Tito; drawing by David Levine

Simply as a piece of writing, this little book is a big mess. There is no clear thematic development, there are no discernible divisions of subject among the chapters, and there are a good many sentences that don’t make sense. Djilas’s publisher would have done him a service by returning the manuscript and suggesting that he take more time, more care.

This much almost every reviewer has said, but to stop here is quite to miss the point. For in its awkward, exasperating way—Djilas has always had more trouble with exposition than with narrative—the book matters. Djilas was close to Tito through the war years; he has remained, both in prison (nine years!) and in Belgrade, a critical witness to the Titoist reign; and despite handicaps imposed by a Stalinist past and lengthy intellectual isolation, he really tries to think about the nature of twentieth-century authoritarianism. Perhaps the most moving aspect of his work is its evidence of a man struggling for articulation after waking up from nightmares of history.

Especially if taken together with his earlier, richer book Wartime, Tito contributes to an understanding of a major social type cast up by modern politics: the proletarian (or plebeian) bureaucrat who, when successful, becomes the proletarian (or plebeian) autocrat. We see him everywhere, this intelligent and assertive worker who achieves, through the leverage of Marxism and the energies of his party, a measure of self-definition and then, whether consciously or not, uses his new powers of mind and speech to rise above both his class and his comrades. The sociological literature has some suggestive fragments about this figure, and a look back into Michels would also be profitable; but as usual it is to imaginative literature that we must turn for the most prescient of anticipations.

In The Princess Casamassima Henry James draws a brilliant portrait of a proletarian bureaucrat still in the embryo stage. Paul Muniment has to keep working as an artisan but is clearly preparing himself for greater things. He is strong, self-assured, not given to intellectual babble, a radical who could as easily become a social democratic parliamentarian as an anarchist conspirator. James, with his uncanny intuition, allows the issue of Muniment’s future to remain open, since he is portraying a moment in the development of English radicalism when political categories and organizational structures have not yet become fixed.

In Zola’s Germinal the young worker Etienne reads a Belgian socialist weekly “gripped by the uneducated man’s methodless passion for study”—these few words alone revealing the writer’s mastery of the subject. Zola is writing about a phase of working-class consciousness more highly formed than that which James treats, so that in describing the life of the French miners he can show that in the very emergence of plebeian solidarity there also arise new potential rulers: keen, ambitious proletarians and semi-intellectuals raising themselves to the status of leaders and bureaucrats.

Now, in his scrappy way, Djilas adds some valuable notes on Tito as an exemplar of this type in its communist phase. Djilas never quite makes the theme of the proletarian bureaucrat explicit, and in what follows I am, so to say, dragging it out of him; but it is there.

Selfless and resourceful as a young underground worker, endowed with a “glittering political talent” during his years in power, Tito remained devoted to what he took to be “socialism” even as he became the political master of the class from which he had emerged. As a young worker—a locksmith’s apprentice and later a mechanic who lost the tip of a finger in a machine—Tito already showed strong inclinations toward making the communist movement a spring-board toward social ascent. (Which is not at all to doubt that he would also have given up his life for the movement.) Even in those early years, Djilas says, Tito was dressing “like a dandy” and listing his occupation, a bit fancifully, as “engineer.” The thought of upward mobility is nowhere more firmly planted than in the minds of many an able, self-conscious, even rebellious proletarian. What Marx said was the task of the working class—self-realization through self-abolition—he wants to do by and for himself.

Tito knew a little of everything, not much of anything: a handy recipe for a political leader. He suffered from a feeling of inferiority because he lacked “culture,” and once in power cultivated writers without troubling to read their books. His knowledge of Marxism, says Djilas, was “meager,” though one suspects not much more meager than that of his “intellectual” cronies, trapped as they were in an autocratic, backward country where their political work had to be conducted under conditions ranging from harassed semi-legality to complete illegality. Tito “knew the major works of Marx and Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and bits and pieces of economic theory and history. He had picked up ‘the classics of Marxism’ randomly—in prison, in Moscow Party schools, which were rote sessions in which everyone declared his loyalty.”


Now all this fits in well with the characteristic experience of those workers—I mean real workers, not intellectuals or Luftmenschen disguised in leather jackets—who have devoted their lives to one or another left-wing movement. Despite the necessary blood-line between social democracy and communism, Djilas’s sketch of Tito could be applied, with obvious qualifications, to many a worker who became a leader of the European Social Democracy. Still, we have to be careful here. The type I am trying to sketch constitutes both the glory and a disaster of European socialism: he appears in a double guise, with the two parts sometimes mixed in one body: as the self-educated worker yielding himself to an ideal and struggling to acquire the rudiments of Western culture, and as a shrewd, ruthless bureaucrat-autocrat who uses the movement for a personal and/or “vanguard” conquest of power.

Both variants of our type are real, both figure in Tito’s career. But it is the second one, the bureaucrat-autocrat, who wins out, of course, partly because the Leninist-Stalinist theory of the party had so strong a hold on the Yugoslav communists in their formative years, and partly because they have to function in a country without a strong tradition of liberal enlightenment.

As Djilas remarks, “In a peaceful, largely nonideological world, Tito would have been a union official….” Exactly: it isn’t at all hard to see him as the bluff, hearty leader of the Teamsters Union (or, for that matter, Jimmy Hoffa as a member of the Politburo in charge of internal security). In these figures, both as individuals and as types, there is the same quickness of speech, the same ability to fight for rudimentary plebeian needs, the same shrewd perceptions regarding the psychology of working-class followers, the same lack of scruple—with the major difference, of course, that Tito, being a European, places a higher value on ideology.

The ambitious, rising worker feels great pride in having acquired some elements of intellectuality: why should he not? His ability to proclaim and generalize enables him to help his fellow-workers, but also to dominate them. Yet there seems, in many instances, a point beyond which he cannot go. He does not often manage to acquire the true calling and habits of the intellectual, which at best consist in a readiness to question ideas that have been acquired at some cost, a readiness to undertake, if necessary, a second revolution of the mind. It’s as if the conquests of speech and thought which such a worker acquires through Marxism—in the United States, through trade unionism—are as far as he dares let himself go. These conquests satisfy him. They serve him sufficiently to express his personality and fulfill his ambitions.

Now, of course, there have been some radical workers about whom this description does not hold, workers who have kept struggling, as best they can, with ideas. But such workers seldom rise to leadership in the left-wing movements for, again like intellectuals, they betray an indecisiveness, a disturbing habit of reflection, which all political movements must regard with suspicion. To move beyond one’s first, liberating entry into thought is to risk political disablement. Something of the sort happened to Djilas within the Yugoslav Party once he tried to extend the limited heresies of Titoism to a truly democratic socialism.

At one point Djilas writes that “Tito acted like a poor man who seized the opportunity to acquire, to build, to improve.” That is keenly observed, and I would extend it to encompass the whole of Tito’s political life. He had, says Djilas, “no particular respect for the working class, [but] he was staunch and unflagging in his interpretation of the worker’s historical role. Whenever he used the phrases ‘the working class,’ ‘workers,’ ‘working people,’ it sounded as if he were talking about himself—about the aspirations of those in the lowest ranks of society to the glamour of government and the ecstasy of power” (emphasis added).

It may seem far-fetched to compare the Yugoslav Communist Party which won power through armed struggle with tiny, ineffectual, left-wing sects in the United States; but reading Djilas’s book has persuaded me that there are elements in common. As I recall from my youth, there were certain “strong” leaders in the socialist and Trotskyist groups who would appropriate the prestige and authority of the working class, claiming for themselves the stability of proletarian upbringing and sneering at factional opponents as “petty bourgeois” and “mere intellectuals” (surely phrases Djilas must have gotten sick of hearing once he made public his disagreements with the boss). To take upon oneself the aura of the historical future that Marxism assigns to the proletariat became a powerful strategy for consolidating leadership within left-wing movements. Social Democrats do it, Stalinists do it, Trotskyists do it, and Tito did it.


Nor am I suggesting that such claims are always advanced in bad faith. On the contrary, they can be put forward with sincerity, even righteousness, and we might as well admit that there is a touch of truth to them. Proletarian cadres often do hold up best under trying circumstances, they often do stick it out. Tito certainly did. The worker who becomes a full-time functionary or “professional revolutionary” is making a commitment without much possibility of retreat. He cannot easily go back to his factory, as intellectuals can go to a newspaper or classroom; he feels that such a return would be a blow to his self-esteem, a sign of going down or under.

Djilas offers an anecdote which is very revealing of the complicated relations between workers or ex-workers and intellectuals or semi-intellectuals in left-wing movements. When he was breaking from the Yugoslav party in 1954 he “observed at some point that I had concluded that Engels was wrong to introduce dialectics into nature.” Now this was far from a novel idea among Western intellectuals, and in the Yugoslavia of 1954 it had about as much objective significance as the doctrine of transubstantiation has in the Reagan entourage. Nevertheless, Tito was quick to respond. “Defensively Tito asked me: ‘Are you ready to announce that publicly?’ I replied with a pathetic naïvete: ‘Always—and gladly.’ ”

There were by then quite enough heresies for which to excommunicate Djilas, yet in showing a strong interest in dialectics Tito was by no means a fool. Trained in the “school” of Stalinism, he felt (one may surmise) genuinely uneasy about his comrade’s repudiation of what he had been told was a keystone of the Marxist structure. He understood, or sensed, that once a crack starts to appear in a total ideology, deep fissures are likely to follow: today dialectics, tomorrow “the leading role of the party.” Tito also sensed that Djilas’s repudiation of dialectics would disturb the party’s middle ranks, those cadres of functionaries and active workers who never gave dialectics a thought from one year’s end to the other. For these activists, in their very “pragmatism,” wanted the party leaders to be faithful to the total creed, otherwise how could they be sure the sun would rise tomorrow?

Again, this jibes with my own, far less consequential memories. When the American Trotskyist movement was torn by a debate in 1939 over the nature of Stalinism (a matter of great importance), there soon began to hover over us the delusionary specter of dialectics, as a result of a strange complicity between Trotsky and his factional antagonist, James Burnham. Few of the intellectuals close to the Trotskyist group cared about dialectics, indeed, they smiled tolerantly at the scholasticism of it all. But a good many of the proletarian leaders and members, those who had laboriously struggled to master the mystery of how “quantity turns into quality,” were upset. By no means were they prepared to give up their belief in the universal applicability of the dialectic just because it was being mocked by a snobbish professor from NYU—and by the way, he really was snobbish.

Djilas rounds out his portrait of Tito with some piquant details about the lust for pomp and circumstance that overcame him once in power. Comparisons come irresistibly to mind with Balzac’s rising bourgeois: energetic, greedy, lacking in either inhibition or self-consciousness. As ruler Tito loved to camp in palaces left over from the royal era. “By taking up residence in palaces, by ruling from them, he attached himself to the monarchic tradition and to traditional concepts of power…. Essentially, he held primitive ideas about the ruler as being a caring master, the people as faithful subjects.” Hierarchical order and a kind of stiff, almost prebourgeois ceremony soon prevailed in Tito’s establishments; his “court was in no way inferior to the royal court that had preceded it”; the proletarian lord paraded his jewelry; his uniforms were edged with gold and his belt buckle was made of pure gold, though so heavy it kept slipping down. Djilas even provides an astonishing story that, like some feudal baron or John D. Rockefeller, Tito fell into the habit of distributing coins to “his” people when traveling about the country, until party leaders gently hinted that this would not do.

Djilas does not tell us enough about the differences in conduct, once they took power, between the ex-proletarian leader and the intellectual or semi-intellectual leader. But he tells us enough to persuade me that if we want to understand Titoist authoritarianism we must look not merely to the special circumstances of Yugoslav history, but also to the Leninist conception of the party which the Titoists accepted uncritically during the crucial years in which they were struggling for power. Ascetic and modest, Lenin would surely have been dismayed by Tito’s baronial style; but he would probably not have acknowledged that the deification of the party which he, Lenin, had first advanced as the doctrine of the “vanguard” enabled the rise of a Tito. When in the modern era, at least since the downfall of absolute monarchy, has a secular organization been accorded such power over the minds of followers as the Leninist party has?

In the later portions of his book Djilas sketches lightly what he has elsewhere provided in great detail: how the Titoist cult, deriving from the worst aspects of Stalinism, nevertheless seems to have helped to reinforce the Yugoslav resistance during the war; how once in power the Titoists employed the most brutal, indeed murderous methods against defeated opponents within the anti-Nazi resistance as well as those outside it; how the war-induced fraternity of the party leaders was soon transformed into a peacetime hierarchical structure with Tito as absolute boss; how the 15,000 Yugoslav communists who remained loyal to Stalin in the Fifties were herded into concentration camps and sometimes tortured. He refines the criticisms he has already made of the Yugoslav system as one that is no longer totalitarian yet far from democratic:

“The concept of [factory] self-management was born from the struggle against Stalinist tyranny and from visions of a true democratic socialism. Self-management legalized criticism of the bureaucracy. It also suppressed bureaucratic willfulness. And it solidified gains toward a free-market economy. But it did not substantially influence the character of power…. In the context of a monolithic Party, an omnipresent secret police, and an autocratic leader, self-management could not effectively become democratic.”

Had the author of these sentences not rebelled against the world-view of communism he might now be the ruler of Yugoslavia. But even in the dismal historical moment we have recently entered, when the affirmation of any social ideal meets with stares and crooked smiles, we may still believe that the lonely dissenter of Belgrade is a far more impressive figure than he could possibly have been as Tito’s successor. Djilas has cast a wavering light across the darkness of our time—and look, some of it shines today in Poland.

This Issue

January 22, 1981