WHEN THE UTOPIANS thought about socialist society, they dreamed of creating a new person, "socialist man," infused by a spirit of community and cooperation instead of the selfishness and conflict engendered by capitalism.

When the communists came to power in 1917 and after, they pledged to create that new socialist man. But the man they begat is a disaster, a dramatic measure of the communists' failure to produce the social glue that keeps a society together.

They have built a society where people feel that to survive they must cheat and steal from each other, where there is little sense of community, except, ironically, among the dissidents.

I saw it dramatically on a recent tour of Eastern Europe where the stories of cheating the system are legion. People said that the norm was for workers to steal from their companies, to moonlight on the job, to cheat consumers. A Polish woman said she wanted her son to remain in Canada, because he wouldn't make it in Poland: He wouldn't be good at cheating.

A Czech writer who publishes abroad told this story: A man who came to visit him was frightened at seeing some workers lounging and drinking beer in front of his house. He assumed they were secret police. He returned on following days and saw the same sight. When he finally contacted the writer, the man laughed and told him they were workmen who should have been repairing a fence.

He added that when he needed electrical work done, other workmen said the cost would depend on whether they could get the materials from their plant or had to pay for them.

Why is it that people don't work, that they steal from the work place? A Polish professor replied, "People are so certain that the state will cheat them, that they had better cheat the state."

Such actions are as much practical as venal. Jacek Maziarski, who quit as a writer for the liberal communist newsweekly Polytika after the 1981 declaration of martial law, argued, "People who earn 15,000 zlotys ($100) a month must steal from the shops to live. Working men in factories don't work hard because they want to save their strength for another job after the shift. They repair something, they sell something." And they get twice as much pay on the private market as the average wage.

The practice is widespread in Hungary where private activities represent a third of the economy though most people also hold government jobs. The result here and elsewhere is low productivity in state enterprises.

Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish intellectual, was asked by a West German television interviewer whether the economy would improve if Poles worked harder and better. It is commonly held in West Germany that Poland's low productivity and attendant economic difficulties are caused by workers' laziness.

"You are right," Bartoszewski replied with sarcasm. "What a silly nation, so lazy, and the Germans so hard-working. I always wonder why -- there were so many hard- working Germans in Siberia after the war -- Siberia should be the richest country in Europe. Why isn't it?"

"Bartoszewski showed them there are systems which are there to waste the fruits of any decent work," said writer Maziarski.

The system fails even in the "caring" professions. A Czech dissident told me of an old man in a hospital. "He couldn't move his hand. He was supposed to get a special diet; the drawer was full of boiled eggs, because he couldn't take them out from the shell. Nobody gave them to him; it was so sad. He was starving. So many people die, because they have no money to bribe nurses.

"It is normal that people who care for old people, the so-called social workers, press them for their money and houses," he added. Hospital workers also steal linens, beds, radiators, toilet doors, medicines and opiates, he said.

I asked a Polish priest whether the church was worried about the moral impact on people of such widespread cheating and stealing.

"It is very painful also for the church," he replied. "It is a sign of a kind of moral disease."

He said the church had its own problems with such attitudes. "I am a professor in a monastery. A student comes from a socialist school to a house where everything is common, and common to him means that he doesn't care about it. He opens a window, and everybody knows that when the window and the door are open, the glass might break, but he will not pay for it, so he is not interested in caring for it. This is from his own experience."

He said the church couldn't do much unless the system was changed.

Obviously, Poles are capable of community. A dissident spoke of the joy of writing for the underground press, which includes some 700 journals and scores of books. He added, half-astonished and pleased at the thought, that he and others didn't take money for their writing unless they were in need.

But communist societies destroy this sense of voluntary joint endeavor, because they fear independent organization. Any kind of unofficial cooperation, however innocuous, is considered a threat to the state.

When Poles waited in lines during the period of Solidarity, they often organized themselves, making lists of the order of names so that those on the list could leave and do other business. This is now forbidden. Signs in government offices say, "Please don't make lists of names and numbers, because it harms the work of the proper organs who should organize it themselves."

Police have entered waiting rooms and torn the papers on which lists of names were written. "Every good initiative of this kind is illegal," said a Pole. "They don't want people to organize themselves and think for themselves. Let them wait patiently and obediently like herds of cows."

In Hungary, considered the most liberal of communist societies, the only independent organizations permitted are a nudist society and an association of homeowners at Lake Balaton, the major vacation site. Everything else must be under the party, the factory, the state or official mass organizations.

Communist leaders themselves are disillusioned about their economic achievements and the failure to produce the new Communist Man. Hungarians have responded with economic decentralization and adherence to market mechanisms. But Polish officials, who have periodically announced such reforms, have been forced to abandon them after the economic and party bureaucracies refused to give up their monopoly on power. One dissident commented on the futility of the efforts, saying, "They cannot cut off the legs of the stool on which they sit."

Yet, lest one think lack of a social sense or the possibility of cooperation exists only in communist societies, I should hasten to say that I also have seen many of these same characteristics in non- communist countries where the masses of people are powerless.

Nor am I arguing that Western democracies are perfect. There is cheating and stealing in all of them, but such behavior is censured, not accepted. And from block associations to trade unions, people join together for social ends.

The French political scientist and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on that 150 years ago when he said that one of the strengths of American democracy was that, "Americans of all ages, all considerations and all dispositions constantly form associations . . . religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive . . . to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes . . . ."

And he warned, " . . . if the government really believes itself interested in preventing all circulation of ideas, it will then stand motionless and oppressed by the heaviness of voluntary torpor. Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers: Associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away."

Citizens need to have a stake in work and society; they need the impetus and possibility to join together to make them better. They need the sense of community and cooperation that the socialist utopians envisioned. That is the secret of "democratic man."