The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

22. The Mood of the Masses

Everyone—including bourgeois populists and "left" sectarians—agrees that we must pay close attention to the mood of the masses. The problem with both of these trends is that they tend to overemphasize the importance of this to the detriment of other considerations and work. The bourgeois populists want to blindly follow the moods of the masses, without ever doing much to educate the masses and change their moods. The "left" sectarians recognize that revolutionaries must help change the mood of the masses, but they frequently imagine that this is all there is to changing the political consciousness of the masses, or that it is the most important part of it. "Left" sectarians also recognize that we must learn from the masses, but they sometimes imagine that all we have to learn from them is their current mood—whether they are ready to take immediate revolutionary action. They fail to see that we must also learn from the mass how we are to advance to a revolutionary situation and a revolutionary mood, step by step.

Still, while appraising the mood of the masses is definitely not the most essential aspect of the mass line, it is important. At times it even becomes extremely critical.

Appraising the Mood of the Masses

How do you determine the mood of the masses? The bourgeoisie frequently goes about it by taking a poll. There are a number of objections to such a method, such as the usual superficiality of such polls, their limited nature, etc. But the biggest problem is generally their ideological bias. The typical question in a public opinion survey is analogous to asking husbands if they still beat their wives—and accepting only yes or no answers; the question is loaded with bourgeois presuppositions. In political polls, for example, people are asked if they intend to vote for the Democrats or the Republicans. (Or they might be asked "Which party do you intend to vote for in the upcoming election?"—which amounts to nearly the same thing since there are only the two establishment parties with any significant presence in most U.S. elections.) Such polls come out with say 30% each for the Democrats and the Republicans, and 40% in the "not sure" category. The results are then reported as showing public opinion running neck and neck between support for the Democrats and support for the Republicans. But when the election actually comes usually far less than half of the voting-age citizens will vote at all. So what then is the masses' real attitude toward the Democrats or Republicans? It is definitely a lot different than simple 50%/50% support for the two major bourgeois parties.

It is conceivable that polls may sometimes be of use in determining the real mood of the masses, or even for promoting revolutionary ideas. One example of this is a poll done by the RCP in 1985 in the working class city of Richmond, California. The people were asked the question of whether or not they would be willing to turn to revolution to prevent World War III. A majority said yes. Not only was this interesting for what it told us about the views of the masses, it undoubtedly helped advance revolutionary views among those masses polled by getting them to think seriously about the importance of revolution.

Even bourgeois polls are occasionally instructive. The Wall Street Journal reported on one such poll in 1989 which revealed the tremendous degree of cynicism of workers with regard to "whatever their bosses tell them", but also showed that "fully 43% of America's working population believe 'lying, putting on a false face and doing whatever it takes to make a buck' are part of our basic human nature".[1] It is important to be aware of the extent of such bourgeois attitudes among the workers.

But it is not through polls of any kind that the proletarian party primarily determines the mood of the masses. It is by being close to the masses, and more than that, by listening to the masses, by drawing them out on an individual basis, especially while participating with the masses in their struggles. Public opinion polls can at most only supplement the close daily contact of the party with the people, and cannot replace that contact. If polls have to be relied on as the means of learning the opinions of the masses, then the party has become hopelessly detached from the masses, hopelessly bourgeois.

Another way of losing touch with the masses is by "going underground" and adopting a strategy of urban guerrilla warfare. In Patty Hearst's book about her kidnapping by the "Symbionese Liberation Army" and her joining up with the tiny group, she recounts what the SLA leader, Cinque, had to say about how they "kept in touch with the people": "Cin told me the SLA had intelligence agents all over California who were eavesdropping in restaurants, mass gatherings, and public places to hear first-hand the troubles and the problems voiced by the people."[2] It turned out that Cin was lying about having any such "agents"; but even if it had been true it would only show how divorced from the masses the SLA really was. Imagine! "Eavesdropping in restaurants" to keep in touch with the masses!

The primary means for a genuine communist party to know the mood and mind of the masses is the constant application of the mass line, together with the feedback from constant work of political education.

This remains true in socialist society, of course, and must be insisted on all the more there because of the inevitable tendencies under socialism toward bureaucratism and the development of a new bourgeois class—if the masses are not regularly mobilized to prevent this. Mao constantly talked about the importance of learning the moods of the masses, and the proper techniques for doing so. In the following he stresses the importance of cadres getting out among the masses:

Many comrades bury themselves in office work and do not study problems. Mustn't office work be attended to? Certainly it must. It won't do to neglect such work, but it would be dangerous to attend to it exclusively without studying problems. If you don't go among the cadres and the masses, or if, when among them, you are always taking them to task instead of consulting and exchanging views with them, saying "What do you think of my ideas? Please tell me your opinions," you won't be able to sense the political climate, your nose will become insensitive and you will catch cold politically. Once your nose is stopped up, you can't tell what the climate is at a given time.... This situation calls for attention. It is very bad for anyone to be occupied solely with office work to the neglect of studying problems, going among the masses and cadres and consulting with them.[3]

Should the Party Reflect the Mood of the Masses?

Not necessarily! As Lenin remarked,

...we are a party leading the masses to socialism, and not at all one which follows every change in mood or depression in the spirits of the masses. All Social-Democratic parties have had to cope at times with the apathy of the masses, or their infatuation with some error, some fashion (chauvinism, anti-Semitism, anarchism, Boulangism, etc.), but never do consistently revolutionary Social-Democrats [communists] yield to every changing mood of the masses.[4]

Of course the party should generally reflect a revolutionary mood! That, in fact, is the highest goal of the party, to help create a revolutionary mood among the masses as a part of an overall revolutionary consciousness, to reflect that mood when it arises, and give appropriate leadership to the masses especially when they are in such a revolutionary mood.

However, the party should not give in to a premature revolutionary mood among the masses even if it is widespread and genuine. That is, "give in" in the sense of encouraging premature action. Lenin said that

In many countries of Western Europe, the revolutionary mood, we might say, is at present a "novelty", or a "rarity", which has all too long been vainly and impatiently awaited; perhaps that is why people so easily yield to that mood.[5]

Lenin's point is that there is more to a successful revolution than just a revolutionary mood, including other aspects of the objective situation, correct strategy and tactics, etc.

It must be fully recognized that general revolutionary moods among the broad masses in bourgeois society are a rarity. Even during periods which in retrospect may be appropriately called the "years of revolution" there will be ups and downs in people's moods, and times when cynicism and despair temporarily take over. Of course we must be cognizant of all the moods of the masses, including such negative moods, but as Lenin remarks in the following passage, these ups and downs must not deflect us from our revolutionary program and strategy (which, it is worth noting again, Lenin calls "tactics"). Note also Lenin's implicit warning against those who would ascribe their own negative moods unjustly to the masses:

The elections affected the masses, and showed, not only their fleeting mood but their profound interests. It is altogether unworthy of Marxists to revert from class interests (expressed by the party grouping at the elections) to a fleeting mood. The mood of the deputies may be one of gloom, while the economic interests of the masses may call forth a mass struggle. An assessment of "mood", therefore, may be necessary to determine the amount for some action, step, appeal, etc., but certainly not to determine proletarian tactics. To argue differently would mean replacing sustained proletarian tactics by unprincipled dependence on "mood". And all the time, the point at issue was that of a line and had nothing to do with a "moment". Whether or not the proletariat has at present recovered (and Narodnaya Gazeta does not think so) is of importance in deciding the "moment" for action, but not in determining the tactical line of action of the working class.[6]

Rosa Luxemburg said much the same thing in a letter to a wavering comrade (and note that, like Lenin, she also uses the word 'tactic' where we would use the word 'strategy'):

There is nothing more changeable than human psychology. Especially since the psyche of the masses always harbors—like Thalatta, the eternal sea—all sorts of latent possibilities: deathly calm and raging storm, the basest cowardliness and the wildest heroism. The masses are always what they must be, what the given historical conditions make of them, and they are always on the brink of becoming something totally different from what they seem to be. It's a fine ship's captain, indeed, who would steer a course according to the momentary appearance of the water's surface and wouldn't know how to deduce from the signs in the sky and on the sea whether or not a storm was brewing! My dear little girl, "disappointment in the masses" is always the most disgraceful attitude a political leader could have. A truly great leader adjusts his tactic not in accordance with the momentary mood of the masses, but in accordance with the iron laws of historical development. He sticks to his tactic despite all disappointments and, for the rest, allows history to bring its work to maturity.[7]

Yielding to backward moods, and abandoning a revolutionary program because of them, is such a common phenomenon that it is worth stressing the danger a bit more. In 1906 Lenin quoted with approval the remarks of another Bolshevik [Voyinov] to the effect that "the Mensheviks are impressionists, people who yield to the mood of the moment." They may embrace the proletarian upsurge, when that is in vogue, but will then "trot behind" the bourgeois parties when the revolutionary atmosphere temporarily ebbs.[8] This reminds me of the American social-democratic group which founded the magazine Socialist Revolution in the heady days of 1970, but renamed the thing Socialist Review a few years later when the idea of revolution lost its "respectability" in their milieu. Later still, when the word 'socialism' became suspect for them, they refounded the magazine under the name Radical Society. I imagine that in the present reactionary period even the word 'radical' is making them somewhat nervous; perhaps we will soon see it renamed once again as Happy Society, or some such thing!

Why do people shift and wobble like this? Because they are opportunists who are incapable of remaining true to principles and true to the real long-term interests of the masses. Lenin put it well:

The opportunist does not betray his party, he does not act as a traitor, he does not desert it. He continues to serve it sincerely and zealously. But his typical and characteristic trait is that he yields to the mood of the moment, he is unable to resist what is fashionable, he is politically short-sighted and spineless. Opportunism means sacrificing the permanent and essential interests of the party to the momentary, transient and minor interests.[9]

The Usual Mood of the Masses

What is the usual mood of the masses in this country? Overall there is tremendous and growing displeasure and resentment among the masses at their conditions of life, their treatment by the government, their future prospects, and the way things are going in general. Bob Avakian put it a bit stronger back in 1980: "already today there are millions of people who hate this system and desire a drastic change".[10] And certainly this mood of hostility towards the present situation and daily trend of events is deeper and more widely held now (1992). It has even spread beyond the basic proletariat to large sections of the better off workers and the petty-bourgeoisie. But is this the same as saying that the masses, or a large section of them, or even large sections of the basic proletariat, are already in a revolutionary mood? No, it is not; not even close.

One of the problems is that even most of those who "desire a drastic change" have little or no idea of what kinds of changes are needed or how they can be brought about. Very few of them really understand just how drastic a change is necessary, that a social revolution is necessary. In fact, it is not even fully correct to say that many of the presently disgruntled masses hate "this system"; instead, most simply hate the situation they find themselves in. If they understood enough to "hate this system" then their revolutionary consciousness would be considerably further developed than it actually is; they would understand that this is just one system, and that there are other possibilities.

A mood of disgruntlement is a far cry from a revolutionary mood. Even a very intense anger, such as appears to be developing in the U.S., is by no means a revolutionary mood. If there is little or no class consciousness, and thus little or no recognition of the need to make a change in which class rules, there can be little or no revolutionary consciousness worthy of the name. And for there to be a genuine revolutionary mood, there must be at least a primitive revolutionary consciousness.

In fact, Lenin even described the mood of the Russian masses during the 1905 revolution as not fully revolutionary:

The broad masses... were still too naïve, their mood was too passive, too good-natured, too Christian. They flared up rather quickly; any instance of injustice, excessively harsh treatment by the officers, bad food, etc., could lead to revolt. But what they lacked was persistence, a clear perception of aim, a clear understanding that only the most vigorous continuation of the armed struggle, only a victory over all the military and civil authorities, only the overthrow of the government and the seizure of power throughout the country could guarantee the success of the revolution.
      The broad masses of sailors and soldiers were easily roused to revolt. But with equal light-heartedness they foolishly released arrested officers. They allowed the officers to pacify them by promises and persuasion; in this way the officers gained precious time, brought in reinforcements, broke the strength of the rebels, and then followed the most brutal suppression of the movement and the execution of its leaders.[11]

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to misjudge the character of present-day mass disgruntlement. In the same 1980 article I quoted from above, Bob Avakian points out that mood and consciousness are not the same thing:

In fact, it is quite true that there are indeed millions of people in this country who right now are in such a mood that if they actually saw a revolutionary situation they would not only welcome it but they would be overjoyed and would rush to the front with a gun in their hand. But the mere fact that there is a sizable minority of people who have such sentiments does not make a revolutionary situation, nor does it even lead all or most of them to be revolutionary-minded, or at least willing to consistently work and struggle for revolution. Such a truly revolutionary outlook doesn't develop fully among even the majority of these people when they can see that the rest of society is not in that position, and not in a revolutionary mood.[12]

But actually the problem is much deeper than that. It is not just that people aren't in a revolutionary mood because they do not see lots of other people in a revolutionary mood yet. No matter how deep their anger becomes, even to the point of picking up weapons, they will not begin to develop a truly revolutionary mood until they come to understand something about who they are and who the enemy is. Very few among the American masses today even vaguely understand what a revolution is, and until they do come to understand this basic idea they cannot possibly get into anything like a genuine revolutionary mood. The painful truth is that there is little or no genuinely revolutionary mass consciousness in the U.S. today—and therefore no immediate possibility of a revolutionary mood—despite all the rising mass anger.

(Note added March, 2000: A lot of this mass anger of the 1980s dissipated during the 1990s, though it will inevitably return again.)

The plain fact of the matter is that most of the time, the broad masses will not be in a revolutionary mood, even when they do develop a firm class consciousness. Revolutionary moods are rare and all the more valuable, all the more to be treasured and seized upon, just because they are so rare. This is especially the case in bourgeois society. Under socialism it should be possible to achieve and maintain revolutionary moods more easily and for longer periods of time, but even then there will inevitably be periods of consolidation or even retreat, when the overall mood of the masses will be less than revolutionary.

To imagine that the masses can always be in a revolutionary mood is to idealize the masses. It is in effect to suppose that communism can be achieved in a single day, that all the consciousness necessary for achieving the many tasks of the revolution can suddenly come into being in a single instant. In the real world there must be periods of consolidation, and sometimes retreat, between the revolutionary advances. Even the most revolutionary mood has its limits.

There is much in bourgeois society that lends itself to moods of despair and hopelessness. Life under capitalism is after all one long series of attacks on the masses, and while this must ultimately lead to a social explosion, it will also lead in the meanwhile to a lot of negativism and cynicism. Most of the time in bourgeois society most of the masses will feel that the system cannot be changed, and that it is foolish to try. We should recognize these negative moods among the masses, and not try to deny them when they are real. But no matter how despairing the masses may be at times, this should not make us revolutionaries despair in turn. For we know that though it happens infrequently on a massive scale, the mood of the masses can suddenly swing from cynicism and despair to revolutionary anger and determination. All it takes is one such general swing in mood, in the right circumstances, to bring about a revolutionary situation and an insurrectionary conjuncture.

While generalized revolutionary moods among the broad masses are rare in bourgeois society, it is not all that rare for there to be flashes of a similar sort here and there, among small groups of people in particular situations. In the ghettos and proletarian workplaces there are always outrages going on, many of which lead to isolated flare ups. For a moment the masses involved forget their despair and their pessimism. They are compelled by circumstances to forget their usual belief that nothing can be changed, and to actually rise up in anger to demand some changes. The issue may be small, the demands may be limited, but there is nevertheless something wonderful going on here. It is a liberating moment for the people involved, a moment when hopelessness is forgotten, and many things seem possible. It is at such moments when breakthroughs in basic consciousness are most likely.

Revolutionaries must step into these situations, and whenever possible not as outsiders, but as participants along with the masses. They must bring light to the masses involved—whether it is 2 or 3 people, or tens of thousands. They must help the people see that, yes, many things are possible that formerly seemed impossible, including a complete revolutionary change of society. While the masses are still at the peak of their liberating mood, while they are open to new ideas and feeling something of their collective power, they must be given the deeper ideas and revolutionary literature necessary for them to make a real advance in their revolutionary consciousness, a permanent advance. This is the time for the real progress toward revolution.

Unfortunately, very few such occasions are seized upon by revolutionaries today. Most of the time, at present, when mass flare-ups occur there are not any real revolutionaries directly involved in the struggle. Most of the time, revolutionaries on the outside do not seriously involve themselves. Most of the time, when revolutionaries do involve themselves in such struggles, it is too little and too late. It is distressing to admit it, but we must face up to the fact that at present almost all our real opportunities for advancing the revolutionary consciousness of the masses are wasted.

At the beginning of a revolutionary movement—and we must firmly understand that in the U.S. we are still at the beginning—this is inevitable. Our forces are too few for it to be any different. But the biggest problem today is not with our small forces. If we approach the masses in the right way, our numbers will grow. If our political line, and our use of the mass line, is correct, we will make advances. New people will constantly be coming forward, and as our numbers grow we will miss fewer and fewer opportunities to raise the revolutionary consciousness of sections of the masses, and eventually, of the masses as a whole.

To a large extent, the task of revolutionaries in getting from where we are today to that revolutionary situation we all dream of, is a matter of generalizing and linking up these "isolated" spontaneous upsurges of the masses—in short, making them less isolated. This means primarily making them less isolated ideologically. It is not primarily a question of physically joining up the separate outbreaks and confrontations, but of raising the consciousness of the people involved in the separate struggles so that they more and more aim toward the same overall solution of proletarian revolution. People must be brought to understand that all their separate struggles have a common ultimate goal.

Of course each of these limited struggles can only go so far. Whether the immediate struggle is won or lost, the liberating moment will soon fade. Especially when such battles are lost—as must usually be the case—there will be a tendency on the part of many to sink back even deeper into despair and cynicism. This can really only be prevented if the masses involved are prepared for this eventuality ahead of time. After all, the largest part of gaining a revolutionary consciousness is coming to understand that reformist struggle, no matter how militant and temporarily successful, is not the final answer to the people's problems, and that only through proletarian revolution can there be any fundamental and lasting change. The very fact that people do tend to sink deeper into despair after failed struggles on a small scale, struggles which are almost invariably reformist in nature, proves that real revolutionary consciousness is not being brought to them while the struggles are in progress or in the period of summation in the immediate aftermath.

All this goes double for large rebellions and truly revolutionary struggle, which occasionally rises to the surface. Most such outbreaks, even those on a fairly large scale, will be defeated. We know that, and we must help the masses to understand it too. But we must also help them to understand that despite the suppression of this or that outbreak, progress toward the revolutionary goal can be made. The logic of revolution is (as Mao said) struggle and defeat, struggle and defeat, and finally struggle and victory. Part of implanting revolutionary consciousness is implanting the recognition among the masses that there must inevitably be many small and medium-sized defeats, leading up to a great final victory.

Lenin, in a number of places, shows how we should respond to attacks by the enemy against revolutionaries and the masses. Instead of letting such persecution discourage people, he shows how we should try to turn things around and help encourage their resistance and increase their understanding. In 1902, for example, the Tsarist government tried to crush Lenin's League of Struggle and the newborn working-class movement in St. Petersburg. Lenin did not try to deny the reactionary assault, or try to downplay it, but he explained that the reason for the attempt to crush the revolutionary movement was that the government feared it was growing stronger and getting out of hand. Furthermore, although there were many arrests, the clampdown also had the effect of raising the consciousness of large numbers of workers and of bringing forward fresh revolutionary forces:

The government has set itself the aim of preventing the new trend in the Russian revolutionary movement from gaining strength and getting on its feet. The public prosecutors and gendarmes are already boasting that they have smashed the League of Struggle.
      This boast is a lie. The League of Struggle is intact, despite all the persecution. With deep satisfaction we declare that the wholesale arrests are doing their job—they are a powerful weapon of agitation among the workers and socialist intellectuals, that the places of the fallen revolutionaries are being taken by new people who are ready, with fresh energy, to join the ranks of the champions of the Russian proletariat and the entire people of Russia. There can be no struggle without sacrifice, and to the brutal persecution of the tsarist bashi-bazouks we calmly reply: Revolutionaries have perished—long live the revolution![13]

To me this is a model of how to react in the face of reactionary attacks—not lies about what happened, but a revolutionary interpretation of events. No matter what defeats the revolutionary movement may suffer, we will accomplish a net advance toward revolution if the overall revolutionary consciousness of the masses is raised in the process. That is the real test of our revolutionary work.

A Revolutionary Mood is Necessary for Revolution

There cannot be a revolution unless the broad masses develop a revolutionary mood. In some sense this is true of every revolution, but specifically it is true in relation to a successful insurrection in an advanced capitalist country such as the U.S.

As far back as 1843, Marx wrote that

No class of civil society can play this [revolutionary] role without arousing a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses, a moment in which it fraternizes and merges with society in general, becomes confused with it and is perceived and acknowledged as its general representative...[14]

And Lenin remarked that "Certainly, without a revolutionary mood among the masses, and without conditions facilitating the growth of this mood, revolutionary tactics will never develop into action."[15]

It should not be imagined, however, that a revolutionary mood must necessarily long precede an insurrection. On the contrary, such a mood can sometimes develop over night, and more or less accompany the insurrection—if the necessary consciousness and preconditions are in place. Moods are just that kind of thing: quick to arise, quick to change, quick to fade. That is why revolutionary parties must be able to move quickly and adroitly to take advantage of revolutionary moods.

Since a revolution is not a single event, not just an insurrection for example, but a fundamental change in class rule involving a whole series of changes and developments over a long period, it must be recognized that a revolution requires not just one, but a whole series of revolutionary moods, big and small. The biggest and most glorious revolutionary mood will undoubtedly be at the moment of proletarian insurrection. But we must learn to utilize all the lesser positive moods as well, both before and after the insurrection. And we must learn how to help generate revolutionary moods.

Changing the Mood of the Masses

The actual mood of the masses at any time and place is part of the objective situation with which the proletarian party must deal. But the mood of the masses is always changing, if only subtly, and among the factors which may help change their mood in a positive direction are the words and actions of the party itself.

Of course revolutionary agitation and propaganda is of immense importance in changing the mood of the masses. Any revolutionary mood that develops which is not in large part the result of long and patient agitation and propaganda will be a rare thing indeed, and quite shallow with little lasting power. The 1968 events in France might be considered an example. Of course even in that case there was considerable prior ferment in society, especially in the student movement. There was in other words some limited preparation in the form of agitation and propaganda.

But by themselves agitation and propaganda are never enough to swing the mood of the broad masses, no matter how intensively and extensively they are carried out. There must be events and actions which inspire the masses. There must be breakthroughs somewhere which show the masses that—contrary to what they have been thinking—they themselves can also rise up and win.

Sometimes these inspiring breakthroughs happen in other countries, or far away within the same country. A single spark in the form of the overthrow of the monarchy in France led to a whole series of European revolutionary explosions in 1848. As E. J. Hobsbawm tells the story,

In France, the natural centre and detonator of European revolutions, the Republic was proclaimed on 24 February. By 2 March revolution had gained south-west Germany, by 6 March Bavaria, by 11 March Berlin, by 13 March Vienna and almost immediately Hungary, by 18 March Milan and therefore Italy (where an independent revolt was already in possession of Sicily). At this time the most rapid information service available to anyone (that of the Rothschild bank) could not carry the news from Paris to Vienna in less than five days. Within a matter of weeks no government was left standing in an area of Europe which is today occupied by all or part of ten states, not counting lesser repercussions in a number of others. Moreover, 1848 was the first potentially global revolution, whose direct influence may be detected in the 1848 insurrection in Pernambuco (Brazil) and a few years later in remote Columbia.[16]

A similar thing happened in Eastern Europe in 1989, when popular upsurges against revisionism spread from one country to another like wild fire.

These sorts of revolutionary chain reactions happen in a situation where revolution is overripe in many similar places. It is like a super-heated liquid in physics—one raised above its boiling point but which hasn't yet started to boil. The immersion of one tiny sharp-cornered object into the liquid can suddenly cause it to boil explosively, not only in the immediate region of the sharp object, but spreading extremely fast throughout the entire volume. In a sense all revolutions are more or less like this. Even if the revolution does not spread to other countries, it must spread throughout the one country or region. And the reason it spreads is because the people suddenly see that revolution is in fact possible, that they can make revolution too.

In such an overripe situation the main problem therefore is not in spreading the revolution, but in getting it started in the first place. And here we must step back and take a dialectical view of the matter. A single spark in one context, is a full scale conflagration in another. In the above example of 1848 Europe, for example, the overthrow of the French monarchy was the "single spark" that led to revolutionary uprisings throughout Europe, and even in South America. But the overthrow of the French monarchy was itself a great and large-scale revolutionary change (even if in a sense it was only an echo of the great French Revolution of 1789). There were events—lesser sparks—within France that led to this French revolt, and which allowed the overall events in France to serve as the spark for revolutionary change elsewhere.

It is not enough to recognize that a single spark can start a prairie fire. You must also be able to determine the precise nature of such a spark, and learn how to generate it. You must recognize the need to generate the little sparks that lead to the big sparks. You must know how to start from where you are presently at, from present conditions, and proceed step by step from there to the full-scale revolutionary situation. There is a tool for doing this; it is called the mass line.

How do we help change the mood of the masses? Through our revolutionary work, which consists of two main aspects: revolutionary education (agitation and propaganda), and revolutionary leadership (the mass line). There are no other effective ways to go about it.

How can agitation and propaganda around the party program and line change the mood of the masses? Well, obviously, if that program and line put forth not only the need for revolution, but explain (at least in general terms) how to achieve revolution, the more the masses come to accept these ideas, the brighter the mood will be. The more that revolutionary ideas and desires grip the masses, the easier it will be to build a positive revolutionary mood among them.

Lenin focused on one aspect of this when he wrote of the importance of the party and its leadership holding to an optimistic and firm revolutionary line:

When people allow themselves to be frightened by the bourgeoisie, all objects and phenomena naturally appear yellow to them. First, they substitute an impressionist, intellectualist criterion for the Marxist criterion of the movement; they substitute subjective impressions of moods for a political analysis of the development of the class struggle and of the course of events in the entire country against the entire international background. They "conveniently" forget, of course, that a firm party line, its unyielding resolve, is also a mood-creating factor, particularly at the sharpest revolutionary moments. It is sometimes very "convenient" for people to forget that the responsible leaders, by their vacillations and by their readiness to burn their yesterday's idols, cause the most unbecoming vacillations in the mood of certain strata of the masses.[17]

How do we go about changing the mood of the masses through the application of the mass line? We start from the present moods, ideas, and desires of the masses, even though these are limited, and generally reformist in nature. Through the mass struggle that we participate in and begin to lead, we reinforce the positive moods, ideas and desires, and broaden and deepen them. We use the present quite limited positive moods, moods of resistance and struggle (along with the occasional inklings of revolutionary moods) to overcome the present general moods of hopelessness, apathy and despair. We do this just as we use the correct ideas of the masses to overcome their large number of incorrect ideas, and just as we use their positive and revolutionary desires to overcome their conservative and bourgeois-influenced desires.

Bob Avakian held this point of view in 1976 when he wrote:

We need to understand much more deeply the actual mood of the masses, how they see things, what kind of changes they think are necessary, how they think changes will be made, how they see their own role in this, etc. As stressed before, for the Party this, too, is a part of the objective conditions—and we must analyze them with the science of Marxism, through investigation, heart-to-heart talks, and the application of the mass line, in order to determine the correct policies and tactics to move things forward, to take the next necessary steps along the road to proletarian revolution.[18]

Starting from where the masses are at present—that is, from their present moods, ideas and desires—does not mean tailing the masses. On the contrary, when the mass line is employed, it means using all the positive factors which really exist at present to overcome the negative factors which also exist at present, and thus change the overall situation. Once again Bob Avakian put it well back in 1976:

Actually facing where the class is, summing up more deeply what the mood is, the contradictory moods and ideas that exist, and being able to apply the materialist and dialectical method will lead to less tailing, not to more tailing, and more to relying on the masses of people—in the correct, political, scientific sense—rather than to less relying on the masses of people.[19]

Even after the proletariat seizes power, the party must continue to pay close and careful attention to the mood of the masses, and to the importance of changing such moods in a revolutionary direction. As Lenin powerfully expressed this,

The dictatorship of the proletariat means a persistent struggle—bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative—against the forces and traditions of the old society. The force of habit in millions and tens of millions is a most formidable force. Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle, a party enjoying the confidence of all honest people in the class in question, a party capable of watching and influencing the mood of the masses, such a struggle cannot be waged successfully.[20]

The Pace of Change and the Mood of the Masses

Positive moods among the masses, moods which can move us in the direction of revolution, are not to be wasted. But they are somewhat fragile and can be destroyed in a variety of ways. This is why we must take care, and certainly not despise such moods—even if they are limited—but must rather treasure them, and utilize them. As Mao says, we must not thwart the enthusiasm of the masses.[21]

One way in which a mood that could advance the revolutionary struggle can be dissipated is if the leadership drags its heals and fails to "seize the time".

I said above that there must inevitably be periods of consolidation, and sometimes even retreat, between periods of revolutionary advance. But on the other hand, one of the biggest excuses for going slow is the need for "consolidation" of each advance. While there must in truth be some consolidation before the next advance, an excessive "consolidation" may in fact amount to the same thing as a screeching halt. Even an outright revolutionary mood of the masses may be lost, and the so-called consolidation may become a pause before a U-turn.

The issue of consolidation must be viewed dialectically. Consolidation, if over done, can turn into its opposite—retreat and defeat. Of course consolidations are necessary in any complex, multistep process. If there is no need for any consolidation, why even have that stage in the process? If no consolidation is necessary, then the goal is too limited and paltry, and not truly addressing the primary contradiction in the given situation. Consolidation is necessary at each stage in the revolutionary process; but the point is to not overdo it, to use only the minimum of consolidation, and to keep going with the revolutionary flow. To emphasize this a bit more, I offer this ditty entitled "Consolidation":

Consolidate your gains, if must;
But remember for the natal:
New-born things must grow or die;
"Just consolidate" is fatal.

Many lessons about the dangers of too much "consolidation" can be found in the debates during the socialist transformation of agriculture in China. The Sinologist John Bryan Starr described the situation in 1955 this way:

While some argued for a deliberate pace that would permit consolidation at each stage, Mao and others made the case that it was desirable to capitalize on the forward thrust already generated by the initial stages of the movement, and that prolonged periods of consolidation would not only destroy that thrust, but would foster the development of counterproductive expectations and habits among the peasants, which would then require subsequent reform.[22]

Mao's general point of view was well expressed in a speech he gave a couple years later:

      There are two ways to give leadership. One is good, the other not so good.... I mean that in building socialism there are two methods of leadership, two styles of work. On the question of cooperativization some people advocate more speed, others a more gradual approach. I believe that the former method is correct. It is better to strike while the iron is hot and to get it done in one go than to spin it out....
      I stand for the theory of permanent revolution. Do not mistake this for Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. In making revolution one must strike while the iron is hot—one revolution must follow another, the revolution must continually advance.[23]

Trotsky's theory of "permanent revolution" was that steps and stages in the revolutionary process could be combined, or skipped altogether. (In his Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Tom Bottomore remarkes that "Trotsky's major contribution to Marxist thought was the theory of 'uneven and combined development', and the derived doctrine of 'permanent revolution'. A backward country overcomes its backwardness not by passing through the stages already traversed by advanced countries but by telescoping or even skipping them..."[24] Major "contribution"?! Hah! To say that real stages in a process can be skipped is to deny dialectical development; it is to confuse separate contradictions by trying to combine them. Thus the hopelessly incorrect program that Trotsky and his followers tried to implement in China in the 1930s and 1940s: failing to see the necessity of a New Democratic Revolution first, they foolishly tried to bring about an immediate socialist revolution in the urban areas.)

Mao, in contrast, argued that while any complex revolutionary process must necessarily have distinct stages to it, one stage should lead into the next, and the whole process should not be aborted through the excessive "consolidation" of one single stage.

Compare Mao's leadership of the collectivization of Chinese agriculture, with the failed attempts in eastern Europe. Mao himself drew the contrast in 1958:

After Liberation in 1949 came the Land Reform; as soon as this was completed there followed the mutual-aid teams, then the low-level cooperatives, then the high-level cooperatives. After seven years the cooperativization was completed and productive relations were transformed; then came the Rectification. After Rectification was finished, before things had cooled down, then came the Technical Revolution. In the cases of Poland and Yugoslavia, democratic order had been established for seven or eight years, and then a rich peasantry emerged.[25]

It is of course no longer necessary to point out how thoroughly the so-called "communists" botched things up in general in eastern Europe.

Mao has frequently been portrayed by the revisionist usurpers in China, as well as in the Western press, as a wild hot-head, trying to force revolutionary change at an impossible pace. But if you look at Mao's actual writings you'll find both urgings to speed changes up, at times, and other urgings to take it easy and not get carried away. So was Mao inconsistent, then? Not at all. There was a single method behind both kinds of urgings; a method which shows you whether or not the pace of change is too slow, about right, or too fast. I'll let Mao himself explain in the following two quotations, one urging caution, the other urging faster action:

To speed up cooperativization is good, but we should not speed it up excessively.... We should not try to advance anything before the overwhelming majority of the people are satisfied with the advance.... What I mean is that we should always make over ninety percent of the people delighted.[26]

A high tide of socialist transformation is sweeping through the rural areas, and the masses are jubilant. This has been a profound lesson for all Communists. The masses have such a vast reservoir of socialist enthusiasm, but why was it that many of the leading organizations could be so insensitive or only barely sensitive to this a few months ago? Why was there such a difference between what was on the minds of some leaders and what was on the minds of the masses? Taking this as a lesson, how should one handle similar cases and problems in the future? There is only one answer. Don't divorce yourselves from the masses; instead learn to discern the enthusiasm of the masses in its essence.[27]

The moral is just this: you must determine whether the pace of change is too slow, about right, or too fast, through your deep contact with the masses. There is no other way. When Mao criticized those who complained "You're going too fast,"[28] he knew he was right because of his personal contact with the masses.

The Limits of a Revolutionary Mood

As important and indispensable as a revolutionary mood among the masses is to revolution, we must remind ourselves once more that such a mood alone is not enough. If all the masses have is a momentary revolutionary mood, they will inevitably be defeated.

What else do the masses need to make revolution besides a revolutionary mood? The answer for Marxists should come as no surprise or shock; the other elements have long been known to us. The masses also need some considerable revolutionary consciousness; they need a revolutionary proletarian party to provide leadership; they need some experience in class struggle; they need mass organization; and they need more or less favorable objective conditions (disarray among the enemy, etc.).

Earlier in this chapter I quoted Lenin as saying that "without a revolutionary mood among the masses, and without conditions facilitating the growth of this mood, revolutionary tactics will never develop into action". But this sentence was by way of preface for what Lenin then went on to say:

In Russia, however, lengthy, painful and sanguinary experience has taught us the truth that revolutionary tactics cannot be built on a revolutionary mood alone. Tactics must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces in a particular state (and of all the states that surround it, and of all states the world over) as well as of the experience of revolutionary movements.[29]

Thus it is not correct to simply pin all your hopes and plans on the mood of the masses, even if you are not just passively waiting for that mood to become revolutionary, but are working daily to change that mood. You must also develop the appropriate revolutionary strategy, take full account of the objective circumstances, build a party capable of actually leading the masses in action, help the masses raise their consciousness and develop their independent organization, and so forth. Mood alone is never enough!

Sometimes wishful thinking leads people to imagine that a revolutionary mood exists where it in fact does not. But it is just as foolish to ignore all the other important factors necessary for a revolutionary situation besides mood, and even to give in too easily to revolutionary, or at least rebellious moods, when the other factors are not yet in place. As I mentioned earlier, Lenin had to warn the inexperienced revolutionaries in Western Europe against yielding to such a premature and superficial mood.

A revolutionary mood is in fact indispensable for revolution, but it is not only wrong to focus entirely on such a mood as your revolutionary strategy, most of the time it is also wrong to focus your revolutionary work on building such a mood among the masses. Instead, we need to focus on building mass revolutionary consciousness and organization, and we need to also build a party that can lead the masses through our constant application of the mass line. These are the things to concentrate on now in order to help prepare the ground for a revolutionary situation which includes a revolutionary mood among the masses. Focusing on the creation of a revolutionary mood is more like the last step in the process, a step that may even occur spontaneously. To focus all your work in the preparatory period on building just a revolutionary mood is to have your priorities all wrong.


[1] "Labor Letter", Wall Street Journal, May 30, 1989, p. 1. There is of course a real question as to the accuracy of this survey, as with any other bourgeois poll.

[2] Patty Hearst, Patty Hearst: Her Own Story (NY: Avon Books, 1988 (1982)), p. 79.

[3] Mao, "The Debate on the Co-operative Transformation of Agriculture and the Current Class Struggle" (Oct. 11, 1955), SW 5:226.

[4] Lenin, "Two Letters" (Nov. 26, 1908), LCW 15:295.

[5] Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Communism—An Infantile Disorder" (May 1920), LCW 31:63.

[6] Lenin, "On the Question of a Nation-Wide Revolution" (May 2, 1907), LCW 12:406-7.

[7] Rosa Luxemburg, Letter to Mathilde Wurm, written from prison on Feb. 16, 1917; quoted in Paul Frölich, Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1972 (1939)), p. 144.

[8] Lenin, "Report on the Unity Congress of the R.S.D.L.P." (May 1906), LCW 10:369.

[9] Lenin, "The Russian Radical is Wise After the Event" (Oct. 18, 1906), LCW 11:239.

[10] Bob Avakian, "Is Revolution Really Possible This Decade and What Does May 1st Have to Do With It?", supplement to the RW, #49, April 11, 1980, p. S-3.

[11] Lenin, "Lecture on the 1905 Revolution" (Jan. 1917), LCW 23:245.

[12] Bob Avakian, ibid.

[13] Lenin, "The Tasks of the Russian Social-Democrats" (1902), LCW 2:348.

[14] Marx, "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law" (1843), MECW 3:184.

[15] Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Communism—An Infantile Disorder" (May 1920), LCW 31:63.

[16] E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 (NY: Mentor/New American Library, 1979), p. 4.

[17] Lenin, "Letter to Comrades" (Oct. 17 [30], 1917), LCW 26:209.

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

[19] Bob Avakian, ibid., p. 44.

[20] Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Communism—An Infantile Disorder" (May 1920), LCW 31:44-5.

[21] Mao, "On the Co-operative Transformation of Agriculture" (July 31, 1955), SW 5:189.

[22] John Bryan Starr, Continuing the Revolution: The Political Thought of Mao (Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 194. The strength of Mao's stand here had already been recognized by other Sinologists, such as in Thomas P. Bernstein, "Leadership and Mass Mobilization in the Soviet and Chinese Collectivisation Campaigns of 1929-30 and 1955-56: A Comparison", China Quarterly, #31, July-Sept. 1967, p. 10.

[23] Mao, "Speech at a Supreme State Conference" (Jan. 28, 1958), CMTTTP, p. 94.

[24] Tom Bottomore, Dictionary of Marxist Thought (Harvard, 1983), p. 488.

[25] Mao, "Speech at a Supreme State Conference" (Jan. 28, 1958), CMTTTP, p. 94.

[26] Mao, "Talk on the Question of Intellectuals at a Meeting Convened by the Central Committee" (Jan. 20, 1956); quoted in Starr, op. cit., p. 195.

[27] Mao, "Editor's Notes from Socialist Upsurge in China's Countryside" (Sept.-Dec. 1955), SW 5:245-6.

[28] See Mao's criticism of these foot-draggers in SW 5:184ff.

[29] Lenin, "Left-Wing' Communism—An Infantile Disorder" (May 1920), LCW 31:63.

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