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The Days of the Dissident: Milovan Djilas Remembered

November 24, 2006

By David Binder*

In the following piece, the author reflects on the life and legacy of Milovan Djilas, a key founding member of Communist Yugoslavia who was later imprisoned by that same regime because of the excessive freedom of his ideas. Djilas is remembered today for numerous books and occasional writings, and also a great quote: “The hardest thing about being a communist is trying to predict the past.”

Was it so long ago that it has lost all meaning for us – the arrest 50 years ago (Nov. 19, 1956) of Milovan Djilas on charges of “hostile propaganda?’ The party he was accused of betraying and the international movement to which it belonged have disappeared. So, too, the country he was living in and for which he had fought.What was then a sensation that made headlines around the world now seems almost a conundrum. The very terms “dissident’ and “dissidence’ have lost their ominous resonance and have fallen into disuse. What is there to dissent against today- corporate takeovers? multi-ethnicity?

In the days of Djilas and lesser dissidents, however, there was the monolithic party called Communist. There was Moscow as the benchmark against which what could be said and shouldn’t be said was measured. A font of received wisdom, even if not quite the center of the universe. There was a world split East and West with only negligible Yugoslavia in between.

The sole event these days that bears the scantiest resemblance to that of 1956 is the minor unrest generated by protests in the streets of Budapest. A shallow observer might glimpse a parallel in the fact that the target of the 2006 demonstrations is a faintly socialist government. But it is nothing compared to the vicious Stalinist regime that governed in Moscow’s image until the real uprising half a century ago.

The detention of Djilas was at least three years in coming. As he recounted in later years, rebellion had been brewing in him, the veteran of Yugoslavia’s revolution, for many months beginning with the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953. Later it occurred to him that Tito had exactly the opposite reaction. The passing of Stalin signaled to Tito that he was now free to “strengthen ideological conformity” and to “block democratization, primarily in the realm of ideas.” The vacation from some Stalinist practices that Yugoslavia had begun to enjoy after being kicked out of the Cominform – the Bloc – was over for Tito.

Djilas, on the other hand, only seven months after the death of the dictator in Moscow began a series of commentaries in Borba that culminated in his expulsion from his party jobs at a special plenum in January 1954, as well as his governmental offices. The final straw for Tito was a commentary proposing “fighting for new and concrete democratic forms.” Provocatively, Djilas had entitled it, “Revolution.”

Just days before the plenum, “The Old Man’ (as Djilas called Tito) summoned the former favorite son he called “Djido’ along with his remaining close aides, Aleksandar Rankovic and Edvard Kardelj to discuss the next moves, including Tito’s demand that Djilas resign from his post as president of the National Assembly. Tito was 61, Djilas 42. It was the last time these wartime comrades came together. The break with friends, he later wrote, “was more devastating for me than any clash over ideas.”

At the plenum the three condemned him. In March Djilas was taken to court, found guilty of spreading “hostile propaganda,” sentenced to a year and conditionally released. He resigned from the party.

Djilas was being watched – and listened to – no longer in a party villa on Dedinje hill with the grandees, but in a downtown apartment. For the next two years life was relatively quiet although he was already a well-known dissident. Most people shunned him. He worked on a history-autobiography, “Land Without Justice.” He submitted the manuscript to the Serbian Literary Guild in the summer of 1956 and was utterly dismayed to learn it was formally rejected as “too cerebral,” but actually on orders of Rankovic.

It was another turning point for him. Having been ousted from political life and with his name blackened, he confronted “efforts of the powers that be to finish me spiritually as a writer.” The manuscript of “Land Without Justice” now went to an American publisher and he began writing what became “The New Class.” He completed it in three months. From there it was but a short step to Djilas’ decision to extend apostasy from domestic aspects of the theory and practice of communism to the international level.

The stage was set by the reaction across eastern Europe to Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th party congress of the CPSU in February 1956. Four months later, Polish workers took to the streets of Poznan, tearing up red flags. Security forces opened fire, killing around 70 civilians. Poland remained restive throughout the summer and autumn. The fever spread to Hungary. On October 23, a student demonstration soon rallied 200,000 in Budapest. Two days later, Soviet tanks opened fire on the crowds. Then followed an ominous pause while new Hungarian leaders were installed and the Soviet leadership pondered its next moves. Their hand was forced by the newly installed premier, Imre Nagy. On November 1 he announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Soviet bloc.

Neighboring Yugoslavia was drawn deeply into the Hungarian debacle, both openly and clandestinely. On the open side the UN Security Council debated a resolution on October 27 condemning the first Soviet intervention in Hungary. Yugoslavia abstained. Two days later Djilas sought out the Agence France Presse correspondent in Belgrade and presented a statement openly condemning the abstention.

At the same time, in complete secrecy, Khrushchev and his chief associate, Georgii Malenkov, flew to Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to consult on the deteriorating situation in the bloc.

On November 2 they flew on to Pula, then crossed the little channel in rough seas to Brioni to confer on the Hungarian crisis with Tito, Kardelj, Rankovic and Ambassador Veljko Micunovic. On November 3 the Kremlin leaders decided to crush the Hungarian rebels. The tanks rolled in that night.

The next day, Imre Nagy and 41 other Hungarians sought refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest. “I guessed I’d be arrested,” Djilas remembered himself thinking. But he was far from through. On November 11 he got a telegram from the New Leader, the venerable Socialist periodical, requesting an analysis of the political cyclone blasting the Soviet bloc. “He had the piece in the typewriter and was waiting for someone to ask for it,” the editor in New York recalled him saying. “Storm in Eastern Europe” was published on November 19. That same day, the police came to the apartment at No. 8 Palmoticeva, where the Djilas family had been living for over two years and arrested Milovan. “A cold drizzle was falling,” he noted.

Thus began his total of nine years behind bars in Communist Yugoslavia, three times longer than he had served in the prisons of Royalist Yugoslavia (1933-1936). In Moscow, Khrushchev remarked to Ambassador Micunovic: “how well you solved the problem with Djilas. We can only congratulate you.”

“Storm in Eastern Europe” was in some respects a polemic. But it contained a powerful prophecy and a trenchant analysis. Its central prediction, “the revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end of communism generally” was ahead of its time by more than three decades. Its basic analysis contended something few Communists were ever able to recognize: that while some might imagine they could reform Communist doctrine and practice, this was an illusion.

In “Storm,” Djilas wrote: “national communism is incapable of transcending the boundaries of communism as such, that is, to institute the kind of reforms that would gradually transform and lead communism to freedom. National communism can merely break from Moscow and, in its own national tempo and way, construct essentially the identical Communist system.”

Then and later, Djilas was battling not only with Tito and the Soviet bloc, but also with himself. “I had to fight for my moral and spiritual survival, my reason and my life…I had to overcome the idea of Leninist communism for which I had fought throughout my youth (Of Prisons and Ideas – 1982).

Nor did this happen overnight. “The reader may get the impression that my ideas were formed simply, step by step, without any wavering. Not so.” (Rise and Fall- 1983). “There can be no doubt that my subsequent imprisonment was due to the determination to improve relations with the Soviet government,” he concluded later (Tito, 1980).

Sentenced initially to three years of hard labor, with a spell in solitary confinement, Milovan Djilas was on his way to becoming the most renowned dissident in the Communist world. This status was confirmed with the publication of “The New Class,” in September 1957, which drew an additional seven-year sentence.

Still, he kept writing and reflecting: “Yesterday Politika announced the shooting of Imre Nagy,” he wrote. “In a way I am sorry for him. I always felt he and I were alike in many respects.” (Parts of a Lifetime, June 15, 1958) “Man cannot live without ideals and yet they are unreal.” (Ibid, June 20, 1958).

But what of Milovan Djilas today, 50 years after that arrest? In the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, there is a listing entitled “Noted Dissidents.’ It includes John Lennon, Susan Sontag and Aleksandar Zinoviev. But no Milovan Djilas. The same is the case with Wikipedia’s list of political dissenters: it includes Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and others. But no Djilas.

Nevertheless, a few of us still remember the melody of that old Partizan song which began, “Tito, Kardelj, Rankovic i Djilas….”


*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on November 19, 2006.

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