Cambridge, Mass. — Poland is moving into a crucial second phase that will determine if recent events there will mark a new epoch or just another turbulent chapter in Soviet-bloc history.
For the next few months will likely decide how successful the Soviet Union and the Polish Communist Party will be at diluting or negating recent precedent-setting concessions won by striking workers.
This was the general consensus of a group of experts at a recent forum on Poland at Harvard University.
The group -- three professors from Harvard's Russian Research Center and one from Tufts University -- noted that two of the more unpalatable demands, especially for Moscow, are the across-the-board wage hikes for all workers and the new independent trade unions.
Indeed the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda, in a Sept. 25 article clearly aimed at Poland, sharply criticized thos advocating so-called free trade unions. Lenin was quoted as saying unions in a socialist state must always be under party leadership.
But the Polish workers seem just as adamant to see the reforms pushed through. Strike leader Lech Walesa recently warned the new Polish regime that any attempt to undermine the independent union movement might again touch off countrywide strikes.
Regardless of whether the government implements all the demands, however, the panelists generally agreed that the reform movement is significant because it:
* Marks the first time a Communist Party officially has recognized an organization independent of the party -- in this case the independent union movement.
* Marks the first time a communist country has recognized a leader -- Lech Walesa -- from outside the party establishment. The walrus-mustachioed strike leader's prominence will make it all the more difficult for the regime to water down the workers' demands.
* Marks a new degree of unity and discipline on the part of Polish workers. Unlike previous revolts in Poland, notes Tadeusz Szafar, visiting professor at the center, the 600,000 who went out on strike in August did so without a "window pane being shattered."
Although the Roman Catholic Church and some dissident intellectuals have played a part in the thrust for reform, it has mainly been spearheaded by rank-and-file workers -- what Adam B. Ulam, director of Harvard's Russian Research Center calls "a genuine workers' revolution."
The demand for change is not restricted to the workers. Even within the Communist Party itself, says Sarah M. Terry, an associate professor at Tufts University, reformist tendencies have solidified. The question now is whether the current economic malaise will prove either a help or hindrance to the workers. On the one hand, the experts noted, the Polish regime cannot afford to lose the West as a trading partner. Poland has already rung up a $20 billion debt with Western countries.
At the same time, however, if consumer shortages and other economic problems become too acute, some workers may decide to tone down their refomist pitch. This could lead to divisions in the work force, which the party could try to exploit.