WASHINGTON — Adlai E. Stevenson once called communism the corruption of the dream of justice. Communist states promise sweeping rights on paper that they do not grant in practice. Even where a communist government is extremely unpopular, many of its leaders will loath or fear any steps towards liberalization--and block them.
Yet profound political and economic changes are evident throughout the communist world. Indeed, every communist country except Cuba is experimenting with reform. (Castro proves he is his own master by centralizing while others are liberalizing.)
And some of the most extraordinary developments are taking place in the very centers of the communist world. In Peking, Chinese students have raised the banner of democracy itself in street demonstrations. In Moscow, Mikhail S. Gorbachev is using his position as secretary general of the Communist Party as the lever for opening Soviet society to ideas and influences driven underground for decades.
A senior official of the dreaded KGB has been censured in the press for harassing a Soviet reporter who had uncovered corruption in the coal industry. Andrei D. Sakharov has not only been released from internal exile in Gorky, but Soviet state television is assisting him in holding press conferences for the purpose of criticizing Soviet policy. Literature suppressed for decades is being published. And Gorbachev has appealed directly to Soviet intellectuals for support against the "apparat of ministries, a party apparat" that does not want to change.
There are two views in the West on why this change is taking place. Each view leads to a profoundly different approach in dealing with communist countries.
One view holds that the reform is coming from above--from a single determined leader and his immediate supporters. The other holds that it is also coming from below--from a society that has entered a new stage in its political development and has new needs. The first view holds that reform can be easily ended, albeit at a cost to the economic development of communist states. The other holds that reform can be stopped only with great difficulty and is likely to resurface again soon. Both perspectives can be defended.
Although the Soviet Union did make remarkable economic strides through central planning and forced investment in heavy industry, the people in charge find it harder and harder to compete in an age where knowledge is more important than steel production. To keep up, it seems clear that the Soviet Union must open up its system in ways that will pose new political challenges to the leadership. Many in the West who hold the "leadership" view, that change comes from the top, reach the extraordinarily optimistic conclusion that as a sort of historical favor to the United States, the Soviet threat may one day disappear--either as the Soviets do not reform and fall irretrievably behind or as they do reform and find they cannot remain communist.
How far can reform in communist countries go? The answer depends on a sensible perspective of what is taking place.
If an observer believes, for example, that the Soviet leadership is responding only to economic problems, then the forecast must be fairly pessimistic. While there may be some chances for reform to continue, it seems more likely that Gorbachev will either draw back or be overthrown as powerful forces in Soviet society decide that the political cost of economic advance is simply too high to pay. Such a development might increase American pride--the feared enemy will never catch up--but it may not serve American interests. Even a Soviet Union permanently and decidedly in second place can maintain enough military menace to pose an enduring challenge to the United States.
Conversely, if the changes taking place in communist countries are part of a broad political process, reflecting new social realities, then an observer can be somewhat more hopeful. Gorbachev himself may fail but, except in the short run, that will not stop the political evolution within his country. It will be an up-and-down process. For cultural, historical and ideological reasons, the Soviet Union is unlikely to evolve into a democracy. But it might develop over time--perhaps over several decades--a one-party system that would make a more vigorous effort to understand and meet the concerns of the various groups that constitute Soviet society.
The benign political model for the Soviet Union is not Great Britain or France but Algeria or Mexico, where a single party has been sufficiently responsive--as well as repressive--to remain in power for decades. Such a development would be in U.S. interests since a Soviet leadership more reactive to the needs of Soviet society would be more likely to direct its energies inward.
For decades the nightmare of American conservatives has been that any country that turned communist could never change, was forever lost to the civilized world. In some respects American conservatives believed even more firmly in historical inevitability than the communists themselves.
A byproduct of this view that history ends with each communist revolution is, however, a belief that diplomacy ends as well. One can contain a communist state but not influence it--its character is fixed forever. Current political ferment in the communist world may therefore have two positive effects: It may make life somewhat better for people who live in that bloodstained bloc and it may call into question the conservative nightmare that has frozen U.S. diplomacy toward communist countries for the last 40 years.