Poland is on the eve of momentous events. Five years of political repression forced the opposition and the trade union Solidarity underground. This situation changed overnight with the release of political prisoners last September -- a retreat by the regime. The opposition abandoned its defensive posture and became assertive. If this process continues and gains strength, Poland could experience a political upheaval within a year or two, similar to the one it underwent seven years ago at the peak of the Solidarity movement. This could happen through either peaceful evolution or social explosion.

The expected events will find Poland drastically changed from what it was seven years ago. At that time, the society was politically passive and the democratic opposition weak. The rise of Solidarity, a period of freedom, and martial law changed almost everything. The political maturation of Polish society, though not fully achieved, constitutes a new value. The opposition, acting either underground or in the open, although tired by five years of repression, is strong. We no longer deal with a basically uniform Solidarity. Today a number of goal-oriented political groups act separately from the trade union activists, who concentrate on social demands and workers' rights and reject political actions.

The Confederacy of Independent Poland is among these groups. Formed a year prior to ''Solidarity,'' it formulated the mode of action -- ''revolution without revolution'' -- which anticipated the transformation of spontaneous social explosion into occupational strikes, leading to agreement with the authorities and subsequently to the formation of independent trade unions. By this plan, carried out in August 1980, Solidarity was created. Unfortunately, the Confederacy had to pay the price for its success. While all of Poland was celebrating its freedom for 14 months, the leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned.

Confederacy expresses what most Poles want -- liberation from Soviet hegemony, creation of an independent Polish state and a new political system based on human rights, democracy and a market economy. The Confederacy believes that this can be achieved solely through peaceful means and that it is possible for Poland to gain its independence while the Soviet superpower exists by its side. This goal can be reached by organizing first on a nonpolitical basis -- i.e., through trade unions, farmers' associations, youth groups -- then on a political basis through independent political parties, and finally by a gradual replacement of current communist state institutions by new democratic ones.

Soviet behavior in this situation is critical. The new policies of Mikhail Gorbachev are not a surprise. Their main source is the internal weakness of the Soviet Union. They require a concentration of effort internally on more effective economic and systemic mechanisms, without weakening the communist system. Foreign policy must assist this goal by striving for close cooperation with the West in order to reduce the burden of arms and to guarantee access to Western technology and credits.

This Soviet policy arouses in Polish opposition both hope and fear. In the short run, hope is there because Gorbachev's policy gives us an opportunity to achieve fundamental political change gradually. Moscow, trying to improve its relations with the West, cannot afford a military intervention in Poland. Poland will be a test of the openness of Gorbachev's foreign policy. If Moscow desires an honest agreement with the West, it will be ready to accommodate a liberalization or even democratization in Poland. If Poland becomes a democratic and neutral state, moreover, it will strengthen European security and cooperation in different ways.

The American role in such a transformation would be indirect but consistent. U.S. policies should aim at restraining the Soviet Union from direct military intervention in Poland and restraining Polish communist authorities from drastic repressions. On another level, the United States should create economic incentives for the authorities to make liberalization attractive and to make hard-line policies unattractive.

In this light, the sanctions imposed against the Polish government after martial law significantly weakened the Jaruzelski regime, caused Warsaw to seek Western economic assistance more aggressively and contributed to the reduction of repression. The continuance of such American policies would help create a framework in which the Polish democratic opposition could act and advance its own demands for political and economic change.

The writer, a founder of the Confederacy of Independent Poland, spent six years in prison during martial law.