Mikhail Gorbachev's credo: a call for universal `restructuring'

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Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, by Mikhail Gorbachev. New York: Harper & Row. 254 pp. $19.95. It must be said at the outset: Reading this book is like eating oatmeal on a wintry morning, back in fourth grade. It's gluey and thick, but ``good for you.'' Hence those parental instructions to eat it all; stop dawdling; button your coat; study hard; win A's; be good; and help others to be good.

So it is with ``Perestroika'' (restructuring). Classic Marxist doctrine, in which history is shaped by the rise of ``productive forces'' and the social classes representing them, is replaced here by a calm but omniscient and demanding voice from on high.

Admonition, exhortation, criticism, the call for a national mobilization against ``the present crisis'': This highly prolix style may bore Americans stiff, but is familiar indeed to Russians, who've heard it (and often rejected it) frequently in the three centuries since Peter the Great first insisted that they change. He succeeded with a few, failed with the overwhelming majority; will Mr. Gorbachev do better?

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``Perestroika'' is clearly his credo, doubtless ghostwritten, in the lofty, impersonal, and bureaucratic (and terribly tedious) fashion of Soviet policy pronouncements.

The first half deals with Soviet domestic policy. It is virtually devoid of specific events or names, aside from those few Soviet citizens whose letters Gorbachev quotes approvingly, as evidence of grass-roots support. The reign of Stalin is barely mentioned, with a stray reference to ``illegality'' - the purges - being overlaid by applause for the industrial growth and power that helped bring victory in 1945. That there was another road to industrialization, without mass misery and destruction, is entirely ignored.

One historical figure is, however, constantly invoked: Lenin the moderate, humane, sensible, thoughtful, and wise: All the clich'es of the Lenin myth are invoked. And with good reason.

In portraying himself as Lenin's political descendant, as a leader who will cleanse and revivify the revolution which Lenin made but which Stalin brutalized and Brezhnev stifled, Gorbachev is reaching for the legitimacy he needs against the old guard.

He gives no hint in these very abstract pages of any social group on which he hopes to rely. Rather, he looks to a national coalition of patriots and strivers, all those (especially the young) for whom national greatness really matters, who identify with communism as the key force that has made Russia a superpower, and who look to the future as a challenge and an opportunity.

This becomes clear in the second half of ``Perestroika,'' where foreign policy is handled with precision and exactitude.

The tone is confrontational and confident, with Gorbachev tacitly arguing that capitalism, though it may offer the United States some strengths domestically, has fatal weaknesses internationally. It is the corporate profit motive - he contends - that keeps the arms race going to benefit the military-industrial complex, much as the multinationals force Washington to intervene in the third world. Of all this, the Soviet state is entirely free, by his calculations.

Profiting from the international prestige gained through Soviet leadership in achieving arms control, and from the obvious weaknesses of the American global position, Gorbachev is looking to Soviet advances - diplomatic, not military - in the third world. So an imaginative and competitive diplomacy can be expected, exploiting third-world anger at American economic influence, proclaiming Soviet fair-mindedness: You see, we have no multinationals!

This book is strangely characteristic of the Soviet Union itself, combining bluntness with immense prolixity, self-conscious moralizing with back-alley politics. It requires a very careful reading in the State Department, a quick skim elsewhere in Washington, and a shrug of the shoulders from the rest of us.

Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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