The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

24. The Masses' Own Experiences

[I]n order to apply the mass line, the Party must base itself firmly on the understanding that people learn through their own experience, and not simply through "being told" what is correct and what must be done. (RCP, 1976)[1]

As we saw at the end of chapter 11, the masses cannot learn from agitation and propaganda alone; they must also learn through their own experience. Primarily, this means through their own experience in struggle. Since their struggle, in "ordinary" times, is mostly over reforms (or warding off "negative reforms"—i.e., attacks by the bourgeoisie), this means the masses must to some degree learn the need for revolution through their own experience in reformist struggle. Is such a thing really possible? Yes, it is, if a revolutionary party exists which is able to help the masses correctly sum up their experience of reformist struggle.

The Dialectics of Experience

The millions of people will never heed the advice of parties if this advice does not coincide with what the experience of their own lives teaches them. (Lenin)[2]

What is experience, anyway? Sometimes philosophers have used the term in very strange ways—to refer to "sense data", or other sorts of "entities" which imply various idealist or naďve materialist theories of knowledge (empiricism, positivism, etc.). Partly because of this and to distance themselves from these erroneous theories, other writers have preferred the terms 'practice' or 'praxis'. To a considerable degree this has been true within Marxist discourse as well. But in this book I am using the word 'experience' in a very ordinary everyday way, and as more or less synonymous with the way Marxists generally use the term 'practice', i.e., human activity, the interacting with and changing of the world (both the physical world and human society).

(My use of the word 'experience' is in accordance with the basic definition of the word in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition, 1993): "1 a: direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge b: the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation".)

Mao expressed the fundamental point of view of the Marxist theory of knowledge in the passage already quoted in chapter 3 where he said that all correct ideas come from social practice: the struggle for production, class struggle and scientific investigation. Or, in other words, all knowledge comes from experience; knowledge is the summation of experience, the theory derived from practice. (The close relationship of the mass line to the Marxist theory of knowledge will be explored in chapter 30.)

However, most of any single individual's knowledge does not come from his or her own personal experience. On the contrary, the knowledge gained by others, going back to a time long before our hominid ancestors had evolved into human beings, has been passed down to each new generation, which in turn is able to refine and add to that body of knowledge because of its new experience. We are the beneficiaries (and to some extent the victims!) of this cultural heritage which countless others have arrived at through personal experience. Furthermore we live in the midst of this culture which is continuing to change and develop, as more human experience accumulates.

But unfortunately, no single individual has full access to this vast accumulation of prior human experience that we call culture (in the broad sense). Mostly this is just because there is far too much experience for any one individual to comprehend, but partly it is also because there are certain kinds of summed-up experience which the ruling class needs to keep from the masses. Specifically, there is one tremendously important part of modern culture that the bourgeoisie is frantic to keep from the people, the mass experience of struggle and making revolution which is summed up as Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

So the question is, how do we bring this treasure of human experience in social struggle which derives from the masses, which is actually mass experience which has become lost to the masses,—how do we bring this absolutely necessary mass experience back to the masses? Well this is what Marxist education is all about, of course, and chapter 11 talked about some of the issues involved. But there is one more key point that forms the core of the present chapter: namely, for the most part the appreciation of experience depends on other experience. In other words, generally you can't correctly sum up one experience unless you've had other experience.

There is widespread but only partial recognition of this point. It is fairly obvious that you cannot often correctly sum up a new experience unless you've had plenty of prior experience (or at least know about the prior experience of others). To give one illustration, how can we Marxists sum up that some reform gained by mass struggle is all well and good but not the road forward as the basic solution to all the problems the masses face? It is because we are very familiar with the overall negative past experiences of the masses who fell into the trap of reformist perspectives.

But while it is often recognized that you generally need to have lots of prior experience in order to be in a position to correctly sum up a new experience, it is seldom recognized that you also need to have new or current experience in order to be able to fully appreciate past experience. And this is especially true of past experience that is only dimly remembered, or is the past experience of others and not yourself. Putting it another way, the lost experience of the past must be connected up with current experience if it is to be regained. While many people have recognized that present experience only makes good sense in terms of past experience, they often miss the complementary principle: past experience only makes good sense (or becomes "real") in terms of present experience. Or as the bourgeois writer Bergen Evans nicely expressed it, "Wisdom is meaningless until your own experience has given it meaning."[3] This is such an important principle that I feel like asking the reader to repeat it out loud ten times in order to fix it in your mind. (I'm only half kidding!)

Goethe, too, recognized this important point:

All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.[4]

The Importance of Negative Experience

Experience comes in two varieties: positive and negative. Positive experience is "reinforcing"; that is, if some behavior or activity improves your situation, you are likely to repeat it, to continue it in the future. Of course, this often results in pragmatism, a tendency to stick with behavior that won't work in the long run, just because it seems to work for a while. Thus successful struggles for reforms reinforce the tendency towards reformism (as a perspective) as opposed to revolution. We must clearly recognize that point without drawing the invalid conclusion that struggling for reforms is "wrong", or the equally invalid conclusion that the party should not participate with the masses in their struggle for reforms, or should not help organize and lead them.

The masses' experience of reformist struggle is capable of teaching them the need for revolution for one very simple reason: ultimately reformist struggle gets you nowhere. Most attempts at reforms will fail, and even when successful the reforms or gains will generally be small. And only some attempts to ward off negative reforms (attacks) will succeed. Most enlightening of all, even when a reform is won, the bourgeoisie will usually succeed in taking it away again, sooner or later. And even when an attack is warded off, the enemy will come back again and again until the masses are defeated. The bourgeoisie is the ruling class, after all, and therefore in an especially advantageous position to keep coming back at the masses repeatedly.

But a clear problem here is that sometimes these cycles of winning reforms, and then losing them again, can take decades. One excellent example of this is the long list of rights and reforms that were won by the German working class through decades of struggle under the leadership of the reformist German Social-Democratic Party. The right to form unions, the right to vote, numerous welfare measures, formal equality for women, and many other reforms were won during the last few decades of the 19th century, and the first few of the 20th. But then, in the midst of a great economic crisis, the German bourgeoisie turned to Hitler and the Nazi party, and all these reforms won so painfully over many decades were stripped away over night. Even the right to hold a private opinion contrary to that of the fascist state was taken away. So how can the masses be expected to learn such lessons summarizing decades of class experience from their own personal experience which is generally so much shorter and limited?

The answer is, they can't, at least not directly. But this broader experience of the working class and the masses as a whole, locally and around the world, can be connected up with their personal experiences, and only if it is connected up with their personal experiences are they likely to learn the broader lesson. An appropriate time to bring up such historical lessons, to generalize and broaden the more immediate and personal experience of the masses involved, is just when the enemy has attacked them and inflicted a defeat on them. When something like the right to an abortion is taken away or restricted, for example, or Social Security is weakened, or a union is busted. Revisionists might well sit quiet at such a time, especially if they had participated in the failed struggle to ward off the attack. But a revolutionary must seize even the time of such a defeat to raise the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. And, actually, it is often at moments of defeat, at times of mass setback, that the most important lessons can be learned. Summing up the negative experiences of the masses in a revolutionary way is in fact a large part of what it means to engage in revolutionary agitation.

All experience offers opportunities for consciousness raising. We stress the importance of organization and determined struggle against the enemy when the masses win a reform, or ward off an attack. We stress the absurdity of reformism as a perspective, and the need for revolution, when the masses are defeated. The latter is an overtly revolutionary summation; the former is only indirectly revolutionary, but it is at least that, because the masses must raise their class consciousness, their sense of being a class-for-itself, and must come to appreciate the importance of building their own organizations independent of the bourgeoisie, in order to make revolution in the future.

An illustration: In 1850 the English bourgeoisie sought to repeal the "Ten Hours' Bill" that, to the degree it was enforced, limited the labor of women and children to 10 hours per day. Engels wrote an article about this which pointed out two aspects to the situation. First, all the work of agitation which led up to the enactment of the law in the first place was a good thing in that it fostered organization, class-consciousness, and a feeling for their collective strength among the working class. But second, even if this feeble reform were repealed, it could still be a good thing since

The working classes will have learned by experience that no lasting benefit whatever can be obtained for them by others, but that they must obtain it themselves by conquering, first of all, political power.[5]

By "learning the need for revolution through the experience of reformist struggle," we are in effect saying that the masses must learn from a great deal of basically negative experience. It is a fact of life that the most important experience is often negative experience, and this holds true in politics as well as anywhere else.

It is true that very negative experience can be more than some people can bear. Some people cannot learn from it; they can only be profoundly defeated by it, their will to fight, and sometimes even their will to live destroyed. But the masses as a whole are tougher and more resilient. As Lenin put it:

The experience of the war, like the experience of any crisis in history, of any great calamity and any sudden turn in human life, stuns and breaks some people, but enlightens and tempers others. Taken by and large, and considering the history of the world as a whole, the number and strength of the second kind of people have—with the exception of individual cases of the decline and fall of one state or another—proved greater than those of the former kind.[6]

This reminds me of the Russian proverb, "The hammer shatters glass but forges steel."

Certainly we do not "welcome" negative experience for the masses; we have the interests of the masses at heart and we grieve for their suffering. But still we must recognize the importance of this negative experience when it comes—and we know that it will come, capitalism being what it is. To fail to help the masses sum up this negative experience correctly would be a way of refusing to help them escape further negative experience in the future. It would in effect be to join the attack on them; to be at least a silent accomplice to the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, the masses cannot learn much from their experience in struggle if that experience is entirely negative, if they are always defeated no matter what they try to do. That just breeds discouragement. If you never get a taste of the power of your own class to resist oppression, never get a whiff of freedom, you will become incapable of struggling at all. This is another way in which the struggle of the masses over reforms is important to making revolution; even though a reform is small, and even though no reform gained is really secure, the occasional experience of beating the enemy is necessary to the continuation and deepening of the mass struggle. It is necessary to building a revolutionary mass struggle.

No doubt people usually learn best from their own personal experience, and this holds for negative experience as well as positive.

People can learn from the hard or negative experience of others, but only under certain conditions:
      1) Generally they must have someone (or a party) to bring that negative experience of others to their attention, and to do so in a way they can understand.
      2) Generally they must identify with those suffering the negative experience, or support them, or empathize with them.
      3) Generally they must have had some related negative experience themselves, even if comparatively minor, which they can connect up with the more serious experience of the other people.
      4) Generally the negative experience must be from activity of the sort that they themselves might possibly have considered if they had been in the precise situation of the unfortunates.
      5) Generally, those with the negative experiences must not have clearly screwed up, or done something obviously foolish, so that the negative consequences of their actions get blamed more on them than on the enemy which actually inflicts those consequences. If people view the negative experience of others as "their own fault" the only thing they can learn from that experience is "don't do like they did," or "don't be so stupid."

The general point here is that we can learn from the situation and experience of others when it can be connected up with our own situation and experience. We should keep principles of this sort firmly in mind in our work of agitation and educational work in general.

Learning From Life vs. Learning From Books

But, needless to say, the masses learn from life and not from books... (Lenin)[7]

If people could only be made aware of the whole vast international experience of the masses in struggle they would need only a modest amount of personal experience to connect up with it in order to develop a firm revolutionary perspective. Some of us have actually followed this relatively easy route; we can be called revolutionary intellectuals. Most of the leaders, and a great many of the members and followers, of the genuine revolutionary communist parties that exist today are revolutionary intellectuals. This does not mean we can read 6 or 8 languages like Marx, nor that we are necessarily top authorities on Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, nor does it typically mean we write books and articles or lead a sort of literary life. But it does mean that we read quite a few books and other materials. It does mean we spend a fair amount of time thinking about and discussing with others these things that we read. And at present this very much sets us apart from the vast masses.

If some people can acquire a revolutionary outlook more from books that summarize the experience of the masses than from their own experience in mass struggle, why can't everybody do so? Partly because most people do not have the educational background we do. And partly because we have just been luckier in bumping into other revolutionaries and their ideas, especially when we were younger or at school. We are no smarter than the masses in general, but compared to them we were on average a bit luckier in our political associations and had a bit of an advantage in our opportunities—even those of us who come from a working-class background. These accidents and relative advantages are not something to be ashamed of; in fact, we should be proud that we were able to take advantage of these opportunities and become revolutionaries. But obviously in this society only a small proportion of the masses can become revolutionaries in ways similar to those that most of us did.

It is an unfortunate but inescapable fact that in order to become revolutionaries some people need more experience in mass struggle than others do. Not because they are less intelligent, but because they have not been in as favorable a position to learn from books the experiences of others. Those with less access to the summarized experience of others usually need more direct experience themselves. Those with less theory usually need more practice so that they can sum up the appropriate theory themselves.

Of course it behooves us revolutionary intellectuals to recognize well that there can also be some problems with learning too many things the easy way, from books. For one thing, as Pascal remarked, "People are usually more convinced by reasons they discovered themselves than by those found by others."[8] The convictions of many who learn from books tend to be shallow, and relatively easily altered when it becomes in their interest to "make adjustments" in their ideas. Then too, books and the reports of the experience of others in general, are somewhat removed from actual experience. Books often distort reality, either inadvertently or otherwise, and sometimes just plain lie in their "summations" of the experience of others. As Archibald MacLeish remarked, this leads to "that peculiar disease of intellectuals, that infatuation with ideas at the expense of experience that compels experience to conform to bookish preconceptions."[9] For reasons like these, we revolutionary intellectuals should not get too cocky about our "advantages".

Lenin on the Importance of the Masses' Own Experience

But it remains true that the broad masses, for better or worse, do have to learn a lot of things the hard way, through their own mass struggles. The point seems completely obvious to me, and perhaps to you too; still I can't help but suspect that in recent years some revolutionaries have tried to downplay this fact and exaggerate the efficacy of Marxist education divorced from mass experience. (Yes, I have the RCP especially in mind here!) So please bear with me while I survey just a few more of Lenin's many remarks on the matter (in addition to the important two quotes at the end of chapter 11):

Take the Odessa events [of 1905]. An attempt at insurrection has failed. A bitter reverse, a severe defeat.... Engels once said that defeated armies learn their lessons well. These splendid words apply in far greater measure to revolutionary armies, whose replacements come from the progressive classes. Until the old, corrupt superstructure, whose putrefaction infects the whole people, is swept away, each new defeat will produce ever new armies of fighters. Of course, there also exists mankind's far wider collective experience, which has left its impress upon the history of international democracy and of international Social-Democracy, and has been systematized by the foremost representatives of revolutionary thought. Our Party draws on that experience for material to be used in its every-day propaganda and agitation. But while society is based on the oppression and exploitation of millions of working people, only the few can learn directly from that experience. The masses have to learn mostly from their own experience, paying dearly for every lesson. The lesson of January 9 was a hard one, but it revolutionized the temper of the entire proletariat of the whole of Russia.[10]

When the bourgeois gentry and their uncritical echoers, the social-reformists, talk priggishly about the 'education' of the masses, they usually mean something schoolmasterly, pedantic, something that demoralizes the masses and instills in them bourgeois prejudices.
      The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will. That is why even reactionaries had to admit that the year 1905, the year of struggle, the "mad year", definitely buried patriarchal Russia.[11]

[O]nly through the experience of the mass struggle, only when the working-class and peasant masses had realized from their own experience and not from sermons that petty-bourgeois compromise was all in vain—only then, after long political development, after long preparations and changes in the moods and views of party groups, was the ground made ready for the October Revolution...[12]

The masses learned the tasks of the revolution from their own experience of the struggle.... The July events [demonstrations which spontaneously developed towards a premature insurrection —JSH] could not then establish the dictatorship of the proletariat—the masses were still not prepared for it.[13]

In this civil war [of October 1917] the overwhelming majority of the population proved to be on our side, and that is why victory was achieved with such extraordinary ease.... A wave of civil war swept over the whole of Russia, and everywhere we achieved victory with extraordinary ease precisely because the fruit had ripened, because the masses had already gone through the experience of collaboration with the bourgeoisie. Our slogan "All Power to the Soviets", which the masses had tested in practice by long historical experience, had become part of their flesh and blood.[14]

One of the principal reasons why Bolshevism was able to achieve victory in 1917-20 was that, since the end of 1914, it has been ruthlessly exposing the baseness and vileness of social-chauvinism and "Kautskyism"..., the masses later becoming more and more convinced, from their own experience, of the correctness of the Bolshevik views.[15]

Lenin emphasizes that mass experience is especially important for the more backward sections of the masses, and for non-proletarian classes among the masses and even proletarian strata which are not part of its basic core:

Theory will have no effect on the backward masses; they need practical experience.[16]

The history of the Russian revolution has clearly shown that the masses of the working class, the peasantry, and petty office employees could not have been convinced by any arguments, unless their own experience had convinced them.[17]

Moreover, it is primarily through the masses' own experience that they can recognize and correct their own errors:

...I will never tire of repeating that demagogues are the worst enemies of the working class. The worst enemies, because they arouse base instincts in the masses, because the unenlightened worker is unable to recognize his enemies in men who represent themselves, and sometimes sincerely so, as his friends. The worst enemies, because in the period of disunity and vacillation, when our movement is just beginning to take shape, nothing is easier than to employ demagogic methods to mislead the masses, who can realize their error only later by bitter experience.[18]

And, Lenin says, the experience of the masses in struggle remains the key to the development of socialist society after the proletarian seizure of power. In fact, this mass experience was exceptionally important in the new Soviet state because most of it was new experience for both the masses and the party.

All that we knew, all that the best experts on capitalist society, the greatest minds who foresaw its development, exactly indicated to us was that transformation was historically inevitable and must proceed along a certain main line, that private ownership of the means of production was doomed by history, that it would burst, that the exploiters would inevitably be expropriated. This was established with scientific precision, and we knew this when we grasped the banner of socialism, when we declared ourselves socialists, when we founded socialist parties, when we transformed society. We knew this when we took power for the purpose of proceeding with socialist reorganization; but we could not know the forms of transformation, or the rate of development of the concrete reorganization. Collective experience, the experience of millions can alone give us decisive guidance in this respect, precisely because, for our task, for the task of building socialism, the experience of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of those upper sections which have made history up to now in feudal society and in capitalist society is insufficient. We cannot proceed in this way precisely because we rely on joint experience, on the experience of millions of working people.[19]

This leads to the more general point that where there is no previous relevant mass experience to be found in books, book knowledge by itself fails. New guiding principles must be summed up by the revolutionary party from the new experience of the masses in struggle.

It is perhaps trite to repeat that people learn through doing, but it holds true for the masses (and the party!) learning how to make revolution, and also how to continue the revolution after the seizure of power:

The masses are learning rapidly from the experience of the revolution. (Lenin)[20]

Involving the Masses in the Work of the Party;
Involving the Party in the Work of the Masses

In my individual discussions with members of the RCP, I have tended to harp on the mass line a lot. Over the past 6 or 8 months (this section was written in 1990), one RCP member, recognizing my obsession, and reflecting a recent new emphasis locally within the Party, I'm told, has sought to challenge me on this. Whenever I bring up the mass line, he agrees with its importance, emphasizes how anxious the Party is to involve the masses in its work, and makes suggestions to me about particular support tasks that he thinks I might personally take on. I find this very instructive.

Such a response strongly suggests how this Party member—and perhaps the Party generally—currently understands the concept of the mass line. It seems to say that for the RCP these days, the mass line means involving the masses in the work of the Party. Of course this is a very important task, but to my mind it is not really what the mass line is all about.

First, involving the masses in the work of the Party is part of having a mass perspective. It is one, among many aspects of having a mass perspective. To rely fully on the masses—what does this really mean? It means many things and not just, not primarily, getting the masses involved in the work of the Party. It means most essentially and generally, relying on the masses as the only force which can bring about the revolution. It means relying on the masses as the prime source of vital ideas about how to move the situation forward. Involving the masses in the work of the Party, while important, is not as important as things such as these.

Second, as I have said many times, the mass line is basically a question of "from the masses, to the masses." That is, the mass line method of leadership is the gathering the various ideas of the masses about how to advance their interests in their current situation—and especially their long-term, basic interests, which means their revolutionary interests—, processing these ideas with the aid of Marxist theory and a scientific analysis of the objective situation, and then returning these refined ideas to the masses in order to advance the revolutionary struggle.

Third, involving the masses in the work of the Party is at best peripheral to the application of the mass line. It is not even the same as step three of the mass line process where we seek to involve the broad masses in the struggle by taking the concentrated political line back to them. Taking the Party's own work tasks to the masses, tasks which it arrived at on its own rather than through the application of the mass line, is not the same as returning the advanced ideas of the masses to the masses.

Finally, and most importantly, while it is necessary to involve the masses in the work of the Party, it is even more necessary to involve the Party in the work of the masses. This gets to the very heart of the issue. Involving the Party "in the work of the masses", means involving the Party in the struggles of the masses. It means participating with them in their struggles and bringing light, revolutionary light, into those struggles. It means sharing their most important experiences, and helping them to sum up those experiences in a revolutionary way.

Of the two:

Which is primary? Clearly the second! The party exists to serve the masses, not the other way around. The masses are the primary force for revolution, not the party. In the end, the revolution must be the work of the masses, and the party is there only to help them in their revolutionary work.

And here is something else to think about: If the work of the party is viewed as both education (agitation/propaganda) and leadership (via the mass line), then involving the masses in the work of the party can be justly viewed as an all-sided and very important thing to do. But if the work of the party forgets either one of these two main tasks, then the involvement of the masses in the work of the party will also be one-sided and/or limited. If the party slights leadership of the masses, the masses generally will not choose to participate in the work of the party; when a few do participate it will be halfheartedly. If the party slights the revolutionary education of the masses and focuses entirely on the day-to-day struggle, the masses may wish to participate in the work of the party, but instead of being led to revolution those participating in the work of the party will be led into bourgeois traps and ultimate disaster.

In other words, for it to really be correct to stress the importance of "involving the masses in the work of the party", the work of the party must first be balanced and more or less correct itself.

Helping the Masses Sum Up Their Experiences

We all need personal experience, to varying degrees, in order to learn. But one of the curious things about it is that even when we have such experiences which are possible to learn from, we do not necessarily learn from them! I would even go further and say that much of the time we do not learn what we should, or at least all we should, from our own experiences. A corollary to this is that we all need help in summing up our own experiences if those experiences are not to be just wasted and need repeating over and over again. (And even if long-repeated experience might eventually cause us to put two and two together without any outside help, can we possibly afford to wait that long?!)

What are the scientific principles involved in helping people learn, and to learn through their own experiences? The psychologist Diane F. Halpern summarized a number of them in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is a publication for college professors. Halpern sets the stage as follows:

If you like horror stories, this one should terrify you: In a random telephone survey of more than 2,000 adults, conducted by the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, 21 per cent of the respondents said they believed that the sun revolved around the earth; an additional 7 per cent said they did not know which revolved around which.
      I have no doubt that virtually all of these adults were taught in school that the earth revolves around the sun; they may even have written it on a test. But, in fact they never altered their incorrect mental models of planetary motion because their everyday observations didn't support what their teachers told them: People see the sun "moving" across the sky as morning turns into night, and the earth seems stationary while that is happening.
      Students can learn the right answers, even recite them in class, and yet never incorporate them into their working models of the world. The objectively correct answer that the professor accepts and the student's personal understanding of the world can exist simultaneously, each unaffected by the other. Outside of class, the student continues to use the personal model because it has always worked well in that context. Unless professors address specific errors in their students' naďve models of the world, the students are not likely to replace their own models with the correct one promoted by the professor.
      Students' personal notions of how the world works influence what they learn in every academic discipline.[21]

One point here, probably the most obvious to us Marxists, is that experience which is too limited tends to give rise to pragmatism. I'll discuss this further in a moment. But for now I want to focus on the last two sentences, which I will translate into terminology relevant to this book:

First, for every person, and specifically for every individual among the masses, their personal notions of how the world works influence what they learn from the proletarian party. Agitation, propaganda and mass line ideas returned to the masses must all take into consideration the contrary ideas the masses may already believe.

Second, unless the party addresses specific errors in the masses' naďve models of the world, the masses are not likely to replace their own models with the correct one promoted by the party. It is not sufficient to put forward correct ideas without also showing the problems with incorrect ideas that the masses already hold.

Halpern then says that

Cognitive psychology provides models of human learning and knowing—that is, how people acquire, organize, retrieve, and use information—that can help us teach students to put aside their naďve models of the world. To educate our students successfully, we must incorporate into our teaching an understanding of the way in which learners organize knowledge and represent it internally, and the way in which these representations resist change when learners encounter new information.[22]

Now of course we know that most of what professors at universities try to drum into their students' heads, as far as society goes anyway, is false "knowledge," and whatever resistence the students may put up to this torrent of bourgeois bullshit is very welcome. Furthermore, cognitive psychology also has its limitations and bourgeois biases. Nevertheless, some things relevant to us in our work of educating the masses have been pretty well established scientifically, and we would be fools to ignore these findings.

(Ironically, Halpern notes that even cognitive psychologists themselves often ignore their findings when it comes to their own teaching and presentations. She illustrates this by mentioning "the deadly dull three-hour lecture I once sat through on the shortness of people's attention span.")

Here then are some of Halpern's "basic principles of human cognition that should serve as a guide for college-level instruction"—and which also may help us revolutionaries in our educational work:

  • What and how much students learn in any situation depend heavily on their prior knowledge and experience. We must not think of our students as blank slates, but as slates that may need to be edited, updated, and revised to reflect new, correct information. [This is related to the rejected "bullet theory" of propaganda discussed in chapter 11, and also emphasizes the importance of experience, the subject of the present chapter. —JSH]
  • To change students' incorrect or incomplete mental models, we need to understand their implicit and explicit beliefs and design our instruction so that we expose the errors explicitly and make the benefits of the new models obvious. Otherwise, students may be able to produce a correct answer on a test, but their underlying understanding of the phenomena involved may not change. [Or for us: We must constantly investigate, and investigate deeply, just how the masses view things. Even if the masses start to understand the proletarian world outlook, unless they come to really understand the flaws in their initial bourgeois perspective, and how that perspective works against their own true interests, they will not make the leap to a solid revolutionary outlook. —JSH]
  • Learning and remembering involve multiple, interdependent processes. No single set of learning principles will help all students learn in every situation, particularly because what students learn and recall partly depends on what they already "know."...
  • Experience often "teaches" us things that are, in fact, wrong, but our daily lives do not always provide immediate feedback that demonstrates the errors. To promote critical thinking about the judgments we make, educators need to provide systematic and corrective feedback. For example, research indicates that most jurors believe that they can tell from a person's demeanor whether she or he is telling the truth. Yet Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco who studies lying, has found that people generally can't tell when someone is being truthful or not. We may not find out that someone has lied to us, though, and without evidence that our judgments about someone's honesty have been wrong in the past, we are overconfident about our ability to detect deceit. A technique that Ekman has used successfully to dispel students' assumptions about this ability is to have convincing liars "testify" to law students during a class—and later on in the session admit their deceit. [There is nothing like the experience of being hoodwinked by a liar to drive home the point to people that you can't always tell if people are lying by studying their faces. The general point here, however, is the ever-present danger of pragmatism—the invalid generalization of experience which is too limited. —JSH]
  • Because students frequently fail to apply what we have taught them in class to the real world, we must focus part of our teaching on "transferability." For instance, virtually all students who have taken courses in the social sciences or statistics can tell you that a correlation between two variables doesn't necessarily mean that a change in one variable causes a change in the other....
          But when, for example, they read a newspaper report of a study that found that children who eat breakfast are better readers by the end of first grade, many of these same students don't recognize that eating breakfast did not necessarily cause the first graders to be better readers. Making frequent use of real-life examples in class helps students recognize the principles we are teaching when they encounter them operating outside of school. [Or, for us: Keep our agitation and propaganda as concrete as possible! Always endeavor to connect up generalizations and abstractions with concrete instances, and preferably with the direct concrete experience of the masses we are talking to. —JSH][23]

Much of this could be considered common sense, but it is amazing how uncommon "common sense" can sometimes be. Halpern suggests a technique that is useful in applying these principles:

The teacher can start by having students give their own explanations of the subject to be studied—for example, state how they believe selected topics in psychology are linked, describe what would happen if a certain chemical were heated, or explain how they would determine the value of a variable. Students often are surprised to discover that they already have beliefs about such topics.
      Then the teacher can present the facts, stressing the ways in which reality is similar to or different from the students' initial understanding of it. Using a few real-world examples that require the students to apply underlying principles will help insure the replacement of old understanding with correct information. Later in the semester, the teacher can again ask the students for their own explanations of important principles and how their understanding differs from their original conceptions. Having students reflect on their prior knowledge, subsequent learning, and their current understanding increases the likelihood that they will internalize what they are taught in class.[24]

In our work with the masses, instead of plunging right in with abstract explanations of surplus value we might start by asking them how they would explain the fact that the capitalists keep getting richer and richer while hard-pressed workers must struggle to keep their heads above water. Or start by asking them what they think the causes are of all the wars the government keeps getting into, before explaining how imperialism necessarily leads to war. The point is to first bring to the surface the false bourgeois theory which is probably only implicit in their thinking, so that they can reject it themselves when its flaws are pointed out, and when a superior explanation is put forward.

Someone once remarked that "the only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas". But actually, better ideas alone aren't all that effective unless they are explicitly contrasted to the bad ideas. Moreover, this contrast between the correct and the incorrect is most effective of all when it is done by you yourself.

Halpern's comment about students often being "surprised to discover that they already have beliefs about such topics" should especially strike a familiar chord; every Marxist talking to the masses quickly discovers that most of them do not understand that they have bourgeois ideas, or even that they have a worldview at all. People must be challenged to formulate their existing erroneous theories and ideas before they can be helped to critique them and overcome them.

Though she doesn't use the philosophical term, one of Halpern's main themes is everybody's tendency towards pragmatism in the hasty summing up their experiences. She gives one more example:

Have you ever waited with a group of people for an elevator? Invariably, someone will keep pushing the call button. If you ask the button-pushers why they continue pushing, they will explain their belief that the elevator will come more quickly if it "knows" they are impatient. This sort of naďve belief is highly resistant to change, because it is repeatedly confirmed in real life. In fact, after an interval of button pushing, the elevator arrives, just as the button-pusher predicted.[25]

This is an interesting example. It would in fact be easy to program elevators so that they come first to a floor where the call button is being pushed most frequently. It seems that those who continue to frantically push on elevator buttons might be working on the false theory that this is the way that elevators are typically programmed. (People don't really believe that elevators "know" things in the same way that human beings do, no matter what locutions they use.) In any case, the problem here is not total stupidity on the part of the button-pushers, but simply the adoption of an incorrect theory of how elevators work. Despite the fact that people use elevators all the time, they have not investigated how they work, and it is no wonder that they have various false ideas about them. And the same thing is true with the masses' view of society and the capitalist system; superficial familiarity leads to various erroneous theories.

So how do you combat the pragmatism that tends to arise from such superficial experience? By explaining how things actually work, of course, but also by showing people how their existing notions can't be correct. To help people sum up their experience correctly we must be very alert to how they are spontaneously (or with the "help" of the bourgeoisie) summing it up erroneously. We must gently, but without fail, point out the flaws in their existing models of social reality.

*    *    *

I started this section by saying that we all need help in summing up our experiences. But is it arrogance on the part of the proletarian party specifically to believe that it can and must help the masses sum up their experience in struggle? Not at all. To understand why this is so, consider first the following remarks from the RCP's 1976 pamphlet on the mass line:

There is no "pure experience". In class society, experience reflects class struggle and can only be interpreted according to the interests and outlook of one class or another. The proletariat and the proletariat alone is capable of correctly summing up experience, because only its outlook and interest conform to the development of society. And only the proletariat is capable of resolving the contradictions of capitalism through revolution to advance society to the stage of communism, where mankind voluntarily and consciously changes the world and itself in the process.[26]

The proletarian party, if it is indeed truly the vanguard of the proletariat and the masses, will be composed of that section of the masses which overall best understands "the line of march" of the whole movement, as the Communist Manifesto says, and best understands the most fundamental lesson of the experience of the masses as a whole under capitalism: that proletarian revolution is necessary in order to free them from oppression and exploitation. This is why such a party has the obligation to help the masses sum up the immediate experience of their day-to-day struggles in light of their overall experience, which is to say, in light of their crying need for social revolution.

But the proletarian party must work hard to enable its summation of the masses' experience reach their ears. The 1976 RCP pamphlet puts it this way:

This is the way things are bound to develop—toward revolution to abolish capitalism. But revolution will not occur "automatically". At each point in the development of the struggle the bourgeoisie and the proletariat must and will contend not only in the practical battlefield, but also in the sphere of ideology.
      There is, and will be so long as classes remain, a continual struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat over how to sum up the struggle, what lessons to draw from each battle and what road to take in order to change with the situation. To the degree that the proletariat, through its Party, does not correctly sum up this experience, does not correctly concentrate the ideas of the masses, the bourgeoisie will, through its political leaders and representatives, put over its summation.[27]

And, connecting this up with the lessons of cognitive psychology, the proletarian party must not only work diligently to get its summation of mass experience out to the masses, it must at the same time, and as part of that summation, expose the falacies and lies in the other summation being put out by the enemy.

Experience and Imagination

Some people have maintained that one problem with experience is that it can unduly inhibit imagination. According to such people, experience is as much a force against the development of vital new ideas as it is a force promoting the development of such ideas. Alfred North Whitehead put it this way:

The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations. Fools act on imagination without knowledge; pedants act on knowledge without imagination.[28]

But this tragedy is by no means inevitable. It is possible to combine imagination and experience. The mass line may be viewed, in part, as a method of combining the imaginations of the broad masses with their overall political experience and knowledge which is concentrated in the proletarian party.

It is true that experience (or practice) does somewhat constrain the imagination, but this is actually a good thing most of the time. Imagination, like emotion, must be subjected to rational supervision. Of course this means restraining imagination somewhat, but that is necessary if you are to avoid foolish actions. You can imagine all kinds of false and even crazy things. You can, for example, imagine that the past was different than it actually was, or that the present is very different than it actually is. But to do so is obviously very dangerous as a premise for political activity. Imagination about the future, about various real possibilities in the present that can be rationally expected to bring about various different futures—this is the proper role for imagination in politics.

It is also true, however, that those with experience, or knowledge of the experience of others, can sometimes dismiss the imaginative and vital ideas of other people too readily. Even when attempting to use the mass line, this is a possibility. It is one of the reasons that Mao and all genuine champions of the mass line constantly emphasize the wisdom of the masses and the need for revolutionary leaders to modestly study and learn from that wisdom. What the genuine mass line method is trying very hard to avoid is any mere pretense of learning from the masses which in reality amounts to no more than substituting the ideas of the party for those of the masses. The whole point of the mass line is to change the ideas of both the party and the broad masses, to discover from among the masses new ideas which can serve to advance the mass struggle.

The Mass Line and the Experience of the Masses

Some of the discussion in this chapter, especially in the earlier section about applying the principles of cognitive psychology in education, is related more to methods of agitation and propaganda than it is to leadership methods and the mass line specifically. But there are a variety of important connections between the mass line and the topic of the masses' own experience.

First, one of the main reasons we seek to lead the masses in the day-to-day struggle is so that they can become convinced, through their own experience, that the revolutionary line of the proletarian party is correct. The necessity for the masses to learn through their own experience in struggle explains, in part, why the party must strive to both educate the masses, and also to use the mass line to lead the masses in the day-to-day struggle.

Practice, mass activity, really does give rise to new ideas. And promoting mass struggle is a key part of preparing the masses to develop and accept new ideas, including radical and revolutionary ideas. Erich Fromm put it nicely: "We're more likely to act our way into new ways of thinking than we are to think our way into new ways of acting."[29]

Second, the party must sum up the new experiences of the masses not only for the masses (as part of bringing the light of revolution into the mass struggle), but also for itself. There are ideas implicit in the experience of the masses, ideas about how to wage the mass struggle and what specific immediate goals to aim for. And these implicit ideas, along with the consciously expressed ideas of some of the masses, provide the raw material for the mass line method of leadership. The party of revolutionary leaders needs to constantly study the mass movement, and to do so with great care, in order to learn all the lessons that this struggle provides, and how to best implement the mass line in particular.

Simple though this is, it seems to be a hard thing for many party members to really come to understand, to internalize, and to put into regular practice. Taking note of this, Mao said:

Many comrades do not see the importance of, or are not good at, summing up the experience of mass struggles, but fancying themselves clever, are fond of voicing their subjectivist ideas, and so their ideas become empty and impractical.[30]

Third, since ideas arise out of experience, the masses themselves will develop greater numbers of conscious and explicit ideas about how to advance the mass struggle the more that they are engaged in that struggle. This will make gathering the ideas of the masses easier and more likely to find the correct and vital ideas of the masses that can truly serve to advance the struggle toward revolution.

A party that truly seeks to use the mass line to lead the mass struggle will find a kind of positive feedback developing:

One real difficulty with the mass line is getting started using it in the first place. At first the party has no experience with it, and even the party members that recognize its importance are inept at gathering ideas, concentrating them, and returning them to the masses. The party must itself gain experience in using the mass line, must gradually teach itself how to actually do it. The masses too must learn about the mass line through their experience of working with the proletarian party; they must come to understand just what it is the party is trying to do, and what their own role in the process is. In short, the party and the masses must together gain experience of a specialized kind, the joint experience of employing the mass line to advance the mass struggle. The more joint experience of this sort they gain, the easier things will be.

Moreover, it is hard to get started using the mass line when the mass struggle itself is at a low level. But one of the important reasons that the mass struggle might be at a low level is just that the proletarian party itself does not know how to foster it through correct leadership, which means—more than anything else—that the party does not at first know how to use the mass line. It is a kind of Catch-22 situation. But as usual with Catch-22 situations, there is a positive side to things here too. Getting started is hard, but once you do get started using the mass line, even if somewhat ineptly at first, things gradually start to get easier. Positive feedback sets in both because the mass movement is growing and developing, and because the party and the masses gain experience in using the mass line method itself.

Fourthly, we should note that the party's own study of the experience of the masses—though one of the important sources of raw material for the mass line—is not the only source, and actually, not the most important source. There are also explicit ideas and suggestions from the masses themselves. Of course many of these ideas have developed in the minds of individuals among the masses precisely because of their own direct experience in struggle (though this is not universally the case). The point, however, is to clearly understand that it is not just the party that directly comes up with all the good ideas which can be derived from the experiences of the masses in struggle. This is why the party must not only study mass experience and see what lessons it can figure out on its own, but must also talk to the masses and get their own ideas too.

Fifthly,—whether we are talking about mass experience itself or ideas among the masses derived from that experience—we still only have the raw material for the mass line method of leadership. This point was brought out in the RCP's 1976 pamphlet on the mass line:

The experience of the masses, especially the mass of workers, is the raw material for correct lines and policies. But it is not the finished product, the correct line itself. To develop this correct line requires the application of Marxism-Leninism to "process" the ideas gained by the masses through their experience. It is this that the Party must return to the masses and persevere in propagating and carrying out.       And this is a constant process—from experience to summed up experience (rational knowledge acquired through the application of Marxism-Leninism), back to experience (class struggle)... and on and on.[31]

Summing Up Marxist Theory From the Experience of the Masses

Even though the bulk of mass struggle under capitalism is over reformist issues, occasionally there is also some very overtly revolutionary struggle. And this too can be either a positive experience, or a negative experience, or a mixture of both. Lenin, for example, talks about Marx's reaction to the Paris Commune:

In September 1870, Marx called the insurrection an act of desperate folly. But, when the masses rose, Marx wanted to march with them, to learn with them in the process of the struggle, and not to give them bureaucratic admonitions. He realized that to attempt in advance to calculate the chances with complete accuracy would be quackery or hopeless pedantry. What he valued above everything else was that the working class heroically and self-sacrificingly took the initiative in making world history....
      Marx was also able to appreciate that there are moments in history when a desperate struggle of the masses, even for a hopeless cause, is essential for the further schooling of these masses and their training for the next struggle.[32]

The Paris Commune was an important experience both for the masses and, from a standpoint of theory, for Marx and Engels. Marx summed up some very important lessons from the negative experience of the Commune being suppressed by the bourgeoisie. In their last joint Preface to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto (1872), Marx and Engels state:

One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes."[33]

Lenin points out that

The only "correction" Marx thought it necessary to make in the Communist Manifesto, he made on the basis of the revolutionary experience of the Paris Communards.[34]

This is another fine example of how even the essential points of revolutionary strategy are critically changed by means of summing up the experience of the masses. (See chapter 18).

Raw Experience Too Has Its Limits

Experience is vitally important, and the experience of the masses is especially crucial, and even indispensable for revolution. But of course experience by itself will never liberate the masses. There are several reasons for this.

First, no person's individual experience is sufficient in itself to understand the world. We must all find ways to learn from the experience of others as well as our own limited experience.

Second, mass experience as a whole is too extensive, too much of a jumble! We must find a way to generalize it, and abstract essential principles from it; i.e., we must turn mass experience into theory so that it can guide us. And from mass experience we must pluck implicit ideas about how to move the situation forward towards revolution.

Third, generalizing and abstracting from limited or uninformed individual raw experience frequently gives rise to erroneous theories of how the world works and how it can be changed. Raw summations of raw experience tend towards pragmatism. Experience, even the relatively broad experience of the masses at a given time and place, must be informed by revolutionary Marxist theory—which derives from the summarized experience of all the world's masses throughout history.

Mark Twain wrote that

We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.[35]

This is a case of "learning too much" from a negative experience. But actually, the more usual problem is that people "learn too much" from limited or narrow experience which is positive at first—but which, when repeated, leads them into a very negative experience in the end.

And this is why—as important as direct experience undoubtedly is for the masses—something more is also needed, namely agitation and propaganda from the proletarian party which reflects the important lessons of the broader experience of mass struggle around the world and throughout history, and especially its number one lesson—that social revolution is necessary.

Neither agitation and propaganda alone, nor extensive mass experience alone, will suffice. Both are indispensable for revolution. And, moreover, both are most effective by far if they are carried out together, if the revolutionary agitation and propaganda is presented to the masses in the midst of their struggles.


[1] Revolutionary Communist Party, The Mass Line (1976), p. 2.

[2] Lenin, quoted in Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: A Manual (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), p. 428.

[3] Bergen Evans, Dictionary of Quotations (NY: Avenel Books, 1968), p. iii.

[4] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), quoted on the Internet, c. 1998.

[5] Engels, "The Ten Hours Question" (Feb. 1850), MECW 10:275, emphasis in orginal. The reference to the reform having been "obtained for them by others" refers in part to the fact that one of the reasons the Ten Hours Bill had originally passed in 1847 was that a section of the landed aristocracy supported it as a way of getting back at the manufacturers who had ignored their interests in repealing the Corn Laws in 1846.

[6] Lenin, "The Collapse of the Second International", LCW 21:216.

[7] Lenin, "Differences in the European Labor Movement" (Dec. 16, 1910), LCW 16:348.

[8] Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 24.

[9] Archibald MacLeish, quoted in Peter's Quotations, p. 174.

[10] Lenin, "Revolution Teaches" (July 26, 1905), LCW 9:147.

[11] Lenin, "Lecture on the 1905 Revolution" (Jan. 22, 1917), LCW 23:241.

[12] Lenin, "Report on Ratification of the Peace Treaty: Extraordinary Fourth All-Russia Congress of Soviets" (March 14, 1918), LCW 27:174.

[13] Lenin, "Extraordinary Seventh Conference of the R.C.P.(B.)" (March 1918), LCW 27:87-8.

[14] Lenin, ibid., LCW 27:88-9.

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

[16] Lenin, "The Second Congress of the Communist International" (Aug. 1920), LCW 31:254.

[17] Lenin, ibid., LCW 31:255.

[18] Lenin, "What Is To Be Done?" (March 1902), LCW 5:463.

[19] Lenin, "Speech at the First Congress of Economic Councils" (May 26, 1918), LCW 27:410.

[20] Lenin, "The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat it" (Sept. 10-14, 1917), LCW 25:364.

[21] Diane F. Halpern, "The War of the Worlds: When Students' Conceptual Understanding Clashes With Their Professors'", The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 14, 1997, p. B5. Halpern is head of the psychology department at California State University at San Bernadino and author of Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, (Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates, 3rd ed., 1996).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] RCP, The Mass Line (1976), p. 4.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (1929).

[29] Erich Fromm, quoted on the Internet, Jan. 1998.

[30] Mao, "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (June 1, 1943), SW 3:119-20.

[31] RCP, The Mass Line (1976), p. 4.

[32] Lenin, "Preface to the Russian Translation of Karl Marx's Letters to Dr. Kugelmann" (Feb. 5, 1907), LCW 12:111-2.

[33] Quoted in Lenin, The State and Revolution, (Peking: FLP, 1973), p. 43.

[34] Lenin, ibid.

[35] Mark Twain, quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations, (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 174.

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