A recent decision by an Athens judge was simple and gave legal substance to what has long been accepted within Greek ruling circles: The very name of the Liberal Party belongs to the Venizelos family.

The decision was a reaffirmation of the hereditary nature of Greek politics, a traditional approach that places the political process firmly in the hands of the country's elite.

When rumors circulated that a Cretan politician was about to revive the Liberals, Nikitas Venizelos, the son and grandson of former Liberal premiers, stalked off to the court in Athens to lay claim to the party name that was part of his family legacy. The court's decision drew nods of assent from the political establishment.

The Greek "political class," said to number about 100,000 today, is actually a smaller percentage of the population than during the Golden Age of Athens, in 5th century B.C., when the active participants in political life seldom exceeded 10 per cent of a population of about 50,000 to 60,000.

The makeup of the current Parliament shows their pervasive influence.

Seventy per cent of the 300-member Parliament have served in Parliament before or are sons and daughters of those who held office before. Eleven are relatives of former premiers.

Streets are named after scores of legislators - Venizelos, Tsaldaris, Rallis and Tsatsos, all families that assumed social or political prominence at the turn of the century or, in some cases, during the 1821 war for independence.

In the view of one Western analyst, Greece is a government of men, not laws, a closed political society where class distinctions are reminiscent of Athens where power was held by the elitists and the rest of the nation were slaves."

In the cool, elegant lobby of the Hotel Grand Bretagne and in the outdoor coffeehouses dotting Kolonaka Square, policy is formulated, decisions reached and financial empires forged or broken. Economics, as well as political power, when not held by the new buccaneer ship owners and industrialists, is controlled by the political barons and their clans.

With such a society, operating on the basis of political and personal ties, Athens, although a city of 2.5 million remains a village.

"Everyone knows everyone," said political commentator George Stalios. "Everyone who matters, that is. At the end of the war, Athens was a city of less than 1 million. Then there was a massive influx of refugees from the war. Industrial units were expanded, the countryside was abandoned. Of course, the ruling class did not increase proportionately. Insofar as there's a general club element, we're still dealing with the graduates of Athens College, the network of old boys."

There are certainly some important exceptions. The most notable is Premier Constantine Karamanlis, who was born to an obscure family of Macedonia, the son of a village schoolmaster. Nonetheless, he has dominated the political scene, along with his hand-picked ministers, most of them from the elite, since the immediate postwar years.

For the most part, there is a sense of warmth and familiarity in this city. If you enter a sidewalk cafe without companions, there are always familiar faces, the offer of an empty chair.

The nature of the society leaves little room for privacy. Indiscretions become common knowledge and are discussed as if they were an intimate family affair.

"My greatest surprise about the coup of 1967 was how they kept it a secret," said opposition member of Parliament Sotiris Papapolitis. "Nothing in this country has been kept a secret so long."

Papapolitis, 35, one of youngest members of Parliament - a lawyer who was educated and has taught abroad enuniciated what is bothering many of his contemporaries: The political and social stagnation bred by the political elite.

Although his family has been involved in politics for the last hundred years, it is Papapolitis and the sons and daughters of other established families who are now in the vanguard of a growing current for change.

It was the aristocrats and their offspring who fought the most valiant battle in the proffessional and student ranks against seven years of dictatorship. Today, in their fledging, three-year-old democracy, the sons and daughters are demanding radical change.

"There is an irreversible demand to eliminate these dynasties," said Papapolitis. "An increase in literacy and education, immigration, urbanization - they're all involved. As we say in Greek, they're all cooking and cooking means pressure. Consider it in the context of the historical process. For socialogists, historians, political scientists studying revolution, these are the characteristic signs. And, if there is not an outlet, a political discipline and apparatus, the process will not be peaceful, I'm afraid. It is unbearable, it's crazy, in 1977 - the 20th century - to still have a feudal political and social system, a geronocracy ordering, arbitrarily, from the top."

According to sociologist Vassilis Filias, director of the National Center of Social Research, a massive move to the cities and the breakdown of family ties have already led to a number of changes in the social structure.

"There is growing pressure from politicized student generation, a general tendency against the hypocrisy of Greek life. This is one of the major elements that the country must cope with," Filias continued. "But the old establishment, the political barons, are working as a kind of oppressor, to ward off any change."

Papapolitis agrees with Filias. "Athens cafe society," he continued, "has closed its eyes to what's happening. By defenition, it's inimical to change. It's barricaded all streets to new blood that would inject dynamism, new ideas into the political process.

"Being the son or relative of a Greek patrician does not necessarily give you true qualifications, and there are an irritatingly large number of incompetents who have consistently occupied key positions in the state. The political elitists are a combination of Prussian military and mentality and Roman slave merchants. This is our political reality today."

A young deputy from the islands whose family had been involved in politics for years recently explained how without experience or any apparent qualifications, he had led the party's ticket.

"I felt," he said with unabashed honestly, "as though I deserved the place."