At the Warsaw headquarters of Poland's Solidarity labor federation, the main subjects of conversation today were a forthcoming trial of political dissidents, the return home of Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz, and the sudden shortage of gasoline.

The political drama of the night before, when Communist Party leader Stanislaw Kania fended off a strong challenge from hard-liners, was of only secondary interest. It was almost as though the stormy debate at the Central Committee building, less than a mile away, had taken place in a different country.

The reaction, or rather lack of it, of ordinary Solidarity activists to the power struggle within the Communist Party reflected the two different levels at which politics are conducted here. There is the rarified world of the party, with its complex factional feuds and personal rivalries, and the harsh realities of everyday life.

During his 10 months as the party's first secretary, Kania has managed to gain a degree of public respect for his consistent commitment to solving the crisis through negotiation rather than force. But he neither wants to be, nor is equipped to become, a symbol of reform. The bitter truth is that, after so many crises and disappointments, most Poles mistrust all Communist politicians, Kania included.

Of course, the Central Committee debate was followed extremely closely by some sections of Polish society. Reformist Communist Party branches, as in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, organized a round-the-clock vigil and were kept in constant touch with developments by their representatives at the plenum.Poland's politically conscious elite also was glued to television sets and radios to hear a blow-by-blow account of the debate.

The dominant mood of ordinary people, however, was a mixture of exhaustion and relative indifference.

A series of random encounters on Warsaw's main Marszalkowska shopping street appeared to reflect a general pattern. Workers and young people said they had not bothered to listen to the debate -- and some were not even aware that the Central Committee had met. Elderly women were worried about instability and the possibility of a Soviet invasion. The educated middle class followed the meeting closely, but did not feel that a change in Communist Party leadership would make such difference.

A fairly typical reaction came from Marian Pruszynski, a technician in his mid-thirties. He said changes in the Politburo would not make any difference "since it is not they who decide things in this country any more."

He described last week's highly critical Soviet letter, which was read in full on television, as "rubbish multiplied by rubbish," but added: "It reflects their mentality. If they knew the situation better here, they would not have written it."

On Tadeusz Grabski, the hard-liner on the Politburo who personally attacked Kania: "I don't agree with him, but you must admit he has guts and thinks for himself. I admire that."

Most other people interviewed asked not to be named. A 48-year-old office worker said he had watched TV all night. He described the Soviet letter as "interference in our internal affairs." As for Kania's leadership, he said a change now would result in tragedy as it would mean confrontation between the party and society.

A 24-year-old X-ray technician was not interested in either Grabski or Kania. She described the Kremlin's letter as "insulting" and predicted "enormous resistance" in the event of invasion.

Two workers in their mid-twenties were unaware of anything unusual in the air. "We had a payday yesterday and we got drunk. You're asking the wrong questions. You should be asking us where we manage to buy drink nowadays."

An elderly widow said she had heard the Soviet letter. "I have seen two world wars already and don't want to live to see another one. All my friends who stand in line are very worried. We have so many troubles already with all the shortages and economic problems."

The man-in-the-street reaction also underlined one of the chief differences between Poland's upheavals and the reform movement of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. bThere, popular hopes were focused on Alexander Dubcek and his slogan, "Socialism with a human face."

In Poland today, both politicians and slogans are mistrusted. That, after all, was why Solidarity was formed -- as an institutional guarantee that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated.

It also explains why, for all the drama of the past few days, most Poles seem convinced that the real political struggle will take place outside the confines of a party meeting.