Poland's Communist Party, which has long since lost touch with the people, is struggling to find its place in a society where the military rule through martial law.
It is the first party in the communist bloc to resort to martial law to shore itself up and thus try to avoid the necessity of direct outside ''help,'' i.e., from the Soviet Union.
The Polish Central Committee opened its first session under martial law Feb. 24 with a round of official comments admitting the party has yet to win back the confidence of the nation it has governed for 35 years.
No other ruling party in the communist world has had to make so sweeping an admission, or face such a challenge to its power. The Hungarian party in 1956 and the Czechoslovak in 1968 were shaken by reform movements that only Soviet intervention was able to check.
But both were able to reestablish their authority within relatively short periods of time. The Hungarians did so under a pragmatic, more tolerant leadership; the Czechoslovaks with a mixture of rigid ideological control and stable living standards.
The August 1980 events in Poland -- reflecting the accumulation of two decades of popular dissatisfaction and increasing bitterness -- shook this party much more deeply.
Eighteen months after its first concessions to reform, the party had to impose martial law to stop the swing going too far and too fast. It shows only the tiniest sign of recovering any political authority.
Against this background, the party daily Trybuna Ludu wrote Feb. 24 in terms of a new party abandoning former ''command practices'' and finding instead ''a joint creative'' role in genuine partnership with the working class and the nation as a whole.
But the terms of such a partnership are not being spelled out adequately enough, it would seem, to be convincing very many Poles.
The government-sponsored paper Rzeczposolita (the Republic) -- launched after the start of military rule Dec. 13 - said bluntly that the Central Committee has to determine how the party ''can - and must'' win public confidence, prestige, and credibility to steer the country out of its crisis.
Zolnierc Wolnosci, the Army newsaper, also conceded the loss of public trust, beginning early in the 1970s. It acknowledged that the party must change its methods if it is to accomplish ''further socialist building'' in Poland. This newspaper is, in effect, the voice of the ruling military council, which assumed power from the party 10 weeks ago and whose chief, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, has pledged himself to the continuance of reform.
But it also reflects the views of a formidable orthodox and authoritarian faction in the upper leadership that opposes reform and is pressing for a top-to-bottom ideological purge of the party to safeguard its control over whatever changes are made.
''The class enemy has been paralyzed,'' the newspaper said, ''(but) it has not stopped its underground activity . . . (nor its) desire for revenge.''
It is said the committee's debate is centering on a draft program entitled, ''What we are fighting for and where we are going.''
''In this declaration,'' said Rzeczposolita hopefully, ''every party member and every citizen will find an attempt at answering the questions now disturbing our nation.''
But convincing Poles of this may depend on the apparent ''balance'' between the factions at the top being swung decisively in favor of reform in the Central Committee.