Milovan Djilas

The Storm in East Europe

Source: Labour Action, Vol. 20 No. 48, November 26, 1956, pp. 5-6.
Marked up: for by Zdravko Saveski.
Online version: April 2022.

The publication of this article in the New Leader (Nov. 19) was probably the reason for the Tito regime's arrest of Djilas. But that is not the reason we reprint it here (by permission). It is an incisive and brilliant analysis of the East European upsurge which deserves the widest circulation. It is also the first time that Djilas has made such an analysis of the Tito regime itself, in a noteworthy passage. It marks, in general, a tremendous growth in his political thinking and views, and his complete break with all remnants of Stalinist and Titoist politics. With it Milovan Djilas assumes full stature as a clear voice for socialist democracy ringing out of the Stalinist jungle.—ED.

With the victory of national Communism in Poland, a new chapter began in the history of Communism and of the subjugated countries of Eastern Europe. With the Hungarian people's revolution, a new chapter began in the history of humanity.

These two events, each in its own way, sharply express the internal condition of the East European countries. If the events in Poland encouraged the aspirations of Communist parties—particularly those of Eastern Europe—for equality with Moscow, the Hungarian Revolution made a gigantic leap and placed on the agenda the problem of freedom ire Communism, that is to say; the replacement of the Communist system itself by a new social system. If the former event had encouraged both the people and certain Communist circles, the latter encouraged the popular masses and democratic tendencies.

Between the two events, although they happened almost simultaneously there lies a whole epoch. The changes in Poland mean the triumph of national Communism, which in a different form we he already seen In Yugoslavia. The Hungarian uprising is something more, a new phenomenon, perhaps no less meaningful than the French or Russian Revolution.

In short, these events have brought to the fore the following new questions: (1) the further possibilities of national Communism; (2) the replacement of Communism by a new system, and, along with this, the right of a people heretofore under Communist rule to choose its own—non-Communist—path of development; (3) the problem of the future foreign (and, in my opinion, internal) policy of the Soviet regime.

The experience of Yugoslavia appears to testify that national Communism is incapable of transcending the boundaries of Communism as such, that is, to institute the kind of reforms that would gradually transform and lead Communism to freedom. That experience seems to indicate that national Communism can merely break from Moscow and, in its own national tempo and way, construct essentially the identical Communist system. Nothing would be more erroneous, however, than to consider these experiences of Yugoslavia applicable to all the countries of Eastern Europe.

Meaning of Titoism

Yugoslavia's resistance to Moscow in 1948 was possible, first of all, because the revolution took place in the course of the struggle against foreign occupation; in this revolution, an independent Communist country was formed, and with it a new class, the Communist bureaucracy. Not one of the Eastern European countries had this kind of a class, because their Communists received power from the hands of the Soviet regime.

For this reason, a united, autonomous Communist bureaucracy could not have been formed. Therefore, there were and still are essential differences between Yugoslav national Communism and that of the East European countries, even though their common keynote is equality with Moscow.

Yugoslav national Communism was, above all, the resistance to Moscow of the Communist party, that is, of its leaders. Not that the people opposed this resistance, not that they did not support it and benefit from it—quite the contrary. But the interests and initiative of the leaders played a crucial and leading role. The resistance of the leaders encouraged and stimulated the resistance of the masses. In Yugoslavia, therefore, the entire process was led and carefully controlled from above, and tendencies to go farther—to democracy—were relatively weak. If its revolutionary past was an asset to Yugoslavia while she was fighting for independence front Moscow, it became an obstacle as soon as it became necessary to move forward—to political freedom.

In the countries of Eastern Europe, the reverse is true. There, Communist resistance to Moscow resulted from the discontent of the popular masses. There, from the very start, unbridled tendencies were expressed to transcend the bounds of national Communism itself. The leaders cannot everywhere control and subjugate the popular masses; therefore in some cases they try to halt any further estrangement from Moscow. That is the case, for example in Czechoslovakia and Rumania. In Bulgaria and especially in Albania, further de-Stalinization and the strengthening of national Communism have been halted—only partially because of fear of Yugoslav domination, although that plays some role. Other motives were decisive: The victory of national Communism in these countries would probably have meant the beginning of the end of the existing system.

So Far, No Further

Yugoslavia, both as an example and through the initiative of its leaders, played an indispensable and important part at the beginning of the transition of Eastern European countries to national Communism—but only at the start. As the price of reconciliation with Belgrade, Moscow was induced to recognize verbally the equality of Yugoslavia and its "independent path" to "socialism." In that way, the deep disaffection of the East European nations received legal possibilities for expression. Limited but sanctioned protests against inequality with Moscow began to turn—and in Hungary did turn—into protest against the system itself.

Yugoslavia supported this discontent as long as it was conducted by the Communist leaders, but turned against it—as in Hungary—as soon as it went further. Therefore, Yugoslavia abstained in the United Nations Security Council on the question of Soviet intervention in Hungary. This revealed that Yugoslav national Communism was unable in its foreign policy to depart from its narrow ideological and bureaucratic class interests, and that furthermore, it was ready to yield even the principles of equality and non-interference in internal affairs on which all its successes in the struggle with Moscow had been based.

The Yugoslav experience has thus determined the tendency of the national Communists in both their internal and external policies—that is, it has determined the limits to which they are willing to go. But wishes are one thing and possibilities another.

Gomulka's Crossroad

In all this, Moscow, with its imperialist appetite, is not a passive observer but an active participant. In order to avoid an uprising in Poland and to gain time, it yielded to national Communism there. Gomulka's accession to power was not only the result of the efforts of the Polish Communists; to a larger extent, it represented a compromise between Moscow and the turbulent masses of the Polish people. Given independence from Moscow, Gomulka took a historic step forward. But with half-hearted reforms he will soon reach a dilemma—which Moscow had foreseen. He will have to choose between internal democracy, which has become inseparable from complete independence from Moscow, and the ties with Moscow required to maintain the Communists’ monopoly of power. The events in Hungary have only accelerated this dilemma, which Gomulka will not be able to avoid. The victory of national Communism in Poland is not the end, but rather the beginning of further disagreements and conflicts inside the country and with Moscow.

It is difficult to say whether national Communism in Poland will choose freedom and independence rather than totalitarian role and dependence on Moscow. But without a doubt many Communists in Poland will not hesitate to choose their own country and freedom. Knowing Gomulka, a man who is unusually honest, brave and modest, I am convinced that he himself will not long hesitate if he is confronted with such a choice.

Moscow's Mask

In Hungary, however, such internal conflicts are over: Not only did the so-called Stalinist set vanish, but the Communist system as such was repudiated. Moscow at first tried to cover its intervention by bringing national Communism to power through Imre Nagy. But, Nagy could only install national Communism with the assistance of Soviet bayonets, and this threatened the very end of Communism. Having finally arrived at the choice between Soviet occupation and independence, Nagy courageously decided to sacrifice the Party and Communist power—which had already been crushed—for the sake of his country and freedom. Sensing Moscow's equivocal game, he asked for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, declared Hungary's neutrality, and appealed for the protection of the United Nations. His government, up to that point insignificant, became overnight the symbol of national resistance.

Moscow could no longer preserve Hungarian Communism; it now faced the choice of either leaving Hungary or occupying it. Thus, its imperialism dropped its last "socialist" mask.

Had the Hungarian Revolution not only brought political democracy but also preserved social control of heavy industry and banking, it would have exercised enormous influence on all Communist countries, including the USSR. It would have demonstrated not only that totalitarianism is unnecessary as a means of protecting the workers from exploitation (i.e., in the "building of socialism"), but also that this is a mere excuse for the exploitation of the workers by bureaucracy and a new ruling class.

Danger for Kremlin

Moscow fought the Hungarian Revolution not only for external but for internal reasons. Just as the Yugoslav revolt revealed Moscow's imperialism with regard to Communist countries, so the Hungarian Revolution threatened to reveal the Soviet internal system as the totalitarian domination of a new exploiting class—the Party bureaucracy.

Had the Hungarian Revolution been saved from Soviet intervention, it would have been difficult indeed for Moscow to obscure its internal conflicts by means of foreign conquests, and the "world mission." The Soviet system would soon have been confined to its own national boundaries, and there, too, the citizens would be forced to reflect on their position and their destiny. And not only the citizens, but the leaders. They would have to break up into different groups which could no longer carry out mutual purges within their own closed circle, but would be forced to bid for popular support. Thus, new processes would begin in the Soviet Union, too.

The attack of Israel, Britain and France on Egypt cannot permanently divert attention from the events in Eastern Europe, although it certainly encouraged the most reactionary and aggressive elements in the USSR to settle accounts with the Hungarian people. Human history is changing in Eastern Europe, and that is its center today. The outmoded colonial war in the Middle East will have to be stopped.

It Can’t Be Halted

Moscow and all the other Communist regimes, each in their own way, now face a dilemma which they never faced before. The Communist regimes of the East European countries must either begin to break away from Moscow, or else they will become even more dependent. None of these countries—not even Yugoslavia—will be able to avert this choice. In no case can the mass movement be halted, whether it follows the Yugoslav-Polish pattern, that of Hungary, or some new pattern which combines the two.

The view that the movement in Bulgaria and Rumania must be slow because of their undeveloped working classes seems dubious to me. In these countries, the peasantry is deeply nationalistic and, once the process starts, may well play a more important role than it did in Hungary. In Czechoslovakia, despite an advanced working class, no significant movement has yet emerged. But if it does, it is likely to go much farther than that of Hungary.

Nobody can predict precisely what Moscow's ultimate course will be. At the moment, it is playing a dual role; recognizing national Communism verbally, simultaneously undermining it by not renouncing its hegemony and imperialism. Of course, the USSR falsely depicts its intervention and pressure as "aid" to and "security" for Communism as such in the subjugated countries. But that plays only a minor role in its actions. Moscow's policy toward Communist countries clearly reflects a will to resist the breakup of the empire, to preserve the leading role of Soviet Communism—a will demonstrated in its efforts to use national Communism as a means and a mask for its imperialist, expansionist policies.

Split in Russia

At the same lime, however, all these actions involve Moscow not only in external strife, but in internal conflicts. One can declare with certainty that there is a split within the Soviet leadership, and that even the most reactionary and imperialist (the so-called Stalinist) group is hesitant in its actions. The influence of this group prevails today, especially in regard to the East European countries. But that does not mean that the other group is for the independence of these countries. The difference between them lies in their methods: whether to stick to the old army and police methods (Stalinist imperialist methods), or apply new ones in which economic and political elements would be dominant. Attempts at introducing the new methods led to the Polish case, the return to the old ones to Hungary. Both methods proved ineffective. From this spring the splits and conflicts in the USSR.

Hesitation, duplicity, ideological and political controversies, inconsistency in the use of methods, reversals of attitude, and a consistent and feverish insistence on keeping their own positions—all of these things reveal cleavages and contests among the leading group of the Soviet Union. Further changes in this group seem most plausible, and they will be of great importance both for the USSR and for the rest of the world.

There can be no doubt that the rest of the worlds—perhaps for the first time since the Bolsheviks took power—can directly and positively influence the direction of these changes. Despite the Soviet repression in Hungary, Moscow can only slow down the processes of change; it cannot stop them in the long run. The crisis is not only between the USSR and its neighbors, but within the Communist system as such. National Communism is itself a product of the crisis, but it is only a phase in the evolution and withering away of contemporary Communism.

It is no longer possible to stop the struggle of the people of Eastern Europe for independence, and only with great effort their struggle for freedom. These two struggles are gradually becoming one. If Moscow's imperialism suffers defeat and is prevented from war adventures, the USSR, too, will have to undergo considerable internal changes. For, just as it is compelled to be national in its forms, in essence Communism is one and the same, with the same historical origins and the same destiny. The events in one Communist country necessarily affect all other Communist countries, as in one and the same living organism. And just as Yugoslav Communism, separating itself from Moscow, initiated the crisis of Soviet imperialism, that is, the inevitable birth of national Communism, in the same way the revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end of Communism generally.

As in all other great and decisive historic events, the Hungarian fighters for freedom, struggling for their existence and country, may not have foreseen what an epochal deed they had initiated. The world has rarely witnessed such unprecedented unity of the popular masses and such heroism. The unity of the popular masses was so strong that it appeared as though there had been no civil strife, as though a ruling class had not been wiped out overnight as if it never existed. And the heroic intoxication was so high that bare-handed boys and girls were stopping the tanks of the interventionists who, like the Cossacks of Nicholas I in 1848, tried to suppress their liberty and enslave their country.

This event will probably not be repeated. But the Hungarian Revolution blazed a path which sooner or later other Communist countries must follow. The wound which the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on Communism can never be completely healed. All its evils and weaknesses, both as Soviet imperialism and as a definite system of suppression, had collected on the body of Hungary, and there, like festering sores, were cut out by the hands of the Hungarian people.

I do not think that the fate of the Hungarian Revolution is at all decisive for the fate of Communism and the world. World Communism now faces stormy days and insurmountable difficulties, and the peoples of Eastern Europe face heroic new struggles for freedom and independence.