With the prudence of a revolutionary already burned by excessive zeal, Ethiopia is pressing cautiously ahead with a plan to collectivize agriculture in the image of other communist countries whose ideology and institutions it has embraced.

Unlike the Soviet Union or China, where collectivization entailed massive upheaval, coercion and famine, Ethiopia is approaching the formation of collective farms initially on an almost experimental basis. It is even making it extremely tough for peasants to qualify as bonafide members of what are known here as "producers' cooperatives."

The Ethiopian effort to form collectives is an excellent example of the impact of communist ideology on a poor Third World country. Ethiopia stands as a good test case of its relevance to the increasingly crucial problem of agricultural production that is plaguing all Africa.

It remains to be seen whether Ethiopia will ever redort to a "green terror" to force peasants into collectives and destroy the kulaks , as rich peasants are called here and in the Soviet Union. But so far there is no sign the government is thinking in such terms, and the present intense concern about boosting production has ended, at least temporarily, a votriolic campaign in the state-controlled press against those "capitalist" peasamts.

After 18 months of persuading, enticing and, in a few instances, pressuring Ethiopian peasants into the new East German-inspired cooperatives. the government in November released the latest figures underscoring the modest progress made so far in turning a cherished communist principle into a fledgling reality on the tough Ethiopian soil.

Only 41 cooperatives, having just 5,000 members and covering about 30,000 acres, have been officially certified as collectives, although another 506 are being formed that include 39,400 peasant families and 215,000 acres.

Ethiopia's peasantry, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the country's 32 million population, is estimated to include between 4 and 5 million households. This means less than 1 percent has been affected so far by the drive for collectivization.

"It is an extremely delicate political matter." admitted one Ethiopian official, noting how opposition to the military-led government had initially exploited the issue to scare some peasants, particularly in the south, into selling or slaughtering their animals and burning their crops. "We must go slowly."

So it has gone, for the first time in a six-year-old revolution most noted abroad for its violent destruction of Ethiopia's ancient monarchy, as well as for its radical land reform pitting peasants against landlords, separatist wars and "red terror" to crush all opposition. In fact, the collectivization decree has yet to be published in the official government gazette 17 months after it first appeared in the press.

Some of the reasons for this go-slow approach became apparent with a visit to the Kuriftu Producers' Cooperative just outside this rich agricultural market center 60 miles south of Addis Ababa in the Rift Valley.

Established in 1975 as one of the country's 25,330 peasant associations. Kuriftu was carved out of nationalized, high-quality land once belonging to one of Ethiopia's largest aristocratic families, that of Ras [Prince] Andargachew Messai. It borders on the country's main sugar farm on the Awash River at Wonji.

Not until early November did Kiriftu, started in rudimentary form as a service co-op with the birth of the peasant association, finally meet all the criteria set out in the June 1979 decree on collectives, including the pooling of members' individual farms, animals and tools into one large common holding and proving its financial solvency.

Kuriftu is one of the country's 27 welbas , or higher-stage collectives, meaning its members have reduced their private plots to 1,000 square yards and are now paid workers just like those on the neighboring state farm.

Its members, numbering 255, were mostly former tenant farmers on the prince's estate or seasonal workers at Wonji, earning 38 cents to 75 cents a day when jobs were available.

The embryonic cooperative soon turned into a gold mine for its members, who took to planting sugar cane as "out-growers" of the Wonji plant starting in 1977.

Last year, the cooperative earned $208,000 from its sugar cane sales alone, though final profits were only $50,000 because it had to repay loans. This year, having increased the acreage from 168 to more than 360, it is projecting nearly $250,000 in cane sales.

The cooperative is also growing 530 acres of cereals and vegetables, from which it expects to clear around $200,000 in profits this year in addition to the proceeds from sugar cane.

Bezeh Masella, the 38-year-old newly elected chairman of the cooperative's seven-member executive council and a former seasonal worker, explained how the co-op works.

Kuriftu's 255 working members, 40 of them women, are organized into five "brigades" varying in size from 64 to 114 persons, according to the difficulty of the work. The largest brigades are needed for the sugar cane fields.

The members are paid on the basis of a point system according to how hard they work and what jobs they do.Each point is worth 15 cents. But the daily minimum has been tripled now to $1.05. Most members get paid between $75 and $100 once every three months as an advance against their share of the earnings, and use this money to buy their food.

This virtually assures them an annual income three to four times the national per-capita level of $131.

Asked what he had done with his new-found wealth, Bezeh said he had built his own house for the first time, gotten married and bought a milk cow and a radio. For a tenant farmer or seasonal laborer, this is big progress.

The co-op's overall earnings, Bezeh said, will be divided this year according to a plan drawn up with officials from the local branch of the Ministry of Agriculture. Most of it -- 78 percent -- is earmarked for workers' wages. The remainder is divided in the following manner: 60 percent for buying materials and tools; 25 percent as a reserve; 13 percent for social services and 2 percent for special bonuses.

Kuriftu, like the 40 other producers' co-ops scattered around the country, is basically a model operation being used to convince the peasants that collectives are better than individual plots as a way of farming. But ministry officials are frank in admitting that it is primarily landless peasants and tenant farmers who so far have bought this argument.

Strangely, or perhaps wisely, the government has not made it easy for a co-op to be officially recognized. It must first meet 49 separate criteria, of which the most difficult are working according to an overall plan and demonstration of an understanding by its members of the concept. Furthermore, a collective must be virtually a going financial concern before it is certified.

"The plan is very important," explained Taeme Hagos, the head of the Ministry of Agricilture's local office "But the most difficult is the correct level of political consciousness. A member must believe he is working for himself and not for the government or the landowner. He must understand the other members are his brothers and sisters."

Whether even the peasants of Kurftu really understand what a collective is remains questionable. Bezeh, reflecting on the change in his life brought about the land reform and now the producers cooperative he leads, seemed to think as much like a good capitalist as a socialist.

"Now when we work, it is our property," he said referring to his vast increase in wages. "I know that when we work hard I will get good money. If I don't work, I won't get good money. We are pleased because we have planted a vast area. Giving the land to the tiller, that was the best thing the revolution did."