A moment of decision is near in Poland in the latest round of the continuing challenge from the workers and their free trade unions to the government and the Communist Party.
At issue is not simply the balance of political power within Poland but also Lenin's postulate implemented throughout the Soviet empire that in a communist state the party must control the workers. The Polish workers are trying to stand that onits head. They are taking Marxism literally and seeking to establish workers' control over the party.
Hence the importance forthe Soviet Union and the entire Soviet bloc of the Polish government's effort to outmaneuver the workers on the vital question of conceding the supremacy of the Communist Party in trade union affairs. On this, the government has dug in its heels after having had to give in to the workers in every confrontation since the struggle began back in the summer.
As the Polish government cunningly presses itsbattle plan, there have been two simultaneous developments either relevant to or flowing from it:
* There are signs of the most serious split in the workers' movement since the long-drawn-out crisis began. The disagreement is over tactics -- between the tough yet pragmatic Lech Walesa (who has so far had broad acceptance as the workers' leader) and an apparently growing group of them who see him as being too willing to compromise.
* East Germany -- consistent advocate of a tougher line on the part of the Polish authorities and nervous from the outset about the Polish crisis spilling westward across the frontier and affecting East German workers -- has made two new moves that underline its no-nonsense approach.
The first of these, in effect, introduces tight travel restrictions for private travel between East Germany and Poland. The East German authorities clearly want to intensify the quarantine of Poland as long as the ferment there persists.
The second East German move, even though it made no specific reference to Poland, is a more explicit warning than before that if the "enemies of socialism [i.e. communism]" want "to start a war in Europe against socialism, they will suffer defeat by the fighting power of the Soviet Army and the other armies in the Warsaw Pact." Those were the words Oct. 27 of East German Communist leader Erich Honecker, who has been the pacesetter for the counterrevolution within the Soviet bloc against the Polish workers' movement. He clearly understands both the international and historical implications of the Polish struggle and comes as close as any top East European communist to voicing them publicly.
In his Oct. 27 utterance, Mr. Honecker returned to the theme of one of his speeches earlier this month: that "the wheels of history will never be turned back." He mentioned the turning point of "Red October of 1917," meaning, of course, the Bolshevik Revolution that brought Lenin and the Communist Party to power in the Soviet Union. This was a clear hint that the Soviet Union andits European clients will resist any challenge either to Soviet primacy in Eastern Europe or to the Leminist interpretation of Marx that insists that the Communist Party must have an absolute monopoly of power wherever it controls the levers of authority.
In Poland, the dilemma of the party (and of the government) is acute. For the first time within the Soviet bloc a challenge to party authority is coming from a so far well-disciplined workers' organization -- not from intellectuals, not from students, andnot from outside "antisocialist" elements pulling the strings from behind the scenes, no matter what East German party leader Honecker says.
The single biggest workers' group demanding legal status as a free trade union independent ofthe party is Mr. Walesa's Solidarity. This status was promised by the authorities, together with the right to strike, in the deal struck to end the sit-ins at Gdansk and other Baltic port shipyards.
So when Solidarity's statutes were submitted to the courts for formal registration, the organization's leadership had carefully omitted from the documents any specific recognition of the primacy of the Communist Party within the state. Pressed on this, the leaders of Solidarity made the point that their statutes did expressly subscribe to the Polish Constitution, which gives the party its special role in the country.
This did not satisfy the authorities. So before returning the statutes to Solidarity as approved, the courts arbitrarily wrote into them a provision accepting the primacy of the party. Also written in was a provision limiting the right to strike.
The result has been a near explosion within Solidarity, which Mr. Walesa is trying to contain. He shares the objections of those in his organization who want to prevent the authorities from getting away with what is seen as the latter's shapr practices or even double-dealing. Bu he wants to maintain the discipline symbolized by the Gdansk sit-ins so that violence is avoided and the Soviet Union has no excuse to send in its tanks.
Mr. Walesa has won approval from Solidarity's membership for the organization's leaders to meet with Polish Prime Minister Josef Pinkowski Oct. 31 to discuss the workers' deepened sense of grievance and seek redress. However, Polish state radio announced on the eve of that scheduled meeting that Mr. Pinkowski would be accompanying party leader Stanislaw Kania to Moscow. The timing of a meeting with the workers. The more militant workers are threatening to call a general strike Nov. 12 if their demands are not satisfied by then.
About the only comforting element in this increasingly tense situation is that Nov. 12 is far enough away to give both party and workers time to try to work out a compromise -- even if it means a continuation of the risky brinkmanship that both have practiced all summer long.