Djilas joined Yugoslavia’s Communist Party as a student and participated in its quest for power before and during World War II. He quickly rose to high government posts and became a close friend of Tito. In 1953 he publicly accused government officials and party members of corruption and betrayal of communist ideals in an article, appropriately titled “Anatomy of a Moral,” and was forced to resign from his posts. He was also expelled from the party and was jailed three years later. While in jail, he wrote additional books of criticism, for which he received additional prison sentences and was not released until the end of 1966. Meanwhile, he became the most celebrated dissident in the postwar communist world.
Djilas wrote several books of fiction and on political and historical subjects. Perhaps the most important is his early work The New Class (1957), which mercilessly pilloried the communists for rising to power only to improve on the corruption of the bourgeois predecessors against whom they revolted. This book’s title, “The New Class,” entered political terminology and has since been applied almost exclusively to communists. Djilas followed that book with Anatomy of a Moral (1959), a collection of satirical articles in which he continued his attack on bureaucracy and corruption. Conversations with Stalin (1962) moved his criticisms into the international sphere, drawing a devastating portrait of moral degradation of the Soviet dictator and justifying Yugoslavia’s break from the Soviet Bloc in 1948.
In Wartime (1977) Djilas chronicled the events in Yugoslavia in World War II. It pays homage to the struggle of the partisans and reveals several secrets, such as the meeting between the partisans and the Germans in 1943—which ostensibly took place to discuss a prisoner exchange, but which in reality planned a joint resistance to a possible Allied landing in the Balkans. Djilas’ uncompromising honesty and courage of conviction have made him a reliable witness to the events of World War II and the ensuing Cold War.
The changes in Djilas’ thinking over the years merit emphasis. From a fervid communist he eventually became a social democrat; however, at heart he remained a communist who regretted the missed opportunities of putting Marxist theory into a successful practice.