Commentary Magazine


The Unperfect Society, by Milovan Djilas

Tailoring the Dream

The Unperfect Society: Beyond The New Class.
by Milovan Djilas.
by Dorian Cooke.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 267 pp. $5.00.

“As the chapters that follow will illustrate, it is my belief that society cannot be perfect.” Shall we laugh or cry? The latter, I assure you. This profound belief of Djilas was gained at an appalling cost, so it must be respected. He argues at some length in this strange new book of his (improperly said to be a sequel to The New Class) that neither Marxism nor his apostasy from it—his belief in unperfectness—is religious in nature. I was not convinced. Grant the feasibility of the term “secular religion,” and you will not be convinced either.

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The Unperfect Society (not published in Yugoslavia) should be read in the East—not especially in the United States. Here, we are eavesdropping. The force of Djilas's writing—and the grandiose effort involved in accomplishing it—are not readily apparent to those who have not felt the pull of Marxism in one or another of its various forms. The author was a revolutionary Marxist in his youth and a primary leader of a new Marxist state that his youthfulness helped to establish. He speaks only to those who can at least imagine both ideology/existences: the ideas of youth and the guns behind those ideas in middle age.

Djilas can readily be compared with Leon Trotsky: both were highly-placed revolutionary and state leaders; at the same time, each in essence remained a literary person; and both men ended up in grandiloquent isolation. Trotsky was of course the greater figure; but it can be said for Djilas, and not for the Russian, that his literary revolution against his achieved political revolution included a thorough attack on the dogma of the state he helped to establish. Trotsky's attack on his former comrades centered on their falling away from revolutionary truth; Djilas is limited by no such purism. Even so, I count the generational difference between the two men—and the character of the main enemy of each—as important causes. Moreover, Djilas was embarked upon his oppositional career mostly as a consequence of Tito's struggle with Stalin: he took the Yugoslavian party line and went too far with it—safely at first, since his persecution began only after Stalin's death (and clearly he expected a number of ranking leaders to follow him). Also, to Tito's credit, Djilas has not been killed, although a lesser man would have been destroyed by the state's effort against him. Still, Trotsky never said: “The world is satiated with dogmas, but people are hungry for life. . . .”

The largest (and dullest) portion of The Unperfect Society consists of the author carefully disengaging himself from Stalinist, Leninist, and Marxist dogma—especially including that great Key to History, dialectical materialism, which Trotsky defended to the end. Now this is certainly essential, courageous work in the East; but only of interest-with-effort here. I cannot imagine a man becoming an Individualist under Collectivism—certainly by the cultural road—without careful disengagement from state dogma. But in the United States, the dogmas from which we may properly be incited to disengagement are so poorly identified that some of our best minds must first create their elaboration in order to invite their destruction, while rasher minds ignore them in favor of more manageable imports, stylishly transgressing the American landscape in this-or-that sporty car. (In this sense, Djilas's critique of Lenin's theory of imperialism may even be U.S.-relevant.)

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To me, the most appealing portion of this mixed-bag of a book is Djilas in his role of acute political analyst—based on his intimate acquaintance with the Communist order and excellent imagination of other political formations, existing and potential. His basic insight today is a simple exemplification of his own experience and, he believes, of Marxism itself—that myth-as-motivation can move history, but myth enacted by historically successful myth-makers puts a tyrannical stop to history-making. Surely, the grand problem of politics. Utilizing this framework (which has the immense analytical advantage of giving somewhat equal status, in the same argument, to the theoretical social structure and the observable purposes of human beings), he criticizes the enacted myth of Communism and finds, for instance, that as a theory of economic management it is adequate (barely) only for achieving primitive accumulation in a backward area. Finally, he says: “Under Communism the productive forces have come into conflict with the relationships of production; and if we substitute ‘party’ for ‘capital,’ then we can see before our eyes a vision of Communism's destiny, the one Marx had assigned to capitalism: ‘Monopoly capital [party monopoly] becomes fetters on the mode of production which flourished with it and under it.’” So, the answer to what may fetter history at any moment or in any particular place is not afforded by the myth itself, not necessarily. The myth, enacted in an individual mind, may motivate that individual to destroy an existing state; but the same myth, enacted by the state, can destroy even that individual—certainly his motivation.

The point is a nearly impossible one: to tailor the dream. That is, if the dream is to persist. The alternative is to create a new myth to motivate the destruction of each new tyranny (historical obstruction)—understanding, of course, that the most recently successful myth also helped to create the current tyranny-to-be-destroyed. The latter mode suggests, to me, an excessive penchant for dreaming in the midst of the maelstrom of history. Since we cannot stop dreaming, I am for tailoring, which requires, first of all, some tailors—intellectual publicists not so slavishly devoted to their customers' dreams, whether official-state or official-revolutionary myths. Djilas concurs: “Thus history is in essence a group action performed by nations with their lives at stake, and by thinkers who discover the inevitabilities, and by leaders who display clear practicable ideas and organizational abilities.” My emphasis: I like that phrase very much—as a formulation of what dream-tailoring means, and for the role-distinction between thinkers and leaders.

But what of the tailor, his personal dreams? The third (and unifying) aspect of The Unperfect Society is Djilas's own narrative expression of his fabulous fall from Communist power and grace. An example, one of many: “I was on my own. That was how it had to be. I had then, I have now, no complaints, no regrets, because I was forging my own destiny by myself. I saw no other way but this way through the wilderness, through the mire and undergrowth. The thought behind everything that I wrote at that time, everything that I had felt the need to demonstrate, with all my heart, in my own life, can be reduced to this: people, my country's sons, should not be humiliated and persecuted because of ideas, for expressing their thoughts.” But he was persecuted, and has been ever since—and may be again, God forbid, for publishing this current book (or the next one). I feel queasy in saying it, but the quality of Djilas's writing about the feelings accompanying his acts of apostasy, and punishment therefor, are not equal to the story itself—or to his searing honesty in depicting the intellectual and factual considerations in his thoughts at the time. I imagine it is just too big a story for him to write about so soon, and not yet ended. He has written biography and fiction, however, as well as political comment, and this is reputed to be of a high order. In addition—whether or not written in jail on rolls of toilet paper, as some of his work—he has translated, for the first time into Serbo-Croatian, John Milton's Paradise Lost.

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