IN AN AGE when works of historical imagination fascinate millions in novels and television serials, academic historians tend to bore even each other with most of their specialized analytic research projects. History has become the closed-shop activity of university professors who are generally hostile to the kind of synthetic or idiosyncratic description of the past that has traditionally attracted intelligent lay readers to the field. Coherent narrative history in understandable English survives in the oral culture of lecturing. But those who seek tenure in a shrinking job market know that certification by "the profession" requires minimizing oral communication with students on one's own campus and maximizing specialized publications designed for experts elsewhere.

It is refreshing, therefore, to see a major university press publish a synthetic narrative history by a young academic scholar, Albert Lindemann, who has independent ideas on an important subject.

The subject is the history of socialism, the secular belief in communal cooperation and distributive justice which (along with democratic liberalism and romantic nationalism) has been a driving ideological passion of the modern world--in Europe in the 19th century and worldwide in the 20th. Lindemann confines his attention to Europe throughout, which makes his perspective more comprehensive for the earlier period. But his account of the fate of European socialism in our own century is among the best parts of the book--and has more than local interest, because European experience usually anticipates and often illuminates universal problems.

Lindemann excludes from his narrative the classic conflict between socialism and nationalism--between those seeking a new form of social organization based on social class and justified by rational argument and those seeking some new national identity based on race, language, and geography and justified by emotional appeals. He does, however, include a good chapter on fascism, which he treats both as a form of revolutionary nationalism and as an ersatz socialism that nearly obliterated the real thing in Europe between the two world wars. He deals extensively with a second key clash of enduring importance to socialists: between social democrats committed to building on liberal democracy through evolution and open methods and Leninist communists committed to revolution and secrecy, and willing to replace liberal democracy with collective dictatorship.

Lindemann seeks to provide us with a "total" history by continually exploring "the relationship between ideology, institutions, and the working masses." After a conventional account of the origins of socialism, he draws on the work of recent social historians to show how socialist ideas first began to interest working people between the revolutions of 1830 and 1848.

Moving into the revolutions of 1848-50 and the subsequent development of "mature socialism," he passes by two elements that might have helped him knit together his tapestry into a more coherent whole: media of communication and forms of organization. He says relatively little about either of the first two Internationals or of the prototype parties for modern communism: Marx's Communist League or Lenin's Bolshevik party. His approach is rather that of the mini-biography punctuated by an occasional sociological sounding--drawn together most effectively when his narrative moves across national borders.

His most compelling pages are those which sympathetically portray the many largely forgotten moderate socialists who tried to preserve liberal values while seeking social justice under difficult conditions. He provides a balanced and intelligent account of the German Social Democrats, the largest socialist party of the 19th century and the leading democratic socialist movement of Western Europe in the 20th. He shows the real-life dilemmas of democratic socialists on the eve of the Fascist and Nazi takeovers in Italy and Germany, respectively--caught between authoritarian alternatives on both the right and left, immobilized by their own illusions, and unable to find enough allies to form a broad democratic coalition. This book is worth reading if for no other reason than its modest, but nonpatronizing rehabilitation from generations of Marxist caricature of a host of deeply democratic European socialists who were as influential in their own time as they have been neglected in ours, in particular, Jean JaurMes, the defender of Dreyfus, who translated the anti- authoritarianism of the French revolutionary tradition into a mass movement on the eve of World War I; L,eon Blum, who rescued the idea of using bourgeois government as a means of social progress from Leninist contempt and tried to win Marxists back to their forgotten democratic origins in the Popular Front on the eve of World War II; and any number of fascinating figures from Scandanavia and the Low Countries.

The main failing of this book is its bland--and at times misleadingly benign--characterization of the collectivist, authoritarian tradition within socialism that culminated in Stalinism. Lindemann clearly prefers democratic socialists and does not confuse them with the more dictatorial strain. But whenever he turns to depict the basic figures in the genealogy of communist totalitarianism, he generally cleanses the portrait of any darker shadows--exonerating them in effect from the authoritarian consequences of their ideas.

Babeuf, whose proto-communist Conspiracy of Equals was launched against a moderate republican regime in the 1790s, was seeking to use violence only "as rationally and sparingly as possible to attain the goal of ending violence." The stress is placed on his purity of motive. (He was reacting "from the depths of his being" against a regime "that seemed to him monstrously evil.") No mention is made of the practical consequence of this original revolt against the mediocre in the name of the ideal: it hastened the rise of Napoleon whose bloody wars certainly did not exemplify the "economy of violence" that Lindemann so generously attributes to Babeuf.

At the other end of the long march into totalitarian dictatorship, Lindemann portrays the Bolshevik murder of some of their original grassroots supporters at Kronstadt in 1921 as "a cruel turn of fate for Trotsky" rather than as a savage act by Trotsky. In between, Lindemann prepares the way for such a forgiving approach by stressing the intentions and ideals of Marx rather than the actual methods he used--let alone the predictable consequences of his linking utopian illusions with an absolutist ideology.

Marx is made to appear as a liberal democrat at heart whose "ideal was not the repressive-authoritarian Sparta, so revered by Rousseau . . . but Periclean Athens, with its democratic and libertarian participation." Marx's closeness to Blanqui and espousal of revolutionary violence during the revolutions of 1848 and 1871 are downplayed; and the Communist Manifesto (more than half of which is devoted to brutal attacks on other socialists) is oddly (and incorrectly) described as having given to the word "Communist" "far broader, richer and more progessive implications than had previously been the case."

Lindemann sustains his stress on the sunny side by providing only the sketchiest picture of the pre-revolutionary Lenin. His profoundly anti-democratic ideal of a secret, elite, manipulative "party of a new type" is mentioned only briefly in a section on prewar controversy among Germans; and there is no real discussion of the Russian context--either of the Russian professional revolutionary tradition on the left or of the authoritarian and police traditions on the right.

Lindemann's best chapters deal with the interwar period leading up to alist partthe triumph of Stalinism. Here he is both clearer in separating the democrats from the authoritarians and more effective in relating the ideas of both to the ambiguities and complexities of practical politics.

He is refreshingly opinionated and often perceptive in the bibliographical commentary he appends to each chapter--but he is consistently hard on those who are outspokenly hostile to Leninism. Roy Medvedev, who is almost alone in the U.S.S.R. among Soviet dissenters in believing that a return to Leninism might democratize the U.S.S.R., is commended for offering "less reactionary perspectives" than Solzhenitsyn. The latter has a far wider following among Russians, but is patronizingly dismissed as the author of the "nearly unreadable" Gulag Archipelago, which--reluctantly it seems--"one feels obliged to mention." Bertram Wolfe and Leonard Schapiro, two of the most important Western scholars on the origins of Soviet communism in the postwar era, are subjected to gratuitous insult that verges into left McCarthyism. Wolfe was "a vehement anti-Communist linked with right wing people." By this standard Herbert Marcuse might well be labeled a vehement anti- democrat linked with left-wing people; but Marcuse is commended instead as "a partial antidote to Schapiro's hostility to Soviet Communism." One wonders what the full antidote might be.

Lindemann's treatment of the postwar era is less richly textured than his discussion of the interwar period. He is best in describing the democratic socialists and is still hopeful about the communists, concluding a very brief but sympathetic and good account of Solidarity by saying that "events in Poland further underlined the point that monolithic communism was a thing of the distant and irretrievable past in Eastern Europe." This is a legitimate conclusion for a history of socialism and is probably true; but it is, alas, only a small part of the truth and therefore misleading. For events in Poland also illustrate that (at least in the short run in which all of us are fated to live) the monolithic power of military- police repression in the Soviet empire is still very much with us--and may have become more sophisticated and dangerous via its use of proxies and of calculated dosage. Here again the dark side and the tragic dimension simply elude Lindemann's field of vision.

Lindemann's conclusions are balanced and free of illusion--even about the moderate socialists whom he admires. He hopes that the underlying socialist ideal of "harmony and cooperation" will survive, but be tempered by a realistic recognition that market mechanisms and social hierarchies will in some form "continue to exist into the future in all advanced industrial communities."

This is a generally good book that could significantly help overcome the continuing massive ignorance in America about the history of socialism (particularly if it is read alongside some of the books Lindemann disparages). With some more immersion in primary materials, and a little more courage in selecting key questions and pressing on to genuine conclusions, he might just produce the kind of truly major work of synthesis and interpretation that "the profession" needs--and that his work sometimes verges on becoming.