EVEN MORE quickly than many people expected, "the crisis" in Poland has arrived. This refers to the general dismay that, although the workers have successfully organized, the Communist Party has gone through a democratic transformation and fear of a Soviet military crackdown has receded, the country remains in a truly desperate condition. These achievements are climactic, historic: they have altered the quality of life in Poland and they have tremendous implications for event elsewhere. But they have not put food on the table or, yet given Poland a governing structure. The letdown is acute.

Years of party mismanagement and a year of worker agitation have reduced economic performance cruelly, as reflected both in international credit-worthiness and in daily household supplies. In a sense, it is easier to deal with international creditors: if they want to get back their money (upwards of $27 billion), they will have to reschedule Poland's debts somehow. Daily supplies, in the political here and now, are another matter. Meat is in short supply, rationed, expensive and found only at the end of long lines -- and the government is held responsible. People are getting into the streets to protest, but in a spontaneous uncontrolled fashion, not under Solidarity's orderly aegis. The word anarchy is coming into use -- Moscow's sweet revenge.

The government, including the party, accepts that something must be done but is so far concentrating on calls for austerity and is shrinking from the full-scale economic reforms that alone may offer some prospect of longer-term relief. Within Solidarity, a taste for reform is evident, but the leadership fears it may lose control of its basic constituency by asking the workers to accept the hardship and uncertainty of long-term sacrifice. Officialdom and Solidarity are not so much antagonists as partners on a dance floor listening to different bands. The common specter hovering over them is not so much, at the moment, Soviet intervention as the prospect of worker uprisings on the 1956, 1970 and 1976 models. But which of the partners would the workers be protesting against and which would respond, and how?

It is early, and harmful, to give up on the Poles, who have shown a courage and resourcefulness defying all conventional forecasts. The situation is not entirely bleak; a good harvest is due and food aid is coming, for instance. The quieter, slower skills of cooperation, planning and endurance are not unknown in Warsaw. Emotionally as well as politically, however, the country faces extraordinary demands. It is a time for faith in Poland.