A long, long time ago, a Yugoslav Marxist said bluntly that what Karl Marx wrote 100 years before was not valid for modern times. The remark came soon after Belgrade's break with Moscow in 1948. Predictably, it brought renewed abuse from Joseph Stalin against the Yugoslav heretics. But they had no option but to continue revising the old doctrine.
For the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, however, Marx continued to be valid for a considerable time, though there were tremors of dissent in Poland and Hungary in 1956.
But in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in 1980 and thereafter, Soviet dogma was shaken to its foundations.
Following the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement, Moscow could still contrive a partial equilibrium in the bloc. The Kremlin faced an altogether different proposition after the Polish events, however.
Eastern Europe was in fact uneasy until the advent of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 2 years ago. He and his ideas transformed the scene. With the Soviet Union and China, the two political and population giants of the communist world, shifting to reform, opportunity for the East European reformers is immeasurably greater.
East Germany and Romania still seem to be playing hard to get, when it comes to reform.
Czechoslavakia's leaders, still haunted by 1968, appear to be strongest in lip service to reform.
But Hungary is taking steps as audacious as any undertaken by Yugoslavia since the 1950s on. And Bulgaria, a tentative early reformer, is trying again.
Poland's government has just produced a package that potentially goes farther than Mr. Gorbachev's reforms. The problem for officials is that it is by no means certain that the economically hard-pressed and suspicious Poles will approve it and its inevitable initial austerities, in the national referendum called for Nov. 29. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski commands a certain popular support, but the communist regime as such does not.
This widespread reform mood, however, is bringing the whole East bloc up against some of the former most precious ``truths'' of the orthodox communist establishment.
Ever since World War II, there has seemed to be a kind of unwritten contract under which people accepted the system in return for its guarantees of cheap food, cheap apartment rent, cheap everything in fact, and full employment - all subsidized, of course, by the state.
The Yugoslavs have been through it all: de-collectivization in favor of private farming, market prices that rose continuously with rising production costs, and the demand for profitability. The latter resulted in almost 2 million Yugoslavs becoming jobless, at least at home.
That Yugoslavia, partly of its own fault, is facing huge economic problems is not relevant in this reform context.
Belgrade was wise enough to liberalize politically and economically, leaving at least 1 million Yugoslavs free to move to Western Europe for jobs. That eased domestic tensions and meant that several billion dollars are resting in private accounts in Yugoslav banks, the remittances that ``guest workers'' send back to families at home.
Reform in Eastern Europe - or ``restructuring'' in the Soviet Union - must inevitably lead to unemployment. Gorbachev insists not. But Nikolai Ryzhkov, his prime minister, says that 13 percent of all state-owned enterprises are nonviable and ``might'' have to close down.
The Hungarians have no illusions. Magyar Hirlap,the labor union paper, said recently: ``The question is not whether or not there will be unemployment. Clearly there will be.'' In Hungary, the bloc's first-ever job agencies and retraining centers are already working with people laid off from the first business closures.
Meat and bread prices in Poland went unchanged for 35 years. The situation is so bad in the Soviet Union that Gorbachev, in his latest warning to Russians that prices must go up, said, ``We see youngsters using a loaf for football.'' Genuine reform means market prices, and market prices mean more expensive food. Opposition to Gorbachev, Jaruzelski, and Hungary's Karoly Grosz comes not only from strongly entrenched bureaucrats and managers who are out to preserve their jobs and privileges. It is also deep among workers who, understandably, worry that they will be out of work. They have become accustomed to 40 years of an egalitarianism that has ensured pay and periodic pay hikes regardless of work performance.
Enter the political criteria. No new economic course can gain adequate acceptance without this being recognized. Gorbachev, Jaruzelski, and Mr. Grosz all talk about democratization.
The Yugoslavs have been ``democratizing'' a long time. But they have always balked at the kind of pluralism that reformers in Budapest and Warsaw are demanding as an essential adjunct to economic change.
Dual candidatures, which were practiced in Poland's and Hungary's last elections, will not be enough. Nor is it sufficient for the party to say it has relinquished its ``commanding'' role for a ``leading'' or ``guiding'' one.
The next of the myths to be tumbled by the demand for pluralism in Eastern Europe will be the assumed merit of the single party state. But that is certainly some way off.