The new Soviet law on individual enterprise and private trade is the forerunner of what a senior Communist Party official calls a ``revolution'' in the economy. The law, which comes into force next May, will allow such things as private restaurants, plumbers, television and automobile repairmen, tailors, and language teachers.
The appearance of private businesses will be the most graphic sign of change in the Soviet economy. But by the time the new law comes into operation, other, much more far-reaching changes will already have been introduced in heavy industry.
These changes and the new individual-enterprise law have a common theme: emphasis on what supporters of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev call the ``human factor'' - that is, the profit motive. Some communists have opposed the changes on ideological grounds; others question their practicability. Their supporters stress that the policies are not a retreat from socialism, but a refinement of it, intended to make the Soviet system more competitive with capitalism.
Starting Jan. 1, five major industrial ministries will adopt a system of ``self-financing'' that will give them greater latitude to make their own plans, extend their plants, introduce new products, and set their own wages. The idea is to stimulate an increase in both the quality and quantity of goods produced.
In the past, the main requirement was to produce the quantity of a product demanded by the central plan, regardless of quality or public demand. Now, Abel Aganbegyan, one of Mr. Gorbachev's principal economic advisers, told reporters in Vienna recently, ``profit will become the main ... economic indicator.''
Mr. Aganbegyan and others close to Gorbachev hope that the self-financing plan will produce what they term a ``leap'' forward in economic output, quality, and worker productivity. Meanwhile, on Jan. 1 the rest of industry will undergo a more modest change in the style of management which will also give individual factories and enterprises more freedom of action.
Some economists, including some generally sympathetic to Gorbachev, are dubious about the new projects.
``I'm still trying to understand what is meant by self-financing,'' an academic said. ``A lot of people have doubts about the plans. They do not, for example, understand how the government can reform the management of major industries without first reforming the financial and credit system.''
Under the present timetable, changes in these areas will come much later.
Gorbachev supporters say that the changes are a classic example of Gorbachev's grasp of the Marxist dialectic - ``his ability,'' as one senior party official says, to ``make sharp changes in direction while retaining the essence of the issue intact.'' The essence in this case is state control over the economy.
The changes are, however, dramatic and controversial. It is probably no coincidence that the plenary session of the party Central Committee scheduled for this month is late. Informed sources now say that the plenum will be held in December, and that it will concentrate on cadres - in other words, personnel changes at all levels of the party. The plenum is expected at the very least to streamline key levels of economic leadership and may perhaps also remove some of the new policies' critics.
Gorbachev's supporters are increasingly looking back into history for a precedent for the coming changes. Their choice is Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy, introduced in March 1921. The parallel is telling.
The NEP was a complete break with the preceding economic policy, known as war communism. It was introduced in the face of enormous opposition in the party (partly overcome by a drastic tightening of party discipline). And it emphasizes the magnitude of the problems to be overcome. In 1921 - and by implication now as well - the economy was a shambles. The reasons were different: Then the cause was an excess of ideological zeal; now it is the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev's era.
The comparison is highly controversial. NEP is accused of fostering the development of a whole class of private speculators (so-called nepmen). Present-day opponents of NEP-style reforms will probably recall that the period was one of high prices, strikes, and unemployment. Communist officials, however, say that they are taking these problems, as well as more recent experiments, into consideration. One negative precedent that worries officials here is the Polish experience of the '70s.
``The private sector in Poland was not properly controlled by the state,'' one official says. ``It started to develop a life of its own, and the political views [of those in the private sector] also became alienated. We are trying to take this danger into consideration.''
One way the Soviet government will try to avoid this situation, officials say, will be to make sure that private enterprises are firmly plugged into the state system. A private restaurant proprietor, for example, will rent his premises from the government; he or she will buy some of the food from the state market. And people involved in private initiative would not be allowed to hire help.
Experiments with private restaurants have been under way for several years in the republic of Georgia, while Tallinn, capital of the Baltic republic of Estonia, has allowed a much-publicized private TV repair cooperative. The new law, however, dramatically broadens the scope of the small individual businessman. It also aims to undermine the black market and to spur the state sector into improving the standard of its goods and services.