COMMUNISM has survived longer in the West than in the East, but the Italian Communist Party -- biggest in the West -- has given up the struggle. It remains a force but a dwindling one, moving toward the political margins.
After a year of tumult, the ''Communist Party of Italy'' has disappeared and the ''Democratic Party of the Left'' has come into being, its symbol the Tree of Liberty, roots entwined with the hammer and sickle -- symbolism which unfortunately perpetrates the lie that brought communism down in Italy as everywhere else. Communism promised liberty but delivered dictatorship, terror and impoverishment.
The interment of Italian communism means two things, one of them very good. Italy now can unblock its political system, gridlocked 45 years by the confrontation between Communist and Catholic parties. The Catholic party, the Christian Democrats, had to rule because it was unthinkable that a coalition with the Communists be formed.
It was also commonly held that if communism did take power the United States would intervene militarily. This belief permitted Italians to conduct their affairs with an attitude combining irresponsibility with the assumption of inevitability.
The only alternative possible was coalition between one or the other wing of the Christian Democrats with centrist or conservative groupings, or that silent connivance of Communists with Catholics called the ''opening to the left.''
Uninterrupted power of course corrupted the Christian Democratic Party and was bad for the country, producing a generalized contempt for government and eventually the prevalent sense that control of the political system has been lost to the Mafia and to occult special interests.
The left is fragmenting now into blocs which potentially are new parties, or new coalition partners, in a changing political scene. The Communists' long struggle over the party's renaming and reorientation revealed how deeply divided it really is. It has a surviving Stalinist faction and an aging membership.
That membership is declining. The intent of reform was to capture frustrated liberal Catholics, dissident socialists and Italy's Greens. But the most recent municipal election saw the Communists do badly. In a decade the party's following has gone from a third to a quarter of the Italian electorate. The Italian Socialists have also turned the tables on the Communists and provocatively renamed their party too. They are now the ''Union,'' not the Party, of Socialism, and they are poaching the Communists' disappointed.
The second significance of Italian communism's capitulation is as a sign that utopian socialism is really finished. The Western Communist parties were powered by the dream of utopian change long after communism in the East had collapsed into bureaucratic despotism, terror and squalid careerism.
But where will modern man be without the utopian myth? It is all very well to celebrate the victory of pragmatism and practicality in political arenas too long disrupted by the organized forces of those in pursuit of the absolute, but where will those people now turn -- or the generation which follows them?
Reality and compromise can seem thin soup when dreams of society's redemption are available. Above all is this so in hard times, and hard times might be on the way. We are lucky now that in most of the industrial world things are fairly easy and affluent, indeed better than they have ever been in Western Europe and Japan.
But that could come to an end. We are on the brink of a war that could turn into a big, nasty, lasting affair, producing great economic disruption. Even without war the United States faces recession; the international banking system is exceedingly fragile; the Third World's desperation grows.
One wonders if the next utopianism may not come on the right rather than the left. Leftist utopianism responded to the class demarcations and impoverishment of the industrial revolution. Today poverty and social division are increasingly racial in character. This is true in the U.S. and increasingly so in Western Europe, with its mounting demographic and economic pressure from the Mediterranean's impoverished southern shore.
The racialist movements which thus far have emerged among the possessor race, the white Europeans and Americans, have been reactive and exclusionary rather than utopian. They simply want to keep the black or brown out, or down.
Racially based movements among the poor have more often been utopian, but usually religious rather than political, offering consolation in another world for oppression in this one. This can change, as the black ''nationalist'' movements in America and Europe have demonstrated.
It is not hard to imagine the return of what, for convenience, we may call fascism (even though fascism in Italy was not racist). It probably would claim to be nationalist rather than racist. The two forces together make an explosive combination. If the Persian Gulf crisis turns into a war between Islam and the West, which is what some people seem to want it to become, an extremist reaction in the West is entirely possible -- which is dystopian nightmare, not utopian dream.