Secretary of State George P. Shultz kicked off President Reagan's "crusade for freedom" yesterday with a pledge to a special State Department conference that the United States "will not ignore the individuals and groups in communist countries who seek peaceful change."

Shultz told some 75 scholars, journalists and labor leaders at a Conference on Democratization of Communist Countries that "we do not seek to foment violent unrest or to undermine communist regimes. Yet . . . it is our responsibility, both moral and strategic, to meet their calls for help. We must aid their struggle for freedom."

The two-day conference that opened yesterday is the first public sign that the administration is moving to follow through on the president's proposal before the British Parliament in June for a "crusade" to foster democratic ideals.

"The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy -- the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities -- which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means," the president said in his London speech.

Several conferences and studies, not all related to the communist world, are planned for the next couple of months, according to a State Department official. In addition, the American Political Foundation is undertaking a study related to the Reagan theme. The foundation is a joint creation of the Democratic and Republican parties and began operations in 1980 to maintain contacts with democratic political parties around the world.

Political parties in many European countries maintain active international relations programs, including funding of like-minded groups in other countries, but such activities are rare for the major American parties.

Under secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger set the theme for yesterday's conference in an opening address in which he said: "The United States has long supported the growth of democracy abroad. . . . Yet, to date, we have usually concentrated our efforts in countries already well on the path toward freedom and pluralism. We have not done enough to foster democratic institutions elsewhere, particularly in communist states.

"We intend to spread the idea of democracy on the battlefield of ideas, not at the end of a bayonet."

Eagleburger's special assistant, Ambassador Gerald B. Helman, is overall coordinator for the follow-up to Reagan's London speech. The American Enterprise Institute helped in the coordination of the conference that opened yesterday.

In addition to Shultz and Eagleburger, speakers at yesterday's session included Vladimir Bukovsky, a Soviet dissident exile who now teaches at Stanford University; John Richardson, the head of Freedom House, and Vladimir Chalidze of Kronika Press, which publishes Soviet dissident literature.

Among participants were academic experts and representatives of labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO, the American Institute for Free Labor Developoment and the American Federation of Teachers. Also represented were Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, U.S.-funded organizations that broadcast to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the U.S. Information Agency.