FOR years after World War II, Finland's Communist Party won about 25 percent of the vote and played a prominent role in Western Europe in governing coalitions. Today, the party is divided into warring moderate and hard-line groupings, which together obtain a scant 12 percent of the vote and separately no longer are considered serious partners. Finland is not alone.
Everywhere in Western Europe, once-powerful communist parties are losing votes, members, and influence. Their Marxist philosophy is discredited, and they face a wrenching dilemma: Either reassert their traditional philosophy, at the risk of losing more support, or move toward the social democratic center, at the risk of losing their identity.
It is little wonder dissension riddles communist ranks throughout the Continent. Several communist parties have split into competing mini-parties. In Spain, where communists were once the backbone of the Franco resistance, three warring factions generally win less than 5 percent of the vote. In France, so-called ``reformers'' and ``traditionalists'' blame each other for the party's recent fall to below 10 percent. Even in Italy, the West's strongest party with nearly 30 percent of the vote, communists see themselves in trouble, steadily losing support and prestige to the Socialist Party.
``Western Europe's communist engine has run out of fuel,'' contends Max Jacobson, the distinguished Finnish diplomat who has studied communism throughout Europe. ``After the war, the communists had a constituency and an appealing message. Today, no one believes in their promise of a better future.''
Communists once earned respect by leading much of the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe. Now the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are perceived as economic and social failures. In France, intellectuals and artists from writer Jean-Paul Sartre to singer Yves Montand lost their sympathy for the party because of Soviet oppression at home and abroad.
``I finally realized the dangers of the Gulag,'' Mr. Montand said. ``I cannot associate myself with those who estimate that the occupation of Afghanistan, the events in Poland, and the shooting down of the South Korean jetliner all are just acts.''
Ironically, such disillusionment comes at a time when the Soviet Union has a vigorous new leader who has dazzled Western European publics. Polls show that Western Europeans see Mikhail Gorbachev as a man of peace. And Oxford University professor Archie Brown says interest in his classes on the Soviet Union is booming. Even so, Mr. Brown says that almost ``none'' of his students are attracted by communism, an observation seconded by communists themselves. Despite `good guy' Gorbachev, Soviets seen as oppressors
Young Europeans ``see Gorbachev as a good guy and Reagan as a bad guy, but they still don't like the Soviet Union,'' acknowledges Jouko Kajanoja, secretary general of the hardline minority Finnish Communist Party. ``In their view, the Soviet Union is an oppressive place, where no one can travel and everyone is poor.''
Western Europe's relative wealth helps explain these feelings. Communists can no longer count on the support of impoverished rural farmers and a large, industrial proletariat. These farmers and workers have entered the middle class and have embraced bourgeois values.
``When you have a home, a car, a summer cottage, two kids, a dog, and even vacations to Spain,'' says B.O. Johansson, a director at the Geneva-based European Association of Free Trade, ``you're no longer so revolutionary.''
Even in poorer countries such as Portugal, communist parties are struggling. After left-wing Army officers overthrew the dictatorship in 1974, the communists bid for power and lost. Drawing on their proletarian base, the communists cultivated a Stalinist image and managed to maintain a steady 18 percent share of the vote in national elections - until last summer's parliamentary election. In comparison to charismatic conservative Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva, communist leader Alvaro Cunhal appeared old and tired. The party plummeted to 11 percent. Communists struggle to broaden their appeal
``The communists were unable to grow up with the country,'' notes Jaime Nogueira Pinto, a professor at Lisbon's Institute of Political Science. ``Young, better-educated Portuguese aren't attracted by their looks or their philosophy.''
Throughout Western Europe, communists are struggling with ways to broaden their appeal. In the mid-1970s, the ``Eurocommunist'' approach dominated. The Eurocommunists looked and sounded like social democrats: They stressed their independence from Moscow and their willingness to compromise on ideology.
Eurocommunism made the most inroads in Italy. In 1980, the Italian party broke almost all ties with Moscow after the suppression of Solidarity in Poland. Italian communists now even accept continued Italian membership in NATO. They also promote a market-oriented economic strategy. In communist-ruled towns such as Bologna, small and medium-size companies have prospered, and the communists are praised for providing efficient city services.
``When we think of socialism, we don't think of the Soviet Union, of China, of Yugoslavia,'' explains Bologna Mayor Renzo Imbeni, a ranking party member. ``We think of Italy.''
This very flexibility now confronts the party with a serious identity crisis. Bettino Craxi's Socialists preferred to strike a deal with the Christian Democrats. In an era of tax revolt, voters no longer stomach communist proposals for high taxes. Worst of all, by submerging Marxist doctrine, the communists blurred their image. They lost several percentage points in last June's elections.
``The communists are a little democratic and a little authoritarian,'' says Lorenzo Frassoldati, political editor of Bologna's Il Resto del Carlino newspaper. ``They say they are like all other parties and then they say they are different. In the last analysis,'' he concludes, ``people here don't trust the communists.''
A similar dilemma puzzles the French Communist Party, Europe's second strongest. After Socialist Francois Mitterrand won the presidency in 1981, four communist ministers entered the government. But the Socialists gradually shifted away from a left-wing economic policy to one of austerity and fiscal conservatism. In protest, the communist ministers resigned, while hard-liners and reformers argued over what to do next. The result: Last spring, the party's total vote plummeted below 10 percent to a 50-year low, and the conservatives returned to power.
``The Communist Party chose to take part in government, but refused to take the responsibility for governing,'' recalls Henri Fiszbin, a leader of the breakaway group, Rencontres Communistes. ``Rather than let the Socialist Party become the major party of the left, they decided it was better to hinder the Socialists.''
With Eurocommunism's failure, communists are divided over which step to take next. Some, such as Finland's Mr. Kajanoja, who broke away from the mother party to form his own Democratic Alternative, want a return to pure Leninism, even to some aspects of Stalinism.
``We became so involved in government, so integrated in the system, that the people don't see us as a real alternative anymore,'' Kajanoja complains. ``Workers now say, `All the parties are the same.'''
Others, like Oiva Bj"orkbacka, secretary of information in the mainstream Finnish Communist Party, want to construct a ``new left,'' reaching out to the new ``white-collar proletariat'' along with anti-nuclear activists, feminists and ecologists. In Mr. Bj"orbacka's view, alliances should be struck with mainstream socialist parties that share communist views on issues from disarmament to ecology. Soviets downplay ideology, seek to improve ties
``To achieve practical results, we must take part in governments in a capitalist country like Finland,'' says Bj"orkbacka. ``We won't be able to dictate the goals of such a government when we represent only one-third of its support. We will have to compromise.''
Moscow seems to agree with that position. In Finland and elsewhere, the Soviets first backed hard-line minorities, only to moderate their position under Mr. Gorbachev. They now back both parties; at last year's Soviet Party Congress, both Bj"orkbacka and Kajanoja attended on equal footing.
``The Soviets understand the big change taking place in Europe and have no illusions about a rise of communist support in Europe,'' explains diplomat Jacobson. ``They want to improve their relations with Europe as it is, and that means downplaying ideology and improving state-to-state ties.''
Some non-communists in the West worry about this new realism. French President Mitterrand, a man who spent most of his political career battling the French Communist Party for leadership of the French left, fears that West Germany could fall for Gorbachev and turn neutral.
Mr. Mitterrand's advisers warn visitors that the communist decline may be going too far, too fast. They fear that the total collapse of the communists could take away a necessary safety valve for social protest. Society's restless might otherwise turn to violence - or to the even more dangerous extreme right, they say.
When communist movements were strong, many feared that the Soviet Union aimed to use them to establish Soviet-style regimes in Western Europe. Such fears struck an especially responsive chord in Finland, which shares a long border with the Soviet Union and was forced to sign an onerous cooperation treaty with Moscow in 1948.
``As long as the Finnish Communist Party was strong, Moscow could hope to gain power,'' concludes Jacobson. ``Now the Soviets must accept Finland as she is,'' a Western capitalist country, ``a place where Soviet Marxism plays no role.'' The writer traveled to Finland, Italy, Portugal, and France to research this story.