Putting a military man at the head of the Polish communist party - an unprecedented move in a Soviet-bloc country - should not be seen as ominous. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski is regarded as a moderate who accepts Poland's reform movement.But it does look as if the party is preparing for possible emergency measures in the face of economic chaos, as well as trying to rejuvenate itself. General Jaruzelski seems a logical choice to handle such difficult tasks. He presumably will have more credibility in the exercise of power because of the prestige and respect he enjoys among the Polish people.
Whether this reshuffle in a party fighting to restore its authority is permanent remains to be seen. What is clear is that, after more than a year of political struggle - and radical changes - Poland has not yet been able to put itself together again. Fortunately, the moderate leadership of Solidarity still has the upper hand but, as the recent union congress showed, it has had its wings clipped by the radicals, who are pressing for even greater reform. The regime, for its part, is beset by division, confusion, and uncertainty as to how to proceed. Meantime the economy is crumbling and public pessimism grows.
This state of affairs cannot obscure the magnitude of the revolution going on or its significance for Eastern Europe. But it is fair to ask how long the nation can endure the political and economic turmoil. If Poles see themselves as paving the way to a more humane and democratic system even within the Soviet fold, they will have to demonstrate that they can build and restore - as well as oppose and tear down. The danger may no longer be intervention by their Eastern neighbor so much as their own lack of discipline and inability to organize themselves for managing the country effectively - even though their restraint this past year has amazed those familiar with the volatile Polish character.
The picture is by no means bleak, to be sure. Talks now appear to be going on quietly between the government and Solidarity despite mutual recriminations. Agreement has been reached on freezing food prices while discussions continue on how to improve distribution of supplies as the hard winter months set in. There has been a good harvest. Most important, the Soviet Union, while it makes clear its unhappiness with the Polish leadership, has been helping Poland economically. The Russians still appear prepared to accept the reformist upheaval as long as the Poles stay within the Warsaw Pact.
But what would happen if food and other shortages led to widespread civil and labor disorders? The Polish army would have to put down the unrest. But, if Polish troops would not move forcefully enough against their compatriots? Would Soviet military action then become the only alternative?
It is not only to avoid such an eventuality that Poles ought to put their shoulder to the wheel. It is clear that they cannot hope to get their economy going again without a painful period of austerity. Solidarity has to face up to the fact that some of its hard-won demands - such as the five-day week - are an unrealistic luxury given Poland's present state of indebtedness. The Poles will have to be prepared to accept belt-tightening. The government, for its part, instead of merely resisting the union at every turn, has to demonstrate that it is capable of leadership by coming up with constructive economic solutions able to win popular support.
Democracy, in short, is a wonderful thing and freedom lovers everywhere exult to see its burgeoning in Poland. But democracy is more than pluralism and political contest. It is also compromise, accommodation - and working together for the common good. This is no easy prescription for Poles after decades of mismanagement, corruption, and falsehood. But they will have to follow it if their remarkable experiment is to work.