In its famous polemic with the Soviet Union, A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement, the Communist Party of China states that "correct leadership must know how to concentrate the views of the masses". And, indeed, the concentration of the views of the masses, the processing of these diverse views in order to come up with a correct line capable of moving the mass struggle forward, is the heart and soul of the mass line method of revolutionary leadership.
What does it mean to "concentrate" the ideas of the masses? Does it just mean summarizing them without any processing or culling? The bourgeois populist Huey Long was once accused in the U.S. Senate of being an ignorant man. He responded: "It is true. I am an ignorant man.... I know the hearts of my people because I have not colored my own." He thus saw ignorance as a virtue, and viewed himself as a perfect mirror for the ideas of the people of Louisiana. Of course in reality Huey Long did have a point of view—a very bourgeois point of view. A fundamental tenet of historical materialism is that everyone has a basic point of view, a worldview, though in some cases it is more developed and coherent than in other cases. Furthermore, it is quite well established that people (whether they know it or not) must inevitably evaluate new ideas in light of their existing ones.
And for ourselves, we Marxists do not try to hide this universal fact. We openly state that we have a worldview which we use in evaluating all the new ideas and events we come across—the worldview of revolutionary Marxism. Thus for us, concentrating or processing the ideas of the masses means carefully examining them, choosing those among them which are correct and appropriate for the given situation, and discarding those which are incorrect or inappropriate. It means sifting and weighing the ideas of the masses from a definite point of view, and in light of a definite goal (revolution).
Bourgeois ideologists tend to view "public opinion" as uniform, or at least as covering only a narrow range of alternatives all more or less within the same (bourgeois) framework. Bourgeois populists are attracted to this "uniform public opinion", and seek to join up with it, and give leadership to it. A more reactionary bourgeois pole is repelled by this "uniform public opinion", and seeks simply to suppress the masses. But the dialectical view is that in public opinion there is both truth and falsehood, good things and bad things, and the goal should be to separate the two.
But how is this to be done? On what basis, exactly, is the distinction between truth and falsehood to be made? It is the purpose of this chapter to explore these questions.
One of Mao's most famous metaphors for the mass line is that of a factory which processes raw materials (the diverse ideas of the masses) and produces finished goods (a political line). Mao invoked this image on many occasions. I quoted one such passage in chapter 3; here are a couple more:
The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party can be likened to a processing factory, which uses raw material to turn out products. The finished products must be good, or otherwise mistakes are made. Knowledge comes from the masses.
We [the Party leadership] produce neither food grains nor machinery, but what
we produce are lines and policies. Line and policy are not produced from within
a vacuum. For instance, we did not invent the "four clean-ups" or the "five antis",
but it was the common people who told us about them....
(The "four clean-ups" refers, I believe, to the "four pests" campaign launched in 1958 against rats, sparrows, flies and mosquitoes. In 1960 bedbugs were substituted for sparrows after it was realized that sparrows did more good than harm—because they ate insects as well as grain. The "five antis" (wufan) campaign was a struggle in 1952 primarily against businessmen and businesses which had not yet been nationalized, focusing on bribery, tax evasion, stealing of state property, cheating on government contracts, and stealing state economic intelligence.)
While it is the central leadership bodies of the proletarian party that are most called upon to use the mass line, and thus act as a processing factory for the ideas of the masses, the same metaphor holds for local party bodies—or any group or individual—who uses the mass line. In 1953 Mao said that
Recently I made a trip to Wuhan and Nanking and learned a lot, which was very helpful. Practically nothing comes to my ear in Peking, and therefore I shall go on tour from time to time. The central leading organ is a factory which turns out ideas as its products. If it does not know what is going on at the lower levels, gets no raw material or has no semi-processed products to work on, how can it turn out any products? Sometimes finished products are turned out by the localities, and the central leading organ need only popularize them throughout the country. For instance, take the movements against the old and new "three evils". Both were initiated in the localities. The departments under the central authorities issue directives arbitrarily. The products from these departments ought to be top grade, but actually they are inferior in quality and there are large numbers of completely worthless rejects. Leading organs in the greater administrative areas and the provinces and municipalities are local factories for turning out ideas, and their products should be top grade, too.
(The movement against the old "three evils", also known as the "three antis" or sanfan campaign, was the struggle launched in 1951 against corruption, waste and bureaucracy. The movement against the new "three evils" was the struggle launched in 1953 against bureaucracy, commandism and violations of the law and discipline.)
Thus, the main difference between the party center and lower party bodies and individuals in this regard, is that in addition to processing "raw materials" directly, the party center also has as input many "semi-processed" products produced by lower or regional bodies and individual party members. (Or at least it should have such semi-processed input if the party as a whole is trained to use the mass line.) But the party leadership must not rely entirely on such semi-processed products either.
The party center receives reports from its lower bodies and rank and file members about the ideas and opinions of the masses, and this will no doubt constitute its primary source of material for the application of the mass line. But this by itself is not enough. Second hand reports are never as good as first hand investigation. Of course it is impossible for the top leadership to talk to everybody among the masses, and this is why reports from other party members are so important. But the top leaders must strive to supplement these second hand reports with as much direct investigation among the masses as they can arrange, given their limited numbers and time. They should view this as one of their central tasks.
One possible technique here is to read all the secondary reports and summations carefully and then make direct personal investigations among the masses to test the accuracy of all the secondary reports. If things don't seem to jibe, then additional investigations may be in order.
A thing is good only when it brings real benefit to the masses of the people. (Mao)
The fundamental starting place for all Marxist politics is of course the basic interests of the proletariat and the masses. Marxism, and the proletarian party, exist in order to serve these basic interests, and for no other reason.
Our duty is to hold ourselves responsible to the people. Every word, every act and every policy must conform to the people's interests, and if mistakes occur, they must be corrected—that is what being responsible to the people means. (Mao)
Our most fundamental principle for evaluating anything is whether or not it advances the real interests of the masses. If it does, it is good. If it doesn't, it is not good. Within the context of Marxist-Leninist ethical theory, that is what the word 'good' means.
(In general, and beyond moral contexts, the word 'good' means: "answering to (or meeting) certain interests". This meaning becomes narrower and more specific in language expressing moral views. The question of whose interests are at stake, for example, is no longer a matter to be decided by the context, but instead is always the collective interests of "the people". However, even that is not the complete story, because in class society "the people" has a class dimension. That is, morality is at bottom simply a matter of collective class interests in class society. I will be elaborating on all this in another work.)
But this fundamental principle has a corollary which is just as important: only through proletarian revolution can the fundamental interests of the masses be satisfied. This is a matter of fact about bourgeois society. I make no attempt to prove it here; I just take it for granted as irrefutably established and completely obvious (at least to genuine Marxists).
Thus, within bourgeois class society, to say that something advances the proletarian revolution is (or should be) the same as saying that it advances the most basic interests of the masses, and vice versa. These two things amount to the same thing. (There is however a point in constantly insisting on this connection. It helps expose revisionist attempts to distort the meaning and purpose of the revolution, for example.)
Consequently we may say either that our primary principle for evaluating the ideas of the masses is whether such ideas advance the real, fundamental interests of the masses, or, whether such ideas advance the revolutionary process. Whichever way it is formulated, this is the basic principle we use in the processing step of the mass line.
It is true that besides their fundamental, ultimate interests, which can only be addressed by revolution, the masses also have immediate, day-to-day interests. We will discuss these subsidiary interests, and their relation to revolution and the mass line, in chapter 19.
How do we determine whether or not something is in the fundamental interests of the masses? By checking to see if it advances the proletarian revolution. How do we determine whether or not something advances the proletarian revolution? By mastering the theory of revolution (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism), by studying history, by studying the objective situation, and through revolutionary practice. Where our mastery of Marxism and other knowledge is insufficient, we will make mistakes. But through both successes and failures we become wiser, and our revolutionary theory develops. On the one hand we must face many new and unfamiliar situations as we proceed along the path of revolution. But on the other hand, our guiding revolutionary theory is always getting more sophisticated, more profound, and better able to handle new situations.
I have already said a number of times that it is revolution which encompasses the basic needs of the masses; in other words, it is a plain and simple fact that only through proletarian revolution can these fundamental interests be addressed. But the point is just as valid when looked at from the other side: genuine social revolution is only possible if it actually seeks to, and does, satisfy the fundamental needs and interests of the masses. Otherwise the process will inevitably abort somewhere along the line. As Marx wrote, "revolutions require a passive element, a material basis. Theory can be realized in a people only insofar as it is the realization of the needs of that people." Those who do not focus on the genuine interests of the people will inevitably lead the revolutionary struggle into a dead-end sooner or later (if they can even get it started at all!).
In order to process the ideas of the masses one must have not only the raw material to process, but also the machinery and techniques to process it with. In the case of the mass line our "machinery" consists of:
1) Our already existing knowledge and theory. This means primarily our already existing theory of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as it has been developed to date. But it also includes a knowledge of history and of similar past situations, as interpreted from the Marxist perspective. And it includes a rational, scientific perspective in general.
2) An investigation and analysis of the objective conditions and situation facing the masses and the party. (This aspect of the mass line will be discussed in chapter 20.)
The basic idea is to carefully consider the ideas of the masses as the basis for mass action; to consider the probable results of following each possible line, based on our Marxist theory, our investigation and analysis of the objective situation, and any other relevant knowledge we may possess. To process the ideas of the masses is thus to evaluate the likely results of basing political line and action on these various ideas. We calculate what the results of each line would be in terms of the basic interests of the people. The result which most promises to advance these basic interests of the masses, we judge to be the best. Since it is proletarian revolution which encompasses the ultimate interests of the masses, this is the same as saying that we seek to identify which political line, deriving from the various ideas of the masses, will actually best advance the revolutionary process.
There are many ways of expressing this point of view. Because of its multitudinous aspects, the emphasis is sometimes placed here, and sometimes there. Sometimes Marxists emphasize that correct political line comes from the masses; sometimes they emphasize that correct political line must be in the interests of the masses; sometimes they emphasize that correct political line must be in accord with Marxist ideology; sometimes they emphasize that correct political line must be revolutionary; and sometimes they emphasize that correct political line must be based on objective conditions. All of these things are true, and none conflicts with any of the others! Mao, for example, while constantly talking about the importance of learning from the masses in order to construct a correct political line, also said that
The correctness or incorrectness of a political, military, or organizational line fundamentally depends on whether it starts ideologically from the Marxist-Leninist theory of dialectical and historical materialism and from the objective realities of the Chinese revolution and the objective needs of the Chinese people.
Contrary to the views of dogmatists, there is no inherent conflict whatsoever between basing a political line on Marxist ideology and basing the line on the views of the masses. Nor is there any conflict between either of these and basing political line on objective conditions, or on the interests of the masses, or on the need for revolution. The mass line is precisely the mechanism that allows us to do all these things simultaneously. This is the elemental truth that dogmatists and "left" sectarians simply don't comprehend.
The question also arises here of how the mass line can be used to advance Marxist theory itself, if Marxist theory must be employed in the mass line process. "You can't come up with Marxist theory unless you already have Marxist theory." To the undialectial, this sounds like a catch-22 situation, but it is not. It is simply a statement to the effect that we are in no position to learn more if we throw out everything we already know. To develop and extend and, yes, even sometimes modify, revise and discard parts of existing Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory, we must employ that existing theory as our primary tool. Not only Marxism, but human knowledge and wisdom as a whole advances in this way. We are constantly refining, extending, and modifying our knowledge and theories on the basis not only of our interactions with the world (our practice), but also on the basis of our existing knowledge and theories. We never throw out all we know and start from scratch; progress is completely impossible that way. (See chapter 30 for more on this.)
I said above that the basic idea in processing the ideas of the masses is to try to determine what the results would be if we were to base our political line and action on these various ideas. Using our existing political theory we try to envisage what would really happen if a particular idea of the masses was used as the basis for the mass struggle.
Thus both imagination and level-headedness are called for. We need to extrapolate, without getting carried away.
What we are talking about here is the mental manipulation of a model of reality. The better the model, and the more sensible our manipulation of it, the more likely we are to learn something useful and applicable to our revolutionary practice in the real world.
This is a lot like doing a thought experiment in physics. Those who are unfamiliar with science may not be aware of how important thought experiments are. Galileo, Newton and Einstein used them extensively, and found them indispensable. (Einstein, in particular, was a master of the art.)
To give just one illustration, Galileo convinced himself that bodies of unequal weight fall at the same speed (disregarding air resistance), not by dropping them off the Tower of Pisa (as is often falsely stated), but simply by considering that tying two weights together with a string (and thus making them into a single "system") would not make them fall faster.
Now to be sure, thought experiments are subordinate to physical experiments, both in physics and the mass line. In physics, thought experiments are used to suggest theories, while physical experiments are used to verify them. The same is true with the mass line: we process the ideas of the masses mentally to come up with a political line we think will advance the revolutionary struggle; then we test it in practice.
In the future, in socialist society, it may be possible in some spheres to make this modeling aspect of the mass line somewhat more rigorous and less of a subjective art. It is conceivable, for example, that certain computer simulations of social changes in the relations of production might be of value in deciding what ideas of the masses to try in socialist economics. The whole point of a computer simulation is to work out what would happen if changes were made to a model of reality. But there are at present some pretty severe limitations with what may be modeled this way. Perhaps such mass line simulations would only be worthwhile in considering certain of the more complex possibilities posed by the masses' ideas on technical matters. Undoubtedly a revolutionary stance and grasp of Marxism must remain the most important thing in our mental models, and this means that computers will probably be of only limited help in this area.
My text for this section is the following excerpt from the RCP's 1976 pamphlet on the mass line:
...the experience of the masses is governed by the internal contradictions
of capitalism and the laws of development of nature and society. The understanding
of the masses of the need to overthrow capitalism grows together with the sharpening
of the contradictions of capitalism and the development toward a revolutionary
situation—a situation in which the capitalist system is in deep economic and/or
political crisis, the robbery of the workers is more intensified and the criminal
absurdity of capitalism, with its want and starvation amidst plenty, are laid even
more bare than in "normal" times; when the ruling class is forced into ever more
cut-throat competition in its own ranks, and the masses of people feel the urgency
and see the possibility of destroying the chains that enslave them to capital.
Whether or not the RCP intended to imply it (and I think they did), the first paragraph above suggests to me the view that the ideas of the masses—which serve as our raw material for the mass line—tend to develop appropriately as the revolutionary situation develops. Or, as the Germans say, "kommt Zeit, kommt Rat" (at the right time the right ideas will arise). This is a very important observation, with important ramifications.
1) First, it is one of the reasons why we must not despair if the masses do not seem to be as revolutionary as we would wish during the early stages of the revolutionary process. We must really understand that the ideas and mood of the masses can and will change in a revolutionary direction as the development of the situation warrants. (Of course this assumes that the proletarian party is engaging in the necessary revolutionary agitation and mass line leadership.)
2) Second, it helps to explain why we will be able to learn how to make revolution from the masses who at first do not seem all that concerned to make revolution.
It is this second point I wish to focus on here for a moment. The mass line is a tool which is primarily of importance in advancing the current situation. We know at some point a revolutionary insurrection will be necessary, for example, but it is ridiculous to use the mass line in the early stages of the development of the mass struggle (i.e., in a non-revolutionary situation) to try to learn much from the masses about how to organize the insurrection. That will be possible, and necessary, at some point, but only in the appropriate situation.
In processing the ideas of the masses we must not forget that it is the ideas of the masses with respect to advancing the current situation, whatever it is, that primarily concerns us. (And, in order to explicitly rule out any revisionist interpretation here we must of necessity repeat that, by "advancing the current situation" we are always talking about advancing it in the direction of revolution.)
Marx said that humanity only seriously tackles the questions it is capable of resolving, and only when it is capable of resolving them. The proletariat, specifically, must resolve the difficulties facing it step by step. The revolutionary process must develop in a step-by-step manner. One of the worst failings of "left" adventurists is that they cannot get this fact through their heads.
Consider for example an extreme case, the anarchists. They know the state must be abolished, but they just cannot accept that it can only be abolished at the appropriate time, when the conditions for its abolition are satisfied. Because of this, they actually oppose the very measures that in the long run will lead to the abolition of the state. In their simple-mindedness, they actually stand in the way of the very thing they most desire.
The truly revolutionary tasks of the day always correspond to the current situation, to the actual development of society. Those who can only think about what we must do on the eve of the insurrection are of no help in getting us to that wonderful eve. I am not denying in any way that communists must have a long-term perspective, and must have—at least in general outline—a basic, overall plan for revolution. Indeed, long-term planning is as essential in making revolution as it is anywhere, probably more so. But the plain fact is we can't get anywhere unless we can determine how to take the very next step. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step." Naturally that step must be in the right direction, but of all the steps in the entire journey, it is the one you had best know how to accomplish right now.
The mass line is primarily a tool for helping the party leadership determine the next step in the overall revolutionary process, and how exactly this next step can best be accomplished. Lao Zi [Lao Tse] is said to have remarked: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." With the mass line, the teacher (the appropriate line from the party) can only appear when the student is ready, because the teacher must first learn from the student (the masses) what that line should be. I hope the reader reads the deep dialectics of the mass line into Lao Zi's remark.
Suppose then, that in our processing of the ideas of the masses we are unable to find any good ideas for advancing the struggle. What would such a circumstance mean? It would mean one of two things: 1) either we have not investigated the ideas of the masses sufficiently, or 2) we are looking for ideas among the masses which are not really appropriate to advancing the current situation.
"Left"-sectarians do not see much use for the mass line in non-revolutionary times because they are only looking for overtly revolutionary ideas among the masses, and can't find many. They are not even looking for the ideas which can in fact advance the current situation toward revolution, and—since they are not looking—they never find such ideas. If they try to keep to such a stance they will end up despising the masses, and forsaking revolution themselves.
It is also true, as the RCP notes in the above passage, that as the masses confront new and immediate problems, they come up with lots of false ideas for dealing with them, as well as correct ideas. All kinds of ideas develop among the masses as they confront difficult problems, and develop all the more richly as the immediacy of the problem increases. But that should come as no surprise; it is just why we need the processing step in the mass line to sort out the good and the bad ideas.
In processing the ideas of the masses we adopt some, and we discard others. But what do we mean exactly when we say we "discard" some of the ideas of the masses? We "discard" them, but we also keep them in mind. We discard them only in the sense that we do not adopt them as the basis for political line and mass action.
We must keep these "discarded" ideas in mind in our agitational work, for example. We must know what the masses are thinking if we are to effectively approach the task of changing their views. Both our agitational work in step three of the mass line process, and our more general agitation and propaganda must be informed and guided by all we know about the masses and their initial viewpoints.
We must keep the "discarded" ideas of the masses in mind in our efforts to lead the masses, as well as to educate them. To lead you must know the mood and ideas of those you are trying to lead.
Moreover, we must keep the "discarded" views of the masses in the back of our minds for another reason. There may well be further applications of the mass line required in order to achieve our goals. Some of these "discarded" ideas, or variations on them, may eventually need to be adopted as the basis for mass action after all.
Of course we value most the correct ideas of the masses. But we must also pay some attention to their ideas that we think are wrong, and even those that are clearly and definitely wrong. First of all, we may find that some of these ideas are right after all. But even the ideas that cannot possibly be right are still important in that they reflect aspects of the current mood and thinking of the masses, which is important for us to know in our political work.
Moreover, we must not view incorrect ideas among the masses in the same way we view those same ideas when consolidated in a political line of an opportunist party. This is a point that was well stressed in the "Main Political Report" to the first Party congress of the RCP (1975). Many wildly incorrect ideas exist among the masses due to their bourgeois indoctrination. But many of these erroneous ideas are rather superficially held, and in any case can be overcome through the repeated application of the mass line and through struggle.
It is entirely appropriate to hate the enemy and their viewpoint. But we must never hate the masses for their backward views, even though we understand full well that most of these views are really those of the imperialists in the mouths of the masses. With the masses we must show patience, and we must remember that we ourselves once accepted many of these very same backward views. We must always oppose backward views, but we must do so in an entirely different way with the masses than we do when confronting the enemy directly.
It seems to me that the processing or concentration step in the mass line process is really quite conceptually straight-forward. But not everyone thinks so. According to the bourgeois Sinologist John Bryan Starr, "The second stage of the [mass line] process—that of 'concentrating' or 'centralizing' the ideas of the masses—is a crucial, yet ambiguous one." In reality there is nothing at all "ambiguous" about it, though we must briefly explore why bourgeois authors suppose that there is.
Basically Starr and other Sinologists get confused by Mao's supposedly "conflicting" statements about how the ideas of the masses are to be processed. Mao says in various places that correct lines must come from the masses, and in other places that they must be in accordance with Marxist-Leninist theory. Sometimes he stresses the interests of the masses. Sometimes objective conditions. Mao says that you must have a broad perspective and "take the whole situation into account", and yet that you must lead in light of the "existing circumstances of each locality." All these multitudinous aspects of what is involved in processing the ideas of the masses seem to conflict to bourgeois thinkers; they are unable to integrate all this into a coherent whole. And thus for them this step of the mass line is "ambiguous".
Of course we couldn't care less if bourgeois scholars are unable to understand the mass line. But it is a serious matter when communists misunderstand its essential steps. The major misconception for those making rightist errors, with respect to the processing step of the mass line, is that they fail to see that Marxist ideology needs to be employed in the selection process. The major misconception for those making "leftist" errors here is to suppose that the selection process amounts simply to looking among the ideas of the masses for those which we already agree with, ones that are in accord with what we communists already know to be the road forward.
In chapter 3 I already criticized these erroneous misconceptions, and quoted the RCP to the effect that "the mass line is not a gimmick". Processing the ideas of the masses does not mean replacing the ideas of the masses with the ideas of the party. It is not simply a matter of selecting ideas we have already long championed, and getting rid of all other ideas from the masses. Instead it means seriously considering the new ideas the masses have, ideas which in general are new to us as well, ones we did not already know. Of course we consider these ideas in light of the interests of the masses, in light of Marxist theory, the objective situation, and so forth. But we do consider them, and we do learn from the masses in the process.
Mao once remarked in a conversation with André Malraux that "We must teach to the masses clearly what we have received from them confusedly." Some people have interpreted such comments in an incredibly narrow way—as if all we were doing was straightening out the syntax in what we hear from the masses. Actually a tremendous amount of consideration and work takes place in the processing step of the mass line. The mass line is indeed the theory of "from the masses, to the masses", it is indeed based first of all on the ideas of the masses themselves which we do not generally already know, but a lot lies between the "from the masses" and the "to the masses".
The third step in the mass line process is returning the line to the masses, which will be taken up in detail in chapter 21. But before doing that, I will explore several aspects of the second step, the concentrating step, in more detail over the next several chapters.
Go to Chapter 17
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