The summer sunshine in which Poland basked during the exciting days of last August has given way to winter slush. The popular mood has changed significantly, too -- from heady optimism over a new social experiment to uncertainty over the future caused by the lack of any obvious long-term solution to the country's intractable problems.

As soon as one potentially disastrous dispute is decapitated, several more rise like hydras in its place. Thus, after threats from Solidarity of a general strike and from the government of emergency measures to keep production going, a settlement was reached last week over shorter working hours and greater access for the union to the news media. Now attention has switched to peasants' demands for registration of their own union, the battle over the new censorship law, and uncoordinated wildcat strikes by local Solidarity branches.

When the Gdansk agreement between the Polish government and striking workers was signed just over five months ago, it was hailed as a new social contract between rulers and ruled. It was clear that centralized authoritarian rule was unable to cope with the demands of a sophisticated, pluralistic society. The tired old system had broken down in the fact of massive popular discontent; something different had to be constructed in its place.

The reasons for the continuing tension are complex -- and vary according to who describes them. Communist officials put the blame on the obduracy of local Solidarity chapters and militants within the union's national leadership, accusing them of irresponsibility and pushing the country toward economic chaos. Solidarity members blame the authorities for failing to adapt to a new political situation and seeking to gradually whittle away the union's gains.

A complicating factor is that Poland's search for a new political equilibrium is taking place under external constraints. Under the rules of the game, accepted by both sides in view of Poland's geographic position, the Communist Party has to remain in power. Inevitably its freedom of maneuver is limited.

Another problem is that last summer's agreements were negotiated under enormous pressure and left many loopholes for subsequent misunderstandings. Predictably enough, each side interprets the accords differently. The agreement with coalminers in Silesia, for example, unequivocally promised a 40-hour week starting Jan. 1 -- but failed to make clear whether this applied to the whole country (as Solidarity claims) or just the miners (as the government argues).

A more fundamental explanation for the impasse is that, given the scale of last year's upheavals, it was unreasonable to expect social tensions to disappear merely by signing a piece of paper. It takes time to replace a system of government that has been discredited and there is bound to be conflict during the transitional phase.

The real questions that need to be answered therefore are how much more time does Poland have -- and how much conflict is compatible with continued communist rule.

Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the editor of the influential weekly Polytika and a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, agrees that no new stable social contract has yet emerged to replace the one that collapsed last August. In an interview, he admitted frankly that time was running out and it was difficult to see a solution to the crisis "in the visible future." The party leadership, he said, remained committed to tackling disputes through negotiations but both sides lacked a clear vision of the way ahead.

Rakowski said a basic difficulty was how to fit the entirely new concept of independent trade unions into the structure of a one-party state.

He commented: "Theoretically and practically speaking, there is no place for such a force in such a system and that is why we have tensions. . . . The system was built under totally different historical conditions and society was educated to the idea of the leading role of the Communist Party [in all fields]. It is not possible to change this philosophy of power in a short time."

Turning to Solidarity, Rakowski said the movement was under the influence of different political forces and thus expressed an unstable variety of viewpoints. Objectively, it was being pushed in the direction of acting in opposition to the party.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Ludvik Dorn, a dissident sociologist who works as an adviser to Solidarity in Warsaw, also expressed pessimism over the possibility of any short-term solution.

"My own opinion is that the government is not really willing to treat us as a partner in solving conflicts. It is only when we threaten a general strike that we can have proper negotiations with them. The basic political problem in Poland today is that the system of government has not adjusted itself to the enormous changes that have been taking place in society," he said.

He added: "Nothing has really been solved by the last round of negotiations. Unless we change the basic formula of government, conflicts can only be disguised or dressed up. At present the authorities seem to be following the principle of not bowing to pressure unless they have to. This itself paves the way for the next conflict."

Karol Szwarc, the deputy editor of Poland's leading economic weekly Zycie Gospodarcze and a member of the commission for economic reform, says problems arise because both sides are weak. "The unions are weak because they are in their infancy, even though they have the backing of society. The government is weak because it has lost both credibility and authority.

"If each side was stronger, and dealt with each other on a more equal basis, perhaps the conflicts that have taken place would not be so bitter," he commented.

Szwarc said the government still behaved as though it could give orders in a military fashion. One example was last month's decree informing factories that workers would be required to work two Saturdays in four or an extra half hour every day. Little attempt was made to consult the workforce on the idea or analyze the effect it would have on the economy.

A theme that has been stressed by both solidarity and government leaders over the last few weeks is that Polish society has yet to master the skills of negotiation and compromise . On signing the Gdansk agreement, the deputy prime minister, Mieczyslaw Jagielski, said the negotiations had been an example of how Poles should talk to one another.

So they were. But so far the talking only appears to have produced results when pistols are introduced into the conversations as well.