ONE of the major challenges facing the next president of the United States will be to make sense of what is happening in the Soviet Union. Some of his advisers will say that nothing has changed, that the Soviet leaders are still driven by dreams of world conquest, and that nothing that comes out of Moscow can be trusted. The obvious answer to the question of whether Soviet leaders can be trusted is that they can be trusted to act out of self-interest.
What, therefore, is the Soviet self-interest today? It is a mistake to think that Mikhail Gorbachev is some extraordinary phenomenon or that, if something should happen to him, there will be no forces in the USSR that would or could continue his policies. Actually, Mr. Gorbachev comes off the same historical and ideological spool as Nikita Khrushchev. Gorbachev is more adroit, more sophisticated, more persuasive, more worldly than Khrushchev. His essential purpose, however, is the same: namely, to correct the basic conditions holding back the USSR.
Gorbachev recognizes that Marxism, as interpreted by past Soviet leaders, does not represent a successful national design for living. He is unwilling to set aside the evidence that the USSR becomes weaker, not stronger, in direct proportion to its literal adherence to Marx.
First, Marxism has proved unworkable. Marx was a social philosopher, not an economist or a political scientist. Marx didn't understand production, which he took for granted. One of his main criticisms of capitalism was that it overproduced, creating the need for overseas markets and setting a stage for imperialist conflict. He believed overproduction also led to unemployment and social evils.
What Marx didn't foresee, and what all the Soviet leaders have had to cope with, is that a high productive capability is the first imperative of the modern state. No nation can be strong unless it can master production. The Soviet failure to produce has had consequences not just in comparison with other states but in terms of political and social stability. Failure to meet production goals has meant that the USSR has not been able to house its people adequately or to feed them properly or to provide the wide array of consumer goods demanded in modern society.
Marxism in the USSR has led to nepotism on a wide scale. The man who gets the job as manager of a brick factory is not necessarily the one who knows how best to keep bricks from chipping away, but rather may be the one who can mobilize the most party support.
What stands out in a series of interviews I had with Khrushchev in 1962 and '63 was his awareness of the need to keep loyal but incompetent party workers out of top jobs. Cover-ups of inefficiency were common. If a plant turned out poor products, or chronically failed to meet its quotas, no one blew the whistle. Workers learned to respect the power of the foreman just above them, just as the foreman learned to respect the power of the plant manager. Inefficiency and incompetence were institutionalized.
Inevitably, production failures led to social unrest and, in turn, to the need for widespread political controls. Thus followed a chain reaction, beginning with the inability to meet production goals in agriculture and industry, and extending through to the social and political unrest.
Khrushchev blamed Stalin. He believed the fear Stalin inculcated paralyzed the entire nation. Khrushchev tried to correct the problem by telling the party congress everything he knew about Stalin - the tyrannical control of the party, the murder of thousands of dissidents or persons thought to be dissidents, the quixotic and irrational wartime decisions that led to the deaths of millions.
Khrushchev's hope was that, if only the people could be liberated from habits of fear developed under Stalin, they would be free to get on with the business of building a strong society. Khrushchev was prepared to modify Marxism to whatever extent was necessary in order to get the country moving. But Khrushchev was no engineer of consent. He antagonized the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was eventually deprived of all his portfolios - and even a claim on a decent burial.
Gorbachev recognizes that putting the USSR on a high-productivity basis requires more than a pep talk to party functionaries. He sees the connections that tie Marxism together with bureaucratic abuses, inadequate and shoddy housing, long lines in front of food stores, excessive party control, political absolutism, and social unrest.
Unlike Khrushchev, however, Gorbachev is rebuilding from the ground up. He has inevitably alienated many of those who stand to lose from a restructuring of Soviet society, especially those who operate the bureaucratic and ideological controls. But Gorbachev is smart enough to build a growing constituency, one that has a good chance of becoming the dominant political power even if Gorbachev loses personal command.
The next president of the US will be in a position to make the most of the opportunity represented by a USSR turning its dominant energies into upgrading its society. But it is likely that the president will have to deal with forces within the American body politic troubled more by Soviet friendship than by Soviet hostility. It is feared that a reduction of tension could lead to reduced military spending.
The prospect of a USSR preoccupied with the need to build a more open and functional society should have the utmost significance to Americans, confronted as they are with a debt burden that can mortgage future generations.
We need not fear we are buying a pig in a poke. We will be able to put the Soviet leaders to the test at every point along the way, keeping our own vital interests in the forefront, where they belong. And none of our vital interests is greater than understanding and supporting the conditions of freedom wherever freedom has a chance, beginning with the Soviet Union.
Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, is on the faculty of the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.