THE COMMUNIST system has proven methods of dealing with popular revolt. A crowd of demonstrators is met in the streets by riot police armed with truncheons, tear gas and water cannons. When that is not enough, you send out army units which defend the dictatorship of the proletariat by firing at the marching workers. This has been the method at Berlin and Poznan, in Novocherkask and in Alma-Ata.

It is much worse for the authorities when the central heating goes on strike. I remember one such rebellion last winter in Warsaw. All Warsovians, from generals to workers, sat with their teeth chattering in unheated apartments. What can the communist party's general secretary do in such circumstances? He could convene a centralcommittee plenum and push through a strongly worded resolution to the effect that the radiators' strike must be suppressed. But the radiators do not recognize the leading role of the Communist Party.

The general secretary could summon the minister of internal affairs and order him to "break the radiators' strike by force." And a police charge could be mounted. The radiators could be attacked with rubber truncheons, water cannon and tear gas. But the radiators fear none of these. Proud and self-confident, annoyingly composed, they would persevere in their resistance, revealing a weakness in the teachings of Marxism-Leninism.

At the root of the changes going on now in the USSR is the rebellion of radiators. A rebellion of inanimate objects has forced the authorities to introduce changes for which the heroic Soviet dissidents have been fighting for years. And this is why we say that this is the deepest crisis of all: The society proved powerless when confronted with a totalitarian state, but this very state proved powerless in the face of the rebel radiators.

It is from this angle that I look at the two staple interpretations of Gorbachev's policies. Those who perceive a prospect of democracy and human rights in them are wrong. But so are those who dismiss the changes as purely cosmetic and as a spectacle for the benefit of western audiences.

Perestroika is a reaction to a rebellion of inanimate objects. Glasnost is a sign of the awareness that the clash with inanimate objects can never be won unless you enlist the support of the people. Gorbachev surely wants a reform which would make the USSR a more efficient and powerful state. And, just as surely, he is a child of the Soviet power apparatus. This apparatus does not have the slightest intention of giving up its monopoly status. Gorbachev is neither a comedian nor a liberal; he is a communist who wants to make his state a modern superpower. But that is precisely his dilemma: as a communist, he must defend the monopoly of the party. As an advocate of change, he must curtail that very monopoly.

Gorbachev's prospects are -- let's put it bluntly -- not terribly encouraging. Members of the nomenklatura, those millions of powerful officials whose habits and privileges are in jeopardy, is completely against him. Glasnost poses a permanent threat to their security. A call for "perestroika without glasnost" will be the natural rallying cry of the conservative apparatus.

Let us take a look at the controversy surrounding Stalin and Stalinism. This controversy, which is as divisive and fundamental as the German dispute concerning Hitler and Nazism, helps us to discover who stands where.

Stalin is defended by those who favor a totalitarian order, by those who prefer freedom from responsibility and risk to freedom from censorship and police. There are many of them. To them Stalin was the father amd the symbol of might of the Soviet state; if you attack Stalin you are attacking the state.

Such views are criticized by democratic and reform-minded people who demand the full truth about Stalinism. For them overcoming the Stalinist heritage is a prerequisite of Russia's spiritual revival. Although they are far removed from naive optimism, they trust Gorbachev and support him because he started the process of change.

This liberal and humanistic tendency, however, has come under fire from representatives of the slavophilic current who regard the Bolshevik revolution as a child of foreign parents. The Marxist doctrine, concocted in Western Europe, was carried out by people who were alien to Russia: Poles, Jews, Latvians, etc. It was not autocracy that was Stalinism's real crime -- after all, Russia never wished to be a parliamentary democracy -- it was his ideology: its atheism, its rejection of the tradition of great Russian statehood and the attacks against the church.

From this angle, the liberal-humanist orientation with its ideas of pluralist democracy is but another embodiment of the same European plague that Bolshevism was. The most extreme -- indeed grotesque -- embodiment of the slavophile view is the Pamyat Association, which ostensibly deals with the protection of historic monuments but in practice is preoccupied with spreading a xenophobic and conspiratorial theory of history. Pamyat's anti-Semitism is reminiscent of the times when the czar tried to neutralize social conflicts and delay its own demise by staging Jewish pogroms. Where do Gorbachev's declarations fit into this context? His appraisal of Stalin and Stalinism is splendidly inconsistent and full of internal contradictions. It must be that way. Gorbachev is heir to the Stalinist legacy and also its cautious critic. Since Gorbachev must synthesize conflicting arguments and viewpoints, intellectual nullity is the inevitable product: The history of the USSR is at once a succession of endless triumphs and a string of errors and distortions; collectivization is at once a success of socialist policies and a source of crisis in agriculture.

The fundamental question is whether there is room for independent opinion in the Soviet Union. It used to be said that there is lots of room -- at Lubyanka {prison}, that is. Will it be different today? Can the so-called "informal clubs" become seeds of pluralism in public life? This question does not concern Gorbachev's intentions but rather the vital forces of Russian society. We do not ask whether Gorbachev wants pluralism but whether he is likely to be forced to accept it by pressure from the people.

From the Polish perspective, this is the basic issue. After the referendum lost by Jaruzelski's government, the awareness of the need for structural reforms is universal. It is even obvious to secretaries and generals. But the question about the shape of reform has yet to be answered. Is this going to be a "paternalistic" reform or the outcome of a social compromise based on pluralism and on institutions that are autonomous from the state? What are the limits of reform going to be? What is Russia going to look like after the reforms? In this matter, the Soviet leader does not go beyond banal, stereotyped declarations.

When Gorbachev repeats that the era of nuclear weapons requires "new thinking," we are eager to agree. When he says that every nation must choose its own road and no superpower must allow itself to dictate its terms to any other state, we want to applaud him. But we are also tempted to ask whether he is just condemning the Monroe Doctrine or the Brezhnev Doctrine as well. Does the right to autonomous development apply only to Nicaragua and Cuba or to Afghanistan and Poland as well? And what about Lithuania and the Ukraine?

When Gorbachev says that the Soviet Union does not intend to invade any country, does that mean he is prepared to deplore the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia or is he merely saying that the USSR will not invade any country matching it in strength, like the United States? Is the "new thinking" limited to Soviet-American relations or does it extend to Soviet-Polish relations as well?

When Gorbachev stubbornly repeats that the Soviet Union professes some idiosyncratic conception of human rights and of national sovereignty, incomparable to the conception of these rights in pluralist democratic countries, he repeats -- consciously or not, I don't know -- a classic Stalinist stereotype. According to that stereotype, the persecution of opponents, the suppression of democratic institutions and disregard for the law are contemptible under capitalism but permissable and useful in a country that is building the communist system.

This is the meaning of the new situation. When he raised the need for perestroika, Gorbachev finally rejected all the trashy communist propaganda that could trace back all the economic crises and social conflicts to the operations of foreign intelligence services. The present crisis, which manifests itself as the revolt of the radiators and of the people, is a general crisis of communism.

Lech Walesa tells fellow Poles, "We must avoid despair and hatred." I suppose this formula could be applied around the world. It should lead to the abandoning of simple formulas of preserving the Yalta order by means of detente or Cold War rhetoric. Something has changed. Unless democratic reforms take place, the system is doomed to progressive decline.

That is why the world needs a fresh idea of detente -- detente with a human face. And let that face belong to a Gulag prisoner. People are more important than missiles, and before you eliminate missiles, you must eliminate the habit of persecuting people. Everything else is fraudulent.

Adam Michnik, an historian and essayist, is an intellectual leader and active member of Poland's democratic opposition.