WELL, surprise, surprise. At the much-vaunted 27th party congress in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev did not emerge as a born-again capitalist.
The principal problem confronting him is how to galvanize the Soviet economy, groaning under a legacy of bureaucracy, corruption, and slothfulness.
He promised change, but without promising change in the basic, stultifying system. And a lot of experts believe he can't get there from here.
There were a few carrots. Farmers, for instance, are going to be allowed to sell above-quota produce in the open market. But there was no hint of reordering the overall economic system. Indeed, the emphasis remains heavily on central planning and direction by the party.
Mr. Gorbachev has brought a breath of fresh air to top management in Moscow. He is personally more outgoing. He is installing a younger, more vigorous team of loyalists around him. He is apparently eschewing the cult of personality.
He has permitted much more public criticism of Soviet failings. A dramatic example of this was the speech to the party congress last week by the new Moscow party chief, Boris N. Yeltsin. Mr. Yeltsin criticized the Soviet system as candidly as US Speaker of the House Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill takes on the shortcomings of President Reagan.
But there are clearly limits to the amount of party self-criticism allowed. In the press there is backing and filling as Soviet editors probe the areas of hazard. One sensitive area is apparently the special perks and privileges of party officials. Even if Mr. Gorbachev were inclined to crack down on these, he would find them defended by a party hierarchy on which he is reliant.
And so what we seem to be seeing in Moscow is the promise of a brighter economy down the road, but without any major liberalization, without any new incentives or motivation to achieve it.
There has been a lot of blame at the party congress in Moscow on past poor performance by officials. The evils of capitalism, and the willfulness of Ronald Reagan in pursuing his Strategic Defense Initiative, got a routine drubbing.
But it is not the US that is depressing the Soviet economy. It is not Washington that has the Soviets bogged down in a cruel war of occupation in Afghanistan. It is Soviet leaders who have repressed the Soviet people and determined what they can read, listen to, and watch. It is Moscow that keeps Soviet-American married couples apart, that holds prisoner those Soviets who wish to emigrate, that pillories scientists and artists who dare to want to travel abroad.
Can the new Soviet leadership bring itself to unleash the creativity, the energy, the ideas, of its own people? That would call for extraordinary change. What we have seen under Mr. Gorbachev is a welcome change in style, but no change in substance. Maybe he has a hidden agenda. So far, at the 27th party congress, it has remained hidden.
If Soviet leaders want to overcome their society's inertia, they must blame not the people, and not foreign devils, but the heavy-handed system that saps individuality and fosters cynicism.