MOSCOW, AFTER ATTACKING the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade for years as an instrument of Western economic imperialism, formally asked to take part in the new GATT round of multilateral trade talks that is scheduled to begin next year as a possible first step toward applying to join GATT.

The United States government voiced a quick negative response. In our opinion the response was too quick and too negative.It's apparent that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is attempting to bring about radical changes in the Soviet economy, including its trade relations with other nations. On Aug. 16, the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda published a Politburo decision approving "a complex of measures aimed at improving foreign economic relations and widening the rights of different ministries, factories and other organizations to conduct foreign economic activity.

Several communist countries are GATT participants and China is applying for membership in the 38-year-old trade promoting organization. There have been problems. Prolonged efforts to get Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania to adapt their trading systems to GATT's rules have failed. Mixing free market and centrally planned trading systems "is like mixing chocolate with cheese, a GATT official told Felix Dearden, our Geneva correspondent.

Many GATT members, led by the United States, are reluctant to allow non- members to take part in GATT activities without committing themselves to reform of their trade transactions in keeping with GATT free trade rules. The Soviets do not have non-tariff barriers, such as import barriers, as bargaining chips to obtain GATT membership. Tariffs play a minor role in pricing imports in centrally planned countries.

There is also the problem that the Soviet Union might be interested in joining GATT merely to disrupt it. Its performance in the United Nations would not disabuse one of that opinion.

However, what if Mr. Gorbachev is sincere? What if he has concluded, along with the Chinese, that a purely socialist economy does not work? What if he realizes that to be efficient, a national economic system requires some allowance for personal economic incentive? Personal greed has been around a long time. What if he has grudgingly decided it is high time that the Soviet Union take advantage of this human trait rather than suppressing it?

We recommend that, with caution and care, the GATT begin accession negotiations with the Soviet Union. We're certain this will cause some problems for the United States. But things are not that good with the 91 other members of GATT either.

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