The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

13. Methods of Leadership and the Mass Line

We turn now to a discussion of the various techniques of mass leadership from the Marxist perspective, with particular attention to the mass line.

Methods and Techniques of Leadership of the Masses

Since leadership is necessary, and important, methods of leadership are necessary and important. Mao said this explicitly: "Methods of leadership are very important. To avoid mistakes, one must pay attention to these methods and strengthen leadership."[1] He explained that "To lead means not only to decide general and specific policies but also to devise correct methods of work."[2] And indeed the importance of methods of leadership was a constant theme for Mao. Years earlier he wrote

It is not enough to set tasks, we must also solve the problem of the methods for carrying them out. If our task is to cross a river, we cannot cross it without a bridge or a boat. Unless the bridge or boat problem is solved, it is idle to speak of crossing the river. Unless the problem of method is solved, talk about the task is useless.[3]

There are lots of methods and techniques of leadership, many of which are appropriately used by the proletarian party. The mass line is just one such method, albeit the most important single method of leadership for Marxists.

Not only is the mass line the most important single method of leadership, it is the overall method. Other methods are subsidiary to it. Many of the other methods find employment directly within the mass line. But even if they do not, they are still subsidiary in the sense that they are secondary to this primary leadership method.

Only a few of the great many leadership methods and techniques will be discussed here. Implicit in Marxism are many more. And, indeed, there is no set number of leadership methods; more can always be discovered. This is simply a corollary of the more general observation: there is no set number of ways of achieving your goals; more can always be discovered.

So let us then begin a survey of some of the many methods of proletarian leadership. These methods may be divided into various groups based on their specific focus or immediate goal. The mass line itself is a method relevant to most or all of these goals, so I will not mention it explicitly each time.

First are the leadership methods and techniques focusing on how to bring the masses into motion. These include such techniques as:
      1) The single spark method. (To be discussed below.)
      2) Direct encouragement of mass initiative.
      3) Suppression of those who attempt to hold the masses back.
      4) Uniting with the relatively small number of advanced and active elements among the masses in order to win over the intermediate and backward.

Second, leadership techniques focusing on achieving victory in a struggle. These include such techniques as:
      1) Concentrating ones forces (especially when on the offensive).
      2) Dispersing ones forces (especially when on the defensive).
      3) Preparing for battle thoroughly.

Third, leadership techniques focusing on coming up with new ideas. These include:
      1) Encouraging democracy within the ranks of the people and the proletarian party. ("Letting a hundred schools of thought contend.")
      2) Social experimentation. (To be discussed in chapter 21.)

Fourth, leadership techniques focusing on appraising existing lines and policies. Included here are:
      1) Seeking truth from facts.
      2) Experimentation, again.

Fifth, leadership techniques focusing on clearing up confusions. These include:
      1) Combining the general with the particular, and the use of models and examples. (To be discussed below.)
      2) Emphasizing close investigations. ("Dismounting to look at the flowers.")

Sixth, leadership techniques focusing on ordering priorities. These include:
      1) Working according to a plan.
      2) The use of directives from the center.
      3) Learning to handle more than one task at a time. ("Learning to play the piano.")

Seventh, leadership techniques focusing on questions of timing. Such principles as:
      1) Seize the time. (Do not miss opportunities when they are ripe.)
      2) Bide your time. (Do not act rashly; wait until conditions are ripe.)

Eighth, leadership techniques focusing on making the most out of every situation. For example, the principle of "advancing through each battle".

More such techniques and principles could be enumerated, but I think the basic point is clear: There are many leadership techniques and principles based on a wide variety of specific leadership tasks.

The Single Spark Method

From a little spark bursts a mighty flame. (Dante Alighieri)

There is one method of leadership which, while still subordinate to the mass line, is especially important: the "single spark method". Sometimes this method (or something very similar) is called "the method of combining the general with the particular".

The following three excerpts all come from the same important essay in which Mao outlined the mass line in detail for the first time:

In any task, if no general and widespread call is issued, the broad masses cannot be mobilized for action. But if persons in leading positions confine themselves to a general call—if they do not personally, in some of the organizations, go deeply and concretely into the work called for, make a break-through at some single point, gain experience and use this experience for guiding other units—then they will have no way of testing the correctness or of enriching the content of their general call, and there is the danger that nothing may come of it.[4]

No one in a leading position is competent to give general guidance to all the units unless he derives concrete experience from particular individuals and events in particular subordinate units. This method must be promoted everywhere so that leading cadres at all levels learn to apply it.[5]

The concept of a correct relationship between the leading group and the masses in an organization or in a struggle, the concept that correct ideas on the part of the leadership can only be "from the masses, to the masses", and the concept that the general call must be combined with particular guidance when the leadership's ideas are being put into practice—these concepts must be propagated everywhere during the present rectification movement in order to correct the mistaken viewpoints among our cadres on these questions.[6]

I think these three small quotes explain quite adequately what Mao meant by the method of combining the general with the particular. "A single spark can start a prairie fire" is an old Chinese saying that Mao appropriated for a famous 1930 essay.[7] The "single spark" corresponds to the "particular", the breakthrough at a single point, and the "prairie fire" corresponds to the general call and its result.

The "single spark method" is really the same thing as the method of combining the general with the particular, but it focuses more on the aspect of "breaking through at a single point", and does not explicitly mention the need to issue a general call (which is also important). The 'single spark method', however, is definitely a more evocative name. Unfortunately the comparative one-sidedness of the name has especially appealed to those (like the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee—the legal wing and social-democratic successor of the Weather Underground terrorist group)—who like to downplay the necessity for revolutionary action by the broad masses.

Implicit in the single spark method is the idea that people often learn best through the example of others. Or, looking at it the other way around, it is often more difficult to convince a section of the masses to initiate action than it is to convince broader sections to follow the first group to move.

But it is important to note here that the single spark method is designed to educate and enlighten not only the masses about how to proceed in general (based on an example held up for them to emulate), but—perhaps even more importantly—to educate the leaders about how to lead in general, about how to issue a general call, and how to guide the wider movement based on their specific knowledge and experience locally. And it is in this respect that the single spark method is most intimately a part of the mass line method of leadership.

The Mass Line as a Method of Leadership

A small mind is obstinate.
A great mind can lead and be led.[8]

Occasionally in reading the more superficial comments of revisionists or openly bourgeois writers about the mass line you will find that some of them are not even aware that the mass line is not really a "line", but a method, and specifically a method of leadership. This sort of thing is especially jarring from the Chinese revisionists, who one would think would at least know that elementary fact about the mass line—even if they can't truly understand or accept the theory. (See chapter 37 for more on this.)

Mao explained very clearly that the mass line is a method of leadership, right from the very beginning of his explication of it. In passages I already quoted in chapter 2 he says that "In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily 'from the masses, to the masses'."[9] and described the mass line as "the basic method of leadership".[10]

But while all real Maoists, at least, know that the mass line is a method of leadership, some of them may nevertheless fail to understand how profound a method it is.

It is important to understand, for example, that the mass line is not simply a method of leading the masses, it is also a method of leading the leaders in their leadership of the masses. The mass line, properly understood, is not just a method employed by the leaders to lead the masses, it is also a method employed by the masses to lead the leaders. The mass line is a method not only for changing the masses and society, but also a method of first changing the leaders so that they can change the masses and society. The mass line is not only a method of teaching the masses, but also a method of first teaching the leaders so that they know how and what to teach the masses.

If someone were to view the mass line as simply a means of changing society (but not the masses), or as simply a means of changing the masses (but not the leadership)—they would be wrong. The mass line is a tool for changing society, revolutionizing society through the process of first changing the leadership and then changing the masses. If the leadership does not recognize that the goal of the mass line is to first change itself, its own ideas, then it does not understand the mass line, and will be completely unable to use it successfully.

Thus while it is the leadership which formally uses the mass line tool, in a deeper sense the tool is wielded jointly by the leadership and the masses in order to change each other. It is both the leadership itself and the masses which are the target of the tool. It is wrong, undialectical and bourgeois, to view the leaders as standing above and outside the process of learning, or to view them as standing above and outside the process of change.

How the Party Achieves Leadership of the Masses

There are a number of important principles which stand behind the party's leadership of the masses, and explain how it is possible for the party to achieve such leadership.

The first principle is that the art of leadership must be learned, and that the party must understand this and be aware that it is possible to learn how to lead the masses.

Political parties often simply assume that they know how to lead the masses. Whenever the masses "inexplicably" fail to follow their leadership, the tendency is always to come up with excuses, such as "the objective situation". When have you ever heard a party frankly admit that it does not know how to lead? And yet, to outsiders, it is often glaringly obvious. Looking at the new communist parties formed after the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin said "In many countries we have not even learned how to assume the leadership."[11]

The first thing here is to recognize that at the beginning we do not know how to lead the masses very well, if at all. The second thing is to recognize that we must learn how, through study and through revolutionary mass practice. And the third thing is to have confidence that we will be able to learn, and will be able to lead. As Mao said, in the Chinese context, "We must have faith... that the Party is capable of leading the peasants..."[12] This is part of what it means to be a revolutionary optimist. It is part of what it means to have faith in the masses, and faith in the party.

The second basic principle is that leadership must be real, not in name only. The party must truly seek to lead the masses, must actually provide leadership. It must promulgate lines, policies, instructions, recommendations, advice, information, and the like. One might think that all this would be obvious, but amazingly enough there are many political groups, of all stripes, that subjectively want to lead the masses, but do not really attempt to do so.

I vividly remember how difficult it was to get any leadership, any suggestions and guidance about what I should do personally to help advance the revolution, from the primitive organizations active around 1970. I wanted to follow, they wanted to lead, but they couldn't and didn't lead very much. It was very frustrating all around! In those days (and I am afraid it may still be true today) if you wanted to become a serious revolutionary, you had to be very determined; in many cases you almost had to force your way in on the action.

It all too frequently happens that revolutionaries want the masses to come forward, but don't know what to do when they do step forward looking for leadership. The party itself is often unprepared to lead the masses. In 1902 Lenin remarked that

Anyone who really carries on his revolutionary work in conjunction with the class struggle of the proletariat very well knows, sees and feels what vast numbers of immediate and direct demands of the proletariat (and of the sections of the people capable of supporting the latter) remain unsatisfied. He knows that in very many places, throughout vast areas, the working people are literally straining to go into action, and that their ardor runs to waste because of the scarcity of literature and leadership, the lack of forces and means in the revolutionary organizations.[13]

Stalin addresses many of these same issues:

The masses cannot respect the party if it gives up leadership, if it ceases to lead. The masses themselves want to be led, and they are looking for firm leadership. But the masses want leadership to be not formal, not on paper, but effective and comprehensible to them. Precisely for that reason it is necessary patiently to explain the aims and objects, the directives and instructions of the Party and the Soviet government. Leadership must not be given up; neither must it be relaxed. On the contrary, it must be strengthened. But if it is to be strengthened, it must be made more flexible, and the Party must arm itself with the utmost sensitiveness to the requirements of the masses.[14]

The third principle, a corollary of the second, is that the party must not lag behind the masses. In the real world the parody, "Wait for me, I'm your leader!", is all too often essentially true.

Lenin talked a lot about "the lag of the leaders... behind the spontaneous upsurge of the masses",[15] and Mao also frequently campaigned against this tendency: "In short, the leadership should never lag behind the mass movement. Yet, as things stand now, it is the mass movement which is running ahead, while the leadership cannot keep pace with it. This state of affairs must change."[16]

If the party is not to lag behind the masses, it must be "proactive", rather than reactive. It must not only formulate lines and policies, it must take these lines and policies to the masses. Mao frequently complained that some people in the Party seem to think "that it is enough for the leaders alone to know the Party's policies and that there is no need for the masses to know them."[17] And he added,

To be good at translating the Party's policy into action of the masses, to be good at getting not only the leading cadres but also the broad masses to understand and master every movement and every struggle we launch—this is an art of Marxist-Leninist leadership. It is also the dividing line that determines whether or not we make mistakes in our work.[18]

But if the party should not lag behind the masses, neither should it get too far out ahead of them. This is our fourth basic principle.

Stalin, who as the years went by was more and more guilty of this sin himself, nevertheless forcefully attacked this tendency in his writings:

The opposition is right when it says that the Party must go forward. That is an ordinary Marxist precept, and there cannot be any real Communist Party if it is not adhered to. But that is only part of the truth. The whole truth is that the Party must not only go forward, but must also secure the following of the vast masses. To go forward without securing the following of the vast masses means in fact to break away from the movement. To go forward, breaking away from the rear-guard, without being able to secure the following of the rear-guard, means to make a leap ahead that can prevent the advance of the masses for some time. The essence of Leninist leadership is precisely that the vanguard should be able to secure the following of the rear-guard, that the vanguard should go forward without breaking away from the masses. But in order that the vanguard should not break away from the masses, in order that the vanguard should really secure the following of the vast masses, a decisive condition is needed, namely, that the masses themselves should be convinced through their own experience that the instructions, directives and slogans issued by the vanguard are correct.
      The misfortune of the opposition is that it does not accept this simple Leninist rule for leading the vast masses, that it does not understand that the Party alone, an advanced group alone, without the support of the vast masses, cannot make a revolution, that, in the final analysis, a revolution "is made" by the vast masses of the working people.[19]

Not only is it possible to "break away from the masses", and get out too far ahead of them, it is possible for a young party to start out "too far ahead of them", if it refuses to connect up its revolutionary work with the existing struggles of the masses.

The fifth principle of proletarian leadership is that leadership cannot be imposed on the masses. It must be voluntarily accepted and, better yet, actively sought out and welcomed by the masses. As Mao expressed it,

Leadership is neither a slogan to be shouted from morning till night nor an arrogant demand for obedience; it consists rather in using the Party's correct policies and the example we set by our own work to convince and educate people outside the Party so that they willingly accept our proposals.[20]

Our sixth principle, closely related to the fifth, is that proletarian leadership should not be bureaucratic. Again, Mao expressed it well:

...we must not be bureaucratic in our methods of mobilizing the masses. Bureaucratic leadership cannot be tolerated in economic construction any more than in any other branch of our revolutionary work. The ugly evil of bureaucracy, which no comrade likes, must be thrown into the cesspit. The methods which all comrades should prefer are those that appeal to the masses, i.e., those which are welcomed by all workers and peasants.[21]

The next principle of proletarian leadership is that it must actually benefit the masses. Mao put it this way:

The leading class and the leading party must fulfill two conditions in order to exercise their leadership of the classes, strata, political parties and people's organizations which are being led:
      (a) Lead those who are led (allies) to wage resolute struggles against the common enemy and achieve victories;
      (b) Bring material benefits to those who are led or at least not damage their interests and at the same time give them political education.
Without both these conditions, or with only one, leadership cannot be realized.[22]

Of course it is true that sometimes we must lead the masses along a course which, while in their long term interests, will create difficulties for them in the short run. But whenever this is the case we must make sure the masses understand this from the beginning, and prepare themselves for the temporary sacrifices. Our leadership will fail if we try to lead the masses along a path which calls for excessive (even if temporary) sacrifices on their part, or sacrifices which they are unprepared for or unwilling to make.

The next principle is that leadership must be based on the experience of the masses. As Stalin put it,

What does leadership mean when the policy of the Party is correct and the correct relations between the vanguard and the class are not upset?
      Leadership under these circumstances means the ability to convince the masses of the correctness of the Party's policy; the ability to put forward and to carry out such slogans as bring the masses to the Party's positions and help them to realize through their own experience the correctness of the Party's policy; the ability to raise the masses to the Party's level of political consciousness, and thus secure the support of the masses and their readiness for the decisive struggle.[23]

(The issue of the masses own experience will be explored in depth in chapter 24.)

The next principle is that mass leadership is closely connected with the question of mass organization. To lead effectively there must be an organizational apparatus. Of course the leaders, the proletarian party, must be organized; but beyond that, the masses cannot be effectively led unless they themselves (and not just their vanguard) are organized. Lenin remarked that the Soviets constituted "an apparatus by means of which the vanguard of the oppressed classes can elevate, train, educate, and lead the entire vast mass of these classes..."[24]

On the other hand, one of the chief goals of proletarian leadership is to advance proletarian organization:

The Social-Democratic [communist] Party, as the conscious exponent of the working-class movement, aims at the complete liberation of the toiling masses from every form of oppression and exploitation. The achievement of this objective—the abolition of private property in the means of production and the creation of the socialist society—calls for a very high development of the productive forces of capitalism and a high degree of organization of the working class. (Lenin)[25]

Thus organization and leadership are dialectically related. Leadership is necessary to advance mass organization, and mass organization is necessary for truly effective leadership. The pessimist sees this as a catch-22 situation; the optimist as a recognition of the possibilities for positive feedback and accelerating advances in both proletarian leadership and organization.

The last principle I'll mention here, one that sums up several of the principles just mentioned, is that leadership must be knowledgeable. Marx emphasized the importance of knowledgeable leadership when he said:

To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes....
      One element of success they possess—numbers; but numbers weigh only in the balance, if united by combination and led by knowledge.[26]

If leadership is not knowledgeable in all these areas, then it must learn. Which brings us full circle to the first principle of proletarian leadership mentioned above.

*    *    *

In his fine essay on "The Myth of Nonviolence", Bob Avakian remarks that "there is the objective basis and need for the leadership of the revolutionary proletariat and its party, because this does represent the only force that stands for an all-the-way revolution."[27] But in the same place he states: "Leadership cannot just be declared, it must be won—you can't just say 'follow us,' you must show in a living way why people should follow you." So the question to consider now, and of course it is an extremely crucial and very basic question, is just how do you "show in a living way why people should follow you"?

We could say many things here in answer to this question, but the best, brief answer is: By joining up with the existing class struggles of the masses, and by using the mass line to: 1) help achieve the immediate reformist objectives of those struggles, and 2) in the course of these day-to-day struggles, raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses and gradually, but steadily and definitely, prepare the masses for a qualitative and decisive redirection of their struggles away from mere reform and toward revolution. This whole book may be viewed as an elaboration of this answer to this question.

Another equally valid answer, which expresses the same thing in different words, is that we can show in a living way why people should follow us by combining the masses' struggle for their immediate interests with a determined and serious struggle for their long-range, ultimate interests, which can only mean proletarian revolution. Only if the masses can see for themselves that our leadership is in their overall interests will they follow us, and only then should they follow us.

But I suspect that many people—including Bob Avakian and the RCP these days—would give a substantially different answer to this basic question. I suspect their answer to the question "how do you show in a living way why people should follow you" might be something along the lines of: "By supporting every outbreak of the masses against the system." Of course there is a lot to be said for that answer too, but it is more of a partial answer, a less all-encompassing answer, and actually a less satisfactory answer despite its more revolutionary sound. The trouble with this answer is that it does not directly address the fundamental contradiction that currently prevents the masses from following the leadership of the proletarian party—namely the contradiction between the masses need for revolution, and their present failure to recognize that need. To win the revolutionary leadership of the masses this contradiction must gradually be resolved. As part of resolving it, the party must constantly seek to educate the masses in the need for revolution, and must constantly present itself as the party that stands ready to lead such a revolution. But as indispensable as that is, it is not enough!

What more can we do? We can join with the masses in their actual struggles—even if those struggles are not revolutionary, and not initially aimed against the system as a whole, and attempt to merge the revolutionary movement with the current struggles of the masses. That is the answer of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. (We will rejoin this discussion later; see especially chapter 19.)

The Evil of Commandism

Commandism is simply the technique of getting people to do things by just ordering them to do it, rather than by explaining why they should do it, and convincing them to do it of their own free will. It should be apparent from all that has gone before that commandism is antithetical to genuinely Marxist leadership, and is a bourgeois technique of "leadership" if anything is.

But is issuing commands always wrong? Don't there need to be commands and directives from the party center down to each branch and each comrade? How can we work efficiently if we have to explain everything at length and argue over every little directive? Or consider the Red Army: How on earth can we go into battle if there are no "commanders" authorized to issue commands to the rank-and-file soldiers (whether they are Party members or not)?

Well, let's not go crazy here! I think even most anarchists would agree that revolutionary armies need to have commanders, and in battle (at least) these commanders have the right and duty to issue commands to the troops.

Issuing commands, and even enforcing them through various forms of discipline is not necessarily commandism! What then are the circumstances when it does become commandism? This is mostly a matter of common sense, but we might list a few central principles here:
      1) With few exceptions, commands are only appropriate and justified within voluntary organizations. In other words, when you voluntarily join a party, a mass organization, a revolutionary army, or voluntarily apply for a job at a factory (at least in socialist or communist society!), you thereby commit yourself to work cooperatively and follow reasonable orders from the leaders.
      2) Even within voluntary organizations, however, commands are only appropriate where circumstances warrant. In general this means two kinds of situations:
           a) small or routine matters. (Even in socialist society, it would normally be ridiculous to yell "commandism!" if the foreman at your factory tells you to help unload a truck; it is the job of the foreman to direct the work.)
           b) emergency or desperate situations, or in the midst of battle.
      3) In general, the bigger, more serious, and more important the issue, the less justified it is to simply issue commands rather than use democratic persuasion, provided there is time for this.

The overall principle in voluntary organizations is just that the method of democratic persuasion should be used as much as is reasonably possible, especially where important issues are at stake, and where emergencies or battle-conditions do not dictate otherwise.

Since commands are normally only appropriate within voluntary organizations, the party and its members are seldom, if ever, justified in ordering the masses in general to do things—even if, as should always be the case, these things are actually in the real interests of the masses. Party members have voluntarily joined the party, but the broad masses have not, and are not subject to its discipline.

Mao constantly campaigned against commandism, and in the strongest terms: "Marxists have always held that the cause of the proletariat must depend on the masses of the people and that Communists must use the democratic method of persuasion and education when working among the laboring people and must on no account resort to commandism or coercion."[28]

However, in the very next sentence Mao added that "The Chinese Communist Party faithfully adheres to this Marxist-Leninist principle." Here, regretfully, I must somewhat disagree—many party members and cadres, both in the period before the 1949 seizure of power and more often in the socialist period afterwards, did sometimes resort to commandism in their relationships with the masses. The official line of the CPC was certainly opposed to this, and Mao for his part, did everything he could to oppose commandism. But it certainly existed to some extent anyway. (Fortunately parties do not need to be totally perfect in order to advance the revolution, and overall the CPC used the correct methods during the Maoist period.)

The fact of the matter is that commandism is a constant danger, and a constant temptation to any party that seeks to lead the masses. Not to see this, not to arm the party against it, and not to campaign against the bourgeois evil of commandism when it does arise, is to facilitate its cancerous growth and destructiveness. Moreover, you must also constantly promote the democratic, mass-line method of leadership, if there is to be any alternative available to commandism.

Commandism, of course, is most easily fallen into, and becomes one of the greatest dangers for the revolution, after the seizure of power—when the party is the "ruling party". But even before the revolutionary seizure of power, commandism is possible. As soon as a party gains any respect and authority among the masses it also unfortunately gains the possibility of abusing that authority and losing that respect through commandism. This is something to think about very seriously indeed.

Willing Followers Are Not Enough!

We totally reject commandism and insist that the masses must follow the Party of their own free will. But that is not enough! Certain methods which can sometimes create willing followers (in the short run anyway) are bourgeois and must on no account be used.

One such method is trickery. Here's a little item from the logician Raymond Smullyan showing how trickery can force people to do things "voluntarily":

[This] reminds me of a cute joke or trick which someone once played on me: He said, "I bet I can make you open your fist". I said "okay", and I made a fist. He said, "No, no, thumb inside!" I naïvely opened my fist, put my thumb inside and reclosed my fist. He said "There, you have opened it!" This trick really works; I have tried it on dozens and have not failed yet! Try it sometime![29]

Well that's just a silly example, of course, but it is true that people are constantly being tricked by the ruling class. Back in 1964, when I was an ignorant liberal, I was tricked into voting for Lyndon Johnson for President because the Democrats portrayed themselves as the party of peace, as opposed to Goldwater and the Republicans. Naturally, the first thing Johnson did was escalate the small Vietnam conflict into a major war. Recall also Wilson's campaign slogan in 1916: "He kept us out of war." Once re-elected, his administration plunged the country into the first imperialist world war. Virtually every bourgeois election is some sort of trick on the masses.

Using trickery or lies to get people to do things "willingly" is really no better than ordering them to do things unwillingly. Both are despicable and bourgeois techniques. But even this recognition is not enough!

Smullyan, who is a Taoist of sorts, says the Taoist way is to "force" people to "voluntarily" obey. And he adds that "The whole idea of Taoistic politics is that the Sage-Ruler influences the people to voluntarily do that which is good for them."[30] But as you can see, this is an arrogant, elitist stance, which assumes that the "Sage-Ruler" is above the people, and always knows what is best for them. Furthermore, it suggests that manipulating people, or even outright tricking them, is ok as long as it is for the "people's own good." In the (nominally) Marxist milieu the revisionists hold similar opinions.

The Maoist view, which is really quite different than this, is that there is only one legitimate way to get the people to do things: by patiently and honestly explaining to them what is in their own interests. We must not command them to do things, but neither must we lie to them or trick them in order to get them to "voluntarily" do things. Only when people have the real truth of the situation available to them will their choice of action be voluntary in the full sense of the term.

Our goal is not to get people to "obey" the Party—whether "voluntarily" or otherwise—but, instead, to get them to make up their own minds what to do on the basis of sufficient and truthful information. The Party does seek to lead the masses, and the masses themselves seek this kind of leadership. But leading people is not a matter of getting them to "obey" you. Only hopelessly bourgeois minds think so.

Furthermore, no group is fit to lead a larger mass if it is not itself a part of that larger mass, sharing the same fundamental interests. No group is fit to lead if it is incapable of continually learning from the larger mass its goals, desires, moods, and its ideas about how to proceed. Although it may sound a bit extreme to say so, I really believe that all leadership without the mass line is ultimately illegitimate, and we must reject it no matter how willing the followers might be.

Where Do Individual Leaders Come From?

According to many people there are "born leaders", or "natural leaders". Against this view is the old aphorism, "leaders are made, not born". So what is the Marxist view here? While we of course recognize that human beings have a biological component (in part genetic) to their makeup, we deny that it is dominant in their social behavior, let alone all-controlling. We say there are no "natural leaders" or "born leaders". This is especially the case in proletarian politics. Somebody with a domineering kind of personality, for example, is not in our view a "natural leader".

In 1946 Mao was asked by a reporter, "Do you consider Chiang Kai-shek the 'natural leader' of the Chinese people?" He responded, "There is no such thing in the world as a 'natural leader'."[31] And you can indeed see from this example how the notion of "natural leaders" is employed by reactionaries for their own sinister purposes.

Individual revolutionary leaders are not "born", they are in truth made. It is primarily the experience of mass struggle which makes such leaders, both individually and as a group: "A leading group that is genuinely united and is linked with the masses can gradually be formed only in the process of mass struggle, and not in isolation from it." (Mao)[32]

But while revolutionary leaders are molded primarily through the experience of mass struggle, there is also an element of Marxist education and training involved. First, you cannot become an effective revolutionary leader without being educated in the science of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, both generally, and with regard to specific leadership techniques such as the mass line. And second, you must have opportunities to gather leadership experience. When learning how to do anything you will at first be awkward and inept; but with time, and the help and criticism of comrades and the masses, you will learn how it is done.

The party can, and must, expedite the training of more leaders of the masses, especially (but not exclusively) from the ranks of the proletariat itself. Lenin said that "the masses will never learn to conduct the political struggle until we help to train leaders for this struggle, both from among the enlightened workers and from among the intellectuals."[33]

There is always a shortage of good leaders, certainly during the early stages of a revolutionary process. In 1902 Lenin wrote that

The critical, transitional state of our movement in this respect may be formulated as follows: There are no people—yet there is a mass of people. There is a mass of people, because the working class and increasingly varied social strata, year after year, produce from their ranks an increasing number of discontented people who desire to protest, who are ready to render all the assistance they can in the struggle against absolutism, the intolerableness of which, though not yet recognized by all, is more and more acutely sensed by increasing masses of the people. At the same time, we have no people, because we have no leaders, no political leaders, no talented organizers capable of arranging extensive and at the same time uniform and harmonious work that would employ all forces, even the most inconsiderable.[34]

There is a mass of people, but a shortage of people... In such a situation, the shortage can only be made up from the mass. Not only must leaders come from the masses themselves, it is primarily the masses who create their leaders, even their greatest leaders, as Bob Avakian has pointed out:

In a fundamental way it is the masses who "make" great revolutionary leaders. It is the revolutionary struggle of the masses which brings forward its leaders. Leaders do, in turn, play a very significant role in the revolutionary struggle of the masses. But they can only play a positive role, and in the final analysis can only be of any real significance, if they continue to stand with, and in a fundamental sense in the midst of, the struggle of the masses and on that basis lead it forward. In this era, in the most thoroughgoing and radical revolution in history, the proletarian revolution, that means they play their role by applying the science of Marxism-Leninism to both learn from and guide the struggle. In this way they can and do exert a tremendous influence on the movement of the masses and can actually accelerate the inevitable revolutionary process (just as they can retard it through errors and deviations from Marxism-Leninism).[35]

I sometimes think that Bob Avakian himself has forgotten these words, but to me they ring true as ever, and sound quintessentially Maoist. That one sentence especially bears repeating and re-emphasis today: Leaders "can only play a positive role, and in the final analysis can only be of any real significance, if they continue to stand with, and in a fundamental sense in the midst of, the struggle of the masses and on that basis lead it forward." There is nothing that can be said about revolutionary leadership that is more important than that.

In a similar vein, I would like to quote a brief passage from the 1976 RCP pamphlet on the mass line that exactly expresses my point of view:

The Party must pay special attention to uniting with and raising the level of advanced workers not yet Party members, who continually come forward in these struggles as leaders. These workers are potentially a key link, a lever, to join the Party with the life and struggles of the class as a whole. In order for the Party to learn and grow, and in order for the movement of the masses to advance, the Party must train the advanced workers in the science of revolution, including the application of the mass line. And it must train them not apart from, but in the course of actually leading the struggle of the broad masses.[36]

Given the crying need for more leaders, for a whole party of leaders, it is sad to note the existence of certain bourgeois careerist types within revolutionary organizations, who try to keep the necessary leadership training and experience away from others in order to exalt their own status. No genuine Marxist party or organization should tolerate people like that.

The Masses Must Evaluate Their Would-Be Leaders

There are lots of people who seek to lead the masses. They range all the way from the most sincere and capable individuals who truly have the interests of the masses at heart, and who truly can help lead the masses to victory, to all sorts of charlatans and phonies, to completely bourgeois individuals who are downright enemies of the people but who hide the fact and portray themselves as the masses' best friends and saviors. And there are all sorts of would-be leaders in between these extremes.

Since it cannot be immediately obvious to everyone, and certainly not immediately obvious to the broad masses, who their real friends are, and who their best leaders are, all the contenders for leadership—both parties and individuals—must be thoroughly and continuously evaluated. Each party and individual can help evaluate all the rest. But in the end, the decisions are up to the masses. The masses themselves must evaluate and select their leaders.

Since it is up to the masses to choose, those who have the real interests of the masses at heart must constantly help to educate them about how to make the appropriate choice. Bob Avakian provides a fine example in the following: evaluating different leadership and different people who put themselves forward as leaders and the different programs that they put forward as the thing that masses of people should take up as their own, people should evaluate what interests do these programs and these leaders really represent, serve, and fight for. What kind of world do they present as necessary and desirable? And very specifically, do they say that the present system can and must be overthrown and that the present world must be radically transformed—and will their line and program really lead to this? It's necessary for people to dig down and evaluate what people who put themselves forward as leaders are actually saying about these very fundamental questions, and what the programs they put forward for people to follow will actually lead to in terms of these very basic questions.[37]

There is one danger for the proletarian party to be aware of here, and to learn to avoid like the plague: Since the party knows it must be evaluated by the masses, since it wants to secure the following of the masses, and since it therefore appropriately seeks to present the party to the masses in a good light, there is a tendency to exaggerate to the masses—and even openly lie to them—about just how good the party is. There is a tendency to hide the weaknesses of the party (it's small size at the beginning of the struggle, for example, or its inexperience). There is a tendency to hide mistakes, instead of owning up to them. There is a tendency to proclaim the party as infallible, like the Pope, to pretend it already has all the answers, and to go on tiresomely about how "correct" it is.

The funny thing about such boastful exaggerations and misrepresentations is that they almost always backfire. The Pope gets nothing but derision and sneers among non-Catholics for his claims of infallibility. In the long run, it is always better to level with the masses, rather than to foster a suspicion and mistrust of the party in their minds. Just as with individuals, the masses will respect a party all the more if it levels with them, owns up to its mistakes and shows it is genuinely trying to correct them. They will respect the party all the more if they see the party seriously trying to learn more about how to lead the masses and advance their interests (i.e., seriously promoting the mass line).

All these tendencies to misrepresent things or lie to the masses are bourgeois to the core. It is the philosophy of the bourgeois newspaper which remarked cynically: "Leader: One who never permits his followers to discover that he is as dumb as they are."[38] Real revolutionary leaders, intent on using the mass line, should rather bend over backwards to make it clear to the rest of the party and the masses that the masses know many things which the leaders need to learn from them. That is the Maoist way.

The Role of Leadership Must Not Be Exaggerated

This whole book is about proletarian leadership, in one way or another, so of course I think leadership is important. It is in fact critical and indispensable for revolution. But it is time now for a bit of counterpoint. There are some respects in which the role of leadership can be exaggerated.

It is wrong, for example, to stress the importance of leadership in opposition to the role of the masses. Mao put it this way:

Our cause depends on the many for its success and the few play only a limited role. While the few, that is, the leaders and cadres, play a role that should be recognized, it is not a role of signal importance. The role of signal importance is played by the masses. The correct relationship between the cadres and the masses is such that, necessary as the cadres are, it is the masses who do the actual work, with the cadres giving leadership, a role which should not be exaggerated.[39]

It is also wrong to stress the importance of leadership in opposition to the mass line. Mao speaks in many places of the severe limitations of leaders who do not employ the mass line.

Politics must follow the mass line. It will not do to rely on leaders alone. How can the leaders do so much? The leaders can cope with only a fraction of everything, good and bad. Consequently, everybody must be mobilized to share the responsibility, to speak up, to encourage other people, and to criticize other people. Everyone has a pair of eyes and a mouth and he must be allowed to see and speak up. Democracy means allowing the masses to manage their own affairs. Here are two ways: one is to depend on a few individuals and the other is to mobilize the masses to manage affairs. Our politics is mass politics....
      An active leader followed by inactive masses will not do.[40]

A vivid illustration of this, which is at the same time an excellent illustration of the application of the mass line, was provided by Mao on an earlier occasion:

After three years we have won a great victory in the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea. It has now come to a halt.
      To what was this victory due? Just now fellow members [of the Central People's Government Council] put it down to correct leadership. Leadership is one factor; nothing can succeed without correct leadership. But we won mainly because ours was a people's war, the whole nation gave it support and the people of China and Korea fought shoulder to shoulder....
      Just now you all mentioned the factor of leadership. In my view, leadership is one factor, the most important factor is the contribution of ideas by the masses. Our cadres and soldiers thought up all sorts of ways to fight the enemy. Let me give one example. In the first month of the war our losses in trucks were tremendous. What was to be done? While the leadership devised counter-measures, we relied mainly on the masses to come up with ideas. Over ten thousand people were posted on both sides of the highway to fire signal shots to warn of approaching enemy planes. On hearing these signals, our drivers would dodge or find places in which to hide their trucks. In the meantime the roads were widened and many new ones built so that trucks could run in both directions unimpeded. Thus the losses in trucks dropped from 40 per cent at the beginning to less than 1 per cent. Later on, underground storehouses and even underground auditoriums were built. While enemy bombs fell from overhead, we went on with our meetings underground. When they picture the Korean battle field, people living in Peking feel it must have been very dangerous. True, there was danger, but it was not so terrible as long as everyone contributed ideas.
      Our experience is that reliance on the people together with a fairly correct leadership enables us to defeat a better-equipped enemy with our inferior equipment.[41]

Leadership, like everything else in the world, must not be considered an absolute. It must be viewed dialectically. No better dialectical summation of leadership exists than this:

However active the leading group may be, its activity will amount to fruitless effort by a handful of people unless combined with the activity of the masses. On the other hand, if the masses alone are active without a strong leading group to organize their activity properly, such activity cannot be sustained for long, or carried forward in the right direction, or raised to a high level. (Mao)[42]


[1] Mao, "The Debate on the Co-operative Transformation of Agriculture and the Current Class Struggle" (Oct. 11, 1955), SW 5:222.

[2] Mao, "Methods of Work of Party Committees" (March 13, 1949), SW 4:377.

[3] Mao, "Be Concerned With the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work" (Jan. 27, 1934), SW 1:150.

[4] Mao, "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (June 1, 1943), SW 3:117.

[5] Mao, ibid., SW 3:118.

[6] Mao, ibid., SW 3:119.

[7] Mao, SW 1:117.

[8] Ascribed to someone named Alexander Cannon; I have no idea who he might be. Quoted in an Internet message, Feb. 1996.

[9] Mao, "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (June 1, 1943), SW 3:119.

[10] Mao, ibid., SW 3:120.

[11] Lenin, "Speech in Defense of the Tactics of the Communist International" (July 1, 1921), LCS 32:474.

[12] Mao, "On the Co-operative Transformation of Agriculture" (July 31, 1955), SW 5:196.

[13] Lenin, "Revolutionary Adventurism" (Aug. 1, 1902), LCW 6:195-6.

[14] Stalin, "Speech Delivered at the Fifteenth Moscow Gubernia Party Conference" (Jan. 16, 1927), SCW 9:165-6.

[15] Lenin, "What Is To Be Done?" (March 1902), LCW 5:446.

[16] Mao, "On the Co-operative Transformation of Agriculture" (July 31, 1955), SW 5:185.

[17] Mao, "A Talk to the Editorial Staff of the Shansi-Suiyuan Daily" (April 2, 1948), SW 4:241.

[18] Mao, ibid., SW 4:242-3.

[19] Stalin, "Joint Plenum of the Central Committee and Central Control Commission of the C.P.S.U.(B.): The International Situation and the Defense of the USSR" (Aug. 1, 1927), SCW 10:29-30.

[20] Mao, "On the Question of Political Power in the Anti-Japanese Base Areas" (March 6, 1940), SW 2:418.

[21] Mao, "Pay Attention to Economic Work" (Aug. 20, 1933), SW 1:134.

[22] Mao, "On Some Important Problems of the Party's Present Policy" (Jan. 18, 1948), SW 4:187-8.

[23] Stalin, "Concerning Questions of Leninism" (Jan. 25, 1926), SCW 8:54-5.

[24] Lenin, "Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?" (Oct. 1917), LCW 26:103.

[25] Lenin, "The Democratic Tasks of the Revolutionary Proletariat" (June 17, 1905), LCW 2:511.

[26] Marx, "Inaugural Address of the Working Men's International Association" (Oct. 1864), MESW 2:17.

[27] Bob Avakian, "The Myth of Nonviolence", RW, #412, June 29, 1987; Reflections, Sketches & Provocations (Chicago: RCP, 1990), p. 164.

[28] Mao, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People" (Feb. 27, 1957), SW 5:391.

[29] Raymond M. Smullyan, The Tao is Silent (NY: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 186.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Mao, "The Truth About U.S. 'Mediation' and the Future of the Civil War in China" (Sept. 29, 1946), SW 4:110.

[32] Mao, Quotations, p. 285; slightly different translation in "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (June 1, 1943), SW 3:118.

[33] Lenin, "What Is To Be Done?" (March 1902), LCW 5:500.

[34] Ibid., LCW 5:468.

[35] Bob Avakian, Mao Tsetung's Immortal Contributions (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1979), pp. 319-320.

[36] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 3.

[37] Bob Avakian, "Questions for These Times: An Interview with Bob Avakian", in Revolution, #54, Winter/Spring 1986, p. 56.

[38] Rochester Times-Union, date unknown; quoted in Herbert V. Prochnow & Herbert V. Prochnow, Jr., A Dictionary of Wit, Wisdom, & Satire (NY: Harper & Row, 1962).

[39] Mao, "Speeches at the National Conference of the Communist Party of China: Concluding Speech" (March 31, 1955), SW 5:166.

[40] Mao, "Notes on the Report of the Investigation of the Peking Teachers' Training College" (July 3, 1965), Mao Papers, p. 102.

[41] Mao, "Our Great Victory in the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea and Our Future Tasks" (Sept. 12, 1953), SW 5:115-7.

[42] Mao, "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (June 1, 1943), SW 3:118.

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