It is too soon to say definitively whether the struggle of the Polish workers over the past 16 months has been in vain. That is, whether - like the Hungarian uprising of 1956 or the Czechoslovak spring of 1968 - it will go down in the history books as a stifled effort to break free from Soviet-imposed communist tyranny.
Or whether we are seeing this time in Poland, although momentarily set back, a deep stirring that will produce the first big crack in the Russian Empire - the last of the great 19th-20th century European empires to survive.
It all depends on the measure of Polish popular and workers' resistance to the crackdown so ruthlessly initiated Dec. 13. But it is a kind of Catch-22 situation, because effective Polish resistance would almost certainly bring the Russians in, possibly precipitating the most serious superpower confrontation and crisis in Europe since World War II.
Militating against effective resistance are: empty Polish stomachs; emotional exhaustion after 16 months on a political roller-coaster; the equivocation of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland in response to the past week's events (a pastoral letter from the primate Dec. 20 spoke of the church's ''helplessness''); and the wily invasion by proxy which has put the crackdown in the hands of Poles instead of the expected Russians, catching Poles and outsiders off guard.
But there are signs and facts pointing in the other direction, toward resistance.
A dispatch Dec. 20, for instance, from the Soviet news agency, Tass, indicates that Solidarity is holding 1,300 miners hostage in a pit in the Katowice area of southern Poland - a possibly slanted version of a sit-in down the mine. From the Baltic ports of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Sopot come reports of the closing down of shipyards until after Christmas, suggesting that workers are still managing to disrupt work there. According to the BBC quoting ''reliable'' sources in Poland, at least 200 factories in the country continue to be disrupted by strikes and that nine of Poland's 49 provinces are affected by such protest actions
Even where people are turning up for work, reportedly little work is in fact being done - suggesting perhaps a go-slow or working-to-rule. There are also rumors - as the BBC called them - that in some areas, soldiers of the conscript Polish Army are refusing to resort to force against workers occupying plants. (Where force has been used hitherto, it is believed that the professional paramilitary security police were responsible.)
The psychological effect of the killing last week of seven or more workers and the wounding of many others in Katowice probably dashed any faint hope of reconciliation on the basis of Polish nationalism to which Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski has appealed.
This is likely to contribute to the discrediting of General Jaruzelski as a possible nationalist military (as opposed to Communist Party) leader in the mold of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, a hero during and after World War I to many Poles. Poles have tended to see their Army as an embodiment of Polish nationalism throughout history.
Now instead of being seen by his countrymen as a potential Pilsudski, there is the consequent danger for General Jaruzelski that he will be vilified as were the handful of Poles who in the 18th century acquiesced in the Russian czars' partition (with the Germans) of Poland to preserve their privileges.
For General Jaruzelski too there is the added onus of the conclusion reached by President Reagan, and almost certainly shared by most Poles, that the Dec. 13 crackdown must have been prepared in concert with the Russians. There have been persistent reports that the Warsaw Pact's Soviet commander, Marshal Viktor G. Kulikov, was in Warsaw last week, and that he told General Jaruzelski: ''If you won't do it, we (Russians) will.''
All this has to be seen against the background of the Poles' record of resistance during the 20th century partition of their country between Hitler and Stalin during World War II. It was the most courageous in all Eastern Europe. Moderation is not a feature of Polish history. The relative restraint evident during the ferment from August 1980 until the beginning of this month was an exception. And submission is not part of the Polish character: Polish workers were killed in 1956 and again in 1970 in protest demonstrations against their Communist masters.
Today those masters are more discredited today than at any time since they were imposed on Poland by Russian bayonets after World War II. Solidarity emerged as an independent trade union in August 1980 and grew over 16 months into an organization of more than 10 million members.
Political scientist William E. Griffith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a specialist on Eastern Europe, expects the Polish scenario to unfold in one of two ways in the weeks ahead - both of them grim. The less dramatic would have Poland wracked by continuing low-key resistance involving murders and sabotage. The more dramatic would see resistance escalating to Polish Army mutinies - with inevitable Russian intervention, and with all that that might involve for the US, Europe, and the rest of the world.