Nearly 150 years ago, Karl Marx wrote of a ``specter of communism haunting Europe.'' In due course, his ``specter'' was to take over half the European continent. But these days, it is the communists' turn to be alarmed by a political spook of a very different sort.
Basically, it is the growing impact in their societies of Western ideas and influences, which have been an acknowledged problem for the Soviet Union's allies in Eastern Europe for many years and are apparently now beginning to worry the Soviet establishment as well.
It was not, therefore, such a shock when at the start of the year, the new China seemed almost to be doing a U-turn on its post-Mao reforms in response to a specter of ``bourgeois liberalism'' and Western influences, which, according to Peking, were taking the reform off course.
A U-turn has since been denied. The Communist Party dismissals, academic purges, and a general return to ideological orthodoxy are explained as disciplinary measures intended for party members and the Army, not for the nation at large. Nonetheless, the campaign against the supposed ``pollution'' of Western ideas continues.
Such alarm is not new. Communist regimes clinging to single-party power have run scared at this kind of thing ever since Josip Broz Tito's heretical break with Joseph Stalin in 1948.
The Yugoslav party, Stalin said at that time, had abdicated its ``leading role''; under the Titoists, Yugoslavia was degenerating into an ``ordinary bourgeois republic.''
Those are the issues that, in essence, lie at the heart of Peking's current concerns. And the same issues could come to the fore within the framework of Mikhail Gorbachev's plan to reform the Soviet Union.
In the past, ``reform'' - with the exception of Yugoslavia - was usually forced on communist governments initally by sheer economic need. It was accompanied by cautious ``democratization,'' which, though superficial, obviously was preferable to what had gone before. Political ``liberalization,'' however, was never permitted to weaken the communists' own ideological vision of ``democracy.''
Yugoslavia was able to advance further than any other communist country because of its new independence from Moscow which (1) ensured firm popular support for Tito and ultimately (2) Western assistance.
Even so, Tito quickly called his deputy, Milovan Djilas, to account when Mr. Djilas challenged the reform line established in 1952 and said that the communists had reached their aims and should loosen control. It was one thing to use Marxist rhetoric about the ``clash of ideas'' and the party ``withering away'' once ``socialism'' was established, but something else to jump the gun and behave as though the socialist Utopia was near. Djilas was - as Tito charged with some truth - ``pushing on an open door'' and seeking to move the country too far, too fast.
Later on, the same thing happened in Eastern Europe whenever ``reform'' was taken up - in Hungary and Poland in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in 1980.
Tito, being reform-minded, wholly approved of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against a Stalinist leadership. Although he did not approve of the Soviet intervention to crush the revolt, he agreed with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that there was no other option.
The same pattern recurred in Poland in 1956 (when the limits to party chief Wladyslaw Gomulka's reform were quickly exposed), in Czechoslovakia with the 1968 Prague Spring, and again in Poland with the crushing of the independent trade union Solidarity in 1981. In each instance, the reformers and their ``Western ideas'' radically - and fatally - challenged the party's ``leading role.''
Yugoslavia could still develop into a pleasantly ``liberalized'' country whose citizens were as free as any in the West to travel and enjoy life styles more or less of their own choosing. But the reform process long ago reached its limits.
The popular mood demands a more genuinely democratic society, real pluralism and, above all, ``accountability'' on the part of the government.
But the more open Yugoslav party is no more minded than the Soviet or Chinese parties to accept any real power sharing. That may be hard-line thinking, but it is still strong enough in Yugoslavia to block necessary change within the system itself.
Some of the East Europeans have opened parliamentary elections to plural candidatures. Mr. Gorbachev proposes something like that for the Soviet Union. But he has also made clear that - as recent experience in Poland and Hungary has shown - no matter how many candidates there are, the party will see to it there is no direct challenge at the polls to its essential hold on power. Peking, too, is out to ``improve'' the system, to make it more responsive to modern needs, but not to change it.
For the foreseeable future, ``pluralism'' is going to be what Gorbachev and his fellow communist leaders think it should be: better-informed public debate and more participation, but always strictly under the cloak of the party.
The author witnessed and reported all the major upheavals in postwar Eastern Europe from the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia and Tito's break with Moscow in 1948 to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Soviet intervention of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1980-81 martial-law crisis in Poland.