ON THE EVE of the Kremlin's party congress, the Western sky was full of predictions that Mikhail Gorbachev would be leading the Soviet Union toward "Khrushchevism without Khrushchev" -- a reference to the modest non- structural reforms that Nikita Khrushchev talked up but did not succeed in making 20 years ago. As it moves toward its end this week, however, the congress may be endorsing something closer to "Brezhnevism without Brezhnev." In an unmistakable allusion, Mr. Gorbachev suggested that Leonid Brezhnev had been guided by "a peculiar psychology -- how to improve things without changing anything." But what is Mr. Gorbachev himself changing now?
True, there is a certain new openness of style. Mr. Gorbachev has found it politically profitable to run, in effect, against Moscow, against the bureaucrats, against the apparatus over which he presides. His method, however, is not so much reform as discipline: more criticism, harder work, less corruption, less drinking. Heads are rolling, and there is a strong hint that the ruling class of party elite cannot take its privileges (ensured job tenure, special stores, access to foreign delights, etc.) for granted.
The reform settled upon turns out to be cautious and tentative. There is a bit of jiggling, but nothing faintly resembling the loosening up that is familiar now both in Eastern Europe and in China. The emphasis of the congress has been on finding the capacity for growth in "reserves" that are not now being fully tapped -- the Soviet counterpart of fraud, waste and abuse. Joseph Stalin created the modern Soviet economy more than a half-century ago -- rigidly centralized under party control. Mikhail Gorbachev remains, in that sense, a Stalinist.
It should come as no surprise that the Soviet Union remains a deeply conservative societ. In recent years, nonetheless, there has been a tendency in the West to form up a cheering squad for Soviet reform. The hints of change detected inside the system have often been received outside as harbingers of far-reaching transformation. It is as though the ideological pleasure in seeing Moscow turn to the market would somehow compensate for the Soviet Union's thereby becoming more successful, more competitive and perhaps even more aggressive.
Mikhail Gorbachev's Russia has an appearance of new energy to it. No doubt there is much slack to be taken up by making the existing system work more efficiently. As for authentic reform, however, the party congress has committed the country to rather less than has met the Western eye.