Two distinguished Polish journalists were summing up the results of last week's extraordinarys Communist Party congress. "It was like a political earthquake," remakred one. "Nothing like this has been seen in Eastern Europe before."

His colleague disagreed. "How can you talk of an earthquake when nothing has changed? There's nothing to buy in the shops, the government and [the independent labor union federation] Solidarity are continuing to fight with each other, and we've still got no idea how we're going to get out of our desperate economic mess."

There, in that fragment of conversation, lies the central paradox of the remarkable exercise in democracy from which the Polish Communist Party has just emerged. For seven days (two longer than originally planned), Polish Communists argued freely with each other, shouted down government ministers, and voted three-quarters of their leaders out of office. There was genuine suspense about the outcome.

Yet, at the end of it all, Poland looked much the same as at the beginning. The faces in the Politburo had changed, but its political complexion was familiar with the party leader Stanislaw Kania holding the balance between the reformers and conservatives. Despite the suspension of two major strikes called for later this week, the country still simmers with the threat of industrial unrest.

The contrast between form and substance, expectations and reality, is all the more marked when one remembers that for months the congress was viewed as a kind of watershed event in the Polish drama. So distant a prospect did it seem that people began to invest it with almost magical qualities. If we can last out to the congress, the argument went, the moderates in the party will emerge on top, a deal will be struck with Solidarity, and all will be well.

The congress, which some observers never believed would take place, is over. But the crisis continues. Why?

One answer to the riddle lies in the fact that the congress was delayed for so long. First suggested by Kania last September, it repeatedly was postponed because of the resistance of the party's old guard who feared -- correctly, as it turned out -- that they would lose their jobs if it went ahead. In the meantime, the economy deteriorated and Solidarity's position in Polish society steadily strengthened.

In his speech to the congress, Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski made the point that, at the beginning of this year, equilibrium could have been restored to the food market with price increases averaging 66 percent. Today average increases of 110 percent are necessary. "Every delay in introducing the reform considerably increases its social costs," he said.

A second reason for the congress' failure to solve Poland's underlying problems is that the problems are -- in the short term at least -- insoluble. Even on the most optimistic of assumptions, the economy will not even begin to recover for two years, and it will take at least five years to reach the pre-1980 level of production. Millions of Poles are being asked to make big sacrifices at a time when their life is hard enough already and they have found in Solidarity a common defense against the demands of the authorities.

But the real explanation for the present paradox is that the congress represented the end of and earthquake rather than the beginning. The political upheavals at the meeting may have appeared seismic, but they were in fact aftershocks. The earth shook under the Polish Communist Party last August: what happened last week was only the logical consequence.

Given the force of last year's earthquake in Polish society, it was inevitable that the political superstructure eventually would be shaken up. The changes in political life represented by the congress were the minimum necessary to prevent the building from collapsing completely. Had the congress not been held, the trust of the rank and file in the leadership would have been shattered completely and the party left totally paralyzed.

This helps explain the backward-looking nature of the congress. At times the delegates appeared preoccupied with settling past scores, apportioning blame for the crisis, and voting out of office anyone tainted by the mistakes of the previous leadership. Remarkably little attention was paid to the future and the meeting failed to agree on a vision and a program for coming was unimportant.

To conclude that the congress was unimportant would, however, be a mistake. It was a unique event in the history of the Soviet Bloc. It showed that there was ways of running a communist party other than through the dictatorial handing down of decisions from above. There can be free discussion and free votes without the entire system falling apart.

A strongly reformist newspaper editor, Maciej Szumowski, caught the significance of the congress nicely when he noted the reactions on the faces of the party leaders as they listened to the results of the voting for the Central Committee. For the first time ever, he wrote in Gazeta Krakowska, the politicians were aware that their fate depended on the ballot box. Other observers also said they could sense the tension in the hall as political careers were ended or launched.

Equally important was the reaction of the "fraternal" delegates from the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Although not present at the closed sessions, what they did see was educative enough. The chief Soviet guest, Politburo member Viktor Grishin, listened with studied attention as leading officials were described as incompetent and delegates demanded the floor to press their own, sometimes idiosyncratic, points of view.

The tone of the debate was reflected in the speech of a railway worker who got up to complain about what he described as "the system of delegates and superdelegates, of mandates and supermandates." Why, he demanded, were the comrade secretaries, ministers, and generals all arriving at the ball in limousines while the other delegates were shuttled around in buses?

A farmer evoked fits of laughter with a cabaret-like description of how Poland had been run for the last 10 years under former leader Edward Gierek: "Gierek invited us to a wonderful restaurant with lavish food and cigarettes, scoffed at the lot, and then left us to pay the waiter."

Kania underlined the novel nature of Poland's experiment when he apologized to the Soviet Bloc guests for what he called "administrative shortcomings." "These are the costs of democracy, necessary democracy," he said with a half-smile.

Kania did not say it, but the implication of his remark was obvious. Here in Poland, an alternative model of communism is being developed to the rigid Soviet variety the world knows already.

And that, in the long term, may prove the most lasting result of last week's Polish party congress.

The success of this model, however, and its attractiveness to other communist states depends on Poland's ability to overcome its economic crisis and satisfy its citizens' basic needs. Despite all the free debate, that issue still has not been resolved.