When the Polish Communist leaders raised the price of meat a year ago, there was such a national outcry that Poland has not been the same since. Now the critical question facing Poland is not so much whether there will be permanent change -- there already has been immense change -- but how far is change going to go?
Three events in the last few days hint at what lies ahead at next week's special congress of Poland's Communist Party. It is meeting -- if not under different management, at least with an almost entirely new cast just below the top -- to institutionalize what the Poles call "odnowa" or "renewal."
[Shortly before Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko arrived in Warsaw, Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish prime minister, announced a shakeup in his Cabinet that involved ousting eight ministers, appointing five new ones, and reassigning four others.]
No matter how it is moderated and attuned to geopolitical realities, the promised policy of social, political, and economic "renewal" has become essential if a Polish communist system is to survive in its conventional form.
The three events amount to a kind of "trial run" for the July 14-19 congress:
* Sweeping remodeling of government to allow flexible, streamlined, initiative-spurring market planning and management. During the 1970s experts had seen economic disaster coming and demanded such changes.
* The drastic findings of a commission appointed to expose corruption in leadership at all levels. The corruption had discredited the Polish party with its own membership as well as with the public at large.
* A busy 48-hour visit by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. His talks with Polish leaders were no doubt designed to go over ideological sections of the reform program with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.
Several times recently, the Poles have discused ideology in its wider connotations -- and the impact on ideology of the reforms -- with Soviet leaders , including President Brezhnev and the curator of Soviet doctrine, Mikhail Suslov.
Mr. Gromyko, also a member of the Soviet Politburo, has served as Soviet foreign minister since the 1950s. It may be assumed that his principal brief in Warsaw was to review with the Poles the safeguards they have placed -- and reinforced because of the reforms -- on Poland's place in the Soviet alliance.
This, of course, includes the East bloc's economic community, Comecon, which was meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, while these events were taking place in Warsaw.
Above all, the question of ideology relates to Poland's role in the Warsaw Pact: Order and stability in Poland ensure the security of Moscow's lines of communication to Soviet forces in East Germany, forces manning its forward defense line vis-a-vis the West.
This has been the Russians' prime concern since riots in Poland last August set the country on a reform path.
From the start of the reform movement there have been indications that the Russians have been infinitely more concerned about the effects of "democratization" on Poland's foreign-policy loyalties than about the appearance of independent labor unions and the like.
Mr. Gromyko, it may be presumed, returned to Moscow with unequivocal assurance that the foreign-policy section of the new Polish party program will continue to toe Moscow's line, as party chief Stanislaw Kania and his aides have frequently pledged.
Changes of personnel alone are not going to solve Poland's economic problems. But at least the new planning chief, Deputy Premier Zbigniew Madej, finally bluntly posed the issue: "economic catastrophe or reform."
Even with reform, he said, Poland will need at least three to five years to begin to come to grips with the present mess.
But at last a start has been made. In a massive reshuffle and dropping of superfluous ministers, considerable effort was made to cut the number of "economic" ministries having cramping fingers and narrow, vested interests in planning. This should reduce the scope for governmental meddling and obstruction, and give enterprise management as well as foreign trade organizations more flexibility of operation.
As for the party, it has made some small steps toward recovery. But it faces an uphill fight for credibility. At least it will go into this crucial congress with some evidence that it has not shirked a cleanup.
The investigating commission has identified some 40 former ministers, deputies, and others in government, and more than a score of regional party officials -- as well as 3,000 smaller fry -- who in the last 10 years grossly misused their positions for personal gain and a highly privileged life style. Party discipline, dismissal from jobs, and heavy financial restitution have been applied in many cases.
The thoroughness with which the cleanup has been applied within the party is a fillip for Mr. Kania.
Although they remain cautious and skeptical, Poles seem to credit him as both a reformer and an honest man.