Performing political acrobatics on the edge of the economic precipice, the Poles are also showing how very far it is possible to go in Eastern Europe in the era of Gorbachev. The government and the opposition got down to the round table on February 6 with a limited objective: The opposition wanted the revival of Solidarity as a legal labor union; the government needed popular support for its economic reform and, perhaps, for foreign funds to flow. Both parties soon discovered that to reach a compromise they needed a social contract, and therefore all sorts of commissions were set up dealing not only with pluralism on the political and labor fronts but with such matters as health, housing, law, ecology and control over the media. These debates have echoed on radio and television, extending the frontiers of democracy.

As the deal is a package, its shape and fate will be uncertain till the very end. Its broad outline, however, is known. Poland will inaugurate labor pluralism in Eastern Europe. Next to the official unions, Solidarity is to re-emerge at once on a national scale. In exchange, the opposition has accepted a degree of collaboration. In the parliamentary elections, scheduled for next June, the Communist Party and its allies are guaranteed two-thirds of the seats in the Sejm, the crucial lower house, the genuine opposition making its debut there as a minority. Elections for the Senol, the newly established upper chamber with watchdog functions but few prerogatives, are to be more open. As a further safeguard, the regime is greatly strengthening the powers of the President, and General Jaruzelski is expected to soldier on in this new position.

The package is being put together in dramatic circumstances. As inflation reaches galloping speed, the workers are trying to keep pace. Postal workers, public transport employees, the women textile workers of Lodz and the bakers of Warsaw are among the most recent strikers. In this climate, both sides in the negotiations have taken risks. General Januelski had to drag reluctant followers to the conference table and now must persuade men who treated power as the party’s birthright that it can be shared and even preserved amid increasing competition. But the risks taken by Lech Walesa and his Solidarity comrades are much higher.

Listening to the economic dialogue at the round table, one occasionally had the illusion that the talks were between Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman, so great in Eastern Europe has the shared cult of the market now become. But when it came down from high principles to the rugged reality, the spokesmen for Solidarity could not forget that they are the representatives of a labor movement without which they are nothing. Hence, they had to defend the interests of their members, demanding in particular the indexing of wages to the rising prices, possibly with a preference for the lowest paid, and this clearly clashed with their new gospel. Paradoxically, or not so paradoxically, the Western financial establishment now approves the stand of the Communist government rather than of its labor opposition.

Once reached at the top, a deal must still be approved by the rank and file. For the social contract to function, and for Solidarity to prosper, it is necessary to persuade the nation that the regime is going to practice what it has only preached for forty-five years, namely, that the people of Poland, particularly its working people, are gradually going to gain a mastery over their labor and their fate. This, indeed, is the main item on Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic agenda for Eastern Europe as a whole. To say that events are heading in that direction would be an overstatement. But they are moving faster than one could have hoped not so long ago.