BACK in the 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev began to de-Stalinize, some American scholars advanced a theory that Soviet and Western societies would ultimately become somewhat similar. They called it the theory of convergence. Mr. Khrushchev failed, and the theory was quickly hooted down. What! - the Kremlin turn toward democracy? The United States accept socialist ideas? Ridiculous! Weren't we sworn enemies? One carried a banner labeled ``communism,'' the other carried a banner labeled ``free enterprise.'' Both labels were misleading. The Soviet Union wasn't communist, even by its own theory. And capitalism wasn't always enterprising - or free.
There were indeed deep differences, especially differences between democracy and dictatorship. But instead of focusing on those distinctions, many of us closed our eyes to the thought that socialism could possibly become democratic or that capitalism could include dictatorships. We preferred handy, if careless, labels, equating the economic with the political system.
Let me make a prediction: The convergence theory is going to make a comeback.
I need hardly describe the swift changes going on in the Eastern bloc. Read the headlines.
Our own society also has changed more than we realize. The most drastic changes started during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Just as Mikhail Gorbachev is now experimenting with reforms, borrowing ideas from our society, so President Roosevelt experimented with reforms in the '30s, adapting practices from other nations.
President Roosevelt and his successors introduced social security and government intervention in the economy. Rural electrification - which had been a dream of Lenin. Public works. Public housing. Government grants for education and the arts. State insurance for banks, and state control over their solvency - more or less. Government insurance of home mortgages and student loans. Health insurance. We are discovering day care for working mothers. And so on and on.
In short, Americans have been adapting their system and their society freely, flexibly. It's our way. Now the Soviets are at last beginning to break their rigid mold and are trying to adapt their society to modern needs.
Does it follow that they will become capitalist, or that we will adopt a communist economy? No. Our histories, our geography, our economic circumstances, and our cultures differ. But the differences may lessen, and with them the hostility.
This is the long view. It is the view that Mr. Gorbachev referred to in his book ``Perestroika'' when he said the French Revolution encompassed not just the fall of the Bastille and the overthrow of the monarchy, but decades of ups and downs and civil war and social evolution to work out our principles of freedom, law, and democracy. It is the view of the Russian Revolution as encompassing not the fall of the czar and the Bolshevik seizure of power, but many decades of ups and downs and civil war and social evolution as Soviet society evolves.
In its 70 years we have seen the Soviet Union evolve from Stalin's prison-camp era through decades of forced industrialization to the present upheavals. One of the most striking examples of the changes was the miners' strike this year. It began when miners came up to wash at the end of a shift, but there was no soap. It spread from one mine to a whole Siberian coal field and finally to fields across the country. In Siberia, the miners simply took over the local administration, forming their own police to keep order, shutting the liquor shops, and distributing food and funds.
That ordinary Russian working people could run things democratically and peaceably, telling the officialdom to cooperate or get out of the way, was as hopeful a sign as almost anything that has happened.
Instead, because of our preoccupation with free enterprise, many Americans see the rise of a handful of entrepreneurs as a touchstone of Soviet reform. Family farming is one thing; it is essential if the Soviet Union is ever to be able to feed itself; and the introduction of American know-how by our great corporations is also important as a spur to real enterprise in the USSR. But the small-scale middlemen who have appeared on the Soviet scene thus far, catering particularly to foreigners in expensive new restaurants - these are only a poor shadow of free capitalism. Among most Soviet citizens, who cannot afford the goodies they offer, these entrepreneurs have evoked only scorn and even hatred. The real hope lies not with them, but with the miners.
The real danger, too. Pent-up frustration can produce anarchy or worse among the working people. There are no guarantees of what may emerge under stress, and the strain under which the Soviet people are laboring is growing daily. They face a long, painful process of change.
During the Depression Soviet ideologues and leaders triumphantly proclaimed that capitalism was collapsing and socialism had won. Today Americans proclaim triumphantly that communism is collapsing and capitalism has won. In our common preoccupation, then and now, with a contest between ideologies or economic systems, both of us have overlooked a great danger - that nations under stress are loose cannons.
We know what happened in Germany, Italy, and Japan under the stress of capitalism's hard times in the '30s. Happily, America produced a Franklin Roosevelt. Now, under the strain of communism's hard times, the Soviet Union has brought forth a Gorbachev. But in our glee at the ``collapse of communism'' and ``the triumph of our side'' we may be forgetting the dangers inherent in the strain the Soviet people face. Better to try to mitigate it as much as we can - for our own sake - than to boast of our victory. Social evolution isn't football. Maybe it's convergence.