BY ONE MEASURE at least, Mikhail Gorbachev's program of economic reform has been a roaring success. He has gotten not only a good number of Russians but also a large corps of foreign observers to identify him as the good guy and the Soviet Union's "enormous and entrenched bureaucracy" as the villain. No doubt some of the foreign analysis rests on a superficial analogy made to the leader-vs.-bureaucracy struggle in democratic countries, what has become a white-hats-vs.-black-hats struggle in the public mind. From their own recent experience, after all, Americans can appreciate the political considerations that induce a new chief executive to campaign against the permanent bureaucracy. Presidents Carter and Reagan ran "against Washington." Mr. Gorbachev runs "against Moscow." But there is a difference: the purpose has been to mobilize a larger constituency behind the leader's initiatives. The drama in the Soviet context is that the larger constituency -- the Soviet public -- is a stranger in the role.
Having talked up reform for two years, Mr. Gorbachev took a program to the Central Committee the other day. The results suggest that it is still an uphill battle. He got the Central Committee to add some of his people to the Politburo, but none of the doubters on the Politburo lost their places. Major reform decrees were accepted, but not all of them, and issues of moving from decree to deed lie ahead. Mr. Gorbachev conceded that so far his urgings have had only "insignificant" effects. Now he seeks to advance from exhortation to institutional change. A leading adviser added that to effect such change by evolutionary methods wouldn't work: "radical" steps are required. Radical steps guarantee resistance.
Many Westerners cheer Soviet reform on. Liberals see it as a force to soften the system and sharpen appetites for consumerism, democracy and de'tente. Conservatives see validation of the superiority of free enterprise. Nobody is much of a mind to rain on the parade by suggesting that, with the results of reform, the Kremlin could just as easily become a more unrelenting global competitor.
A prior question, however, has to preoccupy Mr. Gorbachev. Is it feasible for a ruling Communist Party to expect that, by decrees formally redistributing powers within the economy, it can unleash grass-roots and individual initiative while still retaining central political control? Not just the fate of the bureaucracy -- the designated bad guy -- is at stake, but the whole nature of the Soviet system. What Mr. Gorbachev has set out to do is very bold, and the historical odds are against him