The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

17. The Scope of the Mass Line

What is the scope of the mass line? In what areas of our work can we employ the mass line, and in what areas can it help us move forward? And at what times is the mass line appropriate?

My answer is in all areas, and at all times. Not everybody believes this however. Right opportunists believe that the mass line is useful primarily in the day-to-day struggle, and that when it comes to determining revolutionary tactics and strategy, for example, the mass line is out of place (if, indeed, they are willing to admit that revolutionary struggle itself has "a place"). Other people take the opposite position: that the mass line is useful and appropriate only when it comes to determining revolutionary tactics, and that it is a form of revisionism to employ it in reformist day-to-day struggles, or indeed to participate in reformist struggles at all.

Sectarian-dogmatists seem to agree with the bourgeois-populists on one thing though, that the mass line is out of place when it comes to questions of our basic orientation, such as questions of revolutionary strategy. Because the American revolutionary movement has a history of looking at the question of strategy in a rather limited and peculiar fashion, it will take some space to sort out this whole issue. Consequently the whole next chapter will be devoted to it.

Similarly, the issue of revolutionaries engaging in reformist work, and attempting to bring leadership and organization to it, is a major question which will be explored in depth in chapter 19.

Consequently, this chapter will be brief and introductory, and will be couched in general terms.

Mao, for one, thought that the mass line should be used in all our work, in every area, on big questions and small ones. He illustrated the point with the humble issue of preventing typos in revolutionary newspapers:

You comrades are newspapermen. Your job is to educate the masses, to enable the masses to know their own interests, their own tasks and the Party's general and specific policies. Running a newspaper is like all other work, it must be done conscientiously if it is to be done well, if it is to be lively. With our newspapers, too, we must rely on everybody, on the masses of the people, on the whole Party to run them, not merely on a few persons working behind closed doors. Our papers talk about the mass line every day, yet frequently the mass line is not carried out in the work of the newspaper office itself. For instance, misprints often crop up in the papers simply because their elimination has not been tackled as a serious job. If we apply the method of the mass line, then when misprints appear, we should assemble the entire staff of the paper to discuss nothing but this matter, tell them clearly what the mistakes are, explain why they occur and how they can be got rid of and ask everyone to give the matter serious attention. After this has been done three times, or five times, such mistakes can certainly be overcome. This is true of small matters, and of big matters, too.[1]

Mao viewed not only questions of general and specific political lines as subject to the mass line, but also methods of work.[2] Even such a seemingly small thing as coming up with a political slogan can and should involve the mass line. At one point in their polemics against the revolutionaries, the opportunists who split off from the RCP in 1978 made a grudging admission that the Chairman of the Party, Bob Avakian, had coined some rather good revolutionary slogans, and made some good speeches. Since they were splitting with Avakian they tried to minimize the value of these however. In response, the revolutionaries said

it should be noted that "thinking up slogans and making speeches" is not just some clever knack, but one important indication of line. Specifically it is exactly an example of correctly combining the general and the particular—returning the ideas of the masses to them in a concentrated form so they can grasp and take them as their own.[3]

(The last sentence quoted here seems to imply that "returning the ideas of the masses to them in a concentrated form so they can grasp and take them as their own" is part of, or the same thing as, "combining the general and the particular". This is not precisely correct. It would have been more appropriate here if they had used the phrase "the mass line" rather than "combining the general and the particular", though combining the general and the particular can also be involved in thinking up slogans.)

Just because the mass line is used in a small way it does not follow that it must necessarily be used in a reformist or non-revolutionary way. In fact, since the ultimate goal is revolution, all our use of the mass line should—either directly or indirectly—be aimed at bringing about the revolution. True, when the mass line is used in some particular reformist battles, such as a particular fight for abortion rights, let us say, it may not involve explicit revolutionary struggle or even necessarily explicit revolutionary slogans (though every effort should be made to connect such things up, of course). But the revolutionary goal must color and imbue all of our work, and all of our work must be done with the revolutionary goal firmly in mind.

Bob Avakian gave a nice, balanced, view of the situation here in 1976:

Marxism is a guide to action in the broadest sense—in the sense of transforming the whole world through overthrowing capitalism and eliminating classes. Of course, Marxism also provides the basis for developing tactics for advancing immediate struggles short of the revolutionary goal; but if it is reduced to that—a guide to tactics in the day-to-day struggles—and if those day-to-day struggles are separated from the revolutionary goal which revolutionary theory reveals to us as necessary and inevitable, then things will turn into their opposite and instead of advancing we will be set back.[4]

Not only does the scope of the mass line cover all the kinds of work we do, it also covers all periods and stages of each type of work. Again, the RCP put it well:

...the application by the Party of the mass line is not only a vital question with the development of a revolutionary situation under capitalism. At all stages of the struggle, both in building toward the overthrow of capitalism and in continuing the revolutionary struggle to eliminate capitalism and all its vestiges once the bourgeoisie is overthrown, the Party must consistently apply the mass line. It must do so, both to advance the struggle and to raise ever broader numbers of the masses to the ranks of conscious revolutionaries.
   Only when the historic goal of communism has been achieved, will there no longer be a need for the Party to apply the mass line; then, in fact there will no longer be a need for the Party, because, as the Programme of the RCP states, "classes and class struggle will have been eliminated and all of society will consciously apply the principles of communism."[5]

I would only add to this the comment that while it will no longer be necessary for the Party to apply the mass line in communist society (since there will be no party), there will still need to be leadership, and that leadership will need to use something very much like the mass line method. The only differences will be in step two, processing the ideas of the masses; it will no longer be necessary to process the ideas of the masses from the perspective of making proletarian revolution, since the revolution will be complete. But it will still be necessary to process the ideas of the masses from the point of view of distilling those ideas which best serve the interests of the entire people. In other words, the mass line will still be needed, but it will be a mass line stripped of its obsolete class content.

Why should the mass line be employed in all areas of our work, and at all times? Well think about what the mass line is. It is the primary method of Marxist leadership of the masses. Everything we do is done ultimately for the purpose of leading the masses in making revolution, so it is obvious that the mass line is important in everything we do, either directly or indirectly.

At an even higher level of abstraction it can be put this way, as Mao did: "[Communist] politicians handle the mutual relations among men; they promote the mass line."[6]

I would like to close, though, with a quotation from Bob Avakian that expresses the central theme of this chapter, and perhaps the book as a whole: "...the mass line... must be the underlying method in all our work."[7]


[1] Mao, "A Talk to the Editorial Staff of the Shansi-Suiyuan Daily (April 2, 1948), SW 4:242.

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

[3] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, "Rectification is Fine; The Menshevik's Answer is Terrible", Revolution and Counter-Revolution (1978), p. 469.

[4] Bob Avakian, "Concluding Remarks", Revolutionary Work in a Non-Revolutionary Situation (1976), p. 66.

[5] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 5.

[6] Mao, "Speeches at the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress: Speech of 5-20-1958", MMTT, p. 111.

[7] Bob Avakian, Revolutionary Work in a Non-Revolutionary Situation (1976), p. 17.

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