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Poland's cautious course

October 8, 1980



The world watches with a mixture of incredulity, hope, and concern as Poland continues to seethe with ferment and to grope for a new direction. Never before have workers in an East European communist country mounted a nationwide strike. Yet that is what Poland's new trade union organization Solidarity did recently when thousands of workers halted work for a brief hour in cities all across the nation. The astonishingly disciplined strike demonstrated that, a little over a month after the Gdansk agreement, the independent unions enjoy growing public sympathy and are a political force the regime must reckon with.

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As the tug of war with the government goes on, the question is whether the communist leaders of Poland will have the political will and tenacity to reform both their party and Poland's discredited systems of economic management. Without such fundamental changes, it will be difficult for the regime to build public confidence or prevent further outbursts of unrest.

So far there has been no frontal assault on these problems. At the just-ended meeting of the party's Central Committee the new Polish leader, Stanislaw Kania, struck a tolerant attitude toward the independent unions and acknowledged the errors of the old Gierek regime. He promised investigations into the corruption of party officials and spoke of "democratizing" reforms within the party. The meeting also ended with dismissals from the 150-member Central Committee.

But many people in Poland will be disappointed that the purges did not go further. Some of those dismissed had already been dropped from the ruling Politburo. No new reformer was named to that all-powerful body. Most significant, no date was set for the crucial party Congress which alone can alter the makeup of the Central Committee, which in turn gives the government its mandate. DEbate was acrimonious and heated at the plenary meeting, indicating that there is no consensus on where to go next. Clearly the hard- liners at the top are against basic reforms and are digging in their heels, no doubt with Soviet backing. This is not even to conjecture what may be happening at provincial levels, where thousands of party functionaries have a stake in preserving the status quo.

Will the party reformers win out in the end? They seek no less than a basic restructuring of the party, including such unprecedented reforms as rotation in office and secret balloting within the Central Committee. They would also liberalize the economy, introducing decentralization of decision-making and market mechanisms. The dilemma is that, unless the Polish economy can begin to function efficiently -- and unless the workers themselves can be persuaded of the need for restraint and job discipline while Poland gets its economic house in order -- it will be impossible to satisfy the demands for a better life which the militant workers make.

No one would expect such a time of transition to be easy. A new order cannot be implanted overnight, for any new movement for progress inevitably meets with resistance. Forces of opposition and skepticism would be especially strong in a country perched precariously on the doorstep of the Soviet Union and fearing military intervention. Mr. Kania himself must tread carefully so as not to arouse panic in Moscow that the Polish party is losing control.

Despite all the self-evident dangers, something profound and far-reaching is happening in Poland that is altering the course of history in Eastern Europe. Some may wish to forestall the burgeoning dialogue between people and government. But it is doubtful it can ever again be fully stopped.