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A political faction is a group of individuals, such as a political party, a trade union, or other group with a common political purpose. A faction or political party may include fragmented sub-factions, “parties within a party," which may be referred to as power blocs, or voting blocs. Members of factions band together as a way of achieving these goals and advancing their agenda and position within an organization.
Factions are not limited to political parties; they can and frequently do form within any group that has some sort of political aim or purpose.
Etymology and usage
The Latin word factio denoted originally either of the chariot teams that were organised professionally by private companies in ancient Rome, each recognizable by characteristic colour and arousing supporter hysteria similar to that in modern sports fans. These teams were not unlike gladiator schools, but the lethal nature of that entertainment meant few performers lasted long enough to build up similar crowd loyalty to the "team", while the fighters rarely actually teamed up, but rather fought duels or beasts. In time, political currents could become associated with such a team, although precisely how this happened is unclear. In Byzantine Constantinople, two such chariot factions, blue and green, repeatedly made or broke the claims of candidates to the imperial throne.
Occasionally, the term "faction" is still used more or less as a synonym for political party, but "with opprobrious sense, conveying the imputation of selfish or mischievous ends or turbulent or unscrupulous methods", according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In his Dictionary, Samuel Johnson (a Tory) dismissively defined Whig as "the name of a faction". Similarly, in the tenth installment of the Federalist Papers, James Madison defines a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." In plain English this is a group that pursues self-interest at the expense of the common good.
Aims of factions
The aims of a political faction are as diverse as the different types of bodies within which they appear. Typically, however, they include: advancing a particular policy or policy agenda, preventing the adoption of alternative policies and supporting given individuals to positions of power within the organization or in the wider political world. A faction can primarily be based around supporting a given person or group, or a single major aim, with little in the way of common agenda otherwise, or it can have a comprehensive and definitive set of policies. Either way, factional politics typically revolve around personality, with a few individuals playing key roles, acting as a magnet for like-minded people, leading the activities of the faction, and acting as a prominent voice for the shared objectives of the faction. Such individuals can be referred to by a variety of names, such as “powerbrokers” or “factional chiefs”.
Factions differ in the amount of organisation and internal structure they possess. On the left, these may take the form of tendencies or platforms. Most factions are very loose organisations, having no definitive list of members, but some factions, have a formal internal structure, with membership lists, regular meetings, official positions – such as negotiators, conveners, whips, and organizers, – and a definitive policy position on every issue affecting the broader organisation. Such factions will typically be binding; that is, they rely upon all members casting their votes in accordance with the pre-ordained official stance of the faction.
Operation of factions
In political organisations that are democratic in structure, factions rely heavily on securing enough votes to win important ballots. This process is sometimes referred to as “doing the numbers”. Having the numbers will allow the faction to push policies it supports and elect its members to powerful positions within the broader organisation.
If one faction develops within an organisation, there will usually be at least one other that develops in opposition to it. Opposing factions will try to match each other's level of organisation and internal discipline, but will also engage in negotiations and trade-offs to ensure that the organisation’s activities are not compromised and that every group has a chance to obtain at least some of its goals.
Key to the operation of an organised faction is the existence of a power base. This will typically be some office, division or branch of the broader organisation over which the faction has effective control. Sometimes a power base may be an external or affiliated organisation that is involved with the broader organisation in some way.
A power base serves several key functions:
- It acts as a recruitment center for new members, and promotes homogeneity within the membership (crucial for maintaining factional cohesion);
- It can be used as an organising center for factional events and activities;
- It functions as a springboard, advancing the career of selected factional members and allowing them to gain skills that will increase their effectiveness and clout.
Effects of factions
The existence of a factional system can have serious negative consequences for a political organisation. If factional strife becomes intensive and public, the organisation may suffer from perceptions of disunity. Taken one step further, if the conflict is particularly severe, it may cause ruptures within the organisation that seriously impede its effectiveness, leading to break-up or collapse of the organisation.
To avoid harm to the organisation, factional operations are usually conducted under strong secrecy and with minimal public scrutiny. This, however, can lead to the proliferation of unethical behaviour. Warfare between the factions may lead to tactics such as ballot box-stuffing, stack-outs, membership fraud, and other generally fraudulent conduct. Individuals who abandon a faction may be subject to intense personal vendettas where their former comrades go about sabotaging their careers. A climate of intense factional conflict can also motivate individuals to focus on attacking their factional enemies rather than furthering the broader organisation.
Despite this, the benefits of factional systems are often overlooked. It is often incomprehensible to outsiders why members of a broader organisation would engage in factionalism. This stems from the assumption that the natural factional relationship is one of conflict and strife, when in fact, factions are often able to engage in productive co-operation.
In any political organization there are likely to be many highly opinionated and passionate people. The existence of a factional system allows its operations to be more predictable and stable. Compromise and give-and-take between factions allows the organisation to operate without having to satisfy the whims of many different, uncompromising individuals who might otherwise cause a split. So, somewhat counter-intuitively, factionalism can actually promote organisational harmony.
Factions also help to broaden and diversify the organisation’s appeal. A person who might otherwise find the organisation’s goals unattractive might be persuaded to support a faction within it whose goals are closer to their own. Just as a democratic government is often invigorated by a strong opposition, so having a number of distinct points-of-view with an organisation can energise it and allow it to perform its role more effectively. It is also highly unlikely that any sizeable political organisation is wholly united in purpose, so arguably factions simply represent a way of managing pre-existing differences within the organisation.
The Founding Fathers of the American constitution, explicitly warned against the dangers of party factionalism. Madison, Hamilton, and Washington expressed the belief that factions would create divides that would ultimately dismantle the government. These sentiments can be found the The Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist 10 and 51 written by Madison.
- Robert J. Alexander, "Splinter Groups in American Radical Politics," Social Research, vol. 20, no. 3 (Autumn 1953), pp. 282-310. In JSTOR.