Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On Revolution and Violence

Milovan Đilas was born in Montenegro in 1911. He died in Belgrade in 1995. He lived through World War I, World War II, and the first wave of the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. He was a true dissident in Yugoslavia. He went to prison for his beliefs, for calling the Yugoslav state totalitarian. He was a "democratic socialist," and as much as he condemned totalitarian communism, he also condemned the capitalist system in the U.S. His story is far more interesting than what I've described here. I mean this only as an introduction to this passage from Wartime, his memoir of his time as a partisan leader in World War II. At the time, Đilas was a true communist believer. But in a battle between the Chetniks -- a group of Serbian nationalists or royalists, depending on the historian you want to read -- and partisans, he saw something he didn't want to see.

"Although no blood was shed in this battle, the effect was inconceivably horrifying and majestic. For hours both armies clambered up rocky ravines to escape annihilation or to destroy a little group of their countrymen, often neighbors, on some jutting peak six thousand feet high, in a starving, bleeding, captive land. It came to mind that this is what had become of all our theories and visions of the workers' and peasants' struggle against the bourgeoisie."

There are far more brutal passages in Wartime, but this one speaks to a disillusionment that seems to hit every dogmatic Marxist once he tries to put his theory into practice. Here are the peasants of Montenegro, all of them poor. Their primary allegiances are more often to their clans, often defined by their surnames, than to any nation-state. There are any number of reasons why certain Montenegrins would fight with the partisans or with the Chetniks, reasons why they would fight with certain groups of Chetniks and not with other groups of Chetniks, reasons why they would ignore Muslims in another village and reasons why they would slaughter them all if they could. The reasons for their choices have very little to do with the Marxist theory Đilas reads and that many of them literally cannot read because they are illiterate.

I'm seeing a lot of talk of revolution and of the efficacy of violence. My country may soon enter a period of civil unrest that we haven't seen in 150 years. If that were to happen, the faultlines will be unclear. Latinos may end up shooting other Latinos in the name of Trump. Black and latino leaders may plea for compromise, knowing that blacks and latinos will be the most affected by any violence. White men in rural Kansas may take up arms. Others may do anything to avoid conflict. Once we hit a certain level of violence, causes cease to matter and theory tends to die.

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