It begins to look as if the Italian Communists themselves may settle the interminable argument for and against bringing them into the government. They've been just about in for the past nine months, and now they're just about out.

They may not be all the way out for another couple of weeks or months, and when that happens, someone will doubtless argue that they didn't jump but were pushed. Nevertheless, there is no doubting their honest desire to kick free.

The arrangement made last March was supposed to be the next to the last stage of a grand Catholic-Communist alliance: Enrico Berlinguer's Historic Compromise. The Communists did not get a seat in Premier Giulio Andreotti's all-Christian Democratic cabinet, but they did get a coveted formal invitation to join the club. Accepted at last as legitimate government allies, they have had enormous surrogate powers over a government coalition-they and the Christian Democrats, plus the smaller Socialist, Social Democratic and Republican partie-which couldn't last a day without them. For all the good that has done their own party, though, the Communists might just as well cut their losses.

This was presumably going to be an emergency government, formed to cope with escalating terrorism, chaos in the schools, broken down public services, stagnating industry, unemployment, chronic inflation and a truly staggering public debt. The Communists, with nearly 2 million members and a third of the national vote, had arrgued that nobody could govern a country in such straits without them. But governing with them has cured none of the country's afflictions, while greatly adding to the Communist Party's.

In the course of the nine months, its enrolled membership has not only stopped growing for the first time in years, but actually declined a little; its voting strength has declined a lot more than a little, dropping in scattered local elections from a few decimal points to as much as 40 and 50 percent.Its leaders have been forced to admit something they have always hotly denied: that millions of Italians are finding political houseroom well to the party's left. It has become a primary target for ultra-left urban guerrillas, and a butt of sardonic humor for students, professors, columnists and the radical chic. Its subaltern of long standing, the Socialist Party, has turned overnight into a bold and truculent rival, making outrageous advances to a working class customarily regarded by the Communists as their own property. What hurts most, for once supremely confident Communist leaders, is that they themselves simply cannot hold Italy's unruly and disrespectful workers in order.

It was largely on the promise of delivering the working class that the Communists got so far into the government. The promise seemed reasonable until a year or two ago, and their conspicuous failure was surely not for want of trying. The fact is, though, that they do keep trying and keep failing.

A year ago, Communist labor leader Luciano Lama made a singularly brave plea for the sacrifices necessary to economic recovery: wage restraints, hard work, more productivity, less absenteeism, and whatever else might be needed to restore profit margins and make Italian goods competitive in world markets. On paper, the Catholic, Socialist and Communist trade union federations all agreed with him. In practice, however, Italian workers have gone right on practicing the permanent opposition that a noticeably less accommodating Communist Party once taught them.With contracts covering 8 million workers coming up for renewal this winter, they are not only demanding shorter hours and higher pay-not to mention prodigal sums the state doesn't have for improved medical care, pensions, education and public investment-but plotting a hair-raising course of strikes and slowdowns to prove they mean it.

While Lama is still being brave, his version of cooperative opposition is no longer merely drawing catcalls and derisive laughter on the factory floor. He and his party both are in imminent risk of indictment for an epic sellout.

No sensible Communist politician could ignore that warning, and no other Italian politician could either. For the time being anyway, the Communists clearly haven't a hope of moving on into a full government partnership and bringing the mass of workers along. Arriving empty-handed certainly wouldn't be much use to them, not to mention their Christian Democratic interlocutors. There would hardly be much point in just hanging around where they are for better times that are unlikely to come. With practically all of their present government allies thinking much the same thoughts, the Communists' wises move would seem to be the one they are discreetly preparing to make: get outwhile the getting is good.