THE big question as the Communists of Hungary and Poland jettison their party names and most of their old ideology is whether their successors can hope to find a meaningful role in their countries' political future. The Hungarians have already got a new, respectable name. Though the Poles have yet to follow suit, 70 percent of the party members recently voiced support for a change. They want to be ``social democrats.''
Both parties stopped calling themselves ``Communist'' parties after their respective uprisings in 1956. They became ``workers'' parties - the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party and the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP). But even that language is now out.
The buzzwords are socialist (in Hungary) and social democratic (in Poland). The choice, apparently, lies between being a ``socialist democratic'' party or one that is ``democratic socialist.''
This hair-splitting, presumably, is to minimize identification with ``social democrats'' and ``socialists'' per se. Those were the names of bourgeois leftist parties that the Stalinists gobbled up after World War II.
The PUWP (or whatever it finally calls itself) seems to have small chance of an early rebirth.
In Hungary, elections are not due until next spring and the party's prospects could be better. By that time, a new constitution will be in place, under which the socialist (nee Communist) party will have to compete - on unaccustomed equal terms - with the independent groups and parties that are mushrooming.
But many Hungarians are skeptical. The party's presidium contains names unknown until now. Its top men, though solid reformers, had major roles as communists. Moreover, the reformers speak of these new parties in language reminiscent of the past.
Hungary's revamped party is unlikely to emerge as the largest one in the 1990 polls. But it may have enough support to gain more leverage in a coalition government than the Polish party did last June. ``They've changed the name,'' says one reformist. ``Now we must wait to see if the nature has changed, too.'' So, too, one must wait to see how a motley collection of dissidents - Free Democrats or Democratic Forum, vintage Social Democrats, Peasant, and Smallholder parties - will shape up. They have time, but also an uphill task. They lack resources and face an electorate unschooled in democracy. Nonetheless, the possibilities were underlined in four Hungarian by-elections this summer, in which Democratic Forum candidates defeated Communists by margins of 3 to 1.
Serious reformist East European governments, beset with debts and inflation, have no option but to embrace socially unpalatable policies in the quest for economic recovery. New tensions over new austerities would be a godsend for the hard-liners.
Then there is the Gorbachev factor. Should the Soviet leader fail with perestroika - and his difficulties are increasing, not diminishing - the impact will hit Eastern Europe hard. The degree of Soviet tolerance for Warsaw and Budapest would diminish. And so, too, the opportunities for opposition parties to be effective.