PERESTROIKA in the Soviet Union, elections in Poland, student-led uprisings in China. Any one of these issues alone would have branded the decade of the 1980s as an extraordinary period in the relationship of ommunism and democracy. Taken together, they suggest that something global is afoot - that some romethian change is coursing through the world. Why, all at once, this ferment? What is it about our age that invites such a tectonic shift?
Some trace it to technology. Global communications, they say, has rendered borders meaningless. Telephone, radio, and television make it harder than ever to wall off entire populations from the free world's surge of ideas and images. They also make it harder for governments to keep secrets from their citizenries, thus eroding the fear and mystery that fuels tyranny.
Yet technology, at bottom, is a carrier rather than a generator of ideas. What, then, are the underlying ideas pushing forward this global ferment? Yes, technology is carrying the message. But what's the message?
The answer, I think, is succinct: ommunism has failed. Nowhere is that failure more sadly illustrated than in a fact that has received surprisingly little publicity in the estern world: the level of poverty in the Soviet Union. For decades the West could only guess at it. In the past year, however, the Soviets themselves have made known a startling fact: Some 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line - compared with about 14 percent in the United States.
While that's no reason for jubilation - since poverty in any nation, astern or estern, cannot be tolerated - it does point to something of great significance. Why? First because, among ommunist nations, the Soviet Union has always held itself up to be the touchstone, the primum mobile. And second because of the central place in ommunist theorizing of Karl Marx's dictum ``From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.'' This canon - that ommunism levels wealth and so removes penury - is a pillar of ommunist thought. The system sets out erase class oppressions, to ensure the dignity of the workers, to provide adequately for all. No one pretended it would be easy. There might have to be sacrifices - long lines, low-grade consumer goods, severe limits on travel, an intrusive security aparatus. But the goal was noble: the eradication of poverty.
It's now obvious that the goal has not been reached. Is it a new failure? Probably not. But only thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev's enlightened policy of glasnost is it public knowledge. Yet it must have long been privately suspected by Soviet citizens - who, like concerned people everywhere, would have found it impossible not to notice that one in five of their fellows lived in poverty.
And if that's true for the Soviet system, there's reason to suspect it's true for other ommunist nations as well. After all, it's one thing to live within a system that has ground you down for generations if the sacrifices have been worthwhile. It's quite another to realize that the sacrifices have been fruitless - and to suspect that the system itself, by intentionally removing human incentive and stifling individual drive, is so conceptually flawed that it never can be made to work.
If that's the message carried by the new technology of the 1980s, the real question is not, ``Why China, Poland, and the Soviet Union?'' The real question is, ``How long can other ommunist nations hold out before they, too, change their ways?''