Gorbachev's old and new Russian revolution

AN enormous sign on Red Square, Nov. 7, screamed ``REVOLUTION - all power to the Soviets - the land to the peasants - the factories to the workers.'' Bolshevik slogans of 71 years ago, they are deliberately and urgently revolutionary today. The placard, three stories high on the face of the old GUM department store, hung beside a huge portrait of Lenin, and another placard calling for perestroika, or restructuring. They shouted over the heads of the marching soldiers, the thundering tanks, and masses of people trooping through the vast square. They were Mikhail Gorbachev's declaration that, acting in the name of Lenin, he is determined to remold Soviet society.

It is a difficult and uncertain undertaking. Resistance to change is deeply ingrained in millions of bureaucrats. They enjoy the privileges of jobs that too many of them hold through loyalty, not merit. Intellectuals are enchanted with Mr. Gorbachev. That is important beyond their comparatively small number.

But they recognize that sheer inertia, unemptied in-baskets, and working-to-rule can stifle or wreck innovation. One of them told us that when farms now deliver food to the outskirts of Moscow and there are no trucks to bring it into the city where the shelves are empty, it is either quiet sabotage or organized opposition. And, he went on, the patience of the people - who have been very patient - is running out. They want results now. Three-and-a-half years into perestroika, they are tired of waiting for more food, clothing, and affordable prices.

This is what makes Gorbachev a man in a hurry; this dictated the revolutionary message on Red Square. ``All power to the Soviets'' is today not the propaganda cry with which Lenin 71 years ago swept away Russia's brief experiment with democracy. It is an unmistakable challenge to the Communist Party, which is now to withdraw from the review of day-to-day public administration and economic decisionmaking.

Until now, Soviet elections have been a sorry joke, precooked by the party. Next spring, the new Congress of People's Deputies will elect Gorbachev, who remains general secretary of the party, to the post of executive, not figurehead, president. It will also elect a new Supreme Soviet to be a functioning legislature, not just a rubber stamp. Most important, two-thirds of the new Congress are to be elected by direct, secret ballot from multiple candidates, including nonparty people. It would thus have a degree of legitimacy based on popular mandate.

This program, still to be realized, holds the intriguing possibility that - forget about Marx - the party rather than the state will wither away. That is certainly not Gorbachev's goal. But he is bypassing the party to get the results he needs as quickly as possible. And doing so gives him not only a practical alternative but also shakes the glutinous complacency of a political class that has been above public criticism for more than 70 years.

Needless to say, there are those in the party who do not appreciate the ``new thinking'' of perestroika. But the danger to Gorbachev does not appear to come from the kind of conspiratorial resistance that unseated Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. The nominal second man in the Politburo, Yegor Ligachev, is seen as the spokesman of the conservatives. He does not, however, oppose perestroika but worries about its moving too fast and causing confusion. He may be right, but Gorbachev obviously feels he has no choice. Otherwise the Soviet Union, potentially one of the richest countries on earth, will sink to third-world status. Its influence would decline as the industrial democracies moved ahead. The growth of the European economic powerhouse now approaching the single market is already exerting a gravitational pull on the nominally communist countries of Eastern Europe.

For Gorbachev, the crisis is likely to come with what seems an inevitable collision of fundamentals. He wants to retain central control while encouraging the individual and local initiative indispensable to reform. But the two are contradictory. And there is no way in which the incredibly complicated, cumbersome Soviet system can simply be tinkered with to make it function for the 21st century. As Gorbachev leans forward more and more to achieve perestroika, he may lose his balance and fall.

Which presents the United States with a dilemma: Should the new administration do everything it prudently can to help Gorbachev along? There is no doubt in my mind that it should - and without pious platitudes about democracy. There may be those who think that Gorbachev's fall would solve the whole problem by plunging the USSR into chaos. It is more likely that he would be succeeded by a strong hand. Inevitably, the new leader would try to rally the people with the only available common denominator, Soviet nationalism. Rekindling pride and standing tall are easily tinged with xenophobia. The effort could well embrace the use of force to hold what the USSR now controls outside its borders or, possibly, adventures to gain more. External threat, hostile encirclement, are familiar devices. Stalin used them for decades. To be sure, Stalinism is dead; but there are other styles of dictatorship no less undesirable.

Whatever Gorbachev may want, his policy leads inexorably to a more open society. That is the road to a peaceful, less adventurous country. To help Gorbachev move in this direction is certainly in the interest of the US.

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