F is for factions

Submitted by Matthew on 29 June, 2011 - 12:47

The ins-and-outs of revolutionary organisation may seem like a “side issue” when set against some of the bigger, weightier-sounding concepts. That there is such a lot of confusion surrounding the question of how socialists can and should organise is a symptom of wider political misunderstandings.

The words “faction” and “factionalism” are particularly loaded. Only recently the Socialist Workers Party — the largest revolutionary group in Britain — suffered not one but two splits. Both times, “factions” and “factionalism” were thrown about as insults against those who split. But not every faction is a manifestation of unhealthy “factionalism”.

A faction is a group within a revolutionary organisation that organises to win the majority to a particular perspective or point of view. In healthily functioning groups, factions are granted minority rights: the ability to communicate with the entire group as well as amongst themselves; a platform at conferences and deliberative meetings; and, usually, space in publications like journals and newspapers. Importantly, members have the right to form factions at any time.

Factions have duties, too: the duty not to disrupt majority decisions in practical activity, and the duty to deal honestly and loyally with the majority.

A well-functioning organisation will be able to argue out big and sharp differences without the overhead costs of fully-fledged factions. But the right to form factions must always be there.

As Leon Trotsky put it: “If factions are not wanted, there must not be any permanent groupings; if permanent groupings are not wanted, temporary groupings must be avoided; finally, in order that there be no temporary groupings, there must be no differences of opinion, for wherever there are two opinions, people inevitably group together. But how, on the other hand, to avoid differences of opinion...?”

Or again: “If the membership is fairly homogeneous, there will be only temporary groupings — unless the leadership is incorrect. And this will be shown best in practice. So, when a difference occurs, a discussion should take place, a vote be taken, and a majority line adopted. There must be no discrimination against the minority; any personal animosity will compromise not them but the leadership. Real leadership will be loyal and friendly to the disciplined minority”.

Factions are not simply a “democratic right” within revolutionary organisations. Comrades with dissenting views have the political responsibility to argue their case and if necessary to form a faction. It is always possible that the formation of a faction could result in a split, so serious revolutionaries go for explicit faction-formation only as a last resort. But the imperative to argue out the politics is overriding.

Organisations with a healthy internal democracy do not encourage factions; they strive, by open and patient discussion, to make them unnecessary. But they are ready and willing to accommodate them.

Groups like the SWP and in fact most of the Trotskyist left tolerate factions, if at all, only for short prescribed periods before their conferences, and only as “limited issue” groupings — not as efforts to unseat one leadership and install another (as may sometimes be necessary). After the conference, the faction must not only accept the majority decision (for now); it must dissolve (or pretend to dissolve), regardless of whether or not the dispute has been adequately resolved. Such an attitude is alien to the real spirit of our movement.

Take for example the history of Lenin’s Bolshevik party. The Bolsheviks themselves originated as a faction within the larger Russian Social Democratic Party. “Factions existed in the Bolshevik party as temporary groupings of opinion”, wrote Trotsky, “during its whole life — except for a brief period in 1921 when they were forbidden by unanimous vote of the leadership as an extreme measure during an acute crisis”. The 1921 decision was surely a mistake, but it was also never effective, until Stalin suppressed not only factions but the whole Bolshevik party as a living force.

“Factionalism”, in the sense of a premature and unjustified drive to form factions, is a different matter.. Our movement and organisations attract some individuals and groups of individuals who are either essentially hostile or susceptible to influence by outside ideas. It is also not uncommon for one organised group to enter another with the express purpose of causing problems. In either case, the political and organisational disruption caused by these people can be called “factionalism”.

“Factionalism” can manifest itself in frequent and repeated demands for the formation of factions within the democratic framework. Historically, those who practise factionalism often combine with others on a very weak and ill-defined premise. Other times, “factional” groups remain outside of the democratic framework and sow seeds of despondency. Either way, persistent factionalism is very damaging.

One further issue to consider is this: if even tiny revolutionary organisations can be split or splintered by the formation of factions, how can we hope to unite the left into one, coherent party? Again, history points the way.

All historical examples of the formation of large revolutionary socialist parties and organisations are the story of separate groups and factions coming together on a principled basis. This coming together never meant the cessation of political discussion and debate. It required, of course, some will to see the old divisions as “old”, and approach things afresh, but it also never meant a ban on factions.

Everything points to the fact that unless the revolutionary left accepts the necessity of consistent democracy within its own house, including the rights of factions, then left unity is off the cards.

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