The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

6. Have Faith in the Masses

I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the
Do you know that all the great work of the
  world is done through me?

(Carl Sandburg)[1]

One of Mao’s frequent exhortations to the members of the Communist Party of China (back when it really was a communist party) was to “have faith in the masses”. He expressed this in the strongest terms:

Firm faith in the majority of the masses, and first and foremost in the majority of the basic masses, the workers and peasants—this is our fundamental point of departure.[2]

Mao not only expressed this view constantly but consistently demonstrated it in practice over the course of his lifelong revolutionary activity. But what exactly does this phrase “faith in the masses” mean?

‘Faith’ is a word with several ordinary meanings. In religious discourse it generally refers to the acceptance of various points of dogma, such as the existence of God or the authority of the Bible as God’s word, despite the absence of rational reasons for doing so, or even in the face of rational reasons to the contrary. As Martin Luther insisted, “Faith must trample under foot all reason, sense, and understanding”.[3] However in many other contexts ‘faith’ is by no means an irrational concept. If you have a close buddy who has repeatedly come to your aid when you needed help, it makes perfectly good, rational sense to have faith in such a friend. Indeed it would be irrational not to have this kind of faith. It is this rational faith we are speaking of in reference to the masses. As the RCP expressed it (back in 1976 when it claimed to support the idea of the mass line):

The mass line means, first of all, relying on the masses of people in the struggle, or as is sometimes said, “having faith in the masses”. But this is not the same thing as religious “faith”, which amounts to a false “leap” away from rational scientific knowledge to a realm which, by definition, is unknown and unknowable to man—and which, in reality, does not exist. The communist principle of relying on, “having faith” in the masses is the exact opposite of this: it is based on an analysis of the real world as it actually is, materialism; and as it develops through the struggle of opposing forces—and basically through the internal contradictions within things, in nature and society—dialectics.[4]

In what respects is it rational to have faith in the masses? As infallible? As omniscient? As inevitably triumphant in every battle? No, none of these. But we can identify several respects in which communists have fully justified, rational faith in the masses:

1)   We have faith in the masses as the makers of history. The struggles of the masses may be successful or unsuccessful in this or that battle. But history shows that the masses of people have the power to fundamentally change society and that only the masses have this power. It was the power of the masses—under bourgeois leadership to be sure—which destroyed western feudalism and gave rise to capitalism. And the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese Revolution and other 20th century proletarian upsurges demonstrated (even if these advances were later temporarily reversed) that it is the masses—this time under proletarian leadership—who will destroy bourgeois society and institute communism.

2)   We have faith in the ability of the masses to grasp proletarian revolutionary ideas and to organize themselves with the help of communist leadership. We don’t view the masses as “all-knowing” and already possessing all truth. But we have faith that the combination of their experience and our hard work in agitation and education (if we do it correctly) will result in great changes in the ideas and organization of the masses.

3)   And we have faith in the wisdom of the masses, in their ability to create and discover means to advance the class struggle as well as the struggle for production and for scientific knowledge. The masses originate a constant stream of ideas about what to do, some good, some not so good. Communists have faith in the masses as by far the greatest source of the raw material of ideas which, when processed with the aid of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, results in the most rational program of action. The rational basis for this faith is the same as the two previous elements of faith, namely actual real-life experience. The masses have over and over proved they have this wisdom and creative ability whenever revolutionary leaders were themselves wise enough to seek it out and utilize it.

It is of course possible to have various kinds of irrational faith in the masses, which is completely akin to religious faith. Anarchists have faith that the masses can wage victorious struggle without organizing themselves and without the leadership of a proletarian party—despite a wealth of disastrous experience to the contrary. Bourgeois-populists have faith in whatever ideas happen to prevail among the masses at a given time—again despite any number of cases which show that at times the majority can be very badly mistaken.

On the other hand, there are also revolutionaries who lack the rational faith in the masses which they should have. Many terrorists lack faith in the ability of the masses to make revolution and therefore step forward in a vainglorious and foolhardy attempt to make revolution for them. But it is the third element of rational faith mentioned above, faith in the wisdom and ideas of the masses, which is most often lacking among revolutionaries, and which when lacking prevents any real appreciation and application of the mass line method of leadership on their part. Sectarian-dogmatists don’t have faith in the wisdom of the masses, don’t recognize that the masses do have some very important ideas about how to advance the struggle, and are therefore completely unable to discover and make use of those ideas.

Anybody who lacks faith in the wisdom of the masses will never be able to understand, much less use, the mass line.


[1] Carl Sandburg, “I Am the People, the Mob”; quoted in Webster’s Dictionary of Quotations (NY: Smithmark, 1995), p. 312.

[2] Mao, “The Situation in the Summer of 1957” (July 1957), SW 5:474.

[3] Quoted in Laurence J. Peter, ed., Peter’s Quotations (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 180.

[4] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 1.

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