Following in the footsteps of Hugo Oehler and the Oehlerites

Debating with Oehlerites

With the general election fast approaching, Eddie Ford reports on the Online Communist Forum debate. While the Spartacist League fetishises opposition to the person of Sir Keir Starmer and throws in its lot with the Tusc opportunist lash-up, the CPGB emphasises communist unity as the only serious route towards mass work

The very fact that there was an open discussion on the question of the 2024 general election is to be welcomed. We look forward to more debates between ourselves and the Spartacist League (and, of course, others on the left).

The CPGB has long advocated that the left should stand as a single, coherent force in elections, but has always insisted that this needs to be done on the basis of fighting for a genuine Communist Party (to make the point once again, while we have the party name, we are not a party: we are an organisation fighting for a party, mainly using polemics and propaganda).

During her opening contribution to the May 5 Online Communist Forum, Eibhlin McColgan said the Spartacist League (the British section of the International Communist League) supports the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and thinks the CPGB should do the same.

Two necessary points: the Spartacist League has over recent years undergone a death and now a rebirth. Having denounced their founder leader, James Robertson - he ran the organisation as a private fiefdom and had a thoroughly debauched reputation - there was a period of rectification and reconsideration, after which the Sparts arose from the ashes. As for Tusc, it was established in 2010 at the initiative of the Socialist Party in England and Wales with a view to building a Labour Party mark two (the real thing having been declared a bourgeois party, similar in essence to the US Democrats). The CPGB never had any illusions in such a hopeless project, but, mainly to engage with the SPEW comrades, we applied to affiliate and were duly turned down because we had “insufficient social weight” (as if any organisation on the left has any real social weight).

Anyway, comrade McColgan went on to say that the tasks facing communists in the forthcoming general election consists of “two inseparable goals” - working class unity and communist hegemony. This is essential if the working class is to “defend its interests against the British imperialist rulers”. She went on to claim that “the Tories are finished” and “the country is in ruins.” How working class unity around Tusc’s famished and thoroughly economistic programme can be achieved went unexplained. So did establishing communist hegemony through Tusc - a loose federal conglomeration which gives every affiliate veto rights over political and organisational matters.

Nonetheless, according to comrade McColgan, the various left leaderships tell voters to support a Keir Starmer government, despite him being widely hated because of his complicity with the genocide in Gaza and his promises to stick to Tory austerity. What she meant by this is that “various left leaderships”, including doubtless the CPGB, call upon voters to support Labour when the only other choice on offer is the Tories, Lib Dems, Reform UK, the Greens, etc. Except in Holborn and St Pancras there is no Sir Keir on the ballot paper. So the Spartacist slogan ‘No vote for Starmer’ serves to promote the already pernicious influence of presidentialism in British politics.

Hence, she issued a challenge to the CPGB - does it think communism is “relevant” to this situation? For her, the CPGB “shrugs its shoulders” at the election - maybe it will vote for Tusc, or George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain, or perhaps the Communist Party of Britain, which called for a “Starmer vote” in the local elections. Maybe the CPGB will call for a Labour vote in the general election. For comrade McColgan, this boils down to whether the CPGB “will cross class lines or not” - perhaps it will side with the working class, or perhaps not.

We shall certainly call for a vote for the best placed left candidates, maybe even the lone Spartacist, in the general election. But we certainly do not think that there is any principle involved in voting Labour. Voting is a tactical question. Those ‘Trotskyists’ who elevate not voting Labour into a principle clearly stand in the tradition of Hugo Oehler. He broke with Leon Trotsky in 1937 because he could not countenance entry into social democratic parties - instead Oehler briefly invested his hopes in Spain’s POUM.

As for crossing ‘class lines’, is Labour just another bourgeois party? When did it stop being a bourgeois workers’ party? It is also worth adding that, while the Bolsheviks strove to stand independently before working class voters, they were quite prepared for their delegates in the tsarist curia system to do deals with other parties, including voting for them - eg Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Constitutional Democrats. Did they ‘cross class lines’? Well, yes, but rightly so, because it boosted Bolshevik numbers in the duma and, yes, citing the lesser evil, reduced the number of Black Hundreds (ie, the far right).

Comrade McColgan argued that SL joined Tusc because “it offers the possibility of a united working class opposition” to Starmer, and aims with its one candidate to wage the best campaign possible “to show in practice” that Tusc’s appeasement of the Labour left is a barrier to unity. Therefore, we were told, SL will “draw a sharp line” against imperialism and Starmer - something which is “unacceptable” to SPEW because that would be unacceptable to Jeremy Corbyn, left Labour MPs like Zarah Sultana, and suchlike.

Indeed, declared comrade McColgan. Tusc’s own programme undermines it as a working class opposition to Starmer, as it is “not even putting up a fight for its own united front”. So she thinks, rightly, that Tusc is absolutely toothless, as it “passively accepts” that George Galloway, for example, should be able to operate on his own turf - leaving the opposition to Starmer weak and divided. In conclusion, comrade McColgan returned to her original challenge to the CPGB - is communism relevant to the coming election or is it “an abstract idea to be preserved for better times ahead”? She urged the CPGB to “think again” and join the battle for working class unity.

Main difference

In his opening contribution, Mike Macnair from the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, explained that there were “substantial differences” between the two organisations. Firstly, the CPGB stands on the basis of the third and fourth congresses of Comintern in relation to the united front. Ultimately, Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party despite being very rightwing. In reality, when it was founded in 1900, Labour was a liberal imperialist party just like when it was refounded in 1918 as the party of the war - in the process setting the stage for excluding the communists.

Nonetheless, communists doggedly argued that fighting for working class unity requires the pursuit of the united front - including from above with rightwing leaders of the labour movement. We do not simply regard them as “social fascists”: ie, as untouchables. The SL’s claim that voting Labour is crossing class lines, or to vote for anybody who would back a Starmer government crosses class lines, argued comrade Macnair, is what Leon Trotsky dismissed as the ‘third period’ theory of Comintern. It saw the world - despite the abundant evidence to the contrary - as standing on the precipice of mass radicalisation and social convulsion and, therefore, the necessity of direct, revolutionary assault.

Secondly, in relation to Tusc, yes - the CPGB was excluded. But, more recently, Galloway’s WPB was refused entry too because every affiliate has a veto - sadly not something Tusc got rid of when they lost support from the trade union bureaucrats. In fact, it is something that SPEW still promises the trade union bureaucrats as a safety guarantee. The upshot being that what Tusc proposes is, in one respect, worse than the Labour Party, as it would be reconstituted more unambiguously on the dictatorship of the trade union bureaucracy, and hence would be more unambiguously created as a bourgeois workers’ party than the existing one currently led by Sir Keir.

Okay, said comrade Macnair, in the current concrete situation we are willing to say that Tusc candidates represent a left alternative to an extremely rightwing Labour Party. But the CPGB does not see the Tusc project in any way superior to the Morning Star’s CPB standing in certain constituencies - or the WPB for that matter.

Yes, replying to the SL challenge, communism is relevant - by presenting a communist political programme, not by virtue of calling for a split with the Starmerites as the first task to be conducted. Then the question is: what elements of our programme are we attempting to insert into this election campaign?

Furthermore, as a logical extension, comrade Macnair stated that the question of communism poses breaking with the method of broad frontism and struggling for the unity of the communist left - meaning not necessarily only those who specifically call themselves communist. In that context, the Tusc regime with its economistic programme and vetoes is by no means a vehicle for working class unity. Rather, it is a vehicle for what comrade Macnair called “third period Bernsteinism” - sectarian purity politics are combined with sub-reformism. In fact, continued the comrade, the commitment to building a new Labour Party based on the trade union bureaucracy and a federalist structure means that Tusc is unambiguously anti-communist.

In summary, comrade Macnair said there was not a matter of a fundamental principle at stake. Rather, a debate around tactics between different left groups about how to promote the fundamental ideas of communism in an election dominated by the transition from capital’s first eleven to the Labour second eleven. But, given that capital’s second eleven remains also the dominant party of the working class, it is still necessary, to the extent that we can, to pursue a united front policy towards Labour - not just certain left groups.


As part of his presentation, SL’s Vincent David hammered home the message that the task is quite simple because Starmer has drawn a clear class line - he hates anything to do with socialism, the working class, or Palestine. Thus, since the central task for comrade David is to build a working class opposition to Starmer, he was seemingly nonplussed by the idea that the CPGB might actually advocate a Labour vote “in the name” of Comintern’s third and fourth congresses. No, said the comrade, the SL also stands with the early Comintern and you “cannot use Lenin to justify voting for Starmer”.

Lenin understood that unity with the opportunists actually means subordinating the working class to their own national bourgeoise and splitting the revolutionary unity of all countries. This sort of unity was catastrophic for the workers’ movement, believed comrade David, just as unity with Starmer is catastrophic.

For the comrade, the fundamental lesson of Leninism is that communist unity can only be achieved through a “rupture with opportunism and centrism”. Fast-forward to today’s Britain - Lenin is still completely relevant. The CPB, which called for a Starmer vote in the local elections, has “many people” in leading trade union positions and is an integral part of the pro-capitalist bureaucracy. The Socialist Workers Party too has people in the leadership of the National Education Union and offers nothing but excuses for betrayals. It was the same with SPEW in Unite - comrade David saying their main activity “consists of maintaining a bloc” with Sharon Graham, describing her as an open supporter of Nato and Israel.

As a result, during last year’s strike wave, he said, while the trade union bureaucracy was leading the struggle to defeat, these groups refused to oppose the bureaucrats in order to preserve their posts. It is this alliance between so-called communists and the labour bureaucracy, in the opinion of comrade David, that “directly ties” the working class to Starmer and the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Returning to the CPGB, comrade David mocked our perspective of communist unity with the other left groups - a single Communist Party based on firm principle and freedom of debate. This is not communist unity, insisted the comrade, but unity with opportunists like Mick Lynch or Sharon Graham. It is a “complete repudiation” of Leninism and part of an open embrace of the social democratic Second International, which is “constantly praised” in the Weekly Worker. More damningly, for the comrade, the CPGB knows that all these left groups are opportunist - yet does not see that “breaking such alliances” is the central condition for real communist unity. What is that if not the very illustration of opportunism? If working class opposition to Starmer is not our “starting point”, then what is?

In his finishing remarks, Vincent David thought it was the task of communists to use the elections to advance the split with opportunism and split the left groups along class lines - for or against unity with the bureaucrats and Labourites? That is the question that SL poses to the left, especially the CPGB - urging it to “reorientate”.


In the last of the four opening contributions, Jack Conrad of the PCC said the main question is not a split with Starmer, let alone not voting Labour at the next general election. Instead, the two key strategic issues are the fight for a genuine Communist Party and breaking the working class from Labourism.

Comrade Vincent has quite rightly described SPEW as opportunist, said comrade Conrad - so in that sense SL is joining the opportunists by entering the Tusc project. In and of itself there is nothing wrong or unprincipled in doing that. We did apply to affiliate to Tusc but were rejected. The CPGB has also joined with SPEW in various organisations, such as the Socialist Alliance. But the crucial question is that when the CPGB acted alongside such opportunists, it was precisely to fight for unity around communism - certainly not who might or might not be the next prime minister.

No, we fight for communist unity around our minimum and maximum programme and the project of building a mass Communist Party which unites the advanced part of the working class and can realistically pursue the politics of manoeuvre in relationship to other classes and social strata. We do not demand agreement with every dot and comma: rather acceptance of the programme as the basis of unity in action.

What the SL comrades fail to see, comrade Conrad said, is that fighting for the unity of the existing left under the banner of a Communist Party inevitably involves splits. The idea that all we need to do is get chummy with SPEW’s Hannah Sell, the SWP’s Alex Callinicos or Counterfire’s John Rees is a complete fallacy. We do not believe in ‘live and let live’. We want principled unity.

For example, if we look back at the history of the original CPGB, it came about as a result of a series of splits and fusions. There was the Communist Unity Group, which split from the Socialist Labour Party. We had the comrades who split from Slyvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation. There was also, of course, the British Socialist Party, which split with Henry Hyndman. The notion that we want communist unity with the likes of Mick Lynch or Sharon Graham is just plain dumb. But we are committed to freedom of debate, yes, including the right to form public factions. Without that there can only be broad-frontist lowest-common-denominator politics, eg, Tusc, or yet another confessional sect headed by this or that labour dictator (eg, Tony Cliff, Peter Taaffe, Gerry Healy, James Robertson, Alan Woods).

The SL comrades may say voting Labour is crossing class lines, said comrade Conrad. But it would be interesting to hear from them as to exactly when the Labour Party ceased to be a bourgeois workers’ party - under Keir Starmer, Jeremy Corbyn, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair? The CPGB’s assessment is that, while the class nature of Labour has always been under question, at this moment the contradictory nature of the Labour Party remains unresolved. In the view of Jack Conard, it remains that “peculiar thing” - a workers’ party in terms of its electoral base, trade union links and rank and file membership. But it always was and remains thoroughly bourgeois in terms of politics. After all, Labour tops joined the war cabinet during World War I. That did not stop the newly formed CPGB applying to affiliate or urging workers to elect a Labour government (with the full backing and support of Lenin).

Wide ranging

After the four openings, there was a wide-ranging debate around numerous issues - only a few of which we can mention here due to space limitations.

Simon from the Spartacists said that Tusc is the “obvious vehicle” as a united front for left organisations not able to stand directly in elections. Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party, thought the comrade, and there are still people in Labour “who have hope” - but if there is no alternative, workers “will turn to worse” (presumably meaning the far right). Comrade Simon argued that what the Spartacists propose is not a third-period policy (it does not call anybody “social-fascist”) - but is trying to draw a class line against the capitalist misleaders of the working class. He pointed to the fact that Jack Conrad said that it would not be unprincipled to join Tusc, but also claimed that Tusc is “an alliance of opportunists on an opportunist basis” - how can these ideas be reconciled?

Alan Gibson of the Bolshevik Tendency addressed questions to both sides. On Tusc’s ‘core policy platform’, he noted that the Spartacists disagree with it because it is left social-democratic - so will they call for votes for candidates who support the platform? In particular, the call for the restoration of full trade union rights for prison officers - he asked if this traditional Spartacist position to oppose the trade union organisation of prison officers has been abandoned (the Prison Officers Association, note, was once a Tusc affiliate). As for the CPGB, Mike Macnair argued that elections have to be used in an agitational way, but the CPGB is very clearly a propaganda group - how can it do agitation?

Propaganda, is, of course, defined as getting over many ideas to the few, while agitation is getting over one or a few ideas to the many (Georgi Plekhanov). Concretely in 1992, for example, the CPGB used its general election candidates to get over to the many, and not just in the four constituencies where we stood, that ‘Communism lives’. The Eurocommunists had liquidated the ‘official’ CPGB and the Soviet Union, and other such regimes in eastern Europe, had collapsed. There was bourgeois triumphalism. In terms of press, publicity and public recognition, we were more than pleased with the results.

Comrade Gibson also agreed with the CPGB that the question of how to vote among left candidates is a tactical one, but do candidates stand for the independent interests of the working class? For him, that rules out the Labour Party in this election.

Tina Becker, a CPGB supporter, said she had attended the Tusc conference. Eibhlin McColgan was the best speaker and had argued effectively against the ridiculous veto. But, in November 2023, the Spartacists were calling for Labour lefts to “stay and fight” in the Labour Party; now a vote for Labour would be unprincipled - what, she asked, has qualitatively changed? Comrade Becker thought we should pursue a conditional support tactic, putting questions to Labour lefts like Zarah Sultana and so on. However, she disagreed with Mike Macnair on the Workers Party of Britain. While the WPB might be better on key questions like imperialism, she emphasised that George Galloway “has put a lot of effort” into associating the organisation with his own conservative, chauvinist politics,

Meanwhile, Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight was pleased that the Spartacists had taken a “left turn” by positively engaging with the rest of the left - it was also a “left turn” that they had now repudiated their previous social-chauvinist stand on the Malvinas/Falklands war. Conrad and Macnair are correct, argued comrade Downing, that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party - hence we should vote for Labour against the Tories where there is no viable left opposition, calling it “unconditional but very critical support”. Conversely, in relation to the left, comrade Downing believed that what is posed is unconditional but critical support for any substantial opposition to Labour - saying that “self-identified or subjective” Trotskyists are not the same thing as Stalinists or social democrats.

Eibhlin McColgan briefly came back to say that the discussion is not an “abstract discourse” about who to support. Starmer is about to become the most rightwing prime minister in Labour’s history, and it is urgent to build an opposition to him. Mike Macnair countered this by questioning if Starmer is really qualitatively different from Arthur Henderson, who urged hundreds of thousands into the World War I mincing machine - or Jimmy Thomas who authorised the use of poison gas in Iraq.

Jim Nelson of the CPGB said it was important to argue against voting Green or Liberal Democrat, an idea some leftwingers are affected by - this is the context of calling for a Labour vote in the absence of a left alternative. The CPGB are not “simple unity-mongers”, asserted comrade Nelson - we argue for splits so far as necessary to enable principled unity. In his viewpoint, Workers’ Hammer’s slogan, “Dump Starmer to defend Palestine”, and the claim that “everyone hates Starmer” is a radically unrealistic judgment of the political situation. After all, on May 2 millions voted Labour in metro and local council elections … and opinion polls put Labour some 20% ahead of the Tories. That is not the result of hatred of Sir Keir.

Returning to the debate, comrade Vincent David criticised the CPGB because it “works on abstractions” - the idea that Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party is divorced from the political context in the country. A vote for Starmer is no better than voting Tory, as far as he was concerned. However much you may ridicule Tusc, it stands for no votes for Starmer. Contrary to the CPGB, there is no contradiction between “stay in and fight” in the Labour Party and “no votes for Starmer” - it is to build a working class opposition to Starmer, as he and Eibhlin McColgan had been saying.

Of course, the Spartacist League was nowhere to be seen in the 2015‑20 class war which raged inside the Labour Party. The CPGB, by contrast, through Labour Party Marxists, played a leading role in Labour Against the Witchhunt. And, though it rightly calls for Sir Keir and the pro-capitalist trade union misleadership to be “cleared out” of the Labour Party, that cannot possibly be achieved by adhering to a ‘don’t touch in case you are infected’ purity politics. So the real abstraction here is the perspective of the new Spartacist League.

Because it supposedly does not draw a clear line against Starmer but aims for unity on the basis of a party programme, comrade David claimed, somewhat bizarrely, that the CPGB’s project is Labourite. Quite how a principled communist programme is Labourite or social democratic remains a mystery left unexplained. Clearly the near crazy old polemical methods of James Robertson continue to cloud minds.

On the subject of Tusc, Alan Gibson mentioned that the Spartacists say that they constitute a revolutionary minority on the prison officers’ issue. But will this be only a fight within Tusc, or will it be an open fight and refusal to call for a vote for those candidates who stand for prison officers to have trade union rights? Comrade Gibson castigated the whole Tusc ‘core platform’ as reformist rubbish - the Spartacists are reducing the entire problem of left Labourism, which includes Tusc, to the individual, Keir Starmer. A well aimed point.

For his part, Stan Keable of the CPGB spoke in favour of trade union rights - we fight for trade union rights not only for prison officers, but also for the police and soldiers - something that is heresy for some on the left. But the task is to split the state’s armed forces, insisted comrade Keable - how else do we make revolution?


In her summary, comrade McColgan said that the debate showed a misunderstanding about the united front. The question is how to undercut the pro-capitalist leaders of the workers’ movement - hence, on Starmer, she once again urged the base of the Labour Party to throw him out. The CPGB, she maintained, thinks it is in the interest of the working class to have a Labour government. Well it is certainly not in the interests of the working class to have anther Tory government … and there is absolutely no chance of a Tusc government in 2024 or of the Spartacists being junior coalition partners.

Comrade McColgan was convinced that there is mass hatred of Labour for its rightwing policies, saying that the “the issue is the same” as that argued by Lenin during World War I in works like Imperialism and Socialism and war (with Zinoviev). She concluded that there can be no working class unity with Labour MPs, because that would be unity with British imperialism against the working class.

Mike Macnair in his response described the Spartacist position as “classic ultra-leftism” of the sort attacked in Lenin’s Leftwing communism - it mistakes the mood of a section of the advanced part of the class for the mood of the broad masses. Yes, there is hatred of Starmer expressed by hundreds of thousands on Palestine demonstrations, but millions are supporting Labour in elections. They are not doing so under the illusion that Labour will bring socialism, or that it defends the fully independent interests of the working class. The illusion is that Labour will partially defend workers’ interests within the frame of the constitution and the nation; and that Labour is the trade unions’ party and it is better to have its leader in Downing Street than another Tory.

Reiterating what he and Jack Conrad had said previously, comrade Macnair said the CPGB supports left candidates against Labour in this election. But Tusc is no better than the other left options - WPB, CPB, etc. It is explicitly a project to repeat the Labour Party experience with the same dominance of the trade union bureaucracy in place, making the same mistakes all over again.

The working class deserves a better future, concluded comrade Macnair on behalf of the CPGB.

The opening contributions to the debate can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=99Q4BYsCGqU