SOCIALISM is taking a pounding in Eastern Europe, but what about those parts of the developing world where the theories of Marx and Lenin have often found ready takers? Are the advocates of one-party states and collectivist economies sticking to their beliefs? Last week's election in Zimbabwe provided one answer. President Robert Mugabe sees his 78 percent of the vote as a mandate to realize a vision of single-party government committed to redistributing wealth and land. His promises along these lines have been deferred for a decade by agreement with the country's affluent white minority and by strife among black factions.
With the major factions now united under his leadership, Mr. Mugabe may now try to put his philosophy into practice. If so, he'll be swimming against a tide, not only within Zimbabwe but in much of the rest of Africa.
One-party rule is drawing criticism and rebellion from the French-speaking countries of West Africa to parts of East Africa. Godfathers of the single-party system, such as Tanzania's retired president Julius Nyerere, are having second thoughts. Mr. Nyerere recently allowed that the one-party state is not sacrosanct and that it is, in fact, uncommonly prone to corruption. The president of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, talks of moving his war-battered country from a Soviet-style economy to a ``mixed'' one. Even Angola's leader, long dependent on Soviet and Cuban aid, is making noises about softening the old Marxist-Leninist line.
Doubtless these men have learned from the crumbling of socialist regimes in Europe and the reform efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev. They also recognize that a prime source of foreign aid - the East bloc - is no more. Pragmatism is setting in.
Only the most committed true believer could ignore Marxism's failure as a model for economic development. The current climate encourages a reexamination of the old assumptions and, possibly, some new ideas on how to blend the ideals of prosperity and social justice.
In Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the third world, leaders and potential leaders will continue to seek their own blends of political theory and local tradition. Sometimes this has led to disaster, as with Ne Win's peculiar Burmese variant on socialism. Now, with a widening acceptance of market economics and participatory government, developing nations can test whether capitalist democracy is capable of fostering the kind of compromise and consensus needed to make their often ethically fragmented societies work.
Some Marxist stalwarts will stand their ground. Radical liberation movements that find communist dogma well-suited to their attempts to seize power will probably persist. But those in power, or on the verge of it - like the ANC in South Africa - are faced with an inescapable question: Can socialist economic planning, with the political repression it often engenders, ever be the path to greater justice and equality?