“When I must define my own views,” writes Milovan Djilas in his latest book, Of Prisons and Ideas, “I identify them as ‘democratic socialist.'” For those who find this oxymoronic, Djilas’ whole book may seem like an exercise in contortion.

True to his earlier autobiographical works, Djilas clings to the purity and the intensity of his motives as proofs of his virtue. Long pages on the “idea” (a concept possibly meaningful in dialectical materialism) are used to illustrate the proposition that there is no evil but that of self-doubt. If Djilas has ever experienced any, it is hard to detect it in his autobiographies, or even in his other books.

Aside from its literary shortcomings (repetition, inanity, and sloppiness). Of Prisons and Ideas is Djilas’ weakest book, because it is a triumph of his desire to be remembered as a philosopher. Whatever else he may be, Djilas falls far short of qualifying as a serious thinker—a writer who perceives both Plato and Marx as “the most eminent representatives of the two tendencies” (i.e., “idealist” and “materialist” philosophies) commands little respect, despite all his sincerity and suffering.

That Djilas has suffered, much, cannot be questioned, though he would be the last to let anyone forget it. Throughout Of Prisons and Ideas he concretizes his experiences into an absolute truth. His numerous references to the beatings he underwent may seem like an insult to those whose spirit has been broken by torments he was never privy to. It does sound uplifting to learn that nothing can break a righteous man, but there is much information coming from other sources that indicates otherwise.

A man whose profoundly religious nature has been thwarted by the quirks of his being, Djilas strives mightily to create a rational, humanist religion. Though it is true that prison is a paradigm and that man is of supreme importance to himself, Djilas’ hubris will not allow him to see himself for what he is: a warrior hooked on righteousness.

In Yugoslavia, Djilas has been and still is hated much, both by his former comrades and by his enemies in the Civil War. Yet, for a man as avowedly introspective as Djilas, with such a record of personal violence, the selfsatisfaction he displays in his autobiographies is circumspect, to say the least.

To a Western conservative, Djilas has very little to offer: spiritually, existentially, or philosophically. As a quintessential politician, he cannot let go of socialism, the only reality he can contemplate for Yugoslavia. As a powermonger, he has nothing to teach those who are not concerned with vanquishing, as opposed to mere winning.

Yugoslavia does not need a new charismatic champion of merciless betterment. The West does not need another false martyr and an even falser prophet, leading us all into our “limitless future.” If there is anything limitless about man it may be our gullibility—our optimism must not be the outcome of either our ignorance or our cowardice but of our knowledge of self and our essentially “limited” humanity.

It is true that Communists, Djilas included, have often exhibited a most exemplary idealism and transcendence of human frailty, but Djilas hides the wellsprings of this attainment. Today, as before, fanatics’ endurance is based on expectation of reward, ever greater than any evil committed for the cause. That may be found surprising in a Montenegrin, to whom a Valhalla should provide ample solace.

A battle well fought, a game elegantly played to the utmost, a manliness paid full homage to may have satisfied true men through the ages, yet for Djilas and his innumerable likes, this was never enough—especially compared to full dominion over the Earthly, or the Heavenly Kingdom. 


[Of Prisons and Ideas, by Milovan Djilas (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $17.95]