Who in the West is not anguished by the sight of Polish police battling workers in Gdansk who are demanding a restoration of their banned trade union Solidarity? It should also anguish General Jaruzelski. These were not riots instigated by the Roman Catholic Church or by underground Solidarity leaders, who have been planning strike demonstrations for November 10. They were a spontaneous upwelling of protest by the shipyard workers who initially gave birth to the free trade union movement.
What do the protests tell us? The simple truth that the gap between the rulers and ruled of Poland has continued to grow wider. The Jaruzelski regime under martial law has not managed to establish credibility with the people of Poland and, far from bringing economic and political order to the scene, has only deepened cynicism and bitterness in the nation. The political stalemate persists and the economy deteriorates.
What is to be done, then? From General Jaruzelski's viewpoint, bringing the riots under control is obviously the first priority. By quickly ''militarizing'' the Lenin Shipyard - and making workers subject to military orders and discipline - he clearly hopes to bring the protest under control and keep it from spreading to other towns and cities. No doubt he feels the hot breath of the Soviets as he does so. Soviet Defense Minister Ustinov's message that the Polish government could count on Moscow's support to maintain communist rule is a not-so-subtle reminder of how closely the Kremlin is watching events.
But General Jaruzelski, looking beyond a policy of toughness, must draw a lesson from the protests if Poland is still to avoid a vicious cycle of repression and violent confrontation - and possible Soviet military intervention. He must interpret them as a serious sign that Poles still do not trust the regime and that the process of national reconciliation has not started. In fact it is just possible - and perhaps only slimly possible - that the Gdansk strike gives him a bit of leverage with Moscow. ''Look,'' he can say to Mr. Brezhnev, ''I have done as you asked. I imposed martial law. I locked up the Solidarity leaders. I even outlawed the union. And you see what happened. Now we have to try something else.''