ALEXEI Nikolayevich Kosygin was one of those hardy gray Kremlin perennial whose political lingevity and personal drabness obscured what was most interesting about him. It was certainly not his climb up his generation's typical ladder as a Communist Party functionary: he rose up steps vacated by Stalin's murders, lay low during the Khrushchev years and then became head of the government, resinging a few months before his death in Moscow Thursday night at age 76. All of that was by Soviet standards, a successful career, one that made Mr. Kosygin a familiar figure on the international scene. But it was not what made him interesting.

That was something else: his career, or would-be career, as an economic reformer. Mr. Kosygin was no economist. But he was the party man in charge of the economy, and he was sharp-eyed, unpretentious, no fool. So it was that slowly halfheartedly but unmistakably he arrived at the completely true and, in the Soviet context, comletely subversive notion that the party was not good at running the economy. He offered certain tenative reforms substituting producers' sense and consumers' choice for planners' and politicians' dictate. (One of these reforms involved creating the incentive of profit, of which he said, after Westerners and Chinese alike had chided him for it. "Sometimes I'm sorry we did not use another word.")

The fate of Kosygin reforms is suggested by the following argument he conducted with Communist party leader Leonoid Brezhnev in 1965 (italics added):

Kosygin: "Without doing the job of the economic management agencies and refusing to engage in petty tutelage, the party must mobilize initiative and activity."

Brezhnev: "If the economic measures are not fortified by the multi-millioned army of Communists, we shall not be able to carry them out with due success."

In brief, Mr. Brezhnev, standing for party primacy, won, and Mr. Kosygin, standing for a modicum of economic sense, lost. They could agree, later, only to try to limit the damage by importing as Western capital and technology as possible.Meanwhile, the harm was done. The Communist Party has made a swamp of the Soviet economy, and it swollowed Alexei Kosygin.