Polish workers have done the unthinkable. Without resort to force, they have successfully challenged their government for a radical change in the system of communism as it has existed to date. They have won the right to strike and to form self-governing trade unions -- in effect establishing a power center beyond the ruling communist party. If the workers continue to display the political sophistication they have shown in bringing about this dramatic gain, Poland could end up being the model for the evolution of greater pluralism thoughout Eastern Europe, with each country charting its own path.
Not outside the Warsaw Pact, to be sure. The Polish workers themselves, while they pushed their power further than most people thought safely possible, nonetheless accepted the obvious limits. They agreed the new unions would recognize the "leading role" of the party and Poland's "alliances and international obligations." They had insisted from the very beginning they were not seeking to overthrow the socialist system or wean Poland away from the Soviet fold. Moscow itself would never have tolerated a threat to the state and this they knew full well.
The big question now is how this extraordinary achievement will work out in practice. There is no precedent for it. There has never been a blueprint for independent unions operating within a one-party communist state. In theory they are to serve as collective-bargaining organizations over such issues as workers' wages and welfare. But how does the government prevent them from becoming centers of political discontent that could erupt again? Will the regime in effect seek to undermine the reforms, just as concessions in 1957 and 1970 were eroded with time?
One assumes the Polish workers, having demostrated their strength, are determined not to let this happen. But their success will depend perhaps on the maturity and sophistication they display as Poland is forced to come to grips with the hard problems lying ahead. As one Warsaw watcher commented, it is one thing to lead a revolution, another to build something new. And what Poland needs is no less than a thorough reform of its economic system, presumably foreshadowed by the government shake-up and the bringing in of more liberal-minded voices.
It will also require austerity and labor restraint and here is where the workers themselves will be put on the line. Will they press only for benefits? Or will they accept the need for labor discipline, for short-term belt-tightening in the interest of long-term gains? They could hardly be blamed for finally rising up in outrage against an "employer" mired in mismanagement, bureaucracy, and corruption. But it remains to be seen how they will use their new-won rights. If the government permits the genuine dialogue between party and people which the Gdansk settlement seems to herald, if the workers combine their demonstrated political skills with a sense of responsibility -- and if Poles continue to gauge rightly the threshold of Soviet tolerance for innovation -- it is possible Poland will emerge from its current problems a more independent and better-run country.
This is the free world's hope as it shares the jubilation ringing in the streets of Gdansk and other Polish towns. In the midst of problems everywhere the Poles' valiant struggle for fundamental human rights gives humanity a lift. It challenges the erroneous view of a monolithic communist world advancing inexorably against the forces of freedom and democracy. Not so, we humbly learn. It is the cause of freedom which advances. Beneath the surface of authoritarianism there stir profound forces for change. And, if guns are often deemed both the threat to mankind and the solution of its problems, the "Polish August" has shown that the spirit of freedom burning in individual hearts is mightier still. We cannot say where the outbreak of that spirit in Poland will lead, but we are sure it will not leave the world of communism the same.