The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

10. The Proletarian Party and the Masses

The masses are the makers of history, including of course the proletarian revolution. What then is the role of the proletarian party? Its role is to 1) educate the masses, i.e. raise their revolutionary understanding or consciousness, and 2) lead the masses, i.e. lead them into action, especially revolutionary action. These two basic tasks of the party may seem obvious; their mutual interrelationship may even be rather obvious. But an investigation of the history of the proletarian revolutionary movement shows that in practice most would-be proletarian parties have had great difficulty in recognizing and carrying out both these tasks. The all too evident tendency has been to see these two tasks not as interconnected and mutually reinforcing, but rather as fundamentally at odds and incompatible with each other. The result has usually been that all but the best parties at their best periods have concentrated on one of the two tasks and pretty much forgotten about the other. Sometimes the deficiency is finally recognized and a change is made—but often the change is merely a flip into the opposite error.

With young and inexperienced parties the tendency is often in the direction of “all education, no leadership”, in other words attention to Marxist propaganda and agitation but nothing else. The problem is that this form of education is like the preaching of outsiders and is far less effective than it could be if combined with leadership of the masses. But the more usual tendency, especially with older parties, is in the direction of “all leadership, no education”. Naturally this kind of leadership is not truly revolutionary leadership since that requires the conscious revolutionary activity of the masses which cannot happen if the masses have not had their consciousness raised. The mass line is as indispensable as a genuine revolutionary orientation if both of these opposing errors are to be avoided.

In chapter four I noted that Lenin criticized certain people in his day for “confounding politics with pedagogics”, or in other words, confounding leadership and education tasks. Lenin’s phrase comes from the title of an unfinished article (as well as from the article itself) that Lenin wrote in 1905 against the Mensheviks who wanted to abandon the revolutionary political struggle against the Tsar’s autocracy and restrict the masses to economic struggle against the factory owners.[1] The mass struggle had recently received a setback as a result of government attacks on the May Day demonstrations. The Mensheviks attributed these post-May Day difficulties to a lack of influence of the Party on the masses, a lack of contact with the masses, a failure to adequately educate the masses, etc. So they proposed abandoning the “premature” political struggle in order to concentrate on what they called “strictly Marxist propaganda and agitation”, focusing on economic struggle against the capitalists.

No one argued stronger than Lenin that the proletarian party should constantly strive to tighten its contact with the masses; in fact he said, on another occasion, that “the Party will not merit the name until it learns to weld the leaders into one indivisible whole with the class and the masses”.[2] And no one argued stronger than Lenin that the party should educate the workers and the broad masses, and raise their consciousness to the maximum degree possible. But he drew the line at contraposing such “pedagogic” efforts to mobilizing the masses in political struggle. What, indeed, is the whole purpose of raising the consciousness of the masses if it is not to lead them in political struggle against the enemy and make revolution? So, although Lenin gives some strong and very sincerely held arguments in this article in favor of constant educational work, as well as for ever more closely connecting ourselves to the masses and increasing our influence on the masses, the point of the article is that this by itself is not enough; that communists must also lead the masses in political struggle. I have noticed that this point is often missed by even sophisticated people when they refer to this article by Lenin, and that the use of the phrase “strictly Marxist work” is not recognized as Economist in the mouth of the Economists, and ironic in the mouth of Lenin.

The question flowing from all this that needs further exploration here is: Why do would-be revolutionaries come to see education (agitation and propaganda) and leadership as being opposed? Clearly it must have something to do with their conceptions of what Marxist education and leadership are all about. Education is seen as preaching; but everybody knows that preaching tends to alienate you from people. Leadership on the other hand requires that you get close to people and win their trust and respect. Thus it seems that if you see revolutionary leadership as very important you must tone down (or give up) “preaching” (Marxist education), while if you see Marxist education as very important it seems you must give up any serious notion of leadership, at least until that day long in the future when large sections of the masses are ready to act and come to you to place their fate in your hands. (It is hard not to parody these tendencies!) Actually an adherent of this second tendency would more likely say that “real leadership” is basically agitation and propaganda, at least in a non-revolutionary situation. That makes no sense, but that is what some people say.

The solution to this dilemma is that real Marxist educational work is not preaching at all, nor trying to force opinions on reluctant listeners who don’t want to be bothered. It is instead the answering of questions that people have on their minds, which have been forced on their minds not by revolutionaries but by events and the workings of the bourgeois system. (See next chapter.) When seen in this light, agitation and propaganda can no longer be viewed as being in contradiction with leadership, but instead become a strong reinforcement to leadership. The mass line enters the picture here both because it is the main method of Marxist leadership and because it is necessary to use mass line techniques in Marxist education as well—if various errors such as preaching to the people are to be avoided.

There are many relationships between the masses and the proletarian party, but they all follow from these two fundamental tasks of the party—Marxist education and leadership of the mass struggle. Is it wrong to single these two tasks out for special emphasis? For example isn’t it just as important for the party to learn from the masses as it is for the party to teach the masses? Well, yes it is. But the purpose of learning things from the masses is to be better able to lead and educate them. We shouldn’t get too hung up on these little puzzles, but for the sake of illustration of how they can be resolved it should be noted that:

1) In one sense learning and teaching are equal; that is, they are of equal importance and both are indispensable if there is to be a successful revolution.

2) In another sense learning is above teaching; that is, learning must come first. Before you can teach the masses you must learn from them. (I.e., learning is a logically prior process.)

3) In a third sense, teaching is above learning; that is, the point of learning from the masses is to be better able to teach them. In this sense learning from the masses is a logically subsidiary process.

The Party As the Vanguard of the Masses

Much could be said about the proletarian party and the masses, about their interrelationships and so forth. But the temptation to expand this essay into every aspect of Marxist theory must be resisted and the focus kept on the mass line and its relationships—which forms a big enough subject. So I will try to keep the remarks in this chapter brief and relate them to the mass line and having a mass perspective.

It should be pointed out, first, that the party is the advanced detachment of the masses, a vanguard part of the whole which has organized and trained itself in order to educate and lead the whole. Thus while there is a distinction between the party and the masses, they also form a unity. The relation between the party and the masses can only be understood dialectically. To forget their essential unity is as bad as to deny their essential distinction.

Why must there be a party at all? Why must there be an organized vanguard of the masses? Some people (most anarchists for example) just can’t imagine why. After all, it is the masses who are the makers of revolution, not the party, right? Well, yes and no. In an obvious way it is the masses, and not the party, that is the real force making the revolution. But on the other hand, the party is itself a part of the masses, in an overall sense, and thus an integral part of the overall revolutionary process carried out by the masses.

There must be a party for many reasons. The most general and abstract reason, perhaps, is just that the masses are not homogeneous, not equally cognizant of their role, capabilities, and interests. Those among the masses who are more conscious, and more determined, will inevitably have to lead the rest. And their leadership power will be amplified a thousand times when they organize themselves into a solid proletarian party. Lenin explained many times why there must be a staunch and steeled leadership core:

Marxism teaches—and this tenet has not only been formally endorsed by the whole of the Communist International in the decisions of the Second (1920) Congress of the Comintern on the role of the political party of the proletariat, but has also been confirmed in practice by our revolution—that only the political party of the working class, i.e., the Communist Party, is capable of uniting, training and organizing a vanguard of the proletariat and of the whole mass of the working people that alone will be capable of withstanding the inevitable petty-bourgeois vacillations of this mass and the inevitable traditions and relapses of narrow craft unionism or craft prejudices among the proletariat, and of guiding all the united activities of the whole of the proletariat, i.e., of leading it politically, and through it, the whole mass of the working people. Without this the dictatorship of the proletariat is impossible.[3]

It is for reasons like this that, as we saw in the last chapter, Lenin said that “the spontaneous struggle of the proletariat will not become its genuine ‘class struggle’ until this struggle is led by a strong organization of revolutionaries.”[4]

From one perspective, the party must exist for the simplest and most obvious reasons. Lenin remarked that

Our first step was to create a real Communist Party so as to know whom we were talking to and whom we could fully trust.... The second stage, after organizing into a party, consists in learning to prepare for revolution. In many countries we have not even learned how to assume the leadership.[5]

Something as simple as that, an organized group of people that can really trust each other. And the other point is pretty basic too: before the party can lead the revolution, it must learn how to do so. It must learn how to educate the masses—by seeking to educate them, and it must learn how to lead the masses—by seeking to lead them. Basic points indeed, but it is amazing how often the most basic points are lost sight of.

Another, more profound, view of the relation of the party to the masses was also provided by Lenin:

The Marxists have a fundamentally different view [than the anarchists] of the relation of the unorganized (and unorganizable for a lengthy period, sometimes decades) masses to the party, to organization. It is to enable the mass of a definite class to learn to understand its own interests and its position, to learn to conduct its own policy, that there must be an organization of the advanced elements of the class, immediately and at all costs, even though at first these elements constitute only a tiny fraction of the class. To do service to the masses and express their interests, having correctly conceived those interests, the advanced contingent, the organization, must carry on all its activity among the masses, drawing from the masses all the best forces without any exception, at every step verifying carefully and objectively whether contact with the masses is being maintained and whether it is a live contact. In this way, and only in this way, does the advanced contingent train and enlighten the masses, expressing their interests, teaching them organization and directing all the activities of the masses along the path of conscious class politics.[6]

The Communist Manifesto presents the relation of communists to the proletariat and the broad masses as follows:

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.[7]

And Lenin seconded this point of view when he wrote: “A vanguard performs its task as vanguard only when it is able to avoid being isolated from the mass of the people it leads and is able really to lead the whole mass forward.”[8]

Hostility Towards the Idea of a Proletarian Party

It is not just anarchists who are hostile to all political parties. The more sophisticated anarchists, in fact, are not opposed to the general idea of a proletarian party, although they are all opposed to a highly organized, and centralized proletarian party (no matter how democratic it also is). But more typical even than the hostility of the anarchists towards the Marxist idea of a party is the hostility of the petty-bourgeois “independent”. Lenin wrote that

One of the most widespread and unhealthy symptoms of our public life is the contempt (if not open hostility) that is displayed towards adherence to a party.
     It is characteristic of political free lances, political adventurers and political Manilovs to repudiate party affiliations and to talk pompously about party “bigotry”, “dogmatism”, intolerance, and so forth. As a matter of fact the use of such expressions merely reflects the ridiculous and paltry conceit or self-justification of intellectuals who are shut off from the masses and feel compelled to cover up their feebleness. Serious politics can only be promoted by the masses; non-party masses that do not follow the lead of a strong party are, however, disunited, ignorant masses, without staying power, prone to become a plaything in the hands of adroit politicians, who always emerge “opportunely” from the ranks of the ruling classes to take advantage of “favorable” circumstances.[9]

From the point of view of the mass line, hostility towards the party amounts to a renunciation of not only party organization but also mass organization—which in part is a result of the efforts of the party through its use of the mass line. It is a renunciation of any effective leadership of the masses, because the mass line is impossible without a party to concentrate the ideas of the masses and lead on that basis. And it is even a renunciation of the role of the masses in history, since by chopping off the most conscious section of the masses, the section capable of organizing and summarizing the consciousness and thinking of the whole, it dooms the masses to perpetual stumbling and ineffectualness.

The Party’s “Correct Line”

(This section was written circa 1982, before the recent right-wing campaign against “political correctness” started. The discussion here, therefore, has nothing at all to do with that reactionary wind. It is true, however, that excessive claims of “political correctness” were one of the factors that gave rise to, and just a little bit of credence to, that reactionary counterattack.)

There is another important question which we must explore: the contradiction between the ideas of the proletarian party and the revolutionary ideas of the masses. Unfortunately there are those who do not recognize the existence of this contradiction.

As mentioned earlier, one of our central themes is that revolutionaries absolutely must pay close attention to the ideas of the masses if they are to successfully lead the revolution. It is distressing to discover that some of the most sincere revolutionaries just do not grasp this point. Marxist-Leninists have had to struggle mightily in order to organize ourselves into genuinely revolutionary parties. We have learned through tortuous historical experience the supreme importance of such parties, and the importance of their having a (basically) correct political line. In every country we must constantly defend the proletarian party and its revolutionary line against enemies from without and also errors from within. Under these circumstances we naturally develop a pride in our party and a fierce adherence to its revolutionary line. But unfortunately sometimes this quite justified pride and loyalty is pushed to the extreme of unchanging codification of doctrine, of unquestioning acceptance of every aspect of the party’s thinking, and of rejection of all ideas that the party has not originated or at least sanctioned. The fact is that all too often we Marxist-Leninists have demonstrated something of a weakness in our ability to uphold both the party and the masses, and one key area where this contradiction manifests itself is in our attitude toward the party’s political line.

Everything is subject to analysis, and this includes the party’s political line. By being “subject to analysis” we mean that there are contradictions in a thing, and specifically in this case we mean there is inevitably error as well as correctness. Marxist-Leninists often speak of “the party’s correct political line” and this phrase has its justifications. There are at least two situations in which it may be appropriate to speak of the “correct line” of the party:
     1) in contrast to the overall incorrect lines of opportunist and reactionary parties and individuals, and
     2) in contrast to formerly held—but now changed—incorrect lines by (or in) the proletarian party itself.

But both these attributions of “correctness” are clearly meant in a relative sense, and it is wrong to view any party’s political line—even that of the very best parties at their best periods—as absolutely correct and containing no error whatsoever. No person and no political party is omniscient nor infallible. In light of this reasoning I think it is better to avoid the phrase “the party’s correct line”, or at least to use it very carefully so that misconceptions are not spread about what is being claimed for the party.

The impression should never be given that the proletarian party already has all the answers about how to make the revolution, or that it has nothing to learn from the masses about this. Still less should the party members and leaders themselves come to believe such a foolish thing. If they do, they will never lead the revolution to victory.

Of course we must have faith in the party. This means in part that we must have faith in its ability to forge a sufficiently correct line to lead the revolution successfully. This way of looking at things is better because it is more dynamic. Truly correct lines must constantly change as circumstances change, and the party must constantly learn from the masses (as well as from a study of objective conditions) what these changes must be. That is the mass line way.

The Party and the Masses

The relationship between the party and the masses—that is something that we should always be thinking about deeply. Lenin said

Victory over capitalism calls for proper relations between the leading (Communist) party, the revolutionary class (the proletariat) and the masses, i.e., the entire body of the toilers and the exploited. Only the Communist Party, if it is really the vanguard of the revolutionary class, if it really comprises all the finest representatives of that class, if it consists of fully conscious and staunch Communists who have been educated and steeled by the experience of a persistent revolutionary struggle, and if it has succeeded in linking itself inseparably with the whole life of its class and, through it, with the whole mass of the exploited, and in completely winning the confidence of this class and this mass—only such a party is capable of leading the proletariat in a final, most ruthless and decisive struggle against all the forces of capitalism.[10]

Yes, the party is distinct from the masses, but it must also be one with the masses. Its members must live the life of the masses, it must champion the interests of the masses, and only their interests, and it must participate with all its energy in the actual struggles of the masses. The party must educate the masses, and lead the masses, but not on the basis of being an alien body expressing different interests and purposes than the masses—that is the bourgeois way, and a way which must ultimately fail.

A real proletarian party must educate the masses in their own interests, and most especially in their own long-term and ultimate interests. This is the relatively easy part to grasp. But it must educate them in a way which—to the maximum degree possible—does not compromise or neglect their legitimate and already recognized interests, which tend to be more clearly recognized and firmly adhered to when they are immediate or short-range interests. This is the part that some find hard to grasp. The party must educate the masses in their own interests, both immediate and ultimate, as it presently understands them. That is the easy part to see. But it must recognize that its own understanding of the interests of the masses may not be perfect; it must constantly work to improve its own understanding of the masses’ real interests, both short and long term; and it must primarily refine its understanding here by learning from the masses themselves (by means of the mass line, etc.). That is the harder part to understand, and actually put into practice.

Similarly, the party must not only educate, but also lead the masses based on the masses’ real interests, and most importantly of all, in light of the masses’ ultimate interests (which in essence means social revolution). That is the relatively easy part for a real revolutionary to understand. But the party must also recognize that people can only be led in the mass based on their already recognized interests. This means first that there cannot be a massive revolutionary movement except in a revolutionary situation. But it also means that to build a party that is actually capable of leading the masses in any situation, initial leadership must be based primarily on the legitimate and already recognized immediate needs of the masses, which are typically, and even essentially, reformist in nature. To build its leadership of the masses in non-revolutionary situations, to learn how to lead in general, and to really be prepared to lead the masses in revolution when the time is ripe, the party must also lead reformist struggles in the interim without degenerating into a reformist organization. (The RCP says this cannot be done. I refuse to believe it. We will return to the question several times from different angles.) The key point here is that it is possible and necessary to lead reformist struggle from a revolutionary perspective, and in light of the revolutionary goal. All this is the hard part for some people to understand and put into practice.

Some people say, “well if leadership today means essentially leadership of reformist struggles, we do not want any part of it; we are revolutionaries!” The question is, will such purist revolutionaries ever lead a real revolution? Some people do not want to participate in the hard but necessary work of actually preparing the ground for revolution; they would rather pretend that the ground is already prepared, that we are already on the eve of revolution. They are willing to lead only overtly revolutionary struggle.

Lenin said “What we want is new and different parties. We want parties that will be in constant and real contact with the masses and will be able to lead those masses.”[11] He even put it as strongly as this: “If the minority is unable to lead the masses and establish close links with them, then it is not a party, and is worthless in general, even if it calls itself a party...”[12] Purist-“leftists” renounce leadership of the masses today because, for the most part, it cannot be immediately and overtly revolutionary leadership directed at immediate and overtly revolutionary goals. They do not see that it is possible and necessary to participate in and lead reformist struggle and in the process bring revolutionary consciousness to the masses. They do not see that if they renounce leadership now, they will not be able to lead in a revolutionary situation. I admit the reasoning is just a bit subtle, but the reasoning and logic is there, and has been presented in detail by Marx, Lenin and Mao. But as Lenin remarked, the “lefts” do not know how to reason.

The tasks of the party, and the relationship between the party and the masses, revolve around just education and leadership, but these things are nevertheless complex, not simple. If it were simple the world revolution would have been over long ago. Our tasks are indeed hard, and dangers abound—not only from enemy bullets, but actually far more seriously from our own ideological confusions and errors. But I believe that the proletariat and its party can surmount all such dangers and be victorious. Whatever path is required for revolution is a path that true revolutionaries can firmly adhere to, without “inevitably degenerating”. If humanity is to have a future, there is really no alternative.

A party which succeeds in consolidating itself for persistent work in contact with the masses, a party of the advanced class, which succeeds in organizing its vanguard, and which directs its forces in such a way as to influence in a Social-Democratic [i.e., communist] spirit every sign of life of the proletariat—such a party will win no matter what happens. (Lenin)[13]


[1] Lenin, “On Confounding Politics With Pedagogics”, LCW 8:452-5.

[2] Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:50.

[3] Lenin, “Preliminary Draft Resolution of the Tenth Congress of the R.C.P. on the Syndicalist and Anarchist Deviation in Our Party” (March 1921), LCW 32:246.

[4] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:475.

[5] Lenin, “Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the Communist International”, (July 1, 1921), LCW 42:474.

[6] Lenin, “How Vera Zasulich Demolishes Liquidationism” (Sept. 1913), LCW 19:409.

[7] Marx & Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848), MECW 6:497.

[8] Lenin, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (March 12, 1922), LCW 33:227.

[9] Lenin, “Bewildered Non-Party People” (Oct. 17, 1913), LCW 19:436.

[10] Lenin, “Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International” (July 4, 1920), LCW 31:187-8.

[11] Lenin, “Speech on the Role of the Communist Party” (at the Second Congress of the Communist International), (July 23, 1920), LCW 31:238.

[12] Lenin, ibid., LCW 31:238.

[13] Lenin, “On the Road” (Feb. 10, 1909), LCW 15:355.

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