IT WAS MILOVAN DJILAS who some 22 years ago first popularized the notion of a "new class" as the crucial phenomenon of communist society, transforming it from the Utopian dream of a happy classless community into the harsh reality of exploitative tyranny. The idea was not new, but the despair and anger was fresh and contagious. Not since Trotsky's heretical defection had so prominent a Communist Party figure cried out against a "revolution betrayed." Djilas indeed went further than Trotsky, who never lost his faith in the Soviet way and merely protested its "bureaucratic degeneration."

Now, in the Yugoslav experience and throughout postwar Eastern Europe, it was confirmed that the dictatorship was not of but over the proletariat, that a new stratum of power-corrupt politicians and greedy managers had entrenched itself in the wake of the expropriated bourgeoisie, and that to all intents and purposes -- how bitter it was for a Marxist to record this! -- it owned and controlled the means of production as utterly as the old class had under capitalism. The god had failed yet again.

The disillusionment is always dramatic and moving, even if the pattern is familiar and repetitive. The dark surmise of a fall or a betrayal streaks the whole history of Utopia and revolution. Marx had warned his rivals of the sinister effects of their "doctrinaire egosim," and in turn both Proudhon and Bakunin had warned him of the coming disasters: "New absolutism, powerless masses, systematic destruction of individual thought, inquisitorial polise" and, more than that, "rule by a new class, the most distressing, offensive and despicable type of government in the world."

Our two Hungarian authors did not need to be instructed by history -- they made all the discoveries themselves, in and out of communist jails in Budapest. Now in the West, they offer us the manuscript of the book which had been hidden from the political police who had come to suspect that their loose pages "could serve as the program of a counter-revolution." Our authors would deny this heatedly. They were not trying to subvert, only to understand: "We wrote the book out of curiosity. We genuinely wanted to uncover the real nature of the new class oppression in Eastern Europe."

As a result they made their analysis as abstract and theoretical as possible -- calm, dispassionate, full of fine formulations and finicky distinctions -- as if in their iron curtain capitivity they had been ambitiously hoping to emulate the most abstruse in Western sociological writing. They shun "common journalistic parlance" and never call anything by a clearly identifiable name. For them the dilemma of communist collectivism is that of a "rational redistributive system's [although it is neither rational nor does it redistribute] caught between telos and techne, harassed by "marginals" [dissidents] and "technocratic critical consciousness" in the face of "the epistemological crisis of immanent social cognition."

None of this, for all the verbal fog, quite disguises the fact that the authors have written essentially a Marxist critique of Marxian realities. Curiously enough, they do not claim to be Marxists but they are oddly persuaded to offer an "historical-materialist critique" because, somewhere between an Eastern cell and a Western chair in academe, they "suddenly realized the analytic power . . . the explosive critical potential of Marxist theory." It is an arguable tactic, but in the present time of Solzhenitsyn, Djilas, and Kolakowski, it impresses one as more arid than illuminating. Their book is replete with insights and clever remarks, as they turn the Marxist guns the other way -- yet lacking the inspiration of some profound and original conception, in the end it only rescrambles the received ideas and conventional wisdom on the subject.

Others may have observed the rise of a "new class" to power with regret and resentment -- they welcome it. In its first stage it may, not unlike the "old class" (i.e. , the bourgeoisie under capitalism), have been violent and illiberal. In its second stage it is showing itself more "progressive" as it makes concessions and compromises with urgent social needs. One fine day there will be a "third period," when the whole of the ruling elite is drawn from the scientific and humanistic intelligentsia, and a "developed socialism" at long last shows its "human face." This, of course, is all quite inevitable because of the correlation of forces and the very nature of the system.

It is, alas, only a refurbished mythology, and critical readers will sense that the authors don't quite believe it themselves -- or, at least, any more. Their Hungarian manuscript, completed five years ago, concludes on an almost attractively flippant note: "As to when that hypothetical third period of socialism will arrive, we can only say that when some Eastern European publisher accepts this essay for publication it will be here, and not before." Keep an eye peeled, if you will, on the spring publishing lists in Budapest, Warsaw and Prague. But it might be more useful to wait for the arrival of a new book by these two intrepid chaps, collaborating between Paris and Australia, now that they have had time for second thoughts and can, happily enough, write as plainly and openly as they please.