THE POLISH government now hopes to persuade the strikers that everything is changed, while simultaneously reassuring the Russians that little has changed. The danger of this moment is sufficiently clear to enforce -- so far -- an extraordinary degree of restraint on everyone involved in it. The strikers have carefully avoided inflammatory language. The government has refrained from threats. The Catholic Church has expressed its "understanding" of the workers while cautioning against the risk of bloodshed. The Russians have had very little to say publicly -- although there are signs of rising uneasiness on their part.
In the West, the reaction has been to do nothing that could possibly be interpreted as interference or incitement. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has canceled his conversations with the East Germans. A consortium of international banks signed, on schedule, the latest Western loan to Poland; a postponement might have seemed provocative.
The strikers have couched their demands in strictly economic terms. They want genuine representation in their labor unions, and they want a higher standard of living. But those goals translate themselves into a more decentralized political system and more exchange with the West to speed economic development. Those are, in a sense, the same demands that earlier strikers made in 1970. It is clearer in retrospect than it was at the time, but the Soviets responded to that challenge by giving their assent. It was a highly conditional and cautious assent, but it was significant. Since then, Poland's trade with the West, and investment from the West, have grown substantially. Polish political life has become less constrained. These processes have gone too far to be reversed.
The present question seems to be the character of future change, and whether it can be held to a rate that the Soviets will accept. It is impossible to guess where the present strikes may lead. But the consequences of the 1970 strikes, as they unfolded over the years, altered the course not only of Polish communism but of the Soviet system of rule as well.
Where the strikers are concerned explicity with standards of living, the remedies can be neither quick or simple. Poland, after all, is not the only country with obsolecent industry, a bottomless need for capital and an intolerably bad balance of trade. Poland has reached the stage in development where each advance becomes an incitement to further and faster advances. The level of public frustration and irritation runs high.
The Polish Communist Party, struggling to regain control of this process, has now dismissed the country's premier and most of the ministers responsible for economic policy. That does not seem to have produced any immediate change in the atmosphere. As one of the strike leaders put it, simply and clearly: "We want something new."