The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

8. The Masses Too Have Shortcomings

Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong. (Old pop song)1

If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. (Anatole France)2

“Man,” says Marx, “individually and in the mass, is imperfect by nature.”3 It is often argued that Marx opposed the whole idea that there is any such thing as “human nature”, though actually what he opposed was the idea that human nature remains always the same, that it is unaffected by the particular socioeconomic form of society, for example.4 In any case Marx’s comment here is far deeper than a mere observation concerning human nature. The fact is that neither human beings nor anything like human beings (other intelligent beings somewhere in the universe; androids; etc.) could conceivably be “perfect” or infallible. Philosophically it would make no sense. To be the kind of entity which can draw correct conclusions under certain conditions is ipso facto to be the kind of entity which will draw false conclusions under other conditions. (I am speaking here of conclusions about the way the world is and how to change it, but the remark remains true even for strictly logical deductions. Not even the finest computer in existence—or imaginable—is completely free from the possibility of error, although as the mathematician John von Neumann showed, through multiplexing of components or channels (building in redundancy) the probability of error in formal logic can be made as small as you wish. The same is not true in the case of drawing analogies and other common types of intelligent reasoning, however, where there is always some inherent uncertainty and imprecision.)

As Nietzsche remarked, “Error is a condition of life.”5 The masses as a whole are also a fallable entity and the same conclusion applies to them. The poet John Dryden put it very well:

Nor is the people’s judgment always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.6

The Nature of the Masses’ Shortcomings

Both “individually and in the mass” human beings are imperfect... The masses have shortcomings in two senses: first, among them there are the shortcomings of the separate individuals who compose the masses; and second, there are the shortcomings of the masses as a whole, that is, the shortcomings which are very widespread among individuals and therefore can be said to characterize the whole. Of course the shortcomings of one individual may not be the shortcomings of another individual, and the fact that a person has a certain shortcoming generally does not prevent him or her from having a strength in another area. Moreover, even widespread shortcomings are often far from universal; and often all it takes is a single person with a particular strength or idea to spark the advance of the whole mass struggle—providing a mass line mechanism exists to transmit this individual strength to the whole.

What are the shortcomings of the masses? Well in general terms they are just the opposite things from their strengths. The masses have the power to change society, but over long periods such powers can lay dormant. They have the potential for tremendous bursts of enthusiasm and activity—and for periods of false contentment and even fatigue and exhaustion.7 Against their potential for recognizing their genuine, long-term, collective interests is the fact that at times the masses will only recognize partial, short-term or individual interests.8 Contrasting to the wisdom and creative ability that the masses are capable of is the frequent widespread acceptance among the masses of conservative or even reactionary views. From the point of view of the mass line the thing to focus on here is the ideas of the masses. The strength of the masses lies in their creativity and their ability to come up with new ideas. But the major shortcoming of the masses is that they tend to uncritically accept the same old bourgeois ideas that the bourgeoisie has drummed into them since birth.

Yes, the masses do have their shortcomings, and this explains to a large degree why the capitalist system has lasted as long as it has. As Lenin put it:

...we have always known and repeatedly pointed out that the bourgeoisie maintains itself in power not only by force but also by virtue of the lack of class-consciousness and organization, the routinism and downtrodden state of the masses.9

The Source of the Masses’ Shortcomings

They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them for their blindness. (John Milton)10

What is the source of the masses’ shortcomings, of their erroneous views and their moods of apathy, frustration, weariness and despair? The primary source is the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system. (Not only capitalism as such, but small scale commodity production which continually gives rise to capitalism. This is especially pronounced in semi-feudal countries, but is also a significant phenomenon in advanced capitalist countries. Lenin remarked that small commodity producers “surround the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat, and constantly causes among the proletariat relapses into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disunity, individualism, and alternating moods of exaltation and dejection.”11

It is of course true that even in communist society, where the bourgeoisie and other classes no longer exist, there will still be errors and shortcomings in people, both individually and en masse. The factors which will result in such errors and shortcomings at that time—such as subjective thinking based on experience which is too limited—also operate today. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of all mass error today, and especially that which is concerned with the class struggle, has its ultimate source in the bourgeoisie, and even a large part of present-day subjectivism in science and technology is due to them. Even if a minuscule proportion of the masses’ shortcomings, maybe a few percent, cannot at present be reasonably ascribed to the bourgeois system, it is ridiculous to focus on anything else when that system is responsible for such a preponderance of it.

Why is the bourgeoisie responsible for such an overwhelming proportion of the shortcomings of the masses? The answer is that to the bourgeoisie these things are not shortcomings but great virtues to be inculcated almost no matter what the cost. The bourgeoisie fears the masses and knows that it must constantly imbue the masses with distorted and false ideas and pessimistic moods if it is to retain its rule over them. If the masses are apathetic, cynical, frustrated or despairing, so much the better—because they will not then be challenging their rulers.

Better yet, for the bourgeoisie, is when the masses themselves can be persuaded to adopt the basic bourgeois outlook—that the ruling class domination and oppression of the masses is necessary and justified. The bourgeoisie controls the state machinery, practically all the organs of mass communication (newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, etc.), the principal content of mass culture (art, literature, music, movies, etc.), all the educational institutions from prekindergarten to post-graduate university studies, the churches and myriad reactionary organizations of all types, and a million lesser channels of indoctrination. From cradle to grave people are taught to think in bourgeois terms and there is simply no way to escape their barrage of propaganda. All of this cannot fail to have a profound effect upon the thinking of the masses; the only remarkable thing about it all is that no amount of indoctrination will save the bourgeoisie when the masses’ own bitter experience of depression and war (among other lovely features of the capitalist system), together with Marxist agitation, convinces them that their “education” was all one big lie.

We say that the source of erroneous ideas and other shortcomings among the masses is not only the conscious bourgeois propaganda and indoctrination, however, but also other features of the capitalist system. The RCP noted this when they wrote that

there are incorrect ideas which stem from the ideology and propaganda of the bourgeoisie but which also find a basis in the worker’s experience in capitalist society, which forces competition among the workers, maintains a “division of labor”, etc.12

This is why it is most correct to say that the source of the masses’ shortcomings is the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system.

Tailing After the Masses’ Shortcomings

Recognizing then that the masses do have shortcomings, what should we do about them? Join the masses in their errors? Turn a blind eye towards these shortcomings and hope they go away? Soft pedal our contrary views, while trying to subtly edge the masses away from their errors? Or stand on principle opposed to these shortcomings and seriously try to help the masses overcome them? Well, the last option of course. Or should I say “of course”? Not everyone has thought so, even among communists. Sometimes revolutionaries are so afraid of alienating the masses that they do not want to oppose anything the majority believe.

A particularly tough area to deal with is nationalism and patriotism, one of the spheres in which the bourgeoisie has been most successful in indoctrinating the masses in all countries. It often requires some real courage to take a stand against the nationalism of the masses, knowing that it will in fact tend to drive something of a wedge between you and them for awhile. But as Lenin remarks in the following passage, it has got to be done; and as the experience of the Russian Revolution showed, in the long run it will help you unite with the masses.

Comrade Kamenev contraposes to a “party of the masses” a “group of propagandists”. But the “masses” have now succumbed to the craze of “revolutionary” defensism. Is it not more becoming for internationalists at this moment to show that they can resist “mass” intoxication rather than to “wish to remain” with the masses, i.e., to succumb to the general epidemic? Have we not seen how in all the belligerent countries of Europe the chauvinists tried to justify themselves on the grounds that they wished to “remain with the masses”? Must we not be able to remain for a time in the minority against the “mass” intoxication? Is it not the work of the propagandists at the present moment that forms the key point for disentangling the proletarian line from the defensist and petty-bourgeois “mass” intoxication? It was this fusion of the masses, proletarian and non-proletarian, regardless of class differences within the masses, that formed one of the conditions for the defensist epidemic. To speak contemptuously of a “group of propagandists” advocating a proletarian line does not seem to be very becoming.13

As Marxist revolutionaries we know we must unite with the masses to make revolution. This makes it doubly difficult to take a principled stand against beliefs and actions by the masses when they are wrong, knowing full well that it will make it more difficult for us to unite with the masses in the short run. But if we did not do so, if we refrained at any time in holding fast to what is in the real, long term interests of the masses, and doing so regardless of what the masses may think of us at the time for doing so, then we would not be worthy leaders of the masses, and the masses would have no reason for ever turning to our leadership.

(The hard line I am taking here on this question does need to be slightly qualified. Lenin himself had to slightly modify his position, to recognize that the masses who adopted “revolutionary defensist” positions had to be criticized very gently, and distinguished from their misleaders who held hardened opportunist lines. See especially his comments at the Third Congress of the Communist International, in LCW 42:325. While the party must not be afraid of holding to the truth, it must not put the truth forward in a hostile, antagonistic fashion which leads to its alienation from the masses. More on this below.)

The Shortcomings of the Masses Can Be Overcome

While every individual has shortcomings and faults, under the right conditions they can be overcome. The same is true of the masses as a whole.

We must first believe that the shortcomings of the masses can be overcome. Again, this is not a matter of irrational faith; it is simply to recognized that forces exist which can lead the masses to change their mistaken views and pessimistic moods.

We should firmly believe that with appropriate political work the working people can overcome their shortcomings and correct their mistakes. (Mao)14

How can the shortcomings of the masses be overcome? In exactly the same ways as shortcomings of individuals are overcome, namely: through education, and self-education, through criticism and self-criticism, and through the masses own experience. Let us consider each of these a little further.

One of the primary means in which the masses overcome their shortcomings is through the educational efforts of those who have a better understanding, the vanguard section of the masses, the proletarian party. In short, through Marxist political agitation and propaganda. (Agitation and propaganda are of course loaded terms, at least in bourgeois society. For a discussion of how Marxists use these words, see chapter 11.) As Mao said of the Chinese masses:

The political awakening of the people is not easy. It requires much earnest effort on our part to rid their minds of wrong ideas. We should sweep backward ideas from the minds of the Chinese people, just as we sweep our rooms. Dust never vanishes of itself without sweeping. We must carry on extensive propaganda and education among the masses, so that they will understand the real situation and trend in China and have confidence in their own strength.15

At times, the education of the masses should even extend to the point of comradely criticism and the encouragement of self-criticism. Mao said that “the masses too have shortcomings, which should be overcome by criticism and self-criticism within the people’s own ranks...”16 But of course criticism of the masses must be done with gentleness and care.

To criticize the people’s shortcomings is necessary,... but in doing so we must truly take the stand of the people and speak out of whole-hearted eagerness to protect and educate them. To treat comrades like enemies is to go over to the stand of the enemy.17

On another occasion Mao put it this way:

Don’t rail at the masses! In no circumstances must you do so. You mustn’t rail at the worker, peasant and student masses and the majority of the members of the democratic parties and of the intellectuals. You mustn’t set yourselves up against the masses, on the contrary you must always be with them. The masses may make mistakes. When they do, patiently reason things out with them, and if they refuse to listen, then wait for another chance to talk to them. But don’t alienate yourselves from them, just as in swimming you don’t leave the water.18

And again:

The shortcomings of the cadres and the masses as well as our own are to be criticized on the premise that their enthusiasm is protected, and in this way they will have plenty of push. When the masses want something done which is impossible for the time being, matters should be clearly explained to them, and this can certainly be done.19

The party must never be afraid to disagree with the masses, and even to gently criticize the masses, but in its disagreements with them it must always stay close to the masses and strive not to alienate them or become divorced from them.

In addition to the role of education and criticism in overcoming the shortcomings of the masses, there is one more great teacher—the masses’ own experience. Lenin pointed out an example of this in the aftermath of the failed 1905 revolution. Despite its failure, said Lenin, there were also gains; the masses and the Party both learned things and overcame certain shortcomings. Specifically with respect to the masses he said

there is one gain from the first years of the revolution and the first reverses in mass revolutionary struggle about which there can be no doubt. It is the mortal blow struck at the former softness and flabbiness of the masses. The lines of demarcation have become more distinct. The cleavage of classes and parties has taken place. Under the hammer blows of the lessons taught by Stolypin, and with undeviating and consistent agitation by the revolutionary Social-Democrats not only the socialist proletariat but also the democratic masses of the peasantry will inevitably advance from their midst more and more steeled fighters who will be less capable of falling into our historical sin of Tolstoyism!20

One of the most fundamental points of view of Marxism, from the earliest days of its creation, is that the proletariat must not only change society, but also change itself; that, in fact, these are mutually dependent transformations. The proletariat and the masses (including the relatively more advanced sections such as those which make up the vanguard party) must be continually remolded, must remold themselves. Mao put it this way:

In the building of a socialist society, everybody needs remolding—the exploiters and also the working people. Who says it isn’t necessary for the working class? Of course, the remolding of the exploiters is essentially different from that of the working people, and the two must not be confused. The working class remolds the whole of society in class struggle and in the struggle against nature, and in the process it remolds itself. It must ceaselessly learn in the course of work, gradually overcome its shortcomings and never stop doing so.21

I will close this section with a fine, balanced view of the situation which appeared in the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of China when Mao was alive:

Naturally, some shortcomings and mistakes will exist among the workers and peasants. But on the whole, this is not their essential and main aspect. We must not take non-essential and minor aspects for essential and main ones. Otherwise, we will lose our bearings and not only overlook the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses but we may go so far as to complain about and blame the masses and thus impair their revolutionary enthusiasm. Certain shortcomings and mistakes temporarily found among some of the masses must be analyzed from a class viewpoint and in historical perspective. The basic causes of these shortcomings and mistakes are the shackles of the old forces of habit and corrosion by bourgeois ideas. Their immediate causes are the class enemies who engage in agitation and sabotage and sow dissension. Therefore, we must always point our spearhead of attack against the class enemies. As to certain erroneous ideas among the workers and peasants, they must be overcome through the method of persuasion and reasoning.22

What the Masses’ Shortcomings Mean for the Mass Line

Bourgeois ideologists often speak of “public opinion” as if it were uniform; as if it were a single set of views which everyone shared. Actually the views of the masses—“public opinion”—are many and diverse. There is a welter of conflicting views, and the very fact that these views do conflict shows that some of them are erroneous, though of course others are correct and vital. Dialecticians recognize this and draw the conclusion that “public opinion” is subject to analysis and to weighing and sifting. Thus even Hegel, though the quintessential idealist, “described public opinion as containing both truth and falsehood together and added that it was the task of the great man to distinguish the one from the other.”23 Although the Marxist mass line was not directly inspired by Hegel’s views, they may still be considered among the philosophical roots of the mass line since Marxist dialectics has its origin in Hegel’s idealist dialectics. Regarding the concept of the “uniformity of public opinion” Mao summed it up nicely:

In any society and at any time, there are always two kinds of people and views, the advanced and the backward, that exist as opposites struggling with each other, with the advanced views invariably prevailing over the backward ones. [Well, on this point it must be admitted that sometimes, in the short run, the advanced views do not win out over the backward ones. Mao is perhaps speaking here from a broader, historical point of view.—JSH]; it is neither possible nor right to have “uniformity of public opinion.” Society can progress only if what is advanced is given full play and prevails over what is backward.24

It is in no way inconsistent to say both that the masses have shortcomings, individually and as a whole, and to say that they have great strengths. The whole task of the mass line is to bring the strength of the masses to bear, to help them use their strengths to overcome their (and our) shortcomings.

If the masses didn’t possess wisdom, the mass line would be impossible. On the other hand, if the masses didn’t have shortcomings the mass line would be unnecessary. Therefore, far from being a factor which precludes the use of the mass line, the existence of the shortcomings of the masses is what makes the use of the mass line essential.

Populists do not seem to comprehend or fully admit that the masses may sometimes be very much in error, and that to tail after them when they are wrong is to join in with and compound their error. Formal logic has a name for an argument that assumes that the masses are always right: the argumentum ad populum fallacy,25 or the fallacy of “mob appeal” as reactionaries like to characterize it. But it is our dialectical perspective that best shows both the wisdom of the masses and the shortcomings of the masses and the importance of disentangling the two.


1   This song was written by Tin Pan Alley writer Fred Fisher, who also wrote “Peg O’My Heart” and “Your Feet’s Too Big”.

2   Anatole France, quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter’s Quotations (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 193.

3   Marx, “Proceedings of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly” (May 10, 1842), MECW 1:153.

4   Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, ch. XXIV, sect. 5, footnote. (Page 609 in the International Publishers 1967 edition.)

5   Quoted in Rudolf Flesch, The New Book of Unusual Quotations (NY: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 105. The uncited original source for this is, I believe, Nietzsche’s 1886 book Jenseits von Gut and Böse (Beyond Good and Evil), section 4, where he is claiming that even false judgments can be useful and important. Walter Kaufmann translates the specific sentence as follows: “To recognize untruth as a condition of life—that certainly means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil.” (NY: Vintage Books, 1989, p. 12.) Thus what Nietzsche is actually saying here is evidently something far different, something reactionary, and something which rather than being profound is actually rather simpleminded. But no matter; it is in fact true and profound that “error is a condition of life” (in the sense I am getting at), even if such an insight should not properly be ascribed to Nietzsche.

6   John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel; quoted in Webster’s Dictionary of Quotations (NY: Smithmark, 1995), p. 312.

7   Lenin, “Purging the Party” (Sept. 20, 1921), LCW 33:39-40.

8   Mao, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (Feb. 27, 1957), SW 5:414.

9   Lenin, “Letters on Tactics” (April 1917), LCW 24:46-7.

10   John Milton, Works, Vol. 1, p. 192. The original reads “of their blindness” which I modernized to “for their blindness”.

11   Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:44.

12   Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 3. See also their comments on page 2 regarding the source of the masses’ shortcomings.

13   Lenin, “Letters on Tactics”, LCW 24:54.

14   Mao, “Introductory Note to ‘A Party Branch Leads the Mutual-Aid and Co-operative Movement Correctly’”, Socialist Upsurge in China’s Countryside (Peking: 1978), p. 213.

15   Mao, “The Situation and Our Policy After the Victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan” (Aug. 13, 1945), SW 4:19.

16   Mao, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942), SW 3:91.

17   Mao, ibid., SW 3:92.

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

19   Mao, “Speech at the Second Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China” (Nov. 15, 1956), SW 5:334.

20   Lenin, “Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution” (Sept. 24, 1908), LCW 15:208-9. See also Lenin’s comments along the same lines in his “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution” (Jan. 1917), LCW 23:245.

21   Mao, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” (Feb. 27, 1957), SW 5:402.

22   An Chun, “Having Faith in and Relying on the Majority of the Masses”, Hongqi [Red Flag], #3, 1973; English translation in Peking Review, #14, 1973, p. 5.

23   Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed. (1979), Vol. 15, p. 213.

24   Mao, “In Refutation of ‘Uniformity of Public Opinion’” (May 24, 1955), SW 5:172.

25   Literally, “appeal to the people”. As noted by S. Morris Engel in his book With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 3rd ed., (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 202, the Latin word ‘populum’ like the English word ‘popular’ “carries a certain connotation of mass acceptance without thoughtful consideration.”

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