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Mikhail Gorbachev used to say he wanted to reform communism, not abolish it, because its "spiritual values" were worth saving. When the Berlin Wall fell, many Western leftists, including Willy Brandt, cautioned against hasty reunification of Germany, lest the transcendent ideals of the East be overwhelmed by sterile Western materialism.

Spiritual values? Ideals that transcend materialism? So communism was a religion after all, an opiate? That old materialist Karl Marx must be whirling in his whited sepulcher.

These are dark days for leftists. In their cult magazines they write wistful articles with titles like "What Was Socialism . . . and Why We Will All Miss It So Much." Now and then they venture into the wider world with sulky op/ed articles blaming the collapse of communism on the unfair refusal of capitalist banks to keep picking up its tab.

My friend the Marxist college professor blames a power even more malign than capitalism -- human nature. "It's always difficult for people in groups to live up to their ideals," he explained.

He should cheer up. The ideals aways come back. By the measure of one of capitalism's great maxims -- "Buy low, sell high" -- left-wing futures are near an all-time low. If leftist politics were a commodity, now might be the time to buy in.

There was no buyer for John Shannon. He had commercially published three novels that won some critical respect, but when he wrote a three-generation saga of leftist agitation in America, the publishers scurried into their holes. Who wants to read about a bunch of self-righteous radicals ranting against power and privilege? So Mr. Shannon laid out his own money to publish the novel through a vanity press.

"The Taking of the Waters" (John Brown Books, Box 2355, Culver City, Calif. 90231) is actually a pretty interesting book. The title refers to the 1920s theft of a farm valley's water -- ruining the farmers -- to benefit the real-estate barons of Los Angeles.

It is also a metaphor for the drying-up of radical politics in America, a subject worth exploring. Grandma was a muckraker and feminist; Dad organized the labor unions in Detroit. Today's disillusioned poseur, bearing the popinjay pseudonym Max Thirty, cruises Skid Row on his Harley, struts in fringed buckskin, flaunts his contempt for a policeman, and makes his eventual stand battling not an unjust world but some vicious pornographers.

For all three protagonists, the attachment to left-wing politics is quasi-religious. That is, they care more for the next world than for this, for what ought to be than for what is. Like my Marxist friend, they are frustrated by ordinary folks who would rather be left alone to get on with their lives.

Many lefties, of course, including the characters in the book, would bridle at the suggestion that their motives are religious. They might say they envision a future and bend their efforts and will to bring it into being -- man taking history into his own hands, as the communists used to say. It's not so different from what the religious person does in believing in and working for the Kingdom of God. The world is unsatisfactory, let's fix it.

Crane Brinton's classic, "The Anatomy of Revolution," sets out the conditions in which revolutions have happened before: an economic downturn after a period of spreading prosperity; bankrupt governments frantically chasing tax revenues; rigidity in social and economic institutions; cultural attacks on the society's assumptions and traditions.

You could almost believe that America is ripe.

In Philadelphia's Independence Hall on July 4, Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, spoke of our time as "a transitional period, . . . when all consistent value systems collapse, . . . when everything is possible. . . .

"Science as the basis of the conception of the modern world," may have reached its limit, Mr. Havel suggested: "Man as [objective] observer is becoming completely alienated from himself as a being."

Mr. Havel is tempted to call for a rebirth of religion to save us, but there's no going backward. He proposes that we seek "self-transcendence" through "a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos." Thus we might transcend both the determinist tyranny of supply and demand and the Enlightenment notion that "man -- as a being capable of knowing nature and the world -- was the pinnacle of creation and lord of the world."

Call your broker. Sell the comfortable life short. Buy left-wing futures, but hedge with religion futures, too.

D8 Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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