While conservative and liberal Soviet Communists fight about their nation's future and voices are even heard saying that what is really needed here is a good dose of capitalism, an American Communist who has lived 12 years in Moscow cautions hard-liners not to resist change and reformers not to reject socialism entirely.
"Notwithstanding the very serious problems they face and their history, their previous backwardness and the fact that they never had a democratic system," said Michael Davidow, "I nevertheless still feel it (socialism) is a way of life that is in many ways superior and more humane than our own."
Davidow, 77, became a Communist while battling social injustices during the Depression years in Brooklyn. He struggled to prevent evictions of unemployed workers from their homes, went on hunger strikes and organized marches. Later on, during the witch hunts inspired by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Davidow left his family, changed his name and went underground for four years to avoid arrest.
Like many others during the 1930s, Davidow was attracted by the full employment, low rent and free health care in the Soviet Union. In the United States, practically no welfare system existed at that time, and Davidow credits the Soviet example with helping President Franklin D. Roosevelt design the New Deal.
But after arriving in the Soviet Union in 1969 to start the first of two tours of duty as Moscow correspondent for the Daily World, the newspaper of the American Communist Party, Davidow began to realize that communism, Soviet-style, was not all that he had imagined it to be.
He found that the home of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had become a society burdened by top-level corruption, where the party bosses feasted on caviar and Champagne and were chauffeured around in limousines.
Despite his disenchantment with the way communism was being implemented here, and years of shopping in Moscow's empty stores, Davidow has kept his faith. In the last several months, he has been publishing articles in Pravda, the Communist Party daily, and Soviet Russia, another conservative newspaper, that outline his ideas for saving the Soviet economy without dumping socialism.
The articles have been quoted frequently, especially by conservatives, in the debates at the Communist Party congress now under way in the Kremlin.
"Some people say I understand their country better than they do," said Davidow, commenting on the mail that the newspapers receive in reaction to his articles.
This is still a country where rent costs less than one-tenth of the average wage, medical care is free and unemployment is relatively low, Davidow said.
His attempts to remind people of the good parts of socialism come at a time when formerly heretical notions such as market economies are being discussed at what used to be simply gatherings of the faithful.
Today's Communist Party Congress, he said, "is a struggle between those who want to correct the revolution of 1917 and those who want to reject it."
Unlike the hard-liners, who are calling for a retreat to the old days, Davidow says it is natural for a socialist system to undergo perestroika ; in fact, the father of modern socialism predicted it.
"Karl Marx long ago pointed out, 'A revolution corrects itself again and again,' " Davidow said. "In essence, perestroika is exactly that."
Davidow contends that the majority of the Communists at the congress, like himself, are not pushing for a return to the oppressive system of the past but are trying to find a path out of the current economic mess within the context of socialism.
"If you are going to do capital reconstruction, you have to keep the foundation," he said.
But Davidow worries that many in the Soviet Union are now talking about abandoning the foundation of their society and looking to the West for answers. They should, he said, fix their own system by correcting the inhumane policies of Josef Stalin, Leonid I. Brezhnev and other former leaders now denounced as traitors to the ideals of socialism.
"People are beginning to lose confidence in the system," Davidow said. "I haven't lost confidence because I don't think that socialism is guilty. I think the leaders of the time were at fault.
"I think some people have become too enamored with Western economists; they don't understand that we have problems of our own."
People have forgotten, he said, that capitalism "exploits the working class" and "favors the elite."
For instance, he said, officers of big corporations earn millions of dollars a year while workers "who make the products their bosses are getting rich on" earn a hundredth of that.
"As I tell young people I meet here, I live in two worlds--I can judge," he said.
Davidow said many Soviet people make a similar mistake when looking at their country because they do not take into consideration Russia's very low level of development before the revolution.
"They compare themselves with the West and not with what they had before," he said.
But Davidow remains confident that, despite the challenges socialism now faces in the Soviet Union, it will not be cast aside as it was in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
"The roots of socialism are so deep here that even though there are threats to it, it will not be uprooted," he said. "It's not like Eastern Europe because the Bolshevik Revolution did not happen in Eastern Europe--it happened here."