THWARTED REVOLUTIONS do not fit into simple categories of death or resurrection. Only the coroners of history can be sure what regenerative sparks live in the ashes of Poland's audacious hopes for freedom. In either case, what occurred in that nation just before martial law was imposed at dawn last Sunday will be highly relevant to the ultimate verdict on Poland 1980-81.

The tumult of reports out of Poland before the door slammed shut obscured, among many things, the significance of a bizarre twist on the Watergate tapes episode which produced "the smoking gun" that shot Richard Nixon out of the White House in 1974.

Poland's tape-recording incident, which took place in the city of Radom, was dubbed "Radomgate" by the Poles. But its political impact was exactly the reverse of the American counterpart. It was used by Poland's Communist government as one of many instruments to discredit and disarm its challengers, the 9.5 million-member Solidarity movement headed by Lech Walesa.

Walesa, ostensibly leading only a labor union, was quoted on the government-acquired electronic tape forecasting to a closed meeting of Solidarity's national presidium that "confrontation is unavoidable and will take place," and declaring, "we are picking a road for a lightning-speed maneuver.... After all, let us realize that we are bringing this system down ..."

The words, thrust repeatedly at the nation by government-controlled radio, television and press, sounded inexcusably damning. Walesa did not deny he spoke them. Instead he protested at a press conference on Dec. l0 that his words were wrenched out of context -- as they clearly were -- and "distorted."

Solidarity, Walesa insisted, wanted "national accord," not "confrontation." He said "confrontation" meant only "strike" in union terminology, not an attempt to seize power by force. The record bears out that explanation. It was the threat of a nationwide strike that Solidarity counted on to thwart a government attempt to bring it to heel.

Walesa -- as the Polish Communist government knew for certainty -- was the leader of the forces of moderation inside Solidarity.

But Walesa, at Radom, was in the shrinking minority; he had lost control of a union movement which encompassed the hopes and dreams of Poland's 2,000-year history. At Radom, Walesa was fighting a rear-guard action to try to keep that movement from spilling over the abyss. He therefore coopted the language of Solidarity's militants, in order to hold back the flood: to gain time to devise, with the Catholic Church hierarchy and the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, a political compromise for ruling Poland.

The critical developments in Poland make sense to the outside world only in a Polish context. Who could believe, for example, that one of the most decisive tests of strength in the sequence leading up to the declaration of martial law was a sit-in at a school of firefighting in Warsaw? And that the issue at stake was the proper interpretation of draft legislation on higher education?

What happened in Poland is comparable to an amalgam of Greek tragedy and Rashomon. For the struggle for dominance in Poland was, and still is this weekend, overwhelmingly psychological, even though it may now appear to be predominantly physical.

On the evidence now available, the champions of liberalized Communist rule in Poland without bloodshed -- notably the principals and behind-the-scenes advisers of Solidarity and the Roman Catholic hierarchy -- were grievously outmaneuvered. The primary designer of that strategy, which culminated in the military takeover of Dec. l3, was Premier Jaruzelski, with multiple authority as defense minister and leader of the Communist Party and of the Polish government.

Jaruzelski was acting as a Pole first and a Communist second, most senior American analysts still believe. As one said on Friday, "He probably sees himself as the savior of Poland." Jaruzelski, however, disagreed with Solidarity's leaders, and with the Catholic church, about the minimum requirements for Communist rule in Poland, and especially about the Kremlin's breaking point. No outsider can know exactly what advice and support Jaruzelski received from Soviet strategists; but there is no reason to doubt that, as with any Communist leader in Eastern Europe, he is considered discardable by the Kremlin if he outlives his usefulness.

Was there any real prospect for a general like Jaruzelski, a former unemployed electrician like Walesa and the primate of Poland, Archbishop Jozef Glemp, establishing a broad national front to advise a Communist government on how it should rule Poland? When this unusual trio met in Warsaw on Nov. 4, hopes ran high in Poland."

Jaruzelski, long lauded for once saying that Polish soldiers would never fire on Polish workers, was said to be resisting demands by orthodox Communist "hardliners" in Poland's Politburo to call on the country's parliament to legislate an outright ban on strikes of any kind. But on Nov. 27, as negotiations with Solidarity foundered, Jaruzelski told the Central Committee the Politburo had decided to introduce a strike-ban law.

Deputy Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski, former editor of the journal Polityka and a leading Communist moderate, said in a Yugoslav interview Nov. 29 that while the party explored with Walesa a front composed of "seven social forces," nevertheless "the party retains its leading role ... We will strive to retain an influence of more than 50 percent in the front as well as in every other organization."

A month earlier, the Polish army had spread into public life on unprecedented scale in peacetime. Army "territorial operational groups" were sent into the countryside to "act against disturbances" in food distribution and to help "solve local disputes." A government spokesman said street demonstrations and "propaganda excesses with anti-state and anti-Soviet tendencies" were getting out of hand; "all this created the impression that some chapters of Solidarity are aiming at provoking a test of force with the authorities ... aiming to create a confrontation."

The testing ground finally chosen to face down Solidarity was in the center of Warsaw, at a school for firefighting cadets operated by the Interior Ministry, which controls Poland's internal security forces. A sit-in by about 300 cadets, supported by the Warsaw chapter of Solidarity, began there Nov. 25.

As "hostages," the students held the academy's commander (a colonel) and two deputies. The sit-in paralleled strikes in about half of Poland's colleges and universities, with demands for privileges and student autonomy. To the Interior Ministry, demands from "a semimilitary" student body not only were "illegal," but more a mutiny than a strike.

After eight days of unsuccessful moves to end the strike, on Dec. 2, in a military-style assault, a helicopter landed heavily armed riot police inside the compound and other forces smashed in the door, seizing control and removing all occupants. The students were allowed to go home, and 11 persons were temporarily held for interrogation, including Solidarity's local vice president.

Central Committee Secretary Stefan Olszowski, a leader of the "hardliners," when asked by Warsaw Radio if it had been a deliberate "demonstration of force," confidently responded, "This was a demonstration, of course, although ... not ... with the use of force, because none of the officer cadets or any of the law enforcement organs entering the place suffered any injury."

The largest injury was to the prestige of Solidarity. In a challenge on poor terrain -- a twilight zone between military and civilian institutions -- Solidarity had decided to pass.

Lech Walesa, after meeting that same night with the Presidium of the National Commission of Solidarity in Warsaw, went to a balcony to address several thousand tense students and Solidarity members. "The union is a powerful weapon hanging over the authorities," he said, "but it can't be triggered all the time. Our struggle is just beginning. We must go into the battle with much thought and reasoning, not in a fit of nerves."

Walesa's entire strategy in leading Solidarity was at stake the next day when the union's Presidium began two days of debate at Radom, 60 miles south of Warsaw.

During a break in debate on the first day, he was quoted as telling members of the Radom Works Commission: "You notice that our union is withdrawing, that it is losing ground. And you are right. We can do things so as not to withdraw, but from the beginning we have avoided this and we will do everything possible to achieve something with the lowest possible cost to ourselves."

For months, the tide inside Solidarity had been turning against Walesa's counsel of moderation. On Nov. 23, an Oslo newspaper quoted Jacek Kuron, the former leader of KOR (the Social Defense Committee) and a key intellectual adviser to Solidarity, as saying that "Solidarity's leaders have already lost control of their members."

"All the strikes and protest actions relating to the crisis-like food situation originate from the grassroots," Kuron continued, "and there is nothing that Solidarity's leaders can do but take note of them."

"This winter," Kuron said, "will be like walking a tightrope across an abyss. But I am convinced that we (Solidarity) will manage."

Solidarity could only "manage," it was decided at Radom, by taking on the government's challenge and facing it down.

A declaration emerged charging the government with duplicity in its negotiations, and setting Solidarity's own conditions for accord, including an end to "union repression" and "genuine reforms." If a law was enacted to ban strikes, the resolution stated, Solidarity should "respond with a 24-hour national protest strike, and in the case of repressions, with a general strike."

Those closed-door talks produced the so- called "Radomgate" tape. According to one of the most knowledgeable journalists in Warsaw, Bernard Guetta of Le Monde, Walesa was one of a tiny minority of "three leaders" who voted against the Radom resolution.

Walesa's public comments the next day stressed the risk of being "carried away" at this "critical point." The Radom resolution, Walesa insisted, was only a recommendation, which required talks with "the workforces" and regional boards of Solidarity to hear "opinions on these very important matters."

Walesa met twice the next day and night, Dec. 5, with his major ally, Archbishop Glemp, for help in averting a collision. The government itself, however, was now secretly committed to just that, and Radom helped it to set the stage.

Starting Dec. 6, the government-controlled radio, television and newspapers launched a continuing, double broadside: selected tape excerpts from the Radom meeting, plus declarations that Solidarity, with "ruthless designs" on an "exhausted society," had now "assumed the position of a political opposition force embarking on open struggle."

Solidarity countered that it had "not rejected national accord"; that the Radom talks produced only a "draft resolution" for a National Commission meeting on Dec. 8 -- now postponed -- and that the nation was being victimized by the government's "propaganda activity." There was no "mounting wave of strikes," Solidarity said; instead, "the number of people on strike has decreased by more than 10 times" since October.

The government, however, easily held the propaganda advantage. Some Western observers concluded that was the overriding purpose of "Radomgate" -- to make it impossible for Communist moderates to advocate compromise with Solidarity.

Archbishop Glemp warned members of parliament that a law which would "seriously limit civic liberties" by banning strikes could endanger "the destiny of our country."

Many Solidarity leaders were certain the government would back off. A regional chairman, Zbigniew Bujak, told a throng in Poznan's sports arena: "Neither the army nor the militia will march against us.... a general strike would bring down the government."

Walesa told reporters that Archbishop Glemp's intervention, and the absence of strike-ban legislation on parliament's agenda for its next session, Dec. 15, meant that negotiations with the government would resume after a weekend meeting of Solidarity leaders in Gdansk, starting Dec. 11.

The Solidarity conference in Gdansk, however, produced exactly what the government needed to top off its own plans -- formal defiance of Communist rule.

In Gdansk, one of the most radical leaders, Jan Rulewski of Bydgoszcz, proposed a referendum of Solidarity members to show if the authorities enjoyed public confidence -- and, beyond the obvious answer, to vote on creation of a provisional government to organize free parliamentary elections. The idea ignited the conference. On Saturday, Dec. l2, Solidarity's leadership proposed a national referendum on the Jaruzelski government; on establishing a new government with free elections, and on defining Poland's military relationship with the Soviet Union.

There was barely time for the decision to circulate. The curtain dropped on the Polish stage at about 11 p.m. Television went off the air; news circuits inside Poland were cut; police seized Solidarity's Warsaw offices.

With the nation in shock, Gen. Jaruzelski announced at 6 a.m. Sunday, Warsaw time, that only military rule could save Poland from toppling into "an abyss." Everyone was where they were supposed to be in the military's operational timetable: Solidarity's entire leadership was bottled up in Gdansk; the Catholic primate of Poland, Archbishop Glemp, left Warsaw as scheduled a few minutes after 6 a.m. to say mass at the sanctuary of the Black Virgin at Czestochowa.

The initial takeover was a model of military precision. It reflected cumulative experience in the forceful suppression of dissent gained by the Soviet Union and its allies in the decades since World War II. But it left two towering questions: Can crude force be maintained in Poland? And, if so, at what cost for both East and West?