A pride of politicians, academics and journalists - many with global reputations - have been talking about democracy's future for three days and most have been despairing Cassandras.

Apart from a small handful, the prevailing theme was that the United States reflects democracy's moral degradation, and its multinational corporations are spreading a virulent disease throughout the world.

Sean MacBride, the United Nations high commissioner for Nambia, was typical of the sentimental leftists, Gaullists and Communists who dominated the 18-hour talkathon here.

There is, he asserted, "an enormous and complete collapse of public and private morality" that began with the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

Since then, he cited the U.S. war in Vietnam, President Nixon's disgrace over Watergate, bribery by the Lockheed corporation, CIA assassination attempts and what he said was a U.S. promoted arms race.

The captalist system is terrorism," he said, "and the people are forced to take up arms and revolt against the system." Even terrorists in West Germany, he suggested, are a "counter-reaction" to a "collapse of values."

MacBride is an authority on terror. He was a leading member of the Irish Republic Army in the 1920s, waging brutal civil war against the Irish Free state. He rose to become the IRA chief of staff in 1935 before turning to quieter pursuits. Later, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for founding Amnesty International, a private group protesting torture by governments throughout the world.

MacBride's summary was echoed frequently here in the meeting organized by the French government's radio, France Culture.

Archibishop Dom Helder Camara, whose open opposition to Brazil's dictatorship has earned him the reputation of a saint, dismissed Western Democracy as a possible model for the poor world.

It merely creates a society for "a small group of rich people," Camara said, and generates large corporations which practice "neocolonialism," and "love authoritarian governments."

MacBride and Camara did not say whether they thought democracy was flawed in Eastern Europe as well. MacBride, however, claimed that "socialist" countries, unlike the West, did not need an arms race to support their economies.

These notions are commonplace among professors, journalists and politicians in many parts of the globe and are heard in leftist circles even in the sturdy democracies of northwestern Europe. They are shared throughout much of the United Nations.

Luis Echeverria, the former president of Mexico's one party state who unsuccessfully sought both a Nobel Prize and the U.N. Secretary generalship, was another example. Democracy, he said, is held back in the Third World by "a very unfair economic order," the "hegemony exercised from outside" by developed countries who "exploit" the Third World's raw materials producers.

Like MacBride, Echeverria is acquainted with the use of terror. As the key official in Mexico's interior ministry, he directed the harsh police crackdown on student demonstrations that resulted in dozens of deaths in 1968 when Mexico hosted the Olympic games. He is currently his country's ambassador in Paris to UNESCO, the U.N. body charged with promoting culture.

A few voices defended more orthodox notions of democracy. One, Arthur Schlesinger, the former Harvard historian who served as special assistant to President Kennedy, argued that the Western version was stronger than its totalitarian rivals because it alone could correct errors by throwing rascals out of office.

In the meeting's most dramatic moment, Mario Soares, Portugal's first freely elected prime minister in half a century, turned with controlled passion on a French Gaullist who insisted that the "masses" naturally prefer dictatorship.

"You are very lucky to have lived always in a democracy's, Soares said slowly. "That is why you do not understand what it means to be deprived of freedom in a totalitarian regime. What you said is not true: and it shocked me . . . We have reconquered freedom in Spain, Portugal and Greece. You saw how freedom was unanimously praised in all three."

Soares was pressed to say whether he thought the Soviet Union was a socialist state, but he noted that he had duties as a premier which forbade a direct answer. However, he said, "Socialism without freedom is a caricature." There was some applause.

John Kenneth Galbraith, the retired Harvard economist, argued that Vietnam and Watergate in the end were "a triumph of democracy." Both, he said, demonstrated the ability of the American people to control and remove their leaders and to reverse a course leaders set.

Helene Vlachos, publisher of Kathimerini, who shut down her paper rather than publish under the Greek military dictatorship, also asserted that Western democracy was gaining rather than losing ground. In virtually every place where it does not exist, she observed, it has never existed.

But theirs were lonely voices. Much more typical were Iiedi Nouira, premier of Tunisia, and Vladimir Bakaric, a member of Yugoslavia's Communist executive bureau, extrolling the one-party systems in their land.

The conference was sponsored by France Culture largely in pursuit of French foreign policy. The Paris government thinks it gains influence with this sort of thing and held it in Athens since it is particularly interested in making Greece a protege.

The Athenians, who are said to have founded democracy 2,500 years ago, would have recognized many of the arguments presented here, including that of Nickel Debr", prime minister under General De Gaulle. Debre insisted on the primacy of a strong state and a strong leader. Plato might have liked that but whether Pericles, Sophocles and Socrates would have agreed with the central conclusions reached here this week is very much in doubt.