Who in the West is not anguished by the sight of Polish police battling workers in Gdansk who are demanding a restoration of their banned trade union Solidarity? It should also anguish General Jaruzelski. These were not riots instigated by the Roman Catholic Church or by underground Solidarity leaders, who have been planning strike demonstrations for November 10. They were a spontaneous upwelling of protest by the shipyard workers who initially gave birth to the free trade union movement.
What do the protests tell us? The simple truth that the gap between the rulers and ruled of Poland has continued to grow wider. The Jaruzelski regime under martial law has not managed to establish credibility with the people of Poland and, far from bringing economic and political order to the scene, has only deepened cynicism and bitterness in the nation. The political stalemate persists and the economy deteriorates.
What is to be done, then? From General Jaruzelski's viewpoint, bringing the riots under control is obviously the first priority. By quickly ''militarizing'' the Lenin Shipyard - and making workers subject to military orders and discipline - he clearly hopes to bring the protest under control and keep it from spreading to other towns and cities. No doubt he feels the hot breath of the Soviets as he does so. Soviet Defense Minister Ustinov's message that the Polish government could count on Moscow's support to maintain communist rule is a not-so-subtle reminder of how closely the Kremlin is watching events.
But General Jaruzelski, looking beyond a policy of toughness, must draw a lesson from the protests if Poland is still to avoid a vicious cycle of repression and violent confrontation - and possible Soviet military intervention. He must interpret them as a serious sign that Poles still do not trust the regime and that the process of national reconciliation has not started. In fact it is just possible - and perhaps only slimly possible - that the Gdansk strike gives him a bit of leverage with Moscow. ''Look,'' he can say to Mr. Brezhnev, ''I have done as you asked. I imposed martial law. I locked up the Solidarity leaders. I even outlawed the union. And you see what happened. Now we have to try something else.''
Why not renew the effort at dialogue and reconciliation? Why not get together with Archbishop Glemp and his representatives and Lech Walesa and his representatives, and try to work out an accommodation? The workers' legitimate concern is that the newly decreed trade unions will be but a shadow of Solidarity. What General Jaruzelski needs to do is convince them that the new unions will enjoy real autonomy, that the law is open-ended and can be improved upon, and that, while the government's concerns must be taken into account, it is genuinely prepared to put into effect liberal economic reforms.
The terrible alternatives to a modus vivendi have to be contemplated. Under still greater economic strains, with the hard winter months coming on, there could be more worker unrest. If popular backlash reached a point of uncontrollable confrontation, the Polish army would become involved. Perhaps Soviet troops. Even Polish guerrilla warfare could not be ruled out.
General Jaruzelski, if he wants a viable Poland, must somehow break the tragic impasse. If it would appear to be weakness to adopt a conciliatory posture after this week's events in Gdansk and Gdynia, let him resist such thoughts. It would be a sign not of weakness but of strength to see in the present situation the urgency of finding a way out. If General Jaruzelski in fact sees himself as a ''Polish Kadar'' trying to preserve Poland's independence and freedom of economic action (as Kadar has in Hungary), he must realize that, the more police crackdowns there are, the more difficult it becomes to have a national dialogue and the less likely he will ever achieve his goal.
Poland would be the loser.