THIS IS, Paul Hollander writes in his preface, "an inquiry into half a century of political daydreaming."

It is a horribly funny book. No one who reads it can come away with an unshaken faith in the political judgment of Western intellectuals. In the midst of Stalin's Great Purge, for example, we find Edmund Wilson happily chirping that "you feel in the Soviet Union that you are at the moral top of the world." Sidney and Beatrice Webb, meanwhile, were confidently assuring their readers that the Soviet penal system--what we today know as the Gulag--"is now apparently as free from physical cruelty as any prison in any country is ever likely to be." And George Bernard Shaw lauded the Soviet regime because it "humanely and judiciously liquidates a handful of exploiters and speculators to make the world safe for honest men."

Commentary from the 1960s seems no less bizarre. In 1969, Susan Sontag, sickened by America's "runaway rate of productivity" and "surplus energy," wrote that no Cuban writer "has been or is in jail or is failing to get his works published." Father Daniel Berrigan, meanwhile, discerned in the society of North Vietnam a "naive faith in human goodness." Mary McCarthy, for her part, learned in Hanoi that "the license to criticize was just another capitalist luxury, a waste product of the system."

Hollander lists the Cuban poets and artists jailed--Armando Valladares, Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez, Miguel Sales, Angel Cuadra, Thomas Fernandez Travieso, Amaro Gomez, Rene Aiza, and so on. He hardly need mention the Vietnamese boat people, or Solidarity's continuing effort to win and hold the license to criticize.

By the time Hollander moves on to discuss America's infatuation with China in the early 1970s, the reader is likely to feel trapped in a world of political slapstick: Here we go again through the model prisons, here we see again the American clergymen hailing the Communist fulfillment of Christian values, here we meet again a people who do not care for free speech because they must first obtain bread, who charm the visitor with their non-Western "authenticity, simplicity, courage, endurance, friendliness, hospitality, helpfulness, and wholeness."

Why were Western visitors so blind to the faults of the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, and China? Well, says Hollander, they were fooled by the "techniques of hospitality" employed by totalitarian regimes. Political pilgrims were enmeshed in a "web of overwhelming hospitality," made up of a rapturous greeting upon arrival, luxurious food and lodging, flattering chats with high officials, and, in the case of writers and artists, a seemingly universal familiarity with one's work.

These techniques succeeded, however, only because the pilgrims allowed them to. Unfamiliar with the breadth and depth of social control exercised by totalitarian regimes, unwilling to believe that such friendly hosts would dupe them, the pilgrims in their pride relied on the evidence of their senses, not realizing that that evidence might be false, or at least atypical. Generalizing from their experiences, the pilgrims concluded, after seeing one selected prison, that all prisons were similarly humane, that the one commune demonstrated the worth of the Chinese model in agriculture, and so on. Even John Kenneth Galbraith, conscious of the possibility of Potemkinism, was moved to write, after being shown a kitchen in Peking, that "if there is any shortage of food, it was not evident in the kitchen." In the same book Galbraith wrote, "There can be no doubt that China is devising a highly effective economic system." Subsequent events--such as the famines that are reported to have hit the provinces of Sichuan, Hubei, and Nei Monggol during the 1970s--have cast much doubt on the success of the Chinese economic system.

Such intellectual failures would not have occurred had there not been a predisposition to being fooled. Why were the pilgrims so predisposed? Here, alas, Hollander falters. A sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Hollander refuses to let go without delivering a sociological explanation. His argument, finally, is that as secularization progressed in the 20th century, the suspension of disbelief shifted from the religious to the political realm. In attempting to support this thesis, Hollander adopts a tone of academic rigor.

But Political Pilgrims is no painstaking examination of the modern intellectual. If it were, it would be a very different book, for it would examine the other side of the question: If some intellectuals were bedazzled by Stalin, Mao, and Castro, why were others able to perceive the true nature of these men and their regimes? Why was George Bernard Shaw taken in by the Soviet Union, but not Bertrand Russell or Malcolm Muggeridge? Why Pablo Neruda, who called discussion of the persecution of Solzhenitsyn a "big bore," but not Andr,e Gide, whose distaste for Stalin's Russia Hollander mentions only in passing? Why was Robert Jay Lifton able to understand Mao's China so well?

No, Hollander has burdened this book with an inaccurate subtitle. This is Tom Wolfe in a cap and gown, an angry blast at five decades of radical chic. To be sure, it looks at the work of intellectuals, but it relies heavily also on the words of such as Tom Hayden, Shirley MacLaine, William Kunstler, and David Rockefeller-- hardly the deep thinkers of our time.

If Hollander had understood that he was not producing a scholarly treatise, he might have avoided the other flaw that mars this book. As a native of Hungary who experienced Stalinism before fleeing the country in 1956, Hollander seems to assume his audience shares his deep understanding of the Soviet Union. But many, if not most, of the book's potential readers do not--so Political Pilgrims seems destined to become an insiders' favorite, a droll supplement to Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archpelago, Robert Conquest's The Great Terror, Chen Jo-hsi's Execution of Mayor Yin, and Simon Leys' Chinese Shadows.

More often than not, Hollander tells the joke but not the punchline. One example: In 1944, Vice President Henry Wallace and Johns Hopkins University professor Owen Lattimore visited the Kolyma labor camp in the Soviet Far East. Hollander notes that Kolyma was "one of the most notorious places of detention and forced labor," refers in a footnote to Solzhenitsyn and Conquest, and hurries on to Wallace's and Lattimore's assessment of the labor camp--"a combination of TVA and Hudson's Bay Company." That statement might strike the unfamiliar reader as naive, even foolish. But only those who know of Conquest's well-documented estimate that at least 1 million persons died at Kolyma between 1937 and 1941 can appreciate its full horror.

Although Hollander is somewhat better about supplying the evidence against Mao and Castro, the book remains unsatisfying, for full evidence is required if he is to preach to the unconverted. A less erratic examination of the subject might have helped many Americans through the process of the sort (mentioned by Hollander) that once led Stephen Spender to write:

"When I saw photographs of children murdered by the Fascists, I felt furious pity. When the supporters of Franco talked of Red atrocities, I merely felt indignant that people should tell such lies. . . . I gradually acquired a certain horror of the way in which my own mind worked. It was clear to me that unless I cared about every murdered child impartially, I did not really care about children being murdered at all."

This could have been the book that demonstrated to liberals that it is possible to be an anti-Communist without being a McCarthyite. It could have been a great book. But eit is still a good book, to be kept close at hand and re-read whenever we are told of a land where power is wielded in a new way, where the human soul is re-engineered, and human nature uplifted.y

TOM RICKS, a Washington writer, is coauthor of a forthcoming book on Soviet-American relations.