The Magazine


May 11, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 34 • By JOHN O'SULLIVAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Milovan Djilas

Fall of the New Class

A History of Communism's Self-Destruction


Knopf, 432 pp., $ 30

Milovan Djilas occupies a rare place in the history of both communism and anti-communism. He was not the first intellectual dissident from within the Communist movement. Whittaker Chambers, Victor Kravchenko, Arthur Koestler, and the many party members who could not stomach the Nazi-Soviet pact all preceded him. Nor was he the first intellectual refugee from the very highest positions in world communism. Trotsky, among others, had been at the summit of Soviet power. Nor was Djilas even the first ex-Communist to carry out a major theoretical dissection of communism. James Burnham had established as early as 1940 that Marxism in Soviet practice was leading not to a classless society but to rule by a new class of managers.

But Djilas, a Yugoslav, was one of the handful of Communist revolutionaries who rose to the heights of world communism, either abandoned the Marxist faith voluntarily or were excommunicated, and subsequently developed fundamental criticisms of it. Another distinguished example is Ignazio Silone, an early Italian delegate to the Comintern and later a contributor to The God That Failed, the famous 1949 anthology of former Communists. And half a case can be made for Jay Lovestone, who was replaced as an official of the American Communist party on Moscow's instructions while actually taking part in a Comintern meeting there, and who, on being asked once whether he had been expelled for Trotskyism or Bukharinism, replied with mock indignation: " Neither! I was expelled for Lovestonism!" But few other candidates spring to mind.

Like Burnham, Djilas did not cease thinking after his major theoretical demolition of Marxism appeared in The New Class in 1957. He wrote substantial works of political theory, literature, and biography, under conditions of severe persecution, from then until his death in 1995. He spent nine years in prison (two and a half in solitary confinement); had to write in secret and smuggle his manuscripts abroad; was denied a passport for long periods; and was not allowed to publish in Yugoslavia until 1989. And yet he overcame these restrictions to become a moral and intellectual leader of anti- communism, who lived to see his analyses conclusively confirmed by the East European and Soviet counterrevolutions of 1989 and 1991.

His final work -- Fall of the New Class, published only now -- is both a description of the gradual collapse of communism from the Second World War to 1991 and an account of his own changing opinions from an early idealistic communism to some last sobering comments on the future weakness of a divided West in the face of post-Communist disorder. In principle, these two themes should fit together neatly, since Djilas was an enthusiastic Partisan when the Red Army pushed communism to its farthest extent in postwar Europe; an increasingly skeptical apparatchik when he helped Tito to emancipate Yugoslavia and its "national communism" from Stalin's control; and an independent thinker struggling to lift his mind and imagination from Marxist ruts when communism began its long, slow disintegration ideologically and organizationally. And this counterpoint often generates interesting insights, as when Djilas speculates that Tito's defiance of Stalin (of which Djilas himself was the principal ideologist) was the beginning of the end because it encouraged other Communist parties to follow independent national paths and so undermined the concept of Soviet infallibility essential to communism's survival.

Unfortunately, the book as a whole is curiously uneven, largely because of how it is written -- or, rather, patched together. Djilas composed it from three sources: an autobiographical narrative, linking all; lengthy excerpts from his writings at key moments in his career or Yugoslav history; and his ultimate reflections on past and present. But these are not always clearly distinguished from one another. As a result, great slabs of indigestible Marxist economic analysis, responding for instance to Stalin's ideas on factory management, are followed by lively humanistic criticisms of just such petrified thinking. Stalin, Gorbachev, and Tito appear on some pages as contemporary figures whose final fate is still unknown, and on others as historical personages whose crimes and achievements can be accurately assessed in the cold light of retrospect. And Djilas himself is -- to borrow from the title of an anti-Communist work by Koestler -- sometimes commissar and sometimes yogi in quick succession.