Commentary Magazine

Party and Faction

To the Editor:

Daniel P. Moynihan [“Party and International Politics,” February] errs in his comments on the American Founders. Senator Moynihan writes: “For all the genius of the framers of the American Constitution, they did not foresee, indeed strove with all their unexampled ingenuity to prevent, the emergence of ‘faction.’ And yet faction there was almost from the outset, and most would agree that faction has had much to do with the stability of the American political system, or at least of its capacity to endure.”

It is certainly true that Madison, Hamilton, et al. strove to prevent the emergence of faction; it is highly questionable whether faction, as they understood that term, has had much to do with the stability of the American system. In Federalist No. 10 Madison defined faction as follows: “By a faction I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority 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 whole” (emphasis added). Would Senator Moynihan accept that as a description of the Democratic party today? Would Madison?

Senator Moynihan might have caught himself if he had remembered Burke’s distinction between party and faction. According to Harvey Mansfield, Jr. (whose work on Burke is cited approvingly by Senator Moynihan in his essay): “. . . Burke is the first partisan of the two-party (or multi-party) system. Of course, not every group is a true party; some are factions. The difference between a party and a faction is that a party has principles, other than common ambition, which serve to make it independent. . . .”

Donald R. Wagner
Carrollton, Georgia



Daniel P. Moynihan writes:

Donald R. Wagner makes a fair and useful point. I would fear, however, that many a group Burke would judge to be a party, Madison would judge to be a faction.

In my article I quite unforgivably failed to acknowledge my debt to Professor Dov Ronen of the Hebrew University, who joined me in a seminar on Ethnicity in Politics which I taught last fall at Harvard. Professor Ronen, an Africanist, is a close student of these matters and greatly contributed to my thinking, such as it was. He would be incapable, I should think, of noticing such an omission, but it is my responsibility to acknowledge it and I do so with appreciation and apology.

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