AS EASTERN EUROPE goes into another winter, conditions of life for its people are steadily deteriorating. The old economic system is collapsing faster than a new one can be built, and people whose lives were meager enough under the Communist regimes are now even less well off. They know that Western Europe got rich after World War II, and they are desperately looking there for the examples to guide them in jump-starting their own prosperity.

But it's easy to forget that the recovery in the West began slowly, and the rise to real wealth, comparable to this country's, took a generation. A lot of useful lessons can be drawn from Western Europe's post-1945 experience, and one of the most important is a matter of politics. Expectations in the West in those years of rapid progress were low, and people knew that many years of hard work lay ahead of them. In contrast the extremely high expectations in Eastern Europe are turning into a real menace to the newly elected governments there, as the Polish election demonstrated. A lot of people thought that the end of the Soviet empire would automatically mean a great leap upward in standards of living. There's not yet much appreciation for the time and effort that will be required.

The West also had some important advantages that the Eastern Europeans lack. The Organization for European Cooperation and Development, a sort of council of economic advisers for the industrial democracies, held a conference recently on Eastern Europe's prospects, and some of the close watchers made that point. Western Europe's experience with markets and parliamentary democracy was much more extensive and more recent in 1945 than the Eastern countries' is today. People in the West knew a lot about organizing both companies and political parties. In most of the Eastern countries, it's going to take time to learn those skills.

While the Marshall Plan of 1948 was a crucial part of the postwar recovery in the West, it was a response to the Soviet threat, and nothing so dramatic exists today. The danger currently is less visible. Eastern Europe is beginning to show a certain resemblance to the years after 1918, when uncertain new countries suddenly set free from the old empires were left to drift with the tides of power politics. That history makes a strong case for vigorous Western help now -- investment, humanitarian aid in emergencies, relief from the debts that the Communist regimes ran up and above all ensured access to the markets of the rich Western countries. But to make good use of it, Eastern Europeans are going to have to acknowledge that building the Western European economy was slow, difficult work -- and it's not likely to be any easier or quicker in the East.