Progress, of a dubious stripe, was made by Sen. Paul Laxalt on his trip to the Philippines last week. The Nevada Republican, dispatched by President Reagan as a "personal envoy," did not repeat the 1981 toast of George Bush to Ferdinand Marcos. The vice president gushed, "We love your adherence to democratic principles."

The love match appears to have soured. In exchange for being the model anticommunist the Reagan administration cherishes, Marcos was promised, in 1983, $425 million in military aid for five years. Another enormous sum, $1.3 billion, is about to be sunk into modernizing two of the Pentagon's Philippine bases. For all that, we've gotten insults from Marcos, a stronger guerrilla movement and another reminder to the world that the United States refuses to understand the reasons for Third World revolutions.

Laxalt's in-and-out visit to Manila was designed to put, if not the fear of the Lord into Marcos, at least the fear of Washington. That hasn't meant much before to the dictator, nor should it now. The Laxalt exercise was little more than a quick hop seeking a quick fix. Running foreign-policy errands was a first in the senator's career. His main credential in Washington is being the First Friend of Reagan. Marcos was somehow supposed to get into his thick tyrannous head that he should suddenly reform his government because Laxalt wasn't another mere State Department functionary furrowing a diplomatic brow.

It is probably too late to reason with Marcos. In power for 20 years, he is a master in the martial arts of stopping dissent through illegal arrests, torture, detentions, disappearances and killings. Human-rights groups portray him as one of the earth's most ruthless strongmen. Since 1972, by one estimate, torture victims and political prisoners have numbered 70,000. They have been held in more than 170 jails and prison camps.

Heinous is not too strong a word to describe the Marcos policies. On May 11 in Quezon City, Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, a government critic, spoke at a funeral for a priest slain by a paramilitary group. Sin said of life and death under Marcos: "The mounting frequency of these assaults on human life where Filipinos kill Filipinos is fast becoming our own version of Argentina's 'dirty war' and of Nazi Germany's Holocaust. If we continue in unabated violence, our generation shall soon achieve the grisly record of having slain more fellow Filipinos than were killed in our wars against foreign invaders."

It wasn't the ceaseless human rights violations that prompted the administration to send Laxalt to Manila. The fear is that the revolution is beyond control and -- no hard guessing here -- the rebels are not likely to be the pliant minions the United States has been accustomed to in the Philippines. Overreactive fear of "the Communist threat" increases: The Philippines' national security is our national security.

The New People's Army, the 10,000- to 12,000-member military wing of the Communist party, is waging war against the Marcos military. Who's ahead? The erratic Marcos can't be relied on for the score. On "Nightline" last week, he presented himself as the master of the Philippine fate: "It is not true that the communist rebels are winning the war. They are surrendering in droves." Last June, it was the opposite. Marcos said that the "Philippines may have to call for military help from its allies to fight communist rebels. If the integration of aid and foreign-trained troops is so massive that it is equivalent to outright attack, then we may have to ask for the help of allied troops as provided for in the mutual defense pact." America, Marcos was saying, get ready to send your sons to die for me.

The case to be made against Marcos -- that he has shamed the United States as much as he has betrayed his own people -- isn't being advanced by the Reagan administration. Its interests are strategic, not developmental or humanistic. Three-fourths of the Philippine population is below the country's poverty line, which is already Third World low. A church human rights group in Manila reports that 400,000 unemployed farm workers face starvation in two provinces of Negros Island.

U.S. support of Marcos is based on the narrow idea that a friendly tyrant is better than a communist tyrant. Last year Reagan said that if we didn't back Marcos, it would be the communist "wolves." This ignores the large number of Philippine political leaders who are offering a third alternative. It's called democracy.

Marcos has been fighting that as much as the communism. The United States says, fight on.