MOSCOW — If Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev is to succeed in revitalizing the world's second-largest economy, he must gain increasing control over the huge and inherently conservative bureaucracy of the Communist Party.
There is no evidence of organized political opposition to Gorbachev, but the Soviet leader has acknowledged the existence of rising resistance to reforms from within the party, a political machine whose power extends across two continents and into every corner of Soviet society.
Whether Gorbachev can tame the party apparatus "is really the crunch question," said a Western ambassador in Moscow. "Out there is a nomenklatura-- a party and state bureaucracy--of about 20 million people, the majority of whom are probably fearful of change, first, because it affects their own positions, and, second, because they're being asked to do things many of them don't know how to do."
Consigned to Oblivion
A quarter century ago, then-Kremlin chief Nikita S. Khrushchev failed to capture control of the middle and lower party echelons through which the leadership manages Soviet society. As a result, he saw his more limited reform program--and his own name--consigned to oblivion as an aroused party apparatus lashed back to protect its power and privileges, and replaced him in 1964 with Leonid I. Brezhnev.
Gorbachev, who appears to have absorbed this lesson, is widely regarded as a much more skillful manager and politician than Khrushchev. But Soviet and Western observers hold divergent views of his chances for success in carrying out a more complex program of reform in more complicated times.
Impressed with Gorbachev's skill and speed in consolidating his hold on the Politburo, the party's highest ruling body, and the forcefulness with which he has pressed his reforms, Western analysts tend to be more sanguine about his prospects than many Soviet intellectuals, who are his most ardent supporters.
"The further downstream he goes, the rougher things are going to get. But what we have seen so far is a juggernaut," said a senior U.S. government specialist in Soviet affairs. But, added the specialist, "I don't know anyone who thought a year ago that we'd be where we are now" on the path to change.
In contrast, a number of Soviet intellectuals interviewed in recent weeks emphasized that the changes now taking place--the current thaw in curbs on literature, the partial relaxation of press censorship, an ambitious outline of economic reforms to take effect next year--are fragile at best. They rest on a still-thin constituency of liberal-minded economists, historians and writers, most of whom live in Moscow, and a relative handful of visionary politicians--Gorbachev chief among them--who have managed to seize and hold the pinnacle of power.
How long Gorbachev and his allies will hold that power, and how effectively they will use it, are worrisome questions among these intellectuals. In varying measure, they voice apprehension that bureaucratic resistance to change may prove too strong and the society too set in its passive ways to demand it.
"The opposition is not weak," said a Soviet economist who is close to Gorbachev's advisers. "It is not some mouse on the carpet. It is a well-oiled bureaucratic machine."
"Believe me, we can feel them breathing on our necks," the economist insisted. "They are making lists," he said, of those whose careers will suffer when the tide eventually turns, as they evidently presume it will, against the reformers.
The party bureaucracy's institutional interest in preserving power conflicts head-on with Gorbachev's goal of releasing the nation's creative and productive energies by giving a large measure of autonomy to the factories and farms that party bureaucrats have spent their careers controlling.
Familiar Patterns Favored
By the same token, many directors of factories and farms--especially those middle-aged and older--prefer to follow old, familiar patterns of reliance on directions from local party authorities rather than shoulder the unfamiliar burdens of real management.
Moreover, Gorbachev and his allies in the leadership lack important advantages enjoyed by the leaders of China and Hungary, two Communist countries that have had some success in carrying out liberalizing reforms. In both cases, the path to reform was laid open by internal upheaval--the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 in China and the Hungarian uprising of 1956--that shattered the Communist parties of the two countries and weakened their conservative apparats.
The hundreds of thousands of apparatchiks who make up the Soviet party bureaucracy, by contrast, spent the 18 years of the Brezhnev era consolidating their power and privileges, to the extent that collective farm directors, for example, feel compelled to check with local party officials before sowing crops or reaping the harvest, regardless of what weathermen and their own agronomists may tell them.