MOSCOW — DESPITE the economic and social unrest that is gripping the country, Soviet reformers are pushing ahead with a dramatic reassessment of the role of Marxism in their society. Their willingness to challenge communist orthodoxy at this delicate juncture underlines both their determination to pursue radical reform and their growing readiness to confront party conservatives. Some party officials sympathetic to radical reform expect a head-on confrontation to come by the end of this year, if not sooner.
The clearest public challenge to orthodox Marxism-Leninism came in a little noticed speech given on July 11 by Alexander Yakovlev, believed by many observers to be the ideologist of radical reform. Ostensibly a commemoration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Mr. Yakovlev's speech questioned some of the powers with which Soviet leaders have traditionally endowed Marxism-Leninism - notably its ability to provide guidance in understanding the present and planning for the future.
Yakovlev placed the present changes in the Soviet Union on the same level as the French Revolution and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The major difference, he said, was its rejection of violence.
This questioning of ideology comes at a time of growing crisis inside the Communist Party. Sources close to the Central Committee say that party chiefs from across the country have assembled in Moscow this week for a meeting to discuss the party's predicament.
Regional party leaders are starkly aware of the erosion of their authority, and fear that the local and republican elections scheduled for early next year could destroy their power base. Many reportedly are unwilling to run for fear of further public humiliation. The mood of the last two plenary meetings of the Communist Party Central Committee was angry. Speakers have openly criticized aspects of reform.
Radical reformers in the party, meanwhile, are deeply concerned by the possibility of a revival of working-class Stalinism. Some refer to the dangers of the `lumpen-proletariat,' in Marxist jargon, the vagrants and petty criminals who form the lowest level of the working class. Others note that the working class did indeed benefit from Stalin's rule, in the sense that their living conditions improved and they gained a share of political power. This, coupled with an innate desire for social discipline and order, could make them willing to accept a dictatorship.
A number of senior regional party leaders, speaking at the April plenary session of the Central Committee, called for the reemphasis of the role of the working class in domestic policies. Leningrad Party Chief Yuri Solovyev, a forceful supporter of this line, lost his job last week.
Echoes of radical reformers' concerns can be found in Yakovlev's speech. He emphatically asserts the need for general human values to take precedence over class concerns. This is particularly important in revolutionary situations like perestroika [restructuring], he says.
Yakovlev warns that ``Messianism'' nearly always accompanies revolutions ``where the rising class claims to be the liberator of all humanity, but in fact is only freeing itself.'' And he notes that any revolutionary situation activates ``not only the healthy forces in society, but society's lower depths, which are the most dangerous precisely in a period of historic changes and shocks.''
His comments on the role of ideology are, however, the most striking and potentially controversial. Yakovlev warns that ``lessons drawn from the past often become dogmatized.'' History has proven a ``capricious and willful'' guide to predicting the future. Revolutionary intentions often diverge sharply from their actual results. One of the main lessons to be drawn from the history of revolutions is that ``subordination to a dogma ... inevitably gives rise to a multitude of `unfreedoms' in society,'' and pushes revolutionary ideals into the background.
Marxism-Leninism is the ``weapon of the working class,'' Soviet reference books routinely claim. But Yakovlev dismisses both class struggle and class-based revolution as things of the past.
These views put Yakovlev in direct opposition to more conservative Soviet leaders. Orthodox ideologists describe Marxism-Leninism as a virtually infallible method for analyzing complex political, economic, or social phenomena.
Yegor Ligachev, one of the most conservative leaders, writes that the strength of Marxism-Leninism lies in its powers of self-renewal and its ability to provide answers to ``the most burning contemporary questions.''
``A new world requires a new philosophy,'' Yakovlev says. One cannot simply rely on the experience of the French and Bolshevik Revolutions.
His description of France's ancien regime sounds like reformers' descriptions of the rule of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1960s and '70s: a society beset by ``immorality and hypocrisy,'' with a ``degenerate'' ruling elite, and benumbed with ``dogmatism.''
Ligachev and orthodox ideologists, however, stress the continuity between the nation's present reforms and recent past. Ligachev calls for a balanced assessment even of the Brezhnev years.
Yakovlev's favorable comments on the 18th-century thinkers who laid the basis for the French Revolution will likely further outrage Ligachev and his supporters. The economist Turgot, he says, laid the basis for the principle of ``freedom of initiative and the state's noninterference in economic life.''