to penetrate the Kremlin, much less publish anything about it. (Mao wasn’t pleased during a visit in 1949 to be quarantined in Stalin’s dacha for two weeks: ‘Am I here just to eat, shit and sleep?’) Like a courtier at Versailles, Djilas tries to avoid making blunders while he awaits his long put-off audience with the Great Leader. He writes articles for Pravda and Novoe Vremya, answers endless questions from the intelligence services, drinks the required minimum at Soviet bacchanals, and fends off nocturnal advances from female secretaries, whom Tito has warned him about. The absent Stalin all the while expands as an icon in Djilas’s imagination: ‘He was the incarnation of an idea, transfigured in communist minds into pure idea, and thereby into something infallible and sinless.’ When Djilas is finally summoned to a meeting, Stalin – ‘a little old grandfather’ – has the ‘Kremlin complexion’ from never leaving his office; his teeth are ‘black and irregular, turned inward’; ‘not even his moustache was thick or firm.’ But the magnetism remains. The Spanish Republicans had to pay gold bullion for Soviet weapons, but Stalin laughs off the idea of the Yugoslavs paying back any loans: ‘You are shedding your blood, and you expect me to charge you for the weapons! I am not a merchant.’ And he laughs off the assurances of the Allies: ‘Oh, sure, there’ll be a landing – if there’s no fog! They might stumble across some Germans! Suppose they do stumble across some Germans?’ Later the laughter will turn black for Djilas, but Stalin impresses his visitor with his command of the situation in Europe. He appears well informed about everything from the state of Turkish shipping to the proclivities of mid-level personnel in Bulgaria.
Djilas’s portraits of the Soviet leaders are penetrating:
Churchill has characterised Molotov as a complete modern robot. That is correct. But that is only one, external side of him. Stalin was no less a cold calculator than he. But precisely because his was a more passionate and many-sided nature – though all sides were equal and so convincing that it seemed he never dissembled but was always truly experiencing each of his roles – he was more penetrable and offered greater possibilities. The impression was gained that Molotov looked upon everything – even upon communism and its final aims – as relative, as something to which he had to, rather than ought to, subordinate his own fate. It was as though for him there was nothing permanent, as though there was only a transitory and unideal reality which presented itself differently every day and to which he had to offer himself and his whole life. For Stalin, too, everything was transitory. But that was his philosophical view. Behind that impermanence and within it, certain great and final ideals lay hidden – his ideals, which he could approach by manipulating or kneading the reality and the living men who comprised it.
Djilas may have recognised bits of himself in Stalin: in particular, the ‘final ideals’ behind the restless realism. ‘Because the true fanatical fervour was so clearly recognisable behind his cynicism,’ a Swiss journalist wrote years later, at the height of Djilas’s power in Belgrade, ‘because he was so utterly convinced of the cause and believed so imperturbably in its final victory, Djilas could dare to think, and say, all the evil nagging thoughts weaker men had to suppress.’ It’s little surprise that despite their common commitment to ‘final ideals’, the relationship between Stalin and Djilas foundered on questions of morality and propriety. These were, for Djilas, increasingly separable from the communism that had once perfectly answered them. He disapproved of Tito’s feasts and was wholly unprepared for the Roman scale of Stalin’s banquets. They started at 10 p.m. and lasted until four or five in the morning. Stalin drank vodka mixed with red wine and maintained his composure, while Molotov and Beria drank themselves into oblivion. Giant tables of soft meats were brought in – Stalin had difficulty chewing – and everyone consumed enormous amounts. Stalin sat to the left of the head of the table, and an uninformed visitor might not have realised he was the leader but for the fact that ‘his opinion was carefully noted’ and ‘no one opposed him very hard.’ ‘It was at these dinners,’ Djilas wrote, ‘that the destiny of the vast Russian land, of the newly acquired territories, and, to a considerable degree, of the human race was decided.’ After supper, there were film screenings. Stalin preferred war films or, if he was in need of uplift, happy collective farm movies and Hollywood favourites like Boys Town and It Happened One Night. At the slightest hint of nudity or impropriety on screen, Stalin – an erratic puritan – had the projector turned off.
The tensions between Stalin and Djilas became plain during his next trip to Moscow. The visit came on the heels of the Red Army’s entry into Yugoslavia and the liberation of Belgrade in autumn 1944. Stalingrad was a holy word for the Partisan soldiers and the feats of the Red Army were revered. This only made the anger more acute when, as well as engaging in widespread looting, Soviet soldiers raped more than a hundred Yugoslav women. There were protests in the streets, and the resentment worked in favour of fascist and royalist propaganda. Djilas convinced Tito to complain to the local Russian commander, who dismissed the criticism as ingratitude. This time, Tito travelled with Djilas to Moscow, but it was Djilas whom Stalin singled out: ‘Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are? Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?’ Stalin crowned the point by kissing Djilas’s wife and wondering aloud if his gesture made him a rapist.
It would have been a minor episode had it not contributed to the Tito-Stalin split. The Partisans had relied less on the Red Army during the war than any other member of the Eastern Bloc, and their allegiance to Moscow was never unconditional. Stalin had long been wary that the Yugoslav revolution might spin out of control – especially into Greece, where Tito insisted on arming his fellow communists in the civil war – and jeopardising his relations with the West. As the US stepped up its anti-communist activities in Eastern Europe and invited leaders to sign on to the Marshall Plan, Stalin responded by tightening the Bloc’s ideological straitjacket. Tito and Djilas now balked at having to publish Soviet books, operate disadvantageous joint-stock companies, and feed their intelligence reports to the Kremlin. They also embarrassed the Kremlin by setting up self-managed workers’ factories – enshrined in Marxist-Leninist theory but never actually practised in the Soviet Union. For these affronts, Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform, the Comintern’s postwar successor, in 1948, and Tito and Djilas purged their Central Committee of loyalists to Moscow. Only a few years earlier Yugoslavia had inspired Gomułka in Poland and Gottwald in Czechoslovakia to pursue their own paths to socialism, but now Yugoslavia was a heretic. By misrepresenting Tito’s intentions in Greece and Albania, Stalin effectively framed him as a Balkan imperialist. ‘I’ll wave my little finger and Tito will be gone,’ Stalin boasted. But, in the end, Stalin was unwilling to poke his finger through Bulgaria, or risk touching off another Partisan war.
The break between Stalin and Tito turned almost wholly to Tito’s advantage. Stalin’s blockade of Yugoslavia was as savage as the blockade of Berlin, and just as ineffective. The multiple assassination attempts on Tito failed. Yugoslavia did not become isolated. Indeed, Tito expanded Yugoslavia’s global reach; he became one of the founders of the non-aligned movement and hosted its first meeting in Belgrade in 1961. Yugoslav engineers and technicians were exported throughout the Third World, and their initial success with workers’ self-management was widely admired. There was considerable relaxation of party repression at home under Tito, who also began to hold elections for key party positions. But for Djilas, it was too little too late. What Tito was for Stalin, Djilas became for Tito. As a diplomat, he toured the Third World and travelled to London, where he became interested in Western forms of democratic socialism and established close ties with Aneurin Bevan. In his articles for the national paper Borba, Djilas demanded a faster rate of democratisation, and he bet on the students and intelligentsia of Belgrade to rally to his side.
For a few months in 1954, change almost seemed possible. (The journalist Slavko Goldstein recalls many intellectuals tilting towards Djilas in those months, with one whispering to him on the street that because of Djilas’s articles ‘life was worth living again.’) In The New Class, Djilas applied a class critique to Marxist regimes and explained why, despite itself, communism had produced a new Red bourgeoisie of statist exploiters which did not need to own the means of production if it could control them politically. He attacked the special privilege of the new stratum of bureaucrats when it came to travel, housing and access to Western consumer goods: a major source of resentment among average citizens in the Bloc. The idea of a ‘New Class’ enjoyed a strange afterlife in the West. In Kremlinology, the phrase was overtaken by ‘nomenklatura’, a more systematic term developed by the Djilas admirer and Soviet dissident Michael Voslensky. In the United States in the 1960s, neoconservatives, most notably Daniel Patrick Moynihan, recycled the phrase ‘the New Class’ to refer to parasitic public sector bureaucrats who were making the US ‘a society of public affluence and private squalor’.
With Khrushchev in power, Tito prepared for rapprochement. Each leader had put away his most destabilising critics: Beria was executed in 1953; Djilas was sent to the same prison where he had spent three years under Alexander’s dictatorship. During his seven years there, he translated Paradise Lost into Serbo-Croatian and took revenge for past slights and wrongs in his writings: five volumes of memoirs, which revisited the turning points of Yugoslav communism. His fiction doesn’t approach the work of Ivo Andrić, or his old aesthete antagonist Miroslav Krleža, but Djilas was an unmatched authority as a chronicler of the Partisan experience. In the case of Conversations with Stalin, almost nothing in the book can be effectively contradicted. Neither Stalin nor any member of his inner circle left an equally detailed record of their observations.
When Djilas was released from prison in 1966, Tito decided to ignore his activities, though he never again spoke to his old friend. By the 1960s, Djilas’s nascent social democratic position resembled that of the British Labour Party of the 1950s. He was as put off by the protests of 1968 as he had been thirty years before by the free love phase of Yugoslav communism. His reputation continued to soar in the West, but faded in Yugoslavia. As Richard West observed in the 1990s, most of the students at Belgrade University no longer recognised him when he spoke at their rallies. It was Aleksandar Ranković, another of Tito’s seconds (also a critic of the bureaucracy, first from the left, then from the right), who was met with excitement in public.
But Djilas’s flat on Palmotic Street in Belgrade became a port of call for Western liberals in search of answers about the Yugoslav War. Democracy-promoting journalists like Michael Ignatieff and Robert Kaplan were pleased to learn from Djilas that the ethnic violence was the result of Tito’s failure to democratise the country when he had the chance. But they didn’t consider more disquieting problems presented by Djilas. The perceived selling-out of the communist elite is one reason that many factions in the war saw themselves as restorers of moral integrity. Rather than the popular explanations citing ancient ethnic hatreds, or the failure of liberal democracy to take root, the revival of a desire for purity shaped much of the violence of the 1990s. ‘Do you think, Mr Captain, that one single house we set on fire, or they set on fire, was honestly earned?’ a young fighter asks a Partisan of the older generation in the popular Serbian film Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996). ‘If it was honestly earned, it wouldn’t be so easy to burn.’ Djilas, though, was unwilling to see any reflections of his own youthful zealotry in the war.
The other problem Djilas presents to those who want to see him as a heroic upholder of liberal values has to do with his experience as a dissident, now a familiar type in the West. If you cast around for parallel figures in the authoritarian regimes of the postwar decades, several come to mind, Zhao Ziyang first among them. But if you search the liberal capitalist regimes of the West of the same period for dissenters who occupied comparable positions of high office, an unusual set of characters emerges. One is Henry Wallace, vice-president under Roosevelt, who committed political suicide in 1946 in front of an audience of twenty thousand in Madison Square Garden with these words:
Russian ideas of social-economic justice are going to govern nearly a third of the world. Our ideas of free enterprise democracy will govern much of the rest. The two ideas will endeavour to prove which can deliver the most satisfaction to the common man in their respective areas of political dominance. But by mutual agreement, this competition should be put on a friendly basis and the Russians should stop conniving against us in certain areas of the world just as we should stop scheming against them in other parts of the world. Let the results of the two systems speak for themselves.
Wallace’s reluctance to take a hard line against the Soviet Union, his call for ‘economic democracy’ in the form of a mixed economy, his refusal to retreat strategically from the gains of the New Deal: all these earned him overnight ostracism from the Democratic Party, banishment from the Roosevelt administration, and the epithet ‘Stalinoid Liberal’ from Dwight Macdonald at his anti-communist peak. Wallace’s political missteps are too numerous to count – he became a dissenter despite himself – but his case shows that, until recently, liberal capitalist states were more adept at dealing with prominent dissenters: better that they be seen as fools and dupes than heretics and martyrs.