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Poland's communists try to rebuild -- on shifting sand

The Polish political scene is like an expanse of continuously shifting sand that still baffles the efforts of the ruling Communist Party to find firmer ground on which to reassert its damaged authority.

To even talk of the "ruling" party is euphemistic, since much that happens these days does so independently of the party and of what its leaders perceive as the country's best interests.

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"There are two parties in the country todays," an intelligent, younger, and still-committed Communist remarked to this writer. "One is the party, the other is Solidarity and society."

Solidarity not only outnumbers the Communist Party by nearly 3 to 1 but also has more influence with the people than the party has ever had. the union is more truly nationwide and popular than the party was even in its best days -- the first reform phase in the 1950s or the hopeful start of the Gierek decade.

Moreover, not only has the party lost a quarter-million members in the last eight months, also 1 in 3 of its remaining 3 million members belongs to the new independent union movement.

That in itself worries the leadership, especially since Communist members of Solidarity have lately joined in strikes that the party is branding as political in character and inconsistent with the "social" limits defined by the union's charter.

"We have recognized the workers,' right to strike as their ultimate weapon," first secretary Stanislaw Kania told party leaders Feb. 2. But it had become the "source of strife" menacing the interests of "socialist poland," and Communists should have no part in such strikes.

It is not clear how many members the party has lost since last summer.Up to 30,000 were expelled under the new moral criteria ordained after the exposures of corruption among both senior and local officials. An equal number handed in their cards. And at least 200,000 are said to have simply dropped out of party life.

It is said that process has been arrested. But party members, particularly the younger, better-educated ones, remain deeply concerned at what they see as the leadership's continued failure to establish closer rapport with the nation's rank and file despite a proclaimed commitment to greater democracy.

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A major criticism of the regime ousted last September was its loss of common touch and blindness to the problems and feelings of the people.

"Our new leaders are doing better," the party member cited above remarked. "They are getting around a lot, but mostly still meeting with their own people, activists, rather than with just ordinary folk.

"I don't agree with much of Solidarity's current behavior, calling strike after strike on any pretext. But back of it is often sheer exasperation at government failure to consult adequately before acting.

"The strike at Bielsko-Biala could have been stopped if the government had accepted the local leaders' offer to resign. After all, a properly constituted commission had confirmed the irregularities alleged against them."

(At this writing, the general strike at bielsko-biala is well into a second week at a cost of some $10 million a day in production losses. Solidarity has insisted on the dismissal of the local governor and three deputies, all charged with corruption, as a condition for ending the strike. Similar demands have prompted calls for a general strike Monday in another province, Jellenia Gora.)

Rejecting the resignations obviously looked like a decision to "get tough" with Solidarity, encouraged possibly by signs that the union's own leadership is split between moderation and militancy. But, quite predictably, it simply provoked the moderates' anger at what they saw as shocking disregard of local feeling.

The party leadership is also divided -- between those who say it must carry through allm the reforms promised in the August strike settlements beforem it can expect to establish its "rightful" role, and those who argue the time already is here to put a halt to Solidarity's increasing domination of the scene.

The Feb. 2 government ruling that strikers will be put on half pay, even during an official, "legal" strike, looked like just such an arbitrary line, even though it might possibly have been intended primarily to placate the Polish party's critical allies.

On balance, however, it seems more likely that the first trend, with its realistic appraisal of Solidarity's power, will prevail.It is led by Mr. Kania, who warned Tuesday that while the party must expose its political opponents within the union, "We should never run out of patience with Solidarity, its links and workers."

But will the patience extend to the sensitive issue of "Rural Solidarity"?

The party has a minuscule peasant membership. It sees the country side as a political vaccuum and is afraid that farmers' unions could be exploited to fill it. The peasants are, it says, already being manipulated in some part by political "nonfarmers."

Again, younger party members are critical. "If a million farmers want a union, you cannot just tell them they can't have it," one commented. A formula, it is being said, will be found -- has to be found -- or the government will face another countrywide stoppage and the party a new setback to its efforts to create a better, more effective image.

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