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Albert Gates

Djilas’ Indictment of Stalinism

An Article-Review of Milovan Djilas’ The New Class

(Winter 1958)

From The New International, Vol. XXIV No. 1, Winter 1958, pp. 30–35.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most remarkable thing about Milovan Djilas’ book is that it was written in isolation under conditions of repression, harassment and imprisonment. Although it is obvious that he read voluminously in preparation of the work, his ideas emerging from extensive empirical observations and suggestive study, he was, unfortunately, unable to discuss or exchange his views in a community of co-thinkers or critics. Writing in a Titoist jail, he was unable to expand, elucidate or qualify his theory of Stalinist society as a new social order and the Stalinist ruling class as a new class. Many of his ideas stand subject to several interpretations and meanings, others are unclear, still others are wrong in their historical statement.

Though The New Class is certainly more than a political tract as some critics have labeled the book, it is not by any means a substantial theoretical work. Many of the observations are merely assertions stated in declarative sentences without discussion or proof; others, though important in themselves, are merely hints of important political and social questions that need study, elaboration and conclusion. For it is unquestionably true that Stalinist society, which Djilas calls throughout his book “Contemporary Communism” to indicate that he is not identifying it with the original theory of communism or socialism, has introduced a whole series of new social problems.

It would be wrong to base one’s criticism of Djilas on this score. Much of what he says has a verisimilitude of truth though not yet subject to verification on the basis of objective analysis. Or else, not enough thought has been given to such ideas as, for example, the modern trend to world unification, to merit an intelligent discussion.

The book is, above all, a valuable indictment of the post-Revolution Communist movement, just as Djilas is himself the living indictment of Stalinism and its new society, whether of the Russian type or its Yugoslavian variety. Writing the manuscript in jail and then smuggling it out so that it could be published in the United States required an enormous personal courage and dedication to what he calls “the idea of democratic socialism.”

Reactions to the book have naturally varied, though the praise in non-socialist circles has been uniform. The non-socialist critics, for the most part, have endorsed the criticism of Stalinist society as a reaffirmation of their own old opposition to socialism, failing to perceive the essence of Djilas’ book, namely, that we are dealing not with socialism or communism, but with a new class phenomenon which has to be treated on its own grounds. The New York Times review called The New Class one of the “most compelling and perhaps most important sociological documents of our time.” But then went on to miss the whole point of the book. The Herald Tribune called it a book of “vast significance that could shake the Communist world.” No doubt it could have such vast significance if it was read in the “Communist world.” The probability is that it won’t be. However, we are certain that the vast significance it would then have would be considerably different from what the Herald Tribune envisages. Here again, it is a case of not understanding, let alone seeing, what Djilas is really talking about.

Although his book is not very clear on a number of questions, such as his attitude toward Marxism (there are contradictory statements in the book, great praise mixed with some kind of criticism for what Marx could not or did not foresee in his time), and the degree of responsibility of Lenin for Stalinist development, Djilas still writes as a socialist. There is no indication that he has made his peace with capitalism. Quite the contrary. And if he remains a socialist, just what does the jubilance in the bourgeois world signify? Not much except that in Djilas’ description of the various phases of Stalinist society they feel some kind of moral uplift and strengthening of their weak faith in the capitalist structure.

THE APPEARANCE OF DJILAS’ BOOK IS of particular moment to our movement. His theory of the new class and the new society is, in substance and description, akin to our own. Large sections of it, its quintessential parts, read like a paraphrase of our theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism. This is naturally a source of satisfaction to us. It is also a commentary on the reception which our theory of Russian society has had in this country for the past fifteen years since it was first formulated and made public. Our theory of Russian society, elucidated long before the expansion of world Stalinism, recognized that we were dealing with a new social phenomenon never before seen in the world. We described it as a new class society. The ruling class, we said, was the collective bureaucracy which “owned” the state and through its ownership of the state became the collective owner of all property; that the working class was a subjugated class of a new type under hitherto unforeseen social relations and that, in sum, Russian society was a modern slave state.

Djilas arrived at his theory of the new class largely on the basis of practical experience and comparison to socialist theory. It was an empirical road he traveled to reach the conclusions of The New Class. In contrast, without the experience of living under the new system, we reached the concept of the new society theoretically and through polemical struggle with Trotsky. We were thus among the very first to destroy the myth of the inherent progressive nature of nationalized property in our rejection of the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state.”

The parallel in Djilas’ writing today to our own of fifteen years ago is striking. If he is unfamiliar with our theory and writings the similarity is all the more remarkable. Several key ideas of his theory to demonstrate this. For example:

It is the bureaucracy which formally uses, administers, and controls both nationalized and socialized property as well as the entire life of society. The role of the bureaucracy in society, i.e., monopolistic administration and control of national income and national goods, consigns it to a special privileged position. Social relations resemble State capitalism. The more so, because the carrying out of industrialization is effected not with the help of the capitalists but with the help of the State machine. In fact, this privileged class performs that function, using the State machine as a cover and as an instrument.

Ownership is nothing other than the right of profit and control. If one defines class benefits by this right, the Communist States have seen, in the final analysis, the origin of a new form of ownership or of a new ruling and exploiting class.

When Djilas says that these social relations resemble State capitalism, he does not mean that the new ruling class and the new society are State capitalist.

He adds:

The new class is anti-capitalistic and, consequently, logically dependent upon the working strata. The new class is supported by the proletarian struggle and the traditional faith of the proletariat in a socialist, Communist society where there is no brutal exploitation.

Here one can see the key to what is new in this society to distinguish it from the old. But there is much more to it.

This new class, the bureaucracy, or more accurately, the political bureaucracy, has all the characteristics of earlier ones as well as some new characteristics of its own. Its origin had its special characteristics also, even though in essence it was similar to the beginnings of other classes.

What of the composition of this class? Djilas writes:

Because this new class had not been formed as a part of the economic and social life before it came to power, it could only be created in an organization of a special type, distinguished by a special discipline based on identical philosophic and ideological views of its members.

The roots of this new class must be sought inside the once revolutionary party and as Trotsky pointed out, in the pre-revolutionary professional revolutionary turned bureaucrat. Djilas correctly says:

This is not to say that the new party and the new class are identical. The party, however, is the core of that class, and its base. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to define the limits of the new class and to identify its members. The new class may be said to be made up of those who have special privileges and economic preference because of the administrative monopoly they hold.

“Not every member of the party,” says Djilas, “is a member of the new class, any more than every artisan or member of the city party was a bourgeois.”

What happens in this society is that while revolutionary institutions of an earlier epoch exist in a formal sense and retain the old revolutionary names, they are no longer the social organizations they once were. Trade unions exist, but no longer as the economic organizations of the working class. They have become state institutions for the purposes of maintaining the proletariat in its state of economic servitude and to prevent any and every type of class protest or struggle. Soviets exist, but they are completely populated by the bureaucracy itself. Cooperatives exist, too, but they do not function as institutions of consumers. And the single party that exists under this system is the organized form of the bureaucracy and its collective expression in its grip on political and economic power.

ALTHOUGH THE SOCIALIST MOVEMENT never gave much thought to the problems following the displacement of a bourgeois social and political order by a working class society neither capitalist nor yet socialist, the problem of classes and class rule in the new order was raised by non-socialists. Marxists and socialists in general had been brought up on the concept that society can be organized either along capitalist or socialist roads. Obviously, the rise of Stalinist society required a new look at the problem, for this historical bypath that led Russia to a new class state and new ruling class demanded special study which very few gave to it, being content to dismiss the difficulty of analysis by referring to the phenomenon as “state capitalist,” “Communist” or “Leninist.”

In his Historical Materialism, N.I. Bucharin, victim of the new regime, took up the challenge of Robert Michels, author of Political Parties, that “socialists will conquer, but socialism never.” Michels claimed that the classless society was utopian; that socialism would establish a new class rule. Bucharin writing after the Russian Revolution, with experiences already in hand, replied to Michels:

We may state that in the society of the future there will be a colossal overproduction of organizers, which will nullify the stability of the ruling groups.

But the question of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, i.e., the period of the proletarian dictatorship, is far more difficult. The working class achieves victory, although it is not and cannot be a unified mass. It attains victory while the productive forces are going down and the great masses are materially insecure. There will inevitably result in a tendency to ‘degeneration,’ i.e., the excretion of a lead stratum in the form of a class-germ. This tendency will be retarded by two opposing tendencies first, by the growth of the productive forces; second by the abolition of the educational monopoly. The increasing reproduction of the technologists and of organizers in general, out of the working class itself, will undermine the possible new class alignment. The outcome of the struggle will depend upon which tendencies turn out to be the stronger.

The outcome has not been in doubt for a long, long time. The working class was “unified” from above by the “regime of the gendarmes.” An educational monopoly grew up in the new state. The growth of the productive forces did not prevent the rise of the new class power; neither did the increase of technologists or organizers, who became either part of or supporters of the new class power.

That decisive element which Bucharin did not mention, but perhaps took for granted, was the element of democracy. In absence of democracy the degeneration of the revolution was inevitable, and the degeneration began long before 1924. Christian Rakovsky, one of the outstanding European socialists of this century and another victim of the new regime wrote in the late Twenties that:

Under our very eyes, there has been formed, and is still being formed a large class of rulers which has its own interior groupings, multiplied by means of premeditated cooptation, direct or indirect (bureaucratic promotion, fictitious system of elections). The basic support of this original class is a sort, and original sort, of private property, namely, the possession of state power. The bureaucracy ‘possesses the state as private property,’ wrote Marx.

Even Trotsky, whose basic writings so wonderfully served the critics of the new society, but who could not bring himself to abandon his theory of the degenerated workers’ state, described the driving force of the bureaucracy, which he would not acknowledge was a new class, as “its privileges, power and revenues.”

In an introduction to the pamphlet edition of his debate with Earl Browder in 1950, Max Shachtman, writing even more fully than in earlier years, stated:

The distinctive birthmark of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia is this: it made its first appearance when the revolutionary working class of that country was making its last appearance. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Stalinism could begin its rise to power only because there no longer existed a proletariat in the classic sense of the term ...

This bureaucracy was not, however, a neutral reflector of the stagnation and distortion of the class or the remnants of the class that had led the great Russian revolution. It became an active and effective agency for maintaining the working classes, including demoralization and paralysis. Under no other condition could it have consolidated its position as the new ruling class in Russia and completed the work of expropriating the workers of all political power. In a society where the state owns all the means of production and distribution, those who are in absolute control of the political power are thereby and therewith likewise in absolute control of all economic and social, that is, all class power.

The triumph of the new class power as a totalitarian regime ended all forms of self-expression of the new immense working class, let alone the new peasants. Under the total bureaucratic regime there followed a total suppression of democracy. The institutions of the people, already heavily controlled and distorted before Stalin’s triumph were now completely obliterated as the institutions they were intended to be. All organizations became state organizations. The entire press became a state press.

DJILAS IS QUITE RIGHT WHEN he says that the “intellectual inheritance of the people” was confiscated by the new class. Nevertheless, total as the regime has become, there are chinks in the armor. How and when it will break through we cannot now foretell, but the Khrushchev revelations were themselves not merely the reflection of the inner struggle of the new rulers; they were in addition, a reflection of an enormous, seething discontent in the broad base of the society. A new, different working class exists in Russia. It was created by the enormous industrial drive of the new regime evolving into a larger and more potent social force than its predecessor. So far as Russia is concerned, as the main center of the new society and new class rule, this is explosive factor number one in the contradictions of the regime. And so far as Russia again is concerned, factor number two is the seething national minorities within and without the borders of the Great Russian Power.

In the Stalinist world, the great contradiction of its expansion, produces enormous national discontent and rebellion. The rebellion expresses itself, too, as a rebellion against a foreign overlord, but one should not forget that the struggle only conceals the internal discontent, but conceals it only in part. The “anti-Russian” feelings are joined to mass opposition to the new class rule.

Both for Russia as the great power, or the satellite regimes as the lesser powers, the issue of democracy remains paramount. Democracy is here meant not only for internal needs, but means national independence as well, since there can be no democracy in any country that is subjugated by a foreign ruler. The new exploiting class has learned little from the disasters of capitalist imperialism. This is an epoch of the destruction of all empires. Yet in the midst of the collapse of the old, the new class power seeks the creation of a new empire. Here it faces the active and conscious resistance of millions of people (Poland and Hungary).

The bureaucracy fears above all the socialist and radical populace; it fears ideas! The “free marketplace of ideas” would destroy the regime because it would put into motion all the formidable social forces seeking the end of the exploitative society and ruling class. Djilas is absolutely correct when he says that:

Persecution of democratic and socialist thought which is at variance with that of the ruling oligarchy is fiercer and more complete than persecution of the most reactionary followers of the former regime. This is understandable: the last named are less dangerous since they look to a past which has little likelihood of returning and reconquering.

He is also right when he says that it

... would be wrong to think that other forms of discrimination – race, caste national – are worse than ideological discrimination. They may seem more brutal to all outward appearances, but they are not as refined or complete. They aim at the activities of society, while ideological discrimination aims at society as a whole, and at every individual. Other types of discrimination may crush a human being physically, while ideological discrimination strikes at the very thing in the human being which is perhaps most peculiarly his own. Tyranny over the mind is the most complete and most brutal type of tyranny; every other tyranny begins and ends with it.

IF THE EXPERIENCES OF THE NEW class power has taught one imperishable lesson it is that in all social relations, the struggle for democracy must remain of paramount importance. There is no genuine social progress in our time except through an extension and broadening of democracy. There is, above all, no socialism without democracy. Socialism without democracy is a contradiction in terms. Here again, it is not enough to fight for democracy in the new world of Stalinist class society; it is just as important to carry on the democratic struggle throughout the world, in all countries, all societies and all institutions. This never-ceasing struggle for democracy would prepare the people as a whole against bureaucratic and totalitarian practices and institutions. All things considered in their proper proportions, the bureaucratization of a teamsters union, or the absence of democracy in any union organization, is only a small replica of the complex bureaucratization of a whole complex society.

Djilas quite correctly points to this democratic struggle and while his views of social democracy are not clear from his writing, this much is true: the labor and socialist world stands at one end of the polar division; on the other stands Stalinist totalitarianism seeking domination and adherence of the mass of people by a multiple and ingenious use of socialist phrases and ideals. The labor and socialist world movements have not yet reached that level of socialist consciousness and socialist democracy that belong to it. But in a world so evenly divided between the capitalist West and totalitarian Stalinism, all socialists belong in the movement of socialist democracy. Whatever the differences in that sector of world organization they are differences that are capable of being resolved in a democratic way in the struggle for a genuinely socialist and democratic society.

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