Jan Labecki, first secretary of the Communist Party in the Lenin Shipyard, member of Poland's Central Committee and seeker of a new form of communist rule for this country, fidgeted as his vistor returned to the question of the banner that had been strung across the shipyard's main entrance early that morning.

It was now midday and the banner still hung in the defiant spot chosen by Solidarity union activists, their neat black lettering demanding the release of Poland's political prisoners. Soon, regional officials would be passing beneath it as they gathered at the shipyard to elect delegates to the national Communist Party Congress, and Labecki was acknowledging that the banner would still be there to greet them.

"Find somebody to take it down," the party administrator challenged his questioner. "There would be trouble, and whoever took it down would be out of a job and would never get another job here. The one who replaced him would not even try the next time."

"In the history of Poland it is always like that," he continued. "At one time you can do whatever you want, without responsibility for it. That was the last decade. Now, the pendulum has swung, and they can do whatever they want. Solidarity is giving the orders right now."

Poland's national revolt against three decades of misrule and repression has turned this Eastern European country into an ideological no man's land in the late spring days leading toward a climactic party congress next month. A surge of open nationalism, political activity and freedom of expression here makes it seem that the Iron Curtain has been parted at the Polish frontier.

Suddenly, the fear that has been the cement of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe has been turned. In Gdansk, the party and its police fear the people, not vice versa. In this Polish paradox, Communist Party officials are actually running for election to their jobs, in secret balloting, and they cannot yet know where this novel experience will lead.

Neither can the police, who would normally have yanked down the Solidarity banner at the shipyard. Nor can the censors, who normally would have halted the unvarnished reporting appearing in the Polish press and curbed the outpourings of Polish men and women who are excitedly telling each other what has happened to them and their country under 35 years of Communist rule.

Now, a reporter asks a Polish activist what help the United States could send and is told calmly, in the hearing of a dozen persons in a public place, "How about tanks?"

In this new Poland, it takes a well-publicized outburst by Communist party leader Stanislaw Kania, backed by a nastily threatening letter from the Kremlin, to stir the old fear patterns and to give a little backbone to the police and censors. Kania's promise of a crackdown is not an end to this season of dissent but an acknowledgment of the enormous task his weakened government faces in trying to get the genie of democracy back into the bottle.

"We've started rooting for the government," said one Western journalist covering the upheaval. "You have to go with the underdog."

Seen from inside, Poland's revolt looks dramatically different than when it is viewed from Washington against the ever present backdrop of the Kremlin and the White House muttering menacingly at each other or at the Poles. Here, the periodic threats of global conflict are adjuncts to a subtle, cosmopolitan and highly risky internal power game that is not obeying tranditional rules of such struggles.

"People talk about a power struggle, but power lies on the sidewalk and nobody picks it up," says Father Josef Tischner, an influential Roman Catholic theologian in Krakow. Andrzej Gwiazda, Solidarity's deputy leader, adds: "We're doing our best to convince the government it is a government. Maybe that is why we argue so much with it."

That sentiment contains the core of the paradox. Many opponents of the party fear that its government will simply disintegrate one day, provoking a Soviet invasion. Church leaders, Solidarity members and intellectuals who accept this view maneuver in silent complicity with party reformers to keep the government afloat long enough for it to be completely overhauled from the bottom.

Maneuvering in a completely different direction, of course, are the members of the old guard who are not in sympathy at all with the liberalism and patriotism that could cost them their power. It is difficult to judge their strength, particularly since they continue to shun contact with visiting journalists, but it is suficient to worry Kania and Solidarity activists. "The party elections are so democratic that they trouble me," says Zbigniew Bujak of Solidarity. "People who are losing power are our biggest opponents, and they are not happy to be going."

Poles appear to be too busy trying to advance and understand the palpable transformation occurring within their society to keep asking themselves, as Westerners do constantly, if the Russians are going to invade. Instead, it is the profound human experience that is occurring within the Polish revolt that occupies Poles, and it requires the shouting of Kania and Moscow to jerk them back to the global dangers that fixate outsiders.

Two dominant impressions emerge from the comments of several score of Polish Communist Party officials, Solidarity members, journalists, steelworkers, farmers and others interviewed during a week in Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow. These impressions suggest something of the texture of life in those cities today.

First is an almost total alienation of the population from its ruling class, expressed in the most open and visible way imaginable in a country subject to totalitarian rule for 35 years. A visit suggests that Gerald Ford was perhaps no more than premature in his 1976 presidential compaign debate judgment that Poland was not under Soviet domination.

The second is the consequent turning inward of that population on its own resources. While the ideological hurricanes sweep the ground around them, Poles evidence a gentle human concern in personal contacts, almost as if they are celebrating the collapse of barriers that ideology had sought to erect among them. The mood in the long lines that form in front of tobacco stores, food shops, gasoline stations and other places where consumer goods have become scarce is unfailingly calm and courteous.

The seemingly complete disgust to the people for the rulers, who are seen particularly in the last decades as having driven the country into national bankruptcy through miscalculations and a policy of lies and deception, powers the still evolving drive for democratic freedoms in a Poland that would remain in the Warsaw Pact and have a socialist economy run for the first time for working-class interests.

Three often conflicting goals seem to be gathered in loose harness around the Polish revolt, at times racing in the same direction, but usually wildly pulling against each other and making the Polish revolt seem to outsiders to lurch from crisis to crisis without direction.

From Kania on down, the Poles want to keep the Soviets out. Secondly, many Poles seem convinced that the Communist Party here must be reformed through democratic procedures to regain a minimal measure of consent from the population to govern -- a consent that does not exist today.

Equally urgently, moderates in Solidarity and in the party voice a need to work together to resolve the deepening economic disaster that Poland faces. But a major struggle still looms over the conditions of that cooperation, with Solidarity wanting to "control" the implementation of economic reform without taking the "co-responsibility" for reform, and sacrifices, as the party urges.

This much has been clear for several months. What has changed in recent days is that the most important struggle in Poland no longer pits Solidarity directly against the party. The confrontation has moved inside each organization as Solidarity and the Communists prepare for their separate national congresses and seek political programs that define their aims and, inevitably, who is in charge. With his twin warnings this month that the Soviets have drawn a line and that reforms must nonetheless continue, Kania has moved to contain both his party's ideological conservatives and grass-roots reformers.

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, apparently against the advice of some of his closest aides, has chosen to stress moderation and responsible behavior to give Kania some breathing room. Each side gives the impression for the moment of waiting to see if the internal divisions will cause the other to crack, to fragment, to lose the cohesiveness that has brought power with it. In this view, the Soviets have also chosen to wait, while trying to influence this internal process through threats as an alternative to invasion.

The final outcome is uncertain, but almost all of those interviewed insisted on one point as being essential -- something approaching the current level of freedom of expression and association must survive this process. They see no turning back without a bloody repression directed from Moscow. Even then, a number of Poles said, much of the spirit of their revolt would survive, and would haunt the Soviets throughout their empire. That, they added, is one reason they believe there will be no invasion.

They could be tragically wrong. But even so, the invading Soviets would find that the revolution they came to stop had in many ways already occurred, at least on a psychological level.Poles who have taken part in that transformation are far more concerned that external events -- such as belligerent posturing from a Reagan administration that suggests that events in Poland will lead to an end to communist rule in the Soviet Union on Soviet paranoia spurred by events in Afghanistan, China or elsewhere -- will weigh far more in the invasion balance than the developments here this summer.

"Lines outside the shops in my neighborhood are good news. It means there is something in them to buy. " -- A Polish journalist.

The censor sat across the cocktail lounge table sipping a double Scotch, explaining why his government had failed and the revolt had begun.

Despite his liberal credentials and beliefs, Karol Macuzynski is an influential member of the parliamentary committee that is drafting a new cencorship law that will determine the legal limits of what is said or printed in the "renewed" Poland. This law is crucial, he says, because the current turmoil is a crisis of faith.

It started, he said, with the sudden shifting of priorities, and of style, when fast-moving Edward Gierek took over from the stolid Wladyslaw Gomulka in 1970 and immediately set out to give cars and consumer goods to workers to ease the pressures that led to Gomulka's ouster.

"Gomulka said workers didn't need cars. But Gierek wanted to do everything, to please all the people that Gomulka was always quarreling with. He opened the gates for Poles to travel; he got the licenses, the technology and the bank loans from the West and he traveled all over the country to hold meetings."

"In the first five years, it was dynamic, and nobody asked where the money was going," Macuzynski said. "Then the growth stopped and the leadership couldn't admit it. The meetings became empty, part of a completely autocratic way of ruling, and the leaders became victims of their own propaganda, that propaganda of success. The unbearable part was hearing how well we were doing, when we knew how poorly we were doing."

The borrowed money continued to flood in from the West, however, and through mismanagement, corruption, or a combination of the two, Gierek's lieutenants invested enormous sums in industrial white elephants that produced worthless goods, put the country $27 billion in debt, polluted the countryside and eventually angered both workers and consumers.

Macuzynski maintains that his fellow members of the parliament and the party leadership accept the idea that free discussion and reporting are necessary to clean up this mess. The censorship law, which will restrict only national security, obscenity, war propaganda and religious intolerance, will "contain 90 percent of what Solidarity says it wants," he said.

"Polish radio and television news has become so good now that people have stopped listening to the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe . . . . We are transmitting plenary sessions of parliament live 12 or 14 hours a day sometimes, and people are listening. It is extraordinary."

The journey actually begins in a physical no man's land, in the death strip that East German authorities have created between the two Berlins. The West Berlin taxi halts, the passenger unloads his baggage, clears the checkpoint and hauls his luggage into the strip, crowned by watchtowers, to wait for an Interflug airport bus. A West German businessman who has done this often in catching connecting flights to Moscow, Warsaw and Budapest, smiles at a question sbout Poland today.

"It is a mess," the businessman says.

"But a hopeful one, a promising one," he is asked.

"My God, no. It is an awful mess. Before, we placed our orders with a factory manager and we got deliveries at the right price, on time, more or less. But now, you have to talk to three Solidarity guys, a priest, and the factory manager, who can't give you any commitment. Prices are already 20 percent up and they still want to raise them more. No, it's impossible," the businessman says of the turmoil unleashed by Walesa's attempt to reform Communism in Poland.

The quietest line in central Warsaw the next day twists along the front corridor of a drab, five-story office building converted a few weeks ago into an organizational headquarters for Solidarity. In the lobby of this visible symbol of Solidarity's new permanence and problems, volumes of poetry written by Poland's Nobel Prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, have gone on sale.

Printed in Paris by emigre groups and still officially banned in Poland, the books disappear over the counter at an even faster clip than the stylish Solidarity badges, banners and T-shirts in vogue in Warsaw's streets today.

Solidarity is careful not to provoke the authorities by boasting of such sales. But neither are they clandestine. They are part of the breaking of a long silence by the uprising that has come to be known by, and protected by, the name Solidarity.

Factory worker Zbigniew Bujak describes it this way: "The school only let us know that there was knowledge that it was unable to convey. The press informed us every day that it was not telling us everything about ourselves."

At 27, Bujak has become one of the three or four top officials in Solidarity, who work quietly in Walesa's shadow to organize and shape a mass trade union out of the enthusiasm and support of the 10 to 12 million people -- nearly a third of Poland's population -- who have joined the movement.

These organizers wrestle with the internal dangers that success has brought to Solidarity, as Walesa is increasingly absorbed by national and international problems and as he works to defuse the situation by endorsing Kania's calls for moderation. Bujak and the others remain a primary target of Kania's saber rattling because of the differences among them over Solidarity's strategy toward the party and the government.

Those differences have given the party leadership a chance to fight back, to heighten the chances of fragmentation within Solidarity by convincing Polish public opinion that Solidarity has split into clear camps of "moderates" and "radicals." In this two-prong strategy, the government would blame economic chaos on the radicals and seek accommodation with the moderates to avoid new confrontation, especially before the party congress convenes July 14.

The earnest, muscular Bujak appears to have come down with Walesa, on the side of trusting Kania and a new party leadership to deliver on the promises already gained from confrontation. He broods that Solidarity may have gained too much too fast.

"we are amateurs at this," he says in a second-floor office as he sifts, with a slightly overwhelmed air, through organizational reports from factories. "We need professional organization to handle 10 million people and the trust they have put in our union after the failures of other institutions for the past 35 years. We should have had the structure first so we could welcome members in, where we were already, but it happened the other way."

Bujak's own story illustrates the depth of the feeling that helped Solidarity grow so spectacularly so quickly. In a self-education group that he set up at the Ursus tractor factory outside Warsaw, he had drawn up a three-to-five year plan to organize an independent union. When news of the Gdansk strikes reached the factory, Bujak jumped onto a chair and persuaded thousands of other to support Walesa's group.

An hour later, two blocks away, Andrzej Gwiazda takes two packets of sugar out of a small carrying case as he orders coffee and sits down, his back to the wall of the crowded coffeehouse. A childhood in a Russian prison camp in World War II has taught him "not to be afraid of polar bears" and to be prepared for anything, Solidarity's deputy leader says with a whimsical laugh. Then the waitress tells him that today they have run out of coffee, too. He settles for lemonade.

Gwiazda is the engineer of Solidarity. He speaks rapidly and elliptically, his voice barely carrying above the clatter of passing streetcars and strains of the U.S. rock group Blondie's "Heart of Glass" being played on the coffehouse's stereo system. His manner suggests the long career of an underground union activist somewhat uncomfortable with being totally above ground now.

"In March, the Politburo relized that Solidarity was a permanent element that could not be broken down overnight," he says, pausing constantly during the discussion to answer other questions rained down upon him by knots of union workers who approach him almost reverentially. "So they have changed tactics, trying to weaken and civilize us in their own way. They are trying to blame food shortages on Solidarity. They manipulate the crime statistics upward and blame that on Solidarity. After we agree to freeze our wage demands, they offer increases to party unions. What we face now is a well-prepared and long-range action against Solidarity. And we must respond."

Solidarity "should do nothing to make this party trustworthy," he continues. "The elections [to the party congress] will probably not assure good results. The methods may be democratic, but the candidates are not."

It is on these differences that Kania and ultimately the Kremlin must pin their hopes for a Solidarity that can be tamed, or alternatively, one whose failures can be used as a pretext for a crackdown that would gain some popular support. But these differences may in the end be overshadowed by the impressive agreement among men like Bujak and Gwiazda on the shape of a workable future for Poland, which centers on the acceptance of Solidarity's plan for workers' councils that will overhaul and run the major state economic activities. Such councils could then get the population to accept the sacrifices that will be necessary to get the economy running again, they maintain.

It is the week that the government has permitted Lech Walesa to go to Geneva to be Poland's primaryt speaker at the International Labor Organization. There is evident pride in Walesa's entourrage over his performance. But there is also concern that, as one of the aides closest to Solidarity's leader puts it, "the government has suddenly become intelligent enough to try to make life very comfortable for us instead of very difficult. Our credibility is what makes us a national force, and we must protect it against such a trap."

"Several times a day now I have to remind myself that I am now carrying on real discussions with people, not just giving orders. It is part of the adjustment we all have to go through in this new environment. I will learn that, or I will have to go."

Halfway up the party ladder in terms of age and seniority, Tadeusz Zarba admits to having had difficulty in adjusting to "this fascination with democracy" that has been sweeping Poland since August. He is one of the Central Committee's top staff members in charge of the volatile area of press, radio and televison and he has come through the upheaval shocked but with a chance of surviving. Up to a point, he favors what has happened to the party he has belonged to for 31 years.

"In this country now, the authorities will have to get used to spending so much of their time answering criticism," said Zareba, a short, compact man with gray hair cropped in a crew cut. "Critizing the government, even without basis at times, has become a lasting element of Polish political life. It is not the most rational method of spending your time, or ruling the country, but it is necessary after this eruption of democracy."

Zareba believes that the elections now under way are reviving a party that "had become so passive before the total critisim that blamed the entire party for everything. The party is rebuilding itself from the base level through democratic means that were not used much before last August. Reasonable people in Solidarity know they need a strong party trusted by the people. We are not fighting Solidarity now. We want to influence the character of Solidarity. It should be a constructive element in socialist Poland."

Did the party official see any circumstance that could lead to a Soviet invasion?

"Nothing short of a civil war here in Poland," he said. "I don't know what the authorites would do in that event. And I don't forsee any such possibility.

"But it is important to remember that Poland is not an island. Geographically and politically, we are part of a given political system and a military alliance. This system is the base of our society, our integrity as a state. We regained our western teritories [from Germany] as part of this system, and that is a guarantee of Poland as it is within its present borders. . . . Poland is not only part of the socialist system, but an important part. What happens here cannot be a neutral thing."

Question to a Solidarity activist: "Can you trust the Army?"

Answer: "We trust the soldiers."

When Communist Party officials talk about "antisocialist elements" in Poland, they usually have in mind Jacek Kuron and his fellow intellectuals in the Committee for Social Self-Defense, known as KOR. During the past two decades, Kuron has spent six years in prison and has been harassed repeatedly by police when out of jail because of his public campaign for democratic freedoms.

But the party is not likely to be overjoyed to hear that Kuron now says KOR "has finished its existence" and gone out of business as of Sept. 1. The reason is that KOR has moved into Solidarity and its members have become intellectual and spiritual advisers to the union. Kuron was last arrested in January and ordered on his release to report to the prosecutor's office twice a week. He has not gone to the office yet and the police seem to have dropped their usually constant surveillance of him.

"The entire society of Poland has moved within Solidarity," Kuron said. "So KOR finished its existence on September 1, when the government recognized Solidarity as a legal movement. We have not acted as KOR since. You have to realize that we were never 'dissidents' since we were always part of the society. We weren't underground; we operated openly and as part of a society. When there were arrests, there was turmoil and eventually we were released."

Kuron is helping Solidarity shape a program that would lead to reforms in political institutions in Poland, but is not ready to talk about it specifically before the Solidarity congress.

"The important struggle now is for concept, for system, for the program that will solve our problems," he said. "That is occuring both within the party and within Solidarity right now."

He is fairly sure this debate and its results will not trigger Soviet intervention beyond the current psychological war directed at the ruling Communist Party Politburo and Solidarity.

"We will have a party and a Solidarity that are both accepted by the society, that both work and that can give guarantees to the Soviet Union not to invade. I'm sure of that," he said.

"What I remember, though, is a story about the man who thought he was a mouse. After six months, a psychiatrist convinced him that he was not a mouse. And as he goes to open the door he says to himself, 'I know that I'm not a mouse, and the doctor knows I'm not a mouse. I sure hope that cat across the street knows it.'"

Behind the roar of the ideological battles and the world power games, much of what is happening in Poland is recognizable as a struggle of generations, a thrusting for power and position by younger people who have, until now, seen the roads to these goals blocked by an ossified bureaucracy that rewarded mediocrity and longevity, as well as blind obedience to the party. In the party, in Solidarity and within the powerful Roman Catholic Church here, a new generation sees national reform as its opportunity to participate in shaping the future.

"We knew immediately that this was our last chance," said Mieczyslaw Gil, a steelworker in Krakow who has just been elected head of the regional Solidarity organization. "I am 37. I knew that if Solidarity didn't work, I would never have another chance to help make a different Poland. We had become sickened by the enormous waste in the system, which set prices of our plant's output only by cost. Plant managers sent by the party, sent in a briefcase we would say, got bonuses if they could push costs up, even beyond the point where the goods could sell."

"We are working to make sure this plant belongs to the nation, and not to the state," said Stantislaw Handzlik, Gil's deputy at the Nova Huta steelworks. "The workers will be managing their own enterprises and make sure that new ideas and methods are implemented. Until now, we have had a shortage of wise people, of people put in power because of intellectual ability instead of idealogical acceptability."

In the party, this year's upheaval has also emboldened those few younger party officials who had already been working for reform from within. The prospect of fair elections has suddenly turned risk-taking into an acceptable, indeed necessary, part of Communist rule here.

Jan Broniek began campaigning for direct elections within the party before Solidarity forced the issue last year. He is one of two party secretaries re-elected this month to the seven-member district committee in Krakow. Of the 433 delegates elected to the district conference, he estimated that only 30 percent had been elected to a party office before this year.

The five party secretaries not reelected "will have to find other jobs now, I guess," Broniek said in a small conference room at the party's headquarters in Krakow. "Bad decisions on investments in tractors our farmers can't use, color television factories that produce too costly goods, and trucks that are not suited for our roads have created an atmosphere in which changes have to be made."

In Gdansk, where it all started, Jan Labecki, the 37-year-old first secretary in the shipyard, easily won reelection to the Central Committee, a body he reportedly shocked last year by confronting it with what were to become Solidarity's strike demands and endorsing them.

"New faces mean new credibility for the party," Labeckie said. "But a simple exchange of leadership is not enough. The party has to get rid of the notion that it has the exclusive recipe for wisdom and efficiency and has to listem to the people much more. We can have a democracy that would be competitive with Western democracies, and that will be built on true socialism, too."

Asked how the form of Communist rule in this kind of Poland would differ from that of the Soviet Union, Labecki replied:

"It is like taking a garment from an older brother. You can get in it, but the sleeves are too short, the pants are too long. If you want to take it as your own, you have to trim it here and let it out there. We don't have communism, we have socialism . . . . A new Polish history is being created now. But we take into account our address and the address of our neighbors. We assure the security of the nation."

As archbishop of Krakow before becoming Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla left a strong imprint on Poland. His friend, Father Tischner, believes that Wojtyla in effect paved the way for what has happened here since August by bringing a new public sense of unity and pride to the Polish population, particularly through his 1979 visit and by opening churches in Krakow to study groups that helped identify the government's shortcomings.

"Polish workers have been victims of exploitation within socialism, a new form of exploitation of man by man, a form perhaps unknown in capitalist countries," Tischner said. "It can be called labor without sense, people working a lot but their labor losing all sense to it when the goods they produce cannot be used, cannot be sold for more than they cost to produce. When work becomes senseless, the only sensible behavior is to strike. That is what happened. And Marxism lost its monopoly on ideological interpretation of life in this country.

"Now we must provide a new morality, a new ethical practice that will in turn create its own religious and political experiences. But we must stay in the realm of practice. Czechoslovakia made the mistake of trying to invent a new socialism, and the Soviet Union reacted. You have to live within the framework of the illusion that socialism with a human face already exists in the Soviet Union, that you are not going to invent something that already exists.

"We are sentenced to be ruled by the Communist Party," he said with a smile. "Some optimists think it can be a party that will have the role of the British queen in our new arrangement. I am not that optimistic, but the party may know now that it does not have to rule in every area of our society. Maybe the party knows now that it can trust the nation."