MOSCOW — In his boldest challenge yet to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Yegor K. Ligachev, the foremost conservative within the Soviet Communist Party's leadership, called Monday for a national referendum on whether to abandon socialism for the market economy espoused by Gorbachev.
Ligachev, a senior member of the party's Politburo, expressed his alarm over new economic reform policies that will accelerate the shift of the Soviet economy from state ownership and central planning to capitalist-style entrepreneurship regulated largely by the laws of supply and demand.
"Those who push the free market are dragging us relentlessly into the privatization of the fruits of others' labors and back to exploitation," Ligachev declared in a lengthy interview with the party newspaper Pravda, just two weeks before a crucial party congress.
"Let's ask the people their opinion on how we should rebuild our society--along socialist or capitalist lines. Let's hold a national referendum."
Only last week, Gorbachev again declared himself in favor of a market-based economy as the only way to pull the Soviet Union out of its deepening crisis. The idea of a referendum on the economic reform program had been floated by his advisers, but he quickly ruled it out and has repeated his rejection of the idea several times.
Outlining a traditional Marxist-Leninist position, which contrasts sharply with most of Gorbachev's policies here, Ligachev urged the country to pursue a "planned market economy" that would maintain government controls on market forces and retain public ownership of most industry and agriculture.
"We have already realized the destructiveness of such 'freedom' at the macro level when large units and republics try to secede from an integrated community, thereby harming other republics and people," Ligachev said. He referred not only to the secessionist efforts to the country's three Baltic republics but also to the growing fragmentation of the whole Soviet economy.
Ligachev's challenge calls into question Gorbachev's leadership on several levels--in terms of the way that perestroika and the reforms are carried out, in terms of a basic philosophy and the vision of the country's future and in terms of the Communist Party's changing role in Soviet society.
Virtually a socialist manifesto, Ligachev's interview confirmed the depth and likely bitterness of the debate at the party congress in two weeks. A second party meeting, the founding conference of the new Russian Communist Party, opens today in a preliminary skirmish between Gorbachev's supporters and his critics to the right and left.
Radical reformers in the party's Democratic Platform decided over the weekend to break away and form their own party unless the congress adopts fundamental changes, including the abandonment of communism as the party's goal and the dismantling of the nationwide network of local party committees that guide virtually every Soviet organization.
The Russian party conference has only two real items on its agenda--the formation of a separate Communist Party for Russia, the largest of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, and the election of a first secretary and other leaders.
Both issues, however, are already the focus of considerable political infighting.
Gorbachev and other top party leaders had long opposed the formation of a separate Russian party, arguing that it would accelerate the disintegration of the whole Soviet party by turning it into a "federal party" in which each unit would fight for its local interests rather than those of the whole country.
As Russian nationalism grew, largely in response to the mounting nationalism in other republics, they were faced with an effort, led by conservatives and based in Leningrad, to found a Russian party that would have been out of their control. Two weeks ago, Gorbachev capitulated and endorsed the establishment of a Russian party.
Now at stake are its character and its policies, and Gorbachev will address the conference today in an attempt to shape the debate that follows and ensure that the Russian party, whose members would make up about 58% of the membership of the Soviet party, continues to support his reforms.
A larger battle is likely over the party's leadership. Andrei Girenko, a secretary of the party's policy-making Central Committee, said Monday that half a dozen senior officials have already been proposed for the post, including Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov and Interior Minister Vadim V. Bakatin. Gorbachev will not be a candidate, he said, and Boris N. Yeltsin, Russia's populist president, has not been proposed so far.
Political insiders expect the contest will be between Yuri A. Manayenkov, 54, another Central Committee secretary, and Ivan K. Polozkov, 55, the party leader in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar. Gorbachev is said to favor Manayenkov, but conservatives are supporting Polozkov.