The time has come for the United States to begin lifting economic sanctions against Poland. Not only because these sanctions have hurt the Polish people more than their communist government. Not only because they have not accomplished anything and in effect have run their course. But because the formal lifting of Polish martial law provides an opening for such a step and could pave the way for measured progress toward a more tolerable life for Poles and eventually, perhaps, even a freer one.
Is that too utopian a view? Not necessarily.
To be sure, the regime of General Jaruzelski has made certain that the ending of military rule will not result in a resurgence of political opposition and another frontal challenge to the state. The new laws extending police powers, limiting the freedom of workers, and tightening controls on the news media assure that the government will continue to maintain strict control. The key Solidarity leaders - about 60 of them - are still in detention. Poles will have even less room for maneuver than they did before the exhilarating events of August 1980 when Solidarity came into being. Many abroad will share in their anguish and disappointment.
Yet, if a lesson can be learned from the events of the past two years, perhaps it is that liberalization under an authoritarian communist system cannot come in one swift and glorious act of popular defiance. It must come incrementally, through a gradual, step-by-step pushing outward of the limits of freedom. The reason for this is plain. Poland lives under the shadow and gun of Moscow, and it can move only so fast as the Soviet leadership allows. If General Jaruzelski is a ''moderate'' communist, he nonetheless treads a delicate line between the disaffected people on the one side and his party hard-liners and the Russians on the other.
The shoving and pulling will doubtless go on. The general has made a gesture now in ending the ''state of war.'' He may be prepared for other gestures - if relaxation does not lead to overt popular opposition or unrest in the streets. For its part the Roman Catholic Church, following the Pope's visit to Poland, will continue pressing for an easing of restrictions. But even while identifying itself with popular aspirations, it will urge caution and restraint. What kind of understanding has been worked out between the Jaruzelski government and the Vatican remains to be seen. Reports suggest everything from formation of a church-run foundation to help Polish farmers to allowing Roman Catholics more direct participation in the political process.
Whatever the agreement, President Reagan has an opportunity to nudge along the process of reconciliation. The question is whether to continue to wield the stick, with the risk of driving Poland ever more closely into Soviet arms. Or whether to give General Jaruzelski a ''carrot'' (such as restoring Polish fishing rights in American waters), thus strengthening his hand with Moscow and at home. Of course Mr. Reagan has his own delicate line to tread in an election season, with Polish-Americans advocating toughness and Western allies urging a softer stance.
But here he might be guided by the lessons of history in Eastern Europe. Hungary, too, was brutally trammelled by the Soviet heel. Yet, after years of quiet, unobtrusive progress, it has acquired a measure of freedom once only dreamed of in a communist land. Today, in addition to the free-market ideas penetrating economic life, Hungary is looking to reforms in its political system. It now has plans to give voters a choice of candidates in almost all elections - a far cry from democracy but a step in the right direction.
Poland is a far different country, with a different set of geopolitical and other constraints. But it should not be ruled out that the Russians will have a greater tolerance for liberalization there if the process is a slower-paced one and if they have a chance to get used to each change along the way. Needed now is a subtle, far-sighted American diplomacy that takes account of this possibility.