London — Europe's Socialists have begun asking themselves a disturbing question: Is the spirit of the age against them?
In a period of prolonged economic recession it would be normal to expect parties of the left to gather strength as high prices and rising unemployment spark social and political discontent. Instead European Socialists and Social Democrats appear to be waging an uneven battle against more conservative forces.
In a number of cases they seem to have lost their appetite for office.
The London Economist magazine has brought the spotlight down on the problems facing the European left. In a survey of 15 countries it notes that whereas seven years ago some 54 percent of European cabinet ministers came from parties of the left, only 36 percent do now.
In 1975 there were twice as many Socialist ministers throughout Europe as the combined total of Christian Democrats and conservatives. Now socialist office-holders are in a minority.
Despite the swing to socialism in France that brought President Francois Mitterrand to power, the overall European trend appears to be against the left.
Ironically, moderate Socialists in some places are being hampered in their quest for popularity by the activities or radicals within their own parties.
Two cases of this stand out: Britain, where Labour Party leader Michael Foot is having to cope with an extrme left-wing challenge from Socialists ranged under the banner of Tony Benn; and West Germany, whose Social Democrat chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, heads a party containing many activists opposed to his foreign and domestic polices.
These splits in left-wing parties are tending to dismay and confuse voters who might otherwise unhesitatingly opt for socialism.
More difficult to analyze are the problems besetting the left in Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, where Socialists and Social Democrats have been showing a marked distaste for the traditional politics of coalition and compromise.
Sweden's Olaf Palme, ousted as prime minister six years ago, has continued to spurn the thought of associating with parties of the center.
In Norway, the Labor Party, the Center Party, and the Christian Peoples' Party together hold more seats than the minority Conservatives who are the party of government. The Socialists at present seem to have little interest in attempting to head a coalition that could bring Conservative rule to an end.
The case of the Netherlands, according to The Economist, is even more stirring. The Dutch Labor Party is dominated by a militant left wing whose enthusiasm for heavy state spending has been undiminished by worldwide recession.
Rather than track toward the center, Holland's Socialists have been content to stay on the sidelines and criticize their right-wing opponents, who are expected to do well in the Sept. 8 general election.
The implications for European Socialists are dispiriting. Because of their reluctance to make compromises to achieve office in coalition governments, they run the risk of being seen by the electorate as politicians who have no stomach for grappling with tough economic problems.
Notable exceptions to the trend are Italy, where the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi agreed to enter coalition governments two years ago; and Finland and Denmark, where Social Democrats have lately been prepared to assume a leadership role in coalition administrations.
Otherwise, the taste of power appears to have remarkably little attraction for many men and women of the left who a decade ago were hungry for office and in many cases achieved it. Gary Yerkey reports from Brussels:
France in the West, Greece in the East, exclaimed Greek Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou after his party's landslide victory - the country's first swing to socialism - 10 months ago. ''We will change Europe.''
But the tide appears to be turning. Political pundits here cite various, often widely diverse reasons for the leap of faith in party allegiance - to be tested again later this year in national elections in the Netherlands and Sweden , and probably in Italy, Ireland, and Spain.
Some analysts are saying the swing to the right - if it can be called that - has been the natural result of Moscow's military buildup over the past few years , coupled with the Soviet-backed events in Poland and the continued Russian occupation of Afghanistan.
''With the Russian border only a stone's throw away,'' said a Belgian official, ''we know better than anyone else what the full use of the Soviets' military might would mean.''
Even many of the most ardent peace activists in the Netherlands and West Germany support the continued presence of American troops in Western Europe and argue against installing new US nuclear missiles on their soil not because they are unnecessary but because they could be an excuse - a magnet - for a Soviet attack.
Also credited with bringing about the new bend to the right has been the recession and record postwar unemployment in Western Europe, which, ironically, has persuaded voters not to praise the trade union movement or the welfare state , but to sing the blessings of small favors.
''The average citizen today,'' a senior European diplomat said recently, ''longs for economic security, not change. Now is no time to rock the boat.''
A phenomenon that has drawn considerable publicity in West Germany - but also applies to much of Western Europe - is that of the expanding middle class. It is reflected in the oft-told joke of the skilled worker in Munich who buys a home and, having become a landowner, switches allegiance from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Opinion polls show that if an election were held in West Germany tomorrow, the CDU would win more working-class votes than would the SPD.
Elections this fall in several countries may bring some surprises. Analysts stress that the swing to the right has not been uniform throughout Western Europe. While electoral support for the Socialist cause has fallen over the past seven years in nine countries, it has risen in six.
''For all it's common-sense and sanity,'' observes an American diplomat here, '' Western Europe is somewhat less than rational when it comes to voting. Elections are often difficult to call.''
A poll taken just before the Greek elections last year found that only 5 percent of the electorate felt their vote would be influenced by foreign-policy considerations. Twenty-seven percent gave priority to the economy.