Madison on factionalism


From The Federalist No. 10:

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

And again:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

And once more:

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

The Bolshevik-Leninist tradition, it’s true, doesn’t mean the same thing by faction as Madison meant, but his points remain important ones. And, while I’ve said this innumerable times, it’s worth repeating if only because it’s counter-intuitive – when Cliff launched his big campaign for democratic centralism in 1968 – the same campaign that produced Harman’s “Party and Class” essay – Cliff took it for granted that the democratic centralist party would have factions and tendencies within it, and that these would be represented on the leading bodies.

In fact, Cliff then went on to prove his point by introducing the Matgamna group into IS. Sean immediately availed himself of the factional rights guaranteed by Cliff’s 1968 constitution, much to the frustration of Cliff, who had brought Sean into the group to assist Colin Barker in Manchester, only for Cliff and Colin to be left ruing the day, and straining every sinew to get rid of Sean. In fact, this necessary task took a whole three years, which tells you something about the liberal regime in IS at the time. Things had tightened up a few years later when Cliff moved against the native oppositions, and culminated in the gerrymandered 1975 conference, but even then it took some while for the draconian prejudice against factionalism to take its full form. I suppose the squaddist purge of the early 1980s marks a watershed in that the squaddists weren’t a faction at all – the founders of Red Action didn’t link up until after their expulsion – but Cliff took the attitude that if he said you were a faction, then you were one. It was after that that you started to see comrades being purged for “secret factionalism” – i.e. informal contacts to which the CC took exception.

Here’s my point. I’m not trying to lionise factionalism for its own sake. Factions, even loyal and disciplined factions, are a pain in the arse at the best of times. But factions and tendencies are both inevitable and necessary. Conversely, it’s natural for the leadership to prefer unanimity, and a lack of revolt in the ranks, but a mature leadership should try to check any tendencies on its part towards monolithism. Because, human nature being what it is, you don’t eliminate disagreements by eliminating their expression through factionalism. What you do is drive disagreements underground – Gerry Healy ran an extremely oppressive and in fact violent regime, but that only ensured that the convulsions, when they came, were more explosive than they would otherwise have been.

What you also achieve, particularly by the proscription of so-called permanent factions, is not a factionless party but a party with one single permanent faction, namely the entrenched leadership. And indeed this permanent faction comes to have more and more the features of a clique.

Finally, all this railing against factionalism has very little to do with the Leninist tradition. Lenin (the real one, not Seymour) was an inveterate factionalist, and the membership of the RSDLP, under conditions of Tsarist autocracy, had rather more in the way of democratic rights than members of some offshoots of the Church of Latter Day Trotskyism, despite the latter operating under conditions of bourgeois democracy.

Two little historical factoids might be of interest. First was the question of who should sit on the CC. Lenin used to describe Kamenev as a congenital vacillator, and he was proven right in the course of 1917. And yet, it was precisely because of this that Lenin opposed the removal of Kamenev from the Bolshevik CC – because his vacillations represented a real tendency in the party. Secondly, even when the Bolsheviks finally banned factions (one of the many examples the Bolsheviks give of things we shouldn’t try to emulate) the leaders of the Workers Opposition still had representation on the CC, even though their faction was formally disbanded.

The neo-Stalinist or Maoist concept of the monolithic leadership, no less than the monolithic party, is a theoretical abomination that should be abandoned thoroughly and not merely pragmatically. Might we say that glasnost isn’t just for Christmas?


  1. A said,

    December 19, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Splinty — as always your blog has some of the wittiest and best commentary in the blogosphere. Please continue your good work.

    While the debate within — and outside — the SWP on democracy, slates, etc. is surely welcomed and about 25 yrs over due, it is still narrowly confined within the parameters of Leninist democratic centralism.

    Question: how useful is an organizational principle enacted to combat Tsarist autocracy by a semi-secret group almost a century ago?Has society not drastically changed since then?

    While the broad central dynamics of capitalism remain the same (capital vs labour, war and imperialism, reform vs revolution, etc.) a heck of a lot has changed within our political and social environment.

    Furthermore, the concept of democratic centralism, ESPECIALLY for a tiny group living in an advanced capitalist economy in an obviously non-revolutionary period, will ALWAYS be a fetter to building much bigger socialist organizations that actually carry real weight in the class and social movements and can play a serious role in the battles to come. While you might be able to persuade a thousand or two students that a tightly wound-up and controlled group is what’s needed, most of the better activists carry a certain skepticism towards this type antiquated polticial behaviour.

    This leads to my second point. Little if any of the debate that’s transpiring looks at the dramatic changes that have occured since the Bolsheviks came to power. For starters, the workers vanguard — that layer of anti-capitalist worker activist that the Bolsheviks immersed themselves in and drew from — has vanished in much (all of?) the western world. It’s not just a matter of low-worker confidence, right-wing union leaders, etc. Should not our our organizational priorities and practices drastically change as a result? I roll my eyes when I read Harman’s account of the state of the class struggle and the changing working class or Molyneux’s task of recruiting ones and twos.

    While somewhat dated and not without its faults, this pamphlet does at least try to grapple with these issues.

  2. Mike Macnair said,

    December 19, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    Canning on the fall of the ‘Ministry of all the Talents’:

    The demon of faction that over them hung
    In accents of horror their epitaph sung
    While pride and venality joined in the stave
    And canting democracy wept at the grave

    Anti-factionalism is – as the Madison piece shows and this does from the other side of the arguments running around 1800 – Toryism. (The ‘Ministry of all the Talents’ have to their credit that they set in motion the ban on the slave trade, though they fell before it was actually passed.)

    Anti-factionalism also *promotes* splits: on the one hand expulsions for “factionalism”, described in your post, on the other through people walking out rather than conduct a prolonged faction-fight which would prevent them doing “real work”. A recent example is Broder & Co’s walk-out from the AWL (though perhaps understandable …)

  3. Brigada Flores Magon said,

    December 19, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    It’s not only at times like this that being an anarchist has its points, then.

  4. Garibaldy said,

    December 19, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    Where does Lenin’s liking for a good purge sit with this version SS?

  5. charliemarks said,

    December 20, 2008 at 2:32 am

    Here’s a thought: allow members to vote on party policies, one person one vote, rather than thru delegates?

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    December 20, 2008 at 10:43 am

    Good point, Garibaldy. Although Lenin was working in slightly more extreme circumstances than his purge-happy would-be successors, and still had a less draconian regime than some of these guys.

    Generally, I hold the view that the history of Bolshevism is full of examples of things you shouldn’t do, and even things that were justifiable at the time aren’t great ideas now. And yet, our Bolshevik Re-Enactment Societies, despite claiming fidelity to Lenin, still manage to get it wrong.

  7. skidmarx said,

    December 20, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Fault is in the eye of the beholder.

  8. chris y said,

    December 20, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Although Lenin was working in slightly more extreme circumstances than his purge-happy would-be successors, and still had a less draconian regime than some of these guys.

    A miracle of understatement in both clauses. We tend to forget that before the revolution RSDLP factions habitually had at it in full public view, and VIU’s chief concern was only that once a vote had been taken on a particular course of action, those comrades who had opposed it would condescend to go along with it. As the post points out, even after the formal “ban on factions” under conditions of full scale civil war, the Bolsheviks took care that all currents of party opinion were represented in the leadership.

    But in the end, who cares any more? Any model of party organisation predicated on the idea that Iskra represents the cutting edge of communications technology has had pretty much nothing to say to anybody under the age of 60 for a decade, after all. The fact that this debate is happening in blog comments is a clue; if Splinty decides to ban everybody who disagrees with him, they’ll just migrate to Facebook, and there is no central committee on earth, outside China, which can stop them.

  9. Ludwik said,

    December 20, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    I was pleased to read the serious discussion under this thread. It is clear that most people on this list are much more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. I am a retired physics teacher who wrote an educational book on Stalinism (for those who know very little about). And I am seeking comments, as shown at:

    Please comment here, or send your comments (review?) to me at

    I will be happy to post it at my website. Thanks in advance,

    Ludwik Kowalski (retired physic teacher, Ph.D.)

  10. Garibaldy said,

    December 21, 2008 at 12:04 pm


    I agree that there are things that people shouldn’t try to replicate, and one of the things I’ve never understood about the type of people you’re talking about is the need to reference all their activity by some quote from holy scripture from Marx/Lenin/Trotsky, or whoever. Democratic centralism as I understand allows for differing positions but accpetance of the vote on a position, as Chris Y points out above. Having said that, I don’t think it is right to allow organised factions, but then again, it’s crazy to ban people from talking to each other outside of meetings as some seem to do.

  11. Mark P said,

    December 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Why do you think it’s wrong to allow organised factions, Garibaldy? Other than Stalinist traditionalism I mean.

  12. Garibaldy said,

    December 21, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    I think that the presence of organised groups much more often than not has the tendency to hamper the overall aims of the party, and can prevent necessary growth and development in ideological and organisational terms. More often than not, factions are made up of people opposed to the line the party is following as a whole, as opposed to specific issues, or are engaged in a struggle for control of assets/resources. It is usually better for all concerned that they go their separate ways.

    Although there are circumstances where this might not be the case, I think that is only for broader movements like the Labour Party or the Tories or whatever. Not an ideologically coherent and disciplined one. This doesn’t mean that debate has to be curtailed, or that people shouldn’t be free to argue whatever they like as regards strategy and policy.

    My view is shaped not by traditionalism but by the history of most organisations I’ve looked at that. In theory, factions can exist within parties while remaining committed to the same aims and strategies, but I would say the situations where this works are the exceptions rather than the rule.

  13. Mark P said,

    December 21, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    The problem with the above is that you are presenting an argument that having factions isn’t a good thing, rather than an argument that they should be banned. Some proponents of factional rights are of the view that having organised groupings within a party is of benefit in and of itself. More common however is a view that allowing factions to exist is a pain in the arse but banning them is much worse. There’s little of what you say above that couldn’t be supported by someone with that latter view.

    My own view is that disagreements will always take place and that people will always organise for their point of view. That is factions will come into being whether we like it or not. The question isn’t whether we want that to happen but rather how we handle it.

    Banning “factionalism” simply rigs debate in favour of the current leadership, who are themselves by definition always organised. It also pushes factions underground where they can’t be regulated or supervised and where all kinds of shenanigans can result.

    The history of your own organisation and its calamitous split is a good example of this latter process. It would have been better to have the debates that eventually pulled the Worker Party apart out in the open, with people clearly identifying themselves with clearly argued positions. Instead you had people factionalising like mad but in a hidden, underground way and then a rather chaotic explosion at the end.

  14. Garibaldy said,

    December 21, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    I agree that disagreements will always take place, the question is the extent to which they are permissible without destroying the vision of the party as a coherent entity. Allowing the presence of say a committed social democrat faction in a party committed to revolutionary socialism is unacceptable. I think that in terms of the specific instance of the DL split, there was a lot of open disagreement – using both party publications and ultimately the wider media. I don’t think you have properly characterised the nature of the split either. The problem with underhanded behaviour was not that people were not openly identifying themselves with clear positions, it was that the majority of the TDs lied over their ultimate aim, to their opponents and their supporters. It was also a split that developed fairly quickly, in the unique circumstances of 1990 and after, with people changing their minds in the space of a few days sometimes, which contributed to the nature of it. It was also remember the opportunists who walked out. They were going to get their way, or walk. No amount of space for organised factions could have prevented what happened happening. They had decided to abandon socialism altogether. They needed a new organisation.

  15. Mark P said,

    December 21, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    I am not saying that allowing proper factional rights would have averted a split in the Workers Party. I think that was inevitable.

    However allowing the various factions to form openly and argue their point of view openly would have led to a much more productive discussion and a clearer and less confusing split. As it is a lot of people ended up going with the side they happened to have personal relationships with or ended up on what was the “wrong” side for someone with their views, because everything was murky and faction formation was underground and hidden. Splits are rarely happy things, but there was no reason why the whole process had to be so utterly messy.

    Here the value of allowing open factions would have been its contribution to managing an inevitable split.

  16. Dunne and Crescendo said,

    December 22, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    And there was a bit of a big elephant in the Workers Party room wasn’t there? That neither faction could be honest about.

  17. Baku26 said,

    December 22, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    The permissible existence of factions would have made little difference in respect of the DL split. The various positions had been argued out at leadership level and openly at Ard Fheiseanna for a number of years, most notably in the debate as to whether the Party should describe itself as a revolutionary party. It was the attempt by the social democrats to “re-constitute” the Party (and thereby remove those committed to the socialist path) which precipitated the split.

  18. Garibaldy said,

    December 22, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    I’m still of the opinion Mark that there were a lot of lies being told by one side about their intentions, that led some good people up the garden path, even if they should have known better. As for personal relationships, faction formations don’t change that. There is also the case that the formation of open factions would most likely have prevented the party from getting where it was in the first place.

  19. Mark P said,

    December 22, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    It didn’t stop the Bolsheviks from growing to a mass party and subsequently leading a successful revolution, did it?

  20. Garibaldy said,

    December 22, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    As I said already, I’m not sure that is an entirely accurate portrayal of how the Bolsheviks operated, given Lenin’s position on these matters. Plus when both states in NI become autocracies and then collapse in the middle of a world war, then maybe we can compare teh two realistically.

  21. Old SFWP said,

    December 23, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    Only one side telling lies Garibaldy? Do you actually believe that stuff? Our big mistake was telling lies as a routine to our own comrades for years. There was plenty of factions anyway and they were tolerated depending on who ewas in the loop.

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