WE are living in a stable and predictable world - politically, that is. Any American knows with certainty that every four years he elects a president, every two years one-third of the Senate is reelected, and a president, a senator, or any other official can be impeached. The same holds true for the English, French, and Italians, despite the fact that the latter have gone through more than 50 governments since World War II. Italy's metamorphoses of totalitarianism have been abrupt and unpredictable. Its history lacks consistency and regularity. It moves by fits and starts, and at every turn is ready to refute, fully or partly, the previous stage of its own development.
China is the latest example of such development. Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1912 and right up to the communists' victory in 1949, three civil wars - lasting a total of 20 years - raged in China. The Man Ch'ing dynasty was replaced by Sun Yat-sen; then came Chiang Kai-shek who was in the end overcome by Mao Zedong. In the twilight of his life, Mao led the devastating Cultural Revolution, to which the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping responded with his ``counterrevolution.''
As Bernard Shaw once warned, in the words of his character Captain Shotover: ``Old men are dangerous: it doesn't matter to them what is going to happen to the world.'' We do not know what this last sharp turn in Chinese history will lead to, but we do know that it's cause can at least in part be attributable to Deng Xiaoping's alienation rooted in his old age.
Consider another center of totalitarianism: Russia. The Russians commemorated the beginning of the 20th century by their own version of the Tiananmen Square incident. On January 22, 1905, by order of Emperor Nicholas II, a peaceful workers' demonstration was gunned down on Palace Square, leaving more than 1,000 killed and over 2,000 injured. Bloody Sunday became, if not the cause, the prelude to the Russian revolution of 1905 and to democratic reforms. The subsequent reactions gave rise to the February 1917 revolt and the czar's abdication. This was followed several months later by the October Bolshevik coup. For the next 70 years, seven different leaders ruled Russia. Each turned the state's course in the opposite direction from that of his predecessor.
Totalitarian governments have a consistency of their own - not that of succession and continuity, but of surprise and contrast. A totalitarian regime is more vulnerable to crises and, therefore, more experimental than a democracy. It readily crosses out its own models and tries new ones. In totalitarian regimes a leader - or, rather, a usurper - plays a far greater role than does an elected leader in a democratic country. The life of such a country is so dependent on its leaders that their fall or departure from the political arena means full or partial rejection of their political legacy. That happened after Francisco Franco's death in Spain, after Mao's death in China, and after Nikita Khrushchev's ouster in Russia. Apparently, this is what is happening now in China with the outgoing Deng.
A lesson can be learned from our lack of preparation and confusion in the face of the events in China. Only a decisive turn from totalitarianism to democracy - as was the case in Spain after Franco's death - guarantees political stability and the irreversibility of the democratic process, and safeguards against recurrences of the past.
It is impossible to soften or humanize totalitarianism; it can only be changed, eventually, into a democracy. Also, such gigantic formations like the Soviet Union and China may not be ready for democracy, especially since the democratic traditions are absent in their history. Besides, democracy is hardly a panacea for all national ills. If genuine democracy were suddenly introduced in the USSR, the country would immediately collapse into at least 15 independent republics.
The outcome that is the most dangerous and fraught with sudden consequences stems from a system neither democratic nor totalitarian, but something in between. A situation in which sanctioned political passions are not permitted to materialize into free press, democratic elections, and institutions, holds the danger of a volcanic explosion of anarchy that is the shortest way to a dictatorship.
This happened at the end of 1981 in Poland when both freedom and anarchy were stopped by a military coup headed by General Jaruzelski. It just happened in China. And something of that nature could happen in the USSR, which is being rent in pieces by social, political, national, and economic conflicts.
Perhaps that's the chief lesson to learn from recent events in China. A similar, if not greater, political instability exists in the USSR. And anything could happen there, because the only thing that is predictable in a totalitarian world is its unpredictability.