Take a good look at the world around you right now, and try to remember what it looks like, because it may not look like this much longer. The most visible and dramatic attempt at change is in Poland, where the industrial workers in the major cities have mounted what amounts to a general strike against the communist government. What a headline that makes: "Workers strike against communist government."
No one can yet be sure how this particular attempt at change will work out, but we do know that communism will never be quite the same again. It is simply an observable fact in Poland that the Soviet type of communism inherited there from the Stalin era and imposed by Moscow on Poland does not serve the interests or promote the welfare of the industrial workers of Poland.
But pending change is not limited to Poland.
It could spread from Poland into the Soviet Union itself. Someday this must surely happen. Soviet workers endure a living standard lower than do the workers of Poland, much lower than East Germany. The World Bank statistics give Poland. East Germany is listed at $4,220. The comparable figure for West Germany is $7,380; for the United States, $7,890.
How long will the industrial workers of the Soviet Union put up with a system that keeps them in a state of semi- or near-poverty as compared with the workers in Western Europe and North America? Word of what is happening in Poland seeps through to them. So does knowledge of higher standards of living in much of the outside world.
The reason for economic backwardness in Poland and the Soviet Union is the same -- a top-heavy central bureaucracy controlling every delivery of goods to every outlet, sluggish in action, inefficient in result, and increasingly corrupt. In Poland it is further complicated by exhaustion of foreign credit. Western banks have loaned up to and perhaps beyond the safe limit. Change must come in Poland. Moscow has more time than Warsaw, but how much more?
And change is coming fast on the other side of the Soviet Union, in China.
The Chinese worker is a long way behind the Soviet worker at the moment. The World Bank figure for China is $410 per person per year. But the Chinese government is going through what, so far, amounts to a controlled and managed revolution. The management of the ruling Chinese Communist Party is being handed over to a new generation of young pragmatists and technicians. The incentive system is being restored, and enlarged. Farmers may sell their surplus produce on the open market. Private shops are again being licensed. Competition is being permitted among state enterprises.
In the political area the cult of Chairman Mao is being liquidated. He is even being blamed for the failures of the "Great Leap Forward" and "the great Cultural Revolution." These movements set China back by 30 years according to Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who is the guiding force behind this massive reorganization of China's political and economic system.
Deng's goal is the modernization of China's industry, agriculture, and armed forces by the end of the century. And if it worked, China would be surging ahead of the Soviet Union in industry, agriculture, armed forces -- and per capita income. Would, that is, unless the Soviet Union broke out of its present mold and followed China down the road to modernization. Is Moscow going to cling to an aging bureaucracy that wastes resources and holds the Soviet Union in a grip of inefficiency -- while China plods down a better road?
Washington can play a role in these vast potential changes, if it choose. Deng's plans for China are based on the expectation of bringing Western technology into China. His new relationship with the United States is central to his plans. Which is precisely why Peking reacted so sharply to Ronald Reagan's talk about reopening an "official" US relationship with Taiwan. To Deng such talk threatens to undermine the basis for his whole program for modernization of his country.
In the early years of the Chinese communist revolution -- roughly from 1950 to 1960 -- Peking's leaders looked to Moscow for help, guidance, and machinery to make it possible for them to enter the 20th century. Moscow failed them. In 1960 the Soviets pulled all their people out of China. China was also at war with the US. That is why Mao tried his Great Leap Forward. It was to be done without outside help. It failed. Now, Deng looks to the US.
If Washington does respond and does help China, Washington will, by so doing, exert pressure on the Soviet Union to change it system and to look to inner reform instead of external conquest to solve its problems.
Just because the Poles want change and the Chinese are rushing into change does not prove the Soviets will try to break away from the rigidities of the Stalinist system. But if Moscow finds that it cannot change -- nothing is lost to the West. Suppose that Washington does proceed to help the new China because it is the most advanced instead of the most backward of the communist countries? By the time the process had gone any distance there would be a working relationship between China, Japan, and the US -- probably including Taiwan, which is already offering some technical help to China. This grouping in Asia would stabilize Asia and relieve the US of worrying about containment of Soviets on that side.
The prospect that all this opens up is for a modern Asia in friendly relations with the US being able to contain the Soviet Union's eastern flank as the NATO alliance has been containing Moscow's western flank.
This will be a quite different world if Deng's vision is realized. With Polish workers on strike it is already considerably changed.