A furious political battle is raging now in the Soviet Union over the future of its most powerful institution: the Communist Party.

And just a week before the opening of the first party conference since 1941, it is the party's leader who is fighting hardest to change and, in some ways, weaken it.General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to convince a Soviet citizenry that has grown accustomed to the party's dominance over nearly every aspect of public life that in order to create an affluent, working, legal state, the country must direct power away from the party.

There is tremendous resistance to the idea here. Soviet and western analysts alike note that countless older officials in the party ranks think of the party's control of political, economic and cultural life as the very essence of socialism.

"Any threat to that dominance is a threat to those people and to Soviet socialism," one diplomat said. "To change that thinking - that's Gorbachev's great political struggle."

The task will be even more arduous than Gorbachev might have thought. Disappointed supporters of Gorbachev's radical reform proposals describe the election process for conference delegates as a "disaster" and a triumph for "old-style" Soviet politics.

"A while ago it was like people couldn't wait for the conference to begin," said one "frustrated" Soviet journalist. "But when you saw who was getting elected it made your arms just drop to your sides."

Last month, Gorbachev expressed hope that local party organizations would elect delegates on the basis of their commitment to change. Instead, Soviet officials say a majority of the conference's 5,000 delegates are not reformers at all. Now Gorbachev will have to depend on the passion of the delegates he does have on his side - people like Ogonyok magazine editor Vitali Korotich and historian Yuri Afnasyev - and the force of his own personality.

But even without a clear majority for the conference, Gorbachev has succeeded in starting an unprecedented debate here about the Communist Party - about its history and its future - that could transform the nature of political power in the Soviet Union.

In interviews, Soviet officials say that the most significant reform of the party would be the approval of measures leading to increased power sharing with elected administrative bodies known as soviets.

Although the communist revolution's leader, Vladimir Lenin, spoke a great deal about the importance of soviets, the Communist Party has thoroughly controlled every aspect of power in the Soviet Union since the end of the civil war. The party bureaucracy, and not the soviets, became the country's dominant institution.

Joseph Stalin rendered the soviets utterly powerless. In his totalitarian state, the party apparatus was his instrument. Under Stalin's successors, the legacy has persisted. The party's grip on every aspect of economic, political and cultural life is still nearly absolute, if less brutal.

Now Gorbachev and his followers are looking to re-establish the soviets as the principle bodies of day-to-day governing and management. They want the soviets to begin taking control of agriculture, manufacturing and other aspects of the economy, leaving the party to take the lead primarily on questions of ideology and direction.

Last month, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda printed on its front page a long letter describing how, over the years, the party had been degraded by "careerist" bureaucrats, autocratic leaders and repression, especially during the Stalin era. The letter - written by a mid-level official but surely with approval of the leadership - set off a public debate about the party in the official press.