“Is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union still the ruling party, the political vanguard of the people? . . . Should there be a multiparty system? Does the C.P.S.U. still adhere firmly to Communist ideals or is it leaning toward social democracy? Does it fully foresee the social and political consequences of establishing a market economy?” These are not the questions of a critic, a member of the opposition. They were posed on February 6 at the plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee by the Soviet Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, and they illustrate the gravity of the situation. Nineteen-ninety looks like a turning point for perestroika.

Citizens of the Soviet Union are now busy electing their local and republic parliamentary councils, or soviets. As soon as that is over, party members will pick the delegates for the 28th Party Congress, to be held at the end of June or in early July. This congress should endorse the platform that was produced by the plenary, defining party policy for the forthcoming period. Thus, exactly five years after the spectacular debut of the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union has two major questions on its agenda: the problem of power, with the Communist Party apparently resigned to abandoning the principle of its monopoly as a birthright, and the problem of property, as economic reform starts to reduce the realm of state ownership.

While the two issues are fundamentally linked, the connection is not necessarily obvious at once. The platform, as Boris Yeltsin aptly put it, often reads as if it were “written by two hands, a right hand and a left hand.” This duality is the result partly of contradictions within the leadership and partly of indecision. On the one side, the reformers, who stood together while the battle was over glasnost and the recovery of the country’s historical memory, are falling apart as they differ over the future: How far and how fast should the country move in the direction of capitalism? On the other side, the apparatchiks, with their backs to the wall, are trying to recover by exploiting Great Russian jingoism as well as popular fears of unemployment and growing social differences. This complex battle is gaining in passion and violence as it approaches its climax.

Property and Power. In one sense, the changes in forms of property will not have an important immediate impact on the Soviet economy. Except for the small plots owned by collective farmers, private property plays a marginal role and will continue to do so for some time, at least in the towns. Yet potentially the economic interests involved are enormous and the political consequences vital. Leonid Abalkin, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of economic reform, presented the draft law on ownership in mid-February. He and his colleagues have destroyed one myth–that Soviet workers are the masters of their factories and thus the first in the world to have moved beyond alienation. This debunking had the obvious purpose of placing all forms of ownership on the same level, whether state, collective or private.

This approach could simply mean that socialist property, when it is finally invented, will have to prove its superiority in competition with other forms of ownership. But it could also be an attempt to replace one mystification with an even bigger one: that socialism can be reconciled with the private ownership of the means of production. Indeed, the section of the party platform devoted to this subject reads like the product of a split mind. It says that individual (or private) property may “include ownership of the means of production” and, in the next sentence, rules out the exploitation of one person by another in the Soviet Union. This is not just a theoretical aberration. It looks like a loophole through which new property relations could be smuggled-and not just the right of the Soviet citizen to own and bequeath a house or start a small enterprise. It could be the framework for capital–foreign and then domestic- to take over big plants, along Eastern European lines.

The Soviet leaders are not there yet. They clearly have not made up their minds about how far to go. The party document points out that one of the major difficulties of reform is to find “an organic combination of plan and market methods to regulate economic activity.” Nevertheless, there are two indications that the marketeers and privatizers are in the ascendancy in the leadership. One is the emphasis on the need for a rapid “incorporation of the Soviet economy into world economic relations and the transfer to the convertible ruble”; such a loss of control over the country’s foreign trade would probably determine the evolution of its economic and political system. The second is the absence of any concrete proposals for increased powers for the working people in their factories and offices. Mikhail Gorbachev did for a time toy with the idea of giving workers the right to elect their managers. Here was the perfect opportunity to elaborate on this idea, to give working people a genuine say in the organization of their labor and thereby pave the way for socialist property. But such a development was conspicuously absent. Thus, even if economic reform were to prove as radical as some of its advocates maintain, it would be nothing more than a managerial revolution.

Vanishing Vanguard. The re-emergence of political parties could be justified, in Marxist terms, on the grounds of the persistence of class and other social conflicts. It is accepted, less theoretically, as a fact of life. To quote Ryzhkov again, it is too late to debate the necessity of a multiparty system since “it is a fait accompli.” Judging by the fierce debate in the last Central Committee meeting, it even exists within the Communist Party. The leadership has welcomed the inevitable. The problem concerns the legal framework within which such a system will be allowed to develop, and here Yeltsin and the Interregional Group of oppositionists in the Congress of People’s Deputies are right in posing a series of questions. (Significantly, their own “democratic platform” was published by Pravda on March 3.)

Abandoning the “leading role” of the party means altering Article 6 of the Constitution, which was introduced not under Stalin but under Brezhnev. Mikhail Gorbachev added in his speech to the February plenum that this “can lead at some stage to the creation of parties.” It is not specified as yet when and how. Nor is it clarified who will determine whether these parties have a constitutional right to exist, assuming that they do not preach “violence and interethnic strife.”

No longer a vanguard by divine right, the party would like to achieve a leading role by political action. Indeed, the platform acknowledges that the party must be completely reorganized if it is not to be “driven to the sidelines of political life.” In this overhaul even the old principle of democratic centralism is to be revised. Yet what prerogatives will be granted to minorities, what possibilities offered to the rank and file to organize horizontally? And what electoral guarantees will be given to insure that power does not always flow from above? Such questions, raised by Yeltsin and company, are relevant even if the trend toward greater democracy is unmistakable.

More complex is the proposed new relationship between Parliament and the president. The Communist Party is no longer supposed to run the economic and political life of the country directly at all levels but is to try to exercise its influence through the soviets, which are now being elected. At the same time, as if the party doubted its capacity to win a dominant position by electoral means, it proposes to strengthen the powers of the president. On February 27, after a stormy debate, the Supreme Soviet approved the bill defining his prerogatives, although it must still be endorsed by the Congress of People’s Deputies. The president will head a supercabinet including the prime minister; he will have control over the armed forces and the K.G.B.; he will be able to declare martial law and, as in France, dissolve Parliament and call a new election. In short, the president, and no longer the general secretary, is to become the key figure in the Soviet Union. In the long run, this president is to be elected for five years by universal suffrage, though the first incumbent, who will certainly be Mikhail Gorbachev, has chosen the safer way of securing his four-year mandate from the existing congress of deputies.

The word soviet, with all its connotations, adds an artificial touch of drama to the story. The Russians seem to have opted for the presidential model of the parliamentary system–closer to the American or the French than the British–in order to protect Gorbachev for a time from unpleasant surprises. After years of czarist and party de this is a tremendous innovation. But there is nothing particularly radical in the proposed system. No revolutionary workers’ councils are being set up. (At this stage one may also ponder whether the Soviet Union, having picked parliamentary institutions perfected in bourgeois countries, will now bring its property relations in line with them or whether, if it rules out private ownership of the means of production, it will alter the nature of the institutions.)

Shifting Alliances. Are political alignments affected by the changes under way in the economic sphere? Potentially, yes. An extraordinary conference of the Union of Associated Cooperatives (a euphemism for private enterprises) was held in Moscow on February 17. One of the participants, Arkadi Murashev, a people’s deputy belonging to the Interregional Group, told Moscow Radio that the interests of the association and his parliamentary group fully coincided. On the other hand, a few days later during the debate on land legislation, a deputy argued that only “the creation of a very powerful peasant party” would provide guarantees against renewed collectivization.

What we must keep in mind is that this open expression of interests is an entirely new phenomenon. Under Stalin nobody dared to speak, while under Brezhnev deals were struck behind the scenes. Now various groups are jockeying for position. The Western press does not help matters by describing as left or progressive anyone in Eastern Europe who preaches profit and private enterprise.

The Democratic Platform, a collection of groups that think perestroika is not proceeding fast enough, is a motley coalition. At the huge demonstration it staged in Moscow on February 4, the stage was shared by the New Leftist Boris Kagarlitsky, the historian Yuri Afanasiev and the economist Gavril Popov, whose ideal by now is probably some form of capitalist democracy. The platform was also shared by Yeltsin, who began as the scourge of all privileges and now limits his attacks to those bestowed by the state and the party. At a less successful demonstration on February 25, they were joined by forces further to the right, notably the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets, who have resurrected the name of a prerevolutionary party for whom Lenin was the Devil incarnate.

The groups that united in the struggle for glasnost are now separating. The differences between a Gorbachev and a Yeltsin, who was triumphantly elected in Sverdlovsk and is looking more than ever like a rival, are clearly more tactical than philosophical. The Soviet leader has always tried to keep the party together, dragging the conservatives along. This hitherto successful strategy has involved caution, an approach with which Yeltsin, Afanasiev and their backers have disagreed. On the other hand, Gorbachev knows that the economic policies advocated by his former allies, with the ghost of unemployment and the prospect of big wage differentials, could antagonize the mass of the working people and thus give the conservatives the opportunity for a comeback.

Admittedly, the conservative coalition is no less heterogeneous. On February 23, in a hockey arena on the outskirts of Moscow, Nina Andreyeva, famous for her neo-Stalinist manifesto of two years ago, was cursing Gorbachev and hailing the Soviet Army, while vendors outside peddled portraits of Czar Nicholas II and monarchist tracts. Hatred of the alien, particularly the “Zionist,” provided the link between the two. The several thousand people who attended could be dismissed as the lunatic fringe. Unfortunately, their chauvinism is echoed in “respectable” journals and much wider circles. There are also efforts to tie this chauvinism with growing social discontent.

Many apparatchiks think that this is the time to do or die. If they lose in both the soviet and party elections, the backbone of the bureaucracy may be broken. But they also think they can now fight back. One opportunity is offered by Russian resentment against what is happening in the outlying republics, and particularly by the resentment of millions of Russians who live there. Economic dissatisfaction and fears for the future give much more room for maneuver.

To fight for one’s lost privileges is one thing, to appear as the defender of public property against private greed is quite another. It is no accident that Yegor Ligachev, the spokesman for the conservatives in the Politburo, violently opposed “the opening of the slightest chink allowing the introduction of private ownership into socialist society” and argued that such moves could only be taken after a national referendum. If memories are short, the apparatchiks could even parade as the champions of the downtrodden. Whether these disparate forces under the umbrella of the Social-Patriotic Front can make an electoral impact is uncertain, but the combination of jingoism with social discontent is potentially explosive.

Populist Backlash? When one talks to members of the so- called intelligentsia in Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad, one hears an argument not very different from that expressed in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. One must help the reform leading to a market economy, the argument runs, because if it fails in the present political climate, with socialism discredited, the popular reaction will not be left-wing; it will be right-wing, nationalist and dangerous. While the danger is genuine, the argument is not. People run amok because they are driven to the wall and see no rational way out. The best way of avoiding that is not to drive people to desperate straits. What if the economic situation makes that unavoidable? Then austerity can be spread around so that the poorest are the least affected, while working people can be given greater democratic powers in their factories and cities, so as to insure that, when better times come, they will get their share. In other words, there can be socialist as well as managerial solutions to the present crisis, and if sections of the intelligentsia opt for the capitalist road, they do so for their own ideological reasons.

On March 10, 1985, Constantin Chernenko died. The next day Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen as General Secretary of the Communist Party, Five years later, as the Lithuanian vote foreshadows the collapse of the union in the form in which it was forged by Stalin, it is possible to draw a gloomy balance sheet. Angry apparatchiks did so during the session of the Central Committee. The most scathing was Vladimir Brovikov, the current Soviet Ambassador to Poland. Perestroika, he proclaimed, “has plunged the country into an abyss of crisis and brought it to a point where we are face to face with rampant anarchy, degradation of the economy, the leering visage of universal ruin and a collapse in morality.” The Soviet Union, he went on, has been reduced to “a state with a mistaken past, a joyless present and an uncertain future.”

One can obviously draw a very different picture. The fact that Brovikov can make such a speech without fear of immediate retribution shows how far the Soviet Union has come. Who would have guessed five years ago that Gorbachev would question the party’s monopoly of power and still stay at the helm? That he has done so despite the economic mess shows both his skill and his staying power. Is he now seriously threatened by movements from below?

Traveling through the Soviet Union, one is struck by contrasts between activism and apathy. On the day after the great demonstration in Moscow on February 4, the participants were obviously thrilled: Ours, they proudly pointed out, was the biggest demonstration since 1917. Yet in random conversations in Moscow during the Central Committee session, and in Leningrad immediately afterward, I was struck by people’s indifference. Taking glasnost for granted, they accused politicians of talking and talking, without this in any way affecting the lives of ordinary people. Mikhail Gorbachev’s next four years will depend less on his new presidential powers than on his ability to mobilize the mass of the people, to convince them once again that there is something for them, both economically and politically, in his perestroika.