'Eurocommunism" was a word to conjure with when I visited Europe last year. Now, in the wake of the French elections, it is said to be a thing that never was.

In fact, Eurocommunism still exist. Only it has turned out to be far less than it was cracked up to be.

At the root of all the confusion is an undoubted change in the Communist parties of Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. In one way or another, they have all been brought up to date - repackaged, as it were, for more properous, less ideological consumer societies.

Thus the Communist Party in all four countries regularly criticizes Moscow on certain human-rights issues. Even the French party, which is perhaps most in thrall to Russia, attacked the recent Soviet decision to withdraw citizenship from the great cellist Mstislav Rosptropvich.

A second undoubted change is willingness to work with middle-class parties. The Italian Communists have carried this trend furthest in the move toward a "historic compromise" with the ruling Christin Democrats. But the parties in France, Spain and Portugal have also all moved at times to work jointly with democratic political groups.

A third change is a move toward a less dictatorial party structure. In France, cell meetings are supposedly open to the public. In Spain, where the Communists are competing with a dynamic Socialist Party, the party leader, Santiago Carrillo, isatalking of genuine elections to party office. He at least implies jettisoning Lenin's insistence on control from the top, or "democratic centralism," much as Stalin has been cast aside as a guide on human rights.

A fourth change has been willingness to take into the party, in leadership posts, persons of nonproletarian origins. Many of the top figures in the Italian Communist Party are aristocrats, among them Secretary General Enrico Berlinguer.

These changes go beyond mere cosmetics. They have an inner dynamism, and they make an indent for further changes over time. They promote evolution.

But so far the West European Communist parties have not been transformed. For one thing, they still seek a monopoly of power.

Thus the Italian party would like to enter into coalition with the Christian Democrats by the route of "historic compromise," Berlinguer and his men are fully confident they can outshine, and eventually crush, the old-fashioned and ailing Christian Democrats.

In marked contrast, the French Communist Party spoiled the chances of a left-wing victory in the recent legislative elections by advertising their support for nationalization on a grand scale and by their refusal to cooperate in defense matters with the United States and other NATO countries. This sabotage was committed because a left-wing victory would have established the Socialists as the leading French party, thus compromising, perhaps fatally, the chances for an eventual Communist takeover.

Despite, the show of openess, moreover, decisions are still taken in secret by the party bosses. It is now known that even at the height of their alliance, the French Communist leader, Georges Marchais, was denouncing the Socialist leader, Francois Metterrand, at secret meetings of the Politburo.

Finally, the European Communist parties still work, and work hard, for the Soviet strategic interest. All of them oppose the major defenses an international economic policies favored by Washington. All of them have beacked Russia's allies in the Middle East and Africa - not to mention Cuba.

In sum, Eurocommunism is very much alive. But it is what it has always been: an upadated version of communism pure and simple. It may have a broader appeal in Western Europe, but it remains a threat to the interests and values cherished by most Americans and most Europeans. So the right policy is to draw out for as long as possible the entry for power of any Communists in any West European country.