The British Oehlerites

oehlerA guest post by Mike Pearn (with a few notes and links from us)

The Glasgow Leninist League was formed in that city in 1932 by seven comrades who had been reading the American Trotskyist paper The Militant. Among them being Hugh Esson and Ernest Rogers.

[Rogers account can be found here S&F]

They were and remained a propaganda group attracted to first Trotskyism and then to American revolutionary Hugo Oehlers opposition to the entry of revolutionaries into centrist or left moving reformist parties. As a tiny propaganda group they failed to recruit new members through the remainder of the decade and were excluded from the various attempts of the wider Trotskyist movement to form a single organisation as a result of their opposition to entrism.

Despite their tiny size they orientated on industrial action when possible with Ernest Rogers playing a role in a 1937 apprentices strike. From 1937 their main base became Coventry where Rogers had moved in search of work. Anti-war propaganda in London saw them attract the attention of the state resulting in a collapse of support, from a peak membership of 30 in 1940, built in the previous few years.

As always this period saw them encounter the mainstream Trotskyists of the Workers International League from whom they poached Denis Levin and Arthur Priest. The reduced organisation were to clash again with the WIL and the RCP most calamitously in 1944 after Rogers engaged in an affair with the wife of WIL member Alex Tripp who then informed on the Leninist League. The sorry affair leading to Rogers dropping out of active politics, the expulsion of members from the WIL and the almost complete collapse of the Leninist League.

However in October 1944 Joe Thomas left Common Wealth with a few supporters forming the Communist Workers Group which then fused with the Leninist League which was by then led by Denis Levin. The fused group was known as the Revolutionary Workers Association of Great Britain and affiliated to the International Contact Commission the Oehlerite ‘International’.

[We have a copy of the RWA’s Open Letter to the RCP here S&F] Open

The new group can hardly be said to have thrived but it did briefly recruit a small number of activists on the London Docks thereby outflanking the Revolutionary Communist Party which had succeeded the WIL. Following which the RWA collapsed when in May 1947 Thomas split from the RWA and formed a new Socialist Workers League which lasted until 1951 when it in turn collapsed. Unlike previous groups it had a regular publication in the shape of Workers Review. WR

Connoisseurs of socialist sects will be amused to learn that the tiny SWL had before expiring generated its own even tinier opposition of one in the form of Arthur Priest who had become enamoured of the ideas, delusions being a more accurate characterisation, of American sectarian extraordinaire Marlen of whom no more will be said.

[Those who do want more information on the SWL and Priest’s opposition faction should look here… S&F]

Curiously it was also able to contain Alf Snobel a former RCPer and future supporter of Socialist Current. At this point the SWL split. Snobel we know joining the Socialist Current and we can safely assume that Priest failed to find any co-religionists and fell into inactivity. One group of SWL members, based in Hackney, around Tom Cowan and Denis Levin formed the Socialist Workers Group which later in the 1950s was to become the London group of the Socialist Workers Federation led by Harry McShane and Eric Heffer.

It is unclear whether this group is to be identified with the Militant Socialist Group which was based in London and affiliated to the SWF. Meanwhile 1954 Thomas and Levin both of whom were working in the Independent Labour Party left it to form the Workers League publishing the Workers News Bulletin. In 1961 Thomas was expelled for bureaucratism – the group probably had six members at this point. Led by Denis Levin it survived for another four or five years.

The notes above represent a rough chronology of British Oehlerism but say nothing about the politics of those concerned. In general all the various iterations of this very working class current held that they were working towards the construction of a revolutionary Communist Party and advanced a critique of Stalinism that was very similar to that of the mainstream Trotskyists. In the workplaces and unions they drew on the rank and file traditions of the revolutionary movement in Britain and with regard to the Labour Party believed that entry into that institution was contrary to revolutionary principle. This of course brought them into sympathy with Oehlers sect in the USA. And like all such groups they were subject to all kinds of personal squabbles and petty disputes that in the end cancelled out the positive work they did and their revolutionary enthusiasm.

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One thought on “The British Oehlerites”

  1. In his haste to to appear well informed, or even perhaps can we credit it erudite, your guest blogger only reveals his crass lack of knowledge of not only the Glasgow jazz and folk scenes of the 1950s but his compete ignorance of that most chaste of publications The Free Presbyterian Magazine. A little more care on his part, or use of his memory, might have reminded your guest that Arthur Priest, the British Marlenite referred to in your post concerning the British Oehlerites, did find at least two co-thinkers after the collapse of the Socialist Workers League in 1951. Remarkably one being C P (Cliff) Stanton once a leader of the RSL/RWL which had a brief existence in 1939/40 and had evinced quite rational politics for a tiny hyper-active revolutionary group that is. Stanton as we know had been courted by the WIL during the early war years but rejected their overtures and by 1950 was living in Glasgow where he opened a shop selling records and electrical equipment. We know that he was writing for Marlens duplicated magazines between 1949 and 1951 which is where, for the present, the trail ends. Except that we also know that Stanton was for some years the President of the Glasgow Jazz Society in which capacity he is recorded in The Free Presbyterian Magazine of July 1955 as having written to the candidates of all political parties standing in the then recently concluded General Election as to their attitude towards jazz being played on the Sabbath, noting that: “If we find, on analysing the replies, that we have the overwhelming support of one party, then that party will get our vote.” A position rather distant from that of Marlen or Oehler one imagines.

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