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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington: The New Class After Communism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 20 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Six years ago today, Milovan Djilas, the man who coined the term "new class" which helped to explain both the nature of communism and also the reasons for its largely non-violent collapse, died in Belgrade at the age of 85.

Born in an Montenegrin village in 1911, Djilas joined the Communist Party and rose to become a close associate of Yugoslav partisan leader and later President Josip Broz Tito. But the latter's break with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1949 set Djilas on a very different course, one that would lead not only to prison but to the elaboration of one of the most significant critiques of the communist system.

The Soviet-Yugoslav split led Djilas to three major conclusions: First, that communism in the Soviet bloc had become little more than Russian imperialism under an ideological cover; Second, that he could exploit ties with the Western press to criticize communism from within; Third, that communism as actually practiced had led to the rise of "a new class" of rulers, people more interested in their own privileges than in the ideals they professed to believe in.

Djilas' understanding of the nature of the Soviet bloc did not put him at odds with Tito. Indeed, in many ways Djilas simply expressed in more intellectual language the tensions between Belgrade and Moscow. But precisely because he was an intellectual, Djilas pushed this idea to its logical conclusion and argued that national independence and a unique national approach to socialism were absolutely necessary for progress.

That idea was not only dangerous in multinational Yugoslavia but a direct threat to the power of Tito and his entourage. As a result, in 1954, Tito accused Djilas of factionalism, and Djilas in turn semi-apologized and turned in his Communist Party card and became a lifelong dissident.

In that role, Djilas pioneered a technique which was to be used by others who found themselves trapped within communist regimes. Under attack at home, Djilas did something few had ever had the courage to do before: he gave an interview to the "New York Times" both in order to get his own ideas out and also to use the Western press as an ally against his own government.

Such a strategy did not keep him from mistreatment at the hands of that government -- he later spent nine years in prison -- but it did give him time to elaborate the ideas which became his most important book, "The New Class," which was published abroad in 1957.

In that study, Djilas argued that the communist regimes had degenerated from the ideologically committed into a group of greedy individuals concerned only about their own privileges and status. Djilas' conception built on the earlier ideas of Jan Machajski and James Burnham, but his invention of the term "new class" caught the imagination of many in both communist countries and the West.

Djilas' basic point became part of the critique of the system by dissidents across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and it generated such later studies as Michael Voslensky's 1980 classic, "Nomenklatura," which described in greater detail the nature of the new and ever less ideologically committed power elite in the USSR.

Because Djilas understood the nature of communist regimes so well and was not blinded by their ideological protestations, he recognized that the ruling classes of these countries would ultimately understand that to survive and prosper they would have to shed their ideological shackles. In one of his last essays, Djilas wrote that the end of communism in Europe had been so quiet precisely because "communism had overthrown itself."

Like many prophets, Djilas saw the details of his argument ignored both when he made his predictions and when they came true, and most analysts in both East and West have forgotten what he said about the nature of the new class. Were they to pay more attention to his words of four decades ago, they would almost certainly understand far better why many members of the new class have continued in power, albeit without the ideological verbiage of communism.

And they would also, on this anniversary of Djilas' death, understand better why the greed of the new class has become even less constrained now that its members no longer have to give even lip service to the ideals of justice and equality.