Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1679
Article abstract: Djilas was a leader of the Partisan forces in the resistance to the Axis and its allies and collaborators in the Yugoslav Revolution during World War II, and he was a founding father of Titoist Yugoslavia. In the process he became a major theoretician and critic of postwar communism as well as a major European writer.
Milovan Djilas was born the fourth of nine children to peasant parents on June 12, 1911, on the Podovo Plateau, overlooking the village of Podbišće, Montenegro. His paternal grandfather, Aleksa, was a hajduk, an anti-Ottoman bandit leader, reportedly assassinated on orders from the then king of Montenegro’s father-in-law. Djilas’ father, Nikola, served in the Montenegrin army during World War I and, as a police commandant in Kolašin afterward, resisted the incorporation of the old Kingdom of Montenegro into the new Yugoslavia. Djilas’ mother, Novka, came from Siberia from a slightly better background than his father. Djilas’ childhood was nevertheless one of a peasant growing up on a battlefield.
Djilas’ early education was completed in Podbišće, Kolašin, and Berane (now Ivangrad). In these years, through his teachers, he was exposed to not only the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilich Lenin but also the works of Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, and other great writers. By the time he went to study literature at the University of Belgrade in 1929, he was already a confirmed Communist. He put action before theory and became a radical student leader opposed to the royal dictatorship of King Alexander of Yugoslavia.
In March, 1932, Djilas was arrested and jailed for eight days as a warning, which he failed to heed. Consequently, in April, 1933, he was arrested again, tortured, and sentenced to three years in prison, where he for the first time met influential Communists such as Moša Pijade and Alexander Ranković. In prison Djilas became one of the most dedicated Stalinists in the local Yugoslav Communist leadership.
Upon his release from prison, Djilas went underground, leaving literature temporarily behind, to pursue a revolutionary career. He sided with Tito against Joseph Stalin’s attempt to gain greater control of the Yugoslav Communist Party and recruited fifteen hundred Yugoslav volunteers to fight with the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, Tito therefore appointed Djilas to the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party and to its ruling Politburo a year later.
During World War II and the Yugoslav Revolution, Djilas was, along with Tito, Pijade, Ranković, and Edvard Kardelj, one of the leaders of the Partisans in the resistance against the Axis Powers and their collaborators. He held the rank of general and was in charge of the Montenegrin theater. In addition to being in the thick of the fighting to liberate Yugoslavia, he also played an important role in Partisan agitprop activities and was the editor of the Party newspapers, Borba (the struggle) and Nova Jugoslavija (the new Yugoslavia). He also served as chief negotiator between Partisans and their Axis enemies and the Partisans’ Soviet allies, including Stalin himself.
At the end of the war, Djilas was made Minister for Montenegro in the Yugoslav Government for National Unity and was awarded the Order of Kutuzov by the Soviet Union. In 1946, he was promoted to minister without portfolio. Djilas also was an architect of Titoism, Yugoslav national Communism, after the rupture in Soviet-Yugoslav relations in 1948. In 1949, he explained the new Yugoslav position before the world in the United Nations. By 1953, he was Vice President of Yugoslavia, President of the Federal Assembly, and Tito’s heir apparent.
Djilas’ wartime experiences and encounters with Stalin gradually led to his disillusionment with Stalinism and the Soviet Union and eventually communism itself. In 1953-1954, he published a series of highly critical essays (republished in the West in 1959 as the volume entitled Anatomy of a Moral) in Borba and the journal Nova Misao (new thought), warning that abusive bureaucratization was an “internal contradiction” of the revolution, for which he was severely reprimanded by the Party and his “friends” in the leadership. In 1955, he was given an eighteen-month suspended prison sentence for his activities as a further warning. In 1956, he was again arrested and given a three-year prison sentence. When his book, The New Class, appeared in the West in 1957, four more years were added to the sentence. Djilas was released in 1961 but was reimprisoned a year later for revealing state secrets in his book, Conversations with Stalin, which was published in the West in 1962. He was released again in 1968 because of his failing health and has been in the process of being politically rehabilitated by the government of post-Tito Yugoslavia.
The first real crystallizations of Djilas’ new outlook were The New Class and The Unperfect Society (1969). In The New Class, he pointed to the apparent paradox that the Communist revolutions in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere to achieve a classless society had actually installed a new ruling class of Communists and bureaucrats (with its own aristocracy of those individuals who were both party members and bureaucrats), based not on the ownership of the means of production, but rather on their manipulation. Djilas also said that since Lenin’s adaptation of classical Marxism to Russia, Marxism had ceased to be international. What survived were various forms of national communism. In the late years of the Cold War, the critique of communism by a former insider in The New Class was widely welcomed and accepted in the West and roundly condemned in the East.
The New Class and Conversations with Stalin marked Djilas’ disillusionment with the reality of contemporary communism in all its national forms, but his break with Marxism was not clearly enunciated until the publication of The Unperfect Society. Djilas voiced the hope that Yugoslavia could transform Titoism into democratic socialism—that is, to make Yugoslav socialism really democratic—and would commit itself to a foreign policy of true nonalignment.
After his fall from power, Djilas again pursued his literary career. Like his political works, all of his literary works were highly political and publishable only in the West. Many of them were written in prison. The first was Land Without Justice (1958), the first volume of his autobiography, which is a stirring lyrical account largely of his childhood in Montenegro and is strongly reminiscent of heroic Serbian epic poetry. Other major works include the novels Montenegro (1962), about World War I; Under the Colors (1971), about Montenegro during the Russo-Turkish War of 1875-1878; and collections of short stories such as The Leper and Other Stories (1964) and The Stone and the Violets (1971). Perhaps his most important work is Njegoš (1966), a definitive biography and literary analysis of Prince-Bishop Njegoš, the founder of modern Montenegro. In 1969, Djilas also published in the West a translation into Serbian of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). While reflecting the influence of Russian literature and writers such as Dostoevski and Tolstoy and Serbian literature and writers such as Vuk Karadžić and Njegoš, Djilas’ works also have been likened to those of fellow Balkan writer, Nikos Kazantzakis from Greece.
Milovan Djilas was one of the founding fathers of post-World War II Yugoslavia. He was not only a major theoretician of Titoism but also a principal critic of communism, having first enunciated and explained the concepts of the new class, national communism, and democratic socialism. His ideas also contributed significantly to the development of Eurocommunism.
The roots of Djilas’ politics and political morality as well as of his literature are to be found deep in the traditions, history, and life of his native Montenegro. In the decades since the publication of his Land Without Justice, he emerged as one of the leading South Slav authors in the classic tradition of Karadžić and Njegoš. He wrote about what he knew best, but his ethnicity did not limit; it enhanced, and helped his work transcend the Balkan tradition to claim a place of distinction in Western literature. While Djilas is still probably best known as a political dissident, his literary reputation is formidable.
Clissold, Stephen. Djilas: The Progress of a Revolutionary. New York: Universe Books, 1983. A traditional political biography of Djilas, stressing the years in power and opposition to Tito. Very little consideration given to Djilas’ literary achievement.
Djilas, Milovan. Conversations with Stalin. Translated by Michael B. Petrovich. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962. Djilas’ memoir of his disillusionment with Stalin during his 1944, 1946, and 1948 diplomatic missions to the Soviet Union and encounters with him.
Djilas, Milovan. Land Without Justice. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958. The first volume of Djilas’ autobiography, dealing with the years 1911-1928. Also a major literary work.
Djilas, Milovan. Memoir of a Revolutionary. Translated by Drenka Willen. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. The second volume of Djilas’ autobiography, covering his radical activity during the years 1928-1941. The making of a revolutionary and a primer in Communist revolution.
Djilas, Milovan. Wartime. Translated by Michael B. Petrovich. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. The third volume of Djilas’ autobiography, covering the Yugoslav Revolution and World War II.
Djilas, Milovan. Rise and Fall. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985. The final volume of Djilas’ autobiography. The creation of the New Yugoslavia and its independence from the Soviet Union. Djilas’ disillusionment with communism and fall from power.
Hammond, Thomas Taylor. “The Djilas Affair and Jugoslav Communism.” Foreign Affairs 33 (January, 1955): 298-315. An able contemporary analysis of Djilas’ fall from power and its impact on Titoist Yugoslavia and the rest of the Communist world.
Jovanovich, William. Now, Barabbas. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964. A memoir by Djilas’ friend and principal publisher relating some of his encounters with and reflections about Djilas.
Mihajlov, Mihajlo. “Comments on The Unperfect Society.” In Underground Notes. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976. Perceptive commentary by Djilas’ close friend, a fellow Yugoslav dissident, on perhaps Djilas’ most important “political” work.
Reinhartz, Dennis. Milovan Djilas: A Revolutionary as a Writer. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1981. A generally sympathetic literary biography of Djilas, stressing the intimate connection between art and politics in his life and work. Based in part on extensive interviews with Djilas.