``There's much thunder about. But I doubt it will bring much rain,'' former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said recently. It was his caustic initial reaction to word that the Warsaw government would hold a national referendum on economic reform (as well as a reaction to the energetic campaign to promote it).
Mr. Walesa's banned trade union, as he himself knows, can no longer bring people into the streets. But it still represents a valid element in Polish life.
To many Poles, Walesa's skepticism seemed justified. After all, the reform package just approved by Poland's Communist Party and parliament was scarcely new. Its basic ideas were those for which Solidarity, in its embryo stage, fought in 1980 and enshrined in its subsequent program.
Decentralization, a market economy, and a significantly expanded role for private enterprise were argued back and forth before martial law crushed Solidarity in December 1981.
Yet, in practice, there has been little to show for it, beyond the periodic increases in the prices of essential goods. Though such hikes are inevitable if Poland is to have a modern, market-based economy, the question still remains how to carry them out. Price hikes have been the hottest potato in Polish politics since the cycle of revolt they first sparked at Poznan in 1956.
Seven Poles in 10, according to recent official opinion surveys, identify economic reform simply with constantly mounting prices. Moreover, popular acceptance of reform as the inescapable way to economic recovery slipped from 80 percent in 1983 to below 60 percent this year.
It was against this background that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, in a bid to end the deadlock, passed the buck to the people by putting his controversial program up to referendum. What he proposes is, on paper, undoubtedly radical - as radical as anything reformers have yet done anywhere in the communist bloc, Mikhail Gorbachev included. But the proof will lie in the pudding, and how far Mr. Gorbachev or the general can induce people to try it.
Politics by referendum is a novelty among communist states. For Poles, however, it is not the first.
Under the Yalta agreement, the Polish provisional government was required to hold elections ``as soon as possible'' after World War II. But these elections were delayed until January 1947, six months after the authorities staged a referendum that was skillfully weighted with the communists' program and that eliminated the Peasant Party, the communists' main opposition. Small wonder that Poles of that generation particularly, view this referendum with considerable skepticism, quite apart from the reform issue.
Political trimmings - big cuts in over-manned ministries and bureaucracy, for example - were added to the current referendum to soften further implicit hardships like price rises.
After his initial cynicism, Walesa said the union was drafting its own questions and was ready to discuss them with the authorities. ``We are not against reform,'' he said. ``But we have our own ideas of how it might be done, with minimal hardship for those most affected: the workers.'' His offer, however, went unheeded.
As it is, Poles must choose between ``yes'' to a shorter but sharper process involving the sharpest price rises yet, or to a longer-term, gradualist solution. The second might be less painful, but it would certainly delay - perhaps frustrate altogether - the present hoped for improvement by 1990.
Radical activists would have the half-open, half-clandestine Solidarity strike a more aggressive role. Some have urged a referendum boycott. Predictably, Walesa showed no enthusiasm for it.
The unions the government put in Solidarity's place count 7 million members. To a considerable extent, they have taken over Solidarity's role, especially on wages and prices. Their leaders reflect an obvious popular view for ``gradualist'' reform.
Walesa himself appears to see a new situation in which Solidarity can no longer hope to serve as the only ``opposition'' platform, but should instead become part of a spectrum of public opinion and a plurality of interests offering unified challenges to the government.
Back in 1980, when he signed the historic Gdansk agreement with the government, Walesa said: ``We have shown that Poles can come to agreement if they want to. The important thing is that we have understood each other.'' That seems apposite enough - and even more worth trying - in Poland's plight today.
One way or the other, the government will get its vote. But when the campaign ``thunder'' is over and the figures are toted up, General Jaruzelski is going to need a lot of ``rain'' in terms of public trust - including Solidarity's trust - before any reform is brought to harvest.