``The speed of the convoy is the speed of the slowest ship,'' it was said of the fleets that ferried food and arms across the Atlantic to Europe and through the northern seas to Russia in World War II. If faster vessels pressed ahead, stragglers were sitting ducks for the lurking German U-boats.
Some years ago, a Hungarian economist discussing a slowdown in Hungary's ``new economic mechanism,'' used this saying to make a point about prospects for reform of outmoded communist economies.
He made no bones about which was the ``slowest ship''; it was the Soviet Union, as Hungarians and other reform thinkers in Eastern Europe were - and are - well aware.
Budapest's leaders, for 20 years the front-runners in dismantling a Soviet-style centralized economy, knew they must not get too far ahead. Moscow's ideological hard-liners always had their own kind of ``U-boat warfare'' ready to hustle them back into the slow lane if they did.
There grew up another truism - that economic liberalization, once begun, could not really succeed without political changes, too. Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980 bore this out. And Soviet leaders from Nikita Khrushchev on drew the moral therefrom.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, however, the Soviet Union has begun to espouse reform ideas previously heard only from isolated and mostly unheeded Soviet economists; indeed, it has now legislated some and contemplates further changes unthinkable only a few years ago. Under Mr. Gorbachev, even nonaligned Yugoslavia is finally credited with having found ``a road to socialism.''
The really essential fact of Soviet backwardness is that its economic system has gone unchanged since the first plans of the 1920s, that it long has been no more than a matter of ossified ``habit'' - Gorbachev's own word, in fact - regardless of the country's true economic condition and the immense changes wrought by modern technology in the rest of the world.
Although the Soviet Union is still the ``slowest ship,'' Gorbachev has had power for less than two years and, whatever his wish and intention, speeding up that ship is inevitably going to take time.
In fact, recent decisions do seem meant to set the Soviet Union on a course of considerable economic latitude - unprecedented in Soviet history. The country's leadership is to introduce a relative operational independence for enterprise management, incentives related to work performance, and openings for small-scale private business. There is to be an extension of enterprise self-financing experiments begun in 1984; joint ventures; first within the Soviet trading bloc, Comecon, but later outside, and some measure of autonomy for ministries and enterprises involved in exporting and importing goods with capitalist and third-world markets.
This is all old hat - and good news - for the Hungarians who long ago began to do these things but always deemed it prudent to keep an eye open for possible ideological objections coming from Moscow, as often they did up to the end of the Brezhnev era. The Hungarians have always taken care to stress their reforms are strictly for Hungarian conditions and that they are not in the business of ``exporting'' or suggesting models for allies.
Now, even if Gorbachev's thinking stops well short of Hungary's almost full turn to market economics and decentralization, it does borrow largely on Hungarian experience in the agro-industrial sector and elsewhere. It is without doubt a Kremlin ``revolution'' - one that is quickly making itself felt in Eastern Europe. It seems, for example, already to be putting a question mark over the rigidly orthodox economy of Czechoslovakia.
Since Moscow suppressed the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement (including radical economic reform), hard-liners have balked at even modest attempts at change. Now, however, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are feeling Gorbachev-style pressures about the need for ``profound [economic] restructuring'' to keep up with world trends; in each case, a ``Brezhnev pensioner'' leadership is the apparent target of Soviet opprobrium.
For Hungary, the impact is different. It has always been said that reforms possible in such a small country could have no relevance to a place so vast as the Soviet Union. The Soviets saw it that way, too. But Gorbachev seems not to agree. ``We just have to succeed now,'' says a Hungarian with a wry laugh. ``If our ideas let Gorbachev down, we'll be in real trouble!''
What seems to have contributed to Moscow's changed thinking is the fact that an even bigger communist nation - China - is also drawing on Hungarian and Yugoslav experience and seems to be succeeding. Gorbachev's Russia must not be seen to be trailing Deng Xiaoping's China!
China, in fact, is already running into an old Hungarian problem - the ``get-rich-quick'' opportunities opened up through even a small private enterprise sector. Like Hungary, however, China plans to use taxation to check ``private'' wealth, rather than draw back from reform.
Gorbachev will doubtless encounter similar complaints as he loosens the private rein. But East European reformers do not question his seriousness. They see him as eager to boost domestic consumer standards and, above all, to make the Soviet Union a greater force in global economy and trade.
Hence, they say, his interest in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which already has three European communist members and China holding observer status; in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank; and in ways to adapt the Soviet economy to foreign investment in joint production ventures.
But his first and overriding problem, as East Europeans see it, is to get the Soviet reform ship moving at all, in the face of an antireform opposition that he himself has said tries to ``subsume'' new ideas with old dogma.
Given Russian tradition and the present system, he has a simply gargantuan task. The East Europeans think 1987 may be his crucial year. They are not sure he can make it in time. If he does succeed against the odds, it will, they say, bring big new challenges not just for East Europe but more significantly for Western thinking, too.