Angry Polish workers hit party leadership with the 64,000-zloty question

"We don't expect miracles, but we want action. We want to know how long yet we must tighten our belts . . . and what we should do to pull the country out of crisis . . .."

At meetings all over Poland workers are making themselves heard in such terms , more forcefully and perhaps more effectively than at any other time since World War II.

These are meetings of activists of a 3 1/2-million-member Communist Party thrown into disarray by the August crisis. They are agonizing debates within regional committees or in big industrial areas and individual plants.

Most are attended by party chief Stanislaw Kania, who took over four months ago when Edward Gierek's 10 years in office ended amid nationwide industrial unrest and a threat of civil disorder.

Never in the 35-year history of communist Eastern Europe has a party had to submit to such open, gruelling questioning from the working "masses" on whom its claim to authority is based. It has all been fully reported in the public press.

This is the reality in Poland today behind the birth of the new independent unions, the enhanced modus vivendim between the Marxist state and the Roman Catholic Church, and the calm that prevails at least on the surface after months of strikes and political uncertainty

Mr. Kania had good reason to tell the party organization at the big petrochemical refinery at Plock: "I know these are difficult times for party members. But, believe me, it is a hard job, too, being the first secretary."

He and the party are struggling for credibility, especially at the grass roots, for local performance and local personalities are the criteria by which the party is judged by the country at large.

The meetings reflect the dismay and bewilderment of activists as well as ordinary members at how near the country came to economic collapse, the disenchantment with corruption and privilege in the party's upper echelons -- and the skepticism for the future despite the new commitment to reform.

"To many comrades, little, if anything, has come home of what has happened. Many are counting on a return to old methods and trying to bide their time till then. . .

"I believe we now are witnessing the last renewal -- certainly the last for myself, as a party member." The speaker, a woman worker, Regina Piechowicz, was reflecting a widely held view. Eighty percent of the party rank and file support the reforms promised in political and social life.But, in the bureaucracy, particularly in the smaller towns, the picture clearly is very different.

Despite a shake-up changing top leadership in a score of regions, there is a formidable apparatchik majority out to thwart the reform movement because it threatens their prerogatives as local functionaries.

To the rank and file shaken by two decades of broken assurances and carrerism , the changes, however welcome, still left an impression -- as one Warsaw newspaper noted -- of a mere "rotation" of known leaders rather than genuine political innovation.

Under this kind of pressure from below, the regime has begun to remove an old abuse of local authority designed to ensure party control of affairs: allowing a party secretary to be chairman of the local council. The jobs are now being separated.

It is, however, a question of much deeper democratization of the party, from top to bottom, and this still has far to go.

All but four members of Mr. Kania's Politburo are new. But the big "conservative" bloc in the Central Committee can only be dislodged at the special party congress due in three months, when Mr. Kania will be counting on a majority of delegates electedm from the grass roots to do the job.

"The first time I went as worker's representative to talk with Wladislaw Gomulka [party leader from 1956 to 1970], ministers, directors and secretaries told me: 'Don't go into all your grievances, we will handle them ourselves!'

"I am telling you this, Comrade Kania," said engineer Jan Kowalski at the Plock meeting, "so they do not lead you up the garden path. Don't always give notice to those you are going to visit -- they will pave a road and paint the fence . . .."

Both Mr. Gomulka and Mr. Gierek came to power on successive waves of popular enthusiasm. Neither lived up to his promise. As a result, Mr. Kania, though himself beginning to gain credibility is having to fight much harder to win grass-roots confidence.

Today's tremendous movement from the masses is determined not to be sidetracked. It represents a massive radicalization of a whole new working-class generation, whether within the party or outside it, that is impatient for:

* Wide participation in open government and a truthful flow of uncensored public information in place of the phony "success" propaganda and the cooked statistics of the Gierek years.

* Real public accountability, binding on both highest and local leaderships.

* Assurance in terms of a government program to urgently tackle the accumulated ills and admitted blatant failures of the past.

"Four three months I have read that we must start a renewal," worker Jerzy Kogowski told Mr. Kania. "Well, let us start!"

In such crisis conditions, Mr. Kania and the government have had time to do no more than implement the promised pay hikes and improved welfare (but they warn of further tough times before these are matched with goods); switch investment from industrial unrealities to agriculture, where Poland really needs it; and secure what is doubtless the best guarantee for its future -- the emerging sense of common cause among the party, the new unions, and the Catholic Church.

He also has to satisfy the workers. If, in the process, he retains the party's "leading" position unimpaired, it seems evident that the Russians will tolerate economic decentralization, as they have done in Hungary, and Poland's new unions just as, willy-nilly, they have accepted a noncollectivized peasantry and the extraordinary position of the Roman Ca tholic Church in Poland for 25 years.

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