As the process of political and economic reform in the socialist world gathers pace, we go to press with this edition of Social Scientist carrying the second instalment of a set of papers on the subject, which were presented at a seminar held early this year. Though the effort at economic reform in the socialist countries is not altogether new and can be traced at least as far back as the early 1960s, the current wave of change is remarkable for its pace, its spread and the fact that it has touched on questions relating to the political organisation of socialist societies. The significance of this development for the idea of socialism itself is the concern of Sudipta Kaviraj's paper, which starts with the premise that the project called Perestroika is primarily political. It argues that the principal fall-out of that project is that it shows up the undertheorisation of power in socialist theory, which while coming to terms with the question of State and revolution under capitalism, has paid far less attention to the formulation of the potential problems of power under socialism. Seen in that light, the reforms under way implicitly raise a fundamental question: whether the form of State that emerged under Stalin in the Soviet Union was contingent upon the circumstaces of the time (in particular the encirclement and threat to the first socialist State) or the necessary form of State under socialism. Kaviraj himself suggests that, while the social formation in the Soviet Union is socialist and should continue, the form of State should change in the interests of socialism. The conditions of the time demand an escape from absolutism. This would necessarily involve inducting elements of 'liberalism* into the political order, where liberalism is seen as 'a way of organising discourse which appears to be integrally connected to modernity*.
Needless to say, Kaviraj's argument has an intrinsic appeal, for, by implicitly delineating the 'historical necessity* of both the absolutist State and its subsequent dissolution, it absolves the spectator of the obligation to judge either phenomenon. But judge we must, contends Rajeev Bhargava in his comment, for that judgement is of relevance to the future course of events both in the Soviet Union and to our own context. And that judgement must not merely assess the degree to which the State form built up during the seventy years since the Bolshevik revolution tallies with the Marxist-Leninist conception of the State under socialism, but also, whether the induction of elements of 'liberalism* would take it closer to an ideal in the making.
In fact, the term liberalism, inasmuch as it echoes an understanding that gives priority to private benefit, subjectively perceived, is not without problems. And those problems assume significance when seen in the light of the direction taken by the process of economic reform in many socialist countries. At the core of those reforms is the view that