London — Britain's Communist Party, rent by internal disputes in recent years, has taken a decisive lurch in the direction of Eurocommunism but seems destined to slide into even deeper disarray. At the center of a long-running dispute about the direction the tiny party should take has been its daily newspaper, the Morning Star. Its editor, Tony Chater, holds to a hard-line, pro-Moscow view of communism, despite a drift towards more moderate Eurocommunism ideas by leading members of the party's 45-man executive.
Mr. Chater's challenge appeared to come to an end at a special congress of the party this week at which he and 17 other hard-liners were expelled and a ballot for a new executive produced a decisive Eurocommunist majority.
Compared with the communist parties of France, Italy, and Spain, Britain's party has only a few thousand members. But it commands attention, partly because of the extreme left-wing associations of some members of Parliament in the opposition Labour Party, and partly through the Morning Star, which is influential in left-wing circles.
For top level party members, including the general secretary, Gordon McLennan, the Morning Star (once known as the Daily Worker) has been a thorn in the side with its tough pro-Moscow line.
Chater and his staff refused to change their pro-Soviet stance, and a special party congress became unavoidable.
It is not the first time the British Communist Party has suffered from violent internal conflict. There were many defections at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Similar tensions arose over the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia 12 years later. But it has been the drift towards Eurocommunism and so-called ``trendy'' social ideas that has sparked the new and possibly decisive argument.
As in Spain, Eurocommunism has become a litmus test of party attitudes. Chater and others like him found it impossible to accept criticisms of the Soviet Union for its policies on Poland and human rights. They also writhed when the party began taking up ecological questions and women's rights issues.
Mr. McLennan tried to avert a head-on clash, but in the end was unable to do so. His own position is not decidedly Eurocommunist and some party members believe he may be placed at risk by the latest trends within the party.
His position is being compared with that of the former leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Santiago Carillo, who was outflanked by committed Eurocommunists and lost his job.
There is to be a meeting in June of the People's Press Publishing Cooperative which owns the Morning Star, which has a circulation of 17,000. The Eurocommunists intend to eject Chater and his supporters and install their own people.
If they achieve that, the scene will then be set for sweeping expulsions of hard-liners from the general party membership. As many as 200 card carriers could find themselves thrown out.
This would severely deepen the existing split and might, insiders say, lead to the formation of a rival communist party. On the other hand, there already exists a self-styled new communist party, fruit of an earlier ideological rumpus, and those expelled might join that.
Ironically, however, the hard-liners could turn their attention to the Labour Party, to which some of them belong. Party leader Neil Kinnock, has been warned to expect pro-Moscow hard-liners expelled from the Communist Party to offer their services.