Gorbachev's reform dilemma

Mikhail Gorbachev was in Poland this week trying to promote glasnost and perestroika among Moscow's East European clients - and running into difficulty for a reason becoming more apparent and damaging to his program. His reforms have not yet produced a better life for the people of the Soviet Union.

He has been working for three years at economic and political reforms, and his people are beginning to grumble. What good is the freedom to talk, if the food lines are just as long and consumer goods as scarce and of as poor quality?

It leads to a question: Has he, by chance, got his priorities wrong?

He has been arguing that ``radical reform of the political system'' is a necessary step on the way to economic reform. But Deng Xiaoping in China has achieved an astonishing improvement in the economic lot of the Chinese people without much political reform.

In China the party remains dominant and monolithic. It has no nonsense about electing party and government officials and limiting their terms of office. Students are allowed some freedom of political thought, but when it turned into public demonstrations last year, the police squelched it. Deng started in the countryside and in some five years turned China from a food-deficit country into a food exporter. Then he began on industry and cities, but for the most part without turning a dictatorship into a democracy.

There is enough food in China, and consumer goods are rising steadily in availability and quality. The Chinese people can eat and wear Deng's reforms. The Soviets are being offered a taste of democracy while still spending too much of their lives standing in food lines.

Westerners who worry that Gorbachev's reforms will only make the Soviet Union stronger and hence more dangerous, may relax.

It is already apparent that the reform movement in the Soviet Union has run into powerful opposition. It is by no means certain that Gorbachev will see the day when the Soviet economy breaks out of its stagnating restraints and achieves the kind of leap forward Deng has achieved in China.

Why the difference?

Partly it is because the problem of political change was taken care of in China before Deng came to govern.

Mao Tse-tung caused havoc in China with his ``cultural revolution.'' It set China back by about 10 years in many ways. But it broke up the hierarchy of the party. It cut local party officials off from control over local industry and economy - though central authority of the party at the top remained absolute.

Deng could impose his economic reform upon the country because the local fabric of the party was too fragmented, too demoralized, too discredited to dare to block his way.

In that sense Mr. Gorbachev is perhaps correct; that he must first get a radical reform of the Soviet political system before he can launch true and effective economic progress. And in the same sense, what he tried to do at the great party conference in Moscow during the last week of June was what Mao did to the Chinese party, but comparatively gently and by ordinary political methods.

He obtained approval of resolutions which, if actually applied to the Soviet political system would or could, release its economy from the party hierarchy. But can such political reform be achieved in the Soviet Union by votes at a party conference? Mao did it brutally, even savagely. By unleashing a street revolution he broke the careers, sometimes even the lives, of party officials.

Mr. Gorbachev is using persuasion and votes in an open conference. This is not the kind of brutality which Mao used. This is parliamentary behavior which works in Western countries. Can it work in the Soviet Union against the entrenched bureaucracy?

The Gorbachev reforms have not been welcomed by many of the local party officials. Nor are his ideas received enthusiastically by many of the local authorities in Poland, or East Germany, or overseas. There is little evidence of Gorbachev's reforms spreading to Nicaragua, where the Sandinista regime this past week backslid badly. It had earlier allowed an opposition newspaper, La Prensa, to resume publication and a radio station operated by the Roman Catholic Church to return to the air. This week La Prensa was again closed down, and the radio station again silenced.

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power on March 10, 1985. He has reformed, even revolutionized, Soviet foreign policy. He has turned the Soviet Union from an aggressively expansionist power to a recessive power. He has undertaken to reach friendly accommodations with China on one side and with Western Europe and the US on the other.

But his success in foreign policy reform is not matched by any such success in internal economic reform. The plain fact is that he has not been able yet to increase the supply of food or improve the output of Soviet factories. The average Russian is no better off today than he was three years ago when Mr. Gorbachev took over command in the Kremlin. Until the Soviet people begin to see differences in their daily lives, they are likely to remain skeptical about political reform. But without political reform, they may never see any great changes in their lives.

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