Friday, August 19, 2016

The lesson of Milovan Djilas (1980)

From the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Milovan Djilas was for many years—before, during and after the war—Tito’s closest associate and after the war, when Tito had seized power, he became one of the leading members of the government in Yugoslavia. Nothing special, you might think—a typical East European communist leader. However, this man did something remarkable. He broke with the party, the government and Tito—voluntarily, as distinct from all those “communist” leaders who never broke but were broken by Stalin and by little Stalins like Rakosi in Hungary or Dimitrov in Bulgaria, who made quite a habit of hanging their erstwhile comrades in arms in order to remove any possible competition for the job which they held.

Djilas was one of those rare specimens who, when he reached a position of power after many years of bloody struggle, saw that he was part of a new ruling clique, even harsher towards the working class than the villains they had replaced. He did not like what he saw and denounced the regime of which he was a shining light. By that stage (the early fifties) the Yugoslav regime had apparently had its fill of blood and Djilas was not hanged for his heresy but sentenced to prison (to which he was to return more than once). But Djilas did more than just resign. He was able to write a number of books and get them published in the West. In particular, he wrote a book called The New Class. This book provides the definitive answer to the common question: “But if Russia is a capitalist state, where are the capitalists?”, for it describes—from the inside, for a change—the power, wealth and privilege of those who rule over the proletariat in Russia and the other state-capitalist regimes. Only from the inside could one get an account of sheer gluttony and drunkenness under Stalin and the rest of the gangsters, often at times when the workers were literally dying of hunger.

To this extent, therefore, we owe a debt to Djilas—and we recognise the courage needed to make the break that he did. But the lesson which this article is minded to draw is something different based on a long interview with him which appeared in the December 1979 issue of Encounter. What Djilas says in this interview is of considerable interest and importance, but in particular what stands out all the way through is that although Djilas is a man of undoubted ability and courage, who seems to have read a good deal of Marx and has realised that the parties to which he devoted his great ability, are a snare and a delusion, he remains supremely ignorant. That may appear to be a harsh verdict. But it is clearly the lesson that runs like a thread through all the twenty pages which the interview takes up in Encounter.

And before we have a look at some of the interesting things he says (it would take a whole issue of the Socialist Standard to do justice to them all), it is necessary to make one thing clear. During all his remarkable career Djilas has never shown the slightest sign of knowing what socialism is. He will learnedly discuss Trotsky’s view that Stalin distorted the “pure socialism” of Lenin while still leaving Russia a “socialist country”, which apparently it remains to this day, despite all the horrors which Djilas knows about (none better). He has, apparently, been too busy all his life waging a struggle for “socialism” to have time to wonder what it is he’s been fighting for. And he is no nearer understanding now, at the end of his career, than he was in his romantic youth. Neither does he begin to imagine that there must be something odd in fighting for a cause when you don’t really know what it is—and when you’ve apparently won it, you don’t even know if you’ve got it or not. Such are the traps into which our “intellectuals” blithely fall. So now Djilas finds himself, sickened by the abomination that is Russia today, yearning for a new system which is “beyond capitalism and socialism, escaping traditional leftist dogma.” Well, we will agree on the need for the working class to shun leftist claptrap; but this society which is beyond capitalism and socialism—what on earth is it? It is no more than a figment of Djilas’s imagination. He knows that he has been utterly and desperately wrong—but he has not the remotest idea why.

Yet some things Djilas can see clearly enough. He knows it is impossible to derive from Marx anything like a Stalinist cult of personality and contrasts that with Lenin: “There is absolutely no contradiction between Soviet (socialist) democracy and the exercise of dictatorial powers by individuals”—a famous piece of Leninist twisting to prove that black is white, that dictatorship equals democracy. Djilas also quotes Lenin: “a personalised dictatorship of the proletariat is a hundred times more democratic than the rule of the bourgeoisie”. “In that backhanded way”, says Djilas, “Lenin was, if you like, a democrat.” (“If you like” is rather good.) “And indeed Lenin tolerated, until the 10th Congress, a certain amount of democracy within the Communist Party.” No doubt a cat is behaving with a certain amount of democratic justice when it allows the mouse to run around for a second or two. However, Djilas comes nearer to the real world when he goes on to say that “Lenin’s political practice consisted of a ruthless will to coerce and subjugate. Stalin’s terror and Stalin’s tyranny are unmistakably foreshadowed by Leninism.” Djilas is also fully alive to reality when he says that Russia is immune to “constructive criticism” from leftist professors and “well- meaning” fellow-travellers. “Communists with power and privilege to lose regard them as fools.” Which they undoubtedly are. And again: “I want to demolish the notion that the evils of Stalinism were due to Stalin’s character as put about by Soviet propagandists. In all political aspects, Lenin regarded Stalin as his rightful heir.”

Djilas then goes on to take issue with Marx by saying that the Communist Parties (and in particular the Yugoslav party) came to realise the importance of nationalism as compared with class, “whatever Marx may have said”. Workers of each land unite with yourselves! But then he also thinks that “any Communist social order necessitates the exclusive right to say what the individual may think and feel”. He sees hope in the fact that so-called Eurocommunists like Carillo of Spain and Berlinguer of Italy are imbued with patriotism. After all, he points out, at the beginning of the century socialists used to talk of a classless society but then they “all supported the war in their various countries and were distrusted no longer”. In fact, genuine socialists-in the Socialist Party of Great Britain and our companion parties abroad—opposed the war in 1914 and equally in 1939. Perhaps desperately, Djilas suggests that the communist parties of the West will probably change their names in due course. He offers: Socialist Workers Party! One wonders whether he appreciates the irony of this when he was, as he says, interviewed for the BBC by “a wordy representative of the extreme left (Paul Foot) who lectured me on the need to destroy parliamentary institutions”.

Djilas welcomed the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 (which gave the green light for the outbreak of war) because, he says, he could see no difference between the Nazis and the western democracies. So much for all the propaganda of the various “communists” in favour of a United Front against fascism which fooled the entire Left (including, we now read, the Cambridge spies like Burgess and Maclean and Blunt). But then this is the same misguided “intellectual” who could once write: “Can there be any greater honour and happiness than to feel that one’s friend is Stalin? He is the bitter enemy of all that is inhumane, he is the wisest person, he nurtures human kindness”! (Borba, the Yugoslav Communist Party paper, 1942). But even today he says he has no sense of shame in recalling his own part in wartime atrocities. Such little matters as personally cutting the throat of an unarmed German prisoner—a worker—and then clubbing him to death. He refers to the actions of Eden, the “not- guilty Man of Munich” in leftist mythology, in connection with the return of civilian prisoners at the end of the war (after all fighting had ceased in Europe). Eden justified sending hundreds of thousands of these poor wretches to be slaughtered in cold blood by Stalin by saying that otherwise Stalin would not release British prisoners.

A spurious reason this, but one that, as Djilas says, does not apply to Yugoslavia. They held no British prisoners to use for blackmail; nevertheless Eden still sent 30,000 men, women and children from camps in Austria to the mercies of Tito who murdered every single one of them at once. Eden well knew the grisly fate in store for them. As Djilas says, Tito made it quite clear to a British mission what would happen to these utterly defenceless human beings. (And of course it would be absurd to imagine that Eden’s Prime Minister Churchill, and his deputy Prime Minister Attlee, soon to become Labour Premier, were not aware of what their own forces were doing. Should they not all have been tried at Nuremberg along with Goering and the other Nazis? And Stalin who, as Djilas makes clear—in case anyone doubted—slaughtered thousands of unarmed Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest? And Djilas?)

That was all many years ago. And as one now sees what happens in Cambodia, Iran, Timor or Ethiopia, it is clear that all this inhumanity is integral to the present system which will change only when the working class decide they have had enough of horrors of all kinds in peace and war. But that will require, to begin with, a little clear thinking—too much to expect from Djilas.
L. E. Weidberg

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