The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

5. Who Are the Masses?

We cannot speak intelligently of the mass line unless we have some idea of who the masses are. You can look up the word ‘masses’ in a dictionary where you will find definitions such as: “the whole people”, “ordinary people”, “the great body of people as contrasted with the upper classes”, “the working classes”, “the proletariat” and “the lower social orders”. But of course these definitions differ somewhat among themselves which merely shows that the word ‘masses’, like most words, is used in various different ways in ordinary speech. However, just as the word ‘mass’ receives a single definite meaning in physics, a meaning which is in fact dependent upon overall physical theory, so in genuine social science—historical materialism—does the word ‘masses’ receive a definite meaning which is dependent upon the overall scientific theory of Marxism.

The Masses are Composed of Classes and Strata

The predominant level of social analysis in Marxist theory is that of social classes which are (approximately) groups of people having a common relationship to the means of production.[1] Thus, not only is society as a whole analyzed in terms of classes, but so are subsections of the population such as the masses. Specifically, Marxism divides all of society into various social classes in accordance with the level of development of the class society in question, and then separates these various classes into two groups: the masses (or, the “people”), and the enemy. The masses are the social classes which represent progress and social development in accordance with the Marxist theory of historical materialism, while the enemy is the class (or classes) whose vested interests lie in the preservation of the given stage of society and who oppose any further social development. It is in the interests of the masses to make revolution, while it is in the interests of the enemy class(es) to oppose revolution.

In capitalist society it is the proletariat which is the most revolutionary class, the staunchest and most resolute, the only class which has nothing to lose and everything to gain by advancing society to socialism and then communism. For this reason it is the proletariat which forms the core of the masses, its central and leading component. Similarly it is the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, which has the most to lose by the destruction of capitalist society and its replacement by communism, and therefore it is the bourgeoisie which forms the core of the enemy camp. All other classes are faced with the choice of adhering to one or the other of these two poles, and generally show ambivalence and vacillation in doing so.

Consequently the masses/enemy dichotomy is not quite so clean as implied above, since in the case of the intermediate classes some sections will belong to the masses and other sections will form part of the enemy camp. In the U.S. for example the large petty-bourgeoisie is split, with some sections and individuals siding (at least potentially) with the proletariat—thus counting as part of the masses—and other sections and individuals siding with the bourgeoisie and thus counting as part of the enemy. Even the proletariat and bourgeoisie themselves have individual traitors and defectors from their ranks to the other side. Nevertheless the overall picture can only be comprehended when the masses are understood in terms of classes and strata (sections of classes), namely, in the U.S. today, the proletariat and its allies from other classes, and when the enemy is understood as the bourgeoisie and its allies from other classes.

‘The masses’ and ‘the enemy’ are therefore strategic concepts. It is irrelevant that the masses, including most of the proletariat, are for long periods unconscious of their revolutionary interests and historical role. What matters is that when the masses do become conscious of these things society will be changed. Thus the conscious revolutionary forces at the present time amount to only a tiny part of the masses; but from a strategic point of view it is nevertheless the broad masses that are the indispensable force which will make the revolution. The masses will be able to make revolution because of their strength of numbers—they comprise the great majority of the population—and because they are the ones who actually make society function, since it is the masses who do all the work, produce all the goods and provide all the services.

The bourgeoisie amounts to only a couple percent of the population, and even adding in its probable allies from the petty-bourgeoisie doesn’t change the fact that the enemy is a tiny minority. (In a mother imperialist country the enemy is a relatively larger percentage of the population than in the “third world”. This is because of the extra riches sucked into the imperialist center from around the world, and the greater success the bourgeoisie has in buying off or otherwise winning over sections of other classes. But even so, the enemy is still a small part of the population. But for a contrasting diachronic view of the situation, see below.) Its rule is maintained through ideological domination on the one hand and through armed force on the other. As Lenin put it, the bourgeoisie rules by means of the priest and the gendarme. But the ultimate armed force—the army—is comprised predominantly of working class soldiers. Thus no matter how solid their rule may appear at any particular time, historically speaking it is extremely precarious. When in a time of severe economic crisis and/or war the bourgeoisie loses its ideological grip on the masses, and a revolutionary party (which has already made some headway among them) steps forward to lead the masses in revolt, their army will split and crumble; insurrection and civil war will defeat the bourgeoisie and their allies and lackeys.

A Diachronic View of the Masses

So far I have been speaking of ‘the masses’ as if it were a concept that remains unchanged through time—at least within a given historical period. This synchronic view of ‘masses’ is in fact its basic meaning, its meaning in the strategic sense already discussed. But the concept ‘masses’ can also be viewed diachronically, as a category which changes through time. This is most obvious when we consider who the masses are in a completely different historical situation than our own—say in slave society in ancient times, or in the period of the New Democratic Revolution in China which Mao led to victory in 1949. In the later case the masses had a different composition (even definition) than in an advanced capitalist country such as the U.S.[2] The main difference there was that the peasantry made up the great bulk of the masses even though the proletariat was still its leading core in the ideological sense.

In the former case, ancient slave society, no proletariat (properly speaking) even existed nor bourgeoisie either. The masses were made up of the slaves and a section of the class of “free men” who formed their allies, while the enemy was the class of aristocratic slave owners together with the other section of “free men” who aspired to the aristocracy or at least feared slave uprisings. (In speaking of the “masses” in ancient society we are of course applying a modern analytical concept which did not exist at that time. Whether there was an analogous concept in Greek or Latin, for example, I don’t know, though I doubt it very much. Slaves were not generally considered as part of the “people” at all.)[3]

Less obvious perhaps is the diachronic use of the category ‘the masses’ within a single historical period. Lenin explains that the concept of ‘masses’

is one that changes in accordance with the changes in the nature of the struggle. At the beginning of the struggle it took only a few thousand genuinely revolutionary workers to warrant talk of the masses.... In the history of our movement, and of our struggle against the Mensheviks, you will find many examples where several thousand workers in a town were enough to give a clearly mass character to the movement.... When the revolution has been sufficiently prepared, the concept ‘masses’ becomes different: several thousand workers no longer constitute the masses.... The concept of ‘masses’ undergoes a change so that it implies the majority, and not simply a majority of the workers alone, but a majority of all the exploited.[4]

(The issue of whether a majority of the masses must invariably be won to the side of the revolution before the seizure of power will be discussed later in the book. Whichever way we finally decide on that issue, it remains true that the strategic concept of the masses includes the great majority of the population even though at any point in the struggle a portion of the masses, and sometimes quite a large portion, will be temporarily siding with the enemy. If that much were not true, the whole class struggle would be over immediately.)

Lenin is arguing in the above quote that it is certainly correct to speak of demonstrations and actions by the masses in the early stages of the revolutionary struggle even though only a few thousand non-party people take part in them. It is correct because the actions of these thousands represent what is arising and developing; because they are the early movement of a small part of the masses which foreshadows the movement of the majority; because it shows that some of the masses have already been won to conscious revolutionary action; and because they are actions which go beyond the activity of the party, a highly organized but handful of people, relatively speaking.

But Lenin is also insisting that strategically the masses can only be viewed as the overwhelming majority of the exploited and that in speaking of revolution by the masses we are speaking of the action of millions not thousands. One can say either: 1) that the word ‘masses’ has two senses—first, a fundamental, strategic sense in which it refers to 90% of the population, and second, a derivative sense in which it refers to a part of this 90% which represents the potential and future of the whole, or 2) that the word ‘masses’ always means this same 90% of the population (in a given historical epoch) and that a phrase such as ‘a demonstration by the masses totaling 3000 people...’ is elliptical for a more precise formulation such as ‘a demonstration by a part of the masses, representing the interests of the masses as a whole, totaling 3000 people...’. I prefer the second formulation, but either way it amounts to the same thing and should not be allowed to lead to the kind of confusion and error which Lenin found necessary to expose and attack.

Class Analysis

In order to make revolution, a much more careful and detailed class analysis must be made than I am attempting here. It is not enough to say, for example, who the masses are in an overall strategic sense. Further analysis must determine which sections of the masses, and even which sections of the proletariat, are most open to revolutionary ideas, and where the proletarian party should concentrate its forces. A start towards such an analysis was made by the Revolutionary Communist Party for the period around 1981.[5] However, since then the RCP has degenerated (as we will discuss later in the book), and in addition over the decades there have been substantial changes in the make up and precise characteristics of the class structure of the United States. For reasons such as these, a good Marxist-Leninist-Maoist class analysis should not be viewed as something that only needs to be done once. Instead, as social conditions change, the question of the appropriate class analysis for a given society needs to be periodically revisited and re-investigated.

One of the essential points to grasp is that in the imperialist countries, and the U.S. in particular, a section of the workers themselves has been “embourgeoised”, granted some major concessions by the bourgeoisie so that they also have something of a stake in the current system. Not only is there a “labor aristocracy”, but large sections of the unionized industrial proletariat and other workers in certain service industries (e.g., computer programmers) are distinctly better off than the lower-level “basic proletarians”. Because the economic situation of these various strata of the workers differs so greatly, their ideology also differs. The basic proletariat, made up of those who truly have nothing to lose but their chains, is of course the most fertile ground for revolutionary ideas—and consequently for the application of the mass line method of revolutionary leadership.

The reason why the bourgeoisie has been able to partially “buy off” a section of the masses is that capitalism has become a world economic system. With the advent of capitalist-imperialism the struggle between the workers and the capitalists has become more international than ever. To a major extent, even a proper class analysis can only be made on a world scale. The masses in the “third world” countries have become more oppressed and exploited partly in order that the imperialists may grant more concessions to their workers in the mother countries and thus keep things more stable at home.

This makes revolution in the imperialist countries more difficult, but it accelerates the development of the objective conditions for revolution in the imperialist-dominated “third world” countries. Increased stability at home means decreased stability in the empire.

All this does not mean, however, that revolution is impossible in the imperialist countries until it has completely triumphed in the third world. For one thing, the imperialists will have to constantly be fighting neo-colonial wars, and the struggle against imperialist war can become a revolutionary issue at home, as it did with the Vietnam War. In addition to this there is still the possibility of an inter-imperialist world war (despite the temporary easing of tensions with the collapse of the Soviet brand of state-capitalism) and major economic collapse. Since about 1970, the economy has been kept afloat by mushrooming debt, on the one hand, and by pushing down large sections of the workers, on the other hand. Neither of these can continue indefinitely without leading to an explosion. It is particularly ironic that the imperialists should have come to the point that they must start taking back the crumbs they have been using to buy off a section of the workers. We have entered a period where the embourgeoised proletariat is beginning to be reproletarianized!

While it is reasonable to expect that revolution in the third world in the immediate future is more probable than revolution in the western imperialist countries, no one can be certain of exactly how events will unfold. It is the duty of revolutionaries everywhere to constantly work for revolution, and try to be ready for the opportunity if it should suddenly materialize.

The Advanced, Intermediate and Backward Masses

The masses, encompassing as they do the greatest part of the population, and diverse classes and strata such as the proletariat, part of the petty-bourgeoisie, and part of the lumpenproletariat, and coming from widely scattered localities, having vast differences in background, experience, education, etc., are bound to show many different levels of political consciousness. As many divisions can be made here as suits your purpose: the advanced and the backward; or the very active, those just beginning to move, and the inactive; and so forth.[6] One could list 10 or 20 levels of consciousness, experience and/or activity if one chose. Generally however it has proven most useful to conceptually divide the masses into three parts: the relatively advanced, the intermediate, and the relatively backward.[7] This can be done either with respect to a specific social question or issue (such as people’s varying attitudes toward the oppression of women) or in general—that is, with respect to their understanding of their overall situation and class interests and their general revolutionary consciousness. Of course the consciousness of individuals and also of the masses as a whole changes with time as a result of their experiences and the ideological class struggle. Likewise, who we consider to be advanced or backward will also change with the situation.

The fact that the masses are never a uniform, homogeneous “mass”[8] has extremely important implications. It explains both why the mass line is possible and why it is necessary. The mass line is possible because among the masses there are individuals with correct ideas about how to move the revolutionary struggle forward in a given situation. The mass line is necessary, because most commonly at first, only a few people hold correct ideas and these ideas must be collected, identified as correct, and then popularized among the masses as a whole before they can be made effective use of.

If the masses were uniformly advanced, the mass line—and leadership in general—would be unnecessary. If the masses were uniformly backward the mass line would be impossible (and so would revolution). The mass line is based on actual reality, neither idealizing the masses nor belittling them. It recognizes their differences both in overall consciousness and with respect to specific ideas about how to advance the revolutionary struggle, and makes use of the advanced ideas of some of the masses to help educate and lead the masses as a whole.

The Masses and the Party

The fundamental division in society is between the masses and the enemy. Looking at things from this overall point of view, the proletarian party is part of the masses. However, as we have seen, the masses are by no means homogeneous, being composed of some more advanced and more active people, some intermediate, and some relatively backward or inactive. The very most advanced and active will organize themselves into a leading body, the proletarian party. This party plays such an important role in the revolutionary process, and its relationship to the rest of the masses is of such a crucial nature, that it is customary to distinguish the two and reserve the term ‘the masses’ for the rest of the “masses” other than the proletarian party.

In other words, in addition to the fundamental dichotomy between the masses and the enemy there is a second dichotomy between the masses and the party. This subsidiary distinction is of course of a completely different character: instead of two irreconcilable, antagonistic poles it is a distinction within a single political pole between the most advanced detachment and the rest, between the leadership and the led.


[1] For Lenin’s more precise definition of ‘class’ see his article “A Great Beginning” (1919), LCW 29:421.

[2] See Mao, “On the Question of the National Bourgeoisie and the Enlightened Gentry” (March 1, 1948), SW 4:207. For an earlier discussion of the social classes in China, listing 13 distinct classes or strata, see his article “Oppose Book Worship”, SR, p. 45.

[3] For an excellent summary of the etymology of the English word ‘masses’ see Raymond Williams, Keywords (NY: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 158-163. See the beginning of chapter 33 of this essay for a portion of his remarks there.

[4] Lenin, “Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the Communist International” (July 21, 1921), LCW 32:475-6.

[5] See especially the following two RCP documents: New Programme and New Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (May 1, 1981), esp. p. 25ff; and Charting the Uncharted Course: Proletarian Revolution in the U.S.! (circa 1981).

[6] See Lenin, “‘Left’-Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:74.

[7] See for example Mao, SW 3:118 and SW 5:445.

[8] The use of the word ‘mass’ here is an example of the negative connotations the word sometimes carries due to the influence of reactionary attitudes towards the people. See Raymond Williams, op. cit., for more on this.

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