Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi

Factionalism at the centre, confusion in the branches

A political organization may seem to the outside observer to be convulsed by factional differences, and yet many of its rank-and-file members can remain essentially unaware of them—even to the point of not being quite sure which faction is which or what the disputed questions are. These different perceptions stem at least in part from the fact that the outside observer’s impressions are probably mostly based on news from the centre (conferences, official and unofficial publications, documents written by leaders of the various factions, etc.), whereas the rank-and-filer knows the organization primarily through the activities of a local branch. And it is almost a universal rule (in democratic organizations with local branches) that factionalism, however clear-cut it may be at the centre, is blurred and uncertain in the branches. Even when the local rank and file do have a sense of the (to avoid controversy, let’s call them:) Guelphs and Ghibellines and of their contrasting views—which is only very likely if the organization is small enough that all its members know one another personally or large enough that its troubles are national news,—the branches will hardly ever be as sharply divided as the situation at the centre might lead us to expect.

This is not at all because the rank-and-file are devoted partisans of unity, frustrated by the infighting of their leaders. After all, the centre and the branches are to a great extent the same people. A delegate conference can be a Guelph/Ghibelline knife fight—and, immediately afterwards, the branches that elected those same delegates can continue placidly leafletting and campaigning as though the faction wars had never been. The Ghibelline delegate whose satirical thrusts against Guelphist deviationism drew anger and applause at conference is out the next weekend doorknocking or paper-selling or stewarding alongside the Guelph branch chair, and all is perfectly amicable between them. Some members may even agree in principle that majority-Guelph branches ought to eject notorious Ghibellines from positions of trust as representatives of the organization—but they are quite likely to make exceptions for their own particular Ghibellines, whom they have come to know and respect.

This aspect of organizational life is not difficult to explain. The factions are likely to differ mostly on questions of general strategy and policy, which may have little bearing on the issues that are regularly debated at branch level (stall in the High Street or stall outside the factory, full-colour leaflets or spend the money on a small ad, running order of speakers at the next public meeting, do we need a new branch banner, etc., etc.). And members of the branch know one another; they are used to working together; even if they are not especially friendly, they have at least found ways of tolerating one another. (If not, some would have dropped out or walked out.) Members who have made friends in the organization, meanwhile, are not likely to have made them on purely factional lines. The branch may well have its own divisions and even its own micro-factions: but, however bitter things get, it will still not be easy to translate these local wrangles into straightforward support for the Guelph or Ghibelline platform. Finally, a typical branch will have a certain number of members whose political horizon is purely local. Active, engaged, and even passionate as they may be about branch affairs, these members will resist any attempt to involve them or even to interest them in whatever is happening at the centre. The same can be said of members who only engage in the organization socially, without taking an active role even in local politics.

All these factors tend to disrupt the formation of clear Guelph and Ghibelline factions in the branches. None of them, however, is effective at a conference, national delegate meeting, etc. The ‘pure localists’ and merely social members are most unlikely to seek election as delegates: in the nature of things, delegates will probably be drawn from among those members whose interest in central decisions is comparatively strong. And, at the conference itself, they will be surrounded by people they hardly know: their main source of information about other delegates, apart from factional gossip, is how they speak and how they vote on precisely the controversial questions where the factions are most starkly defined. It is thus natural for delegates to see one another as Guelphs or Ghibellines, and nothing but.

(In referring to conferences, I do not mean to adopt a Guelph or indeed a Ghibelline position with regard to any current organization where the question of delegate conferences versus other structures may happen to be an issue of factional contention: very much the same would be true of national as opposed to branch debates, whatever the detailed mechanisms.)

There will also, of course, be a minority of the membership whose activities take place predominantly at the centre rather than in a branch: members of executive committees and other central bodies, workers for the organization’s press, members who hold positions at national level in parliament, a trade union, etc., ‘party theoreticians’, and so forth. The leaders of the various factions are likely to be drawn from this group, and, if not, will be assimilated to it. It is among these people, for whom the questions at issue between the factions are the stuff of their regular political work, that factional differences are especially marked—and these are also the people whose opinions and actions are the most visible outside the ranks of the organization.

Thus, the observed state of affairs is the one we ought to expect: factional differences are clear-cut at the centre, but confused in the branches. An observer who judges from the intensity of factionalism at the centre that the same must be true at local level too is likely to be mistaken. There are, finally, some corollaries relating to the likely course of events if the differences become so irreconcilable that one faction breaks away or is expelled; but those points will be more properly dealt with in the section of The Modern Discorsi dealing with splits.

Monday, 13 February 2017