The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

14. The Three Component Parts of the Mass Line

We have described the technique of the mass line as consisting of three parts: 1) gathering the ideas of the masses, 2) processing the ideas of the masses, and 3) taking the processed ideas back to the masses. Why just these three parts? Couldn't we have split one of the above steps in two and thereby analyzed the mass line as consisting of four parts? Or maybe 5 or 6 or 7 parts? Or could we have possibly combined two of our three steps together and talked of the mass line as a two part process?

The answer to all these questions is yes, we could have. When you analyze something what you are doing is conceptually cutting it up into pieces, and how many pieces you decide to cut it into is up to you. Fewer pieces correspond to a grosser, but easier to grasp, analysis. More pieces correspond to a finer, but more complicated analysis. For some purposes a gross analysis is appropriate; for some purposes finer analyses are appropriate.

On the other hand, a correct analysis on any level—one that accurately describes the thing or process—is not arbitrary. If you separate out one aspect of a thing, it is usually reasonable to also separate out other aspects which are on the "same level", for comparison and contrast. Thus it is somewhat strange and misleading when analyzing a thing as a whole to give a detailed analysis of certain of its aspects and a gross analysis of other of its aspects, or even to omit mention of some aspects completely. Such an unbalanced assessment tends to distort reality. Of course, if certain aspects of the thing are already assumed or well-recognized, it is appropriate to concentrate your attention on the aspects which have not so far received sufficient attention. Thus what might seem to be an unbalanced analysis may actually serve the purpose of rectifying a previous analysis which was unbalanced in the opposite way.

A Two-Part Analysis of the Mass Line

What would an accurate two-part analysis of the mass line look like? It would look like this: "From the masses, to the masses." That's right, Mao's original description/name of the method. The strength of this analysis is that it is easy to understand and fix in your mind. It focuses on the masses, and reminds you that the masses are the primary source of wisdom, and the primary agency of change. Since there is a history of revolutionaries (e.g. Stalin) forgetting such things, any analysis which serves to focus on these two important aspects is clearly of considerable value.

But on the other side, it is easy to see that the two-part analysis of the mass line also has an important weakness. Since it does not mention the processing of the ideas of the masses, it is prone to misinterpretation as bourgeois populism. As a name for the method, it is not bad, but the level of analysis is too gross for general purposes.

A Three-Part Analysis of the Mass Line

The standard three-part analysis of the mass line which we have adopted as our primary overall level of analysis is most appropriate for general purposes because:

First, it is still simple enough to clearly understand and keep firmly in mind.

Second, it corresponds to the most common level of analysis of the Marxist theory of knowledge, namely, 1) the stage of perception, 2) the stage of synthesizing the data of perception (the rational stage), and 3) the stage of applying and testing the knowledge in practice. This will be explored in more detail in chapter 30.

Third, it explicitly includes the processing step, which experience has shown is apt to be overlooked or downplayed by right opportunists.

Does the three-part analysis of the mass line still have weaknesses? Does it still leave aspects of the theory unmentioned? Of course it does. That's why there is the need for further elaboration of the theory. That's why it may sometimes be appropriate to analyze the mass line into more than three steps.

A Four-Part Analysis of the Mass Line

There is in the bourgeois literature on the mass line at least one attempt at a four-part analysis, by John Wilson Lewis:

From the conceptual viewpoint, Mao's method of the mass line has four progressive stages: perception, summarization, authorization, and implementation. That these stages exactly parallel the epistemological process of perception, conception, and verification reinforces the assertion in the previous chapter that the Communist state of mind has important practical significance.[1]

This is kind of screwy; where the so-called "authorization" stage comes from is hard to say. Despite Lewis's comment, I don't see any corresponding aspect to this in Marxist epistemology.

Of course it would be possible to come up with a four-part analysis of the mass line which makes more sense. What aspect of the mass line not already explicitly mentioned in the three-part analysis could we select out as a fourth part? There are a number of possibilities, such as the need to first have a definite leadership goal in mind, or the need to appraise the results of the line after it is returned to the masses. If you add both of these as distinct parts of the mass line process you have a five-part analysis.

A Five-Part Analysis of the Mass Line

The most complicated, multipart bourgeois analysis of the mass line which I have seen is that of Harry Harding of the RAND Corporation. Harding thinks that all "policy-making processes" by "homogeneous groups" can be analyzed in terms of five tasks: 1) problem selection, 2) proposal formulation, 3) policy selection (decision), 4) policy implementation, and 5) policy appraisal. He presents a five-part analysis of the mass line in these terms, which sort of corresponds to the five aspects I have mentioned above:

1. Problem selection. The policy-maker (hereafter, "cadre") gathers information on social, political, and economic conditions in the system. According to Mao's theory of contradictions, each social problem is the manifestation of one of the unresolved contradictions inherent in all social situations. One of these unresolved contradictions "is necessarily the principal contradiction whose existence and development determine and influence the existence and development of the other contradictions." [Mao, "On Contradiction"] Therefore, the cadre's research should analyze the principal unresolved contradiction in the social situation under study; in so doing, he is identifying the problem whose solution is most urgent.
2. Proposal formulation. The cadre "takes the ideas of the masses" on how to solve the problem.
3. Policy selection (decision). The cadre "concentrates" (Mao also uses the phrase "sums up") these ideas, and authorizes the result as Party policy. What these two expressions... mean in practice is... not at all clear. In fact, their ambiguity provides a crucial component of a major dispute between Mao and his opponents over policy-making procedure.
4. Policy implementation. The cadre is to "go to the masses" and, preferably by persuasion, enlist them in implementing the policy; the masses are to "hold fast" to the policy and "translate [it] into action."
5. Policy appraisal. The "correctness" of the policy is determined in the course of implementation.[2]

For a bourgeois analysis, this is not too bad. (Harding's analysis will be discussed further in chapter 34). It's worst weaknesses, of course, are: 1) it doesn't correctly explicate what it means to concentrate the ideas of the masses, and 2) as expected from a bourgeois commentator, it doesn't view the mass line as in essence a method of revolutionary leadership. Many other things are left vague or are somewhat askew. But the main point is that even this five-part analysis is still inadequate primarily because the role of Marxist theory, an analysis of the objective situation, and an analysis of the long-term interests of the masses, is not presented as the basis for "policy selection".

So should we bring these additional aspects of the mass line out in explicit further steps, bumping up the analysis up to 7 or 8 parts? We could. But even this would not exhaust every aspect of the mass line. No matter how many parts we specify, there will be aspects of the mass line that are still left out. This book before you may be viewed as a work which brings out dozens, or perhaps more, aspects of the mass line, but even hundreds of pages cannot say everything about it which can possibly be said. (I only hope that I have covered the main points well, and mentioned a number of the relatively more important secondary aspects and connections with other topics.) A rich theory like the mass line cannot be exhaustively represented by even a 10 or 20-part analysis.

Moreover, the more points of secondary, or tertiary importance which are explicitly stated or brought out, the greater the danger that the main themes will be lost. My solution to this dilemma is to analyze the mass line in terms of a few main points, and then to further analyze each of these main points. Thus in general, Mao's three-part analysis is best.


[1] John Wilson Lewis, Leadership in Communist China (Ithaca: Cornell, 1963), p. 72.

[2] Harry Harding, Maoist Theories of Policy-Making and Organization: Lessons from the Cultural Revolution (Santa Monica: RAND, document R-487-PR, Sept. 1969), pp. 5-6.

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