BUDAPEST — JANOS BARABAS knows just how hard it is to be a communist reformer. Mr. Barabas was the Hungarian communist ideology chief who championed the party's transformation into a Western European-style Social Democratic party. Today, he is out of his job.
The new Hungarian Socialist Party decided that his past association with the former communist leadership made him suspect.
``Barabas was considered a liability,'' says Istvan Degen, a leading Socialist party advisor. ``He shifted too many times with the wind to earn real trust.''
Everywhere in Eastern Europe, communists today are on the defensive. Their ideology is criticized, their membership is declining, and their once-formidable organizations are collapsing.
In a desperate attempt to recoup, East European communists are replacing their uninspiring leaders with more telegenic figures less tainted with the past.
This ``reform'' strategy is accompanied by an ideological switch toward Western-style ``democratic'' socialism.
``When I think of socialism,'' Barabas told the Monitor, ``my model is Austria or Sweden.''
But identifying themselves as Social Democrats did not solve the Hungarian party's problems. Hard-liners split off to form their own ``worker's party.'' Reformers in the new socialists invalidated their old party cards and asked members to re-enroll. Of the 700,000 members before the congress, only 50,000 have chosen to renew their membership.
``The communists are finished,'' says Miklos Haraszti, the leader of the opposition Free Democrats. ``They can never win a free election.''
Mr. Haraszti and Barabas make for an interesting comparison. Both attended the same Budapest District 6 High School, both are in their middle 40s, both are Jewish, intellectual, and ambitious - and both see themselves as working for a democratic, Westward-looking Hungary.
But when Haraszti turned against the system after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Barabas believed it would be more constructive to work within the communist power structure.
Under Janos Kadar, the Hungarian communist leadership was the most reform-minded in Eastern Europe. Instead of following Joseph Stalin's dictum of ``whoever is not with us is against us,'' Mr. Kadar avoided purging the best and brightest by propagating a more flexible doctrine, ``Who is not against us is with us.''
``I became convinced that Kadar was much wiser than [failed Czechoslovak leader Alexander] Dubcek,'' Barabas recalls. ``The only way to reform a communist system was slowly, from within.''
When the Soviets forced a halt to the ambitious Hungarian economic reform in 1972, Barabas went along. He said he thought about quitting, but decided he still could do more from within than without. He took a job in the Central Committee as an assistant to then ideology chief Janos Berecz.
``None of us really liked Barabas,'' says a Hungarian journalist. ``He had a thirst for power.''
Barabas visited the United States and was impressed. He liked to receive Western correspondents and always offered frank answers to tough questions. At the time, no other Central Committee official in any other East European country offered such useful briefings.
``The old Kadar compromise no longer worked,'' he admitted. ``A mere reform of communism no longer sufficed.''
He said he just was waiting for the appropriate time. It came with Mikhail Gorbachev's ascent to power. Barabas formulated a much more radical version of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), abandoning Mr. Gorbachev's limited goals for the radical ones of discarding the entire centrally planned economic system and one-party rule.
To position himself, he broke with the rigid Mr. Berecz and became a first party secretary for Budapest. In June 1989, after reformers wrestled control of the party leadership, he replaced Berecz as ideology chief.
Under Barabas, the party's strategy seemed to be that the best form of advance is retreat, that by transforming itself into a West European social democratic party, the Hungarian Socialist Party could win some 15 to 20 percent of the vote in a genuine election. Such a result would build respect for the discredited party.
``Perhaps it's good if we go into opposition,'' Barabas said. ``I look at Social Democrats in West Germany. They are in their eighth year of opposition and still earn respect.''
The admission was stunning. But it did not work. Reformers within the party led by Imre Pozsgay and Miklos Nemeth argued that all former hard-liners should be forced from power. Only by making a complete break with the past, they said, could the party regain credibility with disillusioned voters.
Party leader Rezso Nyers, a cautious man, opted for party unity. As the father of Hungary's economic reform, he also was a reformer. But he remembered how after the Soviet pressure forced him from the Politburo in 1973, Kadar had permitted him to retain a position at the Academy of Science where he could continue to develop his ideas.
``Kadar's greatest quality was his ability to avoid grudges,'' he says. ``He could have destroyed me. Instead he saved me for a more propitious time.''
So while Mr. Nyers agreed to purge old-fashioned, outdated communist ideology, he argued against holding grudges for moral and tactical reasons. If the party split, it would split its potential vote. It would also turn its back on loyal hard-working members.
Nyers' arguments failed and he could not save Barabas. After the party congress, the position of ideology chief was dropped. Barabas was proposed as ambassador to Moscow, but the party's parliamentary committee rejected the nomination. Barabas still receives some ``assignments'' from Nyers from ``time to time.'' But he is thinking of leaving politics.
``I would like to work as a management consultant,'' he said. ``When I was in America, I met many management consultants. It sounds like a fascinating field.''