WE had grown so used to a monolithic Soviet press that it's still a little jarring to see Pravda and another state-published newspaper lock horns. But maybe we'd better get used to it. Last week Pravda aimed a full-page editorial at an article in Sovietskaya Rossiya, official paper of the Russian Republic, written by an obscure university lecturer from Leningrad. She had raised broad concerns about the reforms begun by Mikhail Gorbachev, lamenting unbridled public debate, modernization in the arts, loss of party discipline, and the denigration of Stalin, to name a few complaints.
Pravda saw her article as an anti-perestroika manifesto. Its stern rebuke of those who would revert to the ``old thinking'' was said to have been penned or authorized by a top Politburo ally of Mr. Gorbachev. The editorial called it ``improper'' for a publication to give space to views like those held by the Leningrad academic. Such views work against reform and progress, Pravda intoned - indicating again that glasnost, or openness, may have its government-defined limits.
Still, this kind of journalistic contentiousness is something not seen since the Soviet Union's earliest days. As the editor of Moscow News, one of the country's more liberal papers, put it, ``Glasnost and debate are something so new to us that sometimes it gives us a headache.''
Beneath the printed skirmishes rumbles a massive struggle to shape the Soviet economy into something it's never been: a productive, efficient operation. Gorbachev has been promoting perestroika, or economic restructuring, for a number of years now. Results so far are slim. Last year the USSR had its slowest economic growth of any year since World War II, save one. The stage was set by this, as well as discontent in some quarters over the planned pullout from Afghanistan, for a potshot at Gorbachev.
Quickened action on Afghanistan and other diplomatic fronts probably reflect the Soviet leader's desire to clear his decks and concentrate on the domestic economy. Gorbachev's surest way of fending off critics, certainly, is to show real gains in output and efficiency. That would indicate his ``new socialism'' indeed has a future.
Meanwhile, he can rebuff the ``go slow'' crowd with assertions that the old ways compiled an indisputably miserable record. Evidence of the need for reform - from stories of bureaucratic ineptitude to choking air pollution in some industrial centers - may pop up in the Soviet press with added frequency. Gorbachev needs to build all the pro-perestroika momentum he can muster.