Nine months after a national election that strengthened Italy's two other major parties at the expense of all the rest, the Italian Socialists are desperately trying to carve out a role for themselves and convince Italians and other Westerners that their 85-year-old party still has a future.

The growing polarization of the Italian political scene between Christian Democrats and Communists threatens Italy's smaller Marxist party, now less than one-third the size of its large Communist brother.

The continued Eastern ties of the Communists and their failure to win complete credibility have increased the rigidity of the Italian political system and led many top politicians to conclude that Italy's future would be much brighter if the roles of the Communists and the Socialists could somehow be reversed.

There is a widespread feeling here, in fact, that Italy's real dilemma is the failure of the Socialist Party, the country's third-largest, to emerge as a primary contender for power. The now largely pro-Western Socialists would be much more credible opponent for the Christian Democrats than the powerful Communists who now control 34 per cent of the vote.

"If we had the Communist's strength things would be completely different," says deputy party secretary Enrico Manca. "Italy would be much more like other European countries, where conservative and progressive groups vie for power and rule in alternating governments."

The first big question, the Socialists admit, is why since 1948 their party has been smaller than the Communists and steadily shrinking.

The second is how to change their image as a party unable to win friends or influence voters.

So far, the renewal and organization begun after last June's disappointing election results has had frew effects even through a group of younger leaders in their 40s has emerged.

But since a minority Christian Democratic government dependent on Communist parliamentary support was formed last summer, the Socialists - who ran a poor third - have played only a marginal role in national politics. This contrasts sharply with their participation in hundreds of local administrations.

The Communists and the Christian Democrats combined won 72 per cent of the vote, while the Socialists - whose withdrawal from a center-left coalition with the Christian Democrats had precipitated the early elections - saw their share of the electorate drop to barely 10 per cent.

According to political experts here the Socialists' gradual decline from the 20 per cent they won in 1946, in Italy's first postwar election, stems from an enduring identity crisis revolving primarily around the question of relations with the Communists.

A major split in 1947, which led to the formation of the pro-Western Social Democrats, cut into the party's electorate and enabled a pro-Stalinist element to maintain a tight grip on the party until after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The decision in the early 1960s to join a center-left government with the Christian Democrats marked a reconciliation with U.S. policy who until then had shunned the Socialists, but led a group of leftists to defect. An attempt at reunification with the more conservative Social Democrats quickly came to grief.

In this period, said Socialist parliamentary deputy Aido Aniasi, the Socialists were further undermined by the limited results achieved by the center-left.

"The vested interests of the Christian Democrats were too strong for us to be able to satisfy widespread expectations that our participation in government for the first time would really make a difference," he said.

But analysts like Alberto Rouchey say Socialist "incompetence" was also partly to blame, and there is a diffuse conviction here among non-Socialists that instead of controlling the Christian Democrats. The Socialists merely started eating from the same dish."

The Socialists also had to deal then with the competition of a better organized, more disciplined Communist Party that, because of its leading role in the resistance movement, emerged from the war with national prestige. So far the Communists have not been tainted by the failures or mistakes of governmental responsibility.

"In the immediate postwar period, the Communist Party benefited from an image based on the single-mindedness of its cardres, the drawing power of the Soviet myth, and the wealth of its mentor, the Soviet Union," said Ronchey, adding that a slight Socialist lead over the Communists in 1945 had been wiped out only two years later.

More recently, said Aniasi, the Communists have been able to attract support from a variety of socio-economic groups while the Socialists have lost support across the board because of poor performance, infighting and above all a lack of organization.

"Despite the fact that we have been the major champions of civil-rights issues here, like abortion and divorce, this has made only a minimal impact in a country whose votes for the Communists and Christian Democrats primarily reflect a desire for order," said Aniasi.

Last June's pro-Communist election platform worked primarily to the benefit of the Communists, who made huge advances to narrow significantly the gap separating them from the ruling Christian Democrats. "We shook the tree, but the Communists gathered the fruit," the Socialists complained. The Socialists are now worried that the incipient "historic compromise" between Catholics and Communists could put their party out of the running altogether.

Party leaders have been trying to tread a fine line between a pro-Communist policy and broader proposals - the latest is for bilateral talks with each of Italy's major parties - to keep lines open to both the Communists - and the Christian Democrats.

But his kind of ambivalence has angered the rank-and-file, which is eager to throw off the bad reputation the party's 15-year stint in the center-left experiment earned it.

In fact, the party is currently pushing for the creation of a new government that would be backed by a parliamentary majority to include all of Italy's six "constitutional" parties, from the Communists on the far left to the centrist Christian Democrats and the small Liberal Party on the moderate right.

Late in February a majority of the party's members of Parliament refused to join the Communists in calling for further investigation of a former Christian Democratic premier's alleged involvement in the Lockheed scandal.This provoked vehement protests from Socialists throughout the country.

What happened in February convinced Socialist leaders that a new alliance with the Christian Democrats is, for now at least, unthinkable.

"Our only chance," says Enrico Manca, "is to transform our image into that of an autonomous party whose well-known commitment to Western democracy enables it to try to reconcile the ideas of both socialism and democracy - something the Communists, for historical reasons, cannot do.

So party leaders have been trying to strengthen ties with the major Socialist and Social Democratic parties of Western Europe and hoping that the strong Socialist showing expected in 1978 - in the first elections for the European Parliament - may boost the party's prestige.

Such optimism also draws on the example of the French Socialist Party, which, after facing extinction, was brought back to life by leader Francois Mitterrand.

"The very fact that we still exist," says Manca, "leads me to believe that we have firm roots in this country and that there is thus reason for hope."

Many non-Socialists, however, are far less sanguine. "The Socialists will probably end up being absorbed by the Communists," says Alberto Ronchey. "The trend toward bipolarism is irreversible in an Italy that is, after all, a frontier country between East and West."