THOSE who say that Mikhail Gorbachev is returning to the system that existed before he came to power are wrong. To limit the nationalist and democratic forces he unleashed will require repression far more open and violent than existed in the Brezhnev years. And yet, that repression is doomed to fail before the social forces that are dividing and democratizing the Soviet Union. In a mature communist system, like the ``time of stagnation'' under Brezhnev, the government does not have to send soldiers to the barricades to battle dissidents. The dissidents cannot become organized enough to erect barricades. All of them work for a single state and are under the surveillance of the party at their workplaces or schools. Virtually all printing presses, duplicating machines, mass communication, and buildings are under the control of a unified apparatus.
True, the system of secret police spying was far more relaxed than in Stalin's time. The rulers did not care if people reviled the government in private. But it took heroic efforts, all too easy to detect, for anyone to reach more than a dozen people with any statement.
The essence of the power of the Communist Party was that it could easily warn and intimidate most people who might be tempted to take such action. They would lose their job, their apartment, their right to live in Moscow. Those few who were more stubborn or courageous could be arrested and sentenced to long prison terms, exile, or psychiatric treatment. (To believe that an individual's act could change that system did seem to be a kind of delusion, even if it was a heroic rather than an insane one.) There was no need to run over Andrei Sakharov with a tank.
But Soviet society was changing. The reforms initiated by Gorbachev did not result from the arbitrary decision of one leader, but from the deep aspirations of much of society, especially the educated professionals who staffed the middle to upper levels of much of the economy and government. Unless these people could be motivated to produce, the country would never move out of the stalled position it was in. Similarly - and this was probably a surprise to Gorbachev - the non-Russian republics also seized upon the opportunity to organize and articulate their deep grievances and aspirations.
The result has been not just an outpouring of ideas and opinions, but the organization of institutions. An uncensored publication is not just a censored publication with the censor removed; it is a different species. The editors, writers, and printers know each others' true opinions and have the experience of working together for a common goal they believe in. Most important, they have the loyalty of thousands - even millions - of readers, who themselves may belong to political clubs or parties.
Of course, the failure to introduce economic reforms legalizing private property still leaves ``the state'' in possession of all of the material goods needed to publish or to organize and mobilize people. But the political reforms have now created genuine pluralism within the state itself. This gives society opportunities for resistance it never had under the old system.
One example illustrates the new system perfectly. Gorbachev wanted to close down the Interfax Press Agency, which has rapidly outstripped the official TASS news agency with the accuracy and boldness of its reporting. A simple matter, it seemed. He took back the equipment and expelled it from the premises, which the government owned. Yet Interfax reopened the next day, on new premises and with new equipment donated by the Russian Republic, led by Boris Yeltsin. It is still operating.
This illustrates that the essence of power of the Communist Party - the near monopoly of control over the population's goods and services, the ability to control and threaten without the use of violence - is greatly weakened. The only alternative form of coercion is the tank and the gun.
The hundreds or thousands of deaths we may see if Gorbachev continues on the path he seems to have set will show the weakness, not the strength, of the Soviet state. The peoples of the USSR have discovered the great alternative to bureaucratic despotism. They have begun to develop and institutionalize the ``habit of associating together,'' which that great student of revolution and freedom, Alexis de Tocqueville, saw as the inevitable harbinger of democracy. Gorbachev or a ruthless successor may stop the process for a time at the cost of tears and blood. But, like the juntas of Chile or Argentina, he will find that while one may rule a complex society by fear, no one can govern it that way. The Soviet Union will never again be a stable Communist society; it will be an underdeveloped military-police state or a country on the road to democracy. There is no way forward to the past.