MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said Saturday that the Soviet Union's constitution could be revised to remove a clause proclaiming the Communist Party as the leading force in society as the country proceeds with the overall restructuring of its political system.
But Gorbachev, speaking to an important, daylong meeting of the party's policy-making Central Committee, said that a campaign under way to force such a change immediately is aimed at "demoralizing Communists" and must be opposed.
Gorbachev, whose policies came under sharp attack by party conservatives during the meeting, said that the present constitution, adopted in 1977, would be extensively revised as a result of his reforms and that some articles may be dropped.
"This applies fully to Article 6," Gorbachev said, referring to the controversial clause declaring the party to be "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system."
Such a move would take the Soviet Union well beyond the "political pluralism" that has developed under Gorbachev and most likely lead it into a multi-party political system.
But the party is not yet ready for such a break with 70 years of Soviet political practice and the consequent upheaval here, Gorbachev said.
Gorbachev, attempting to move ahead but at a speed with which he could keep most of the 250-member Central Committee with him, argued that "there is no sense in speeding up the process now" of writing a new constitution for the country.
Efforts should be focused first on developing a new political, economic and social system, he said, signaling another acceleration of the reform process begun when he assumed power nearly five years ago.
"A new constitution should not be created before the outlines of a renewal social mechanism, a procedure for cooperation between political forces, principles for the building and function of the economic system and guarantees for the exercise of civil rights are more or less clearly determined," Gorbachev said, according to a partial account of his remarks provided by the official news agency Tass.
"Under the conditions of the democratic process developing in the country and the renewal of the Communist Party, this article in itself does not create any obstacles to a free holding of elections," he added, recalling the parliamentary elections here last spring and the republic elections that will begin shortly.
The party is also engaged in "a wide-ranging dialogue with all social forces that champion a renewal of society," he said. The debate over the party's emerging role will be a central theme at the party congress planned for next October, and preliminary but broad discussions are already under way. The party Central Committee voted to hold an expanded meeting on this and related issues next month.
The debate over the party's role, as reflected in Gorbachev's comments, stems not only from developments here but also the rapid changes in Eastern Europe in recent months. Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland all have ended the monopoly on power that Communists there had inherited from the Soviet Union.
On Thursday, the Soviet Baltic republic of Lithuania became the first of the country's 15 constituent republics to drop the constitutional guarantee of Communist power and approve a multi-party political system. Estonia, Latvia and Armenia are preparing to follow.
Gorbachev, however, said that the Soviet party's leadership "firmly adheres to the Leninist concept of a vanguard party."
"We regard the Communist Party as a consolidating and uniting force and as the guarantor of a revolutionary renewal of the land of the Soviets, the maintenance of and the increase of its power and the enhancement of its international prestige," he said.
The party will work against all attempts "at belittling the importance of the party or at undermining its prestige among the working people," he added.
Addressing Algirdas Brazauskas, the Lithuanian party's first secretary, Gorbachev called upon him to abandon plans to create an independent Lithuanian party, warning that the federalization of the centrally led Soviet party would have "destructive consequences."
"We should be on guard against crossing the border beyond which there is a danger of destroying the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as a united political organization and as the most important integrating force of the Soviet Union," Gorbachev declared.
Vadim A. Medvedev, the party's chief ideologist, also indicated that the party would be willing to give up its constitutionally guaranteed monopoly on power and fight for popular support in elections to vindicate its leading role in the country.
The 20-million-member party, which has held power since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, could now envision a situation where it would become "a force developing policies and then fighting for support from the voters," Medvedev said.
"In general terms, we are not clinging to Article 6 in the form in which it is included in the constitution," he said. "It is not our point that it must be kept there at any cost. . . . Some of the wording of the current Article 6 clashes with new plans for the party's development."
The party intends, he said, to continue to "move away from being the guiding nucleus of the whole government structure to becoming a political vanguard," yielding day-to-day management of the government and economy and focusing on political leadership and mobilization.
The widening debate here over changing the party's legal status--a topic too sensitive to be discussed publicly even a year ago--is now addressed in the press and on radio and television as a result of glasnost , the policy of openness adopted under Gorbachev.
But Medvedev, a member of the party's ruling Politburo as well as its secretary for ideology, said that the party is opposed to such a fundamental shift at the present time, seeking other changes in the Soviet political system first.
"This is not a taboo subject," Medvedev said of the question of the party's role in society. "The Politburo and Central Committee are not afraid of discussing Article 6, but whether it is politically expedient to take it up and discuss it at this time is doubtful."
Like Gorbachev, he said there is strong conviction within the party leadership against immediate constitutional changes, as well as the feeling that this is an issue that the party's critics are using against it.
"We do not have to act under the pressure of emotion," Medvedev said, criticizing the call by Andrei D. Sakharov, the human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace laureate, and four other radical members of the Congress of People's Deputies for a symbolic, two-hour "warning strike" on Monday to force discussion of the issue by the deputies when they meet in the Kremlin on Tuesday.
The party leadership is also coming under mounting pressure from conservatives, Medvedev said, recounting the often sharp criticism by Central Committee members of the Politburo and its policies.
"The criticism boiled down to this--we should act more resolutely, we should keep abreast of events, we should not lose the initiative in perestroika ," Medvedev said at a late-evening press conference.
"We should take those criticisms into account. They were specific and correct comments reflecting the exacerbated situation in the country and the need for fast progress."
He added that the leadership has also been criticized for undertaking so many changes so quickly that local party organizations had trouble following the ever-changing political and ideological course set in Moscow.
Much of the criticism, however, came from "conservatives and dogmatics" who contended that "all the trouble we have now comes from perestroika , and perestroika is an idea imported from the West," Medvedev said.
"Our economic difficulties encourage people to think we lived always happily and carefree until 1985, when we stirred up a hornets' nest and are now feeling the results. Of course, there were erroneous decisions, but I believe the troubles came from the past, from the period of stagnation (in the 1960s and '70s) or even earlier."
These and other issues will be debated further, Medvedev said, when the Central Committee reconvenes for an expanded meeting next month to discuss the party's proposed platform before most of the republican elections and the party congress planned for October.
In other action, the committee voted to re-establish a leadership bureau for the Communist Party in the Russian Federation, the largest of the country's 15 constituent republics, and appointed Gorbachev to head it.
But several leading conservatives were included in the 14 other members, and Medvedev's explanation of the need for the new body made it clear that its focus will be the concerns of Russian nationalists.
The committee at the same time promoted the new Ukrainian party chief, Vladimir Ivashko, to the ruling Politburo, which now has 12 full members and seven non-voting members. Ivan T. Frolov, a close Gorbachev adviser and the new editor of Pravda, the party newspaper, was promoted to secretary of the party's Central Committee.