So the Soviet elite is once again in Party Congress assembled. Anything is possible, especially in Moscow, and we may see some surprises. But all expectation is of yet another well-managed demonstration of insecure self-satisfaction.

It will, however, be an occassion for us to comtemplate the men who control the strongest armed forces and the dreariest social order on the planet. It may not seem a very appetizing task. But rather than making moral judgments, we should surely think of the ways in which they are different from us in their basic attitudes that has been forgotten by many in the West over the past decade.

When President Carter said that the invasion of Afghanistan had changed his view of the men up on that platform, he was confessing that his previous view had been wrong. This earlier view had been, as he put it, that the Kremlin was either intent on improving the living conditions of its people or on destroying the world, and that he was forced to assume the former. But there are other and truer possibilites: that the Soviet leaders do not want general war but do want the fruits of victory -- by every means short of general war.

We all naturally tend to project onto others such motivations and attitudes as appear reasonable to us. It requires a continual effort to avoid doing this when we consider the Soviet leaders: the effort, moreover, is one not merely of the intellect but also of the imagination. All the extraordinary delusions and miscalculations about Soviet conduct that have marked the past few years can be traced to this single fault.

Simple as the error is, it would not, of course, have had so much influence on policy had it not been supported by much complex intellectual and expert argument. A whole school of skilled misinterpretations arose. Their common point was the assumption that the Kremlin believes itself to have an equal interest with us in a peaceful and cooperative world community. But this is contrary to both its expressed principals and its long-established practices.

The Soviet leaders are the product of a history very different from ours, and are the representitives of a totally alien political psychology. They derive from that past, which, in Chekhov's words, "weighs upon a Russion like a thousand-ton rock." Though it is true, as Solzhenitsyn emphasizes, that there were civic developments in Russia's history -- the merchant republics of Pskov and Novgorod, the Republic on the Waterfalls -- the dominant theme was bureaucracy and serfdom. Again, it is true that the beginnings of a civil order were taking shape in the last half-century of czarist rule, with the emancipation of the peasantry, jury trials, a rudimentary parliament with opposition parties, an opposition press; but it was precisely the achievement of the Bolshevik Revolution to destroy them.

And yet that historical background, itself different enough from our own, is as nothing compared with the party background. A slice of the Russian political spectrum so narrow that five years before the revolution its membership was well under 10,000 seized control in 1917. The Bolsheviks already were noted, even among the Russian revolutionaries, for their "Tarter-Mongolian savegery," as Rosa Luxemburg put it. And the present leadership is in turn the product of the frightful forced unnatural selection of the Stalin Terror, which cut an even thinner slice of that aberrant millenarian sect. The only way to survival, let alone promotion, was to denounce and inform -- there were even a decree branding non-denouncers as themselves enemies of the people. Moreover, while some even of the original Bolsheviks had had a remnant of the Western ideas of objective truth and civilized practice, the new cadre came from that social stratum that had never been touched by the half-century of Europeanization.

They are not simply people who have different opinions from us. Their attitudes are soaked into their bones, and they can see the world in no way but that of antagonisms, of Lenin's "Who-whom."

The essentials of this belief are, first, a closed system of political ideas; second, the primacy of politics over all other spheres; third, a view of history, and of the world in general, that sees struggles and clashes as the only mode of action; fourth, the universal applicability of the system throughout the world; and finally, the insistence that no extraneous moral considerations should be taken into account, the political aim justifying any means.

This is the case with the present rulers and their immediate successors. In 10 or 15 years we will begin to see the rise of slightly different, though not much more reassuring, type, now filling many of the seats in the body of the hall.

Sakharov notes of them: "I like this new layer of leaders even less than its predecessors. . . . It is more flexible . . . but there is a dreadful cynicism, careerism and a complete indifference to ideals in international affairs. As far as internal matters go, they only care about the trough they swill from, and what matters is that the trough be full."

Their belief may have gone, but their attitudes, training and operational experience have been very much in line with that Leninist "Who-whom?", which might in this context be interpreted "Dog eat dog." They still automatically see the political world as a venue of struggle, in which they defend and extend their powers and privileges. And, as Sakharov suggests, they have kept the Leninist attitude of seeing no moral questions arising in their pursuit of their aims. Leaving ideology aside, if one imagines the worst sort of Western tycoon -- J. R. Ewing, say -- and multiplies his faults a few times, one can get an idea of the younger Soviet political milieu.

Thus we seem to have an older generation of fanatics and a younger one of power-maniacs, both concerned to protect and extend their power and devoted to enmity against any system that offers an alternative. The central point, as Sakharov shrewdly notes -- and particularly of the new men -- is their "total unaccountability to their own people, and to the whole world -- this dual irresponsibility being interrelated." Perhaps among the thousands of delegates there is one who is looking around with the same revulsion you of I might feel? Perhaps, but I doubt it.