London — These are hard days to be a member of the Communist Party in Britain. Communism here is in deep trouble. The latest evidence comes from an open rift that has developed between party leaders and the management of the Communist Party newspaper in Britain, the Morning Star.
Beneath the split lie a fall in circulation, a drop in party membership, disagreements within the party and between paper and party - and a dogged refusal even of unemployed British young people to turn to communism as a solution to economic recession.
In 1942, when Britain and the Soviet Union were allies against Hitler, the party claimed a membership of 55,000. Today, according to party spokesman Ian Mckay in an interview, it has dropped to below 18,000. One estimate is that it is down to 15,000.
The circulation of the Morning Star is down to fewer than 32,000 a day, and the paper may have to close unless it can raise revenue quickly.
The party ran 35 candidates in the June 9 elections, Mr. Mckay said, adding, ''They did very badly: We are nowhere near electing any one of them.''
The best performances were in Nottingham North, where the Communist polled 2. 5 percent of the vote (1,184 ballots), and in a seat in the coal-mining Rhondda Valley in Wales, where a candidate attracted about 1,300 votes.
According to London Times reporter David Hewson, many middle-class members intellectually attracted to Marxism have swung to the left wing of the Labour Party. Meanwhile, a large number of young people are less left-wing than a decade ago, even though many grass-roots constituency parties within the Labour Party consider themselves radical and Trotskyite.
Mr. Hewson quotes a source as saying, ''Mass unemployment has had the opposite effect to the one we predicted. Far from being politicized . . . young people are further away from politics than ever because they think everyone in the game is crooked.''
The rift over the Morning Star is about how to generate the cash to keep it afloat. The management, the People's Press Printing Society Ltd. (PPPS), wants to use its presses for commercial printing between editions. Mr. Mckay says the Communist Party, which set up the People's Press in 1946, doesn't disagree in principle but wants to see the full plans before making a decision.
The management is eager to go ahead. Behind the arguments lies deep disagreement over the party itself: Should it be Eurocommunist or stick to a stern pro-Soviet line?
At the recent annual meeting of the PPPS, a slate of party candidates to manage the paper was defeated. An observer called it the most serious split within the party since the party's inception.
The party's general secretary, Gordon McLennan, is said to have moved away from pro-Soviet old guard communism to the newer style of Eurocommunism in recent years. Reportedly, he argues that the party can make more headway through modern political issues such as the rights of women and of homosexuals than through traditional trade-union agitation.
The party has three of its members on the general council of the Trades Union Congress: Mike McGaffey of the Miners Union; Ken Gill of the Technical, Administrative, and Supervisory Section; and George Guy of the Sheet-Metal Workers.
Opposing Mr. McLennan is Michael Costello, who is closer to the Moscow line and a friend of the editor of the Morning Star, Anthony Chater.
The next party move is to hold an executive committee meeting in July to review its declining fortunes.
''We do well in Scotland,'' said Mr. Mckay, and in Yorkshire and in other places. ''Yes, it is difficult for us in Britain today. . . . But remember: We only receive publicity when things go badly for us, never when things go well.''
As he concedes, they aren't going very well just at the moment.