The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

7. The Initiative, Creativity and Ideas of the Masses

Marxists—going back to Marx and Engels themselves—have always had tremendous respect for the wisdom of the masses, for their creativity and abilities, for the initiative of which they are capable, and for the important ideas they originate. For example, Engels commented in a letter:

You speak of an absence of uniform insight. This exists—but on the part of the intellectuals who stem from the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie and who do not suspect how much they still have to learn from the workers...[1]

Of course it is true that unanimity among the masses on an important current issue is always an illusion, and generally an illusion brought about either by the lack of sufficient investigation or the suppression of contrary views. True mass unanimity is found only on historical matters, questions that have long since been settled. But the main thrust of Engels’ statement above is completely correct—revolutionary intellectuals tend to be ignorant of how much they still have to learn from the workers.

Initiative, creativity, ideas of the masses...—there are several related, but slightly different, attributes here, each of which should be discussed individually.

First, Marx himself and other great Marxist leaders frequently refer to the “historical initiative” of the masses. They mean by this phrase the revolutionary exertion of the masses, the actual taking of history into their own hands. Marx expressed his faith in the historical initiative of the masses in the very first sentence of the “General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association” where he wrote “...the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves...”.[2] And this was no mere pious window-dressing; at one point Marx and Engels threatened to disassociate themselves from the German Social-Democratic Party if that Party changed its perspective on this key question, as Bernstein and other revisionists urged.[3] And indeed, as Lenin remarked, “The historical initiative of the masses was what Marx prized above everything else.”[4] In setting the terms of struggle for the Cultural Revolution Mao expressed the same point of view beautifully:

In the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the only method is for the masses to liberate themselves, and any method of doing things in their stead must not be used. Trust the masses, rely on them and respect their initiative.[5]

But naturally it is not only in the overall historical sense that the masses take the initiative; many smaller steps toward revolution are also initiated by the masses. In fact what is the historical initiative of the masses but an enormous conglomeration of particular revolutionary initiatives? What is a revolution but an enormous conglomeration of individual revolutionary actions carried out more or less in coordination with each other? It stands to reason that if the masses are actually capable of liberating themselves in the overall historical sense they must also be capable of taking all the many small steps which together constitute this larger undertaking. In short, you cannot truly recognize the historical initiative of the masses if you fail to recognize the millions of individual revolutionary initiatives which inevitably arise from the masses in revolutionary times.

Now it is obvious that there are also many non-revolutionary or reformist initiatives from the masses, which tend to predominate during non-revolutionary times. There are even some anti-revolutionary initiatives to contend with. Some people draw false conclusions from these facts, such as that the initiatives of the masses are always suspect and not to be trusted, that mass initiatives are inevitably reformist, that there is no use examining these initiatives in hopes of finding important ones, and so forth. It is also true that right opportunists seize upon the predominance of reformist initiatives from the masses during non-revolutionary times (or in lulls between revolutionary storms) as an argument against revolutionary activity either by the party or by a part of the masses. Lenin spoke to this when he said

The slogan “workers’ independent activity” is again being misused by people who worship the lower forms of activity and ignore the higher forms of really Social-Democratic [communist] independent activity, the really revolutionary initiative of the proletariat itself.[6]

The significance and usefulness of the initiatives of the masses can thus be distorted in either “leftist” or rightist ways, but there is nothing very remarkable about that. After all, what tenet of Marxism is not open to both kinds of opportunist distortions?

The initiatives of the masses form one of the main sources of raw material for the mass line method. And here we must emphasize that it is not so much how the masses themselves initially view their own initiatives, or what significance (if any) they ascribe to their actions. What really counts is the objective importance these initiatives possess in advancing the revolutionary struggle, and the potential objective significance of future actions of the same sort. This is something that can be best determined by concrete analysis in the light of Marxist theory, i.e. by applying the mass line.

In non-revolutionary times it is generally the case that particular and local initiatives by the masses are not conscious steps in an overall plan, revolutionary or otherwise. It may happen that a particular incident will spontaneously set off some mass activity, as when the attempted firing of a militant worker leads to an immediate walkout, or a police murder of an African-American man leads to a ghetto explosion. The masses who initiate these responses to life under capitalism may view them in different ways—as revolutionary actions, as demands for reform, or in many cases they may not have had a chance to think through the full significance of their initiatives at all. Often different people involved in the very same action will view the significance of that action in vastly different ways. And much of the time it is not until long after an action is over that the various final summations of its significance are made. But the main point for the mass line method is that it is vitally important to study all the initiatives of the masses in the class struggle, regardless of how the masses feel about them at the time, in order to discover the best ways to advance toward revolution.

The Ideas of the Masses Are the Primary Raw Material for the Mass Line

The creativity of the masses in the class struggle is expressed in two main ways: 1) through their novel initiatives and actions, and 2) through their ideas for action. By no means all ideas can be immediately acted on; usually one or more factors is missing—the proper objective conditions, the necessary preparations, the necessary leadership, the right stimulus, and so forth. But that does not mean that these ideas are unimportant. When all factors are in place these ideas can be social dynamite; and conversely even if all factors are in place, in the absence of the right idea nothing happens (or at least nothing positive).

Thus an even bigger source of raw material for the mass line method than studying the initiatives of the masses lies in studying their ideas about how to wage the class struggle. There are a number of important reasons for revolutionaries to be among the masses and to listen attentively to their views, but the potential for applying the mass line method to these ideas and using some of them as the basis for revolutionary action is surely one of the most important of these reasons.

One of the central themes of this essay is that revolutionaries absolutely must pay close attention to the ideas of the masses if they are to successfully lead the revolution. Unfortunately many very sincere and dedicated revolutionaries simply do not understand this. They have come to view the ideas of the masses as not only different from their own but as antagonistic to their own, and recognize only the need to change the ideas of the masses—to teach the masses—and not the need to change their own ideas—to learn from the masses. Closely connected with this failure is an undialectical view of the proletarian party and its political line which will be discussed later on (see especially chapters 10 and 31).

I have said that the two main sources of raw material for the mass line method are the ideas of the masses and the initiatives of the masses, and that of these the first is the primary source. But of course even behind any initiative is an implicit idea, the idea that a certain definite sort of action is appropriate in that actual situation and that the action should be organized or executed in certain specific ways, etc. This implicit idea must be made explicit (raised to the level of conscious rational knowledge) before the lessons of that initiative can be generalized and applied in the future. Therefore it is correct to say that it is the ideas of the masses, both their conscious ideas and the ideas implicit in their spontaneous initiatives and actions, which form the raw material for the mass line method of revolutionary leadership.

Some people seem to think that it is some kind of idealism to give such emphasis to people’s ideas instead of, say, to their experiences or social situation. It is perfectly true that ideas are generated precisely through people’s experience and situation, but this in no way changes the fact that it is ideas we are looking for as raw material for the mass line. It is important to know people’s experience and socioeconomic situation in detail as two of the central parts of knowing the overall objective situation, and the objective situation must be known in order to properly evaluate the ideas of the masses. But still it must be insisted that the raw material of the mass line method is the explicit and implicit ideas of the masses and nothing else.

Some revolutionaries do not want to view things this way, however, because they wish to downplay the importance of the ideas of the masses and to overemphasize the significance of the ideas already enshrined in the party line and the role the party in relation to the role of the masses. There is thus a tendency in some quarters to reinterpret the raw material of the mass line as not ideas, but rather the masses’ experience, mood, level of political maturity, and the like. Again, it is not that these things are unimportant, but just that the mass line is also important and the mass line has no place to begin without the raw material of the masses’ ideas.

Can the Masses Develop Communist Ideas?

This brings us to another point, about just what sort of ideas the masses can be expected to spontaneously develop.

In “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin said the masses under capitalism are spontaneously capable of only trade-union consciousness.[7] But if this is true doesn’t it mean that basing our actions on the ideas of the masses will inevitably restrict us to mere trade-union activity and not revolutionary activity? No, it does not.

This criticism of the mass line was raised by some Soviet revisionists, and will be discussed again briefly when we consider their views. (See chapter 36.) But it is especially worth discussing this criticism since not only revisionists but also some members of genuine communist organizations seem to think along these same lines.

Lenin did say that the masses were spontaneously capable of only trade-union, or low-level economic, consciousness; and in this Lenin was completely correct as history has shown over and over again.

There is an interesting discussion by the Sinologist Edward Hammond of what is termed Lenin’s “Kautskyan” formulations in “What Is To Be Done?”.[8] Hammond relates this issue to a fundamental epistemological view of Marxism that “the educator must also be educated”, and that it is wrong to set up part of society as superior to the whole from the point of view of changing society. (See chapter 30 for more on this.) Hammond says that Lenin reflects the strong, old-style materialist dualism of Kautsky, but that “the young revolutionary may be excused for appealing to the then world-famous defender of Marxist ‘orthodoxy.’”

I will only go along with this analysis as far as to admit that Lenin’s (and perhaps Kautsky’s) formulations have been misinterpreted and misused by some Marxists. I believe that my resolution (which follows below) of the apparent contradiction between Lenin’s views in “What Is To Be Done?” and Marxist epistemology championed by not only Marx and Engels, but also by Lenin and Mao (and which forms the theoretical basis for the mass line), is more dialectical, and quite adequate. If Lenin had disagreed with the point of view in Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach, he would have been wrong. But I don’t believe Lenin did disagree with it. He was too much of a dialectician himself.

It is worth noting that in 1939 Trotsky also criticized Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?” on this score, arguing against “the biased nature, and therefore the erroneousness” of the notion that socialist consciousness must be brought to the proletariat from the outside.[9] It is not too surprising that Trotsky, who never mastered dialectics, would take this position.

As I said, Lenin did argue that the masses were spontaneously capable only of trade-union, or low-level economic, consciousness. But if the masses are only capable of such limited conceptions, and if all really useful, higher, revolutionary and communist ideas must come from outside the masses originally, and specifically from the party, then how in the world can we possibly apply the mass line to this limited mass consciousness and learn anything new and useful—and revolutionary—from the masses?

Ah, it is truly fascinating to see how these sorts of puzzles completely perplex those who lack dialectics! Well let’s proceed directly to the solution of this terrible enigma: In speaking of the limited spontaneous ideological capabilities of the masses under capitalism Lenin was obviously speaking of the masses considered as a whole, or in general, or on the average, and in “normal” (non-revolutionary) times. The mass line however does not seek out the average or general consciousness of the masses, but rather the advanced ideas on any given question which are held by various individuals among the masses, or, at most, sections of the masses. As we have seen, if the masses as a whole already completely understood a given situation and knew exactly what to do to advance the revolutionary struggle in that situation, then leadership by the party (either with or without the mass line) would be unnecessary. It is only because the masses as a whole generally do not immediately understand what needs to be done in each new situation, while some among the masses do understand, that the mass line is possible and necessary.

Neither Lenin nor any genuine Marxist ever thought that nobody among the masses ever spontaneously develops any higher idea than that of satisfying immediate economic necessity, or that nobody among the masses ever comes up with good ideas about how to advance the revolution. Quite the contrary! Lenin talks, for example, of advanced workers “who even elaborate independent socialist theories”.[10] It is true that Lenin says “We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without.”[11] But as the context makes clear, Lenin is here speaking not only of significant sections of the workers, but also of Marxism as an elaborated social theory. Lenin would have been extremely angry if anyone had interpreted his remarks to mean that individual workers were never capable of coming up with individual revolutionary and communist ideas.

The main point is that it is not at all inconsistent to say that the masses are capable of tremendous revolutionary creativity and that the masses under capitalism are generally incapable of spontaneously developing revolutionary or communist ideas. Both things are true. The apparent inconsistency results from not noticing that in the first case we are speaking of the generation of revolutionary ideas from among the masses, and in the second case we are speaking of the ideas of the masses in general. The masses do sometimes spontaneously (yes, all on their own!) generate revolutionary and communist ideas, but under capitalism (with its bourgeois ideological tyranny) ordinarily these ideas cannot spontaneously spread to encompass the masses as a whole. There is no big mystery about this.

Another point here: While it is in general true in capitalist society that the masses as a whole, or on average, are not capable of spontaneously generating much in the way of communist ideas, there are times when their general ability in this area is much heightened. When are those times? Precisely during revolutionary situations and upsurges. In fact, in 1905 in the midst of the first attempt at proletarian revolution in Russia, Lenin even wrote that “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic [or what we would now call “Communist”], and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.”[12] The significance of this for the mass line is simply that when the time comes that we really need overtly revolutionary and communist ideas from the masses as input for the mass line method, that is precisely the time when we have the best chance of finding such ideas.

Individual Genius and the Genius of the Masses

Every idea that the masses originate is of course the idea of one or more individuals among the masses. How then can the ideas of the masses be praised in contrast to the ideas of “mere individuals”? This is another example of the little dialectical puzzles which abound in the theory of the mass line. The same puzzle may be raised with the question of the genius of the masses versus individual genius, and I propose to discuss it in these terms since I happen to have come across some nice quotations couched in this terminology.

What is genius anyway? It is a concept that needs to be demystified and brought back down to earth. Genius is the “exceptional natural capacity for creative and original conceptions”.[13] William James remarked that “Genius means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.”[14] So in other words, to be a genius is to possess an ability which all normal human beings possess, but to possess it to an exceptional degree. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) expressed this in a striking way when he said that “Everyone is a genius at least once a year; a real genius has his original ideas closer together.”[15] It is quite possible that a genius will have 10 or 100 times as many creative ideas as the average person among the masses but when you add up all the creative ideas which come from the masses in their millions you will far surpass even the most brilliant individual.

Mao expressed this in his characteristically poetic way by quoting the Chinese saying that “Three cobblers with their wits combined equal Chukeh Liang the master mind.”[16]

Thus the genius of the masses far surpasses the genius of any individual or group of individuals (even the proletarian party!). While it is true that the ideas of the masses are also ideas of many individuals, it is when all these individual ideas are considered together that they take on their phenomenal brilliance in contrast to the ideas of any single person no matter how talented. The whole far outshines any of its parts.

But the objection might be raised: “All it took was one Einstein to outshine all your masses in their millions. Even a billion factory workers could not have come up with the general theory of relativity.” To this objection a couple of things should be said in reply. First of all, in the bourgeois world of the present day the workers, with very few exceptions, do not have the time, nor training, nor inclination to consider questions of theoretical physics. Such specialized areas of inquiry will naturally be advanced primarily by the relatively small number of scientists and technical workers who are able to apply themselves to such subjects. However, when it comes to questions of revolutionary class struggle the masses must necessarily play an active and conscious role and will inevitably give the whole matter considerable thought. This also goes for production and every other kind of endeavor which involves the masses.

Second, bourgeois ideologists have greatly exaggerated how isolated and independent famous scientists are from their co-workers and from the ideas and theories being suggested and groped for all around them. Norbert Wiener expressed one aspect of what I am getting at here when he remarked that “It may well be true that ninety-five per cent of the really original scientific work is being done by less than five per cent of the professional scientists, but the greater part of it would not be done at all if the other ninety-five per cent were not there to help create a high level of scientific opinion.”[17] Undoubtedly there have been individuals like Einstein who have leapfrogged over the prevailing confusion, but the same factors which gave rise to the theory of relativity in Einstein’s brain would have sooner or later done so in the brains of other scientists—even those of lesser abilities if there happened to be no geniuses around. It is indeed no inexplicable phenomenon that scientific discoveries are very often made simultaneously and independently by a number of people.

Regarding correct revolutionary leadership Mao summed it up best:

To be a genius is to be a bit more intelligent. But genius does not depend on one person or a few people. It depends on a party, the party which is the vanguard of the proletariat. Genius is dependent on the mass line, on collective wisdom.[18]

For Mao the issue was very clear: “All wisdom comes from the masses. I have always said that it is intellectuals who are most ignorant. That is the heart of the matter.”[19]


[1] Engels, “Letter to Otto Von Boenigk” (Aug. 21, 1890), MESW 3:486.

[2] Marx, MESW 2:19.

[3] Marx & Engels, “‘Circular Letter’” (Sept. 1879), MESW 3:89-94.

[4] Lenin, “Preface to the Russian Translation of Karl Marx’s Letters to Dr. Kugelmann” (Feb. 5, 1907), LCW 12:109.

[5] “Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, in K. H. Fan, ed., The Chinese Cultural Revolution: Selected Documents (NY: Grove Press, 1968), p. 165.

[6] Lenin, “New Tasks and New Forces” (March 8, 1905), LCW 8:212.

[7] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:375. In this section of his essay Lenin reviews the strikes of Russian workers in the decades before he was writing, and continues:

Taken by themselves, these strikes were simply trade union struggles, not yet Social-Democratic struggles. They marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness....

We have said that there could not have been Social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.

Note that even here Lenin is not saying that workers never develop any communist (or “Social-Democratic”) ideas; only that the working class as a whole only develops its general consciousness to the level of trade unionism unless it receives help from the outside by those versed in the science of revolutionary Marxism. He is talking about the proletariat as a class, not about individual workers.

[8] Edward Hammond, “Marxism and the Mass Line”, Modern China, Vol. 4, #1, Jan. 1978, pp. 17-21.

[9] Trotsky, quoted in Michael Löwy, “Learning From Lenin”, Monthly Review, Jan. 1991, p. 56.

[10] Lenin, “A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy” (1899), LCW 4:280. Lenin added here: “Every viable working-class movement has brought to the fore such working-class leaders, its own Proudhons, Vaillants, Weitlings, and Bebels.”

[11] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:375.

[12] Lenin, “The Reorganization of the Party” (Nov. 1905), LCW 10:32.

[13] American College Dictionary (NY: Random House, 1964).

[14] Quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter’s Quotations (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 212.

[15] Ibid., p. 211.

[16] Mao, “Get Organized!” (Nov. 29, 1943), SR, p. 301. An editor’s footnote there explains that “Chukeh Liang was a statesman and strategist in the period of the Three Kingdoms (221-265), who became a symbol of resourcefulness and wisdom in Chinese folklore”.

[17] Norbert Wiener, I Am A Mathematician (Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 1956), p. 360.]

[18] Mao, “Summary of Chairman Mao’s Talks [on the Lin Piao Affair] With Responsible Comrades at Various Places During his Provincial Tour” (Aug.-Sept. 1971), Chairman Mao Talks to the People, p. 293.

[19] Mao, “Beat Back the Attacks of the Bourgeois Rightists” (July 9, 1957), SW 5:468.

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