The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

25. Stay Close to the Masses

Keep in touch with the masses.
Live close to them.
Know their moods.
Know everything.
Understand the masses.
Be able to approach them.
Win their absolute trust.
Leaders must not become isolated from the masses they lead,
     or the vanguard from the whole army of labor...
Do not flatter the masses and do not break away from them.

One of Mao’s constant admonitions to the Communist Party of China was to “stay close to the masses”. In this, he was following in the footsteps of Marx, Engels and Lenin, who often urged the same thing upon their followers. Why did all these great leaders, and Mao especially, put such emphasis on this? Why must we stay close to the masses?

The answer is not all that difficult: We must stay close to the masses in order to:

  1. understand them
  2. discover their concerns and needs
  3. be aware of their experience
  4. know their moods
  5. learn their ideas
  6. be educated by them
  7. educate them
  8. lead them
  9. serve them

All of these things are either part of, or prerequisites for, or closely related to, the mass line.

While I expect that everyone who considers themselves a Maoist will verbally agree with each of the above nine points, in some cases we may justifiably have suspicions that the actual commitment to stay close to the masses in order to accomplish these things is rather shallow. Therefore I do not think it is beating a dead horse to further emphasize the importance of staying close to the masses with the following series of quotations from Mao.

Mao’s Instructions to Stay Close to the Masses

The relation between a (genuine) Marxist party and the masses, says Mao, is different from that of any other party in history:

Armed with Marxist-Leninist theory and ideology, the Communist Party of China has brought a new style of work to the Chinese people, a style of work which essentially entails integrating theory with practice, forging close links with the masses and practicing self-criticism.2

Unlike the parties of other classes, the proletarian party unites with the struggles of the masses, makes their concerns and interests its interests, and makes common cause with the people. “We communists are like seeds and the people are like the soil. Wherever we go, we must unite with the people, take root and blossom among them.”3

“Go Among the Workers, Peasants and
Soldiers and Into the Thick of Struggle!”
[Cultural Revolution poster]

Mao summed it all up this way:

Another hallmark distinguishing our Party from all other parties is that we have very close ties with the broadest masses of the people. Our point of departure is to serve the people whole-heartedly and never for a moment divorce ourselves from the masses, to proceed in all cases from the interests of the people and not from the interests of individuals or groups, and to understand the identity of our responsibility to the people and our responsibility to the leading organs of the Party.4

But two comments must be made about that particular quotation, since it is subject to misinterpretation in some respects. First, Mao says that we should serve the interests of the people instead of the interests of individuals or groups. But aren’t the masses of the people made up of individuals and groups? This is the old conundrum in political theory that liberals, especially, get hung up on. Aren’t women, for example a subgroup of the masses whose interests should be championed by the revolutionary party? Isn’t the welfare of particular individuals among the masses also a genuine and legitimate concern of the party? The answer is clearly “yes” to questions such as these. What then is Mao getting at here?

Of course the masses consist of individuals and subgroups. And of course we must champion the interests of all these individuals and subgroups—unless and until these individual and group interests go against those of the rest of the masses! And that is just Mao’s point. When we talk about the interests of the masses in contrast to the interests of individuals and groups we are simply using some shorthand. The interests of the masses that we champion are the shared interests of the masses, their common, collective interests. The interests of individuals and groups that we oppose are not all of their interests, but only those which go against the shared interests of the masses as a whole. So things are really pretty straightforward here, despite what liberals and “libertarians” think.

The second point to mention about Mao’s quotation above is with regard to the unfounded conclusion that might be drawn that the interests of the masses and the interests of the party must necessarily coincide. There is an “identity of our responsibility to the people and our responsibility to the leading organs of the Party” only so long as the Party, and those leading organs, continue to champion and work for the real interests of the people.

There were those, such as Liu Shaoqi, who always denied that the Party could ever stray from championing the interests of the people. And in 1945, when Mao wrote this passage, he didn’t envision such degeneracy either. But when this terrible thing actually began to happen to the Communist Party of China in the late 1950s and 1960s, Mao recognized it clearly and combatted it in a very powerful way. He inspired and led the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the masses against the Party leadership that was developing into a new privileged class with its own interests opposed to those of the masses. The GPCR was in essence an effort to force a Party embarking on the capitalist road back onto the path of genuinely representing the long-term interests of the masses, and therefore the path of socialism and communism. (Unfortunately, for both objective reasons in Chinese society and weaknesses in the way the GPCR was carried out, it was only successful in the short term, while Mao was still alive.)

Mao with peasants.

Continuing, then, with more of Mao’s comments on the importance of staying close to the masses. A communist, Mao says, no matter what his or her class orgins, must “become one with the masses”:

We should create an atmosphere in which “getting close to the workers and peasants” virtually becomes a habit, in other words, we should have large numbers of intellectuals doing so.5

A communist must never stay aloof from or above the masses like a bureaucrat. he ought to be like an ordinary worker in the presence of the masses, join them, and become one of them.6

Of course, to say that a communist must “be like an ordinary worker” does not mean that we should forget or downplay our own communist ideology: “Between inside the Party and outside it there should be a line, not a wall.”7

But the point here is that “We must never detach ourselves from the masses, so that we may know them, understand them, be with them, and serve them well.”8 It is necessary for party members to really merge with the masses and share their life-style, “to share weal and woe with them”.9 And leading cadres especially “should pay constant attention” to “the interests of the masses, the experiences and feelings of the masses”.10

Communists must really be concerned for the masses, and help them satisfy their needs:

Wherever our comrades go, they must build good relations with the masses, be concerned for them and help them overcome their difficulties. We must unite with the masses; the more of the masses we unite with, the better.11

And no matter what we communists set out to accomplish, we must integrate ourselves with the masses, since only through the medium of mass struggle can we accomplish anything.

We Communists must be able to integrate ourselves with the masses in all things. If our Party members spend their whole lives sitting indoors and never go out to face the world and brave the storm, what good will they be to the Chinese people? None at all, and we do not need such people as Party members. We Communists ought to face the world and brave the storm, the great world of mass struggle and the mighty storm of mass struggle.12

How should we judge whether a youth is a revolutionary? How can we tell? There can be only one criterion, namely, whether or not he is willing to integrate himself with the broad masses of workers and peasants and does so in practice.13

So when we assess a person and judge whether... he is a true or false Marxist, we need only find out how he stands in relation to the broad masses of workers and peasants, and then we shall know him for what he is. This is the only criterion, there is no other.14

Mao constantly harped on the theme, “stay close to the masses”. Why? Because he saw that many members of the Communist party of China had a tendency to remain aloof from the masses, from their living conditions, from their experiences and ideas, and from their struggles.

Can You Unite With the Masses if You Do Not Join in Their Struggles?

I wouldn’t pose such a silly question if there were not people who apparently believe that you can.

To unite with the masses, to be one with them, to integrate with them...—what do all these things really mean? While living the same life as the masses, sharing weal and woe with them, socializing with them, etc., are important, they are not the most important aspect of uniting with them. The most essential aspect of uniting or integrating with the masses is joining up with them in their actual struggles. If you don’t do that, then you have not united with the masses, no matter how you live.

Consider a scab. His living conditions may well be the same as those of the workers who go on strike, he may be a working-class person, live in a working-class neighborhood, and socialize with other working-class people. But despite all that, his refusal to join up with a struggle firmly divorces him from the masses involved. Of course, no communist would scab on a strike, but the point is more general than that: remaining aloof from the struggles of the masses is almost as bad as opposing them, as far as truly uniting with the masses goes.

A parable: Suppose you and a friend are walking down the street and are attacked by some muggers. While you and your friend are trying to ward off the attackers, a bystander comes up and hands you a leaflet “opposing the system that generates muggers”, but lends you no assistance. What is your reaction? Has he “united” with you? On the other hand, what if your friend says the same thing that the leaflet did, once you both get a chance to discuss it? Wouldn’t your reception to those ideas be considerably more positive coming from the friend who stands by your side in struggle?

Of course, once again, no real communist would stand by while the masses were being attacked by muggers, without joining in in their defense. But if the attacks are not directly physical, then evidently some communists have decided that it’s improper (“revisionist”) to help the masses ward them off. Mere reforms, you know. It boggles the mind.

Lenin said that it is

the isolation of the revolutionaries from the masses... which is the main source of our weakness and of our incapacity to start a determined struggle at once. We must answer by strengthening the contact between the revolutionaries and the people, and this contact can be established in our time only by developing and strengthening the Social-Democratic Labor movement. [I.e., the communist-led working-class movement. —JSH] Only the working-class movement rouses that truly revolutionary and advanced class which has nothing to lose from the collapse of the existing political and social order...15

It is only our isolation from the masses that prevents us from launching a determined struggle for revolutionary power. And yet some people oppose doing what we must do to get closer to the masses on the grounds that it is “opportunist” or “revisionist”. Amazing!

Genuine Revolutionaries Must Unite With the Masses in Their Struggles

I quoted Mao, just above, as saying that the test of whether a person is a genuine revolutionary is whether he or she actually unites with the masses. And “uniting with the masses” means, firstly and primarily, uniting with them in their mass struggles. Naturally it also means bringing revolutionary consciousness into these struggles, and attempting to lead them in a revolutionary direction; but that can only be effectively done by those who actually join up with the existing struggles of the masses.

Lenin ridiculed the ultra-“leftists” of his day who were too “good”, too “revolutionary”, to join up with the non-revolutionary mass struggles or to participate in non-revolutionary mass organizations:

It is not difficult to be a revolutionary when revolution has already broken out and is in spate, when all people are joining the revolution just because they are carried away, because it is in vogue, and sometimes even from careerist motives. After its victory, the proletariat has to make most strenuous efforts, even the most painful, so as to ‘liberate’ itself from such pseudo-revolutionaries. It is far more difficult—and far more precious—to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organization) in non-revolutionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action. To be able to seek, find and correctly determine the specific path or the particular turn of events that will lead the masses to the real, decisive and final revolutionary struggle—such is the main objective of communism in Western Europe and in America today.16

To consider that only “revolutionary methods” (insurrection, civil war, or at least physical confrontations with the authorities) are worthy of a “real” revolutionary, is to dismiss the bulk of the actual work that revolutionaries today need to do in order to get the masses to the point where those “revolutionary methods”, in this narrow sense, are appropriate and necessary. It is therefore (as Lenin implies above) to be a very poor revolutionary today; it is to be the sort of revolutionary who is not needed now, and who will appear by the millions once those who grasp the real revolutionary tasks of today lay all the necessary groundwork.

The true revolutionary is the person who does today what needs to be done today, in order to advance the situation towards revolution. It is not the person who tries vainly to implement the tasks of tomorrow, when the conditions are not yet ready. That kind of simplemindedness is more of an obstacle to revolution than an aid to it.

Lenin wrote that

To serve the mass and express its properly sensed interests, the advanced detachment, the organization must conduct all its activities in the mass, drawing from it all—without exception—the best forces, checking at each step, thoroughly and objectively, whether the ties with the mass are maintained, whether they are alive. In such, and only in such a way, does the advanced detachment educate and enlighten the mass, expressing its interests, teaching it organization, guiding all the activity of the mass along the path of conscious class policy.17

And in 1909 Lenin spurred the Bolsheviks on with these comments:

A party which succeeds in consolidating itself for persistent work in contact with the masses, a party of the advanced class, which succeeds in organizing its vanguard, and which directs its forces in such a way as to influence in a Social-Democratic [communist] spirit every sign of life of the proletariat—such a party will win no matter what happens.18

The Bolshevik Revolution gave rise to an upsurge in the revolutionary movement around the world. But one of the strange things that happened was that many petty-bourgeois people, divorced from mass struggle, were also suddenly attracted to the idea of revolution. Because of their generally superior education as compared to that of the working class, and also due to other class characteristics (some of which are often quite positive attributes, such as their greater tendency towards self-confidence and an independence of mind), many of these petty-bourgeois nouveau-revolutionaries rose to positions of leadership in the new communist parties that were then forming in so many countries. And this explains, in part, how it was that an ultra-“left”, ultra-“revolutionary” trend developed within the new communist movement.

After decades of struggling against right-opportunism within the revolutionary movement, Lenin suddenly found that he also needed to struggle against this new petty-bourgeois strain of infantile “leftism”. And one of the big issues in this struggle was over the question of whether communists should merge with the masses and their struggles or not.

In his important pamphlet, “Left-Wing” Communism—an Infantile Disorder, Lenin stated point-blank that the proletarian “Party will not merit the name until it learns to weld the leaders into one indivisible whole with the class and the masses”.19 In a letter to Sylvia Pankurst in Britain, he remarked that

Unbreakable ties with the mass of the workers, the ability to agitate unceasingly among them, to participate in every strike, to respond to every demand of the masses—this is the chief thing for a Communist Party, especially in such a country as Britain....20

In his “Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International”, Lenin said that

All parties affiliated to the Third International must at all costs give effect to the slogans: “Deeper into the thick of the masses”, “Closer links with the masses”—meaning by the masses all those who toil and are exploited by capital, particularly those who are least organized and educated, who are most oppressed and least amenable to organization.21

And later, during that same Second Congress, he said that “What we want is new and different parties. We want parties that will be in constant and real contact with the masses and will be able to lead those masses.”22 In the same speech he remarked that “If the minority is unable to lead the masses and establish close links with them, then it is not a party, and is worthless in general, even if it calls itself a party...”23

He could hardly have been clearer on this matter, or more forceful. And yet, in the revolutionary movement in the United States today, we find some of the very same problems that Lenin railed against among those who call themselves “Maoists” and “Leninists”. It wasn’t always so. Back in 1976, in its pamphlet The Mass Line, the RCP expressed the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist point of view beautifully:

No Party is fit to lead the masses, nor can it be in any position to determine what must be done and how to do it, unless it continually strengthens its ties with the masses and takes part, together with them, in the daily struggle against exploitation and oppression, and assists them in forging links between their struggles against the common enemy.24

Unfortunately, the RCP no longer “puts forward” that pamphlet nor that point of view. Today, like the “ultra-revolutionaries” of Lenin’s era, they regard any sort of focus on the actual day-to-day struggles of the masses as evidence of “revisionism”.

Everybody says they want to get close to the people, but not everybody really means it!


1   Lenin, Collected Works (5th Russian edition), Vol. 44, pp. 497-8; quoted in English translation in F. V. Konstantinov, et al., The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, 2nd revised edition, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), p. 573. The line “Win their absolute trust.” appears in Konstantinov as “Win their absolute truth.” I assume that this puzzling sentence is a mistranslation, and my substitution (for this line only) is taken from the more idiomatic English translation of the same passage which appears in Yevgeni Ambartsumov, “Lenin as Political Leader”, Soviet Life, Jan. 1970, p. 16. Ambartsumov notes that the passage is from notes made by Lenin in preparation for a speech he gave to trade union activists in December 1921.

2   Mao, Quotations, pp. 3-4; slightly different translation in “On Coalition Government” (April 24, 1945), SW 3:314.

3   Mao, “On the Chungking Negotiations” (Oct. 17, 1945), SW 4:58.

4   Mao, “On Coalition Government” (April 24, 1945), SW 3:315.

5   Mao, “Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work” (March 12, 1957), SR, p. 485.

6   Mao, quoted in an editorial in the People’s Daily (Aug. 20, 1966), Mao Papers, p. 127.

7   Mao, “Talk at the Hanchow Conference of the Shanghai Bureau” (April 1957), MMTT, p. 68.

8   Mao, quoted in an editorial in the People’s Daily (Aug. 17, 1966), Mao Papers, p. 127.

9   Mao, “Spread the Campaigns to Reduce Rent, Increase Production and ‘Support the Government and Cherish the People’ in the Base Areas” (Oct. 1, 1943), SW 3:132.

10   Mao, “Inscription For a Production Exhibition Sponsored by Organizations Directly Under the Central Committee of the Party and the General Headquarters of the Eighth Route Army”, Liberation Daily of Yenan (Nov. 24, 1943); Quotations, p. 132.

11   Mao, “On the Chungking Negotiations” (Oct. 17, 1945), SW 4:59.

12   Mao, “Get Organized!” (Nov. 29, 1943), SW 3:158.

13   Mao, “The Orientation of the Youth Movement” (May 4, 1939), SW 2:246.

14   Mao, ibid., SW 2:246-7.

15   Lenin, “On the Tasks of the Social-Democratic Movement”, LCW 6:272.

16   Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:97.

17   Lenin, quoted in Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: A Manual, (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), pp. 419-420. I haven’t yet been able to locate this quotation in Lenin’s Collected Works.

18   Lenin, “On the Road” (Feb. 10, 1909), LCW 15:355.

19   Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder” (May 1920), LCW 31:50.

20   Lenin, “Letter to Sylvia Pankurst” (Aug. 28, 1919), LCW 29:563.

21   Lenin, “Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International” (July 4, 1920), LCW 31:194.

22   Lenin, “Speech on the Role of the Communist Party at the Second Congress of the Communist International” (July 23, 1920), LCW 31:236.

23   Lenin, ibid., LCW 31:238.

24   Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 2.

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