For years, the question in Eastern Europe was, "Can communism be reformed?" Now, suddenly, it is, "Can communism survive at all?"
Even the people who tended to discount events in Poland and Hungary as exceptional are having second thoughts after the resignation of East Germany's Communist leadership last weekend and the continuing disintegration of the party in Czechoslovakia.
In none of the four East European nations caught up in the process of democratic change can the Communists find much cause for hope.
In Hungary, the Socialist Workers (Communist) Party threw in the towel in October and reorganized itself as the Socialist Party--and lost 95% of its members in the process.
In East Germany, the party is officially in the hands of a caretaker group pending a party congress this month. On Monday, the opposition urged that there should be free elections early next year.
In Poland, a Solidarity prime minister already heads the government, and last week, a glum Mieczeslaw Rakowski, head of the Polish United Workers (Communist) Party, told Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel, "When I think back over the last 40 years of Communist rule in Poland, it seems to me that communism may have been good for the Communists but not for Poland."
Here in Czechoslovakia, it seems that the party's policy-making Central Committee now meets only in emergency session. A rival reform wing has announced that it will put forth a program of its own at a planned "emergency congress." The opposition seems to be circling for the kill.
The region's party leaders seem to be in a competition to see who can sound the most progressive. But for 40 years they have been intimidating the people, and their credibility is so undermined that their conversions are either rejected or simply ignored.
Valtr Komarek, a longtime member and director of Prague's Economic Forecasting Institute, was asked the other day if the Czechoslovak Communist Party is reformable. He replied:
"It's been clear to me for several years that communism is nonsense. . . . Every educated person knows that. The only thing that can be a serious subject for discussion is socialism. But even here it's not clear what they want or how it should be formulated."
The Solidarity leader in Poland's Parliament, Bronislaw Geremek, agreed. He said in a recent interview: "Nobody knows what it means--socialism or capitalism. What kind of socialism? Pol Pot's (a reference to the former Khmer Rouge ruler of Cambodia), or Swedish socialism? We want a return to parliamentary democracy of the European type. And we know we want the return of the Polish economy to the free market. The free market economy is not capitalist or socialist. It is the normal market."
The Polish Communist Party "was not really a party," Geremek said. "It was a structure for the distribution of privileges.
"It never happened that a Communist Party could cope with democracy and freedom. So the transformation under way in Warsaw means the end of the Communist Party. And I think one can say it proudly. They know it, and we know it. The only question is how to do it."
While Polish workers forced change from below, the Hungarian party initiated it from above. But it failed to keep control.
"One of the lessons," said Jeno Kovacs, a former Communist Party official now on the presidium of the new Socialist Party, "is that if you say 'A' then you must say 'B,' 'C,' 'D'--all the way to 'Z.' You cannot stop halfway. And all attempts that have been aimed at stopping halfway have caused the kinds of problems that could have been avoided. That's what caused the split within our party."
Janos Berecz, one of a group of former Socialist Workers Party officials trying to resurrect the Hungarian party, argued that in order to have a truly democratic system, it is necessary to have a healthy political left.
Jaromir Sedlak, a Czechoslovak party activist instrumental in organizing a reformist wing that calls itself the Democratic Forum of Communists, agreed.
"Probably in the next election we will be beaten," he said in an interview, "but I think there is a role for a reformed Communist Party, maybe on the left wing of the Social Democrats."
The big problem, he said, is how to give such a party a unique and attractive public identity.
If a Communist Party is to play a key role in the future of this region, the party in Czechoslovakia has as good a chance as any. It is a big party, boasting 1.7 million members in a population of 15 million people; the Hungarian party, at its peak, had only about half that many members despite a population two-thirds as large.
In the last free elections in Czechoslovakia, in 1946, the Communists got 40% of the vote against 23.6% for the second-largest group, the National Socialists. Even before the war, the Social Democrats and Communists together regularly polled 20% to 25% of the vote.
Among older Czechoslovaks, the party is not totally discredited. They still remember that it was reformists in the party who led this country's last, ill-fated march toward democratization--the Prague Spring of 1968.
The opposition Civic Forum has taken public aim at the post-1968 party leaders who reimposed a repressive regime, expelled tens of thousands of Communists and purged from responsible positions hundreds of thousands of others who sympathized with the reforms.
It has said repeatedly that it is not anti-Communist but anti-totalitarian.
"The Civic Forum does not want to eliminate anybody from public life and naturally takes into account all Communists," dissident playwright Vaclav Havel said in a weekend interview with the Communist Party newspaper Rude Pravo.
"There is no doubt that among (the Communists) there are endless numbers of clever, talented, productive people who for decades had to keep silent the way all non-Communists had to keep silent. It seems to me that the task of the Communists is to renew their party as fast as possible, so that it becomes a modern party which gave up totalitarian methods of government and which will enter the future pluralistic democratic system like any other political party."
Havel makes it sound easy. But in fact--and despite the pace of change in East Europe--it has never been done here.