Politician, writer Milovan Djilas was born in a small village named Podbišće near Mojkovac in Kingdom of Montenegro on June 12, 1911. His father, Nikola, was the commander of the Montenegrin Army in the First World War and later an advocate of unconditional unification of the kingdoms of Montenegro and Serbia. For this reason, young Djilas came from a pan-Serbian “white” (bjelaš) family with respect to the internal struggle between Montenegrins before and after 1918. At the end of the 1920s he attended gymnasium at Berane and Kolašin, when he encountered the ideas of the worker movement for the first time in his life. His arrival at the Faculty of Humanities, Yugoslav Literature Department, in Belgrade at the beginning of the 1930s was an opportunity for young Djilas to actively engage in the illegal communist movement through student organizations at the University of Belgrade. He was already involved in political work during the dictatorship of King Alexander when he helped organize student demonstrations in Belgrade's streets against the 1931 election, in which the regime party of General Petar Živković was the only option (A. Djilas, 2011).
After participating as an active member of the Yugoslav Communist Youth League (SKOJ), he joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ) in October 1932. Only two years later, Djilas was imprisoned in Srijemska Mitrovica under the law governing the protection of public safety and order (known as the State Protection Act). After his release three years later, he joined Tito on the consolidation of the Yugoslav party, which was riven by fractional strife on the eve of the Second World War. Together with Aleksandar Ranković, he established party organizations throughout Serbia before the war. Apart from a tendency toward political activism, Djilas was also engaged in literary work. Since he had literary ambitions, in the pre-war years he wrote numerous literary criticisms, prose pieces, poems, stories, novels and essays as well as political-ideological essays. Along with Jovan Popović and Radovan Zogović, he favoured the ideological tendency in the field of literature which opposed Miroslav Krleža in the so-called “Conflict on the Yugoslav Literary Left” during the 1930s (Lasić 1970: 33-34).
At the secret Fifth Territorial Conference in Zagreb in October 1940, Djilas was elected to the highest body of the Yugoslav Party. As a communist activist, he took part in the uprising on July 13, 1941 against Italian occupation in Montenegro in the summer of 1941. Following the split between Tito and Draža Mihailović over leadership of the anti-fascist movement in south-western Serbia in the autumn of 1941, Djilas became the main party leader for Montenegro at the end of 1941 and early 1942, where he dealt harshly with the pro-monarchist Chetniks. In that period, Djilas, as a radical adherent of Stalinism, launched so-called “class terror” against Montenegrin peasants with anti-communist attitudes. During the war, he served as a high official of the Yugoslav People's Liberation Army (FNRJ), the Antifascist Council of People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ), as the highest body of the Yugoslav Partisan movement, and he was also the member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CK KPJ). In 1942, Djilas became editor of the Party bulletin called Borba (Struggle), and from that post he dictated the ideological orientation of the entire Partisan movement. Djilas, together with Tito, Aleksandar Rankovic and Edvard Kardelj, was one of the most important figures in the Yugoslav communist movement during the war and immediate post-war years.
Djilas played the most prominent role in the party leadership by criticizing the Soviet model after the collapse of the relationship with Stalin and the Soviet Union in 1948. A former radical Stalinist, in the early 1950s he gathered the party intelligentsia around the journal Nova misao (New Thought) to elaborate a model for a separate Yugoslav path to socialism. The most prominent writers of Yugoslav cultural life at the time gathered around him and the journal, such as Miroslav Krleža, Vladimir Dedijer, Petar Šegedin, Ivan Dončević, Dobrica Ćosić, Mihailo Lalić, Skender Kulenović, Milan Bogdanović, Joža Vilfan, Oskar Davičo and others. Djilas gradually imagined that Yugoslavia could produce a different form of socialism that would allow the opposition to act and introduce freedom into public and cultural life. The culmination of Djilas' influence was expressed most strongly at the sixth congress of the Yugoslav party in Zagreb in 1952, when its name was changed from the Communist Party of Yugoslavia to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ). Djilas' thought was expressed in the following crucial assessment of the congress: “In its work, the League of Communists is neither nor can it be the immediate operational leader and director in economic, state and social life.” Soon this process of liberalization driven by Djilas was blocked. Although Djilas had numerous adherents in the party elite and intelligentsia, as the leader of “liberalization” of Tito’s regime, after publishing eighteen articles and the essay “Anatomy of a Moral” in the Borba and Nova misao from October 1953 to January 1954, in which he called for “democratization” of the Yugoslav regime, he was expelled from the party in January 1954 at the Third Plenum of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ). He was stripped of all Party and wartime decorations, as he was accused of undermining Party unity and of taking a “revisionist” turning from official doctrine. The Djilas case should certainly be viewed in the context of Stalin's death and Tito's announcement in June 1953 that he would be ready to normalize Yugoslav relations with the Soviet Union, which restricted any room for further “democratization” invoked by Djilas (Banac 2009, 19-20).
After abandoning the Yugoslav Party in April 1954, he granted an interview for the New York Times in which he attacked Tito's policy of maintaining a rigid dictatorship and preventing allowing further liberalization of his regime. In January 1955, he was first sentenced to one and a half years in prison. During this trial, Djilas stated before the court that his “democratic socialism” did not mean the restoration of the old capitalist regime from the pre-war period, but rather reform of existing socialism (Milovan Djilas Papers, box 11). In 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution, Djilas condemned Tito's support for the Soviet invasion of that country, for which he was again, in December 1956, arrested and sentenced to 3 years in prison in Srijemska Mitrovica. Later, when his first book, The New Class, was published in the West in 1957, he was again sentenced to seven years in prison. He was released in 1961 but was re-imprisoned in 1962 after the publication of his book Conversations With Stalin in the US in 1962. He was finally released on December 31, 1966. In all judgments, Djilas was charged under Art. 118 of the Criminal Code governing “Enemy Propaganda” (A. Djilas, 2011). The sanctions for the book about Stalin were imposed, according to Djilas, as a concession to maintain good relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union (Djilas, 1984: 24).
After leaving prison, Djilas became active as a writer and commentator, which had significant impact on the Cold War dissident movement. His fame and reputation as a dissident by his first work written in a prison cell and published as The New Class: an Analysis of the Communist System by the publishing company Frederick Praeger in New York in 1957. In it, he accused the new communist elite of failing the communist project and readily assuming bourgeois morality and its value system. Besides this work, he continued to maintain his stances on reform and democratic socialism, so he was very critical of actual communist regimes and wrote about their wartime and post-war conduct and other topics in the following years: Conversations with Stalin (1962), Of Prisons and Ideas (1979), Memoir of a Revolutionary (1973) and Wartime (1980), all published in the USA. Apart from the dissident literature, Djilas dedicated much of his work in this period to his country of origin in the novel Montenegro in 1963. The break with the party and with official Marxism brought Djilas back to traditional themes related to Montenegrin national and religious traditions. In that sense, he dismissed the Marxist theory of nationhood and nationalism, pointing out that the nation was formed far before the emergence of capitalism: “I want to say that nations go deep into the past and that what we call the nation today is only one form, one step in the development of peoples related by way of life, culture and language” (Milovan Djilas Papers, Box 37).
During his prison days, Djilas turned from Marx to Petar I. Petrović Njegoš, the greatest Montenegrin poet and writer of all time, examining his thought about God and the problem of good and evil, confessing that the ideal of justice is what led him to a political religion such as communism. In addition to dealing with Njegoš, he was translated John Milton's epic Paradise Lost into what was then called the Serbo-Croatian language, which indicated that Djilas tended to think about religious issues in prison. In his manuscript ‘Prison Notes,’ written at the time of his imprisonment in the 1960s, he demonstrated that was also interested in the Orthodox Saint Basil of Ostrog, about whom he planned to write the book “The Passion of St. Basil,” although it remained incomplete (Milovan Djilas Papers, box 37). This was more of an examination of the traditional heritage than a spiritual tract on Orthodox Christianity, which later he also emphasized himself: “No wonder so many oppositionists in communist countries turn to religions. To traditional or current religious teachings. As far as I am concerned, my thinking does not tend toward any specific religion” (Djilas 1984, 47). He was particularly preoccupied with Montenegrin issues and relations from his youth from 1911 to 1929 in the book Land Without Justice (1958), and Njegoš's complete body of political, religious, literary and poetic works, as he expressed in a study also printed abroad: Njegoš: Poet-Prince-Bishop (1966).
Since Djilas concluded that the Soviet Union was an ossified bureaucratic structure and that it had betrayed the idea of international communism with its imperialist project, the solution to the crisis of Eastern socialism was found in the West in the 1950s, in British Labourism and in Nordic Social Democracy. The result of such thoughts were his links to Labour movement leader Aneuvin Bevan and his manuscript in this collection entitled “The Nordic Dream.” When it comes to his relationship with Bevan, Djilas rejected the notion that this British Labourist had an initial influence on his ideas. Namely, after the conflict with Stalin in 1948, while he was still a member of the Yugoslav communist leadership, Djilas had formed links with Western leftist circles. In his controversial articles in 1953 and 1954, he was delighted by social democracy and Western left reformist movements, saying that “the Bolsheviks (Lenin) and the Social Democrats (Plehanov) are right: the first is that revolution is possible and inevitable (albeit in backward countries), others - that democracy and socialism will not come through it (though in these same countries). In fact, these differences and the dissipation of the labour movement in these two streams were increasingly becoming – independent of scattered actors and ideologues – the main rift in the modern world. At the moment, the bourgeoisie are being ‘social-democratized’ in the West, and the peasant East are being ‘Bolshevized’” (Milovan Djilas Papers, box 11). The introduction of worker self-management as Yugoslavia’s separate path to socialism was assessed by Djilas in a single entry in his prison journal of February 18, 1960, that it cannot survive without political freedom and the democratization of Yugoslav society. Because of this attitude, Djilas was considered the most dangerous enemy of Tito's regime as the bearer of “rotten liberalism” (Milovan Djilas Papers, box 37). In the 1980s, due to the severe economic crisis that beset Yugoslavia after Tito's death, he warned about the “illusion of social property” and the fact that “self-management could not only democratize political life in Yugoslavia by itself.” The inability of the Yugoslav type of socialism to solve the economic crisis and to “democratize” socialism itself led Djilas to the conclusion that “the ultimate result of Yugoslav self-management is economic and legal chaos,” whose maintenance is only of interest of the party elite to maintain its monopoly over the management of the Yugoslav state’s resources (Djilas, 1984: 117-118.)
After leaving prison, he was under constant police surveillance until the late 1980s. In 1968 his passport was returned and he could then travel to the United Kingdom and the United States. During his visit in the autumn of 1968, Djilas mostly attracted the attention of the American liberal and leftist public, especially at universities, with his view that democratic socialism was possible through reform, and not just by revolution and radical social change. In a way, Djilas morally rehabilitated socialism by laying all of the historical blame on its Stalinist episode (Milovan Djilas Papers, Box 36). After returning from the United States, he was commonly perceived by the Western public as the most famous Yugoslav dissident, granting numerous interviews and writing various essays and reviews, distinguishing himself as a critical analyst of the development of socialist regimes in Yugoslavia and the East Bloc. His renewed attempt to visit the US in 1970 failed because the Yugoslav authorities refused to give him a passport. Tito considered imprisoning him again in 1977, but abandoned the idea at the suggestion of then British conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, who thought that Djilas would further damage the reputation of Yugoslavia both domestically and internationally (A. Djilas, 2011).
After Tito's death, Djilas called for the democratization of Yugoslav politics and the necessary economic reforms in order to overcome the forces of ideological dogmatism and salvage the socialist economy. He therefore fully supported the Perestroika reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He was very active in Belgrade's dissident circles in the 1980s when he lectured at the “Free University” at secret meetings of dissidents, so that the authorities threatened him with prison again in 1984 (A. Djilas, 2011). In domestic politics, he wanted to maintain the Yugoslav federation. Djilas granted his first interview after 33 years of being banned from the public scene to the student magazine Katedra from Maribor in 1987. After Milošević's rise to power in the second half of the 1980s, Djilas opposed him and participated in the opposition against him, as he believed that Milošević’s aggressive centralist policy would lead to the collapse of the Yugoslav union. He died in Belgrade on 20 April 1995 and, in compliance with his personal wishes, he was buried in his native village in Montenegro (A. Djilas, 2011).
- Mojkovac, Montenegro
Date of death
Author(s) of this page
- Kljaić, Stipe