The method of selecting the managing director at a small yacht-building shipyard in this cradle of Poland's democratic revolution is intended to start an economic reform no more tolerable to the Soviet Union than the free political expression now pervading the country.

In replacing the shipyard's ailing superintendent, the selection was made by workers and managers collaborating with the Solidarity union. The man chosen by the ruling Communist Party, who came to the shipyard acting as through he already had the job, was turned down flat.

That small incident reflects determination by Solidarity's economic reformers to solve Poland's economic crisis by decentralized self-management unchained from central planning. The result might be stretched to still be called Marxism, but it surely violates Leninism's supremacy of party rule.

Therein lies the true ideological confrontation between communist doctrine and Solidarity. Despite all the bellowing from Moscow and Polish communist hard-liners, no serious Solidarity leader disputes that the Soviet-Polish alliance is a geopolitical necessity. The real issue is the Communist Party's dominant role here, especially in setting economic policy.

Since settlement of the Gdansk strike last September, Poland's economy has descended further toward chaos and stagnation. In every city we visited, Poles stood in endless lines seeking consumer goods from empty stores. Since chances to buy anything rise dramatically if the purchaser has dollars. Poles desperate for hard currency drive down the zloty's value in black market exchanges. Meanwhile, declining production of coal, Poland's key export, aggravates a severe trade imbalance.

The Polish communist apparatus attributes this crisis to higher wages and fewer hours negotiated by Solidarity, a view shared by Western diplomats here and West German bankers terrified of Polish default on massive loans. Their remedy for the economy is more work and a lower standard of living for ordinary Poles -- in short, austerity.

Such is the habitual remedy of government, East or West, for misery inflicted on the people by government. Some Solidarity leaders blame the deteriorating economy on Soviet tampering ("premeditated sabotage," one told us) to turn workers against the union. All agree that government policies created the mess.

But since the Gdansk labor agreement nine months ago, not one step has been taken by the government toward its promised economic reform. The situation was summarized for us by Dr. Rafal Krawczyk of the Polish Economic Society's national board: "The old system doesn't work. The new system doesn't exist."

To devise a new system, economist Krawczyk in Warsaw is meeting with managers of Polish enterprises and workers' representatives. And what about the Communist Party? "You overestimate the role of the party in economic reform," Krawczyk told us, without blinking an eye. In Gdansk, Solidarity leader Wojciech Gruszecki echoed the need to act independently of the party. "It is the only way out of our predicament," he added.

This reflects pessimism among Solidarity's leaders about internal party liberalization. Their analysis of secret-ballot election of delegates to the forthcoming party congress, a process arousing fear in the Kremlin: although most delegates are new faces, they look much like the old faces. Solidarity's leadership also believes that the survival, under Soviet attack, of party chief Stanislaw Kania at the recent Central Committee meeting actually strengthened the party's center, reinforced standpat policies and may have been what Moscow wanted all along.

But if economic reform is devised without party guidance, what shall it be? Certainly more than decentralized management while continuing central planning under party direction as practiced in Hungary and now advocated by the Polish regime. Although thee is talk about copying Yugoslavia's worker self-management, eyes of Solidarity leaders brighten when they talk of Swedish social democracy. Lech Walesa in public speeches expresses affection for "free enterprise" and "the Japanese model."

Specifically, Krawczyk in discussions with management and labor not only opposes all state-owned enterprises but wants to use the free market to allocate resources and set prices. He is a Communist Party member, an avowed atheist and a button-wearing member of Solidarity. Is he also a Marxist? "One year ago, I would have said yes," he replied. He clings to Marxism by contending that wealth generated by his free market model must be distributed evenly.

That surely is not orthodox enough for Kremlin ideologists. Polish economic reformers are saying the failure here has not been mere incompetence and certainly not worker indolence, as the government contends, but the inherent inability of Marxist-Leninist methods to run a productive economy. From Moscow's viewpoint, there is no greater heresy in Poland's democratic revolution.