When Mikhail S. Gorbachev was chosen to head the Soviet Communist Party four years ago, the country was in a profound economic, political and moral crisis.
Although the Soviet Union ranked second only to the United States as a world power, its economy was in such poor shape that it was unable to feed, clothe or house its 285 million people adequately. A long-stagnant political structure had smothered all earlier attempts to resolve the crisis, and only corruption seemed able to produce results.
Gorbachev's prescription has been radical reform--the restructuring of the country's whole political, economic and social system--and the vast changes now under way across the Soviet Union are breaking the decades-old patterns that the world had come to know as socialism.
In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping assumed the Chinese leadership, his country, too, faced a national crisis of immense proportions in the wake of the calamitous Cultural Revolution there.
More than 100 million people, about a tenth of China's population, were officially reported as near starvation, farmers could not grow enough to feed the cities, urban unemployment was estimated at 28 million out of a work force of 105 million and attempts to spur economic development with big projects and expensive imported equipment had failed.
Deng's approach was also one of radical reform. Freeing the Chinese peasantry from collectivized agriculture and turning both peasants and townspeople into entrepreneurs, he launched the country on the road to "market socialism." In abandoning the radicalism of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Deng promised political stability, economic growth, social progress and international respect.
"Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference as long as it catches mice," Deng had said even before he became the country's top leader, but the quip became the byword of his pragmatic, "whatever works" approach to socialism.
This week's Sino-Soviet summit brings together Deng and Gorbachev, two leaders who already are widely regarded as the great reformers of communism and who, to the extent that their efforts succeed, could rank as pivotal figures in their countries' histories.
"There is a double significance in the Gorbachev-Deng meeting because of their roles in reforming socialism," Roy A. Medvedev, a prominent Soviet historian, said recently. "As a summit, of course, this meeting heals the breach of 30 years, but as a meeting of men engaged in transforming the socialist system, it looks forward, not backward, and it has immense importance for the future."
The crises faced by Deng and Gorbachev, although different in origin and disparate in character, were not just crises of the moment, according to this view, but were crises of the socialist system.
The only solution was what Gorbachev has called perestroika , or restructuring, and what Deng has termed gai ge , or reform, of the whole social system.
Crisis in Socialism
"As Marxists, we are accustomed to speaking about the crisis of capitalism, for this is well established in Marxism," Alexander Bovin, a leading Soviet political commentator, remarked recently. "Yet, here we had a crisis in socialism--not a momentary, ad hoc crisis, something we could muddle through or simply shrug off, but sustained, systemic, structural crises in the world's two largest socialist countries.
"This has been the challenge that, first, the Chinese Communist Party and then our party have had to face . . . and it has become the dialectic and the dynamic of our current political development."
As Marxists, both Bovin and Medvedev believe in historical forces rather than individuals in determining the course of nations--"it is senseless to talk about personalities," Bovin said--but they each recognize Deng and Gorbachev as gifted leaders at turning points for their countries.
"Both we and the Chinese are very dissatisfied with the socialism that we built, and we are changing it," Bovin said. "Who is leading us, Gorbachev or Deng, is less important than the determination of the people. That said, we also must recognize that others might have attempted this change and failed, or not done it as well or, one can suppose, even done it better."
Deng and Gorbachev, however, are already starting to take theirplaces in the list of communism's thinkers and doers who so greatly altered the course of the 20th Century and who created political, economic and social systems under which more than a third of the world's population lives.
First were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, communism's philosophers and theoreticians. Then came the founders of the two largest Communist states, V. I. Lenin in the Soviet Union and Mao Tse-tung in China. And later there were the builders of what today the world knows as socialism--Josef Stalin, Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and, in China, Mao and Chou En-lai.
In seeking to pull their countries out of their crises, Deng and Gorbachev are redefining socialism as a political and economic system and, in the opinion of historian Medvedev, joining those ranks.
There were earlier reform efforts, in Yugoslavia, in Czechoslovakia and in Hungary, that attempted to deal with the structural problems of socialism--the flaws of central planning, the alienation of workers from their jobs, the ascendancy of bureaucrats as a new ruling class--but the changes envisioned in China and the Soviet Union go well beyond these in depth and, most of all, in scope.
Although committed Communists almost their entire lives, both men broke sharply with past orthodoxy in their reform programs to emphasize realism and pragmatism in searching for solutions to their countries' problems.
Both have urged their countrymen to "emancipate your thinking" and "seek truth from facts," in two of Deng's favorite phrases--or as Gorbachev put it recently, "abandon conservatism, abandon dogmatism and forge ahead."
And both have encountered strong opposition from conservatives who accuse them of forsaking the goals their parties fought for and the gains of the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions.
Strikingly alike in their political philosophies, the two leaders differ in background.
Deng, 84, was already active in the Chinese revolution when Gorbachev, 58, was born. The son of a well-to-do landowner in Sichuan province in southwestern China, he had absorbed his first lessons in Marxism-Leninism as a worker-student in France in the early 1920s. When he returned to China--via Moscow for a short study course--Deng became a Communist Party cadre in a career that has now spanned more than five decades as well as several purges for putting results ahead of doctrine.
When Deng assumed the leadership of China in 1978, the country seemed to have emerged from the decade-long Cultural Revolution but lacked any vision of the future. Deng's ideas, described by a colleague at the time as knowing what he did not want more than what he did, became the plan.
Gorbachev, the son and grandson of peasant farmers who became party members after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, was trained as a lawyer at Moscow State University and has worked as a party official since his graduation. He was spotted by Kremlin leaders while working as the party secretary in his native Stavropol region in southern Russia and was brought to Moscow to take charge of agriculture a decade a ago.
Gorbachev, too, has been much firmer on what to change, what to avoid and what not to do rather than on the new political, economic and social structure that he wants.
"We do not have all the answers," the Soviet leader told people during a conversation on the street in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev earlier this year. "We have yet to find solutions to our problems. . . . We are still finding our way in socialism."