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`Convergence' Revisited

Change brings American-Soviet similarities, but change has hazards

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BACK in the 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev began to de-Stalinize, some American scholars advanced a theory that Soviet and Western societies would ultimately become somewhat similar. They called it the theory of convergence. Mr. Khrushchev failed, and the theory was quickly hooted down. What! - the Kremlin turn toward democracy? The United States accept socialist ideas? Ridiculous! Weren't we sworn enemies? One carried a banner labeled ``communism,'' the other carried a banner labeled ``free enterprise.'' Both labels were misleading. The Soviet Union wasn't communist, even by its own theory. And capitalism wasn't always enterprising - or free.

There were indeed deep differences, especially differences between democracy and dictatorship. But instead of focusing on those distinctions, many of us closed our eyes to the thought that socialism could possibly become democratic or that capitalism could include dictatorships. We preferred handy, if careless, labels, equating the economic with the political system.

Let me make a prediction: The convergence theory is going to make a comeback.

I need hardly describe the swift changes going on in the Eastern bloc. Read the headlines.

Our own society also has changed more than we realize. The most drastic changes started during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Just as Mikhail Gorbachev is now experimenting with reforms, borrowing ideas from our society, so President Roosevelt experimented with reforms in the '30s, adapting practices from other nations.

President Roosevelt and his successors introduced social security and government intervention in the economy. Rural electrification - which had been a dream of Lenin. Public works. Public housing. Government grants for education and the arts. State insurance for banks, and state control over their solvency - more or less. Government insurance of home mortgages and student loans. Health insurance. We are discovering day care for working mothers. And so on and on.

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