Hungary is having a great passport ``rush,'' and it provides an intriguing illustration of trends and pressures in the East bloc these days. The rush came in the wake of an official decree, effective Jan. 1, that all Hungarians have a legal, ``basic right to travel'' where they wish, limited only by their pocketbooks.
The passport offices were bowled over by what followed. Applicants formed lines at 5:30 a.m. In one Budapest district alone, there were 800 requests daily; in two weeks countrywide, there were 70,000. Officials pledged nonetheless to process all applications within 30 days.
It didn't mean Hungarians were voting with their feet against the regime. For them, emigration is not the issue it is in East Germany, where requests to emigrate are escalating dramatically.
There, since the year began, the authorities have blown hot and cold, letting some people go and barring others in sheer alarm at the possible dimensions of emigration to West Germany.
But those circumstances are peculiar to a divided Germany. No similar situation applies in Hungary. Moreover, past experience with an already comparatively liberal travel policy has shown that Hungarians are avid trippers to the West, but that few now stay on.
For those waiting in lines outside passport offices, this recognition of passports by ``right'' means, above all, an important political step forward in a country where the old Communist Party monopoly over all aspects of its citizens' lives is increasingly being challenged.
Similar pressures for reform - from outside and from within the parties themselves - are visible throughout the East bloc. There are widely differing reactions from communist officialdom. Party leaders profess themselves for reform, but not all really are.
The East Germans claim that economic success renders reform unnecessary. The Romanians ignore it. The Czechoslovaks indulge in semantics and translate Mikhail Gorbachev's word for the ``renewal'' of socialism as ``strengthening,'' i.e., of the existing system. Anything more drastic could (in Prague's orthodox view) mean the budding of another ``Prague spring,'' a brief flowering of political activism and reform that was cut down in 1968.
Willy-nilly, however, this question of the powers and nature of the party of the future is pushing itself to the forefront regardless of official latitude or toughness. Today, acute economic problems cry out for the sort of political reform that is becoming the prime issue everywhere under communism.
The common, central issue is the ``leading role'' of the party. The Yugoslav Communist Party is to some extent democratized. Most Yugoslavs simply ignore it and go their way. But, in essence, Belgrade's leaders are as opposed, or as reluctant, as later reformers in Eastern Europe to diminish their authority in favor of meaningful, institutionalized concessions to political pluralism.
In Poland, Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski - a preeminent ``liberal'' champion prior to martial law - says the party stands for democratization, but that does not mean its ``right'' to govern is up for grabs. Existing coalition parties in Parliament should have a bigger role, he says, but only through more open consultation. There is no place for ``opposition'' as such to party policy.
In a February interview with Italy's communist paper L'Unit`a, Lech Walesa committed himself to ``peaceful, evolutionary'' struggle for reform. The government, he said, ``is going in the right direction.'' He had not previously said anything quite like that. But the authorities have yet to test him at his word, even though for some time Mr. Rakowski and others have hinted at readiness to talk with the independent trade union.
Official pragmatism lends more substance to the scene in Hungary. Nowhere in the East bloc is the party's role questioned more actively, as - almost ironically - the ``right to travel'' controversy illustrates.
The right was ``decreed'' by the presidential council. Many people said it should have come through Parliament. It won't, one is assured, happen that way again. Constitutional changes are foreseen that are intended to prevent the nonelected council from usurping government and parliamentary prerogative.
A future party leader is not likely to have the kind of authority Hungarian leader Janos Kadar wielded for 30 years. ``He will not have the power to act as a king,'' says an informed official. ``And names, and who succeeds, are not so important any more. What matters are the trends behind them.''
Orthodox communist ideologues still reject pluralism as a threat to the party. But, by and large, the Hungarian party - like Mr. Gorbachev - is beginning to admit it can no longer expect to retain a monopoly in public affairs.
But where Hungary, or the Soviet Union, might go from there is an open question for the future. Communist parties everywhere are not yet ready to abandon the Marxist mystique of the ``leading role.''