PARIS. — Paris -- The time has arrived to say a respectful word about Mikhail Gorbachev.
His struggle to maintain a union of the Soviet successor states has been inextricably entangled with his attempt to keep personal power. He has not been an easy man, but a devious and determined one, and his story is not over. Nothing in this will surprise those interested in what the historians of an earlier day (the term now is unfashionable) called ''great men.''
Is Mikhail Gorbachev a great man? I would say, first, that while great men are not the same as good men, moral vision is what characterizes the greatest of great men. Mikhail Gorbachev has given no evidence of a moral vision to compare with that of the Lincolns or de Gaulles or Churchills (even conceding that Lincoln in his time was thought an ignorant backwoodsman, and de Gaulle and Churchill thought adventurers and opportunists).
Yet Mr. Gorbachev's claim to greatness is a moral one, in that he has had the courage to do what every member of his generation of the Soviet ruling apparatus and intelligentsia knew had to be done, but none had attempted. He did, and succeeded.
He and they had understood that the system was politically rotten, morally corrupt, incapable of providing a just society or of running an industrial economy to compete with the West. He acted upon this understanding, and by doing so made it possible for all the rest to act.
I was in Rome recently at a meeting with Georgi Arbatov, head of the U.S.A. and Canada Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and a prominent reformer. A Pole who was with us remarked that ''no one'' in Poland had ever taken Communist doctrinal pretensions seriously (an exaggeration, by the way). Mr. Arbatov replied coldly, ''In the Soviet Union we did not have the luxury of not taking communism seriously."
He went on to say that the social damage has been so profound that more than a half-century after the deepest wounds were inflicted on Soviet society, they are still unhealed, and it will be years before a complete recovery is imaginable.
However, the fact that we today can talk about recovery at all is the result of what has been done by Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates.
First, they told the truth about the Soviet Union's present situation; and then they began to tell the truth about the past. This made it possible for others to speak, so that by now the Soviet press, historians, writers and officials have described and documented much of a period as terrible in its scale of horror as in its detail of murders casually committed, its meaningless tortures and imprisonments.
They have also confronted the compliance and complicity which made this possible.
Nikita Khrushchev had begun the cure. In his blundering way he was an honest man, and at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 he told the truth about Stalin in his ''secret speech'' (communicated to the East European parties, and soon published in the West). But the other survivors of Stalinism deposed him and closed down the truth-telling for another quarter-century.
Nonetheless, Khrushchev made Gorbachev possible -- Khrushchev and the foundering of the system. It became a question of truth and reform, or sink.
Obviously Mikhail Gorbachev has wanted a happy ending as well. He wanted a reformed and still powerful U.S.S.R., or ''Union of Sovereign States.'' He wanted the ''ideals'' of communism preserved, against the ''errors'' which were to be abandoned.
Instead, of course, he has presided over the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union and Soviet system -- and has had the courage to see it through.
Now he finds his own place somewhere in the rubble. In recent weeks his phones have not answered; the buttons on his desk are no longer connected; the journalists want to talk with Boris Yeltsin and the new leaders of Byelarus and Ukraine.
He and his associates are yesterday's men. Power is gone from his circle. Mr. Arbatov had the air of a man who has played his hand and lost, and was in for lack of anything serious to do at home.
A friend of mine once predicted, half-seriously, that Mr. Gorbachev would end his days in a condominium in Florida.
I think he is too tough for that. Even forced out of power he will consider himself, as the French put it, ''in reserve for the republic'' (provided that a republic survives).
He may still have a future. He is not scrupulous in his methods and people will tire of the failures of the new ''commonwealth'' of Slavic states and their leaders. And there will, of course, be a great many failures. There may be little else.
For now, one must say that while all that has happened had eventually to happen, the fact that it has thus far come about peacefully, humanely, we owe to Mikhail Gorbachev and the people around him.
So, in the peasant phrase: Bread and peace to him.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.