Wladislaw Gomulka stood up to Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 for a ''Polish road to socialism,'' but he was never a reformer in domestic affairs except within his own strictly perceived orthodox limits.
He quickly damped down the process in Poland. He distrusted the reform movements both in Hungary and, later, in Czechoslovakia. He was a prime mover in Warsaw Pact action against the latter.
To him, each in essence was ''counterrevolutionary.'' And what happened in Poland in August 1980 - the rise of Solidarity - and through last year only strengthened his convictions, including a belief continuing to this day that he himself was right to use force against the 1970 rebellions that brought his downfall.
All this emerges in a revealing ''quasi-biography'' published by the Krakow communist intellectual magazine Zdanie. It is based on conversations between Gomulka and three close associates - a historian and two party aides - when he was in office and continuing over the years since.
Many of the disenchanted generation of the 1950s still recall Gomulka for the ''liberal'' period he seemed to usher in after his own six years in political oblivion because of a suspected sympathy with the Yugoslav Titoists. (He refused to participate in Stalin's excommunication of them in 1948.)
In fact, however, his attitude sprang not from belief in any Titoist reform ideas. It came from his strong ''national'' sense, an insistence that communist parties be left to run their own affairs and an awareness that, if the Yugoslavs yielded, others could be treated the same way.
It is not clear why these recollections were published just now. They present Gomulka's merits and - with great candor - the increasing flaws that emerged through the '60s.
Mostly, they seem meant to present him as a genuine patriot, realistically concerned with the Soviet alliance as the guarantee with which Poland might - indeed, must - live and still be free to follow a ''Polish path'' at home.
Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski today often gives an impression of looking at things in the same light and wishing to be seen the same way.
There is a hitherto untold story of Khrushchev's unannounced descent on Warsaw in October 1956 as the Polish leadership was meeting. Gomulka gamely would let him neither attend the meeting nor question the Poles' good faith.
Gomulka emerges in this profile as a ''modest, old-fashioned man'' who lived frugally in a small flat but could ''dance all night.'' When a villa was built for him, he inspected it, then ordered it allocated to someone else. ''He himself simply did not want to live that way, but had no objections to those who did.''
A self-taught man and gifted political leader, he was farsighted (especially in foreign affairs) and had an immense capacity for hard work. But he was also strong willed and disinclined to heed others.
''He would brutally attack those who disagreed with him, but was never vengeful and always reluctant to have opponents removed.''
Intellectuals and ambitious technocrats alike alarmed him. Unlike his successor, Edward Gierek, who ran up $26 billion of debts with the West, Gomulka rejected foreign borrowing.
Poland, he said, was not big enough for ''autarchic'' industrial ambitions in every field.
His anger knew no bounds when a Polish-built four-engine airliner flew over Warsaw. ''Who are the idiots behind it?'' he demanded. ''Had we capitalists here , not one would be found to put a zloty into such an enterprise.''
This month Poles are recalling the Poznan riots of June 1956. Gomulka cooled them and raised the high hopes of ''October,'' only to quickly abandon them. Year by year he lost touch until he finally fell, an isolated figure amid the shooting on the Baltic.
Still more tragically, it came only a week after his finest achievement and the fruit of his own ''great feeling for history'' (as these authors put it): reconciliation with West Germany and international recognition of his country's long-contested western border.