Neal Ascherson's The Polish August and the raft of other new books drawn from the 16 months of Poland's experiment with radical internal reform suffer a serious common problem. They were conceived, researched and written before martial law was declared last December 13--an event that brutally terminated, albeit temporarily, the sway of Solidarity, the free trade union at the core of Poland's social upheaval.

The books were designed to be received in one spirit, and are being read in another. The effect is like watching a Greek tragedy in which the spectators know how badly everything will turn out but neither the writers nor the actors seem to. What results is a considerable credibility problem.

The reformists were crushed overnight, all their hopes and ambitions, their debates, referenda and proposals rendered irrelevant. The riddle that remains is: how could Solidarity have been so popular and pervasive for well over a year and yet so weak in the face of repression? Why was it months before pro-Solidarity crowds again took to the streets? Ascherson has no answer.

Ironically, he does put the proposition correctly when he writes early on that there were two main issues to be resolved following the strikes of August 1980 that gave Solidarity its start:

"The West saw only one: whether the Soviet Union would invade Poland to reverse the summer's changes or not. The Poles, while admitting that the first question had a grimly terminal priority, found it almost boring. They had lived with this sort of problem, on and off, for generations. Much more interesting to them was the second question: was it possible to govern Poland by consent rather than coercion, to give creative expression to the nation's underlying unity, as long as a Communist Party retained the formal monopoly of political power?"

For months the answer seemed to be yes, that somehow Poland was moving towards a form of democratic socialism in which party authority did not exclude such other major forces as Solidarity and the church. Suddenly, in one terrible night, the answer turned out to be a resounding no--coercion proved the party's only recourse. Yet Ascherson' s book is not about the party's preparations to crush the popular will; it is about the popular will, at least for now the apparent loser in Poland.

The biggest mystery in these new works-- Lawrence Wechsler's Solidarity, a reprint from The New Yorker and The Book of Lech Walesa, an anthology, are two of the other good ones --is that they all misinterpreted what was happening.

And they were not alone. Wherever experts on Poland or Poles themselves gathered in the West (to the best of my knowledge) the emphasis tended to be on the external or Soviet threat. Numerous times, the Reagan administration raised the prospect of an imminent Soviet invasion. But never, so far as I can recall, was the gravest danger presented as an army-police collaboration to reimpose Draconian party rule.

Some people evidently did sense what was going on. Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish film director, told me on a visit to Washington in mid-October that he expected the end would come when "the police swoop down one night and arrest 5,000 of us." That sounded unduly pessimistic at the time, but, of course, it was absolutely right. If the end was so obvious, why did Solidarity not prepare for it? Why were the Polish people so stunned? These books do not, could not, deal with those questions. And that, alas, makes even Ascherson's otherwise extensive account incomplete.

But bearing that factor in mind, The Polish August is a clear and compassionate study of why Solidarity emerged in the first place, and why, by inference, something like it is bound to come again. Ascherson sketches the history of popular sentiment in postwar Poland, the recurring tension between the alienated Communist apparatus and a populace with a profound yearning for spiritual liberty.

Ascherson has been writing about Poland for decades in British newspapers and has a strong feel for the Polish temperament. He particularly understands the cyclical qualities of Polish political expression in which every 12 years, it seems--1956, 1968-70 and 1980--the leadership is overturned by strong popular protests. In each of these three cases, the new Communist authorities pledged themslves to reforms, to a closer relationship with the people, to a renewal of socialist principles. And each case ended in disappointment or disaster.

Ascherson's thesis is that party authority eroded because of the party's inability to govern adequately, to manage the economy, to inspire a modicum of loyalty. Even a relatively benign stance on culture and human rights (for a Soviet bloc state) failed to enlist national confidence. But more importantly, Ascherson observes, the decline of the party was matched by a surge in Polish national pride, especially following the selection of a Polish pope in 1978.

The combination of a perceived political vacuum and a strong new sense that the people, acting under what amounted to divine guidance, might prevail, led to the extraordinary phenomenon called Solidarity.

The belief that a free trade union with 10 million members and a Catholic church commanding the allegiance of virtually the whole country could amass real power was not, even in retrospect, unrealistic. But where the people evidently went wrong was in the choice of tactics, an understandable impatience to make real changes, without a prudent sense that they might yet be defeated.

Walesa himself plainly did see the risks. In The Book of Lech Walesa (a collection of interviews, commentaries and biographical notes first published in Poland), the Solidarity leader observes:

"This is a very dangerous period we're in. . . . Certain astonishing phenomena have appeared in the world, and they all have some kind of common denominator. A Polish pope, Solidarity, a new president in the U.S.A., a new president in France--nobody could have forseen a combination of forces like that. There's a certain freshness in the world, and a lot of good hope. But what will happen if this hope proved to be false? If this new movement, scattered as it is over the whole world, proves incapable of converging and creating new forces--there'll be chaos, confusion and confrontation. That's what I'm frightened of most."

How right he was to be frightened. Yet, there is a naive determinist faith in Walesa's comments, knowing the worst that might happen but not able to control events to prevent it from coming about.

Poland today is emerging from a profound national depression. For all the history and antecedents that made the Solidarity period possible, looking back now, Polish behavior during those 16 months seems almost giddy. Gone are the freer press and open discussion. Gone is the world's fascination with this brave experiment. Now, the attitude in the West has turned sour: the Poles messed up, goes much of the prevailing argument, they did it to themselves, its their fault, there is little we can do for them.

All that makes what has happened even sadder. The Poles did let themselves down; they let those who believed in them down; they gave in to the forces of darkness among themselves. They know it and we know it.

But if there is a message in Ascherson's book beyond the events it records, it is that there will be another upheaval in Poland because the same mix of elements that created the ferment in the first place still exists: a strong church, fierce nationalism and a party that, as Ascherson puts it, "has not worn a real foothold into the nation." The time may not come immediately, but it will certainly come.