NEW YORK, OCT. 9 -- From the Starlight Room at the Waldorf-Astoria, the future of socialism looked remarkably rosy today.

The Socialist International, the umbrella organization of the world's socialist and social democratic parties, closed its annual council meeting at that improbably capitalistic hotel here with a sense that history is on the side of its moderate, steady and often boring approach to social reform.

Since 1917, the parties of the Socialist International have plugged away in the stop-and-go world of free elections for health insurance, labor rights and other aspects of the welfare state.

In the meantime, communism made its spectacular rise and communists regularly attacked social democrats as sellouts. Now that communism has gone through its spectacular flame-out, the social democrats can be forgiven a bit of gloating.

"We are fed up with visions," said Jan-Pierre Cot, a French socialist who leads the socialist group in the European Parliament. "We have to get down to practical and modest tasks."

The social democrats are also uneasily aware that their communist rivals did the cause grave damage by taking many socialist ideas and most of the socialist words -- including socialism itself -- and putting them to the service of dictatorship.

"I know the word 'socialist' does not have a very favorable connotation for many Americans -- and nowadays, I am afraid, for people in other places too," said Willy Brandt, president of the International. "Let's face it, socialism has been discredited by the mess created in the so-called 'socialist countries.' "

The irony, said Svend Auken of the Danish Social Democrats, is that the old communist parties in Eastern Europe are now trying to grab the social democratic label as their own. "They put us in jail in April," he said, "and in September, they're all social democrats."

If the idea of the world's socialist leaders meeting at the Waldorf is surprising, it probably shouldn't be. Although the Socialist International got its start in the working-class movements inspired by Karl Marx in the 19th century, its member parties have been part of the Western European establishment for half a century.

In fact, for socialists accustomed to European-style hospitality, the Waldorf really wasn't up to snuff at all. Anna Petrasovits, the leader of the Hungarian Social Democrats, complained that her room-service breakfast never arrived despite repeated calls -- and hers was only one dissenting voice among many.

Other socialists didn't like the image created for their movement by the Waldorf, especially since the theme of this year's meeting was cooperation between the world's rich and poor countries.

"One night's stay here is more than the annual per capita income that we have in many of the Third World countries," said P.K. Adhikary, a member of the Nepal Congress Party.

As seen by the delegates here, the 1990s present social democrats with three central challenges.

The first is to make social democracy a competitive force in Eastern European politics and to make sure that the transition to a market economy in the region is accompanied by labor rights and a strong social safety net.

One of the toughest speeches on that theme was delivered by Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, which contributed heavily to anti-Communist opposition forces in Eastern Europe.

"The mouthpieces and organs of business enterprise would have you believe that freedom and democracy are borne on the wings and in the pockets of capital," he said. "Yet they were nowhere on the battlegrounds where freedom was born again, except as distant co-conspirators with the forces of oppression."

While social democracy as an idea has considerable support in Eastern Europe, social democratic parties -- which were strong in the pre-Nazi, pre-Communist years -- have fared rather badly in recent elections there.

Petrasovits, the Hungarian Social Democratic leader whose party managed only 3.6 percent of the vote, said that part of the problem was that anything with "socialist" or even "social" in the title was looked upon with suspicion in her country.

"People will say, 'This is such a good party, why do you have such an ugly name?'" she said. She added with a laugh: "People actually suggested that we change our name to the Republican Party."

The International's second key objective is to promote international economic policies which simultaneously encourage both Third World development and economic growth in the wealthy countries.

Claire Short of the British Labor Party argued that "it's not that the rich world is all getting richer and the poor world is all getting poorer." In fact, she said, many people in the rich countries have seen their standards of living drop in recent years even as the world's poor countries got poorer still. "There's a shared interest in changing the rules in the interest of development," she said.

Several of the Third World delegates were surprisingly upbeat about the prospects for social democracy in the world's poorer nations.

Ousmane Tanor Dieng, international secretary of the Socialist Party in Senegal, argued that the failure of both extreme Marxist and right-wing authoritarian approaches to development have created a yearning in the Third World for a third, and more democratic, way.

The third challenge facing the social democratic movement is not unlike that facing Democrats in the United States: Trying to revive popular faith that government intervention can be a positive good.

"We had to agree that there was something in the right-wing criticism of the overregulated systems we had in the 1970s," said Marjanne Sint, president of the Dutch Labor Party. Auken of the Danish Social Democrats said that socialists are responding to this criticism by pushing for decentralization of government and more popular participation in the management of programs.

In the meantime, Sint argued that the tide is turning back toward social democracy. "In the beginning of the 1990s," she said, "people are beginning to see that the free market is the solution for the strong, but not necessarily for the not-so strong."