Poland may be in danger of becoming a nation with deeper problems, less ready solutions, and a more helpless leadership than before the military crackdown that was intended to ease these woes.
Should this happen, the Soviet Union will face a more difficult, and potentially more costly, set of options on the Polish crisis than at any other time since the Solidarity union movement sprouted in the Baltic port of Gdansk.
The Jaruzelski crackdown could conceivably still succeed, or at least not fail outright. But the Western reports from Poland of perhaps scores of deaths, mass detentions, and continuing strikes, sit-ins, and confrontations suggest serious difficulties.
If so, and if such anti-government action continues, the authorities' options for countering the protests would seem both limited and unappetizing. The shock effect of martial law, the appeal to reason, and the use of violence would already have been tried and found wanting.
The best hope, presumably, would be to use the Army to run the economy. But would that largely conscript force go along? The authorities seem to have their doubts. This, at any rate, seems one explanation of Western reports that the main role so far in the military crackdown has fallen to the career internal security police.
There would remain, of course, the option of resorting to greater force, more violence, even some form of Soviet intervention. (A Solidarity spokesman in Stockholm claimed reliable sources had told him that Soviet and Czechoslovak troops were on alert to intervene in Poland's most troubled regions.) The potential costs of any such intervention for all involved need not be rehearsed. Soviet sources suggest privately that both Poland and the Soviet Union want to avoid taking that path.
Political normality in Poland is also seen as distant - at least the kind of political normality that the current powers that be in Warsaw and Moscow had sought.
At the time martial law was announced, the Polish Communist Party was in disarray. It had no credibility with many millions of Poles. Some of the party's own members sympathized with, even supported, Solidarity. In relative terms, the credibility of the Polish Army and of General Jaruzelski was much higher.
It is likely that the violence of the last nine days has sharply eroded the general's standing with his compatriots. Western reports allege that up to 200 Poles, and not seven, have died. If so, General Jaruzelski would seem an even poorer candidate for presiding over national reconciliation.
The Army itself, if it is indeed on the periphery of the crackdown, could yet produce a new and more credible leader. So, conceivably, could the Communist Party.
The party, due to its very disarray, has not had a direct role in the imposition of martial law. The communists appear to be purging themselves and regrouping under the umbrella of military rule. But this seems likely to be a slow process.
Ultimately, the keys to normalization will be the (unofficially) powerful Solidarity union and the Roman Catholic Church. So far, neither is backing General Jaruzelski, although the church has issued a general appeal for calm. There are Western reports that priests have been arrested, and if they are true, that would not seem much of a way to make Catholic friends and influence clergy.
The abiding hope of Polish authorities seems to be that a workable compromise can yet be reached, an arrangement involving a measure of genuine economic and social reform - with the proviso that Solidarity agree not to challenge the powers that be for the ultimate decisionmaking prerogative.
It is in this context, no doubt, that Warsaw radio announced Dec. 22 that a number of detainees were being released. The first releases since the imposition of martial law, they include a prominent scientist, a journalist, and a filmmaker. The radio was quoted as saying that many others would be released in time.
Clearly the Polish military regime may yet manage to avoid ultimate disaster. Strikes may wind down. Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski may yet pull a rabbit from his military tunic and come to a distinctly Polish understanding with elements of the mass union movement he has formally silenced.
The economy could begin a trek back to normality. Polish workers, however bitterly, may become just plain weary of strikes, shouting, shortages.
The worst for Poland, as official reports in Warsaw and Moscow suggest, may be over. The problems martial law is facing may prove, in the long view of history, to have made more headlines than difference.
Some Warsaw official will then ultimately be able to say, with the appropriate note of apology, ''Well, we couldn't very well make an omelet without breaking eggs.'' And men inside Poland and abroad will nod knowingly.
Yet those Western diplomatic and news reports from Poland - though not excluding such an outcome to a still highly uncertain situation - suggest potentially serious problems.
The reports say as many as 200 people have died in violence since the proclamation of martial law Dec. 13, not just the seven acknowledged by the official Polish news media. (A Polish spokesman was quoted Dec. 22 as standing by the original casualty figure.)
Strikes are said to persist, particularly in the important coal mining region of Silesia. Thousands of workers are said to have barricaded themselves inside a steelworks in the city of Katowice. (Soviet reports say they are threatening to blow up the central furnaces. ''Counterrevolutionaries,'' say the Soviets, ''have adopted a 'subversive' slogan: 'Martial law frightens only the weak.' '')
The British Broadcasting Corporation reports that workers in the city of Radom have ''been surrounded and isolated'' by security forces for several days.
In addition to rounding up union activists and intellectuals, the Polish authorities are said to have detained Roman Catholic priests.
Some veteran analysts of the Polish situation see in all this the possible makings of a national breakdown. They argue that a reversal of Poland's economic crisis seems distant. They point out that even if full-scale strikes are ended, workers can still ''go slow'' on the job. Some Western reports suggest this is already happening.
In the interim, the Soviets and other East-bloc states are reported to have shipped large supplies of food to Poland. The US has suspended further credits to the Polish authorities, a move that could force the Soviet Union to fork out hard currency for even more grain than it needed to balance its own poor harvest.
Other Western states and Japan have made noises about reconsidering aid and credits to Poland in light of the crackdown there. And Western banks Dec. 22 turned down a Polish request for an additional $350 million of credit to help it meet interest on its 1981 debts.