The word “reform” has been devalued by overuse, both in the writing of Western journalists and scholars and in the rhetoric of Communist leaders. In Lenin’s day, “reformism” was the ultimate transgression for Communists: now it is their saving grace. In Western usage, the term has been pressed into service to describe everything from a mere adjustment of economic policy to a fundamental transformation of the system, political as well as economic.
What are the reformers in Poland and Hungary today trying to reform, and why are they trying to reform it? A rather clear answer is given in a remarkable private memorandum leaked earlier this year. It is the work of Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, who has just become Poland’s new prime minister. Poland, he says, has been living through an economic, social, and political “crisis” (another devalued word!) since 1980, and arguably since 1976. The Polish crisis is sui generis, but “we should not forget that basically symptoms of crisis are becoming apparent in all socialist countries.” “Not only Poland,” he writes,
but most socialist countries are threatened with relegation to the position of countries incapable of keeping up with the revolution of technological development in capitalism.
If one could transport a capitalist society into our everyday reality, it would very soon rise up in a revolutionary struggle.
But not only a capitalist society. For “due to the development of the mass media, the societies of our countries can ‘peer into’ the everyday life of the masses under capitalism.” The conclusion is drawn a few pages later. If the socialist “formation” does not find the strength to reform itself, Rakowski writes, “the further history of our formation will be marked by shocks and revolutionary explosions, initiated by an increasingly enlightened people.”
Well, exactly. Allowing for some slight differences of terminology, this could almost be an academic analysis for the CIA. Yet this is a text by a man who is not only a Politburo member, but who, according to informed rumor, became a Politburo member on the strength of this text. Private statements by Hungarian Politburo members reflect an equally striking realism in the diagnosis of the disease—although neither they nor Rakowski are half so realistic in prescribing the cure. In other words, some men in power see the reality of decay, and the prospect of growing relative backwardness, which I sketched in the first of these articles. They also see that if they do not do something drastic to modernize their economies, their own people will unkindly invite them to leave the stage. A younger generation, better educated, better informed, relatively unafraid, looking to Gorbachev in the East and the European Community in the West, will just not be kidded by fatuous ideology, paper patriotism, or more promises of jam tomorrow.
What the reformers want to reform is thus, in the first place, the economy. Now there is, of course, a more than thirty-year history of attempts at economic reform in …