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Political faction is a grouping of like-minded individuals, especially within a political organization, such as a political party, a trade union, or other group. There is no single, widely accepted definition of factions or factionalism, nor broad agreement as to whether factionalism is inherent in certain institutional structures. Huang Jing, for example, favors the institutional explanation whereas Lucian Pye finds factionalism to be an independent variable in relations among leaders and subsequent policy decisions. It may be referred to as a power bloc, interest group or voting bloc.

The individuals within a faction are united in a common goal or set of common goals for the organization they are a part of, not necessarily shared by all of that organization's members. They band together as a way of achieving these goals and advancing their agenda and position within the organization.

A political faction could thus be described as a “party within a party.” However, political 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.

The Latin word factio denoted originally either of the chariot teams that were organized professionally by private companies in ancient Rome. 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 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 used 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 instalment 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.

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 organization may suffer from perceptions of disunity. Taken one step further, if the conflict is particularly severe, it may cause ruptures within the organization that seriously impede its effectiveness, leading to break-up or collapse of the organization.

To avoid harm to the organization, 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 vendetta 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 organization 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 organizational 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.

Examples of modern political factions


Within the Australian Labor Party

Within the Liberal Party of Australia


  • In the former CVP (Flemish Christian democrats; now CD&V), socio-economic interests were known as standen ('social standings', historically also used for feudal estates: nobility, clergy and third), such as the agricultural Boerenbond; similarly in the French-speaking sister party PSC (now CDH, after a merger).


  • In the history of the Republic of China from 1911 until 1949, factionalisation within the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang was a large problem for the central government, especially for Chiang Kai-Shek. Warlord factions which had been persuaded to ally with Chiang during the Northern Expedition had to be constantly pacified, as well as regional military governors who ruled regions that were not directly administrated by Chiang's central government. Often historians conclude that this lack of unity contributed to the defeat of the Nationalists in holding mainland China during the Chinese Civil War.

  • Post-1949, factions in the People’s Republic of Chinamarker had a profound influence on both politics and policies. In the 1950s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Field Armies were sources of factional support for senior party cadres with close ties to individual military units. In the 1960s, Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution drove all conservative factions together, for (often unsuccessful) matters of survival, whereas the radical left split into “redder than thou” factions. The 1970s saw a grand alliance of military, conservative and moderate radical factions overthrow the notorious Gang of Four in a coup d’etat.

United Kingdom

Labour Party

Conservative Party

Liberal Democrats

Respect – The Unity Coalition

Green Party of England and Wales

Scottish Socialist Party

  • The party allows factions to openly organise within its ranks calling them platforms in recognition of these benefits and also in the belief that it is healthier for substantive differences of opinion to be debated openly than to be covertly promoted, undermining the underlying aims of the party.

United States

Within the Democratic Party

Within the Republican Party


  1. Huang Jing, Factionalism in Chinese Communist Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 6.
  2. Pye, Lucian, the Dynamics of Chinese Politics, Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, 1981, pp. 6-8.
  3. Whitson, William and Huang Chen-hsia, The Chinese High Command: A History of Communist Military Politics, ( New York: Praeger, 1973).
  4. Chang, Parris H. Power and Policy in China, (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975).
  5. Dittmer, Lowell. Bases of Power in Chinese Politics: A Theory and an Analysis of the Fall of the 'Gang of Four'," World Politics, XX, No. 4, October 1978, 26-60

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