Poland's General Jaruzelski confronts a crucial period. If popular demonstrations commemorating the second anniversary of the founding of Solidarity explode in violence, the military government will feel constrained to clamp down and harden its policies. If, on the other hand, these can be kept within bounds and free of serious incident, the general may be able to proceed with his announced intention of lifting martial law by the end of the year. For Poland's sake, it is to be hoped restraint will prevail on all sides.
Certainly the Western world is moved by the continuing demonstrations of Poles' yearning for greater freedom and independence. Thousands of Solidarity supporters have marched in Gdansk, Warsaw, Cracow, and other cities in recent days in protest against martial law. The sight of Polish police training water cannon and tear gas on the demonstrators can only evoke feelings of repugnance and sorrow.
It is worth noting, however, that the Polish authorities seem to be trying to mitigate the use of force and not provoke Poles to bitter clashes. So far, less violence has been applied than in demonstrations earlier this year. Moreover, the government has sought to pacify the public by, for instance, apologizing over Polish television for not carrying news of the commemorations in Gdansk and assuring Poles there would be an ''independent, self-governing union'' -- words of cold comfort, perhaps, but at least a conciliatory gesture.
The Roman Catholic Church, for its part, continues to steer a cautious course between government and people, supporting popular aspirations on the one hand while discouraging head-on confrontation with the authorities on the other. Archbishop Glemp, speaking at religious celebrations, has urged a new dialogue between the martial law regime and the people to end the ''invisible hatred'' permeating society in the absence of effective discourse.
There is little doubt that General Jaruzelski would gain more credibility if he in fact launched a full-scale dialogue. Does he not yet feel secure enough? So far his strategy seems to be to quiet the country, get the economy functioning again, recast the communist party into a more centrist mold (freer of the hard-line right and ardent liberal left), and then assure the Russians that it is possible to lift martial law. His current visit to the Crimea to talk with Leonid Brezhnev presumably will be a ''progress report'' and a request for continued Soviet aid.
All this will offend the sensibilities of Westerners, who anguish at how close Poles came to establishing a truly free labor union and democratizing their corrupt, stultifying system. Yet this is perhaps the most that can be expected for under the circumstances. General Jaruzelski no doubt believes that alliance with the Soviet Union cannot be avoided. The question is how far he is willing -- and able -- to put an individual and independent stamp on Poland's policies once the Soviets are persuaded that no threat to the communist system or the Warsaw Pact exists.
If General Jaruzelski is indeed a patriot trying to save a modicum of independence for his country, it can be hoped that popular protests in the days and weeks ahead will not reach a dangerous point of undermining his efforts. But the military leader knows only too well that Poles still give their loyalty to Solidarity -- and that his government has yet to earn their support or even grudging respect.