The first African state to adopt Marxism as its official ideology, Congo is experiencing a revived debate between "moderates" and "ideologues," sparked by the recent weakness of the international oil market and the country's continued warming of relations with the West.

The Central African nation of 1.8 million persons is dependent on receipts from its petroleum exports, which dictate the pace of all other economic activity in the country.

After experiencing an average annual growth rate of 10 percent between 1981 and 1983, Congo's economic growth has slumped sharply. Optimistic estimates put annual growth at 1 percent in the next two years.

Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso has tried to confront the economic slump and has undertaken an ambitious development strategy.

The plan aims to create road and rail networks to previously inaccessible timber and minerals, so Congo will have other productive industries when the oil runs out in the next few decades.

After Congo's years of close relations with the Soviet Union and isolation from the West, Sassou-Nguesso engineered, in 1980, a rapprochement with Congo's former colonial power, France.

This was followed by renewed diplomatic relations with Britain and closer ties with the United States.

A diplomat here noted that previous attempts at improving relations with the West were "contributing factors to the downfall of the country's two previous presidents." A core of Marxist-Leninists within the ruling Congolese Workers' Party opposed perceived "revisionism" of the revolutionary zeal of the 1970s.

Sassou-Nguesso, who took power five years ago as revenues from the petroleum sector began to materialize, has hinged his development strategy on good ties with the West.

About 90 percent of Congo's oil production of about 120,000 barrels per day is sold on the spot market to American companies and consumed in California, where its low sulfur content meets that state's stringent pollution guidelines.

Much of the $500 million annual income from oil sales is used to hire French, Belgian, British and American firms for construction of the national road and rail network.

A western diplomat said, "Marxism provides a unifying creed for A diplomat noted that previous attempts at improving relations with the West were "contributing factors to the downfall of the two previous presidents." the tiny political elite here, allowing it to transcend tribalism. However, there is nothing particularly Marxist about the Congolese economy, which resembles its capitalist neighbors in the high level of state involvement."

A minister in the ruling party's Politburo said, "We are not too red."

Congolese Marxism is often rhetorical. The country disagrees with the United States in votes at the United Nations more often than does the Soviet Union.

Major roads in the capital, Brazzaville, are lined with red placards proclaiming: "The five-year plan is everyone's business," or "Earn your daily bread through work."

The legendary sleepiness of Brazzaville (pop. 500,000), with its colonial-era buildings and tree-lined boulevards recently has given way to high-rise office towers and modern hotels. Construction crews raise dust throughout the city.

Thanks to the oil boom, Kinshasa, the much larger capital of Zaire and less than a mile away across the Congo River, no longer casts such a long shadow over Brazzaville.

Congo's recent burst of growth, which created and fulfilled rising expectations in the country, has come at the cost of heavy indebtedness. With falling oil prices and numerous short-term loans due, the country is experiencing a liquidity crisis.

Prime Minister Ange-Edouard Poungui said in a recently published interview, "We are about to enter a period of turbulence and must buckle our seat belts to get through."

The economic problems have renewed the debate over the relationship the Congo should have with the West.

An observer in Brazzaville said, "Though the country no longer can keep up with its bills, it is politically impossible for the moderates to call in the International Monetary Fund, which is seen by the ideologues as the ultimate arm of imperialism."

Instead, the president reportedly put together a team of moderate ministers to work with the World Bank and draw up a "structural adjustment program."

A diplomat described the structural adjustment package, announced last month, as "having everything the IMF would have wanted except the IMF label."

The package calls for a three-year freeze on wages in the civil service, a sharp cut in government expenditures and sale of some state monopolies.

The political polarization caused by this austerity package is revealed in statements made by party hard-liners. Camille Bongou, permanent secretary for political organization, said, "We have to obey our own economic realities and not the orders of the IMF. Their policies lead to riots."

Less than a month after the announcement of the package, statements from the powerful Ministry of Civil Service cast some doubt over the future of the proposals. One minister has said civil service promotions will proceed normally and benefits will not be reduced.

The party's ideologue, Alphonse Foungui, set the tone of the emerging debate in an interview with the local press. "We can no longer remain on the defensive. There is no question of handing over the state sector to private interests," he said.

One observer noted, "The president has not succeeded in placing enough moderates in the crucial positions to carry out his program, and the party's ideological barons are opposing the austerity measures more and more openly."