With Boris Yeltsin triumphantly defying the establishment in Moscow, Lech Walesa guiding the Polish opposition into Parliament and Imre Pozsgay, a member of the Hungarian Politburo, arguing in Budapest that his party should drop its “dogmatic wing” and strike an alliance with the country’s social democrats, it can be said that the era of Communist Party rule by divine right is over in Eastern Europe. Or, to switch to an economic metaphor, that a system of absolute monopoly is being replaced by one of imperfect competition.

The three countries setting the pace on this journey toward democracy are not following exactly the same road or advancing at quite the same speed. In the Soviet Union the principle of one-party rule is not to be questioned for the time being; in Poland the ruling party hopes to preserve power by integrating the opposition into the system; in Hungary the regime promises free elections, complete with genuine opposition parties, and expects to stay on top at the head of a coalition. We may leave to the end of the story the crucial question about the shape of the “socialist parliamentary democracy” toward which all three countries claim to be moving, and begin by examining the Soviet experience. For however important the peripheral advances may be, they will remain vulnerable as long as democracy is not consolidated at the center.

Last year, while reviving the famous slogan “All Power to the Soviets,” Mikhail Gorbachev took all sorts of precautions. He replaced the Soviet Union’s rubber-stamp parliament, or Supreme Soviet, with a smaller institution with greater powers, but took care that neither members of this new body nor its chair–that is to say, the President of the Soviet Union, a post destined for Gorbachev himself–should be elected by direct universal suffrage. Instead, they are to be chosen by the Congress of People’s Deputies, whose 2,250 members have just been elected. To make matters even safer, one-third of those 2,250 deputies were picked indirectly by such organizations as the Communist Party, the labor unions, the Komsomol (Young Communists), the League of Women and various associations of scientists and writers. The justification for having such “reserved” seats is that, in a country only beginning to learn democratic ways, the experts, intellectuals and other reformers required for perestroika might otherwise have failed the electoral test.

Voters were to disprove such skepticism. Since the rank and file of those organizations merely put forward candidates, leaving their leadership to do the actual selection and voting, the scope for manipulation in the indirect elections was tremendous. The Sakharov scandal at the Academy of Sciences was a good illustration: It took an international outcry and demonstrations by researchers in Moscow for the scientific bureaucracy to yield and give Andrei Sakharov as well as other reformers a second chance. For the Communist Party slate it was even simpler. The 641 members of the Central Committee who cast a vote had no choice: There were precisely a hundred names for a hundred deputy seats. But they could register a vote against a candidate. The usual unknown provincial candidates got in unopposed. But Yegor Ligachev, known as the leader of the conservatives, received seventy-eight hostile votes, a record. Next came Aleksandr Yakovlev, reputedly the most reformist, with fifty-nine votes against. Stalin must have turned in his grave observing the collapse of the cult of the General Secretary: Twelve people dared cast their ballots against Mikhail Gorbachev.

The remaining 1,500 deputies were chosen directly in two ballots on March 26 and April 9. But even in these direct polls the process of selection was quite frequently biased. Far from the Moscow limelight the bureaucratic establishment often managed to put pressure on the electoral commission to eliminate everyone but the candidate of the establishment’s choice. In 384 constituencies there was only one candidate. The Soviet press highlighted the example of Kazakhstan, where seventeen regional party secretaries had a walkover, but there were plenty of similar cases in Russia and the Ukraine.

Other contests offered two or more Candidates, giving a total of 2,901 contenders for the 1,500 seats. But the quality of the democratic confrontation varied from place to place. In the Baltic states, with their strong national fronts and a certain electoral memory, it was genuine. Elsewhere, voters sometimes had difficulty distinguishing between candidates, who all proclaimed faith in perestroika. The absence of coherent, conflicting platforms and of publicity for political differences at the top did not facilitate the choice. And yet, all over the country, this first exercise in freedom has altered the political equation, if only by whetting the appetite. The humiliating defeat of top apparatchiks in Leningrad and Kiev, their names crossed out on the ballot papers; the election of Yuri Afanasiev, champion of historical truth; and the good showing by Roy Medvedev, yesterday’s dissident historian, all show that Soviet citizens are more sophisticated and more reformist than had generally been assumed.

The case of Boris Yeltsin shows both the limits and the achievements of the process. Born in 1931, Yeltsin was a successful provincial apparatchik until 1985, when Gorbachev picked him for the key job of Moscow party chief. There he showed zeal in purging bureaucrats and attacking their privileges. Pressing for a quicker pace of reform, he clashed spectacularly with Ligachev at a famous session of the Central Committee in October 1987, and lost. He was down though not quite out. Kicked out of his Moscow job and the Politburo, he remained a member of the Central Committee and made a partial comeback at last year’s party conference, where he again attacked the prerogatives of the nomenklatura. As the only leader who has dared to step out of line, Yeltsin has become a symbol. Tall and powerfully built, with a mane of white hair, the man clearly has charisma, though he is no great orator. Mistrusted by part of the intelligentsia because of his populism, and lacking a defined economic program, he stands as the scourge of the apparatchiks and the champion of the downtrodden. “I earn 85 rubles–less than half the average wage–and he knows that you can’t live on it,” proclaimed a woman supporter at one of Yeltsin’s Moscow rallies. To pick up Moscow as a republican constituency–that is to say, the city as an undivided whole–was a stroke of genius. In that high-profile setting, as his enemies were to discover, it was no longer possible to eliminate a man through manipulation of the media and the other customary means. Indeed, the attacks by the bureaucracy were Boris Yeltsin’s best propaganda asset and helped turn his victory into a landslide. Gorbachev will now have to decide whether to treat Yeltsin as a potential rival or as an ally to speed up perestroika.

Among the counterproductive measures taken to cut Yeltsin down to size was the establishment by the Central Committee of a commission charged with investigating whether he had deviated from the party line. After all, whereas Gorbachev has publicly declared the impossibility of a multiparty system, Yeltsin repeatedly told interviewers that the idea should be examined–though not that it should necessarily be accepted. In any event, the whole issue of pluralism is full of ambiguities. By now, the Communist Party is a motley coalition. Among its 20 million members one may still find some Marxist internationalists. But it also contains nationalists close to the ultraconservative organization Pamyat, for whom all the country’s woes, including Marxism and the Revolution, are due to alien ideas, to “cosmopolitans”–a euphemism for “Bloody Jews.”

People who hanker after the “good old days” of Stalin coexist with those building a memorial to his victims; those who advocate a switch to the market and to sharp wage differentiation, with others who defend the nomenklatura and still others who are mainly concerned with defending the workers’ wage packet. A variety of social groups are discovering their interests as they begin to crystallize, and are even beginning to express them openly. The electoral choice, as we have seen, would have been easier if differences at the top had received more publicity- if there had been, say, a Ligachev and a Yakovlev platform. One can imagine a situation in which other views are expressed as well, and In which their advocates, without necessarily forming a faction, are allowed to stick to their opinions even after being outvoted. It is along those lines that the road to democracy may be Imagined in the Soviet Union. And it may well proceed within a nominally single party, at least to begin with.

The possibility of having several parties and yet little democracy is demonstrated by Poland. It is not widely known that the country has In fact been ruled for years by a coalition, in which the Communists have as their allies a Peasant Party and a Democratic Association. That ignorance may be forgiven, since these were puppet parties originally packed with C.P. faithfuls “appointed” as Peasants or Democrats for the occasion. It is only today, as the C.P. will require their votes in Parliament to have a majority, that these parties may acquire a certain importance, aspiring to represent some Interests of the peasantry and the professional intelligentsia.

But Poland is obviously significant for another reason. Whereas reforms in the rest of Eastern Europe have come from above-spurred, it is true, by mounting social pressures–for the past twenty years in Poland they have been directly dictated by an increasingly active labor movement. Poland is once more breaking new ground. As the compromise just worked out is applied, it will do more than inaugurate labor-union pluralism in Eastern Europe. Representatives of the opposition will soon be a genuine and substantial minority in the lower house of Parliament and perhaps a majority in the admittedly less important upper house. Like Gorbachev, the Polish Communists have taken their precautions. They have a built-in majority in the lower house and they will also claim for themselves the new post of President, who will be elected for six years and endowed with great powers, including the right to dissolve Parliament. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his comrades are playing for time. At the end of the present transition period they hope somehow to cling to power within a new model–let us call it consensus with conflict–one in which the opposition will accept the “foundations of the regime,” whatever the regime may have become by then. (Party theorists claim that this consensus will be a parallel of the Western system, in which, to all intents and purposes, it is impossible to opt out of capitalism by electoral means.)

Will Hungary go further still? So far it has set the pace only in economic reform leading to more free trade. After a period of substantial improvement and consequent euphoria, the country ran into trouble with a high rate of inflation and a crippling foreign deficit, and its leaders decided to cure the disease with a hefty dose of the same free-trade medicine. Hungary is to move even faster toward a market economy, with the proposed legalization of opposition parties as the political counterpart.

Speaking on Hungarian radio and TV last February, the academician Oleg Bogomolov, head of the Moscow Institute on the Economics of the World Socialist System, repeated his hypothesis that Hungary might become a neutral nation, like Austria or Sweden, and that this “would not threaten the security of the Soviet Union.” This comment buried the Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty with a flourish, and although Bogomolov was disavowed by a superior, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Talyzin, he was not violently attacked for his apparent heresy. Leaving aside Bogomolov’s rather absurd assumption that the capitalist world would allow Hungary to reach the level of Austria or Sweden, his concept of “neutrality” may correspond to Pozsgay’s idea of “social democratization.” The Hungarian party, in other words, may be trying to stick to power while changing regimes. Will it really cross the Rubicon? Although the answer is doubtful, the question is no longer entirely unrealistic.

No regime rests for long on bayonets alone. Nor does a country live by bread alone, as the author Vladimir Dudintsev put it in the earlier thaw of the Khrushchev years–or indeed by sausage alone, as some Soviet economists seem to think today. Standing amidst the wreckage of their neo-Stalinist gospel, the Communist Parties of Eastern Europe need to rediscover a project and a vision if they are to keep members, let alone win votes in genuine elections. For the time being, they show little Imagination; their “socialist parliamentary democracy” has a strangely familiar air. Seen from a distance, in the best of lights, it looks very much like what used to be dismissed as “bourgeois democracy.”

Let there be no misunderstanding. Where the 5 o’clock knock means the police, the rule of law looks like paradise on earth. In a country where very few of the living can remember a free election, even limited freedom is exhilarating and instructive. There are plenty of reasons, not all of them economic, for the people of Eastern Europe to look at us with envy. But living in the West, we are also aware of the seamy side of our societies. We know the spuriousness of that equality that makes it illegal for both the Baron de Rothschild and the clochard to sleep under the bridges of Paris. We know the sham of an electoral system that pretends that a Rupert Murdoch or a Robert Maxwell has no more clout than any Tom, Dick or Harry. We know that the Rockefellers stay in power even when they lose office. After all, we are aware that handing over our sovereignty at regular intervals to representatives elected by the people–or rather imposed on them by the power of money with the help of the media-is not the best way to gain mastery over our lives as producers and citizens. That is why, until the Stalinist bloodbath sapped their confidence, socialists used to speak with contempt of “bourgeois democracy.” Not because they wanted to relinquish the freedoms that people had won but because they wanted to expand the social content of those freedoms in order to give real meaning to such grand terms as liberty and equality. And that basic truth remains unchanged.

Bourgeois democracy is a conquest of the people, but it is also the reflection of certain property relations. To provide a socialist alternative one must move beyond this, spreading democracy rather than constricting it. This means extending it to the shop floor, to the life of working people in their factories and offices, if public property is ever to become the domain of the “associated producers.” It means granting genuine powers to the local soviets or their equivalents, so as to insure real decentralization, and then setting up a network of links and mutual controls between the periphery and the center, the grass roots and the capital, without which there can be no democratic planning. In short, it means inventing what hitherto has been a mere fiction: a socialist democracy. And this is not the same thing at all as adding a superfluous adjective to parliamentary democracy in its present Western sense.

A tall order? The vast social upheaval inaugurated by Gorbachev is only entering its fifth year. As Boris Yeltsin gathers the first fragile flowers of this Soviet spring, one major question dominates the transformation that is under way: Was 1917 a historical quirk, an aberration, a parenthesis that is now coming to an end? Or, to put the same question less gloomily, was it a utopian attempt, a portent of things to come in another place and another age? Put either way, the question implies that the whole Soviet venture can only have a capitalist ending. Yet there is another possibility. This is that for all its strange beginnings In backward Russia, its hopeless isolation and the resulting bloody tragedy, 1917 was the beginning of a process, of a vast movement that continues to search for another world, still groping toward a radical alternative. That is the unanswered question of this unfinished revolution. The answer remains crucial for their democracy and ours.