In the 1850s, following one of several Polish protests against Russian rule, the then Czar of Russia was faced with the question of how much autonomy to concede to the Poles. His reply was characteristic: "No dreams, no dreams," he said, indicating that he expected full cooperation in maintaining the existing order in Poland.
Today, a Russian ruler again faces the dilemma of his imperial predecessor: How far can he afford to go in making concessions to the dreams of his border peoples, and at what cost to the prospects of control at home? The answer is not an easy one.
The price of stabilizing Poland, it would seem, is one of free trade unions. But what is a "free" trade union in a country whose polity is based on Soviet principles of governance? The answer does not lie in passing more laws or promulgating more decrees. It lies in a much simpler principle of Soviet governance known as the "nomenklatura" system.
Nomenklatura is kept outside the normal range of discourse between legal scholars in East and West, but it is nonetheless critically important. Quite simply, it is a list of important positions which the party insists upon controlling, in some cases by actually exercising the power of appointment, in other cases by simply reserving the right of veto.
If this system applies, no elaborate legal guarantees will make a union fully free in the Western sense. Without this system, a union can operate freely, in terms of responsiveness to the interests of its membership, even though it does not have extensive and detailed legislative guarantees.
Nomenklatura is the administrative mechanism through which the "leading role of the party" is actually accomplished. And the "leading role of the party" is generally considered to be the central principle underlying the Soviet system of governance. Abandoning the nomenklatura system is the political price that must be paid if Poland is to have genuinely free trade unions.
Whether a Polish party leader is willing and able to pay this political price remains to be seen. But it would seem essential if the Polish workers are to be given the incentive they need to accept sacrifices imposed by further economic development. Only genuinely free trade unions can summon the necessary commitment, and only leaders genuinely elected by the workers can evoke that commitment.
If such commitment is forthcoming, and if the economic price is paid by the West, Poland has a very good chance of remaining politically stable and economically viable. And there is no objective reason why its present international orientation and treaty commitments should be affected. In other words, Warsaw, Moscow, and the West will have succeeded in sustaining the essential equilibrium on which peace in Europe has rested since 1945. And they would have done so within a quite European tradition of adjustment and compromise.
There remains only the czarist dilemma of a system which fears liberalization on the imperial periphery when it cannot be tolerated at home. Can the Soviet leadership accept changes in the way Polish blue-collar labor relates to party rule, changes which might become the basis for demands by Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Russian workers?
It would seem clear that what may be accepted by the Soviets with regard to Poland will sooner or later have to be accepted with regard to other states in the Soviet orbit but not a part of the Soviet Union. And it would also seem clear that the benefits in terms of political stability and economic growth would also apply. Can the same be said about the Soviet Union?
The evidence indicates that the chances of such changes being acceptable to the Soviet leadership with regard to Soviet unions is very small indeed. What would be much more likely is a pattern of increased high-level attention to the role of the existing union structure within the USSR: new and more assertive personnel assigned -- through the nomenklatura system -- to leadership positions , concessions on wages, working conditions, and fringe benefits to the more vocal and significant sectors of the labor force, and possibly some further movement in the direction of enhanced status for shop stewards as distinguished from factory committees.
There would be an economic price for such changes in the Soviet labor scene, and it would be a price that the Soviet leadership rather than the West would have to pay in terms of revised priorities during the next five-year plan. Possibly, such considerations underlie the indications of delay and uncertainty to be seen in announcing the plan for the forthcoming party Congress.
But there would not be an unacceptable political price in terms of abandoning a cardinal principle of Soviet rule, the leading role of the party at the head of the working class. On the contrary, the principle might just -- for the first time under Soviet rule -- actually acquire some substantive reality.