Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has begun to talk of ``direct democracy'' for workers on the factory floor. Hungary's leader, Janos Kadar, calls it ``greater involvement.'' Although both probably mean what they say, both make clear that this process has its limits.
Labor unions in Hungary already enjoy a measure of broad participation in questions of production and management in economic enterprises, and Mr. Kadar frequently urges them to avail themselves of these opportunities.
In Poland, the new unions set up by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski in place of the now-banned Solidarity are theoretically ``independent.'' And they are beginning to make themselves felt - more so, perhaps, than he intended.
Whether Mr. Gorbachev will go as far as Hungary or Poland remains to be seen. That he has opened up the possibility is in itself a revolution for Soviet society.
Along with his two allies, however, Gorbachev leaves no doubt about one thing: The ``democratizing'' of institutions will be strictly under the control of the Communist Party.
Until now, the established unions have always been ``transmission belts'' of party policy. Under the new policy, the worst elements of these ``rubber stamp'' unions may be removed or reduced and the unions consulted more as serious representatives of the workers and their interests.
But Gorbachev knows that labor unions constitute the one mass organization in communist states capable of challenging the party's ``leading role.''
``Direct democracy'' will have its boundaries accordingly. There will be no more ``Solidarities''' in the bloc - at least not in the foreeeable future.
There is a permanent reminder to the Russians of the dangers of letting unions grow too big for their boots: nonaligned Yugoslavia, where workers' direct action ``against the government'' is as frequent these days as in some of the more strike-prone Western countries.
Communist regimes are all apprehensive of independent trade unions. In varying degrees, party chiefs and their hand-picked union lieutenants remain burdened with the old dogma: that in a communist state, workers own the means of production, and thus when they strike, they act against themselves and ``against socialism.''
Even in Yugoslavia, outside the Soviet bloc, it can still be heard, though there is a strong contrary view in those parts of the country that are economically advanced and more sophisticated. Strikes, an official from the republic of Slovenia told this writer recently, should be treated as ``quite natural, even in countries ruled by workers.''
``In strikes, we compete very well with the West,'' says a Yugoslav economist ironically. ``Pity is that we cannot yet compete with it in the goods we produce. If we managed that, we could afford higher wages, and then the cause of most of our strikes would be eliminated.''
In two decades, Yugoslavia has had 5,000 full-blown strikes, and no one knows how many ``unofficial'' brief stoppages there have been. But under pressure from the hard-liners, the government still hesitates to make strikes legal.
Yugoslav ``revisionism'' is a worry with which the Soviets have learned to live. But in the 1980s, Solidarity came as a new kind of threat. It confirmed an old axiom of communist power: that labor unions independent of (and sometimes in open conflict with) the government inevitably weaken the party's control over all branches of political and social activity.
Poland's new unions claim nearly 7 million members, a figure about two-thirds of Solidarity's 1981 following. But in the old Solidarity industrial strongholds, only one worker in three belongs.
Even without the old militants, last year's party congress reflected the endemic distrust of government-sponsored unions by electing a national chairman who is also on the party Politburo. He got only two-thirds of the votes; the rest were abstentions or votes thrown away on an unknown second candidate.
In Hungary, the unions get a better hearing now, but they too have a Politburo member as president.
At least, however, Budapest has dropped the dogma one still hears in Czechoslovakia about the ``identity'' of interest between workers and their unions and the communist state. Prague's leaders still invoke the ``anarchy'' of the 1968 rebellion, which included ``free'' unions, to block all reformist ideas.
Romania used troops against an ``independent'' miners' union in 1977. There has been nothing since in Nicolae Ceausescu's attitudes to suggest that he would not do so again.
Gorbachev may employ different language, but one may be sure that ``direct democracy'' at the workplace will not go beyond these East European examples.
It is a fair assumption too that, entrenched within this conglomerate apparatus, are hordes of privileged bureaucrats - the vested interests responsible for the bogus ``success'' propaganda of the Brezhnev years whom Gorbachev has already identified as his main opponents.
Vladimir Lenin liked to call the unions ``schools for communism.'' Don't expect Gorbachev to dispute that. His unions - like Kadar's or Jaruzelski's - cannot be separated from their essential party role, even if policy is to be subjected to wider debate.
But even turning the unions into something more ``open'' - into the sounding boards for reform and the only channels through which reform might be made to work - will be quite something for Soviet Russia.