Milovan Djilas and the Genesis of a Communist Ingroup

Milovan Djilas was a man of genius.  He was also, for much of his life, a Communist, and a very effective one who contributed mightily to the victory of Tito’s Partisans in World War II.  After the war he was one of the four most powerful men in Yugoslavia, but became disillusioned with the reality of Communism.  After publishing a series of 18 articles critical of the regime that appeared in the Communist organ Borba between October 1953 and January 1954, he was expelled from the party’s Central Committee.  He was arrested in 1956 and imprisoned for “hostile propaganda” following interviews that appeared in The New York Times and Agence France Presse, and spent much of the next ten years in jail.  His famous exposé of Communism, The New Class, appeared in 1957 after the manuscript was smuggled out of prison.  His later autobiographical works, such as Land Without Justice, Memoir of a Revolutionary, and Wartime, are treasure troves, not only for historians, but for sociologists and psychologists as well.  They are also full of invaluable insights into the birth and evolution of ideological ingroups.

In this case, of course, the ingroup in question is Communism, with Nazism one of the two great secular faiths of the 20th century.  However, the phenomena described by Djilas are also evident among the ingroups spawned by the earlier religious faiths as well.  Indeed, it might be said that one of these, a latter day version of Islam, “rushed in to fill the vacuum” left by the collapse of Communism.  At the moment, pending the rise of the next great secular faith, it is, in a sense, the only game in town for those with a penchant for saving the world.  Hence the occasionally comical love affair of the stalwarts of the extreme left with fundamentalist religious ideologues of the extreme right.

This phenomenon is hardly without historical precedent.  For example, the Nazis found a fertile recruiting ground for their storm troopers among former Communists.  Both of these ideological ingroups were strongly attractive to the same psychological type.  Both promised to save the world, albeit in radically different ways.  However, the strength of the attraction does not depend on the minutiae of theory, but on the degree to which an ideology appeals to the innate wellsprings of human moral behavior; what Jonathan Haidt has referred to as Moral Foundations in The Righteous Mind.  If the appeal is there, theoretical details are almost a matter of indifference.  Communist intellectuals were occasionally puzzled by the appeal of Nazism because of what they considered its theoretical incoherence.  Their mistake was in believing that the appeal of either Nazism or Communism depended on theory.  Communists became Communists, not because of the intellectual elegance of Marxism, but because it happened to be around.  They had an emotional itch, and Communism was a convenient tool for scratching it.  As Djilas put it in Memoir of a Revolutionary,

We called it Communism.  It was not Communism, but, rather, a deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life, not to accept a hopeless monotony.

Here, too, in a nutshell, he describes the susceptible “psychological type.”  Not surprisingly, the greatest susceptibility is found among the young.  In Djilas words,

Youthful rebellion first assumed a moral form:  the negation of traditional views and relationships.  The common man suffered the dictatorship and the other hardships as elementary evils which had rendered him helpless.  His concentration was on his family life.  He was petit bourgeois.  But he did not have any choice if he was not willing to go to prison.  Opposition to this kind of life, resistance to it and the bourgeois existence, was the most frequent form rebellion took among young people, particularly among intellectuals.

Initial attempts to scratch the “itch” took familiar forms:

In the course of my two years as a student (1929 to 1931), young people sought relief in a special form of bohemian existence, in which alcohol was perhaps not the chief solace.

They did not immediately turn to Communism, in part because of the lack of an organized Communist movement in Yugoslavia at the time.  King Alexander had abolished the constitution and established a personal dictatorship in 1929.

With the advent of the dictatorship, political organizations at the University were either broken up or they disintegrated.  There wasn’t a trace left of the Communist organization.  There were a few Communists, older students, but they were either so passive or so secretive that one didn’t know who they were.  I knew one of them, Milos Tujo Cetkovic, but only because he was a Montenegrin, from my region, and a relative of my Aunt Draguna.  However, he never said anything to encourage me in my rebellion, so involved was he in himself and in the mechanics of his conspiracy.

In keeping with ideological tradition, Djilas turn to Communism was catalyzed by admiration of a “heroic martyr.”  In his case, it was Bracan Bracanovic, a former member of the Yugoslav Communist Party’s Central Committee.

They say that he was dark and young and wild, and that he had enormous physical strength.  Several times he broke the chains on his wrists and it took as many as ten agents to subdue him.  He shouted big angry words at the policemen, spitting at them in spite of horrible physical tortures.  Uncompromising and unyielding, proud and strong, covered with blood and wounds, he died one night of a bullet in the nape of his neck, in a ditch near Belgrade.  No grave and no stone.  In my mind Bracanovic was identified with the heroes of our legendary past, the struggle against the Turks which I had sucked with my mother’s milk.  The death of such a hero was a crime a hundred times greater than any other, which inspired hatred and thoughts of revenge in any young fiery spirit.

Djilas time at the University also coincided with the worst years of the Great Depression, which did not spare Yugoslavia.  Economic misery and political repression promoted extremism:

My rebellious tendencies thrived in the Belgrade of this time:  Belgrade with its wild night life, its crisscross of influences from the whole country and abroad, its restricted social and political life… All the forces that yearned for a breath of fresh air were packed into underground cellars.  Belgrade was lively, colorful, and full of contrasts – an ostentatious display of newly acquired wealth on the one hand, and misery, hunger, and unemployment on the other.  It was a setting that gave form and encouragement to the conscious organized rebellion of the young… The dictatorship’s major undoing was that it took over in Yugoslavia just prior to the Great Depression of 1929.  The man in the street, who knows nothing about world economic laws, could not be convinced by elaborate but valid explanations in the press that the government was not wholly responsible for the economic downturn.  Poverty was spreading every step of the way, exposing gruesome crimes and perversities.

As individuals in the face of all this misery, Djilas and his friends felt a stifling impotence:

I found my own impotence in this situation insufferable, my own and that of so many people who opposed this power as personified by the King, the tyrant.  I felt that this night marked a final break between me, a citizen, and the King, the representative of state power.  As it turned out, I was not alone in this reaction:  we finally understood it was the King who was responsible for all that evil.

At first, Djilas joined a fellow student from a “bourgeois” party in distributing illegal political leaflets calling for a boycott of mock “elections” planned by the regime.  However, this first experience with organized resistance failed to scratch the itch:

For many years I was ashamed of having distributed those leaflets and for having urged other people to join me.  For a whole year my friends kept reproaching me, and their reproach, coupled with my own feelings of guilt, fortified my opposition to the bourgeois parties and their leaders.  We were not yet Communists, but we had begun to compete with each other in degrees of hostility toward the bourgeoisie.  Later this game assumed the character of deep “class” hatred.

The group of similarly disaffected left-wing students that had begun to gather around Djilas decided to take their opposition a step further:

We agreed that demonstrations should be held at the Law School at noon the day before the elections… That was the first public demonstration against the dictatorship.  This is not the time to talk of its impact on the development of the opposition and the Communist movement among the students.  But those who joined the demonstration felt that they were initiating something new and dangerous, that they were treading into the unknown.  Of that there can be no doubt.

The police smashed the demonstration, but only succeeded in fanning the flames.  The result was evident at a meeting of the students the following day.

Several people made speeches, including me, critical of our weak showing.  It was apparent that an organized minority was taking shape and imposing its will on the group.  There were a few moderate speakers, but they were quickly silenced.  Our skill in public speech-making – passion, invocation of patriotism, responsibility to the people, the duties of the young generation – had a tremendous impact.  Certain speakers were able to do anything they wanted with the crowd.

The emotional buttons were being pushed.  The moderate parties were pushed aside:

None of us leftists understood the full significance of the demonstrations.  However, the results were soon in evidence.  The bourgeois parties had lost control.  In the demonstrations they were moderate, and in action they were nowhere to be seen… But the most surprising thing of all was that the bourgeois parties had lost all influence on the masses, the ram and unformed masses, rebellious, politically undecided, strongly leftist in outlook.  A new generation was growing up under the dictatorship, ready to pounce.  The dictatorship had given birth to its own gravedigger.

For the Party, it was now merely a question of collecting the ripe fruit.  In Djilas’ case, it took the form of a message from the Communist Regional Committee that “the ‘comrades’ wished to see us.”  The “comrade” who did most of the talking was one Blazo Raicevic.  It turned out his Communist bone fides were somewhat dubious.  According to Djilas,

In the post-1937 internal struggles, he was included in the purge as an “unhealthy,” “factional,” “antiparty” element.

It didn’t matter.  Djilas continues,

…we were young Communists, not organized yet, but for that very reason most useful.  He was not bothered by our ideological immaturity – he was not a very well-formed Marxist himself… For us Montenegrin leftists, he was the first contact with the party organization, even if we overestimated him as a Communist and the strength of the existing Communist Party.

Raicevic encouraged the young Communists, but he did not organize them.  He didn’t need to.  They had found a unifying ideological outlet for their discontent.  From that point, the organization of the ingroup was almost spontaneous.  Djilas had left Belgrade for several months to avoid the police, who were already watching him.  The process of self-organization was already well underway when he returned:

In the three months that I had been away from Belgrade, the situation at the University had changed.  The unstable leftist groups had grown stronger and better organized, and had been formed into Marxist circles.  The official Communist party could in no way be credited with this development, even though the party did have its representatives in Belgrade, very respectable people at that… (I) found my colleagues organized in groups, absorbing ideology from Marxist pamphlets.  They were now sober, coldly analytical, and unsparing in their criticism of “bourgeois remnants.” … I felt ashamed I had “fled” from the police and stayed away so long.  I made up my mind to join one of the circles at once.

The process was complete.  The young students with a “deep dissatisfaction with existing conditions and an irrepressible desire to change life” now belonged to the Communist ingroup.  In the words of philosopher Eric Hofer, they were now “True Believers.”  The particular ideological shibboleths of the faith in question, Communism, were almost incidental.  It was adopted, not because of its rational beauty, but because it happened to be the most effective nostrum for “scratching the itch” available at the time.  Religious enthusiams have served just as well at different times and places.  Nazism, which appealed, in part, to a different set of moral foundations, proved to be even more effective in what amounted to a head-to-head competition.  However, for obvious reasons, an ideology based on the German Master Race didn’t play well in Yugoslavia.  Communism had international appeal.

And what of Milovan Djilas?  By all means, if you are suffering information overload about the results of the recent Presidential election, and are inclined to read something useful for a change, head to eBay or Amazon and pick up a couple of his books.  I recommend his autobiographical works for starters, beginning with Land Without Justice.  Save The New Class for later.  It’s best read once you’ve gained some familiarity with the man who wrote it.

Milovan Djilas

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Milovan Djilas and the Genesis of a Communist Ingroup”

  1. Great find, thanks for unearthing Djilas’ memoirs. Regarding the irrelevance of the precise details of an ideology to motivate its supporters, I’d like to mention Bertrand de Jouvenel’s classic “On Power” (p.262f):

    “It is true that ideas are queens by birth: but they only gain favour when they enter the service of interests and instincts. Follow an idea through from its birth to its triumph, and it becomes clear that it came to power only at the price of an astounding degradation of itself. A reasoned structure of arguments, setting in motion a whole stream of logical correspondences between defined terms, does not as such make its way into the social consciousness: rather it has undergone pressures which have destroyed its internal architecture, and left in its place only a confused babel of concepts, the most magical of which wins credit for the others. In the result, it is not reason which has found a guide but passion which has found a flag.”

    Also related, this post on the Sociological Eye on how to maintain revolutionary dedication:

Leave a Reply