“Jason [the tyrant of Pherae] used to say that he felt
starved whenever he was out of power.”


Phenomena, like words, suffer much in translation. To know is to understand, but to be merely informed is far from knowing. We agonize through our books vicariously, then sit to enjoy our dinner.

In the West, and probably in the East as well, Milovan Djilas is a trans lated quality whose impact is undiminished by occasional misunderstanding. His works have an impact on both sides of “the Curtain.” Vladimir Bukovsky, the Soviet dissident, went to prison after Djilas’s New Class was discovered in his apartment, while American reviewers lavish praise on Djilas for his nobility. It is easy to confuse cognizance with virtue, and Milovan Djilas is complex enough to tax anyone’s linear thought processes. After all, he is a Montenegrin.

Djilas, writer, revolutionary, apostate, was born in a house above the Tara river, which flows into the Drina, made famous by Yugoslavia’a only Nobel-prize winner, Ivo Andric. It is a green river, so pristine that nothing can be hidden in it. I remember seeing Italian grenades in its shallows and bluish sands at the bottom of its deepest pools. The remnants of Djilas’s ancestral cabin, high on a crag above the Tara, are regularly pointed out to trusted travelers, by locals proud of the stature of its owner. In his village of Podbisce, Djilas’s name bears no adjectives. Like the Tara, it speaks for itself, to those with ears and mind.

Like all mythological realms, Montenegro is a state of spirit. Its mountains seldom reach 7,000 feet, yet, besides the people, they are its essence. Cray and crushed, like the surface of an asteroid, or green and rolling, like compressed versions of Anatolia, they form a backdrop to an endless drama. Mountaineers inhabit them, still wild, despite their acquaintance with transistors and automobiles. To them, the outside world’s opinion is not a source of compunction.

In his book Njegos, one of the two best he has written so far, Djilas de scribes Montenegro and its people. Like the poet he was born to be but disdained to become, Djilas lilts of transcendence unperceived. His love for Montenegro is genuine, as is his understanding. Few Montenegrins have reached such self-awareness, though, according to lore, it should mark every one of them.

“Courage masters all evil,” wrote Njegos, the bishop-prince-poet of Montenegro, so admired by Djilas and the rest of us. To the non-Yugoslav world, this poet, perhaps as great as any, is unknown for the lack of an adequate translation. The language of a small people, Serbian is spoken by few Westerners and felt by even fewer. This becomes apparent upon reading the translation of Djilas’s newest book, Rise and Fall, in which the translator, John Fiske Loud, for the lack of personal experience, fails to transpose his information about the language into the truth.

“Vlast,” the title of the book in Serbian, means “authority” as much as “power,” which speaks volumes of how might is acquired and exercised in Djilas’s homeland. Words like the “functionary,” translated as an “official,” are as foreign to Serbo-Croatian as to English. The language of Marxism-Leninism, used by Djilas to write his latest memoir, tells us of much more than intended. Where words are weighed, silences bear the hardest.

Americans, forthright as they are about most things, concede that “everybody wants to be a star,” but in Montenegro, glory could be won only for excellence. In Serbian, “glory” and “fame” are synonyms, one unthinkable without the other. Institutionalized, universal lottery is still an abomination in Montenegro and among Serbs in general.

In the land of the Black Mountain, as Montenegro or Crna Gora have been rendered into English, within living memory of some highlanders, medals for bravery were awarded for truth. Clan levies used to be mustered on meadows, and the best man asked to step forth. As far as anyone remembers, only one clansman would issue from the ranks, and trials by combat of two or more contenders were unheard of. Where peers are merciless and men few, to lie meant death worse than physical extinction. Having one’s name remembered was the only immortality Montenegrins could strive for. Ignominy was a blow to the whole family, the clan, and the land itself, for all time.

In contrast with English, “justice” and “law” are two distinct words and concepts in Serbian. More often than not, they were actually antagonistic. Law is the writ, or the word, while justice is that which escapes both—like all that lives. Thus, the title of Djilas’s other great book, Montenegro—The Land Without Justice, is a terrible mistranslation. In the original, Djilas’s autobiographical work is called Besudna zemlja, “the land without law.”

Throughout its turbulent history, Montenegro may have been without law, for mountaineers have little use for equality applied to men of different merit, but it was never a land without justice. Justice itself, perceived as retribution, has been the spiritus movens of Montenegro from the earliest times. The whole Serbian epic is about justice, or its lack. The divine order, sullied by men, had to be upheld at a price. The highlanders lived and died for justice, while plunder and glory were only its perquisites.

If there is greater injustice than virtue or excellence unrecognized, Montenegrins are yet to discover it. Milovan Djilas, a Montenegrin youth from Podbisce, had a choice of staying in his village and suffering, or seeking fame elsewhere. Montenegrins with out challenge were like eagles without a sky. Djilas went to Belgrade to study, as did many other young bloods deprived of heroic opportunities by a settled age.

In the capital city of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the pauperized aristocrats from the boondocks soon grew to despise, hate, and envy most things around them. Lowlanders were affluent and easygoing and set more store by living comfortably than by dying gloriously. Their women were contemptuous and enticing and had little use for knights-errant. An ideology explaining all injustice as conspiracy, treachery, or baseness could not fail to win over many disgruntled Montenegrins. Moreover, it was soon discovered that one could dominate a clan destine circle of followers more completely than any legal politician could ever hope to. The law, disregarded by Communists and Montenegrins alike, created tight, persecuted groups where justice could rampage unfettered. More than the royal secret police and the Courts for the Defense of the State, Communists were their own judges and executioners, even before Trotskyism provided a frame-work for intra-Party cauterization. 

In this milieu Djilas flourished. Quickly noticed by the new Party General Secretary, Josip Broz (later known as Tito), he advanced rapidly through Party ranks. By the outbreak of World War II he was one of the four top people in the Communist hierarchy, entrusted by Tito with fomenting and conducting the Revolution in his native Montenegro.

Though jealousy, personal ambition, and quest for power may go some way to explain the conversion of many Montenegrin students in Belgrade to communism, they still cannot account for its fairly wide popularity among the rural and small-town youth. Fashion, promoted by a horrendous Montenegrin fear of falling behind, may also have helped establish the new ideology in the land; but it was justice, and yearning for justice, that won it most converts. The best and the quickest way to reach it was traditionally by the annihilation of the unjust, as Montenegrins were never queasy about blood. It was no wonder that their bleak, craggy landscape became the setting for a sanguine extermination of “class enemies” immediately following the popular uprising against the Axis.

A talented young writer before the war, in July of 1941 Djilas at long last became what a Montenegrin should be: a warrior. It is by no accident that Wartime carries some of his best literary passages. His enchantment with war, the ultimate in power politics, made his renderings of war and war fare in his other books, such as Under the Colors, as good as anything Leo Tolstoy ever wrote. But Tolstoy, being no Montenegrin, had to moralize about his passion, whereas Ojilas smiled as he told me that “nothing possesses a man as war.” War, the poetry of death, had found its voice in a man proficient at both.

As befits a clansman, it was during the fighting itself that Djilas created most of his countless enemies. The summer and fall of 1941 in Montenegro became the “Second Extermination of Traitors,” thus named in keep ing with the famous theme of Njegos’s Mountain Wreath. Inured to misfortune and hardship, Montenegrins could never abide by evil: it had to be cut out of the living flesh of the nation. But evil, among a violent people only folklorically religious, had be come relativized almost to extinction. Though today Djilas disclaims any connection with the 1941 massacres in Montenegro, records and eyewitnesses indicate otherwise.

According to one account of Djilas’s public execution of a suspected Italian spy in the fall of 1941, his Montenegrin passion was formidable. The story has it that Djilas had approached the suspect in front of a crowd, drawn his pistol and ordered him to open his mouth, to preserve his teeth. As the man gaped, Djilas had turned towards the spectators, walked a few paces away from the victim, then whipped around and killed him with a single shot through the mouth. The mob is said to have gone wild celebrating Djilas for his flair and marksmanship. After all, Njegos himself was esteemed by the Montenegrins more for his inordinate height, strength, beauty, and the ability to hit an orange in midair than for his spiritual and literary attainments. To the people of the mountains, gifts beyond their physical manifestation were as tenuous as un expressed virtue. “Blows coax the spark from stone,” wrote Njegos, “else it would have languished there!”

Curiously, it was among his Partisan comrades that Djilas acquired his most fearsome reputation. For smallest infringements of military or Party discipline, he had the offenders shot. In one such instance he had ordered a commissar executed for accepting a treat from a peasant. The Party directive forbade such behavior, but the commissar proved unable to decline the honor of eating a pie baked for him by a villager. Djilas’s order, however, was not carried out immediately but postponed by a more levelheaded underling. The following day, Djilas pardoned the commissar and congratulated the officer in charge on his judgment. Unfortunately, many other condemned fighters were not that lucky.

Whatever the sources—Partisan, Chetnik, or other—they all agree that, until his fall from power, Djilas was a violent, dynamic, sometimes even savage leader. “There are few things on this Earth,” he said to me once, “that can so bewitch a man as power!” His voice as he uttered those words was that of a lover. It was probably his personal ambition most of all that had led him to an unplanned confrontation with Tito, a confrontation which terminated his political career as a Communist.

Djilas, it must be remembered, though he comes across as a romantic firebrand, was and still is a very shrewd, capable, and calculating politician. His record within the Communist Party, apart from his one fateful misstep, proves that. One does not become a top man in a Stalinist party through idealism. Djilas’s fancies, until 1953, had never proved self-destructive, though at times they must have exacted a price from him as well as others. Circumstances surrounding his ouster seem much more coherent when viewed within the context of the times than from the perspective of romantic rebellion promoted by Djilas and his admirers. In the early 50’s the newly maverick Yugoslavs were feted by all manner of Western supporters. One of these was Aneurin Bevan, the head of the British Labour Party, with whom Djilas had become a personal friend. During his contacts with Bevan and his trips to the West, Djilas apparently began exploring the idea of a pluralist communist system. To a Montenegrin, the reality of being second-in-command must have appealed much less than the possibility of becoming an antipope, or the leader of the loyal Marxist opposition to Tito. It is quite possible that he attempted to sell Tito on the merits of his ploy to exploit Western liberal goodwill. Forty-two at the time all this was happening, Djilas had never previously exhibited a predilection for pluralism.

Djilas’s idea was anathema to Bolshevist Josip Broz. Though he was allegedly a Croat peasant from Zagorje, and neither a Montenegrin like Djilas nor a Georgian like Stalin, Tito’s vanity knew few equals, even among the adherents of a movement purporting to be the most aristocratic in all history. Within the avant-garde of the avant-garde of the whole of humanity, power and the fascination with power were at the hub of every thing that the ideologues would subsequently try to rationalize as conflicts of doctrine. When asked about the quality he most valued in a man, it was Marx himself who answered: “Strength,” displaying an attitude that has remained as constant among his followers as it has been unperceived among his detractors.

Whether his run-in with Tito was felt by Djilas as a power struggle is highly dubious. Although the marshal never forgave his former lieutenant for introducing rank heresy among the faithful, Djilas never turned upon his seducer. His subsequent published memoirs of Tito indicate an enduring adulation which can only be understood within the frame work of adoration of power and success, so characteristic of communists and Montenegrins. Had Djilas truly been different, he would have demonstrated his independence long before 1953. There was never any dearth of examples of what his Party and movement were all about, as he himself so aptly testifies in his memoirs. Men, Montenegrins or not, are motivated by impulses often mysterious in their simplicity, and the mental webs we weave around them are a poor compensation for integrity.

What makes Djilas’s case unique among his Party comrades is his courageous and intelligent adherence to the position he had taken. While he did repudiate himself at a Party congress convened immediately after his fall from power, he rallied later on and remained true to his new choice. For his steadfastness he suffered worse than he had in Royal Yugoslavia and spent nine years in prison. Perversely, some of that time he served in the Belgrade Central Prison-an institution of his own devising. Today’s admirers of Djilas tend to forget that he was one of the principal architects of new Yugoslavia, with Tito often being merely the nudger. To his discredit, there are many things in the Rise and Fall, concerning his own role in the system of sanctified injustice that the new regime had immediately become, that Djilas either fails to mention or makes light of. In fact, the tone of the whole book-very facetious, especially in the original—does not substantiate the sincerity of a conversion that has since become so famous. Djilas, the author of the Rise and Fall, is no Lucifer, but a prodigal son, possibly because of his political ambitions in Yugoslavia, which, despite his frequent denials, are still very much alive.

Ironically, predictably, and justly, Djilas’s political downfall on the Yugoslav scene became the moment of his birth upon the international stage. Tito will probably remain noted in history as just another charismatic dictator, while Djilas’s stand raised ripples that are yet to subside. The Prague Spring of 1968, the emergence of Eurocommunism, the rise of”Solidarity” in 1980 Poland owe much more to Djilas than they do to Tito. (Ceausescu, on the other hand, is a Titoist phenomenon.)

Unwittingly, the communist radical and enfant-terrible, Djilas had become the fountainhead of a worldwide communist renewal with much more influence than, say, Trotsky’s movement ever had. Though the theory of permanent revolution may hold some sway over leftists of poor nations, Djilas’s original conception of a pluralistic socialism is a much more potent call to the liberals and leftists of the West. Translated out of his original context, Djilas acquires a far greater power. Myth triumphs in the tale retold of the political poet, condemned to impotence by a demon of success.

To those in the West who see in Djilas a dragonslayer of collectivism, it should be pointed out that he has yet to deny his socialist views. Social interventionism and enforcement of virtue, justice, and happiness are things he still clings to. He may have renounced some of his previous methods, but threads of imposed restraint are usually hard to bear, whether made of silk or steel. He is still befuddled with theoretical questions of property. His enchantment with technological progress is still that of a barbarogenic Balkan communist. I remember him waxing almost poetic over the new Belgrade skyline of high rise apartments. To a peasant child from Podbisce, science, even social science, still holds the keys to all improvement. No one can convince him that reading by the light of a candle is better than reclining in an electrically lighted room. Like all emancipated primitives, he has lived the future, and it works. Pollution, regimentation, drudgery, and vicariousness are but small prices to pay for the liberation from misery, filth, and hunger. In his wisdom, Djilas probably knows that all our choices are between different degrees of evil. “All men live at a loss,” says the Koran of entropy, whose antithesis we endeavor to be.

Djilas’s possible role in the Yugoslavia of today and tomorrow is not to be dismissed out of hand. He is a much more organic offshoot of the country as it is than are various Western-looking idealists. Yugoslavia, a Sargasso Sea between the oceans of the East and the West, the North and’ the South, is yet to coalesce. To numerous young Yugoslavs, such as I was when I sought him out, Djilas, the prewar rabble-rouser, brutal guerrilla, postwar bigshot, remains in the shad ow of the long-suffering political and social outcast, martyred for his trueness to himself. Time has rendered him both different and better, like the famed King Lazar of Serbian epic, celebrated for his victory in defeat.

Like many other men of destiny, Djilas is as much a mystery to himself as he is to others. Those who know are quiet, while fools commit us to un foreseen travails. A true writer of promise who chose to be a politician instead, a man of action priding him self in his modest philosophical knowledge and capabilities, a Montenegrin who abolished Montenegro by depriving it of its Serbian gist, Djilas remains at a crossroads of potentialities. Age, however, is working against him. His enigmatic, sly, Mao-like smirk, of a man withholding a secret, is yet to find its true direction: inward, or outward. He weaves his silvery threads around Belgrade, defying lesser men who have won their places rolling dice, or their integrity. Like a Deng-Xiaoping, he bides his time, knowing, or forgetting, that time kills. Power, thwarted for decades, stalks its vindication, while a country revolves within its fictions, too weak to reach a mirror. 


[Rise and Fall, by Milovan Djilas (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $24.95]