The Italian Socialist Party appears to be acquiring a stronger identity. This may seem small progress, but it is a positive step for a party that for some 30 years has wavered between collaborating with the Italian Communist Party and the conservative Christian Democrats.
''What (party leader) Bettino Craxi has given the party since his election in 1976,'' says Frederico Coen, editor of the Socialist weekly Mondo Operaio (Workers' World), ''is first and foremost political autonomy and identity.''
According to Socialist politician Luciano Pellicani, today's Socialist Party has made the fundamental choice of alliance with the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Republicans, and the Liberals, its four government coalition partners. It ''holds as its natural enemies, on the one hand, the political and economic right-wing parties, and on the other hand, the Marxist-Leninist left.''
What Craxi's party appears to have aimed at - and to some extent achieved - is to take Socialist Party policy away from what was considered its old-fashioned Marxist postwar roots, which identified it as a party for soft-line leftist workers. It has gone after the professional, industrial, and cultural vote.
The average Socialist voter now, according to political scientist Salvatore Sechi, is middle class, male, relatively young, and educated. Mr. Sechi adds that more votes are coming from the industrial areas in the north.
''We have made a definite choice for European social democracy as opposed to the Soviet stamp of socialism,'' Mr. Coen.
On foreign policy, the Socialists have necessarily adapted to Mr. Craxi's position as prime minister and taken a distinctly Westward turn. Craxi has collaborated with American Euromissile policy, but in Lisbon last week he offered his own proposal to halt missile installations in order to resume East-West negotiations.
Italy's prominent role in the Middle East peacekeeping force was another move by Craxi to put Italy and Italian socialism on the international map. It was also meant to erase the provincial image his party had before he took it over.
Another step to modernize and widen the horizons of post-industrial Italian socialism is the formation of a 400-person general assembly Monday as the party ended its 43rd national conference. The general assembly replaces the old governing central committee.
The assembly is divided into three parts: Socialist parliamentarians, both national and European; local and provincial Socialist administrators; and about 100 persons from the professional and cultural ranks, including economists, university professors, lawyers, financiers, film directors, painters, writers, historians, and designers.
Critics see this move as typifying the new kind of appeal the Socialist Party is making to bolster its fortunes and increase the gains it made in the 1983 general election, when it tallied 11.4 percent of total vote.
Among the severest of its critics at the moment is the Italian Communist Party. After tentative overtures to the left before the 1983 elections, Craxi has, for the present at least, abandoned any idea of Communist-supported or ''alternative'' government.
(The distant relationship between the two parties was evident in the derisive whistles that greeted Communist Party chief Enrico Berlinguer, a guest speaker at the Socialist congress, as he made his way to the podium.)
Relations were not helped by the Craxi government's anti-inflation proposals, which included cuts in workers' indexed pay rises, intended to combat the cost of labor. In a speech subsequent to his Socialist congress participation, Mr. Berlinguer criticized Craxi's ''lack of understanding for what today is the real cause of consternation in the spirit of a large section of the working class . . . and their protest against a government decree which presumes to fight inflation solely by cutting salaries and wages.''
While the Socialist Party has attracted stronger opposition, it seems to have built up greater internal strength.
Craxi is often accused in the press of being overbearing and having authoritarian attitudes, to the point of being likened to the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Although his strong leadership has not eliminated all the internal party factions so endemic to Italian politics, he has given his party a far greater unity than it ever had before. This unity is essential to ride out the political storms surrounding him, as both party and government leader.
Not the least of these is the scandal involving three Social Democratic government ministers whose names appeared on the infamous list of the Propaganda 2 Freemasons' lodge, which was outlawed in 1981 for ''anti-constitutional activities'' and for attempting to overthrow the government by creating a ''state within a state.''
The investigating parliamentary commission leaked a draft report to the press. It confirmed that the original list published in 1981 of 962 names, found in the possession of the P-2 lodge leader, Licio Gelli, as ''truthful.''
Craxi has refused to accept the resignation of the ministers. He simply refers questions on the matter to a parliamentary debate this week.
He condemned the leak of the parliamentary report. In his closing remarks to the three-day convention, he reminded his audience that such disclosure ''is punishable with six months' to three years' imprisonment.''