By turning to a 57-year-old respected general as its head of govenment, Poland's Communist Party has played perhaps its last card in its effort to regain control of the country's politics and people.

Thanks to its traditions and restraint in the present crisis, the Army is one of the few institutions left in Poland still held in relatively high public regard, and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski clearly hopes that constant reminders of his Army background will have the desired psychological effect -- a reassertion of governmental authority.

As millions of Poles watched his first address to the parliament on television yesterday, the bemedaled Jaruzelski sprinkled his remarks with military metaphors, and -- just in case the message should somehow be missed -- his first words after thanking parliament for confirming his appointment were: "I am a soldier."

Having exhausted almost all other alternatives, the psychological weapon represents perhaps the Communist authorities' last chance of restoring social peace in Poland. It is also an important weapon, because the root cause of the country's present crisis lies in the breakdown of trust between government and governed. Even the crumbling economy is secondary to this basic problem.

If Jaruzelski is to succeed where his predecessor failed, he must first of all convince the workers that he does not intend to whittle away gradually the the gains they made during strikes last summmer. For as long as the independent trade union organization Solidarity believes that it is under threat, the destructive wave of strikes is likely to continue.

Speaking at a news conference today, Jaruzelski said the main goal of his government would be to regain the confidence of the Polish people and to use constitutional rights to implement last summer's agreement with the independent labor movement.

Until now, the government's tactics have created an impression both of weakness and inability to come to terms with the idea of independent unions. At each stage of the crisis, the uthorities have taken a succession of tough public positions from which they have later had to retreat. The effect has been both to sow public mistrust about their intentions and to harden support for the militants on the other side.

Examples are numerous of this cycle of official obduracy, strikes and government concessions. It was visible during the strike in Gdansk last summer when the government first refused even to negotiate with an interfactory strike committee, but finally -- when the pressure became too strong -- recognized the workers' right to form independent unions.

It was visible again earlier this month when then-prime minister Jozef Pinkowski first refused to accept the resignations of allegedly corrupt officials in the southern town of Bielsko-Biala, then two days later was forced to do so.

One consequence of the govenment's inconsistency has been to unite virtually all Poland's disparate social groups against it. Over the last few weeks, there have been strikes or other forms of protest by workers, peasants, students and journalists. The Catholic Church has lent its moral authority to the opposition. Only the army and militia have proved more or less immune from the revolutionary discontent sweeping the country.

The Solidarity trade union federation is aptly named. In the face of what they preceive as government threats, the union leaders' first instinct is to close ranks, even when they are deeply divided among themselves.

Thus last month Solidarity leader Lech Walsea was eager to reach a compromise with the government on the dispute over a shorter working week. But once the issue became a test of strength between the authorities and the union, his attitude changed. He personally appealed to all Solidarity members not to turn up for work on Saturdays.

As Walsea's deputy, Bogdan Lis, remarked in a recent interview: "The authorities should realize that a policy of tension only unites us against them. Within Solidarity itself, there are people and forces that could do more to split and undermine the union than the government could ever hope to achieve. But the fact is the [government] leadership is so alientated from society that they don't even know how tofight us properly."

What is more, the successive attempts by the authorities to stand firm must by now have become unconvincing to the very quarter the strategy is designed to most impress: The Kremlin.

At the Moscow summit meeting in November, Soviet leaders gave the Polish Communists a limited period in which to show they were capable of restoring order in their own house. The results so far have been diappointing to Moscow. After an inital period of calm in December, minor crises have occurred ever more frequently, and the government's humiliation has become ever more obvious.

There is a chance that Jaruzelski's blunt new soldierly approach will work.

It depends on his ability to convince Solidarity of his sincerity and on the ability of Solidarity's leaders to reassert control over their unruly rank and file.

But it may also depend on the Soviet Union being prepared to stem the steady flow of its pressure, advice and propaganda directed at Warsaw that makes it more difficult for the Polish leadership to pursue a consistently conciliatory line. On the face of it, the creation of a stable national consensus in Poland on the basis of continued membership in the Warsaw Pact defense alliance (which few Poles question) would appear to be in Moscow's own interest.

The question, however, is whether the Kremlin is farsighted enough to allow the Polish authorities to implement the kind of policies that would restore public confidence.

Jaruzelski has made a good start. His appeal for 90 strike-free days has met with a guardedly favorable response. His 10-point program to restore order to the economy has the stamp of common sense. His appointment of a government committee for dealing with the unions appears to mark an attempt to put relations with Solidarity on more stable basis.

The honeymoon period, however, cold be limited. Poland's 3 million private farmers are still pushing hard for their own independent union. And Solidarity is disturbed by the way television and the press virtually ignored a communique issued by its national leadership yesterday, despite an earlier agreement to allow the union greater access to the mass news media.

For moment, the labor front -- to use a military, metaphor employed by Jaruzelski -- is relatively quiet. It will be interesting to see how Poland's new soldier-leader reacts under any new vollies from labor's guns.