How far can a communist party go with reform and in "reforming" itself? This is the uneasy, sensitive question being thrashed out these days at intense, often stormy meetings at all party levels throughout Poland.
The final conclusion must be reached before a special party congress is held in some three months time.
The congress will either lift the country from its present crisis of confidence in its leaders -- or continue the vacuum of uncertainty in which another confrontation could arise before long. It is widely seen even by communists as probably the party's "last chance."
Reform-minded spokesmen talk of changes of economic management and workers' councils going as far as the Yugoslavs' self-management, perhaps even further. But their ideas of party political reforms are inevitably affected by Poland's Soviet-bloc commitment and are, therefore, considerably more circumspect.
There are three main trends:
* The leadership headed by Communist Party First Secretary Stanislaw Kania. Most members of the leadership appear to be convinced of the necessity of the "renewal" promised throughout Polish social and political life.
* The "conservatives" entrenched in a vast, powerful bureaucracy backed by an army of party apparatchiks. As one party publicist put it in a Monitor interview, these groups "don't relish losing comfortable seats" and obviously are not going to do so without a bitter struggle.
* A grass-roots majority -- 80 to 90 percent of the nation according to the weekly Kultura's latest poll. These people intensely desire the "transformation ," but most remain skeptical of how far it will go in practice.
This majority -- and the feeling exhibited by a stubbornly demanding party rank and file -- is stirring concern among "liberals" in the leadership that some of the changes being proposed would jeopardize the regime's ideological authority and the party's "leading role."
The leadership seems to have been taken aback by way the people have responded to the establishment of a national commission to prepare for the extraordinary congress.
Local committees at all levels and in enterprises have bombarded the commission with some 12,000 resolutions and numerous drafts for the "democratizing" amendment of the party charter.
"These committees sprang up in so spontaneous a way," a party official said, "they began to look like a parallel party within the party."
The regional leaderships, he said, mostly been able to work with these grass-roots activist bodies to create what he called a "single mainstream." But not before the local committees had inundated party headquarters with their tide of ideas. In many cases the regional committees themselves were persuaded to adopt the reform proposals.
If all the proposed changes were accepted, the party would be deprived of more authority than it could politically allow or survive.
Politburo member Stefan Olszowski, who heads the preparatory secretariat and is not known as a reformer outside the economic sphere -- has insisted, "The party must be a party, not a discussion club or a team of propagators of beautiful ideas . . . [or] ideological flanneling."
"Our stance is clear," he went on. "The reform, yes. Deep and daring, provided it serves the development of socialist social relations. But reformation? Never. . . ."
In such a context, reformation means "revisionism," the deep ideological deviation that took the Yugoslavs out of Stalin's camp.
The "popular" demands for the new amendment to the party charter include:
* Secret elections and total freedom to nominate candidates at all levels of party organization. Even top leaders would have to be elected first by their "parent" organization in a factory, shipyard, or wherever.
* Assurance that at least 50 percent of congress delegates will be actual workers.
* Limitation of the term of office and separation of party and public functions so no one has two official posts.
With some variation, the regime has indicated it accepts these concepts, but it has misgivings about the more "ideological" resolutions. These seek to dilute the authority of the top leadership and of its affiliated "control" bodies. But anything that encroaches on the party's "leading role" will be rejected.
The conventional view, even with "reformers," is that this can be redefined as a "guiding" role -- no longer a "commanding" one -- and the "competence" of the party more clearly delimited. "A revision, if you like," the party source said, "but not revisionism."
Even this, together with electoral reforms, would mark a sizable advance. That is, if it can be carried against "conservative" interests.
These remain strong enough to worry the reformers and the rank and file and to keep the party in a state of uncertainty, even perplexity, about its future place and acceptance in Polish society.