Milovan Djilas (1911-1997) was a very brave man, who was the first and for a long time the foremost dissident from within a communist system. A committed communist from the eighth grade onward and the #2 official in Yugoslavia as it broke from subservience to the Soviet Union (but not from a local form of Stalinism), Djilas not only spoke truth to power, but spoke the most devastating of truths: that far from communism leading to the withering away of the state and an end of social inequalities it led to state apparatus monitoring and attempting to control every facet of life in communist countries and enriched a “new class” of party bureaucrats.
Djilas hoped that communism would bring a better, juster society. This was a hope that stimulated many to join communist parties. But I can’t think of anyone else who rose to high and proclaimed that the revolution and the communist party in power failed to deliver what he and they had hoped for.
It was certainly not that Djilas failed to understand that power was necessary to accomplish change. Nonetheless, when he was about to become president of Yugoslavia, he published a series of articles critical of how communism was developing in Yugoslavia. He dared to say that power had become an end in-itself (that is, that Stalin, Tito, et al. were more concerned about maintaining their power than in doing anything about the programs they espoused). He was removed from all his official posts. After publishing The New Class abroad (the book in which he examined the privileges of party members and managers who neither owned the means of production or labored) and speaking in support of the revolt against Soviet domination of Hungary in 1956, Djilas was charged with “slandering and writing opinions hostile to the people and the state of Yugoslavia.” He wrote the memoir of his youth in Montenegro, Land Without Justice before a nine-year imprisonment.
That was not his first imprisonment. He has been imprisoned for being a communist 1933-36. Nor was it his last. He was imprisoned again for publishing Conversations with Stalin in 1961 (another four years).
Djilas outlived his former comrade, dictator Josip Tito, and outlived the second Yugoslavia. Already in 1989, Djilas observed:
“Milosevich’s authoritarianism in Serbia is provoking real separation. Remember what Hegel said, that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce. What I mean to say is that when Yugoslavia disintegrates this time around, the outside world will not intervene as it did in 1914… Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all Communism. Its disintegration will foretell the disintegration in the Soviet Union. We are farther along than the Soviets.”
Djilas’s “autobiography of my youth”
I read Land Without Justice not out of respect for Djilas as a prophet, nor even out of interest in how someone who knew about the ruthlessness of communist dictators (including direct observation of Stalin) could dare to say that the new communist emperors had not clothes, but as part of my recent attempts to understand the savagery during the breakup of Yugoslavia. (Montenegro was the last to split off from Serbia, which still called itself “Yugoslavia,” that is, the union of southern Slavs. In language and religion and stubbornness, Montenegrians are Serbian.)
The first third of the book details the inter-ethnic (and inter-clan) violence in Montenegro at the time of Djilas’s birth. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 in which the Kingdom of Montenegro expanded, expelling Ottoman rulers and slaughtering Muslims,. were followed by World War I in which Montenegro, allied with Serbia was decisively defeated by the (Austro-Hungarian) Hapsburg army in 1916. Djilas describes the often grisly murders of Muslims before and after the First World War, and the picking off and dismemberment of stragglers from the Austrian retreat in 1918.
Djilas was only five when the Austrian army passed through triumphant and only seven when it retreated, and much of what Djilas describes he could not have understood at the time, I frequently told myself. Yet, there are very clear memories of what he himself saw, too. And there is a continuity in the savagery that continued with guerrilla rebels against the postwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and, after the Croatian leader was assassinated in Parliament, the Serbian dictatorship that called itself the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Djilas himself was a leader of partisan forces in Montenegro opposed to the fascist puppet Montenegro during the Second World War, which is beyond what is covered in the memoir of his youth. He wrote about his WWII experience and his rise and fall as a comrade of Tito in other books, as well as his analyses of the new class.
Djilas was a great storyteller, and Land Without Justice is filled with the stories of others, including his violent family members, teachers, fellow students. The book is not impersonal — it does include accounts of what the young Djilas felt — but the first two parts seem more ethnographic (an observant participant) than autobiographical. The young Djilas is more an agent in the final third, after he has left his native village to board in town and go to school.
I think that one could substitute the name of other Balkan peoples in their own areas in Djilas’s lament that “everywhere on the roads wherever we went, there was sorrow—tombstones and graces, murder and misfortune, one after another. The murder of enemies was forgotten, but our own Montenegrin losses, especially if caused by a brother’s hand, remained fresh i memory. One no sooner passed a mound or put it out of mind than another waited around the bend. Every stopping place had a grave.” The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo required regarding all Muslims (however Slavic their ancestry) as “Turks,” killing them and dispossessing them, though much of the violence as between those not only of the same language and same faith, but same name.
“So it has always been here,” Djilas wrote.
“One fights to achieve sacred dreams and plunders and lays waste along the way — to live in misery, in pain and death…. The naked and hungry mountaineers could not keep from looting their neighbors, while yearning and dying for ancient glories. Here, war was survival, a way of life, and death in battle the loveliest dream and highest duty….. This land was never one to reward virtue, but it has always been strong on taking revenge and punishing evil. revenge is its greatest delight and glory…. Vengeance is a breath of life one shared from the cradle with one’s fellow clansmen, in both good fortune and bad, vengeance from eternity. Vengeance was the debt we paid for the love and sacrifice our forebears and fellow clansmen bore for us. It was the defense of our honor and good name, and the guarantee of our maidens. It was our pride before others.”
Individual and family honor had to be maintained by spilling of fresh blood — including that of many Djilas’s relatives, including his father (veteran of the Balkan Wars).
(Zla Kolata, Montenegro’s highest peak photographed by Pavoukjpeg)
The first part of the book chronicles many of those. I was struck in the last part that almost everyone Djilas mentioned — his teachers and classmates — had been killed during World War II or its immediate aftermath, and hardly any of them by foreigners (a substantial number killed by communist partisans and some “disappeared” for opposing Tito’s break from subservience to Stalin).
Early on, Djilas also describes how looting was irresistible, even to those who tried to dissuade others. In the mid-1950s, Djilas was not writing to explain the atrocities of the 1990s in Bosnia (and elsewhere in what had been Yugoslavia). Djilas considered himself a Yugoslavian, though he foresaw that after Tito (and, especially, with Milosovich’s dictatorship) violent fission would occur. Djilas was writing about days of Montenegrian independence and the first Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia, though reading his memoir now, it seems that what he was writing relates only too well to the 1990s.
For me (someone more interested in the culture and history of the Balkans than most North Americans not of Slavic descent), Djilas’s memoir is too long with too many stories of too many individuals (particularly in the second part of the book). I’d have liked more about him. And I’d have liked some explication of what “communism” meant to him as a child and youth, especially since he describes a rural society without industry, and, therefore without a proletariat. One of the paradoxes of 20th-century history is that communist revolutions succeeded (that is, seized state power) only in societies that were predominantly peasant, not those with numerous industrial workers. And Montenegro was a clan-based peasant backwater even in comparison to other places where communists took power…
Also, I found some of the generalizations with which he closed each chapter rather too oracular. For instance, I am not sure what he meant when he wrote “Awareness and perseverance are not enough to help one resist and survive if the times in which one lives are contrary to those that are ahead. A man can fight anything except his own times.” Aside from its Hegelian cast, it seems to me that Djilas fought his own times (though not winning, I guess).
©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray