A REVOLUTION is taking place in Soviet ideology. Will it take hold and change the way the Soviet system works? If so, will America's interests win or lose? How should the United States respond to Moscow's new leadership and its efforts to break with the past? The Soviet Union needs new forms of political thought to transform its institutions and practices. Party secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev drives this point home to party leaders and to special convocations of academics. It is elaborated in the pages of Kommunist, the party's theoretical journal, now edited by a philosopher, I.T. Frolov, who for more than a decade has written about ``global problems so complex that no one nation can solve them alone, no matter how powerful it may be.''
The starting point for the new style of theoretical work, according to Mr. Gorbachev and his associates, is to avoid ``scholastic dogmatism'' and also the ``empiricism'' that mindlessly repeats lessons from the past. Ideology must proceed from what works - here and now. It must call a spade a spade: Not only is the USSR failing to close the gap with other developed societies, in some ways it is losing ground.
It is not enough to eliminate corruption and alcoholism, says Gorbachev. To improve Soviet society it is necessary to experience the winds of fresh ideas - of truth. Reluctance to face facts is associated with privilege. Individuals as well as institutions have grown too accustomed to protection from above. Firms and whole regions must now stand on their own. They must not look to the central authorities for subsidies. Each must make his way, accountable to itself for profit and loss. In effect, ``he who does not work, neither shall he eat.''
In international affairs the party line is also changing. Under Leonid Brezhnev it was assumed that the achievement of parity with the US - ``co-equal security'' - would ensure peace. Moscow no longer takes this for granted. Therefore the Kremlin works to transform the political relationship with the US and to bring the arms competition under control. The Kremlin takes what might be called ``risks for peace.'' It refrains from nuclear testing for more than a year, even though Washington shows no signs of reciprocating this restraint. It shows a new and possibly serious readiness to permit on-site inspection to verify some forms of arms control. It talks of eliminating the SS-20 threat to Europe without immediate cuts in British and French arsenals. In most arms control negotiations and in dealings with Peking, Tokyo, and other foreign capitals, the Gorbachev regime shows a flexibility and willingness to explore useful compromise unseen since the spring and summer of 1955.
Gorbachev has picked up the erstwhile American position on ``global interdependence'' and made it his own. Soviet commentators used to state that US pronouncements on interdependence were meant to provide a cover-up for neo-imperialism. Brezhnev's ideological hacks granted that there are ``global problems'' requiring international cooperation, but they maintained that full resolution of such problems must await the demise of capitalism. Brezhnev wanted East-West cooperation on arms control and trade, but he kept the USSR aloof from ``North-South'' issues, castigating the West for third-world underdevelopment.
Gorbachev and his new chief of the party's international department, Anatoly Dobrynin, now affirm the reality of global interdependence without qualification. The best way to solve global problems - the threat of war, hunger, resource shortages, environmental degradation, backwardness - is East-West-South cooperation. All material and scientific prerequisites for this task are present. What prevents progress is the arms race, hanging like Damocles' sword over humanity and consuming energies that should go to peace - not war. But Gorbachev's team contends that this problem, too, can be dealt with, even while capitalism endures and while it competes with socialism. All that is needed is a new attitude and willingness in Washington.
Can Gorbachev succeed? How much openness and change can Soviet society stand? Deep reforms presuppose frank analysis of present weaknesses. But if waves of essays, novels, and films portray a Soviet experiment that has failed, may this not shake the foundations of Communist Party leadership? And before the quake, may not some die-hards seek to topple Gorbachev?
Should Gorbachev prevail, do his policies bode fair or ill for the West? Basic Western interests would not suffer if the USSR liberalized economically and the system yielded greater abundance. True, more resources could then go to arms, but history shows that rising living standards generate powerful demands for ever more creature comforts. And Soviet society lacks any strong constituency for foreign adventure or confrontation.
America's long-term interests would be enhanced if we could collaborate with the USSR in joint endeavors to create values for West, East, and South. At present a window of opportunity is open to do just that. The US has some leverage to open the window further, but those who would tighten the bear's collar could also help to close that window.
Walter C. Clemens is professor of political science at Boston University and adjunct research fellow, Harvard Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of ``The USSR and Global Interdependence: Alternative Futures.''