As I entered the apartment in Belgrade on Dec. 14, a sense of deja vu swept over me. The face of Yugoslavia's heroic Milovan Djilas was a bit more lined, but the smile was the same. I had first come to this apartment in September 1968 . That was four weeks after Warsaw Pact troops had turned the Prague Spring back into black winter. This time my visit came one day after martial law had been declared in Poland.
In 1968 Djilas said the invasion occurred because the Russians feared damage to their empire if the Czechoslovak economic reforms were to continue. Djilas also thought the Russians might keep going and march into Yugoslavia. ''Yugoslavia would be different. The Yugoslavs, unlike the Czechs, would fight.''
Now, with flashing eyes and animated gestures, he exclaimed about Poland: ''This is the first genuine mass people's revolution against communism in history.'' To Djilas, the Solidarity revolution went further than those in Czechoslovakia or Hungary or even his native Yugoslavia. Solidarity had entered the very fiber of Polish society, and the country was moving toward the genuine economic democracy which he had hoped would develop when he helped found Yugoslavia's system of ''self-management.''
For over a year I had wanted to talk to Djilas about this system based on worker councils in every enterprise. I had just finished co-writing a book about workplace democracy in the United States. But given the events of the previous day our conversation quickly turned from self-management to Poland.
I could not help thinking how much lay behind Djilas's words: jail in the 1930s, a partisan hero in World War II, a close adviser to Tito, vice-president of the republic, president of the federal parliament, and nine more years in jail in the 1950s and '60s. He had also written the seminal book ''The New Class'' and other volumes such as ''Land Without Justice'' and ''Wartime.''
In the early 1950s Djilas had led the search for an alternative ''road to socialism'' to the rigid centralized Soviet model. Marx's idea of an ''association of free producers'' had provided the theoretical underpinnings. But Djilas's increasing public demands for greater ''democratization'' and opposition to the party's monopoly of power finally so offended Tito that in 1954 Djilas was driven from all his posts. Now (1981) he was back in the official doghouse, his latest transgression the publication in the West of his warts-and-all biography of Tito.
''Revolutions don't change men, but they do change power and property,'' said Djilas. Solidarity's proposal of free elections would have meant the end of the communist party's power because it would surely lose such elections.
By ''property'' Djilas meant ownership and control over the profits of an enterprise. ''Western theoreticians usually think of property in communist countries as being either nationalized or collective. I think this is not true. Property is in the hands of the party apparatus. It is not formally codified, but the party has the power to dispose of it. Thus, the political class is also a sort of ownership class.''
When the Polish communist party offered to discuss ''self-management'' of the economy with Solidarity leaders, it had in mind the same sort of system developed in Yugoslavia - a hoped-for greater economic efficiency and a sense of participation but no surrender of real power or control over the profits. ''Without the transfer of that power, self-management is only an administrative measure,'' Djilas said. Solidarity sensed the trap and demanded genuine control over the profits.
''The Polish revolution has gone too far to be stopped without serious terror ,'' Djilas observed. At that early stage of martial law last month, Djilas did not believe the army had the strength and support to carry out such terror. ''As Lenin said, 'The army is the people in uniform.' ''
Make no mistake, he said, the declaration of martial law and the subsequent crackdown were acts not of a government but a ''party junta'' desperate to save its privileges and power. At the same time, ''the hand of the Soviet Union has been in evidence from the beginning. I expected them to intervene, not directly, but by pressures they were putting on the party and the army.''
Djilas castigated the Soviet Union as ''the last empire run by men for whom expansion, like the persecution of their opponents, is a form of existence.''
Djilas felt that the importance of Solidarity's rise was generally underestimated in the West. If it had succeeded, it would have completely changed the face of Europe. The Warsaw Pact would have disintegrated, and that is why the Soviets probably could not let it proceed.
What then can or should the West do?
''Everything short of war is not enough, yet war is unthinkable.'' Djilas did not believe the West is prepared for confrontation with the Soviets. Western Europe has become so economically linked to the Soviet Union that it doesn't want to risk the considerable disruptions such confrontation would engender. He admitted that he had no special prescription other than to ''be strong and have no illusions about Soviet intentions or readiness to moderate their expansionary goals.''
In 1979, Djilas observed to an English journalist, ''I would want the West to stand up to the Soviet Union with a much greater sense of trust in its (own) institutions and a much greater willingness to pick up and return the ideological challenge than it is currently doing. . . . Quiet strength and undemonstrative resolution - that is what we need. . . .''