The deepening labor unrest in Poland points to more than worker discontent over the cost of meat. It dramatically discloses the deep division between the Polish people and their government. Marxism is supposed to represent and empower the proletariat. Yet not only in Poland but throughout Eastern Europe the communist parties have been unable to instill in workers a sense of identity with the Marxist regimes. That the proletariat in Poland continues to press the party for reforms -- in effect demanding rights, including free trade unions, which Marx himself said it should have -- is extraordinary, to say the least. The implications are far-reaching.
Will the Poles get carried away? That is the question as the worker strikes pose a dilemma for all parties concerned. The workers know they tread a politically sensitive line, for if they go too far they risk Soviet intervention. So they have been careful to eschew violence of the sort that erupted in 1970, when similar strikes brought down the Gomulka government. They have refrained from marches and demonstrations, stating their case quietly through chosen leaders and, significantly, with the involvement of Poland's active dissident community.
The Polish government, for its part, wants to resolve the conflict peaceably, both because it, too, wants to avoid adding to nervousness in the Kremlin and because it needs industrial peace to cope with the nation's severe economic problems. Yet if it yields on everything the workers demand -- and they are asking for such sweeping reforms as the abolition of state censorship, the right to strike, and access of the Roman Catholic Church to news media -- it sets a "dangerous" precedent. Increasingly it would have to go to the people for support of its policies and what, after all, is that but the budding of democracy and the beginning of the end of Marxist authoritarianism?
And then there are the Russians, who no doubt are watching warily. Ever since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kremlin leaders have sought to avoid brute intervention. They stayed prudently to the side during the Polish disturbances in 1970 and again in 1976. It can be presumed they have no desire to take forceful action, which would destroy detente and assure the election of Ronald Reagan. But it can also be presumed that any fundamental challenge to the rule of the Polish communist party would be met with instant Soviet response. Moscow could not afford a contagious rebellion spreading across the borders of its East European empire.
In this delicate situation the role of the church may add still another ironic note. Ostensibly the strong Polish church, the constant bete noire of the government, favors greater freedom and liberalization of society. But it likewise knows that, as long as teh Russians hold sway, the cost of fighting for freedom is unacceptably high. It would not be surprising therefore if the church played a discreet role in cooling worker passions and keeping things from getting out of hand.
However, the fact of the matter is that Poland could profit by some basic reforms to get out of its economic doldrums. After 30 years of Marxist economics and mismanagement, the nation is beset by negative growth, shortages of food and consumer goods, and a foreign debt to the West exceeding $18 billion. Poles are demoralized and dispirited. Polish leader Edward Gierek, if he is smart, will use this occasion to sit down with the workers and talk out what might be done to extricate Poland from its difficulties. Mr. Gierek needs public support for his policy of austerity, for instance. But workers justifiably assail Poland's antiquated economic system. If the government agreed to some reforms, short of undermining the party's authority, it conceivably could help lift the national spirit and rejuvenate the economy.
Whatever Mr. Gierek gives, if the change is peaceful, it could also have an impact throughout Eastern Europe. The potential for evolution is intriguing. If Poles manage to make a dent in the system -- by a freeing up of the trade unions, for instance -- this could infect the rest of the bloc, where except for Hungary there has been little experimentation. Little by little change could take place making for more rational economic management and an earlier life for citizens. the Russians, in turn, might eventually themselves lose their fear if they see that reform does not do violence to the communist ideology. Who knows, perhaps as a result of innovative winds from Eastern Europe the USSR itself will one day dare experiment.
In short, we in the West are again reminded of the weaknesses and tensions within the communist world. It would be unrealistic to expect any change in Poland which would undermine Soviet control, party supremacy, or communist dogma. But every step of reform that gives Poles slightly more say in their lives to some extent weakens the sytem -- and keeps alive the hope of greater national independence.