As Poland's Communist Party gropes for order and new direction in the aftermath of crisis, it is encountering a strong desire among some members to bring to the party's structure some of the democratic principles won by workers for labor organizations.

Although the power of the party remains indisputable, its leading role reaffirmed in declarations signed by striking unionists last month, it has entered an uncertain period of self-examination and intense discussion.

Last week, senior party and government leaders, including new First Secretary Stanislaw Kania, traveled across the country to local party meetings to review the causes of the labor crisis, promote acceptance of the new agreements with workers and figure out what to do next. Some of the sessions turned angry -- a reflection of discontent among party members about past practice and policy.

One party meeting attended by Vice Premier Kazimierz Barcikowski was said by local radio to have been a "heated" debate on government policy. Activists reportedly talked of decisions never implemented, of the "paralysis" of local authorities and of "indiscriminate obedience in implementing unrealistic decisions."

As a further sign of agitation in party ranks, there were reports elsewhere of party members turning in their membership cards.

[Meanwhile, thousands of striking Polish steelworkers in Katowice have won government approval to form independent trade unions, the official news agency PAP said today.]

[Polist dissidents reported continuing strikes in Plock, Zakopane, Nowy Sacz and Walbrzych.]

Kania, in statements before party groups in Katowice and Gdansk, put the blame for the Polish labor revolt on the functioning of the party leadership and the Warsaw government. This appeared to be part of the new team's general strategy of accepting public criticism, regaining credibility and hoping for a renewal of authority.

This process of confession, discussion and the ultimate drafting of a program is expected to culminate in the calling of a special party congress, possibly as early as the end of the year. Although such a meeting has not been approved yet, Kania publicly endorsed it last week.

Although Polish party congresses are supposed to be held only once every five years -- with the last one having occurred just seven months ago -- there is good reason to convene another one soon.

As a result of the strikes and subsequent agreements, Poland's economic plans need drastic revision. The ousting of party chief Edward Gierek, along with other top-level party changes, has given the leadership a different complexion.These developments warrant formal party approval.

In addition, it is thought that Kania will want to use the occasion of a special congress to make further changes in the Central Committee, Poland's leading policy-making body.

[Meanwhile, the Central Committee of the Polish Peasant's Party Friday asked for a greater role in government.]

[In a declaration issued at its convention the party -- which has 400,000 members and is the largest noncommunist political organization in Poland -- acknowledged the leading role of the Communists, but urged that other parties be given more of a voice in policy decisions.]

The existence of the new, independent unions clearly represents a challenge to the party apparatus, observers here note.

Without formally challenging the Communist Party's monopoly of power, workers have won a chance to dilute that monopoly, to mix a discreet dose of of pluralism into the prevailing system. Just how this will affect the system works in Poland is still unclear.

The party apparatus is awesome, and has the knack and tradition of co-opting similar reform movements. But what worries party officials is that the democratic bug that spread through the trade union movement will jump into the party. A significant number of the party's 3 million members participated in the strikes.

Some influential party thinkers say changes are long overdue, and attack the party apparatus for being too bureaucratic, for having a membership too large and passive, and for producing propaganda too divided from reality.

The party reforms often advocated are:

Free elections. "You have elections now in the costume of democracy," said Ludwig Krasucki, deputy editor of the respected party monthly Nowe Drogi [New Ways]. "We have free elections with pressure from above. So you have people in discussions saying things in order to have a good image with the leadership. That inhibits criticism. There is no other way for a living party than free elections."

A realistic party press. "We have lived on two levels," a senior government official and Communist Party member said. "One was real life with all its problems. Over this we had an official propaganda that everything was fine and rosy, which was really a slap in the face.It was easy to see shortages and deficiencies in many fields. The official words must regain their precision, their real sense."

Cleaning up corruption. Stories of party officials living the good life are popular grist for the Polish rumor mill. However, authorities appear to be building a case against one senior party member. Maciej Szczepanski, former head of Polish radio and television, is said to be under investigation by the party for embezzlement, misuse of government property and immorality. Observers expect that an example will be made of him for what is widely considered a less than unusual practice of overextending party privileges.

Trimming the bureaucracy. The proportion of party apparatchiks to activists has grown in recent years, to the point where some members feel the bureaucrats have the run of the party.

Relaxing the party style. "Our style has become too formal, we have too many ceremonies, too many Sundays in party life and not enough working days," Krasucki said.

Kania picked up this theme in his speech to the Central Committee the night he was elected party chief. "We should take care from this day that the mode of our work, our customs, becomes more simple and natural," he said, calling for "less pomp more matterfrankness."

Party progressives take some comfort from the recent changes in top party positions. Kania is regarded as a political pragmatist. His direct, relaxed speaking manner was well received at meetings he attended this week.

Barcikowski, who was named to the Politburo along with Kania after negotiating the agreement with strikers at the Baltic port Szczecin, is also seen as bringing a clearer view of reality to the top leadership.

Progressives also take hope from the removal of Jerzy Lukaszewicz, who was in charge of propaganda, and Tadeusz Wrzaszyck, who headed the planning commission, in an earlier purge by Gierek on Aug. 23.

Kania so far has taken a cautious, middle-of-the-road approach to solving Poland's problems. In his inaugural address, he spoke in general terms about searching for new answers to overcome the country's difficulties.

The words were reassuring to those who have called for new steps. But Kania's appeal also revealed how undecided the party leadership is about what to do next.

"It lacks a program, and is pulled two ways in thinking up a new one, a European diplomat said. "On the one hand, it must assure the Soviets that any changes made will not be substantive. On the other, it must assure the workers they will be."

This is the party's essential dilemma. Complicating the task is the fact that the government has little public reserve on which to build. Its language has been discredited. After 1956 it promised a break with the Stalinist era. In 1970, with the rise of Gierek, it proclaimed the start of the consumption era. The Warsaw government has exhausted its stable of believable slogans.