As a follow-on to this question, I ask the question in the Subject line.

It seems more visible in tiny 1950s-1970s Socialist and Marxist factions (satirized in the conflict between the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front), which were constantly fracturing into even tinier groups, each with "pure" doctrine, and then fading away.

As I write the question, it comes to mind that strict/fundamentalist Protestant Christian denominations seem to also have this problem, though they don't fade away.

EDIT: certainly research exists on this topic? Thus, it's not an opinion-based question.

(If Sociology.SE existed, I'd ask there.)

  • 6
    I think the radicals are so intolerant, because they are radicals. There is a seed for a good question here, but it needs to be formulated in clearer terms. Perhaps, make it specifically about Socialists/Marxists, and ask why this movements has split into so many small fractions, whether it is typical for all movements or has to do with the nuances of ideology (which might have parallels in protestantism.) Jun 1 at 14:57
  • 17
    @RogerVadim if I make it specifically about Socialists/Marxists, how many "the Right does it too!" comments (and concomitant down votes) will I get?
    – RonJohn
    Jun 1 at 15:15
  • 3
    that's what I am saying, we need a sociology SE Jun 1 at 16:42
  • 4
    I think politics.stackexchange is quickly gaining notoriety as the new Yahoo answers, these weird hyper-opinionated questions are fueling that conception
    – Andy Ray
    Jun 2 at 5:27
  • 2
    @RonJohn What makes you think "centrists" are any less radical or that "centrism" is a consistent ideology and not just a snapshot of where a particular political opinion is now on the overton window.
    – haxor789
    Jun 2 at 10:28

8 Answers 8


Without overstating the obvious, a doctrine is a set of rules, understandings, and assertions that members of a particular group are expected to believe and follow. In normal contexts this is a matter of conviction: members of the group express devotion to demonstrate that they believe and follow the doctrine, or to convince others that the doctrine is worthy of being believed and followed. This is usually polite, civilized, and a matter or mutual respect; members of the group want to convince other members to show more devotion, or to attract outsiders to join, and want people to embrace the doctrine willingly.

A radical is by definition someone with an extreme interpretation of a doctrine. The largest danger to any extreme interpretation is (re)normalization: a kind of regression to the mean that pulls members back towards more mainstream understandings of doctrine. Extremists must hold themselves strictly separate from mainstream views because an extremist's ultimate goal is to drag the mainstream to the extreme viewpoint; they cannot allow the mainstream to drag them back. And so extremists inevitably become harsh and rigid, policing their members for any vestige of mainstream ideation and condemning outsiders for every minor doctrinal difference.

  • 2
    As an exception maybe, the Syriza/Anel government in Greece in 2015, i.e. a coalition of radical left and radical right as alternative to mainstream centre. They don't really fit into this framework. Jun 1 at 20:37
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    @Trilarion interesting. How long did that government last? Were both radical parties on the "authoritarian half" of the political compass?
    – RonJohn
    Jun 1 at 22:19
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    @RonJohn Search for Alexis Tsipras, the then prime minister of Greece, and continue from there. The cabinet lasted 4 years. And yes, I would both parties map to the authoritarian half. Greek voters at this time were feed up with mainstream and wanted change. Jun 2 at 6:31
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    "Our biggest risk is not fading into inexistence, but becoming mainstream and losing our character" is almost literally a quote I heard from someone discussing the future of a certain association I was active in a while ago.
    – gerrit
    Jun 2 at 6:49
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    @Trilarion: I don't know much about Greek politics, but I do know that politics — particularly parliamentary politics — makes strange bedfellows. I mean, I could talk about Reagan conservatism as a 'big tent' coalition between groups that had no common interests except a generic distaste for the various Rights movements of '60s and 70s, but then I'd have to say that Reagan conservatism became a dedicated anti-liberal faction in the '90s/'00s. That's a qualitative difference, not a matter of degree Jun 2 at 14:14

Let first just assume that there is some core variation in people's willingness to compromise.

To take the example of 1950-1970s Western European Marxist splinter parties for illustration, we can observe that they have no political relevance (except maybe as a Boogie man). They are thus not very attractive to those willing to compromise - they'd probably go with the Social Democrats instead, even if they'd prefer a more left-wing government, realistically they can achieve much more as a left-wing member of a social democrat party than in a Marxist splinter party. Thus, the guys in the Marxist splinter parties already have chosen to value ideological purity over political pragmatism. It thus not surprising that they do it again.

As a secondary effect, different political orientations differ in what methods they offer to handle dissent. Liberal ideology values dissent (to some extend), and can thus put a positive spin on internal conflicts. Rightwing authoritarianism puts loyalty to The Leader above theoretical political discourse. Thus, as long as it is clear who The Leader is, dissent is suppressed. Illiberal marxists tend to begin with the assumption that theoretical analysis has revealed The One Path To The Greater Good, and that makes handling dissent difficult.

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    I'd also add that Marxism seems to engender all sorts of internal debate and minutia about what The Great Man said and meant, with all sorts of "scientific" aspirations. Contrast that with Nazism which seems a much more basic PoV: "we hate foreigners, we hate Jews, we can all agree on that, the rest don't matter much". So I don't know, but I am no expert, if all radicals have this characteristic. Islam-inspired terrorist movements do apparently veer a bit towards it (Al-Qaeda vs Taliban), probably due to the rich background of religious doctrine to pontificate about. Jun 1 at 17:21
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica But the far-right also splinter. In The Netherlands, there were four far-right/right wing populist parties at the last federal elections. Where to side in the Israel-Palestine conflict (or the Russia-Ukraine war) is one of those point over which far right parties split (these days hating on Muslims or Arabs is more popular than hating on Jews, which is why some far-right parties are pro-Israel, whereas more classic neo-nazis are pro-Palestinian).
    – gerrit
    Jun 2 at 6:51
  • 1
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica the "night of the long knives" seems to contradict a characterization of Nazism as "the rest don't matter much"
    – timeskull
    Jun 2 at 14:27
  • @timeskull Possibly, but not necessarily. Long knives (34) was not about doctrinal subtlety, it was a raw power struggle and political necessity: Rohm was charismatic, and was emphasizing Arbeiter bit in NAZI too much. Most problematically, he wanted the SA to become a proper military and Hitler thought the Wehrmacht (in 34, before its latter castration) would not allow that (his takeaway from 23 fail was that you had to have the army on board). So it wasn't really any slight doctrinal deviation, mostly power politics. Comment about multiple Dutch parties seems more relevant. Jun 5 at 5:25
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Hitler + Rohm had doctrinal differences that were slight enough to ignore while their common enemies were powerful, then suddenly became large enough to kill over when the balance of power shifted. So the same ideology tolerates doctrinal differences to totally different extents based on material conditions at the time. I'm saying that contradicts the general argument that particular ideologies have significant differences in their tolerance for dissent; the different conditions are more than enough to explain observed differences
    – timeskull
    Jun 5 at 15:52

Because these deviations aren't slight to them.

"Radical" comes from the Latin word "radix" meaning root and usually refers to groups or individuals who consider themselves to have figured out the root cause of a problem and are now trying to solve that rather than proceeding to bother with the symptoms.

So a positive picture of that would be a small boat with a leak and someone closing it with a plug rather than using buckets to remove the water flowing in. A more negative example would be Nazis who'd see a minority as the root cause of all evil and would thus take measures to remove them from the country or from life, rather than to search for means to mitigate or solve the problems differently or at all (most often they are wrong with that anyway).

So there can be quite a difference between radicals and it's rather important what problem they see, what they consider the root and what means they want to take to solve it.

Also as a consequence of that left-wingers are far more likely to self-describe as radicals as they often consider that a positive thing ("Look I've figured it out") and their problems are usually in institutions and structures rather than people, which is usually more palatable, at least in theoretical discourse. While for right wingers it's often enough a minority that is considered the individual culprit, Jews, black people, foreigners, women, young people, progressives, lazy people, entitled people, ... and where discrimination, deportation, coercion or murder are usually "solutions" that are far less palatable and often enough actually illegal. So as a consequence of that they usually try to avoid the "radical" label with a stick, but rather like to present themselves as "centrists" and "mainstream" even if none of their ideas is or should be centrist.

Now the consequence of being radical is usually that you have a clear conception of goals and means to reach these goals, while everything else is either outright bullshit, irrelevant and a waste of time or even counter-productive. Now chances are radicals are less open for result-open-discussions and more in favor of making and negotiating practical demands and often times not even that keen on making compromises as not solving the problem is at least prolonging the problem.

And another rather important factor is the objective or subjective significance of the problem, so while you can technically work yourself up over everything. It's also possible that the subject matter is of major importance or maybe even actually leaves you with no other alternative. Idk if the current course of actions leads to your death or that of a person close to you than change becomes imperative and you get radicalized by the circumstances, though in that case you'd only be radical against something but have a plurality of options to be for something.

So if you then join forces with other people who are against that thing, it can happen that you are against it for VERY different reasons and have VERY different conceptions of what a good alternative would look like or what suitable means would be to achieve that. So despite superficially being on the same side of that issue you very much aren't.

Like idk if you have a corrupt democracy and the opposition is split on being against the "CORRUPT democracy" and being against the "corrupt DEMOCRACY" you might have the same all-caps slogan "STOP CORRUPT DEMOCRACY" but a VERY different implication.

Also for completions sake, given that the media is mostly bothered with the loudest and most disruptive actions, there's a good chance that "radical" is often only used in the context of violent and aggressive actions rather than those that are laser focused and less willing to compromise, also depending on the subject matter there's a good chance of a correlation.

And it's also different from extremism which just means that a group or individual is on the outside/edge and not "center/mainstream". It's possible to be outside of the mainstream because you're radical, but it could also be that you're radical but still in the mainstream or that you're an outsider but not because of radical ideas and as a consequence not all outsiders are alike so using it as a group rather than as a description of a group is often used for fallacious comparisons.


If there is a political organization, somebody has to foot its bills. People are really bad at doing full time jobs for free, and when they volunteer, they tend to have large areas of work not covered and then it falls apart.

So if you see a radical political group, you should assume somebody is paying its bills. These are likely to be: a) Foreign powers, b) Local capital owners, and c) Domestic secret services.

So the difference in doctrine may turn up to be not the reason for intolerance but its result. Secret services would almost always like to split radical movements into smaller, manageable chunks, while foreign powers are plural with conflicting interests.

So I would, personally, seek the source of socialist/marxist factionalism in the spoiling of relations between USSR and China - which also gave host countries' secret services much easier time containing those movements.

  • 2
    Challenge: The leftist scene in West-Berlin of the seventies and eighties was well-known to be partially financed by the East German SED party. After the fall of their regime, their favored groups disappeared very quickly. But overall, the number of splinter groups did not diminish. Groups with "communist" in their title were supplanted with groups calling themselves "Antifa", but the grounds for dissent remained the same: autonomists vs cadre-oriented, anti-imperialists vs anti-authoritarians, reformists vs revolutionaries,....
    – ccprog
    Jun 2 at 0:38
  • Perhaps they all now fell in the hands of Secret Services who decided to keep them from reaching critical mass.
    – alamar
    Jun 2 at 7:37
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    A related issue is that many organizations are funded by people whose real objectives differ from the organizations' stated objectives. If e.g. a group that is funded by Acme Fiberglass Company pushes for a government program to subsidize installation of fiberglass insulation, and someone in the group suggests that it would be more cost-effective to subsidize blown cellulose, the funder would want to criticize the alternative as offering inferior energy savings, even if the differences in energy savings were trivial and the real problem was the lack of revenue the program would give AFC.
    – supercat
    Jun 2 at 16:47
  • That would not explain the Trotsky split which predated China-USSR. Jun 6 at 16:57
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Trotsky wanted that Trotsky becomes supreme leader and Stalin wanted that Stalin becomes one. Does not require talking about doctrine at all.
    – alamar
    Jun 6 at 18:38

Differences in doctrine often aren't all that slight. They look minor to an outsider, but that's because the outsider is only seeing the similarities.

A Communist party might split up because one faction believes in giving up power if they ever lose an election, and the other faction seems like they would prefer to have a Stalinist dictatorship. Or one faction believes in large collectivised farms and the other faction believes in giving the people the land and letting them do what they want. If the party ever took power these differences wouldn't be trivial - they could lead to civil war or famine. Millions might die.

It could also be argued that these differences don't really matter because the party is so small it's highly unlikely they will ever achieve power. But if the members cared about that, they wouldn't be part of a small party in the first place.


The answer is not political but psychological and sociological. What we call politically "radical" is not really radical in the sense of the word, which would mean to tackle problems at their root cause; it is rather extreme. These extreme positions (at least the orthodox variations on the extreme ends of the political spectrum) are simply wrong. The premises are wrong and the proposed solutions wouldn't work.

The main function of these world views, int their extreme manifestations, is usually not political. They typically don't play a role in the political process.1 Their main functions are psychological in the sense that they are delusional belief systems, much like religions, and sociological because they provide a group identity, much like fashion or language. All of these are equally sensitive to deviations which outsiders find laughably irrelevant.

The doctrine is a litmus test for belonging which then fails. In that they resemble the dogmas of Christian denominations or the color of shoe laces in Doc Martens.

1The exception is when in times of upheaval, chaos and loss of orientation so many people are susceptible to delusions that the movements can gain a significant followership, as was the case in the decades before and after 1900.

  • they are delusional belief systems, much like religions, now substitute that with amoral, just like atheists, as part of another question or answer. Would you find that appropriate, unless it was central to the argument? Can we keep the tone down a bit on religion/atheism? It's annoying in both cases. Jun 5 at 5:43

I think part of the answer to this lies in who is adjudged to be a radical in the first place.

People with relatively fixed or fundamentalist views tend to be socially remarkable, especially if expressions of those views are backed by some emotional force.

The most prominent characters of all are those whose views are fixed and forceful, but also regarded as simplistic or contradictory and unresponsive to what seem like fair criticisms.

So the reason why radicals are intolerant to deviation is primarily because "radical" is the word for those people in the first place.

People with fixed and forceful views which seem free of contradiction, tend to be considered somewhat less radical (even if what they propose is ultimately a significant departure from the status quo). Think Nelson Mandela.

Fixed and contradictory views are not unique to radicals - they are actually prevalent amongst all - but those with conservative politics might have fewer occasions on which to fulminate about politics, or will express more everyday confusions and nonsense that are less remarkable and memorable after the fact.

The deeper question of why people hold fixed and contradictory views at all, is simply because ideological work and understanding is difficult, and varying talents attempt it with varying success.

When you have minor parties like the PFJ and the JPF at war with one another, it may be more an expression of the egos of those involved (i.e. too many chiefs and not enough indians), their preference for engaging in ideological haggling as opposed to performing the role of popular leadership, or simply their absence of competence as popular leaders.

Perhaps, those most likely to set up a small party, are those in the first place who have the least collegiate personalities or desire to get on with others.

For certain kinds of right-wingers it might be unsurprising to find them leading small undesirable groups, but on the left there is often a contradiction between this status and ideological claims to represent the masses.

It's certainly not unusual to find right-wingers who laud individuality yet excel at collective action in practice, whilst finding left-wingers who laud collective action yet struggle to organise or operate in collectives.

  • The paragraph about egos and haggling is quite interesting.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 2 at 14:29

Extremist groups, whether political, religious, racial, etc. bear a resemblance to cults. While mainstream players use discourse as a rational tool for achieving some kind of consensus, or at least compromise, extremist groups are smaller and more needing of strong cohesion. This is generally accomplished by putting on a front of normalcy at first, and then testing possible recruits with successively less accepted elements of doctrine--Scientology pulls you in with the seemingly reasonable theory that past trauma may be limiting you in your current life, and offers to help you improve yourself. Do what they say to reduce your stress, and in a couple years you're buying into an origin story that involves an evil galactic emperor casting the souls of his political enemies into Mount Doom.

These less-accepted elements of doctrine, rather than being evaluated as bizarre, are instead leveraged to isolate the candidate from mainstream society. Out there, talk about any of these ideas and you're dismissed as a crackpot. In here, we agree that all these things are undeniably true, and you're one of the chosen few who can see the truth through the distortion provided by the ignorant (and inferior) masses. Here, you're an exceptional and virtuous teller of truth; there, you're a lunatic ranting on the sidewalk. The candidate thus becomes drawn to the comfort of the group, and avoids the interaction with the general public, who may attempt to talk some sense into them.

Therefore, the strict adherence to doctrine, and particularly to doctrine which is unsustainable in any rational light, is a tool to maintain the cohesiveness of the group instead of the irrational ignorance that it appears to be to those outside the group. Rather than being an embarrassing error, it's the glue holding the group together. Of course, the most successful narratives identify specific other individuals and groups as enemies or agents of evil, which are interchangeable concepts in most of these cases.

  • Interesting description though not necessarily geared towards radicals, but rather to cults. And while radicals can form cults you can also form cults without being radicals. Also you're implying but missing to name the reason for massive conflict over minor deviations. Which in case of cults would be: power struggles. Like if the acolyte is not just able to repeat the bullshit, but gives vibes of understanding and building upon it, they either rank up to priests or must be scolded for being wrong, otherwise they attract their own followers and gain control of the cult.
    – haxor789
    Jun 7 at 12:41

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