THE ONLY THING that is absolutely clear in

Poland is that Wojciech Jaruzelski, leader of the army, government and Communist party, has taken on himself an extraordinary responsibility. For he has not only suspended--as far as is known without bloodshed but with great firmness--the liberties that Solidarity has been working to create and make permanent since August 1980. He has also asked 36 million Poles to repose virtually total trust in his pledge to do all this: rescue the country from spiraling crisis, continue the reform line and restore the civilian order, and to do these things without visiting upon Poland either civil war or Soviet intervention. It is an awesome charge; to judge by his pronouncements, Gen. Jaruzelski seems to be quite aware of this.

Will his desperate gamble work? Surely Poles lack none of the spirit and courage needed to meet this complex new challenge. But there is more to it than that. It is winter in Poland, food and fuel are short, and the daily routine is harsh. Before Prime Minister Jaruzelski moved, the popular mood showed noticeable traces of fatigue and confusion in the face of a crisis expanding relentlessly practically by the day. Internal communications evidently are closed down now, and the information that would let the foreign radios fill the gap is not flowing. Many Solidarity leaders are under detention. Lech Walesa is talking with Gen. Jaruzelski, and the church is asking for calm. The general himself has a reputation as an honest patriot: he is no hack and, of course, no Russian. These are difficult conditions in which extensive protests can be mounted, sustained and, most important, linked.

It is an ugly thing to watch a Communist general, leader of his country's Communist party, crack down on a brave popular workers' movement. If that is all he does, he will deserve the full opprobrium of freedom-loving people. But as long as he appears also to be serving a second purpose--saving from Soviet vengeance as much as possible of the fruits of the Polish people's struggle and sacrifice over the last 16 months--then he deserves the cautious regard he has been getting from the Reagan administration and other Western governments. At this point, the West's most helpful contribution is to demand that the Poles settle this crisis themselves with as little force and violence as possible. Any further turns of Western policy must await a clearer reading of the reactions of the Polish people.