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International Socialism, Winter 1962


Tirril Harris

The Beast Talks


From International Socialism, No.11, Winter 1962, p.28.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Conversations with Stalin
Milovan Djilas
Rupert Hart-Davis. 16s.

After the fanfare given this book in the world press, it is a little disappointing. Djilas takes 168 pages to describe Stalin and siblings, and to record extracts of his conversations with them during his three missions to Moscow from Yugoslavia (1944, 1945, 1948); there are therefore only five pages left to sum up. As a result its main impact is almost entirely personal, and one is surprised to remember afterwards that the book in fact contains important political information as well; for example the description of the meeting of the Soviet, Yugoslav, and Bulgarian delegations in 1948 treats as equally salient Stalin’s autocratic rearrangement of the federations of the satellites and the big red blotches of embarrassment which appeared over Dimitrov’s eczema, Stalin’s decision to put an end to the Greek uprising in order to placate Britain and the USA and his dogmatic assertion (left uncontradicted) that Holland was not included in Benelux. It is an entertaining political diary, unfortunately written some twelve years later, and so perhaps not too reliable.

But if one is prepared to search and to extrapolate, one can extract a few interesting theses. In the first place Djilas’ discussion of the cult of the personality is not unsophisticated: it ‘was at least as much the work of Stalin’s circle and the bureaucracy who required such a leader as it was his own doing’. (p.98) ‘Despite the curses against his name Stalin still lives in the social and spiritual frameworks of Soviet society.’ (p.169) There are other remarks too which seem to imply that the concentration on Stalin’s personal defects in explaining the failings of the USSR is itself a form of the cult of personality. Much of his own personal feeling for Stalin is illuminating in this context, for after the 1948 meeting, when he was already disillusioned, he writes:

‘This time Stalin did not invite us to dinner in his home. I must confess that I felt a sadness and an emptiness because of this, so great was my own human and sentimental fondness for him still.’ (p.166)

Another thesis which could be extracted involves the role of the ideologies of nationalism and pan-slavism in hampering the revolution; references to Russian leaders’ jokes about anti-semitism, and their absorbing interests in questions of racial tie-ups and languages spoken in Macedonia etc. are frequent. They merge with the descriptions of the endless excuses for drinking to convey an atmosphere not of an ogres’ orgy as some blurbs suggest but of a highly primitive community. One is left wondering whether in fact such ideological considerations are not equally as relevant as the material base in the explanation of what went wrong.

But the book remains primarily a vivid presentation of the history-book names as people, light but interesting reading, not really an essential for comrades. No fantastic secrets are revealed, and there is nothing but praise for Yugoslavia when it is mentioned (rarely). Djilas’ imprisonment might almost be viewed therefore, as a foreign policy move. When someone writes Conversations with Tito perhaps we shall know.

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