It remains to be seen what the political changes in Poland will mean in actual practice. But the Polish workers, by forcing the Gierek government to negotiate with a unified strike committee, to purge the power structure, and to offer trade union reforms, already have achieved an astounding breakthrough. They in fact may be writing the most significant chapter in the history of communist Eastern Europe. No one who champions individual freedom can fail to admire and empathize with this extraordinary surge of popular determination to gain a bit more of it.
What the workers want most are truly independent trade unions. The government does not go this far, aware such a reform would represent a radical and basic shift in the communist system. But it does seem to be offering something more than mere cosmetic change. Edward Gierek promises that new union representatives would be elected to the party-controlled trade union structure, with secret ballots and an unlimited number of candidates. The latter concession is especially important for it means workers could vote in representatives more responsive to them than to the party. The present strike leaders, for instance, could end up in the official union leadership. The result might thus be a considerable freeing up of the unions.
There are many other demands, including political ones, on which the government is less likely to compromise. To give up press censorship entirely, for instance, would similarly open up the communist system to continual challenge by liberal forces and undermine party control. Yet the astonishing thing is the degree of openness and objectivity the media have been permitted in this past week. This is a remarkable break with tradition and to go back to the controls of pre-strike days now does not seem viable. It is just possible that the firing of the head of radio and television will mean some liberalization of media guidelines.
Negotiations at this writing go on and the outcome is far from clear. But, if the very fact of a negotiation between a segment of the Polish working class and their government is significant, so is the extraordinary restraint on the part both of those directly involved and of those watching anxiously from the sidelines. The workers themselves have exhibited uncharacteristic discipline and organization. The government has been equally careful not to resort to force and to keep the confrontation on a peaceful plane. And the Vatican has urged caution and moderation.
The Soviet Union, for its part, is trying to insulate its own people from the heady events in Poland by jamming Western broadcasts. But it has already published news of the government shake-up, indicating it knew of it in advance. It appears to be giving Mr. Gierek indirect support and the freedom of action he needs to resolve the crisis. Clearly the Russians are prepared for a degree of accommodation with the Polish workers as long as it does not endanger the stability of the Warsaw regime. The United States, too, has maintained a properly low-key stance so as not to enhance Soviet anxieties. Even the sizable Polish-American community has behaved responsibly, voicing its solidarity with the workers but refraining from provocative agitation.
So it is that East and West watch the unfolding Polish drama with common fears but differing hopes. The East wants above all to contain the rebellion at an acceptable political cost. The West longs to see gradual change that will spell more independence for Poles and further ease conditions in Eastern Europe but not at the risk of a harder Soviet boot. One important factor is that the Polish workers have in Edward Gierek a communist in whom Moscow has confidence but who has had experience in the West and therefore appears amenable to a more flexible line. Whether the new men he has brought into the Politburo are the "moderates" they are reputed to be will have to be proved over time. Polish workers remember well the unfulfilled reforms promised in the "Polish October" of 1956 that brought the Stalinist era to a close. These are the reforms they now seek to resurrect.
But what has already taken place is of sufficient import to add the "Polish August" of 1980 to the annals of Poland's centuries-long struggle for freedom.