The Hungarian Communist Party has closed the book on ``the Kadar era'' and at the same time marked a watershed in East bloc communism. Janos Kadar, who pioneered important reforms in Hungary, was retired over the weekend, after open calls for his stepping down. (Kadar profile, Page 12.) Yet his departure seems to have propelled the Hungarians into ambitious new reforms.
Never before has a Soviet bloc party opened its affairs so fully not only to its own citizens but also to the outside world. Except for a closed session Sunday to elect the new party committee, party leader, and political executive, the entire proceedings of the special conference of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party were wide open to some 200 foreign newsmen, mostly from the West.
The party platform hammered out here commits future leaders to a wide spectrum of democratization. These democratic reforms cover the party itself but also provide opportunity for nonparty initiatives on the democratic front. A legal ``right of association'' is promised which may in the near future embrace the ``independent'' trade union and youth organizations now appearing in Hungary. Such groups enjoy, if not yet official approval, at least a certain toleration.
Mr. Kadar's successor, Prime Minister Karoly Grosz, is seen, both by party members and by a still skeptical public at large, as bringing a necessary new dynamism to the regime's long commitment to reform.
He is, for the present, to combine the premiership with his new post as general secretary of the party. The step caused some surprise since it seems to be inconsistent with stated aims of the ``renewal'' process to separate party and state and free the government of party interference in its affairs.
Two senior party officials - both now in the new political committee (the Politburo) - described the move as a ``temporary arrangement,'' a practical one needed in a transition period, but only until parliament approves a new premier at a special reform legislative session later this year.
The Hungarians are aware that their ``new economic mechanism'' of 1968 was the first step toward market economics within the East bloc. For them it meant also increasing social tolerance, including freedom of travel and a certain amount of freedom of speech.
Later, however, world recession as well as frowns from Moscow during the later Brezhnev years put the brake on further reform.
The advent three years ago of Mikhail Gorbachev, armed with his ideas of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) changed all that. Mounting disenchantment at home, where Hungarians both in and out of the party had seen expectations of rising standards of living dashed by economic stagnation, provided the reformers with a mandate for change.
A ``network of democratic initiative'' groups is already struggling to be legally born as well as a ``league of democratic youth'' already counting several thousand student supporters. Unlike the more radically extreme groups which mushroomed up in Poland in 1980, they wisely are not setting out to challenge the ``socialist'' constitution but to find a place within it, independent and autonomous but ready to work on equal terms alongside official institutions.
The new dimension was evident from the start. The veteran Mr. Kadar acknowledged the need for reform going beyond an old guard's ``revolutionary'' concepts. In that sense he insisted again that even a restructured party must still - in the old jargon - fight on ``two fronts'' against both conservative dogmatists and the ``revisionists'' (liberals and utopian reformers).
Speakers from the floor, including provincial party leaders, quickly made plain, however, that was not what they wanted. ``We want new words, new faces, and new deeds,'' said Mr. Gyorgy Barta, from Budapest Technical University. And the delegates who later showed their esteem for Mr. Kadar made clear with their applause that this was what they also most expected.
Mr. Grosz is also committed to democratic reform. But he leaves no doubt that beside being a man with a hard, intelligent head he also has a firm fist for over-impetuous, overradical reform.
Imre Pozsgay, secretary of the mass ``umbrella'' organization, the Patriotic Peoples Front, and one of the newcomers to the executive, has for years now been the most radical champion for thorough-going change in party practice and in Hungarian life in general.
He demands an entirely new political approach based on ``much more individual freedom and responsibility.'' The time is not yet, he says, to undo the one-party state.
But he leaves no doubt that ``renewal'' does not preclude the emergence of a ``loyal socialist opposition'' party or the reappearance of an old party like Hungary's Social Democrats, who had a brief fling after the World War II, until the Rakosi dictatorship was clamped on Hungary.