The Magazine


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