The most dangerous outburst of public anger in Poland since the crisis began last summer is fueling an intense struggle within the inner leadership. At the center of the dispute is this year's special Polish Communist Party congress, a meeting that will surely determine the pattern for Poland's future after almost a year of industrial and social turmoil.
The issue is whether to convene the congress quickly to ensure brining peace to the country on its present note of reform as soon as possible. That could mean a June meeting.
Or the meeting could be deferred until considerably later in the year when, as some would hope, the public mood would have wearied and reform might be less radical.
The option to meet sooner is being pressed by a moderate-liberal wing committed to the "renewal" process promised by the new first secretary, Stanislaw Kania, in the desperate situation the party found itself in last fall.
Behind the second is a mixed "alliance" of those who acknowledge the necessity for some change in party rule, but within strick boundaries, and a formidable array of old apparatchiks determined to frustrate any basic change which would diminish the party's role, or their own stake in it.
Among the latter, many voidvodship (regional) party chiefs and civil governors have already been removed under the weight of public feeling. Others are counting on time to weather the storm.
Russia's publicly expressed attitude has been that the Poles should and settle their own problems. But its sympathies are certainly with the latter and not with the reformers. Even "moderate" concepts are dangerous.
Should the central leadership fail to contain the critical situation brought on in north-central Poland by the anti-Solidarity action ib Bydgoszcz March 19, the hard-liners' hand would certainly be strengthened. And Russia would not disapprove.
Events in Bydgoszcz seemed to take both government and Solidarity by surprise. The spark was Rural Solidarity, the widely supported farmers' movement which the government refuses to recognize as a trade union similar to Solidarity itself.
Talks between farmers' represntatives and local concillors deadlocked. Whereupon Jan Kulaj, the recently elected national chairman of Rural Solidarity, called for the government to take up the talks by Bydgoszcz and scores of famrers occupied a local government building.
It was after police had been called in to eject them that trouble began. Outside the building, tempers flared and, in and ensuing clash, some 25 Solidarity members were roughly handled and several injured.
It was the most damaging setback to the 90-day industrial truce the new prime minister, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, appealed for when he was appointed in mid-February with a pledge the government would move more rapidly on the reform package contained in the August strike settlement agreements.
By the weekend, all Poland was waiting tensely for the outcome of the hurriedly arranged talks between the government and Solidarity in Warsaw and the visit of Justice Minister Jerzy Bafia to Bydgoszcz to determine local responsibility.
This dangerous clash was something neither side wanted and each opted at once for immediate talks to prevent escalation and voiced its awareness of the possible consequences of failure.
Dialogue was more than ever necessary, the premier said in a statement, in order to reach an agreement "so necessary for the welfare of the country."
Solidarity leader Lech Walesa demanded firmly that the local police authorities be called to account ad alerted the union for nationwide strike action if need be. But he made clear he was giving the government time and was looking for a response to make it unnecessary.
He had demonstrated the union's hold on the workers by bringing a half million people out in every sizeable town in the region. But he also realistically knows the country's limits. The situation, he told a big rally of workers, is "very precarious, both internally and externally . . . You must realize a general strike could be the end of our struggle."
He was saying what he has several times urged in the tense and increasingly delicate situations breaking out, one after another, since the start of the year -- that neither the country nor the union has an alternative to negotiation and restraint.
The urgency with which the central government reacted to what looked like a precipitate local "get tough" decision shows that it is conscious of that too.
A move such as the alcohol sales ban imposed at the weekend reflected the anxiety and how fragile the whole situation could be. Time is becoming increasingly more important.
It means reaching now a more enduring accommodation between the moderate Premier Jaruzelski and the union --and more rapport with the nation as a whole -- and in securing a generally stabilized situation in which the present leadership can go ahead with its congress before it is too late.