AS IT struggles to end the strikes, the Polish government seems to be running rapidly out of the easier and more attractive solutions. On Monday the head of the Communist Party, Edward Gierek, publicly urged the strikers to call it all off; he hinted heavily at economic benefits. The response was zero. On Wednesday, the government arrested 14 of the most visible leaders of the Workers' Defense Committee. Then on Thursday it fired its own negotiator. But through all of it, the strikes kept spreading.

One new element, in comparison with earlier waves of strikes in Poland, is the sophisticated and coherent nationwide leadership by the Workers' Defense Committee. Another interesting development is the reporting and discussion of the strikes in the Polish press.The government can no longer hope to buy out the strikers merely with minor adjustments in food prices. But it knows that the country can't afford major price concessions. It can't even afford the present standard of living. That's why Mr. Gierek took the risk of raising prices in the first place.

Mr. Gierek and his colleagues are patently sincere in saying that they want to avoid military force. The Russians -- with their two-plus divisions in Poland -- seem at the moment to concur. That is anything but a promise not to use troops, but at least it is acknowledgment that they understand the extreme political cost.

The central question -- to the extent that outsiders can judge -- seems to be whether the government ultimately has to negotiate with the Workers' Defense Committee. Mr Gierek is prepared to deal, one by one, with the various shipyard and factory councils. But the Workers' Defense Committee -- with its explicitly political intentions -- is an altogether different matter. To bargain with it would be to acknowledge a labor movement outside the Communist Party.

For the Russians, this new uncertainty comes at a particularly bad moment. The failed pounce on Afghanistan must be creating a kind of tension within the Soviet government. And then last Monday there was word that Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin had fallen suddenly and seriously ill. It was another reminder that the Soviets' top command is composed of old men in declining health. Mr. Kosygin is 76. Leonid Brezhnev is 74. The others all range from their late 60s upward. Not only are they old men, but they have been in power an extraordinarily long time. They all came to high rank in the aftermath of the 1937-38 purges, as J. F. Hough of Duke University points out in an illuminating study of the coming transition. The next generation of leadership is small, because of battlefield losses in World War II. When the present top command goes, as Prof. Hough observes, it will soon be replaced by much younger men, now in their early 50s and 40s, about whom little is known except that they are much better educated than their predecessors, and are the products of utterly different times.

For three decades the Soviet Union and its Eastern European dependents have been the least pretty and most stable elements in world politics. Of the major governments, their purposes and attitudes have changed the least. The Polish strikes, like Mr. Kosygin's illness, are premonitory tremors suggesting that the old order there may not last much longer.