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As reform-minded communists in Hungary are finding out, the road to real democracy is not always smooth. Instead of speaking with one voice, the Hungarian Communist Party is splintered into reformers and hard-liners who do not want to relinquish total control.

Perhaps it is too much to expect that all communist government officials are suddenly going to be avid advocates of democracy. Old habits die hard. Yet there is much to cheer in this week's Communist Party meeting in Budapest.The party adopted a new manifesto, first of all, getting rid of the very name "Communist," which apparently is regarded as a liability since the party has been losing 10,000 members a month this year. People are starting to feel free to quit. The organization has become, instead, the Socialist Party.

That might not be much in and of itself, but the party congress also overwhelmingly voted in favor of the establishment of a "constitutional state based on a multi-party system, where the source of power is in the will of the people expressed in free elections."

A year ago, such a statement would have rocked the entire East bloc. The fact that it is accepted with relative equanimity is a sign of just how far things have come in the Soviet Union and its East bloc allies.

The manifesto, if it is translated into reality, will be all - and more -that Hungarian freedom fighters sought in their courageous 1956 uprising that eventually was crushed by Soviet tanks and troops after weeks of bloody fighting.

In saying that it accepts a multi-party system where power is expressed by the people in free elections, the Hungarian communists are taking a real chance that they will be thrown out of office - and are saying they will accept it if it comes to that. At least the reformers are saying it.

Hungarians need to look no further than Poland to see what can happen when Communist Party candidates participate in free elections. In Poland, nearly every communist on the ballot - even those without opposition who needed only a vote of approval - was swept out of office.

The tension between Hungarian reformers and hard-liners is real. In some cases, they are not even speaking to one another. The reformers also lost a key vote when the party congress agreed to keep Communist Party . . . Socialist Party . . . political cells in factories - a form of indoctrination the reformers oppose.

Free elections, the first in 41 years in Hungary, are to be held by June. The newly named Socialists will remain in power until then.

Moscow is silent on the changes in Hungary, but based on various statements by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and what happened in Poland, no interference is expected in this breathtaking step toward democracy.

Hungary will remain a part of the Warsaw Pact. It includes all the East bloc nations in a military alliance with the Soviet Union. But in rejecting the communist system, Hungary and Poland can hardly be considered reliable allies in the future - if they ever were.

The world is changing. Dominoes are falling. But they are dominoes of an entirely different kind than envisioned back in the days of the Vietnam War.