A single crucial factor unites all the players in the drama now unfolding in Poland. None of them -- the workers, the dissidents, the Polish government, not even the Kremlin -- wants the climax to be Soviet intervention.
The Kremlin seems to understand the guaranteed disastrous consequences of using its own troops in a land as volatile, as nationalistic and as populous as Poland. The Soviets have been severely provoked by political outbursts in Poland before -- in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976 -- yet Moscow has never resorted to force.
Instead, the Kremlin relies on the Poles to work out their own solutions. The Soviets have no taste for the chaos of a civil war their involvement would almost certainly produce.
However profound their antipathy for the communist regime, Poles for their part recognize that in a conflict with their giant neighbor to the east, they cannot win. And the costs of losing would be, aside from the bloodshed, an end to the limited sense of spiritual freedom the Poles have managed to achieve inside the Soviet empire.
Poland today is far from being a free society in American terms. But the range of ideological beliefs openly expressed in the country is unique for Eastern Europe. The Polish Catholic Church is as powerful as any in the world despite the direct conflict between Christian dogma and Marxism.
Last year, millions of Poles displayed fervent allegiance for a Polish pope as John Paul II toured his homeland -- in its way as spectacular a display of defiance of the Kremlin as any event of the postwar era.
As recently as 1976, during the last previous flash of worker unrest over rising food prices, the Communist Party headquarters in a provincial city was gutted. The government was pressured into lenience for those involved by an effective alliance of Warsaw intellectuals and militant workers around the country. Moreover, the price increases were rescinded.
That, too, was a remarkable achievement for the popular will in a totalitarian nation.
To put it mildly, the Polish people have complaints about their lives now, as contained in the Gdansk strikers' platform for widespread economic and political reforms. But the very vehemence of the workers' insistence reflects a certain sense of power and a feeling that they can achieve gains by demanding them.
In 1956 and 1970, Poles succeeded in replacing the leadership in Warsaw with figures pledged to social change. Neither Wladislaw Gomulka nor the present Communist Party chief, Edward Gierek, has gone anywhere near far enough to meet those pledges. But by communist standards, Gierek has repeatedly acceded to popular wishes and appears ready to do so again now, at least to a point where his mandate from Moscow is not endangered.
In short, the record in Poland is that political protest from the people produces results that benefit the population. Up to now, that has been accomplished without the total collapse of order or a declaration of independence from the Warsaw Pact -- two developments that would unleash a Soviet military response.
From the Kremlin perspective it has been necessary over the decades to permit the countries of Eastern Europe a series of safety valves for the tensions that their submission to Moscow causes.
Romania, for instance, has pursued an independent course in foreign policy for years, often challenging the Soviets on such key matters as relations with China, Middle East policy and defense spending. The Soviets are unable to bind Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaucescu to the Soviet party line.
That measure of independence is a source of pride to the Romanians and a device Ceaucescu exploits for appeasing his people, who otherwise are subjected to the dreariness of communist orthodoxy.
Hungary, after the ravages of the Soviet invasion of 1956, has emerged as truly the land of "goulash communism." The economy is relatively freewheeling and decentralized. The standard of living is improving and public morale appears to be good. The Soviets lag far behind the Hungarians in providing comfort to the people.
Even East Germany, the most faithful of Soviet clients, has its own form of diversion from Moscow's authority.
More than 80 percent of the country's population is able to receive West German television and nearly everyone watches. This represents an ideological bombardment from the West that the East German leaders have to reckon with daily. In addition, there are millions of visitors each year from West Germany, providing consumer goods and ideas to their East German brethren.
Czechoslovakia maintains a high standard of living but is a nation wounded by its tragic effort at liberalism in 1968. To many Poles, Czechoslovakia is a nightmare vision of what would happen if they took on the Soviets and lost.
Poland's latitude from the Kremlin stems from its internal combustiveness: the peoples' determination to speak out and act in sensitive areas. The danger now, as it has been in the past, is that the combustion might well lead to an uncontrollable explosion.