Can Communism Be Democratic?

PARDON my bemusement. With the Soviet Union more open than any time in 40 years, that enigmatic country remains confusing and contradictory to the outside world.

Take last week's headlines.

Mikhail Gorbachev won the presidency. But he did it in the face of extraordinary critical debate, all laid out there live on national television.

Some of the more than 2,000 members of the Congress of People's Deputies criticized his record, his perks, and personal life. It is not so long ago that such frankness would have been rewarded with the firing squad.

But Mr. Gorbachev, far from calling in the KGB executioners, accepted the criticisms in ``comradely spirit.''

He said: ``All of us are just learning democracy.''

That is a truly remarkable example of how far the Soviet Union has come under Gorbachev's rule.

Yet here is another headline from last week's news.

Three American doctors just back from Soviet Georgia say the Soviets used an old and particularly harsh form of tear gas against their own demonstrating citizens in Georgia last month.

The doctors charged that human rights had been violated by use of the tear gas against civilians, and also by failure to disclose the nature of the gas so that appropriate medical treatment could be prescribed.

Some 20 people died, and some 4,000 were taken ill as authorities moved against demonstrators in the Georgian city of Tbilisi.

This is also a truly remarkable example, but an example of how desperately repressive Moscow can be, particularly when threatened by a reform movement in one of its outlying republics.

Reform or repression? Which has the upper hand in today's evolving Soviet Union?

The answer, of course, is that Soviet leaders run their country with a blend of both.

Change is encouraged, but when change threatens the communist party and its ruling regime, the people are reined in.

Can, then, communism ever become democratic or is there not an inborn contradiction between the two philosophies?

Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav writer with a long history of dissent, believes the two are incompatible. ``Communism,'' he says, ``is contrary to human nature. The Communist Party is monopolistic and totalitarian in its structure. Human nature is pluralistic in its nature.''

He offered these thoughts recently to Lief Hovelsen, a member of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee Council.

They are reprinted in the current issue of ``Freedom at Issue,'' the magazine of Freedom House, the New York-based organization dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions.

The Djilas thesis is that human rights as understood in the West are not possible under communism. Despite glasnost and perestroika, communism must remain a monopolistic power.

Although Mr. Djilas is himself an atheist, he recognizes one of the most critical flaws in communism - its denial of religious liberty.

``Freedom of religion is important,'' he says, because it opens the way to political freedoms. With freedom of religion, belief is free and thinking is free and this may open the way for political thoughts and beliefs as well.

``This is the essential reason why communism is against freedom of religion and of the church. For communists it is nonsense, it is stupid, to believe in God ... freedom of religion diminishes the ideological influence of monopolistic power. The believers have some other loyalty, outside the party and the ideology.

``Religion in politics is not so good for politics,'' he observes.

These comments seem to go to the heart of Christianity's problems with communism.

The one enshrines and enhances the individuality and independence of man. The other erodes and suppresses it.

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