We probably have no more than two to three years to prove to ourselves and others that socialism as formulated by Lenin can work, Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev recently warned Communist Party workers. In a speech in the industrial city of Perm, he stressed that, so far, perestroika (restructuring) had produced little in the way of substantive changes. Failure of reform, Mr. Yakovlev told his listeners, could lead not simply to a return to the bad old ways, but to ``a triumphant, aggressive, and avenging conservatism.''
What appears to be virtually the complete text of the speech was published in a local Perm newspaper - usually unobtainable in Moscow - on Dec. 17. Readers in Perm could read the remarks quoted above. The rest of the country, however, was given a much blander, sanitized version of the speech the same day in the main Communist Party daily Pravda. (Pravda credited the official news agency, Tass, for its version).
The decision to water down Yakovlev's speech was almost certainly taken at a high level: Even the most mechanical editing of a top leader's speech is entrusted to a senior official.
The tone of the uncensored version is remarkable: Impatience with the slowness of change and anxiety at the consequences of delay are much more starkly phrased than usual. The standard circumlocutions and jargon are replaced by a withering attack on the incompetence of the Soviet economic system.
Many Soviet leaders seem to be preaching a doctrine of consolidating the gains already achieved, but Yakovlev is calling for full speed ahead.
The speech raises interesting and currently unanswerable questions. Yakovlev, widely believed to be Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's closest associate in the Politburo, obviously wants to speed up the pace of change. Was his speech severely cut because other top leaders disagree with his ideas? Or was it the first, gentle sign of a new determination to accelerate reform?
The speech is partly a call for political tolerance. In a passage that escaped the editor's scissors, Yakovlev noted that ``We still get scared by democracy, glasnost (openness), and the multiplicity of views.'' But, he asked his listeners, ``Are we really the only ones who know eternal truth?''
However, a warning to the party not to look for scapegoats for problems disappeared from the Pravda version. ``It is unethical and politically mistaken'' to blame ``the young or the intelligentsia, newspapers, or nonformals [political groups], the world bourgeoise, or political demagogues'' for difficulties, he said in the full text.
(Yakovlev is one of the few top-level political leaders who has been supportive of nonformal groups, whose stridently antibureaucratic approach has made many of them unpopular with party officials).
When things go wrong, he said, the ruling party should look first to itself.
Yakovlev spoke of his ``deep conviction'' that a normal flow of information was vital to society. ``Clogging ... the information flow with dogmas,'' authoritarianism or ``autarchy'' invariably pushes socialism towards Stalinism, he warned. Pravda cut all this.
Turning to the economy, Yakovlev told his listeners that ``We must look at life with open eyes.'' This and virtually all his subsequent comments on economic development were excised.
Economic reform is moving, but only just: ``It's spinning its wheels,'' he said. Housing remains a serious problem. There have to be major changes in the countryside: ``As long as the land has no owner, there will be no bread, no meat and no milk.''
This apparent call for something akin to the privatization of agriculture was dropped from Pravda. Cooperative organizers, the country's reemergent private sector, recently made a similar demand.
Pravda carried Yakovlev's strictures on the failure of industry to produce enough basic consumer goods. But it dropped his warning that failure to improve this would lead to further decline and the growth of popular discontent.
For the last half century, he says in a missing passage, the Soviet Union has been stubbornly creating an economic system that ``violates nature and reason and ruins our people.''
But his harshest words - cut from Pravda - were reserved for the institution of the five-year plan, and for the state trading sector. The present leadership is placed in the ``absurd situation'' of trying to build a completely new economic system and, at the same time, try to implement old-style five-year plans, he says. (In this he is apparently echoing the views of the frequently controversial economist and writer Vasily Selyunin).
The state trading system is subjected to a withering attack, ending with its description as ``short-changing, deceitful theft.'' The whole system is devoid of logic, he says, operating ``according to laws known only to itself.''
Instead he called for the strengthening of market forces: ``It is time once and for all to wash out of our consciousness the lie that socialism and the market are incompatible.''
For all its anxiety, Yakovlev's speech is the credo of an ultimately optimistic Marxist reformer. Socialism is indeed going through a crisis, he told his audience. But it is not in its dotage, as Western critics would say. Instead it is just entering maturity. The Pravda version did not omit these comments.