Brian O’Cathail (RISE): In Praise of Factionalism

by Brian O’Cathail

“…the existence of factions is compatible neither with the Party’s unity nor with its iron discipline. It scarcely needs proof that the existence of factions leads to the existence of a number of centres, and the existence of a number of centres means the absence of one common centre in the Party, the breaking up of unity of will, the weakening and disintegration of discipline, the weakening and disintegration of the dictatorship. Of course, the parties of the Second International, which are fighting against the dictatorship of the proletariat and have no desire to lead the proletarians to power, can afford such liberalism as freedom of factions, for they have no need at all for iron discipline. But the parties of the Communist International, whose activities are conditioned by the task of achieving and consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat, cannot afford to be “liberal” or to permit freedom of factions.

The Party represents unity of will, which precludes all factionalism and division of authority in the Party.”

Stalin, “Foundations of Leninism

Here at Rupture, we aren’t great admirers of the organisational model that has dominated the Marxist left for a century. We may have mentioned it once or twice.[1] Across the world, for decade after decade, countless groupings ranging in size from a few people to a few thousand people have engaged in an endless struggle to “build the revolutionary party”. Meaning in practice that they seek constantly to recruit more people than fall away over time to small but perfectly formed miniature replicas of what they imagine a revolutionary party to be. Just as the sect today is the future revolutionary party in miniature, the revolutionary party of tomorrow is to be a larger, more influential version of today’s sect.

This approach is justified by recourse to the Bolshevik experience. Those seeking to implement it see themselves as “Leninists”, building a democratic centralist ‘Party of A New Type’. Although they rarely realise it, the “Leninist party” today’s sect builders strive to create is one based not on the Bolshevik party which led a revolution but on that party after some years in power. 

This organisational model was developed over the 1920s in three periods: Firstly, the Bolsheviks imposed more centralisation and discipline onto their own organisation as they tried to maintain power in very difficult conditions of civil war, isolation, backwardness and economic devastation. It was further developed, with the “Bolshevisation” campaign launched across the Comintern under the Troika, in large part an extension of the anti-Trotsky campaign domestically. It reached its final development after Stalin marginalised Bukharin and purges of the “Rights” were launched internationally. 

The peculiar structures of the democratic centralist sect were developed and established, all in the service of a monolithic conception of a party under strict and unchallengeable control from above. These included, among other things: A two tier leadership structure with real power held by a subcommittee. As large an apparatus of full-time officials as can be maintained, chosen by and answerable to the leadership rather than elected. Leadership control of all publications. Rules or norms requiring members of leadership bodies to support leadership decisions to the wider membership or “committee discipline”. A slate or recommended panel election system.

Each element of this organisational package serves to reinforce the effect of the others in suppressing democratic life within the party. In issue one, I examined one of these structures, the slate election system, which enables leaderships to more or less reselect themselves in perpetuity.[2] Here I’m going to look at a second one, restrictions on the ability of political minorities within a party to organise themselves to win support for their dissenting view, otherwise known as “factional rights”.

What are factions anyway?

Some socialist organisations have a kind of taxonomy of different types of internal groupings. A faction, for instance, may be an internal group which is attempting to replace the leadership, while a tendency is an internal group pushing a particular opinion or set of opinions. A caucus may mean something else again. These kinds of distinctions may or may not be useful in certain contexts, but for the purposes of my argument here I’m talking about “factions” in the broadest sense: a faction is a group of members of a political party or group which organises themselves to more effectively advocate a minority point of view. The ability to do this without falling foul of the rules of the party is referred to as “factional rights” or, “the right to tendency”.

To people without experience of the culture of most Marxist organisations, this may seem like a strange thing to be writing an article defending. Of course, members can organise themselves to push a political party or organisation in a particular direction or change its policies. How would a party even stop them anyway? In mainstream politics forms of factional behaviour are taken more or less for granted. People work closely with the like-minded or with people with shared interests. Often this is squalid stuff, all about personal advancement, but it also happens over policy. Sometimes such groups are formalised and focused primarily on winning the broader party to a particular set of political stances, as with Momentum on the left of the British Labour Party and Progress on its right. Sometimes they are informal and centrally about patronage, as with the tawdry networks around various would-be Fianna Fáil leaders when that party dominated the Irish political scene.

On the socialist left, at least in the West, most (but not all)[3] of the larger socialist organisations which have achieved prominence over the last 20 years also allow internal tendencies or factions as a matter of course. To give some examples, this is so with the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, Die Linke in Germany, the New Anticapitalist Party in France, the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Brazil and the Democratic Socialists of America, organisations with a wide variety of structures and programmes. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this. These are large organisations, involving large numbers of people. These people do not all agree with each other about every issue and do not pretend to.

Why factions are good

Today’s cod-Bolsheviks may respond that this is all very well for reformists, but we revolutionaries require real revolutionary forms of democracy, forms which on closer inspection seem to be peculiarly undemocratic. In this, they agree entirely with Stalin when he argued that “of course, the parties of the Second International, which are fighting against the dictatorship of the proletariat and have no desire to lead the proletarians to power, can afford such liberalism as freedom of factions, for they have no need at all for iron discipline.”[4]

In fact, freedom for minorities to organise is both good and necessary. But it’s important to clarify certain limits to that statement. I am not arguing that a party should have factions for the sake of having factions. I am not arguing that a party should be organised so that factions are institutionalised in a kind of federal form. I am not arguing that factional rights can never be abused. And I am most certainly not arguing that parties should have an open door policy towards politically incompatible groups without a real commitment to a shared project.

What I am arguing is that factional rights firstly provide an invaluable democratic safeguard. And secondly they encourage the clarification and development of political ideas and strategies.

The first part is the more obvious. Political organisations to a greater or lesser degree have discussions and debates that are skewed towards the views of the existing leadership. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, they are after all elected to lead. But it becomes a serious problem when it is difficult or impossible to challenge a leadership’s views or priorities. The norm on the Marxist left is to have very entrenched leaderships with control over an apparatus of full-timers and the flow of information within the group. Even if such a leadership is more scrupulous than most, it holds every advantage in a debate irrespective of the merit of their views.

If you can’t organise with people who share your view, you have no chance whatsoever of changing the party’s course.You can’t bring your disagreement into other branches or regions. You won’t be able to produce documents for circulation at the same rate (and if you somehow do, you will seem like a verbose crank).  When someone counterposes “unity” to factional rights, they are simply declaring that “unity” means accepting the views of the leadership.

The second part is just as important. Living organisations have living disagreements. People outside of sects do not in fact react identically to every new issue or tactical question. Living disagreements become prolonged disagreements when an issue is ongoing or recurring and prolonged disagreements are inevitably factional. This may be suppressed or hidden, but it will still be true. It is much better, much more productive, for those disagreements to be brought out and clarified.

In a sect this doesn’t happen because disagreement is treated as error and diminishes the status of the person who expresses it. In a more relaxed, less sectish, organisation, there may be cultural pressure to be diplomatic and avoid bringing underlying disagreements to the surface. But we should want people who disagree with each other to lay out those disagreements, carefully and respectfully. We should want them to develop their views in cooperation with people who broadly share their attitude and in dialogue with the prevailing views of the leadership or the party more generally.

In the process of doing this, more members can be engaged in the discussion and educated in what’s at stake. Disagreements that are shared in the pub after meetings, or behind the scenes, set up unnecessary hierarchies of knowledge where what you know depends on who you know. If different perspectives are set out collaboratively, the ideas behind the disagreements can be developed. When those views are circulated and engaged with, productive synthesis can sometimes result and if that doesn’t happen, as it often won’t, the process of clarifying disagreement can itself be valuable. 

This doesn’t necessarily require the declaration of a formal factional organisation with its own acronym and platform, although that may sometimes happen. It does absolutely require that factionalism, meaning collaboration and discussion with co-thinkers, whether official or unofficial, is treated as normal rather than something illicit and threatening.

In the various socialist traditions tracing their origins to the Communist International, though, factions and factionalism are considered to be undesirable, even dangerous. They are inherently disruptive to a monolithic unity.  The Communist Parties and the various other Stalinist groupings, Maoists, Hoxhaists and so on, ban them outright. Trotskyists, with their origins in a minority factional struggle, have little choice but to permit factional organisation at least formally. 

That permission though, is grudging in the extreme and usually comes with limitations of a sort designed to undermine the functional purpose of factional organisation: Factions are sometimes banned outside of brief pre-conference discussion periods. Members of dissenting minorities may be required to pretend to agree with the majority in public. In some of the weirder outfits, members may be forbidden from communicating directly with members in other branches except through official party channels. The leadership may be entitled to hold back dissemination of minority arguments to the membership until they produce an accompanying reply, warning the membership against heresy. These kinds of restrictions vary from group to group. But most importantly, and very nearly universally, one simple norm is applied: whatever formal rights may exist, any attempt to actually use them is treated as a declaration that there will be a short term split.

But why does this attitude exist? And how does a milieu full of people who seem blithely assured that transparently undemocratic organisations are in fact the most democratic political organisations on earth continue to persist? As with quite a number of the odder and more self-defeating things about the revolutionary left, the problem begins with the monolithic conception of political organisation developed in the years after the October Revolution.

Another potted history of Bolshevism

I don’t particularly want to give another summary of the history of the Bolsheviks or Bolshevik organisational methods. We don’t live in the Tsarist Empire. All major questions were not answered over a century ago. But the socialist movement has a history. Its ideas, culture and structures do not drop from the sky every few years. They have a definite historical development. There may be no universal key to organisation and strategy to be found by poring over the history of the Bolsheviks, but if you want to understand why much of the socialist left is as it is today it is necessary to look at that history.

The Bolsheviks spent most of their pre-revolution history as a faction of a wider party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). During their years as an organised faction they frequently had their own internal disputes, with various currents and groupings coming into existence and then disappearing, factions within a faction.[5] The émigré Bolshevik organisation was rarely politically homogenous for long, still less was the Bolshevik organisation actually in Russia. In large parts of Russia not only was there no monolithic Bolshevik organisation, speaking in unison with iron discipline, there wasn’t even an entirely clear line between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks and other Social Democratic currents. Internal alignments, factions, came and went, sometimes productively, sometimes less so. This is important not because it was remarkable but precisely because it was considered unremarkable. “Factionalism” wasn’t particularly desirable or a grave evil, it was simply an expected part of radical politics. Sometimes it led to a split, more usually it did not. Only once, in the case of the Vperyod group around Alexander Bogdanov, did it result in the expulsion of the minority.

In the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution, disagreements continued to produce factions dedicated to arguing for changes in policy or direction.[6] The most notable initially was the dispute between the Left Communists and the Bolshevik mainstream over the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Already the stakes were much higher than they had been before socialists held power. In that first dispute, what was at stake was possible re-entry into the Great War. In later disputes, basic questions about the relationship of party to state, party to the working class and the working class to the state were at issue and were to have immediate practical consequences.

A party ruling a state has different needs and suffers different pressures than one aiming at overthrowing a state. And a ruling party presiding over a civil war and consequent devastation had a pressing need to establish some kind of orderly social and economic functioning. The more chaotic or desperate the situation, the more that democratic structures tended to be hollowed out. This happened to the general state structures first. As early as the Fifth Congress of Soviets in 1918, the Bolsheviks had engaged in less than scrupulous electoral practices to prevent the Left Social Revolutionaries and potentially elements of the Bolshevik’s own left wing from voting Russia back into the Great War.[7] Other parties were banned, one by one.[8] As the sole legal party, Bolshevik structures became intermingled with those of the state.

(By the way, don’t believe anyone who thinks that this process was part of a brilliant masterplan to create the one true socialist state form or conversely that it was an evil plot to gather all power into the hands of the new Red Tsars. The Bolsheviks had no real theory of the relationship of the party to a post revolutionary state. Indeed, in Lenin’s State and Revolution, the party is most remarkable for its near absence. They were making it up as they went along, reacting to crisis after crisis.)

By 1921 and the disastrous 10th Party Congress, democracy within the party itself had begun to come under attack. Already, the principle of election of party functionaries had been undermined by a system of “recommendation” which soon became simple appointment.[9] The Congress took place in an atmosphere of particularly intense crisis. The Kronstadt rebellion was in progress. The party leadership had been deeply divided by the controversy over the relationship of trade unions to the revolutionary state. There was an increasing awareness that the new state no longer held majority support among the population. In this context a number of very unwise decisions were made, the most famous of which was the resolution entitled “On Party Unity”, moved by Lenin, which introduced for the first time a ban on factional organisation.[10]

This was aimed at the Workers’ Opposition and the Democratic Centralists and intended as a temporary solution to a specific crisis. No attempt was made to introduce a similar rule for other parties in the Comintern in Lenin’s lifetime. It became permanent however. It was an invaluable weapon in the hands of first the Troika and then Stalin alone. And gradually, over the course of the 1920s it was normalised across the Comintern.

From the Comintern to the dissident Marxists

The ongoing misadventures of the Stalinist parties need not further detain us here. But what is of interest is the attitude of the dissident communists, those who tried to preserve, in however partial, distorted or even fossilised a form, the ideas and worldview of the revolutionary Bolsheviks and the early Comintern in opposition to Stalinism. This means chiefly, although not only, the Trotskyists. The International Left Opposition combined the supporters of Trotsky with those of Zinoviev and Kamenev and some remnants of prior left-wing oppositions. It is the ultimate origin of the overwhelming majority of anti-Stalinist Marxist parties and groups today.

They took with them much of the post-revolution experience of the Communist Parties, both for good and for ill. They too were marked by the experience of the Bolsheviks as a ruling party. Many, perhaps most, of them had been supporters of the Bolshevisation campaign. They could not, given their own factional struggle against Stalinism, ban factional groupings altogether but they had imbibed many of the arguments for an essentially monolithic, homogenous party and took those damaging conceptions with them. And then, locked into a struggle with generally larger Stalinist parties for ownership of the “Leninist” legacy, they found it difficult to step back from the formulations of the early 1920s.

A blizzard of acronyms

Let’s look at the history since.

One of the larger currents on the Marxist left descends originally from the Militant tendency in Britain and the international group it established, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI). Well, I say one of the larger currents, but at this stage three of the larger Trotskyist internationals, a couple of smaller Trotskyist internationals and innumerable other groups are descended from the Militant tendency. It would be easy to insert a joke here about the fissiparous nature of Trotskyism and its splits, but there’s a serious point to be made. Each of the three largest fragments of the old CWI (the ‘refounded’ CWI, International Marxist Tendency and International Socialist Alternative) has claimed to have affiliates in 30 or 40 countries at one time or another. All of these groups nominally allow minorities to organise as factions. In practice, though, over the 47 years since the CWI was founded every attempt to use those rights in any of those affiliates has led to the minority leaving or being excluded within a short period.[11]

One of the other large currents descends originally from the British Socialist Workers’ Party, the International Socialist Tendency (IST). IST groups have generally made less pretence of tolerating factional organisation than the CWI tradition and usually have formal rules allowing them to exist briefly before a congress after which they must dissolve. As a result attempts to use the right to organise have been extremely rare, but when they have happened they have also almost unerringly preceded short-term splits.

The American Socialist Workers’ Party (no relation to the British SWP) is now a sad and very peculiar outfit. But for most of the 20th Century it was one of the most influential groups in the Trotskyist movement. At least going back to the early 1960s, every attempt by a political minority to use the rights laid out in the party statutes led to them leaving or more usually being expelled.

I’m less familiar with the details of the history of the Trotskyist fragments based in Paris or Buenos Aires. But for most of them the story is broadly similar.[12] In recent years alone, the Partido Obrero, one of the large Argentinian groups, split down the middle when its historic leader found himself in a minority and organised a faction. The “Lambertist” version of the Fourth International similarly split down the middle once a factional division emerged in its dominant section in France. The “Morenoite” International Workers League (LIT) has split so many times since its 1980s heyday that I’ve lost track of its splinters entirely. The same is true of the many and various smaller international groupings using this kind of organisational model. The formal right to form a faction is in practice only the right to be treated as the enemy within until you are thrown out or give up and leave.

You could make a glib argument that this is all proof of the damaging nature of factional organisation. After all, haven’t I just demonstrated that in dozens or hundreds of cases a split followed the creation of a faction? That, however, would be wilfully blind. What the creation of a faction signifies in these organisations is that the culture of unanimity has broken down. The post-Comintern democratic centralist group is extremely good at creating and maintaining an artificial unanimity around the views of a permanent leadership. What it can’t do is cope with the breakdown of that unanimity.

And ongoing, overbearing unanimity around all questions, tactical and strategic, becomes poisonous. No leadership is always correct and a leadership which always gets its own way, as traditional sects are structured to ensure, will rapidly become complacent. If there is never any real challenge from below to the views of a leadership, the organisation is in an important sense already dead.

But what about the New Anticapitalist Party?”

Those who oppose a right for minorities to organise sometimes use the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France as an example of the horrors that await if factions are let loose. The NPA was launched in 2009 by the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), the French section of the Fourth International. It was initially successful, reaching nearly 10,000 members, but, according to this version of events, its structure, which allowed a great deal of autonomy to internal currents, saw it gradually paralysed by factionalism. Consequently it entered into a steep decline.

This line of argument ignores the wider political context. The LCR long had a more relaxed and democratic internal regime than its peers among the major European Trotskyist groups. It’s certainly possible to argue that they institutionalised internal factions in an overly bureaucratic way and that toleration of minority organisation doesn’t require the kind of emphasis on tendencies that the LCR sometimes seemed to have. But it is not possible to sustain an argument that the LCR was less effective or less influential than the monolithic revolutionary groups which long sneered at it. For that matter, while the NPA is in difficulty, the main counter-examples of the relative success of monolithic organisation in the Trotskyist movement, the British SWP and the English and Welsh Socialist Party, are also very much diminished.

The NPA has had difficulties because it was launched to fill a political space opened up by the rightward movement of the Parti Socialiste (PS) and the decline of the Communist Party. They did not see Jean-Luc Mélenchon coming and his political vehicles have monopolised that space since his break with the PS. This effectively marginalised the NPA and they have not yet worked out a viable path back to relevance. This simply had nothing to do with them being too democratic or too factionalised.There is one lesson about the dangers of factionalism to be taken from the NPA experience though: they were so confident about their prospects that they threw their doors open, including to groups which had no loyalty to the shared project and treated the party simply as a field of recruitment to their own group. One of these, the Revolutionary Communist Current (CCR), a traditional sect dedicated to building a little clone of one of the Argentinian Trotskyist parties, managed to recruit and became a problem as the NPA shrank. Parties have a right, indeed a responsibility, to defend themselves against cynical entryist operations. A commitment to democracy should not be a commitment to serving yourself up as a sectarian’s lunch. The CCR has since left, complaining that it had been denied rights it itself would never grant.

We can do better than this. Many organisations are already doing better than this. But still in the socialist movement a certain fear of “factionalism” can persist as a hangover from the sectarian culture of the past. We should embrace regular contests of ideas. We should not treat disagreement as a problem and organised disagreement as a threat. This requires a culture which is relaxed about differences of opinion but also serious about exploring them. Behaviours that were seen as dangerous factionalism in parties of the late Comintern type will be part of developing a “strategic hypothesis” in the 21st Century.


[1] See for example ‘The End of the Party Line’ in Rupture issue 1.

[2] ‘The Origins of the Slate System’ Rupture issue 1

[3] Notable counterexamples include the Dutch Socialist Party and the Belgian Workers’ Party, both of which evolved from small Maoist parties.

[4] Foundations of Leninism, Stalin

[5] As R.V. Daniels put it in The Conscience of the Revolution, “the Bolshevik faction was continuously beset by left-right factional controversies”, p.13

[6] “Throughout the year 1917, the Bolshevik Party never looked like a monolithic party… At every level of the hierarchy, including the Central Committee, tendencies clashed in decisive debates” Liebman, Marcel Leninism Under Lenin, p.149

[7] See Rabinowich, Alexander The Bolsheviks in Power Chapter 11

[8] Even this was haphazard and unplanned. The Mensheviks were unbanned in November 1919, only to be banned again later. Liebman, p.249

[9] The 9th Party Conference in 1920 passed a resolution seeking to reverse this process to no effect.


[11] I am aware of exactly one exception to this rule.

[12] The major exception is the Fourth International (“USEC” or “Mandelite” version), which has developed a capacity to deal with disagreement without automatically splitting.

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