“It Is True That Some Divisions Are Harmful to Republics and Some Are Helpful”: On Factions, Parties, and the History of a Controversial Distinction

Partisanship, it is often said, involves efforts to harness political power not for the benefit of one social group among several but for that of the polity as a whole, as this benefit is identified through a particular (but not partial) interpretation of the public good. In this sense partisan practices differ from the activity of factions, although for a very long time the two were assimilated to each other. Indeed, although the analysis of partisanship as a practice necessary to the exercise of popular sovereignty is essentially a modern phenomenon, the critique of parties as equivalent to factions and corrupting the public spirit has been with us for much longer.

By introducing the origin of the terms “faction” and “party”, I aim to examine their development and consider two different critiques of partisanship in some salient texts in the history of political thought: a holist and a pluralist one. While both critiques highlight the tendency of partisanship to fragment the public good, they do so for different reasons: a concern with justice in the first case, and a concern with order (or stability) in the second. It is further suggested that the distinction between parties and factions which accompanies the consolidation of the modern state could be seen as one way to respond to these critiques. If parties are explicitly defended as distinct from factions and as essential to the maintenance of the political community, their contribution to the political process need not be seen in tension with either justice or order but as conducive to both. However, while the distinction between factions and parties is normatively promising, that promise, I suggest, can only be maintained if certain constraints, on which critics of partisanship draw attention, are in place.

Advocates of partisanship tend to highlight the importance of principled disagreement, arguing that partisanship requires taking a non-partial approach to the public good and acknowledging the contribution that parts can make to the articulation of a general will. Sceptics respond that the difference between factions and parties merely depends on the background circumstances under which different political groups operate. Indeed, the very term “faction” has circulated always in connection to the abuse of power by a particular group of citizens who is supposed to rule in the name of the whole people but instead uses its strength and position of advantage to advance its own self-interest. Therefore while emphasising different values, both holist and pluralist sceptics of partisanship converge on their critique of the accumulation of power, including wealth and office, and on the analysis of its implications for the relation between different groups. Both place an emphasis on background constraints (prime among them the reduction of such inequalities of power) required for partisanship to become a vehicle for channelling the general will and really distinguish itself from factionalism.

Although the distinction between parties and factions remains normatively promising and appears inextricable from the development of the concept of popular sovereignty, one should acknowledge that the reality of partisanship often fails to live up to this ideal. That is of course no reason for abandoning the defence of partisanship, nor should our attachment to the ideal render us blind to the importance of Machiavelli’s distinction between divisions that harm republics, and divisions that are beneficial to them. Indeed, both pluralistic and holistic critics of partisanship might be right that in the absence of background constraints regulating political conflict, the ideal of active citizenship that is nurtured by partisan practices ends up being undermined rather than cultivated. To establish these constraints, one needs the help of a theory of justice as well as a different conception of the relation between civil society and the state, as many holistic and pluralistic critics of partisanship were right to point out.

Lea Ypi has presented her paper “‘It Is True That Some Divisions Are Harmful to Republics and Some Are Helpful’: On Factions, Parties, and the History of a Controversial Distinction” at the Berlin Colloquium “Rethinking Law in a Global Context: Law‘s Conception of Politics and Political Conceptions of Law”, which was organised by Mattias Kumm at the Law Faculty of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in the summer semester 2015. Access to the draft paper presented at the colloquium is available here. The paper will also appear as chapter 2 in:

The Meaning of Partisanship
by Jonathan White and Lea Ypi
Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2016.

Written by

Lea Ypi is Associate Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department of the London School of Economics and Political Science and Adjunct Associate Professor in Philosophy at the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University in Canberra. She has been a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in the academic year 2014/15. In the summer semester 2015 Lea Ypi was a guest of the Berlin Colloquium "Rethinking Law in a Global Context: Law‘s Conception of Politics and Political Conceptions of Law" which is organised under the auspices of the WZB Center for Global Constitutionalism.
Website at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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