WELLFLEET, MASS. — The breathtaking sweep of General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev's proposals to transform the Soviet political system bring to mind the courage, vision and statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War or Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. If Gorbachev's revolutionary reconstruction of the Soviet system is adopted and implemented, 800 years of authoritarian and totalitarian rule under the czars and the Bolsheviks may be replaced by a form of democracy. Gorbachev has launched a perilous balancing act on a very high wire, risking a possible fall. But those of us who aspire for greater freedom and stability in this world pray that he will successfully reach the other side.
Gorbachev and his supporters launched their revolution with emphasis on changing the structure and management of a failing economy. But after more than three years, the new blueprints and constant exhortations were producing only limited results. It was clear that lack of progress was caused by the encrusted, sterile decadence of the Communist Party. The party ran everything, following a centralized command system created by the tyranny of Josef Stalin and emulated by the dead hand of Leonid I. Brezhnev. Perestroika , restructuring, could not work without changing the political system--without changing the role of the party.
Gorbachev, opening the party conference last week with a 3 1/2-hour address, stated that the Central Committee of the Communist Party sees the crucial question to be "reforming our political system." He presented a series of astounding recommendations to strip the party of considerable power.
Gorbachev's most dramatic proposal called for the creation of a new supreme governing body--the Congress of the Soviet Union--made up of 1,500 elected representatives of the territorial and national districts and 750 elected deputies representing the party, trade unions, cooperatives, youth, women, veterans, academics, artistic and other organizations. The congress would be convened annually to decide the nation's more important constitutional, political and socioeconomic issues. It would elect from its members a smaller 400-450-person Supreme Soviet to decide all legislative and administrative questions and to direct activities of the lower-level soviets.
Gorbachev proposed that the president of the Soviet Union should henceforth be elected or recalled by secret ballot of the members of the congress. The president would provide overall guidance for drafting legislation and major socioeconomic programs, and would decide key issues of foreign, defense and national security policy and be chairman of the powerful Defense Council. In other words, the president would assume many of the most important roles now held by the general secretary of the Communist Party.
Gorbachev also recommended the creation of a presidium of the Supreme Soviet headed by the president and two senior vice presidents and 15 vice presidents, representing each republic of the Soviet Union and the chairmen of the chambers' standing commissions and committees of the Supreme Soviet.
Since Stalin, the Supreme Soviet has been a figurehead--it meets only once a year and its activities have been inconsequential; the party ran everything. Gorbachev is proposing a reduction of party power and a revitalization of the government through the creation of the congress and reliance on the Supreme Soviet and the local soviets for day-to-day operations. He rejects a multi-party system, however, and asserts that the Communist Party will remain as the "political vanguard."
All of this, which Gorbachev calls "socialist pluralism," would happen soon: He said that legislation establishing the new congress and the other recommendations could be considered by the Supreme Soviet "as early as this autumn"; then, after regular elections next spring, government bodies could be reorganized.
Gorbachev and the Central Committee have stressed the need for a profound reform of the legal system and the requirement for a rule of law.
This rule of law, the general secretary said, would include the "exercise of constitutional freedoms--freedom of speech, press, conscience, assembly, meetings, street processions and demonstrations--and firmer guarantees of personal rights such as the inviolability of the person and the home and privacy of correspondence and telephone conversation . . . . Judges, public prosecutors and investigators would have guarantees against any pressure or interference with their work. They would be subordinate to the law--the law alone . . . . To update Soviet legislation, we must firmly adhere to the following principle, everything is permissible unless prohibited by law."