The Magazine


May 11, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 34 • By JOHN O'SULLIVAN
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The editor and translator explain all this carefully enough. Still, the reader is advised to tackle the book in the following order: the introduction; chapter one ("The development of my political thinking"); the epilogue (entitled "In lieu of an epilogue"), in which Djilas is interviewed by his editor about the book's method; back to chapter two; and from there to the end in conventional style. If the reader takes this trouble, he will unroll a fascinating story of how one mind and half a world gradually freed themselves from oppressive utopian delusions.

The mind began with one initial advantage. Although from very early in his youth Djilas was a Communist revolutionary who flung himself wholeheartedly into the struggles against both the prewar Yugoslav government and the German invader, he nursed ambitions to be a poet and novelist. It was correspondingly harder for him than for most apparatchiks to see everything in terms of large historical inevitabilities. He also saw the arrogance of bureaucrats, the petty jealousies of political wives, the actual beaten-down proletarians in the workers' paradise, the personal sacrifices that led to no great social or economic gains, indeed often to squalor and futility.

For many years, however, Djilas seemed unaware that his human sympathies were at war with his ideological convictions. He remained a leading figure in a political movement and, later, regime that murdered tens of thousands of its opponents. Any mental anguish he felt emerged only in disguise. One night in the forest, when he was resting during a retreat before the German army, Djilas awoke to see the face of Christ formed by the branches of trees.

He refrains from drawing dramatic conclusions from this vision. But whether one believes that it was a true vision of Christ signifying that Djilas would be called upon to bear witness to the truth, as he has done, or repressed political doubts emerging through a subconscious shaped by religion, it is surely significant that the vision was of Christ -- and not of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, or even the young, supposedly more humanistic Marx. Even to a Marxist, it seems, Christ represented love, mercy, atonement, human as well as divine values. And for good reason. What could any of the Marxist saints have said to help one struggling with the guilt of wartime brutalities and political crimes? Doubtless something along the lines of: "Spare the old party comrades, my son, and murder only as many Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and class enemies as revolutionary necessity dictates." Not the message to soothe a troubled soul or to compel repentance and redress.

For another ten years, Djilas lived with his doubts as one of the five most senior Yugoslav Communists in an exceptionally stormy political period. He personally negotiated with Stalin both during the war and in the run-up to the Stalin-Tito break. He wrote the main theoretical philippics justifying Tito's independent "national communism." He met the leading East European Communists in a (foredoomed) attempt to gain their support against Moscow. And, fortunately for us, he recorded all these encounters with an unsparing novelist's eye.

Even while he still hero-worshiped Stalin, for instance, he was not blind to the cowardice of Stalin's court, nor to the growing moral corruption of the Communist aristocracy. On one occasion, Stalin firmly denied that the Netherlands were part of "Benelux" (they are in fact represented by the "ne"), at which both Politburo members and foreign Communists became thoughtful, gazed intently at the tablecloth, nodded, etc. On another, Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian Communist leader, who in 1933 had inspired the Left worldwide with his heroic defiance of the Nazis at the Reichstag trial, weakly endorsed Moscow's excommunication of the Yugoslav Communists after personally urging Djilas to stand firm. There is something tragic as well as comic in these episodes: Marxism had transformed men who had once been brave, idealistic revolutionaries into lost souls, brutal to those below, servile to those above. Over time, Djilas drew the conclusion that human beings cannot build Utopia.