Last summer Poland's striking workers neatly adopted Karl Marx's best known slogan to turn the tables on their Communist rulers. As emblazoned on factory gates, their version of the slogan read: "Workers of all factories, unite!"

Today, tens of thousands of ordinary Communist Party members have picked on a saying of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, to make much the same sort of point. Proclaiming "All power to the delegates," rank-and-file Polish Communists are demanding major institutional reforms to establish controls over the party leadership and its bureaucratic apparatus.

The movement for democracy within the Polish Communist Party, a movement that has been gathering strength in the last few months, has largely been ignored in the West, where much more attention has been paid to the new independent labor unions. But the present state of ferment inside the party could have consequences almost as far-reaching as the workers' revolt last August.

As one party member who favors reform remarked: "It is within the party that the real revolution is taking place."

It is still unclear just how far the reformists will succeed in pushing their demands, which include secret elections with unlimited numbers of candidates to all party posts, separation of legislative and executive authority, semipermanent supervision from below of the work of party officials, and an open information policy. The proposed reforms are likely to be opposed both by the Kremlin and hard-line Polish leaders who fear for their own positions.

Political analysts here recall that it was what Moscow interpreted as the disintegration of the Communist Party's authority and cohesion -- rather than a workers' rebellion -- that provoked the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Thinking perhaps of this precedent, a senior Polish official commented: "We can lose the trade unions, we can lose the church, and we can lose the peasants, but we can't afford to lose the party."

The mood of the Polish Communist Party after last summer's strikes has been described as "a state of shock." It was as though the party, despite remaining in power, had just suffered a stunning defeat. Out of 3 million party members, at least 100,000 either were purged or resigned in disgust. For a time, the remainder seemed paralyzed and unable to act.

This demoralization has now been replaced in many local party branches by a determination to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. Perhaps predictably, the reformers are strongest of all in the Baltic port of Gdansk, the birthplace of the independent Solidarity union federation.

Typical of the local party cells in Gdansk is one at the assembly section of the Lenin Shipyard. Out of 800 workers in the section, 102 are party members. Ten others resigned from the party following the strikes. Most of the party members, including the secretary, Ryszard Krasowski, also belong to Solidarity.

Krasowski notes that since the strike, party meetings have become much livelier and better attended. At a recent meeting, for example, about 20 members took the floor, compared to just five at a meeting last June.

One of Krasowski's main complaints is that the party rank and file were blamed by other workers for the crisis, even though they had no more influence on the previous party leadership than anyone else.

"The party higher-ups just weren't interested in what we thought," he said. "Communication was all one way, with them telling us what to do. As far as ideological and propaganda work was concerned, our party cell just had to obey others. The propaganda we were ordered to spread was nonsense. We didn't carry out half the instructions, but still we got the blame when things went wrong."

For the last four months, Krasowski's party cell has been busy bombarding the "higher-ups" with demands, complaints, and ideas. Krasowski leafed through a thick wad of such demands: That party functionaries be chosen from delegates to the party congress; that a secret government report on the killings of workers in Gdansk in December 1970 be published; that undemocratic election procedures to parliament be changed; that compulsory May Day parades should be dropped.

All the resolutions have been forwarded to a special commission for the Gdansk region. Unlike its parent body in Warsaw, the Gdansk commission was directly elected by ordinary party members. Its chairman, Zbigniew Kowalski, is a lecturer from the local Polytechnical Institute who has retained his socialist ideals.

Kowalski believes that the Polish Communist Party now has a real chance to revitalize itself and win popular support but that it can do so only if it creates institutions and democratic procedures binding on everybody. Above all, Kowalski insists, Lenin's aim of entrusting power to rank-and-file delegates rather than to self-perpetuating oligarchs must be respected.

The task of Kowalski's commission has been to collate all material coming from party cells and forward it to the central commission in Warsaw. In an unusual move, the Gdansk party has also sent delegates to other regional party branches to explain its proposals. The support has been so great that Kowalski believes it will be virtually impossible for the party leadership to stage-manage the next congress as it has done previous ones.

"I think we, as ordinary party members, have both the right and duty to determine the program of the party," Kowalski said.

He explained that, in any case, the central leadership had not come up with any program of action that could have served to unite the party. It had therefore been necessary for the grass roots members to take the initiative.

The pressure for reform has met with a variety of reactions from party leaders in Warsaw. In a recent interview, Stefan Olszowski, a leading ideologist, strongly criticized people who, he said, wanted to turn the party into "a debating club of beautiful ideals." He also called for tightened party discipline.

It is possible that a deal will be struck between the grass roots and the leadership under which delegates to the coming party congress will be selected on 50-50 basis. In view of the uncertainty, however, the congress has been delayed beyond the planned date of early April. It may not take place until at least July.

Some party leaders regard the democracy movement, if carefully controlled, as a useful tactic to enable the party to regain public confidence at local level. Given their present mood, however, ordinary Polish Communists are unlikely to accept reform at the local level without changes at the top. After years of passively accepting instructions, they want change now.

A party member in Gdansk remarked: "The Kremlin and the party leadership are faced with a choice. Either this remains a puppet party loyal to strict Soviet ideology but divorced from the population, or it becomes a real workers' party with mass public support."

Such a transformation in the nature of the Polish Communist Party would undoubtedly be met with grave misgivings in Moscow. But here in Gdansk, it seems indispensable. All sides agree that a new, more stable national consensus can be created without jeopardizing Poland's continued membership in the Soviet bloc.

But the condition is political and economic reform.

As Kowalski explained: "The party's authority hasn't been completely destroyed. But it is true that we can no longer rule in the old way -- in opposition to the wishes of 80 percent of society. Change has become a necessity. There is simply no other way out."

Klemens Gniech, the director of the Lenin Shipyard, said: "A new model of a socialist economy and a socialist society will have to be created. This requires wise leaders with a brand new outlook and ideas, and above all men who can win public trust. It also requires a new set of legal norms regulating the life of the state and the life of society."

Andrzej Celinski, the secretary of Solidarity's national committee, said: "The political system in Poland will have to evolve in order to find a place for independent unions. We also understand that the changes must take place within the socialist system. Time is on our side. Socialism is not immutable."