Soviet economist Stanislav Menshikov breaks off from a tirade against bureaucrats, and chuckles. ``When you read our newspapers nowadays, what I am telling you at this table will sound like I am a good conservative in Russia. The amount of criticism in the press is so enormous and absolutely frank and honest. They just castigate these people,'' he says.
Mr. Menshikov is clearly in the mold of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Together with American economist John Kenneth Galbraith, he is author of ``Capitalism, Communism, and Coexistence,'' in which he makes no apology for the fact that the Soviet Union lags the West in productivity and in its standard of living.
He is just as blunt in a Monitor interview.
``I believe that the Czechoslovak economic system is superior to the Soviet system,'' says Menshikov, who is an editor at the World Marxist Review in Prague. ``You can see it everywhere. They have market equilibrium, more or less, in foodstuffs and traditional consumer goods.
``By traditional, I do not mean electronic gadgets. For some reason, socialism has not been able to really put up a good performance in that area. It's a big enigma for me why. Probably it's because they waste a lot of resources for military purposes.''
Although Menshikov says current reforms are headed in the right direction, he feels they don't always go quite far enough. He approves, however, of the aim of the coming June 28 Soviet Communist Party conference - to reduce the role of the party in the country.
``The party has been substituting for government bureaucracy in many areas, and Mr. Gorbachev and many others are in favor of separating the party from actual operation of the economy. I think that is very important.''
The need for far-reaching change in the Soviet Union, Menshikov says, explains why there is so much debate in the country these days about the country's history and particularly about Joseph Stalin's dictatorship. For Menshikov, a drastic cutback in central intervention is critical to reform.
``The important thing is to make the changes that are happening now irreversible, to be sure that nothing like happened under Stalin will come back. But it's not just the purges. It's not just the arrested. It's the whole command system of operating the economy and society, including political life and cultural life.''
One potential prod for change, Menshikov suggests, is joint ventures between the West and the Soviet Union. He hopes that the good example of Western products will stimulate the Soviet economy to produce goods of similar or superior quality, for use at home as well as for export.
What is essential is that the Soviet economy improve itself, Menshikov says. One target of his ire is the ``shadow economy'' - the illegal appropriation of state-produced goods for sale on the black market. In the early 1970s, he says, it represented from 7 percent to 10 percent of the Soviet Union's entire industrial output. ``It may have grown since then.
``The worst thing about this shadow economy is not that it's private, but the fact that it creates additional shortages,'' he says. ``Right now you can find in our papers a full description of how you have [a] mafia in Leningrad, for example, exploiting those illegal profiteers in the industry. By blackmail. Yes, and if they don't go along, they're killed. Or beaten. The same in Uzbekistan.''
The new book by Dr. Galbraith and Menshikov is being published in the United States and the Soviet Union, and the authors hope it will encourage further cooperation between their countries. In the process of creating the book, Galbraith says, the authors found their countries faced similar problems: the ossification of the Soviet bureaucracy, for example, might be compared to that in the steel and auto industries in the US. Galbraith maintains that the US and the Soviet Union are both entering periods of pragmatism in their domestic policies.
``I think it's pragmatism,'' adds Menshikov, ``but I think it's also just common sense. I think our leadership in the past has been very dogmatic on setting up specific straitjackets for the system, and I think it's not a good way to operate.''