What with George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko about to sit down in Geneva, we are back into our usual dizzy argument over the purpose of it all. Some among us hope the meeting will be, in a common phrase, "a step toward peace." Others feel that the very statement of such a hope for peace indicates a dangerous fuzziness. Why is it that we cannot get this peace business straight?

Peace is one of those concepts whose intensity as a symbol and appeal as a slogan long ago thrust it into a special category. It is not just a desirable strategic condition or goal. It is also an object of the fiercest tactical political striving. One may realistically accept that peace in any meaningful sense is not within reach. But immense political rewards, and ego rewards, are available to hose who win credit for earnest pursuit of it. It can become a political necessity to deny such credit to a foe.

Typically, the Reagan administration reached out for the term "Peacemaker" when the MX missile got stuck in a congressional mire. Alert to the magic of the word, the missile's doubters effectively denied the president its use. They went him one better, lassoing the word, as in "the peace movement," to characterize much of the opposition to his general military policies.

Which of the two better deserved to appropriate the powerful symbolism of peace for its political purposes? That was what much of the 1984 election was about. Reagan lost some semantical battles, but the "peace movement" lost the war of the election and was reduced to hoping that even in defeat some part of its favored policy might be honored. As it happens, the intellectuals have been even more vigorous than the politicians in fighting the battle of "peace." The most intense argumentation these days comes from conservatives. What is striking is their fear that the democratic publics of the West will fall prey to communist wiles and their own weaknesses and will force their governments to go the way of appeasement.

Jean-Francois Revel, former editor of L'Express in France, offers in his somber book, "How Democracies Perish," the perfectly sound comment that the communists have always sought "to tap for totalitarianism's profit the energy men devote to so many just causes in the world" -- foremost among those causes, peace. Moscow terms its policy a "struggle for peace."

Revel's context is contemporary Europe, and his book is rich in insight and detail. What it lacks is balance. To see his anxiety pour out page after page, you would never imagine that Moscow had failed to block the American missile deployments. The poor fit of prophecy and political reality marks much conservative discussion of "peace."

Richard Pipes, the Harvard scholar who worked in the National Security Council in the first Reagan term, has a new book with no less grim a title, "Survival Is Not Enough." He writes that "the chief instrument of Soviet Grand Strategy is political attrition, which, in practice, means exploiting the open character of democratic societies for the purpose of inciting internal divisons among different social groups and between their citizens and their elected governments. . . ." Lenin regarded pacifism as a "petty bourgeois illusion," he recalls, but found sponsorship of a pacifist program useful to "disintegrate the enemy, the bourgeoisie."

American doves play innocently into Soviet strategy, Pipes suggests, by their argument that nuclear weapons have allegedly made East and West equally interested in peaceful relations and that friendly gestures by the United States will gradually eliminate frictions between them.

I am prepared to believe that some Americans, feeling as they do (and I don't) that nuclear war is a live, imminent, almost certain, daily possibility, are negligent and sometimes even drippy in their assessments of Soviet policy and that they surrender too easily and uncritically to the lures of a one- sided "peace."

Our political system, however, permits constant calibrations of popular feeling on this issue. The evidence of Reagan's massive defense increases and his landslide reelection is that Pipes's alarms about the softness of the American people are vastly exaggerated.

He frets, for instance, lest Americans accept a definition of peace as the absence of overt hostilities -- a definition permitting terrorization by a superior power. The true definition, he feels, which we all should seek, is the existence of accord and rule by law. That seems to me much closer to the American consensus. I don't think it is necessary -- certainly it is not becoming -- to shy away from "peace."