Moscow — Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday vigorously defended the merits of a flexible approach to interpreting Marxism. He reassured the Communist Party Central Committee that the present reform-minded leadership was not retreating from the teachings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, but he declared that ``dogmatic, bureaucratic, and voluntarist'' ideological attitudes of the past had ``nothing in common'' with Marxism.
Mr. Gorbachev's speech was made during a two-day meeting of the full membership of the Central Committee, and came at a time when, as he told the plenary session, the leadership had ``literally to fight'' for perestroika (restructuring) of society.
The speech is a further sign that the struggle between supporters and opponents of far-reaching economic and political reform is intensifying. This struggle Gorbachev described as ``acute.'' (Yeltsin ousted from Politburo, Page 2.)
Soviet observers have long predicted that the opponents of reform will attempt to shift the debate from economic change to ideological purity. The main form of ideological attack that opponents of reform will use, these observers say, will be to express alarm that the political heritage of Marx and Lenin is being sacrificed for material improvement.
In a much-discussed article, published in the latest edition of the journal Novy Mir, the political commentator Andrei Nuykin remarks that opponents of economic reform have prevailed twice in the past by ``adroitly transferring [the battle] from economics to ideology.'' This quickly put reform-minded economists on the defensive. Once this happens, Mr. Nuykin commented dryly, ``we know how it ends.''
Reforms will affect the interests of millions of Soviets. The leadership speaks of improving efficiency, cutting out bureaucracy by reorienting the economy toward profits, sharply cutting the role of central-planning bodies, and halving the 18 million-strong bureaucracy in the next few years. Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranked leader, told the Central Committee Wednesday that by the year 2000 the government would have to find work for about 16 million people whose jobs in production or administration will be abolished.
In yesterday's address, Gorbachev stressed that the present situation calls for a new approach to ideology. Ritualistic repetition of ideological ``set truths'' would not help solve the country's problems, he said. The ideological approaches of some previous leaders proved a hindrance rather than a help to the development of the Soviet Union, he told the plenum.
A major hindrance, he said, was the cult of personality and the rigidly centralized form of economic and political management that took shape in the 1930s - a reference to Joseph Stalin. In the late 1970s and early '80s, he continued, ``lack of initiative'' and other problems gave rise to economic, social, and political stagnation. This refers to the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, who headed the party from 1964 to 1982.
Reformers have stressed the need for broad debate and the refostering of initiative in Soviet society.
``We have lost and keep losing a lot because of our failure to unshackle grass-roots initiative, endeavor, and independence completely,'' Gorbachev told the meeting.
One method of encouraging initiative is through what Gorbachev terms the ``socialist pluralism'' of views. Such an approach is something ``unaccustomed'' in Soviet life, he remarked. In fact, the term itself appears to be one of the main causes of alarm to some ideological conservatives.
Until very recently the term ``pluralism'' was a form of abuse in Soviet politics. The 1987 edition of the ``Short Political Dictionary'' published here attributes the term to either ``bourgeois'' ideology or ``Eurocommunism.'' Both are dismissed as fatally flawed. Gorbachev employs the term quite frequently; other leaders, Mr. Ligachev included, are more reserved in its use.
Although he defended reform passionately and appeared concerned at its slow pace thus far, Gorbachev was careful to tread a delicate path between radical reformers and ideological conservatives.
He spoke of popular worry that the decisions of earlier plenums have not been carried out fast enough. In an apparent warning to opponents of reform, he claimed that there was growing popular support for perestroika.
But he also noted that the leadership had received many letters from people ``made anxious by recent lopsided subjectivist appraisals of history.'' This seemed to be a reference to the controversy surrounding ``On, on, on,'' a historical play by Mikhail Shatrov. Strongly anti-Stalinist, it was warmly welcomed by radical reformers when published last month, but has since come under attack in the official mass media.
In his discussion of international affairs, Gorbachev spoke of an intensification of ideological subversion directed against the Soviet Union by the West.
He particularly noted the ``provocative inventions'' of Western radio programs beamed at the Soviet Union. In doing so, he seemed to be echoing the speech last September by Viktor Chebrikov, the head of the KGB (secret police). Mr. Chebrikov's speech appeared to be a warning against the dangers of taking reform too far.
Gorbachev, however, put a different twist on his remarks. He implied that the intensified activity was not so much a threat to the country as another sign that reform was the correct course. The ``anti-Soviet provocation'' was caused by the ``growth of prestige of socialism,'' he told the plenum. Moscow's Western enemies ``are scared because new good feelings for our country are again growing.''
One subject where Gorbachev expressed unmitigated concern, however, was the growth of nationalism. He called for a future plenum to be devoted to the issues of relations among nationalities in the Soviet Union. His call follows nationalist disturbances in a number of different regions, most recently the Baltic republics.
[The Associated Press adds from Washington:
[President Reagan signed legislation last week that designated Tuesday as Lithuanian Independence Day, saying the United States will never recognize its ``forcible incorporation'' as a Soviet Baltic republic.
[``The United States unequivocally condemned this violation of national sovereignty and national integrity, and ever since then our policy has remained consistent. We have never recognized the forcible incorporation of Lithuania into the Soviet Union, and we never will,'' Mr. Reagan said.]