Exactly 10 years after Poland was swept by a wave of strikes that led to the birth of Solidarity, and nearly a year after Solidarity's choice, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, took over the government, that once powerful movement is teetering on the brink of extinction.

Solidarity's membership has shrunk from its one-time high of 10 million to little more than 1 1/2 million. It is no longer sure of its identity, its program or even its long-range goals. In addition, Solidarity is now in the throes of a furious internecine struggle. Pitted against each other are Prime Minister Mazowiecki and his allies within the government on the one side, and political leaders outside the government on the other. This is not the first time that Solidarity has been torn by internal feuds. But the latest is the most lethal of all.

At issue, ostensibly, is the current policy of the Mazowiecki government. In fact, the issue is power. Mazowiecki, say his adversaries, has led the country into a crisis. He has "betrayed the interests of the workers," dragged his feet on reforms, propitiated the former Communists still occupying a disproportionate number of seats in the parliament and in the government and has vested all power in a small group of men responsible directly to him and not to the electorate.

The campaign waged by the "Centrist Alliance" (as Mazowiecki's critics have dubbed themselves) has been rife with invective: "intellectuals," "left-wingers," "a narrow clique of power-hungry politicians" and, finally (though not unexpectedly in Poland), blatant anti-Jewish stereotypes have all been targets of the campaign. And heading it has been none other than Lech Walesa.

It was Walesa who said that he would cooperate with everyone, even with "intellectuals and Jews." And it was Walesa who assured a television audience just a few weeks ago that the charge that a gang of Jews "had gotten hold of the {country's} trough and is bent on destroying us" is not directed "against the Jewish people as a whole" but only at those "who are looking out for themselves while giving not a damn about anyone else." The disclaimer will no doubt reassure thousands of elderly Jews (out of a total of 7,000) whose only trough is the modest aid provided to them by Western Jewish charities.

The root cause of the political crisis in Poland today is the social discontent engendered by the country's bleak economic performance. The "shock therapy" introduced by finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz last winter, which envisioned a quantum leap into unrestrained laissez faire, has succeeded in wiping out hyperinflation. But it has also bred a recession, with astronomical prices, burgeoning unemployment (soon to reach 1 million), a drastic drop in the average standard of living and an equally drastic decline in productivity.

Balcerowicz's program has been severely criticized by a number of economists and political leaders. What the critics object to is not the need to develop a market-based economy but the break-neck speed of the reforms and the lack of a well-thought-out "social safety net" to protect those worst hit by the inevitable austerity measures. In addition, the critics fault the program for encouraging the rise of a nouveau riche class composed of speculators and black marketeers, side by side with a swelling number of poor. The population must not be asked to tighten its belt for an unspecified period of time without any guarantees of an eventual payoff.

A case, then, can be made (and indeed has been made) against the government's economic policies. But those policies have prevailed not -- as Walesa maintains -- because of some nasty "plot," not because of the preponderance of ex-Communists in the government and parliament, and not because Mazowiecki doesn't give a damn about the working class.

Rather they prevail because the "shock therapy" was generally approved by all political groups and leaders, including the ex- (and in many respects now anti-) Communists, and including Walesa himself. The approval often stemmed from little more than a passionate faith in the market as the panacea for all economic ills. Nevertheless, together with the public's continued confidence in him, that approval gave Mazowiecki the legitimacy to implement his policies.

Walesa cannot disavow his own blessings. Furthermore, although his charges echo some of those voiced by the moderate critics, he knows that siding with the latter might deprive him of his role as gallant champion of the working people. Hence he resorts to specious arguments and meretricious promises. Instead of pleading for a more balanced tempo of marketization, he has called for "acceleration" -- though without providing one single concrete suggestion as to which economic reforms can and should be accelerated. And instead of presenting a coherent program of his own, he has traded on two simple slogans: get rid of the enemies -- that is, of all those former Communists who stand in the way of progress -- and above all get rid of the current president, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and replace him with the real champion of the Polish masses -- to wit, himself.

When issues are deliberately obscured, demagogy takes over, hence the innuendoes, references to his adversaries' "intellectual" or "leftist" credentials and the antisemitic images. Whether Walesa is "really" an antisemite or not is a moot point, as moot as whether he actually believes anything he says. Walesa is playing on popular hatreds and stereotypes: hatred of "Communists" and their "collaborators"; hatred, still embodied in Polish society, of the Jew as major culprit for all of the country's misfortunes, past and present. He is not looking for real causes: he is looking for scapegoats.

By the same token, Walesa's curious conception of the democratic process -- which he has called a "war of all against all" -- is dictated less by a commitment to principle than by the exigencies of the moment. A year ago he was in favor of having the next president elected by direct popular vote. Now he wants the parliament to elect the president, evidently on the not unreasonable assumption that he would stand a better chance of winning in the parliament (especially if he is the only candidate) than on the streets.

It is distressing to see what is happening to Solidarity 10 years after its birth. And it is grim to see Lech Walesa, whose charisma and espousal of pluralism and human solidarity once overshadowed his flaws, mired in a swamp of demagogy and xenophobia. One would wish for a more salubrious end to the decade.

Abraham Brumberg writes frequently on Soviet and Eastern European affairs.