The end of communism is a great event. However, just as there was nothing inevitable about the Bolsheviks' rise to power, there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy today.
In 1917, V.I. Lenin and his colleagues won control of the Russian government because they knew better than their opponents how to exploit economic breakdown, social disorganization and the uncertainty of a democracy too new to defend itself against the violence of undemocratic rivals.
There are no exact parallels in history. But there are patterns and analogous circumstances. And there are striking similarities in the circumstances during which the three principal anti-democratic movements of this century rose to power.
Like Lenin and the old Bolsheviks, Benito Mussolini and his Black Shirts and Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers were able to seize power at a time of inflation, unemployment, scarcity and disorder, after an old empire had dissolved and an entrenched regime had died, and before a new democracy had taken root.
In each case, resurgent nationalism, a sense of loss and a tradition of authoritarianism played a role. In each case, the world stood by as democracy floundered. And in each case, the cost of failed democracy proved incredibly high. World War II, the Holocaust and the Cold War were only part of the price.
After World War II, President Truman and a bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress supported the Marshall Plan and NATO because they understood that America must not again leave democratic leaders and nascent democracies to sink or swim. The American investment in Western European democracy in the late '40s paid high dividends -- in prosperity, freedom and a long period of peace for the Western world.
Today, three-quarters of a century of communism has left a terrible residue. Once again debt, inflation and unemployment are rising and production is declining. Once again nationalism spreads. Food shortages loom. Distribution has broken down. The society is in disarray. Once again the world has an incredible stake in the success of the Soviet and East European transitions to democracy. The new world order will be forged not in the Persian Gulf, but in the factories, fields, military forces and political arenas of the Soviet Union.
The problems of decentralizing, privatizing, reorganizing and energizing a wholly socialist economy have been reviewed and pondered intensively since Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe began those efforts in the late 1980s. These problems are terribly difficult and their solutions expensive. For example, it is estimated that Germany may spend $150 billion restructuring the East German economy. And there are only 17 million East Germans.
But whatever it costs to restructure these economies, societies and polities, it will be cheaper than fighting another war. And that is the way we should think about it.
Obviously, the European Community has a responsibility to help because it has a special stake in the success of this transition.
Regarding America's response, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., has suggested taking a billion dollars from next year's defense budget. Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., has proposed direct aid to the republics and heavy reliance on such multilateral agencies as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European Development Bank for help in balance of payments, debt restructuring and privatization.
Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has proposed a long-range program of assistance in the form of investment guarantees, currency-stabilization funds and commodity credits tailored to reward reform. Rep. Toby Roth, R-Wis., advocates swapping U.S. farm surpluses for Soviet oil to replenish our reserves.
All these ideas deserve consideration, as do quick provision of Most Favored Nation status and repeal of existing restrictions on export and import credits.
Sen. John Danforth's, R-Mo., suggestion strikes me as a good place to start. Mr. Danforth proposed that ''the U.S. should pledge that people will not go hungry this winter in the Soviet Union. We should make it clear that we will do whatever is necessary to provide emergency relief in the form of food, medical supplies and other necessities to stave off more suffering.'' This would be consistent, he adds, with both the American humanitarian tradition and with our national self-interest. He is surely right.
Prudence is a most important political virtue. But sometimes it is prudent to act boldly. As usual, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia has stated the stakes clearly:
''The West cannot be indifferent to the fate of the East as a matter of principle, but it cannot be indifferent for practical reasons either. Instability, poverty, disaster and chaos in countries that rid themselves of despotic rule could threaten just as did the arms arsenals of former governments. All that which people in the East rightly fear should be feared by the West, too.''
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.