Little Old Grandfather

Thomas Meaney

Milovan Djilas was second only to Tito in the communist hierarchy of postwar Yugoslavia. In the war years, he had gained a reputation as a warrior-intellectual who could think dialectically under machine-gun fire. In Tito’s government, he served as minister without portfolio and styled himself as the state philosopher. His colleagues in the Central Committee learned to forgive his eccentricities and smile at his jibes at their private lives. But lovable ‘Djido’ had a rage for moral purity. His break with Tito was the culmination of criticisms he had been refining for nearly a decade. As he saw it, the communist leadership had abandoned the Partisan practice he most cherished – relentless self-criticism – and consecrated instead a social hierarchy that could be justified only in wartime. Although he came to see himself as Trotsky’s heir, Djilas wasn’t prepared to form a political faction to demand more democratisation of the state: his revolt rested on his private sense of morality. This made him a natural candidate for heroism in the West, but a vexing figure in Belgrade, where, as the people’s ideological fervour waned during his long imprisonment, it became harder for the regime to claim it still harboured ideals more exalted than a single man’s integrity.

Djilas was born in 1911 to a peasant family in the highlands of Montenegro, which had just become an independent state. His older brother, Aleksa, introduced him to a type of socialism that seemed to address the poverty of the region and to suit the egalitarianism of the local clans. ‘It was not communism,’ Djilas later wrote, ‘but, rather, a deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life, and to escape a hopeless monotony.’ He dreamed of becoming a poet in Paris, but had to settle for Belgrade, by now the capital of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, where he arrived as a teenager in a new wool suit, determined not to be taken for a provincial. At Belgrade University, he fell in with a literary crowd. He approved of the social realists, tried to reconcile the surrealists with communism, and wrote essays attacking Wildean aesthetes. He also became an active member of the Communist Party, responsible for organisation at the university. King Alexander’s secret police arrested him in 1933 for carrying a gun he planned to use to break party members out of jail. He won the respect of the underground for his courage under torture. In Yugoslavia, as elsewhere across Europe, prisons were the school of revolution. In his three years in Sremska Mítrovica, he was introduced to the communist canon in cell-block study groups. ‘When a Montenegrin rebel meets Marxist-Leninism,’ he wrote, ‘the recognition is instantaneous and satisfying.’ Solitary confinement deepened his commitment to communism:

A prison is a house of love, a house of wild desires and mindless jealousies. There passions are comparable in their intensity only to an impassioned devotion to an idea. Although the political criminal imprisoned for an idea, like the common criminal suffers and burns because of sensual deprivation, he burns from his idea as well. Yet the political prisoner has an advantage, however, doubly inflamed. While burning for or in an idea neither banishes nor mitigates other passions, it certainly outshines and outranks them. The political inmate is master of himself to the degree that he is devoted to his idea body and soul.

Before his arrest, Djilas had taken against the permissive behaviour of Belgrade communists. Aleksandra Kollontai’s ‘glass of water’ theory was popular at the time and members had begun to think of sex as a basic physiological need, like the need for a glass of water: the ruling class had denied this fact of life, they claimed, in order to turn women into property. At first Djilas tried to follow along. When he fell in love with Mitra Mitrović, who would become his first wife, he resisted the glacial sort of courtship they would both have preferred. Instead he took her to his rooms after a lecture in a quick attempt to ‘shed her “bourgeois prejudices”’. After he learned she had another suitor, also a party member, the two men agreed that they shouldn’t be distracted from their political duties, and wrote her a joint letter withdrawing their interest. ‘We thought that this was the most honest and revolutionary approach,’ Djilas wrote in his Memoir of a Revolutionary, ‘since she was behaving like a real “bourgeois” type, trying to catch a husband.’

By the time he was released from prison in 1936, the practice of free love was becoming problematic, opening up the communists to fascist and royalist propaganda. Having assumed a higher place in the party hierarchy in prison, Djilas helped implement a ‘new position’, more in keeping with his austere sensibility. ‘A new type of relationship was in the making,’ he wrote, ‘free in attitude and word, but with a secret “non-communist” need for maximum fidelity.’ This was a return to a more Leninist attitude to sexual conduct; simultaneous partners and casual affairs were taboo. The leadership could now expel members for ‘errors’ in their sexual relations. In his Memoir, Djilas tells of a libertine fellow-traveller, ‘Paternoster’, who was admired for his anti-fascist activities but made the mistake of sleeping on and off with two party women. After they filed complaints against him, Paternoster was thrown off the back of a train. ‘Personally I didn’t feel the least guilt over this case,’ Djilas wrote. ‘I am not denying that this approach offended certain human sensibilities. But it was clear to me from the start that human sensibilities had to be sacrificed to those other, party sensibilities.’

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