WARSAW — Polish Communists are doing what no Communist Party in the world has ever done--surrendering power, not willingly, but because they must.
The red flag has been fluttering for years atop the Central Committee building in Warsaw. Several years ago it was joined by the red and white national flag. Now, a white flag of surrender may well be hung.
History is not just. As former Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski has said, many Poles, himself included, would still be tending cattle without the party and socialism. But today the great majority of the country is not prepared for academic debate. They demand change instead.
Ever since Solidarity's birth in 1980, the party has been in retreat. The Communist manifesto has been shelved and nobody mentions the dictatorship of the proletariat. Party newspapers and politicians praise the private and market economy instead of the state one, and nobody is fighting the church, Pope or religion as "the opium for the masses."
Party instruction books are outdated, especially the chapters on Socialist economy, democracy, history--the Ribbentrop pact, Katyn, the establishment of communism in in Poland and the rigged post-war referendum.
Ideological erosion is accompanied by a feeling of political failure and frustration--especially among the activists and full-time party apparatus. What the party banned yesterday is reality today. Free play of political forces, a nightmare dream of yesterday, is a fact, a reality without free space for a Communist government.
More than 40,000 members surrendered their party cards this year. Society uses the media to criticize what has been the substance of party policy--the one-party system, the "dictatorship of the proletariat," the state economy and its tragic consequences.
The party is being associated with all this--so how can it revive in such a situation? The young shun the party and embrace the opposition instead.
Apart from several 30-year-olds given high positions recently, the party is getting old. Its average member's age is more than 40, the highest in the party's history.
There are universities with thousands of students and only a handful of party members among them. In 1980 and 1981, deserting the party was a loud and ostentatious affair. Striking Solidarity workers were throwing their party cards into buckets. Now the party is disappearing without a whisper. Many party members feel they are already a minority. Many went over to Solidarity and the workers' party became an organization of directors, managers, officers.
Officially, the party is still about 2 million strong. Weak and spent as a political force, it is unable to govern without resorting to violence. Humiliated and ridiculed by the opposition, it has no energy to react.
The party can no longer be sure of the police and the military. Members cannot wheel out any striking "anti-Socialistic element" from the factory. The activists--used to ruling on all levels, from school, factory and county offices to government and parliament--became lazy and frustrated. No wonder, when such notorious dissidents as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron appear on television and in parliament instead of being locked in jail as usual and Solidarity's Andrzej Wajda presides on the jury of a film festival in Moscow.
Lech Walesa removes Communists from the government and is packing for his trip to the Soviet Union. Soviet spokesmen, instead of protesting, say that the Polish government is an internal matter.
What other dangers are there for the party? If it keeps only the defense and interior ministries, it may become Walesa's "fig leaf."
Dominated by Solidarity in government, the party may find itself an ornament in the process of further dismantling socialism. Either it joins a facade coalition or it will have to withdraw from Tadeusz Mazowiecki's government. Too weak for an independent existence in opposition, the party is bound to go for coalition.
Ministers, directors, professors, generals, ambassadors, prosecutors, judges, editors, members of parliament--everywhere where decisions were taken, there used to be party people.
Now thousands of full-time party apparatchiks must feel threatened, anxious about their fate, even their families' safety. Those most frightened fear the white terror and remember the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.
Such an event is unlikely in Poland because Solidarity is a nonviolent movement. The Roman Catholic Church's influence is strong and Communist leaders here were more moderate then in Hungary.
When the leadership opened the doors to democracy, the mighty wind of history swept the party away. The latest resolution of the Warsaw party chapter says: "The Polish United Workers' Party (the Communists) is being pushed onto the margin of political life."
The leaders will be trying to save the party by democratization and evolution toward social democracy. The dogmatists may attempt to build a left-wing opposition, creating in the process a rift in the party. But they cannot hope for any substantial following among the masses, and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has been removing them systematically from the leadership.
The left in Poland will not perish completely. Socialism left durable traces in people's consciousness. The trend toward re-privatization--the re-establishment of private schools, the rich villas and limousines of the new bourgeoisie, the church's great influence, the revival of right-wing nationalism and obscurantism, deeper and deeper poverty and the specter of unemployment in a market economy--will create a climate for the left's revival.
This will be a new left, smaller but more authentic than the traditional model of the party that is leaving the scene and whose leading role remains only words in the constitution.