Marx with a capitalist face?

Evidence accumulates that Marxism is not doing well in the countries where it is firmly ensconced. In fact it should interest Western observers that private-enterprise ideas are creeping into communist thinking - and, of all things, being advocated by Marxist leaders themselves.

From the Soviet Union come reports that planners want to inject some free-market efficiency into the bureaucratic, cumbersome Soviet economy. The Kremlin is not about to abandon central control, to be sure. But it is looking at the kind of reforms that have enabled Hungary and other more flexible East Europeans to boost their standard of living. For instance, giving factory managers more independence, rewarding production quality rather than quantity, setting prices more in line with the forces of supply and demand, and offering better wage incentives.

The People's Republic of China, too, is experimenting with private-industry-style innovations: providing factories more incentive to be efficient by letting them keep a share of their profits (instead of turning them over to the state); allowing farmers to keep and sell whatever they grow on commune land beyond a fixed amount contracted with the state; permitting plant managers to fire workers who are not productive.

Deng Xiaoping and Yuri Andropov will certainly not call these and other reforms ''capitalist inroads.'' More likely they will deftly tailor Marxist theory to fit whatever changes they make - and then say that this is what Marx intended all along.

No matter. The significant thing is that communist leaders are beginning to be more pragmatic, i.e., more open to free-economy approaches. There is a lesson in this for Western, especially United States, policymakers: Better to let Marxism eventually fall of its own ponderous weight than to try to force changes through ideological crusades.

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