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May 11, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 34 • By JOHN O'SULLIVAN
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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.

The editor and translator explain all this carefully enough. Still, the reader is advised to tackle the book in the following order: the introduction; chapter one ("The development of my political thinking"); the epilogue (entitled "In lieu of an epilogue"), in which Djilas is interviewed by his editor about the book's method; back to chapter two; and from there to the end in conventional style. If the reader takes this trouble, he will unroll a fascinating story of how one mind and half a world gradually freed themselves from oppressive utopian delusions.

The mind began with one initial advantage. Although from very early in his youth Djilas was a Communist revolutionary who flung himself wholeheartedly into the struggles against both the prewar Yugoslav government and the German invader, he nursed ambitions to be a poet and novelist. It was correspondingly harder for him than for most apparatchiks to see everything in terms of large historical inevitabilities. He also saw the arrogance of bureaucrats, the petty jealousies of political wives, the actual beaten-down proletarians in the workers' paradise, the personal sacrifices that led to no great social or economic gains, indeed often to squalor and futility.

For many years, however, Djilas seemed unaware that his human sympathies were at war with his ideological convictions. He remained a leading figure in a political movement and, later, regime that murdered tens of thousands of its opponents. Any mental anguish he felt emerged only in disguise. One night in the forest, when he was resting during a retreat before the German army, Djilas awoke to see the face of Christ formed by the branches of trees.

He refrains from drawing dramatic conclusions from this vision. But whether one believes that it was a true vision of Christ signifying that Djilas would be called upon to bear witness to the truth, as he has done, or repressed political doubts emerging through a subconscious shaped by religion, it is surely significant that the vision was of Christ -- and not of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, or even the young, supposedly more humanistic Marx. Even to a Marxist, it seems, Christ represented love, mercy, atonement, human as well as divine values. And for good reason. What could any of the Marxist saints have said to help one struggling with the guilt of wartime brutalities and political crimes? Doubtless something along the lines of: "Spare the old party comrades, my son, and murder only as many Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and class enemies as revolutionary necessity dictates." Not the message to soothe a troubled soul or to compel repentance and redress.

For another ten years, Djilas lived with his doubts as one of the five most senior Yugoslav Communists in an exceptionally stormy political period. He personally negotiated with Stalin both during the war and in the run-up to the Stalin-Tito break. He wrote the main theoretical philippics justifying Tito's independent "national communism." He met the leading East European Communists in a (foredoomed) attempt to gain their support against Moscow. And, fortunately for us, he recorded all these encounters with an unsparing novelist's eye.

Even while he still hero-worshiped Stalin, for instance, he was not blind to the cowardice of Stalin's court, nor to the growing moral corruption of the Communist aristocracy. On one occasion, Stalin firmly denied that the Netherlands were part of "Benelux" (they are in fact represented by the "ne"), at which both Politburo members and foreign Communists became thoughtful, gazed intently at the tablecloth, nodded, etc. On another, Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian Communist leader, who in 1933 had inspired the Left worldwide with his heroic defiance of the Nazis at the Reichstag trial, weakly endorsed Moscow's excommunication of the Yugoslav Communists after personally urging Djilas to stand firm. There is something tragic as well as comic in these episodes: Marxism had transformed men who had once been brave, idealistic revolutionaries into lost souls, brutal to those below, servile to those above. Over time, Djilas drew the conclusion that human beings cannot build Utopia.

Or live in it. Although Tito gave the Yugoslav Communists a brief period of moral energy by his defiance of Moscow, he soon clamped his own sterile dictatorship upon both the country and the party. That dictatorship, like Stalin's, expressed the interests not only of the dictator, bu talso of the class of party bureaucrats who managed the society under him. Djilas was to analyze the social character and economic basis of this "New Class" in his famous book of that title in 1957. But his first unsystematic stab at understanding it -- and its corrosive effects on itself and other people -- had been a short story. "Anatomy of a Moral," published in early 1954, described how the young actress bride of a senior Communist general was treated with disdain by the "party wives," slandered as a whore who had " trapped" him, and gradually driven to a despair that by degrees separated her from her husband. At an abstract imaginative level, it was a rebuke to the coldhearted snobbery that resents love and seeks to destroy it. In the circumstances of Yugoslavia in 1954, it was a satire on a social class that, having monopolized all power and property, had come to believe that its privileges were justified by its revolutionary past, meaning that any newcomer to the charmed circle was in effect stealing. But what made the story a scandal was the fact that all of its female characters were the lightly disguised wives of Politburo members. Shortly after publication, Djilas was expelled from the party and began his long career as a dissident.

Never wound a man except fatally; never leave a writer his typing fingers. Djilas was a far greater threat to Tito and communism in the straitened circumstances of internal exile, and even in prison, than he had been in the Politburo. His first salvo came with The New Class. But in the next forty years, he was to write fourteen books and more than a hundred articles, notably "Conversations with Stalin" (which earned him his second prison sentence) and his memoir Wartime. The excerpts that form Fall of the New Class show a man gradually wriggling out of the straitjacket of Marxist thinking, rather like Houdini in slow motion, and feeling his way towards a politics that matched the writer's instinctive humanism.

Where exactly did he end up? It is hard to classify the Djilas of 1995 neatly in American political terms. He seems to me the kind of cultivated but anti-Communist European liberal with whom American liberals feel uncomfortable (as well they might), but who has seen too much raw history to share the optimism of American conservatives. Nonetheless, most of the opinions he came finally to hold -- and to express in the first and final chapters of the present book -- give aid and comfort to conservatives more than to liberals. He sees Gorbachev as a fundamentally decent man who tried to end Stalinism and revive Leninism and, not realizing that they were the same thing at different stages of development, helped to destroy both. He believes that the subjugated peoples of the Soviet Union brought down that empire, but that "the final turning-point . . . happened when President Reagan undertook the decisive policy of re-armament. . . . Communism threw in the towel the moment its expansion was brought to a halt."

He interprets the wars that erupted at and after the breakup of Yugoslavia as evidence that Tito and communism had not solved the national problem, merely placed it in suspended animation, since national and ethnic divisions are overcome only gradually under the influence of democratic institutions, a free economy, and a middle class (to all three of which communism is inimical) . He argues that terror is inherent in any Utopia since ordinary people lack the qualities that utopians demand and must therefore be forced to be free, equal, authentic, or whatever. And he concludes that history, far from coming to an end with Western capitalism as its own mercantile utopia, will continue to throw up terrible and fascinating problems we cannot now foresee.

Indeed, in his final reflections, he fears these problems will be all the more terrible if the West becomes divided and disunited and consequently fails to "play a decisive role in unifying or modernizing humanity in freedom. " It is a powerful and prophetic last testament -- except that Djilas disclaims any such intention and hopes that he will be remembered more for his literary rather than for his political works.

Posterity is likely to disappoint him. Djilas will always be linked with his theoretical discovery of the New Class -- the party bureaucrats who under communism enjoyed a monopoly of all property and who, without technically owning anything, enjoyed most of the privileges of ownership. They rode in publicly owned limousines, lived in state apartments, vacationed in party dachas, and drank official champagne. To be sure, they could not sell these benefits, or leave them to their children, and they might lose some of them upon retirement. But because they also enjoyed a monopoly of political power, they had a secure entitlement to the benefits of power.

The novelty of Djilas's theory should not be exaggerated. Other writers, notably Trotsky, had argued earlier that the Soviet Union was plainly not a workers' state, but a new beast called state capitalism. James Burnham had developed the audacious thesis that both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (and, more timidly, FDR's New Deal) were variations on a new form of government, rule by the managerial class, which would shortly sweep the world. (At the very least, Burnham got the timing wrong.)

Thirty years later, neoconservatives like Seymour Martin Lipset and Irving Kristol, paleoconservatives like Samuel Francis, and national-liberals like Michael Lind would dust off these ideas to argue that a new national managerial class (variously called the knowledge class, the non-technical intelligentsia, the Overclass, and so on) was gradually amassing political power through its control of the courts, the federal agencies, the media, the universities, and the major cultural institutions in the quite different conditions of capitalist America.

Djilas's argument was therefore a local variant of a more general thesis; it accounted for the rise and power of the bureaucracy under communism. But it was also original in major respects. In particular, it embodied the insight that not only was the party bureaucracy a class whose privileges rested entirely on its monopoly of political power, but that this fact would increasingly harden it into a closed and suspicious caste.

Because revolution had been its original recruitment mechanism, the New Class suspected all non-revolutionaries as unqualified. Because it could not pass its privileges on to its children by inheritance, it had to rig the system to ensure they held high official positions in their turn. Because it might lose its privileges on retirement -- recall the modest life to which Khrushchev was reduced after his expulsion -- its members fought desperately to stay in office. And this narrow caste had to maintain its extraordinary privileges in officially egalitarian societies without even the mitigating justifications of technical skill, entrepreneurial ability, or economic success. Inevitably, it became both hated and despised over time, and when it ceased to be feared as well, it was contemptuously ejected from power.

So the New Class is now a subject for historical curiosity. Or is it? A social class does not disappear when it suffers a political defeat, even a serious one. It goes underground for a while, regroups, and reemerges in protective camouflage suited to the new political environment. And that has happened in both East and West.

Within the former Communist countries, members of the old nomenclatura retain considerable social, economic, and even political power. Some have transformed their former state positions into private economic wealth through a corrupt privatization process. Others remain in the state bureaucracy -- the Czech Republic is practically the only country that imposes civil liabilities on former officials. And ex-Communist parties and politicians (sometimes optimistically granted the absolution "post-Communist") hold elected office in Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Albania, and most of the former Soviet republics. They remain linked through networks of political influence. And though their politics have changed with the intellectual collapse of socialism and the military collapse of the Warsaw Pact, they are still to be found on the left of any new political spectrum, advocating high levels of state intervention on social and environmental rather than on economic grounds. (We may hope that fundamental change is occurring in this respect when a Communist torturer is put on trial for his crimes.)

Within Western countries, the New Class (or non-technical intelligentsia), as seen by Lipset, Kristol, Francis, and Lind, did not depend on direct or elected governmental power in the first place. It is rooted in the government bureaucracy and cultural institutions. So its occasional electoral reverses, such as the Republican victory in 1994, are only a minor inconvenience to it.

Yet even in the allegedly Republican-cum-libertarian environment of post- Cold War politics, it has continued to advance its power in three ways.

First -- and most precariously, since this is the main arena of partisan politics -- by extending the regulation of society by government.

Second, by transferring power within government from elected bodies like Congress to non-accountable ones such as the judiciary, federal agencies, and, more recently, international agencies under its sway.

And third, by imposing New Class moral and cultural values upon those elites and institutions that have until now been resistant to them. Thus, the armed forces find themselves beholden to feminists; private corporations must hire and fire in accordance with racial proportionalism rather than meritocratic selection; private cultural or religious institutions -- the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts -- must forswear traditional beliefs in matters involving God or gays; and on and on.

In short, the New Class in Western society is exactly what we should expect: namely, Bolsheviks operating in a context of democracy. And again as we should expect, they seek to monopolize political power, to dictate the uses of all property, and to render purely formal any democratic restraints upon themselves. Americans would do well to read Djilas, not as history -- but rather as a playbook.

John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.