MARX, being a city boy, never understood the proudly independent, not to say bourgeois, nature of farmers, and that was surely part of the reason that he never made a real place for them in his scheme for a new world. That left a vacuum that the Soviets filled mostly with their own model of coercion and inefficiency, the collective farm. Postwar Poland, occupied by the Red Army, was allowed to keep much of its prewar structure of individual farms, though the state did use its considerable powers to hold down the 3.5 million private farmers. That was the situation until Solidarity, an urban organization, came into being last August.

What has now happened is unprecedented. The private farmers of Poland have won a right to form their own union, called Rural Solidarity. They have forced a ruling Communist Party to grant them a legal corporate status, which the farmers will henceforth use in their bargaining with the state over prices, supplies and so forth. They have solidified themselves as a separate social and economic group, and political force, with interests of their own.

It sometimes suggested that Moscow cannot tolerate developments like these in Poland, since they will give ideas to people elsewhere in the bloc. No doubt there is a certain risk, although no Eastern European country is just like Poland, and although Soviet peasants were reduced decades ago, by terror, to forms of agricultural organization designed precisely to rule out farmer bargaining. But there is another idea that could conceivably be communicated by Polish farmers, and the Soviets might not be so averse to it.

That idea is, of course, hard work. The price the Soviets paid for collectivizing agriculture, which put the fruits of the farmers' labors almost entirely in the hands of the state, was productivity. Except on tiny private plots, Soviet farmers work at a rate their government has never stopped complaining about. That is the main reason that the Soviet diet is, except for the elite, so poor and monotonous and, incidentally, why the Kremlin imports so much grain.

True, Polish farmers may use their new power for short-term self-enrichment. That would be a catastrophe for Poland, a rich agricultural land that must import food, and for Rural Solidarity, and for Solidarity, but it could happen. There's reason to believe the peasants realize, however, that the trade-off for their union is to put more food on the market at prices the urban workers can pay. The idea of a national outlook, transcending special interests, is at the heart of the process of renewal that Solidarity began last year.