NO ONE looking closely at the non-communist world can gloat over the economic travails evident in, say, Poland, the Soviet Union and China. Certainly, there are no grounds for believing that the answer for communists in trouble is to go down the very same capitalist path the West has taken. Capitalism's limitations notwithstanding, however, it remains striking that when communist command economies founder, pressures mount to seek an essentially capitalist way out. This involves giving or forcing choice upon people, whether producers or consumers, at levels below the top.
Whether Poland will have a real chance to test that idea is the urgent question. The replacement of party leader Edward Gierek, who rose on the strength of his experience dealing with the economy, by Stanislaw Kania, who worked his way up through the security apparatus, is not at first glance encouraging. Even before the current crisis, it should be noted, Poland had done the "easy" reforms of sanctioning private farms and importing foreign capital. Ahead lie the tough ones: creating the institutions -- independent trade unions -- underlying decentralized decision-making, and running them in ways respectful of Poland's harrowing economic difficulties.
The Soviet Union, with its relatively ample cushion of resources and its constraint of ideology, has only flirted with the decentralizing idea. Schemes to improve efficiency by delegating investment and consumption decisions have been floated for decades but have been seen as threats to tradition and party control, and have been largely rejected. Now it is five-year-plan-making time in Moscow, and again such schemes are in the air. It would be a surprise, however, if the Kremlin broke with its past policy of easing the pressure for such domestic reform by importing technology and capital from the West.
In China, the leading advocate of reform, party vice chairman Deng Xiaoping, seems to have further consolidated his political position. This has enabled him to shuffle some (but not all) bodies, to continue pursuing foreign capital, technology "and management," and to push ahead with programs that reward people who perform well in the economy. Mr. Deng, who cleverly styles himself a "layman" in economic matters, is plainly aware of the twin hazards -- for a Chinese leader -- of leaning too far to the "capitalist road" and of increasing dependence on foreign sources. But China's poverty and the Soviet Union's hostility drive him on.
Somebody looked at the gorgeous gardens at Versailles and said, "It's great what God can do with a little money." That is to say: sysytem isn't everything; resources count, too. But system is something. The communist system is not working well these days, and the solution recommended most by members of it who are trying to improve things is to look at the capitalist way.