THE URGE TO SHATTER MYTH is as irrestible as the need to create it. The figure on the pedestal is a natural target. But the toppling of idols does not have to be violent. There are subtler ways. When human proportions outgrow life, and illumination of humanness contracts them. If the mythmaking process inevitably obscures imperfection, the corrective requires only balance to succeed; for the hyperbole of myth, the best antidote is the sobriety of fact. These are the thoughts provoked by Milovan Djilas' new book, the short and captious Tito: The Story from Inside.

Tito, finally, is dead, and the deathwatch over the political structure he shaped and guided since World War II has also passed. Yugoslavia survives, beset with economic and political cares, but unrent as yet by impatient Soviet vultures or awash in the blood of ancient ethnic factionalism. The resourceful wartime partisan leader, the Communist David who successfully defied the Kremlin Goliath in 1948 (and sought to repair the relationship after Stalin's death five years later), the statesman for whom the movement of nonaligned nations became a theater of the world, grew into a legend in his own time. And if we are to believe Djilas -- and the ample evidence suggests that we ought to -- no one was more dedicated to the enhancement and perpetuation of the legend than Josip Broz, alias Tito, himself.

Djilas, the former vice president of Yugoslavia who broke with Tito's communism in 1954 and lived to pay for it, obviously has an ax to grind. But Tito: The Story From Inside is misread as a comulsive outpouring of the vindictive and self-vindicating. Written within the shadow of Tito's long dying, the book is no spiteful act of vengeance, no settling of scores with the now-dead intimate friend and colleague with whom so many adventures of war and politics were shared, and who became the oppressor. The concerns here are of a different order.

If Djilas concedes, as he does readily and abundantly, that Tito's personality and life were the stuff from which legends are born, he is equally intent on preventing the reworking of this particular legend into myth. For Djilas, the insubstantiality of Tito's legacy as measured by enduring spiritual and institutional forms negates the possibility of anything mythic. Informing Djilas' treatment of Tito is a vision of Yugoslavia's evolutionary passage from monolithic Soviet-style communism to democratic pluralistic socialism, derailed (if not irrevocably, then for the foreseeable future) by the limitations and fears of Tito himself. And it is these all too human weaknesses -- to which Djilas was also no stranger -- as well as the great personal strengths that collectively constitute the "Titoism" that accompanied the Old Man to the grave. The survival and well-being of an independent federated Yugoslav state, the "Yugoslav idea," depends far less on the myth of a Kremlin-defying nation-building Titoism than on geo-politics and the enlightened self-interest of the ethnic republics into which the country is administratively divided. Djilas may not spell out these ideas in so many words, but they are there implicitly.

Unstinting in his acknowledgment of Tito's accomplishments and his greatness, above all as an authentic political genius, Djilas laments with equal vigor the Yugoslavia that might have been (and, again implicitly, the role Djilas himself might have had in its shaping). If there seems to be an indictment of Tito for his unwillingness to permit the liberalization of Yugoslav communism to follow its own natural course -- as it appeared he might in the late 1960s and early '70s (until the crackdown in Croatia in 1971-72) -- there is clear-eyed recognition that for this to have happened Tito would have had to arrest his own descent into autocratic megalomania. But then, as Djilas, who chronicles this descent in vivid detail, is well aware, Tito would not have been Tito and communism not the uncompromising and insecure system that it is. b

The portrait Djilas draws of Tito credits greatness and highlights frailty. No weakness, error of judgment, vanity, or limitation, from the physical to the intellectual and even linguistic (Tito's imperfect Serbo-Croatian), is overlooked, and when all are weighed against the undeniable achievements and political acumen, the final impression is one of humanness, of a man greater than many, to be sure, but a man, not a god. A legend, certainly, but a myth, never.

Djilas wisely resisted the obvious temptation to make his own fall from grace the centerpiece of the book. The little he has to say about his collision course with Tito, the long imprisonment, the physical and mental suffering, comes mostly in the penultimate chapter and with a minimum of the self-righteousness and intellectual vanity Djilas displays elsewhere in his writings.

Tito: The Story from Inside is neither a biography nor a memoir, but a distillation of years of reflection upon the personality of Tito, the partisan struggle during the war, the development of Yugoslav communism, and the nature of power spurred by Tito's death. There is also the imperative within Djilas to scatter the forces of mythopoeia before they have a chance to cohere. That Djilas was responding, jerk-knee fashion, to the expectation of a response is more than likely. The book, if not the views expressed in it, bears the stamp of haste. It is not Djilas at his best, at his most expansive, his most incisive. But taken within the context of the circumstances, political and psychological, out of which it arose, its very brevity and intensity can make for compelling reading. This is especially so in the grim, revealing account of the concentration camp at Goli Otok for pro-Soviet Ygoslav Cominformists after the break with Moscow in 1948.

Milovan Djilas and Tito are two sides of the same Yugoslav coin. History determined the toss and Tito and what he symbolized came out on top. Djilas' brief would seem to be against Tito, but the real enemy is history.