''On the surface, things might look something like anarchy in Yugoslavia just now.'' Alexander Grlickov, Yugoslavia's chief ideologist, made this remark during a long interview in his office in the Communist Party's lofty headquarters here.
And indeed, Yugoslavia today, 36 years after its historic break with Stalin's Soviet Union, does appear anarchic. For a struggle is now going on between those who advocate more ideological argument and those who would suppress or minimize such argument.
Many Yugoslavs seem more uncertain than at any other time since 1948 about precisely where their country is going. The nation's customary sense of united purpose is not so evident now.
Yet Mr. Grlickov, one of this country's most influential leaders, dismisses talk of ''anarchy'' as too superficial an assessment. Yugoslavia, he says, is facing a healthy if tumultuous ''fermentation'' of natural anxieties and conflicting views. And he sees no reason to silence well-meaning critics of the Communist government, however troublesome they might seem to be.
Several recent events provide the context for today's ferment of debate here:
* A young sociologist has just been sentenced to eight years in prison. While most Yugoslavs dismissed his views as naive, a Sarajevo court called them ''counterrevolutionary.'' (A handful of Yugoslavs arrested with him were released following the July trial ''pending further investigation.'' But because of the public shock at the Sarajevo sentence, no one expects them to be handled in the same heavy-handed way.)
* A cemetery of the Serbian Orthodox Church at Pancevo, near Belgrade, was vandalized. The cause of the incident was unclear. Was it the backlash of Belgrade's crackdown on the restless Albanian population in Kosovo province? Or an angry Serb retaliatory ''provocation'' to keep the nationalities' pot boiling?
* In Kosovo itself, some 80 Albanians recently appeared before the courts charged with ''nationalism and irredentism.'' They joined the 750 already sentenced since March 1981, when Albanians rioted to demand republican status for Kosovo.
* Despite inflation, Yugoslavia is still relatively affluent when compared with other Communist countries (Hungary excepted). But it is nonetheless deeply troubled economically. Shoppers are kept at wits' end by a breakdown in distribution of bread one day, of milk on another day, and the perpetual shortage of, say, coffee.
But above everything else there is an almost deafening chorus of debate among both party stalwarts and nonconformist intellectuals over changes in the system and over whether there should be an official (but loyal) opposition to the ruling Communist Party. Some even go so far as to call for no parties at all.
Mr. Grlickov hopes that the current debate will bring about a greater democratization of power. This, he believes, is the only way through the present crisis. Others in the leadership, however, want free discussion curbed in the interest of ''unity.''
But such unity eluded a session of the party's Central Committee in June at which ''for the first time in the party's history,'' Grlickov says, a resolution by the party leadership failed to win approval. The Committee decided that the entire party membership of some 2.2 million should be brought into a discussion which is to last the rest of this year.
And, of 33 participants at in the Central Committee discussion, all but two took a stand on further democratization of power.
In fact, one of the sharpest complaints from the floor of that meeting was that the party's collective presidency drafted its resolution without consulting the party's lower echelons.
Yugoslavia's regime, though a single-party one, has prided itself on far-reaching reforms and on its ''openness'' both to people and ideas. Even those opposing any lessening of the party's control of affairs draw a line against anything that might suggest a return to the Soviet system.
Leading party intellectuals are seriously concerned, though, at the disproportionate influence wielded by the party and the Socialist Alliance, a nationwide organization that has four times as many members as the party.
''No one has a monopoly of thought,'' Grlickov said at the conclusion of our talk, ''and that includes the party. The question remains how to demonopolize the party and the functioning of officials also. The (Socialist) Alliance must be a playground - an arena - of ideas.
''Fighting ideas with the police is not a sign of progress. To combat ideas, you have to fight with ideas.''