ANOTHER stormy meeting of Communist Party leaders last week has brought to the surface clear-cut differences between supporters of radical political reform and those who want to preserve the political status quo. Although Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came down clearly on the side of revolutionary change, his opposition remains intense and determined.
The tone of last week's meeting on the role of the Communist Party in reform was identical to that of a remarkable Central Committee meeting last April: Party leaders were scared and angry about the collapse of the party's control over society.
One speaker, Leonid Bobykin, who is emerging as one of the leaders of the conservative line, called for the reinstitution of the post of second secretary - the role of deputy and counterbalance to Mr. Gorbachev that was summarily abolished last year. This position was previously filled by Yegor Ligachev, who again at last week's meeting signaled his support for more conservative and cautious reform.
Some speakers, including Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, criticized the lack of ideological direction provided by the party leadership. Others called for a ``firm line'' on ideology and ``decisive measures'' - a weak euphemism for a crackdown - on independent political movements.
Gorbachev's response was unsympathetic and defiant: The country is in the midst of a revolution; there are no clear cut solutions to the problems that the country is facing. He rejected the ``echoes from the past'' that he said were audible in some of the speeches. The party, he said, needs new blood from top to bottom, including the Politburo.
The tone of the meeting appears to confirm recent predictions by radically inclined party officials that a major confrontation is looming between supporters of moderate reform and proponents of radical change. A fleeting reference by Mr. Ligachev to a coming ``Congress of Workers'' indicates that a crucial ideological debate - on the desirability or dangers of a class-based ideology - is still far from resolved.
Speaking on the eve of the meeting, Central Committee officials said contradictions within the party now existed on all levels.
There were differences within the leadership, between leaders and rank and file, between the party apparatus and the grass roots, and between the party and the new parliament. Some officials have hinted recently that the political crisis will come to a head later this year.
The crux of the crisis is the abrupt collapse in party authority. Until earlier this year the party had a monopoly on all areas of power, including the implementation of economic and social policy.
This has changed abruptly in the last few months. First the party was dispossessed of the departments that administered such policy areas as industry and construction. Then it was humiliated in the April general elections. And finally party officials have had to watch as the new parliament, the Congress of People's deputies, and its standing core, the Supreme Soviet, has signaled its determination to play a major role in government.
With the removal of the party's status as the real government, its political influence has gone into a nose dive.
Gorbachev's reply to complaints of waning party authority has been to tell the party to get involved in constituency politics. The party cannot decree itself authority, he told the party meeting. It has to win support by showing that it is in the forefront of political, economic, and social change.
Reformers say that political confusion is an inevitable price of radical change. The gravity of the country's problems requires a search for completely new solutions. Conservatives fear simply that the new freedom of political debate, coupled with a reassessment of history that casts the party in a deeply sinister light, will destroy the party.
Conservatives continue to demand a ``firm line'' from the Central Committee on such questions as ideology, nonformal political organizations, and the media.
Radicals reject this. If you don't like something, radical Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev commented to journalists at the Congress of People's deputies, you should try to force it out by developing something better, not by banning it.
And conservatives are continuing to call for a political ideology based firmly on the working class. ``We have to keep in mind that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is first and foremost the party of the working class,'' Yegor Ligachev said during the meeting.
Radicals reject a class-based approach as outdated and dangerous, and some fear that emphasis on the working class at the present critical point of the reform program could lead to a conservative, neo-Stalinist backlash.
The anxiety of many party leaders has been deepened by the wave of recent strikes and unrest. The strikes in Siberia's Kuzbass came as a ``shock,'' Nikolai Malkov, a tough, no-nonsense party chief from the far east, told last week's meeting. ``If Siberia isn't standing its ground, if people there have begun to waver, then this is nearly the limit.''