Last Aug. 31, the Gdansk agreement was signed and Solidarity, the first free trade union in the communist world, was born.

Signing on behalf of the government was Mieczyslaw Jagielski, well-known member of the Politburo, deputy premier and the Communist Party's economic overlord. The workers were represented by an unemployed electrician named Lech Walesa, who, until the Gdansk strike, was a nonentity even to his countrymen.

Twelve months later, Walesa is an international figure. His face is instantly recognizable and he is courted by politicians and religious leaders the world over. One of his favorite jokes is that, after dropping out of school at age 15, he now possesses several university degrees.

Jagielski, meanwhile, has gone the way of many Polish politicians. At the Communist Party congress last month, he was made to share the blame for the economic failures of the 1970s and ignominiously voted off the ruling Central Committee. His political career seems to be over.

The contrasting fates of the signatories of the Gdansk agreement provide one measure of Solidarity's impact on Poland over the past year. There are many others: the uninhibited atmosphere of free discussion, the broadcasting of religious services on radio, the release of political prisoners and the upheavals within the Communist Party.

The nature of the struggle has changed since last August, when strikers concentrated on the demand for independent unions. It has taken on a wider dimension, touching the sensitive issue of Poland's sovereignty and relationship with the rest of the Soviet Bloc. The search for national identity is reflected in Solidarity's favorite slogan, "Let Poland be Poland."

And yet, despite all of Solidarity's achievements, the final outcome of the experiment is still far from clear. It is impossible to judge whether the almost revolutionary changes that have taken place in Poland are permanent or merely yet another of those exhilarating, noble, yet ultimately doomed gestures that punctuate Polish history.

As the heady optimism of last summer gives way to the realities of economic hardship, many Poles are thinking back to such episodes in their past. The pattern is depressingly familiar: a national uprising against one or other of the oppressor nations (usually Germany or Russia) to be followed by years of disillusionment. In each case, there were internal reasons for the collapse of the insurrection as well as external repression.

Last November, a retired Polish official who used to occupy a senior position in the government was asked to give a private view of how he saw his country's future. His answer:

"I am not afraid of a Soviet invasion because I do not think it would be in their interests. But that doesn't mean I am an optimist. I am a pessimist, first because I think the present ruling class is incompetent, second because the economic situation is much worse than anybody appreciates, and third because hopes have been released among ordinary people that cannot be realized."

At the time, such thoughts seemed unfashionably gloomy. But the atmosphere has since changed and many Poles now express similar opinions.

Last August, in an attempt to scare people into opposing the strikes, a leading communist journalist warned of a repetition of events that led to Poland's dismemberment by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the late 18th century. He quickly became a laughingstock, with Poles jokingly speculating about which country they would prefer to be assigned to in the event of a new partition.

Yet, last week, the same comparison was drawn by a much more authoritative figure, Archbishop Jozef Glemp, the primate of Poland. He reminded the nation that Poland had been on the verge of anarchy in the past, and went on, "That state of affairs was short-lived. It ended with our greatest tragedy - the more than 100-year-long bondage. This is a painful warning to us and we should think about it deeply."

There are, of course, more optimistic views expressed about Poland's future. The country is virtually bankrupt, but last year's upheavals released tremendous energies that could be tapped to overcome the crisis. Painful lessons from the past have been learned by both sides, and disaster has been avoided this time because of the self-discipline of the workers and the authorities' commitment to solving disputes by negotitiation rather than by force.

Conflict and pluralism, so the argument runs, have become permanent features of Polish political life. Frequently the two sides may appear to be on a collision course but, in the end, it is in everybody's interests to find a sensible compromise. However dark the tunnel may seem, a gleam of light can always be perceived at the end.

The problem with this view is that there appear to be political mechanisms at work making the tunnel longer. The Western preoccupation with the threat of Soviet invasion has tended to mask another danger: continuing, debilitating crisis.

The Kremlin has given ample signs that it is willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid intervening directly in Poland. It wants the Polish leadership to "normalize" the situation, but only on its own terms. These terms -- the retention of monopoly political power by the Communist Party and the clawing back of Solidarity's gains -- are unacceptable to the Polish people. Thus the deadlock.

Last August, Poland underwent what amounted to a revolution in the sense that the social contract between rulers and ruled collapsed. But, unlike other revolutions, this one took place under severe external constraints. The Communist Party lost its authority, but -- because of the dictates of geopolitics -- was condemned to remain in power. The revolution could not be taken to its logical conclusion: the sweeping away of a discredited ruling class.

In the last few months, the party has undergone an internal regeneration and elected new leaders. It has regained some of its capacity for action and has become a more formidable opponent to Solidarity. But, even now, it can count on the support of only a small minority of Poles.

The limited nature of the revolution has a positive side as well. But a leading Solidarity official remarked privately, "I for one am glad that the Russians are imposing some limits on what we can do. They help us to think realistically. Otherwise this would be a very bloody affair."

And there lies the paradox of Poland's remarkable experiment. Despite all the upheavals and foreboding, all the conflicts so far have been resolved peacefully and nobody has been killed. But, despite everything the country has gone through, there seems no end in sight.