WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Among the jokes Soviet citizens use to keep despair at bay is -- was -- this: Mikhail Gorbachev says, ''When I came to power, Soviet society was on the verge of a deep abyss. Now we have taken a bold step forward.''
He was never nearly bold enough. Now he has suffered condign punishment, discarded by a system he never considered discarding.
The two great questions of the Gorbachev era were answered in the asking of them: Would an entrenched, brutal and cynical ruling class liquidate itself in order to improve the lot of the masses it exists to exploit? Would Mr. Gorbachev, a product of the party that rewarded his conformity to its norms by giving him pre-eminence, be the hammer that would smash the party system?
Given that President Carter's secretary of state thought the thuggish Leonid Brezhnev ''shares our dreams and aspirations,'' is perhaps not surprising that Presidents Reagan and Bush were so smitten by the more presentable Mr. Gorbachev. But Mr. Gorbachev was a reformer only for managerial, not moral reasons. He considered the Soviet system not evil, merely unproductive.
A critic once said that Gladstone desired prosperity for the people only so they could pay more taxes. Mikhail Gorbachev placed only an instrumental value on freedom. He favored only small, conditioned doses of freedom, only because and to the extent that they would serve economic efficiency and hence Soviet power.
He wanted modernization without its precondition, without broad dispersal of decision-making. He pleased neither the pinnacle nor the base of the pyramidal Soviet society. He made those at the top nervous and those at the bottom nostalgic for the relative prosperity of the ''Brezhnev stagnation.''
It is instructive to compare Lincoln's respect for, and Mr. Gorbachev's resistance to, the logic of events. In April 1861, Lincoln thought he could preserve the Union without attacking slavery. But what he began as a war of political restoration became, in just 18 months, a revolution to transform the South socially and the North morally.
Mr. Gorbachev never recognized that economic revival required radical political reform and social regeneration. Had he tried radicalism, he still might have failed. But he did not try. He tinkered and temporized, attempting perestroika of communism, not of society. He vowed to preserve ''the socialist choice'' made in 1917.
Neither speaking nor comprehending the language of nationalism, he was bewildered by this era of ethnic assertion. The vocabulary of class struggle now applies only to the conflict between the masses who despise him and the military-security-party class that deposed him.
The Soviet ruling class may be too cynical to desire, let alone administer, a fundamentalist revival of the sort Mao attempted and Islamic societies periodically suffer. But James Billington, librarian of Congress and historian, says the dying ideology of class warfare may have a final spasm. It may resemble a stratagem used by Lenin and then Stalin. It may be incitement of the ''workers,'' meaning urban mobs, against ''intellectuals,'' meaning, today, the Democratic forces. Those forces will be portrayed xenophobically as ''foreign impurities.''
Mr. Billington warns that the Leninist political machine may seek surrogate legitimacy in Russian chauvinism that glorifies ''the state and Army as the heart of Russian experience, seeks to play one minority nationality off against another and everyone off against Jews,'' while rehabilitating the tsarist past.
Lenin's mummified corpse may still be the symbolic center of the Soviet system, but another dead man -- Napoleon -- may make more than a cameo appearance on the Soviet stage. Either Lenin's party shall rule through the military, or there shall be Bonapartism, the replacement of politics by military administration.
While Washington wonders what is to be done, a good policy was put in one word by a senior official who recently was asked what the United States would do if the Soviet Union disintegrated. He said: ''watch.''
America's ability to influence Soviet events is negligible. But the U.S. government, knee-deep in the debris of its personalization of policy toward the Soviet Union, must answer some questions.
With whom -- with what -- were recent arms agreements reached? Does the Bush administration, now eager to bring the blessings of the New World Order to Palestine, want the crowd now running the Kremlin to pull a chair up to the table at the Middle East peace conference? What now can be said for the administration's evasions regarding the 50-year-old endorsement of independence for the Baltic republics? What of Mr. Bush's speech urging Ukrainians to put their trust where he put his -- in Mr. Gorbachev?
The essential U.S. policy is still: Keep our powder dry and have lots of powder. The ''peace dividend'' will be a little late, again.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.