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Polish standoff

May Day demonstrations by tens of thousands of supporters of the outlawed Solidarity trade union - in some 20 cities - prove yet once again that the spirit of rebellion is alive in Poland. Four months after the Jaruzelski regime lifted martial law, Poles remain distrustful and sullen. The government has failed to win their confidence or their support.

For all its presumed embarrassment, however, the government did put down the demonstrations, showing that it has the upper hand. There is thus in effect a continuing political standoff - the workers defiant and the government determined to suppress all opposition. In this state of immobility, Poland stumbles on with no sense of purpose, direction, or vision. It cannot seem to evolve.

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This sad situation should prompt some fundamental questions on the part of the Polish leadership and the Polish people in general. Are there national traits that need to be dealt with if Poland is to emerge from its confusion? The Poles' love of liberty, gallantry, and spirit of independence are much admired in the world; indeed these are a palpable strength to any people. They have enabled Poles to survive and to make significant contributions to humanity's progress. But many observers also ask whether Poles have the capacity to work together, to cooperate for the mutual good, to manage themselves in a national sense. Too often there seems to be a tendency to contentiousness and excess.

Historical influences and geography are usually cited as the reasons for such characteristics. These are important, certainly. No one could deny that Poland's position between Germany on one side and Russia on the other has greatly complicated its struggle for statehood. Poland's loss of freedom for 200 years prior to World War I obviously had enormous impact on the national consciousness. Yet no people - any more than any individual - should be unwilling to examine those qualities of thought and character which have helped shape its historical experience.

The current stalemate can be broken - if both sides are determined enough to find a way out. It is not a matter of Solidarity supporters abandoning their democratic principles or the government abandoning its communist ones. It is a matter of finding areas of cooperation that are mutually advantageous and that can at least start society moving forward again. Neither side can gain everything; but each side can gain a bit - and help Poland keep the Soviet Union at bay.

The Jaruzelski government has done little to win public trust. The general himself seems unable to communicate. Those who speak for the regime do so in a ham-handed, confrontational way. Granted that there remain party hard-liners waiting for an opportunity to take full control again, making it difficult to pursue a softer line. Nonetheless Warsaw's leaders need to show more finesse in handling the public. For one thing, by admitting their mistakes. This in itself would help improve the atmosphere for dialogue.

One thing should be abundantly clear to the authorities: No economic reform, however sweeping or reasonable, will work unless the people enthusiastically support it. Force will not accomplish the task of putting the wrecked economy in order.

The workers, for their part, are so distrustful of the government they seem prone to frustrate every effort to achieve reform. The government-approved unions, for instance, have not attracted more than some 1.2 million workers (out of a labor force of 10 million). Yet if millions more joined and literally swamped the new organizations, it is just possible these would evolve along the lines of a new ''Solidarity.''

It is not for bystanders to tell Poles what they should do. But, knowing the great potential of a resouceful people, well-wishers everywhere yearn to see them resolve those contradictions of temperament that seem to act as an obstacle to progress. Somehow Poles, without losing their vigor and zest for freedom, need to learn the art of compromise - and cope with their plight wisely.

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