cOMMUNISTS AROUND the world have been watching with a feeling of mounting bewilderment and alarm as Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe have fallen one by one. Among the most tense observers have been the hard-line rulers of China.
They were especially traumatized by the overthrow and execution of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu. A shocking aspect for them was that the army sided with the people against the Communist Party.
The reaction of the Chinese leadership has been defensive. The recent end to martial law in Beijing was largely cosmetic. Most of the thousands of people seized last summer are still in jail. Repressive laws remain in effect, and the army is being subjected to political study classes.
As for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Chinese leaders view him as a dangerous madman who is responsible for the "subversion of socialism."
North Korea, which has one of the few remaining Marxist governments in the world, was so alarmed by the events in Romania that it summoned home all ambassadors to its communist allies, or former allies. It called for more "revolutionary education" against "the imperialists."
The hard-liners retain their power in these nations. But worldwide, Communist influence is dwindling. Some true believers will hold to their ideals with the fervor of a religious faith, but Marxism is today a rapidly fading concept.
In Western Europe, the Communist parties have been reduced to fringe groups except in Italy, where they remain the second-largest party.
Many Communists the world over feel the bewilderment of Canadian William Kardash, who was the last Communist federal or provincial legislator in Canada. Kardash, who left office in 1958, said he has been shocked by the facts that have been revealed about Communist corruption and atrocities. "How could this have happened? he asked. "We weren't told."
The problem in all this for the democratic world is that the changes in Eastern Europe have come so rapidly that chaos could result. Managing this virtual revolution will demand from the West vision, decisive action and economic cooperation in our relations with both the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Success of the new freedom movements in Europe would bolster Gorbachev in his reform program at home, and it would also pave the way for the eventual resumption of China's stalled reform movement, which once seemed so promising.