Djilas, Milovan (1911–1995)

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DJILAS, MILOVAN (1911–1995)


Leader of Montenegro.

Milovan Djilas was born the fourth of nine children to the peasants Nikola and Novka Djilas on 12 June 1911 in the mountains along the Albanian frontier in Podbišće, Montenegro. His childhood, as revealed in the first volume of his memoirs, Land without Justice (1958), was punctuated by the Balkan Wars (1912–1913); World War I (1914–1918); and the formation of Yugoslavia, including Montenegro, in 1918. After completing elementary and secondary school in Montenegro he entered Belgrade University to study literature in 1929, the same year that the royal dictatorship of King Alexander Karadjordjević (r. 1921–1934) was established in Yugoslavia.

Under the influence of the Great Depression and other postwar problems facing Yugoslavia, problems stemming from underdevelopment, multinationalism, and a lack of a democratic tradition, Djilas became a communist during his university years and was soon imprisoned as an agitator by the dictatorship in 1933–1936. He served in prison with top Yugoslav communist leaders, including Tito (Josip Broz, 1892–1980), Moša Pijade (1890–1957), and Alexander Ranković (1909–1982), and saw it as a school for revolutionaries. After Djilas's release he immediately went underground and also married a fellow Montenegrin communist student, Mitra Mitrović, in 1937; they had a daughter in 1947. Djilas was appointed to the Central Committee and Politburo of the Yugoslav Communist Party in 1938 and 1940, respectively. During World War II, in the Yugoslav Revolution and War of National Liberation, he was in charge of the Montenegrin theater and the editor of the Party newspapers Borba (The struggle) and Nova Jugoslavija (The new Yugoslavia). As a lieutenant general of the partisan resistance in 1944 Djilas headed up a diplomatic mission to Moscow and first met Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). His encounters and eventual disillusionment with the Soviet dictator and communism are captured in Djilas's Conversations with Stalin (1962). His prewar and war experiences also were recounted in the second and third volume of his memoirs, Memoir of a Revolutionary (1973) and Wartime (1977), respectively.

In 1945–1954 Djilas rose to become the vice president of Yugoslavia and president of the Federal Assembly and second in power only to Tito. Following the Yugoslav-Soviet split and break with Stalin in 1948, along with Edward Kardelj (1910–1979) and Boris Kidrić (1912–1953), Djilas was an architect of socialist "self-management," a cornerstone of "Titoism," Yugoslav national communism, and Yugoslavism. In 1950 he divorced his first wife and married his second, Stefića, a former Croat partisan, in 1952. They had a son in 1954.

Djilas's disillusionment with communism had already begun during World War II. He actively began to critique Stalinism in theory and practice in 1948 and Titoism in 1953. He worked diligently and almost foolhardily to democratize and decentralize Titoism. After numerous official warnings from Tito and other Yugoslav leaders Djilas was stripped of all official posts by the Third Plenum of the League of Yugoslav Communists, the Yugoslav Communist Party, in January 1954 and resigned his membership in the League in March. His first imprisonment under communism followed in 1956–1961. With the publication of The New Class (1957) in the West, Djilas quickly became communism's most famous critic at the height of the Cold War.

To Djilas, the "new class," comprising self-serving party bureaucrats that supported and were partners in the communist dictatorship, was the ultimate contradiction of communism, which after the revolution was supposed to yield a classless democratic society. This class grew out of and sustained itself on the control and not the ownership of the means of production. In The New Class, Djilas condemned the reality of communism but not the Marxist ideology. His final break with Marxism came with the publication of The Unperfect Society (1969) after his second imprisonment under communism in 1962–1966. In this book, he pointed out that human beings by their nature were not "imperfect," capable of perfection, but "unperfect," incapable of perfection. Marxism and all other universal ideologies (e.g., Christianity) were horribly flawed in that the sought to foster human perfection at the expense of human freedom. As he had done first at the end of the New Class, in The Unperfect Society he still came down favorably on the side of the more democratic varieties of Eurocommunism developing in France and Italy.

With the death of Tito in 1980 Djilas quickly published his not wholly uncomplimentary appraisal of the Yugoslav leader, Tito: The Story from Inside (1980). His two volumes of postwar memoirs, Rise and Fall (1985) and Of Prisons and Ideas (1986) followed. In addition to his overtly political works, beginning in 1953 Djilas also published numerous novels and collections of short stories, many of them written in prison. His Njegoš (1966), a major biography of the nineteenth-century founder of modern Montenegro, ranks among Djilas's major writings such as The New Class, Conversations with Stalin, and The Unperfect Society, and has helped to earn him a leading position in Yugoslav literature. Montenegro remained an important theme in his life and work. Milovan Djilas died in Belgrade on 20 April 1995.

See alsoEurocommunism; Montenegro; Tito (Josip Broz); Yugoslavia.


Primary Sources

Djilas, Milovan. The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System. New York, 1957.

——. The Unperfect Society: Beyond the New Class. Translated by Dorian Cooke. New York, 1969.

Secondary Sources

Reinhartz, Dennis. Milovan Djilas, A Revolutionary as a Writer. Boulder, Colo., and New York, 1981.

Dennis Reinhartz