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It has been more than 100 years since Marx and Engels wrote "A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of communism." That specter has returned - not portending the onset of communism but the end of it.

Systems, monuments, impassable borders are crashing down. Tourists pilfer bits of the Berlin wall for souvenirs.Of all the once unconquerable bastions, only Romania and Albania hold the torch high. Those torches aren't burning - because there is neither fuel nor electricity. And even in that darkness, the system reveals a self-destruct tendency.

A calm has set in at the eye of the storm. Glasnost has run out of surprises. The Soviets have learned their standard of living is far from the best, that of all those who have run the country since the Revolution only Lenin was honest; the rest have been gangsters, crooks, ignoramuses.

Some people take heart by following the personnel shuffles. One hard-liner after another is hurled from Olympus and replaced with liberals and reformers. Liberalism is noticeable - but there are no reforms.

It's as if a man were brought to the hospital in critical condition. After hurried consultation, the doctors agree they must operate, there's not a moment to spare. They don robes, wash their hands, prepare their scalpels - then go home, leaving the sick man to his agony.

If the Soviet system is the sick man, the illness is progressive. Resolute steps have been taken against the illness, but practically none has gone the distance. There's only a little way to go, but right before that last step, a red light flashes on. Stop!

Take the collective farms, which don't feed the country. The land has to be given back to the peasant. But that can't be done because it would mean a return to capitalism. So let the peasant lease the land, even for 50 years, as long as he remembers it is not his but the nation's property.

The flame of nationalist passion is growing hotter. The non-Russian republics are hostile to neighbors, to ethnic minorities, to Russian domination. In the Russian republic, newspapers and magazines with circulations in the millions print fascist propaganda. Their concern is not to find a way out of the impasse but to find someone to blame. What they, of course, find is that the Jews are to blame.

The country is coming apart at the seams. There is no meat, soap has vanished, sugar is rationed. But more and more people are becoming involved with the Jewish question, not the production of goods. This is especially true since there are no obstacles to discussing this problem. But ideology is an obstacle to reform.

Even though ideology has been long dead, it influences people just as a corpse in a room would. Lenin's unburied body has a paralyzing effect on social consciousness: Its decay has not been allowed to go the distance either.

Some people call for Lenin to be granted peace and to be buried like a human being. This incurs the wrath of the apparatchiks, who are aware that if Lenin is buried, their ideology goes with him.

Perestroika has already gone too far to be reversible, but its chances for success diminish with each day.

Gorbachev wants to cross a tightrope from bad socialism to good. On the other side of the abyss, he expected to see a sign reading "Good Socialism," but found one that reads "Capitalism." He doesn't have the strength to go back. His choice is simple: Mark time until he falls into the abyss. Or step to the other side, no matter what "ism" it's marked with.