President Mikhail S. Gorbachev urged the Soviet Communist Party on Thursday to abandon the Marxist ideology under which it seized power in the name of the proletariat and ruled for nearly three-quarters of a century and instead to transform itself into a modern political party promoting social democracy and a free-market economy.
Calling upon fellow Communists to rid themselves of "ossified dogmas," Gorbachev bluntly told a Kremlin meeting of the party's Central Committee that, without such dramatic changes in the party's basic philosophy, its disintegration would accelerate and the country's political and economic crisis would deepen.
The ideas that Gorbachev outlined in his presentation of a draft of the new party program were all essential elements of perestroika, as his reforms are known--a mixed economy based on market forces rather than central planning, the encouragement of private entrepreneurship, and political pluralism with a multi-party parliamentary system.
What was of crucial importance, however, was Gorbachev's call to the party as its leader to recognize the ultimate failure of Soviet socialism as a political and economic system, to cast aside the Marxist-Leninist principles on which it was based and even to go back, as it were, into the party's history to correct fundamental errors it had made decades ago.
The party should recognize, Gorbachev said, that a market economy does not necessarily bring the exploitation of workers, that "class struggle" and the "dictatorship of the proletariat" are concepts so outdated as to be fatally flawed and that developments through the 20th Century have "made the achievement of revolutionary goals possible through gradual reform."
"Socialism and the market are not just compatible--they are inseparable," Gorbachev said, according to a text of his speech released later by the official Soviet news agency Tass. "What a monstrous price we have had to pay in adhering to doctrinaire positions, for our limitless faith in ideological axioms and myths."
Gorbachev's hourlong report drew immediate protests from a number of the 27 speakers who followed, according to Pyotr K. Luchinsky, a party secretary, who told a press conference later that the debate had frequently been sharp and Gorbachev's leadership criticized.
"If we speak about the concept of the program, this is a significant departure from Marxism, even from a radically renewed one," Alexander N. Maltsev, the party first secretary in Nizhny Novgorod, the industrial city formerly known as Gorky, told Russian Television. "The program is based on vague social democratic positions."
Boris D. Gidaspov, the Leningrad party leader, said in another television interview that the ideological changes proposed by Gorbachev would turn the party into "something vague and amorphous--this is impermissible."
And Alexander Buzgalin, a prominent Marxist theoretician, complained that the program presented by Gorbachev "refers to communism in the spirit of a tombstone epitaph--'You were beautiful, and we will cherish your memory in our hearts forever.' "
In proposing a special party congress for later this year, Gorbachev may have deflected much of the harshest conservative attacks, for the congress will be able to deal with all issues--including Gorbachev's possible replacement as the party's general secretary.
"The point at issue is essentially an all-party discussion, and its course will largely determine the fate of the party and, therefore, prospects for reform and the destiny of the country," Gorbachev said.
Despite the conservative criticism, Luchinsky and other party officials said that Gorbachev appeared assured of majority support today, when the Central Committee votes on whether to put the draft program forward to the whole party for debate and to schedule a party congress to consider it further. Another Central Committee meeting is already scheduled for September to plan the congress.
As Gorbachev outlined the changes proposed in the draft of the new party program, it was clear that the only aspect of communism that would remain would be in the party name--and Gorbachev said there should be a referendum on whether to return to its earlier names of "socialist" or "social democrat."
Acknowledging that "communism" is barely mentioned in the 23-page program and is no longer set out as the party's goal, Gorbachev said, "Our experience and that of others does not provide any grounds to believe that this goal is realistically achievable in the foreseeable future."
"The Communist ideal used to be and still remains an attractive landmark," he added, but he could say no more in its defense.
Although his speech was primarily devoted more to ideas than to action, Gorbachev knew he was provoking a debate with party conservatives who have fought, slowed and sometimes blocked his reforms--and he made clear that he is ready to see them leave the party rather than compromise perestroika further.
"There are forces in the party that have openly declared war on (perestroika), " he said, denouncing conservatives in the new Bolshevik Platform and the Communist Initiative who accuse him of "a betrayal of socialism."
"These forces put into doubt all the party's current policies. . . ," Gorbachev said.
"The resignation by movements that are opposed to that strategic course and violate party rules will only strengthen the party."
Gorbachev dismissed many of his critics as "representatives of Communist fundamentalism who are unable to break out of the circle of dogmatic concepts."
But the party, which now numbers just 15 million members, down 4.2 million from a year and a half ago, did not immediately split into rival factions, as had been widely predicted in the Soviet press.
"The party is living through a crisis, perhaps the most acute of its entire history," Gorbachev said. "The process of renovation proceeds slowly and painfully."
The party that he envisioned largely resembles the social democratic parties of Europe, and Gorbachev said that the decades-old differences between Communists, with their dedication to revolution, and social democrats, promoting change through reform, should be forgotten as no longer correct--if it ever was.
In a similarly sweeping change, Gorbachev proposed that the basis of party membership be changed so that members would no longer be required to be active in party organizations but could support it in other ways and differ with its declared policies if they chose.
"A member of the party has the right to express his own views freely, to be an atheist or (religious) believer, and by his own choice, either to work in a party organization or render assistance to the party in other ways," Gorbachev said.
He acknowledged: "We are abandoning precepts characteristic for the party in its early stages, when it was getting ready for revolutionary battles and was therefore formed as an organization with rigid discipline and a military structure."
Gorbachev also admitted the party's guilt "for failing to put barriers before tyrannical power and allowing itself to be used as an instrument of totalitarianism."
Although Gorbachev was largely reiterating points he had made a year ago to the party congress and even three years ago to a special party conference, there was steel in his words as he warned his comrades against any retreat from the course of reforms.
"It would be suicidal if we once again allow our determination to waver and we stop halfway," he said. "There can be no other solution, for the party and the country, than to press on, deepening reforms and establishing a new, pragmatic model of social relations."
He compared the situation now to that in 1928, when the dictator Josef V. Stalin, faced with the refusal by peasants to sell their grain to the state at giveaway prices, sent troops to seize it. Should a similar situation arise, as some commentators warn could happen, he declared his resolve to use only economic incentives, what Stalin had branded the "capitalist road," to resolve the crisis.
In Soviet political terms, this was fair warning from Gorbachev that he does not intend to retreat, as he has before, from the transformation of the country's economy through the introduction of market forces, extensive privatization and the encouragement of entrepreneurship.
Viktor K. Grebenshikov, a reporter in The Times' Moscow Bureau, contributed to this story.