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In Prague, Communists Try to Save Party

`IF you donate 1,000 crowns to the Communist Party, you become a member in good standing. ``If you donate 2,000 crowns, you receive a form saying you used to be a member in good standing.

``If you donate 3,000 crowns, you receive a form saying you never have been a member.''

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The black humor in this Czechoslovak joke shows the desperate straits East Europe's Communist parties find themselves in. Peaceful revolutions are crushing their power. Their ideology is being trashed, their membership is declining, and once formidable organizations are collapsing.

Everywhere in the region, the parties are split and struggling to recoup. In Czechoslovakia today, the Communists are holding an emergency party conference. If the practice in other East European countries holds true here, the Communists will drop Karel Urbanek and replace him with a more telegenic, reform-minded leader. The odds-on favorite is Vasil Mohorita.

The East Germans already have opted for a similar strategy. At the first session of their special party conference last week, apparatchik Egon Krenz was replaced by the young Gregor Gysi, a lawyer who defended dissidents.

The second part of this ``reform'' strategy often is to change the party's name and promote a new ``democratic'' socialism. The Hungarians opened this path at their October congress, dropping the title Socialist Worker's Party in favor of the ``Socialist'' Party. The East German party changed its name last weekend. The Czechoslovaks could make a similar move this week.

``We must accept that Communists no longer have a monopoly on socialist ideas,'' says Rudolf Prevratil, leader of the Democratic Forum of Communists. ``We want a new party program, new people leading the party, a reduction in the party bureaucracy by about 40 percent.''

The Democratic Forum of Communists has sprung up in recent weeks, already has 60,000 members, and has put remaining party hard-liners on the defensive.

``There's a lot of pressure from within to restructure the party,'' says Petr Uhl, a leader of the opposition Civic Forum. ``In this milieu, I see a chance for the Communists to become a true democratic force.''

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Identifying themselves as social democrats, however, may not be enough to solve the party's problems. When the Hungarian party reorganized itself, only about 60,000 members remained from an organization that once counted more than 700,000.

Membership ranks elsewhere also are shrinking. In East Germany, more than a half million members have handed back their membership cards over the past few weeks. The Czechoslovak party refuses to release exact figures. Party leaders in factories and offices reportedly refuse to take back cards.

``In my wife's office, more than half of the party members have resigned, but the party boss refuses to accept the resignations,'' says Karel Dyba, an economist at the Institute of Forecasting. ``I think the same thing is happening all over the country.''

Amid this turmoil, the Czechoslovak Communist leaders seem unable to formulate a clear political line. Leaders of the opposition Civic Forum say attempts to fill the vacant presidency have bogged down.

``No one represents the Communists,'' complains Petr Pithard, a leading Civic Forum official. ``At our meetings, they appear confused,'' unsure of what to do.

The uncertainty may prove fatal. Many doubt that any East European Communist Party will be able to recover. The Hungarian party led its country toward democracy, but still is doing poorly in the polls.

``No Communist will win a free election,'' predicts Miklos Haraszti, a leader of the Hungarian Free Democrat Party. ``After 40 years of being cheated, people simply can't trust them.''

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