Milovan Djilas, at one time considered a dangerous enemy by the Soviet Union, received an unexpected invitation last autumn - to the Soviet embassy's celebration in Belgrade of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The person who delivered the invitation joked, 'This may be the last time we celebrate the revolution!' 'Then I'll come,' grinned Djilas.
One of the towering personalities of our century, Djilas is probably best known around the world for his classic, The new class. Born in Kolasin, Montenegro, he will celebrate his 80th birthday this month. He grew up as one of seven children on a small farm. At 18 he went to study law and literature in Belgrade, where he joined the illegal Communist Party in 1932. The following year he was arrested for staging anti-monarchy demonstrations and spent three years in the Sremska Mitrovica prison.
Shortly after his release he got to know Tito, the head of the Yugoslav Communist Party. Together they spearheaded the Partisan resistance to the Nazi invaders during World War II. Djilas's brother was tortured to death by the Gestapo and two sisters and his father were also killed in the war. After the war, there was much settling of old scores between Serbs and Croats who had often been on opposite sides. To this day Djilas remains a controversial figure in many Yugoslav minds as they associate him with some of the reprisals that took place. Discussing that period with some students in Norway recently, Djilas expressed regret about this 'black spot and shameful event in our history'.
Tito and Djilas emerged among the post-war leaders of Yugoslavia. At the height of his power Djilas was national VicePresident, President of the Federal Assembly, the leading Party ideologist and a general of the army. Rank-and-file Party members expected him to succeed Tito as President. And he might well have done but for his devotion to truth.
Critical of the way the Communist Party exercised its power, in the early 1950s he wrote a series of articles in the daily Borba warning Yugoslavia against developing the 'state capitalism' that he saw in the USSR.
The Party, he maintained, needed to develop a non-bureaucratic form of government which allowed a multi-party society, freedom of thought and a free press. 'It is through the free exchange of ideas, the critical examination of certain of our methods, that we will find fruitful forms for further development. Nothing could be more detrimental to socialism than the destruction of initiative, than a bureaucratic monopoly over human thought.'
Djilas's glasnost was more than the Party leadership could tolerate. At an extraordinary plenum of the Central Committee of the League of Communists he was stripped of all his positions. He resigned from the Party. Then the American magazine The new leader published his essay The storm in Eastern Europe. Djilas found himself back in the very cell of the Sremska Mitrovica prison where the monarchist government had held him. His three-year sentence began with a gruelling 20 months' solitary confinement - an experience he recommends, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, to all statesmen and politicians. 'Such solitude helps one to review one's life and to clarify complex issues.'
'I knew in my bones,' he writes in Prison diary, 'that unless I went through a rational re-examination of everything Communism stood for, I would lose all self-respect as a free human being. My dispute with the party arose from my realization that ideas by themselves do not make men either sublime or worthless. It is the means they employ that make them one or the other.... All the demons that Communism believed it had banished from the forthcoming as well as the real world have crept into the soul of Communism and become part of its being.'
Prison was where his best-known books were born. They have inspired generations of dissidents in the East and many intellectuals and politicians in the West. The new class, actually written in jail, was smuggled to the West. Its publication caused an uproar. It accused the Communist Party bosses and functionaries of creating new structures in society which served their own best interests, in effect replacing the former ruling class with a new entrenched elite. Djilas was put on trial and found guilty of 'a deliberate attempt to compromise socialism as an idea and the international workers' movement' and his sentence was extended by six years. Although he was released after four years, the publication of Conversations with Stalin in the West earned him a further five years' imprisonment.
Milovan Djilas was finally released on the last day of 1966 and allowed to rejoin his wife Stephanie and their son Aleksa in the modest flat in central Belgrade where he still lives.
Stephanie Djilas was herself a hero of the resistance, daily risking her life as a courier. Unlike Milovan, she kept her rank as captain in the Partisan army. Once when I was visiting them she ordered her husband to take some medicine, commenting with a wry smile, 'I am probably the only captain in the world who gives orders to the commanding general!' She acts as nurse, secretary and consultant to her husband, and as hostess for the many strangers and media people who come to their door. Whenever she has a sleepless night she knits scarves for friends. I am the proud owner of three.
For years Djilas was despised and feared by the new ruling class, and at times watched by the secret police. But that has all changed now. People no longer shun him. Since 1989 all his books have been published in SerboCroat, some becoming best-sellers. Although not yet fully rehabilitated by the state, he has become the senior 'guru' of the intellectual and cultural elite as well as the mentor of those, young or old, who are questing for a new future for Yugoslavia. Two years ago I was walking with him in Belgrade when a well-known Montenegrin author came up and embraced him. 'I was against you,' he said, 'but you were right all the time.'
For those who have the privilege of Milovan's friendship, life cannot remain the same. His disarming honesty and quest for truth get under your skin. As his thinking on world events unfolds, you realize how much you need to reconsider, and shed your own superficial opinions and half-baked ideas. Perhaps this quality is the hallmark of suffering. 'You cannot hope to acquire a truer insight without paying a price,' he wrote in Prison diary.
As you walk the streets of Belgrade with him he brings to life the buildings, monuments and fountains with his stories and jokes. Three clockmakers, he told me, had been ordered to compete in building a cuckoo clock in honour of Lenin. In the first design the cuckoo's head popped out calling: 'Long live our eternal revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin!' In the second clock, the cuckoo cried, 'Under the banner of Vladimir Ilyich, Communism will conquer the world.' In the third, the head of Lenin himself popped out, calling: 'Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!'
Djilas has never been anti-Communist. Unlike most 'dissidents' who emerged under Communism, he went beyond revealing the deception in the ideological fabric of Communism to pointing to a constructive way out of the conflict. His confrontation was first and foremost with untruth, not with the Party as such.
Communism's fundamental flaw, he maintains, is that it is contrary to human nature. 'The Communist Party is monopolistic and totalitarian in its structure. Human nature is pluralistic in its being. Human nature is sinful and evil, and at the same time gentle and good. The constant struggle of different tendencies in us is essential for the existence of humanity. That means that we must fight to be good, seek good ideals, have good aims, but we must know that evil will always be with us.'
He says that capitalism, in spite of its flaws, works better because it is closer to human nature, allowing the human being to express more freedom. A person is creative, full of ideas, imagination and visions. He can be repressed for a while, but not for generations. 'Freedom is essential for any growth.'
He recognizes that 'individual freedom is real only to the extent to which it postulates freedom for others, freedom for all... only that person can enjoy freedom who has suffered for it, who has considered it more important than the sweetness and pleasure of life, even than life itself.' He holds out the hope that men and women are capable of change.
Djilas remains intensely patriotic. 'Our country will not survive,' he warns, 'unless fundamental structural changes take place.' He does not feel it would be a disaster if the republics within Yugoslavia broke up into separate states. But it would be tragic if this were followed by religious or nationalist civil war. He visualizes a confederation where the republics have greater sovereignty but share a common monetary system, foreign policy and army. His views, he says, earn him acute hostility from the extreme nationalists who see him as a potential rallying point for Yugoslav unity. 'But I have no ambition to be a leader. I am old and not in good health, but also temperamentally I am not much attracted to power.' He sees his role as a fighter for democratic values in Yugoslavia.
'My hope is that the pull of Europe will help to suppress the nationalist conflicts,' he told the journal of the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, for many Yugoslavs want to become genuinely part of Europe.
He now sees as irrevocable the evolution of parliamentary democracy in Central Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Empire - and he says that the democratic revolution in the East has the potential to establish the unity of Europe as a whole, to inspire it with new energy, to revitalize its creative powers.
But, whichever way the political tide turns, Djilas reminds us, a choice between good and evil has always to be made.
We may be wise to heed the words of a man whose predictions history has proved right before.