The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

30. The Mass Line and the Theory of Knowledge

In Mao’s very first elaboration of the theory of the mass line, he firmly establishes its connection to the Marxist theory of knowledge:

In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily “from the masses, to the masses.” This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.1

Many people have found that last sentence jarring; the connection is still not completely clear to them. Elaboration of the point is thus required.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach

We should start by saying a few words about the Marxist theory of knowledge. This is an extremely important topic in itself, and could easily be expanded into a whole book. But we must be very circumspect and attempt to keep the discussion brief and closely related to the mass line. There is no more pithy and profound summary of Marxist epistemology than in Marx’s marvelous “Theses on Feuerbach”, which are notes he wrote down in 1845.

As a preface to our first look at Marx’s theses, let’s consider for a moment a very basic question about human knowledge: How can we ever know that our ideas about the world are correct? This is a question which has puzzled many philosophers, and led to many strange theories. The strangest, which is a favorite of bourgeois ideologists, is that we really never can be sure that our ideas about the world are correct. According to this view nothing is ever really fully established; we are at best stuck with a set of working hypotheses, any or all of which we may have to throw out at any moment. This is the sophisticated version of what amounts to a theory of epistemological agnosticism.2

Marx took an entirely different approach:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which isolates itself from practice is a purely scholastic question.3

In short, practice should be the source of, and is definitely the test of, ideas and theories. Mao expressed this as follows:

Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking.4

So to the extent that we can change the world through our practice we demonstrate that our ideas about the world are essentially correct. So how can we change society specifically? Obviously to change society we must change people; but how do we change people?

The early French materialist philosophers, and following them, Ludwig Feuerbach, recognized that people were the product of their education and upbringing. They therefore argued that to change people we must change their education and upbringing. While this is of course true, Marx saw that it was in fact a shallow analysis of the situation. He addressed this in another of his “Theses on Feuerbach”:

      The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence, this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).
      The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice.5

How the Mass Line Grows Out of the Marxist Theory of Knowledge

Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” are rightly famous for their profundity. In the two theses quoted we have not only the fundamental epistemological principles behind the mass line, but also a number of secondary principles. To elaborate:

First, since practice is the source of correct theory (guidance), if we are searching for a correct revolutionary theory (further guidance) we must discover it in revolutionary practice.

Second, since it is only the masses who can make revolution, it is in mass revolutionary practice where we must discover revolutionary theory.

Third, if one part of the masses (the proletarian party) is to educate and lead the rest, then that part must itself be educated. While the part may educate the whole, the whole must also educate the part. The mass line is the primary means by which not only the party educates the masses, but by which, prior to that, the masses educate the party.

Fourth, the proletarian party may be viewed as “superior” to the masses only in a limited, partial sense; in a deeper sense, the masses are superior to the party. The party is the concentrator of the wisdom of the masses, and as such can serve as the educator and leader of the masses. But ultimately, and continuously, what is concentrated must come primarily from the masses. In the deepest sense of all, neither the masses nor the party is superior to the other; they form a dialectical unity.

Fifth, since one part of the masses (the party) is not truly superior to the rest, the process of changing the whole must be reiterative and dialectical. First the whole must change the part, then the part must change the whole; and then the cycle must be repeated over and over again.

Sixth, in concentrating the new ideas of the masses, which arise out of their current practice, we must also consider what has been concentrated from their past practice. And in concentrating the ideas of the masses in one locality, we must also consider what has been concentrated from the masses elsewhere. Marxist theory itself is primarily, and in essence, the summation of all this past revolutionary practice of the masses everywhere in the world. Therefore, existing Marxist theory must be our guide in processing the new ideas and experience of the masses in order to generate new Marxist theory. Thus, while we must constantly repeat the process of generating theory out of practice, we never find ourselves back at the very beginning, knowing nothing at all about how to proceed. In each cycle or spiral we learn something. In each spiral we learn more of the truth, adding to or slightly revising what we knew before.

Seventh, the proletariat and the masses must change themselves, along with all of society, in the course of their struggle. And not only themselves, they must also change their party (which is part of the masses, in the broad sense). This is revolutionizing practice, accomplished step by step.

Eighth, to say that knowledge comes from social practice is to say that people (including both the masses and their party itself) have to learn through their joint experience in class struggle. If the party and the masses are not involved together in constant class struggle, they cannot help each other learn, and they cannot help each other change. In other words, revolutionizing practice depends for its success on the masses and their more conscious, experienced and educated segments (and especially the revolutionary party) working together in a common social movement, moving more and more in the direction of proletarian revolution.

I think it should be fairly easy to see at this point that, as Mao indicated, the mass line is simply the tool which directly implements the Marxist theory of knowledge.

Even a few of the more perceptive Sinologists have seen this quite clearly; Edward Hammond wrote that

The concept of revolutionary practice posited a process of knowledge which changed both the known and the knower. This powerful philosophical insight of the third thesis on Feuerbach radically broke with the “old” materialism and laid the foundation for the more political concept of the mass line, which is concerned precisely with the need to educate the educator.6

Marx, notes Hammond, avoided Feuerbach’s dualistic materialism “by posing society as a whole as the subject of knowledge. Thus not only is there no dualism of the knower and the known but any dualism of know-it-all’s and know-nothing’s is also denied.”7 Hammond even sees that Marx’s dialectical approach “made Marxism significant and substantially different from populism and pragmatism.”8

The Steps in the Mass Line Process Mirror the Stages of Cognition

What are the stages of human cognition? Viewed from the highest (most abstract) level, cognition is a matter of truth or knowledge being derived from practice, and then being used in turn to guide further practice. But anything this complex must necessarily consist of stages.

The first stage in the process of cognition is that of perception. What we see with our eyes or perceive through our other senses must then be processed by our brains, to bring it into coherence with what we have perceived and reconstructed into knowledge in the past. Mao puts it this way:

...the first step in the process of cognition is contact with the objects of the external world; this belongs to the stage of perception. The second step is to synthesize the data of perception by arranging and reconstructing them; this belongs to the stage of conception, judgment and inference. It is only when the data of perception are very rich (not fragmentary) and correspond to reality (are not illusory) that they can be the basis for forming correct concepts and theories.

      ...As to the sequence in the process of cognition, perceptual experience comes first; we stress the significance of social practice in the process of cognition precisely because social practice alone can give rise to human knowledge and it alone can start man on the acquisition of perceptual experience from the objective world. For a person who shuts his eyes, stops his ears and totally cuts himself off from the objective world there can be no such thing as knowledge. Knowledge begins with experience—this is the materialism of the theory of knowledge.9

But what is involved in this second stage of cognition, in the reconstruction of sense perception? Mao goes on to explain:

      The second point is that knowledge needs to be deepened, that the perceptual stage of knowledge needs to be developed to the rational stage—this is the dialectics of the theory of knowledge. To think that knowledge can stop at the lower, perceptual stage and that perceptual knowledge alone is reliable while rational knowledge is not, would be to repeat the historical error of “empiricism”. This theory errs in failing to understand that, although the data of perception reflect certain realities in the objective world (I am not speaking here of idealist empiricism which confines experience to so-called introspection), they are merely one-sided and superficial, reflecting things incompletely and not reflecting their essence. Fully to reflect a thing in its totality, to reflect its essence, to reflect its inherent laws, it is necessary through the exercise of thought to reconstruct the rich data of sense perception, discarding the dross and selecting the essential, eliminating the false and retaining the true, proceeding from the one to the other and from the outside to the inside, in order to form a system of concepts and theories—it is necessary to make a leap from perceptual to rational knowledge.10

So the first step in the process of cognition is the gathering of perceptual knowledge, and the second step is the merger of that perceptual knowledge into what we have learned prior to that, and the transformation and reconstruction of the whole into a higher level of rational knowledge. Is that the end of the story then? No, there is one more stage:

The dialectical-materialist movement of knowledge from the perceptual to the rational holds true for a minor process of cognition (for instance, knowing a single thing or task) as well as for a major process of cognition (for instance, knowing a whole society or a revolution).

      But the movement of knowledge does not end here. If the dialectical-materialist movement of knowledge were to stop at rational knowledge, only half the problem would be dealt with. And as far as Marxist philosophy is concerned, only the less important half at that. Marxist philosophy holds that the most important problem does not lie in understanding the laws of the objective world and thus being able to explain it, but in applying the knowledge of these laws actively to change the world.... Marxism emphasizes the importance of theory precisely and only because it can guide action. If we have a correct theory but merely prate about it, pigeonhole it and do not put it into practice, then that theory, however good, is of no significance. Knowledge begins with practice, and theoretical knowledge is acquired through practice and must then return to practice.11

And, finally, at the end of his great essay “On Practice” Mao sums up the whole process of cognition this way:

      Discover the truth through practice, and again through practice verify and develop the truth. Start from perceptual knowledge and actively develop it into rational knowledge; then start from rational knowledge and actively guide revolutionary practice to change both the subjective and objective world. Practice, knowledge, again practice, and again knowledge. This form repeats itself in endless cycles, and with each cycle the content of practice and knowledge rises to a higher level. Such is the whole of the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge, and such is the dialectical-materialist theory of the unity of knowing and doing.12

I think it is now fairly easy to see how the steps in the mass line method of leadership mirror the stages of cognition in the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge. Corresponding to the perceptual stage of cognition we have the mass line step of gathering the ideas and experiences of the masses. Corresponding to the stage in cognition of raising perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge we have the mass line step of processing the ideas of the masses in light of existing MLM theory, in light of the long-term revolutionary interests of the masses, and in light of a careful scientific investigation of the objective conditions. And corresponding to the third stage in cognition, of using our rational knowledge to guide our new practice, we have the mass line step of returning the processed ideas of the masses back to the masses in the form of policies, programs and campaigns which serve as the basis for new mass practice, for new mass political struggle. Just as the test of our knowledge is the use of it in further practice, the test of the ideas we gain from the masses is the use of them to guide further mass action.

The mass line method allows the masses as a whole (including their political leadership concentrated in the revolutionary party) to operate in a way that does in fact employ the dialectical-materialist theory of knowledge. This allows the political struggle of the masses ...

Educating the Educator

People with a little bit of knowledge often imagine that they know a whole lot more than they really do! Everybody recognizes this, but we all find it hard to keep this in mind when it comes to ourselves or to organizations we are part of and deeply committed to. Marx pointed out the deep philosophical error involved in dividing society into two parts, one of which is inherently superior to society and beyond the need of further education and direction itself, and therefore supposedly fit to be the exclusive educator and leader of all the rest.

It is true that society, and every class in society including the proletariat, must inevitably have some individuals within it who generally understand the interests of the whole better than do most of the other individuals; those who are more resolute than the average person in their promotion and defense of those interests; and those who better understand the long-term goals that these interests thus require. Many of these sorts of people come together to create political parties, and because these sorts of people do tend to comprise political parties it is reasonable to say that such parties often are in a position to help educate and lead the rest of their class to a considerable degree.

In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels say this about the communists in relation to the rest of the working class:

      The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.13

But we must never forget that even in the case of communists and the proletariat, those who create and join the revolutionary party or parties of the proletariat have come from the same basic masses as those who haven’t joined. And like the rest of those masses we still have shortcomings and limitations in our own understanding. Yes, we may understand some key points which many of the rest of the masses do not. But that does not mean we—not even our top leaders—understand all the important points! Moreover, like the rest of the masses, we must continue to learn and gain further experience.

On average we communists and our revolutionary party as a whole are usually a bit ahead of the masses in general when it comes to understanding the basic situation and the ultimate goal. But we still have so very much to learn about how to reach that goal that overall we can only be viewed as being just a few steps ahead of the rest of the masses. Instead of viewing ourselves as superior to the masses, as having virtually all the answers, and therefore as being fit just as we now are to fully educate and lead the masses, we should much better view ourselves as merely a slightly advanced detachment of the proletariat which must overall still struggle as a class to learn exactly what to do to transform the world.

We are not above all the present political confusion; merely above a bit of it. In fact, just as the present limited understanding of the masses in general is part of the overall problem in society, so is our own limited understanding! This is no doubt something hard for many revolutionary communists to comprehend or admit—that we ourselves are also “part of the problem”! But it is the truth of the matter! We do in fact still have great limitations in our understanding of society, especially when it comes to the central question of what precisely to do to change it. Like the rest of the masses, we desperately need some help to get through all this. And since we—party and masses—are all in the same basic predicament, we have to find ways to help each other out of it.

In short, the educators really do also need to be educated! Besides our study of MLM theory, national and world history and the current objective situation, there are two ways directly related to the masses in which this education can come about: 1) The party can often learn things directly from the rest of the masses, or at least from some individuals among the masses. And 2) The party can participate with the masses in what is potentially, at least, the greatest school of revolutionary education, the existing class struggles of the masses. The first method here involves the dialectic between teacher and student, while the second method is that of the “revolutionizing practice” of collective mass struggles.

With regard to this dialectic between teacher and pupil, Antonio Gramsci has this to say in his Prison Notebooks:

...this problem can and must be related to the modern [Marxist] way of considering educational doctrine and practice, according to which the relationship between teacher and pupil is active and reciprocal so that every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher. But the educational relationship should not be restricted to the field of the strictly “scholastic” relationships by means of which the new generation comes into contact with the old and absorbs its experiences and its historically necessary values and “matures” and develops a personality of its own which is historically and culturally superior. This form of relationship exists throughout society as a whole and for every individual relative to other individuals. It exists between intellectual and non-intellectual sections of the population, between the rulers and the ruled, élites and their followers, leaders and led, the vanguard and the body of the army.14

Mao often talked about the dialectic between student and teacher. For example he said in 1938 and 1957:

Communists should set an example in study; at all times they should be pupils of the masses as well as their teachers.15

Naturally, we have to learn while teaching and be pupils while serving as teachers. To be a good teacher, one must first be a good pupil. There are many things which cannot be learned from books alone; one must learn from those engaged in production, from the workers, from the peasants and, in schools, from the students, from those one teaches.16

And for Mao, this was not just window dressing. He himself firmly felt the need to learn, and to continue to learn, from the masses, as well as through other kinds of study:

Today I still feel keenly the necessity for thorough research into Chinese and world affairs; this is related to the scantiness of my own knowledge of Chinese and world affairs and does not imply that I know everything and that others are ignorant. It is my wish to go on being a pupil, learning from the masses, together with all other Party comrades.17

When it comes to the great revolutionary changes to society that need to be made, the best Marxist leaders have always approached the accompanying education of the masses that is necessary in these situations in this same dialectical fashion, by also stressing the need to learn from the masses how exactly to proceed. Lenin, for example, had this to say in talking about the coming transformation of agriculture that would be necessary after the seizure of revolutionary power in Russia. (Unfortunately, Stalin did not actually do things this way.):

We cannot conceal from the peasants, least of all from the rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, that small-scale farming under commodity economy and capitalism cannot rid humanity of mass poverty, that it is necessary to think about going over to large-scale farming conducted on public lines and to tackle this job at once by teaching the masses, and in turn learning from the masses, the practical expedient measures for bringing about such a transition.18

Mao said much the same thing with regard even to those working on newspapers and other day-to-day work in socialist society.19 He also pointed out that even Confucius said that we should “not feel ashamed to ask and learn from people below”.20 Mao summed all this up as follows, while at the same time connecting it up to the general theme of this chapter:

...we follow the people first, and later on the people follow us. Theory first comes from practice, and later on it is used to guide practice. The unity of theory and practice is Marxism. There was no Marxism to start with. It came to the people’s mind from their practice in class struggle. It was first reflected in the minds of the forerunners, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. The reflection of the objective law in the subjective world resulted in a theoretical summary which was developed into theories by them to serve as our models. If political errors are to be avoided, then we must use theory to guide practice, but theory must originate from practice. Apart from objective practice, it will be impossible to form theory. No reality can be formed behind closed doors. The general line formulated at [this] Congress is not the result of any spur of the moment ideas of certain individuals. Regardless of one’s position, authority, and fame, if one does not go into the field and associate with the people, or contact the cadres who are close to the people, and the positive elements of the people, if one does not contact or associate with the people for six months, one will know nothing and become impoverished. Therefore, the provision that everyone must spend four months out of the year in the field is necessary. One must go into the field and associate with the people, with the cadres who are close to the people, and with the positive elements in the people, clarify their thinking, action, and hardships, and summarize them.21

And finally, in the following item from Peking Review during the Mao era there is the following commentary which correctly, I think, calls the failure to proceed in this way a variety of philosophical idealism:

      To be able to recognize the masses’ revolutionary enthusiasm from its very essence, we must take the attitude of learning from them modestly and being willing to be their pupils. Some comrades want the masses to do things according to their subjective assumptions; when problems and difficulties arise, they do not explain the situation to the masses, nor mobilize them to find a solution. As a matter of fact, in their eyes, wisdom, solutions and strength are not derived from the masses but are innate in their own minds. This view is nothing but idealism. People possessing such views will remain aloof and become divorced from the masses, and even grow to look down on the masses and suppress the latter’s revolutionary enthusiasm. Thus, to be able to recognize the essence, one must, in the last analysis, work hard to remold one’s world outlook, correctly understand the role of the masses from a dialectical and historical materialist viewpoint and really have faith in and rely on them.22

Revolutionizing Practice

As mentioned above, there are two main methods by which the advanced section of the masses (i.e. primarily the proletarian revolutionary party) can be educated by the rest of the masses: 1) Directly from these masses through the interpenetrating nature of the teacher-student dialectic, and 2) By participating with the masses in their revolutionizing practice of collective mass struggle. We’ve discussed the first method, so perhaps a little more should now be said about this second method.

Marxists often talk about how the masses are the makers of world history, but unfortunately they often still view this in essentially a bourgeois manner (to the extent that they think it through at all). It is, after all, possible to view the masses as the “makers of history” only in the quite limited sense that they can become the followers of some party, or even of some great individual leader, who instructs them and tells them what to do. On this conception the masses are simply made ready for action entirely from the outside and then led by the nose into their world-changing activity by those who should evidently get most of the real credit here, namely those who already know what the masses need to do as well as how to get the masses to do it. Not only is this conception insulting to the masses, and arrogant and egocentric on the part of those parties and individuals who tacitly hold to such a view, it is also completely foolish because, at least with respect to all the precise steps, there is no individual and no party that knows from the beginning exactly what the masses need to do to make revolution and how exactly to bring them into each one of the great series of actions that they need to perform in order to accomplish it! These are, instead, things that the masses and their revolutionary party acting together must figure out, and figure out one step at a time, in the course of prolonged joint struggle.

Having a mass perspective does not just mean recognizing that the masses are the makers of history—especially if this is understood in the emasculated manner mentioned above. The masses provide not just the physical force to make revolution, but also an indispensable portion of the intellectual force. To truly have a mass perspective means to understand that it is the masses in the broad sense (which only includes their revolutionary party as a component part) who must and will be able to figure out what to do and when to do it through what they learn via their own revolutionizing practice.

That term, “revolutionizing practice”, is one that needs to be carefully pondered; this is not just some throw-away phrase! It was chosen by Marx as the concentration of a very profound idea, and one that even quite intelligent people have to think about for a while to fully grasp its varied aspects. Most immediately for us, the primary force leading the masses to adopt revolutionary ideas is their own experience in struggle, their own social practice, which either leads to some revolutionary ideas directly, or else leads them to see the correctness of what the revolutionaries around them have been saying. But even those revolutionaries and revolutionary leaders themselves must also advance their own understanding—must change or “revolutionize” their own thinking—through their own participation in this mass practice. This is the aspect that is harder for many Marxists to understand. And beyond even that, “revolutionizing practice” must be understood to be the key to not just advancing people’s ideas specifically about social revolution, but actually about every form of social activity, including how to make advances in economic production in socialist and communist society. In this widest sense, the “revolutionizing practice” of the masses is what leads to all the qualitative leaps in understanding and theory that arises from every sort of social activity, which then become available to guide further practice. This is, in other words, the Marxist theory of knowledge applied to society as a whole.

It is fundamentally wrong to look at the overall “social problem” as being “How can we revolutionaries change both society and the people?” The real social problem is “How can the people change both society and themselves?” And the fundamental answer to that question is “Step by step through their own revolutionizing social practice.” We revolutionaries are also part of the masses and we must also go through this same basic process ourselves. Yes, we already have learned some important things, but we need to learn a lot more. And we need to participate with the masses in this great social learning experience in order not only to be in a good position to help impart to them what we already know, but—even more importantly—in order for us to learn from the masses and from their experiences all the many additional things that both we and they need to know.

Revolutionizing practice is not only the greatest force which leads the masses to come to recognize and agree with MLM revolutionary theory, it is—in a deep sense—even the primary source of that MLM revolutionary theory itself. Our existing MLM theory comes from the previous summation of revolutionary practice around the world, but that is only our theoretical starting point for any new revolutionary struggle. Lenin put it this way: “[C]orrect revolutionary theory... is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”23

This is something to think about for those who talk so grandly today about their “new synthesis” of Marxism and such, while being unable to lead even tiny fractions of the masses in actual struggle and even rejecting the necessity to do so at this time!

Further Philosophical Issues

Objections can of course be raised against the Marxist claim that theory must come from practice. It is true that there are theories and ideologies that do not come from practice, such as for example utopian ideas. But the issue is whether any correct theories can develop outside of practice. Conceivably, of course, this might occasionally happen, though it would still remain for actual practice to demonstrate the validity of such theories. When we say that “theory must come from practice” what we are putting forward is a general principle which it is very important to follow if one wants to avoid—as much as possible—going seriously astray.

A related issue is whether practice is ever sufficiently radical to generate the truly radical theory that is needed to change the world. Raymond Aron, who was a radical intellectual, once wrote that “Reality is always more conservative than ideology.”24 Perhaps all he meant was that many actual ideologies or theories are flights of fancy with no objective basis. This would probably be another way of saying that these theories did not derive from actual mass practice. In another sense, though, the comment is certainly untrue. Often the prevailing ideology lags way behind the developing new social reality, or what is possible in a given situation. Mao talked about this phenomenon within the CPC when the thinking of many comrades lagged behind that of the masses during the rural collectivization campaigns. We could also respond to Aron by saying “Politicians are often out of touch with reality, but the masses never are.”25 Lenin had yet another answer here to Aron, and to the question I initially raised in this paragraph, when he remarked to a young Romanian friend:

I don’t know how radical you are, or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.26

It seems that Lenin is saying here that social reality requires an extremely radical ideology and political theory in order to change it. On the one hand we must base our political leadership on the theoretical guidance we derive from mass practice, but on the other hand that theory must be sufficiently radical to actually be of use in changing this horrible capitalist-imperialist world. This is another of those dialectical problems that the mass line resolves.

While mass practice is never, at any given point, sufficiently radical to give rise to the more radical theory that will be needed later on, it is sufficiently radical to give rise to the theory needed to take the next step. What we learn from the masses today is what we and they can do today. That is, the theory that guides our current leadership practice must be learned from the masses currently, from their existing practice and ideas via the mass line. But on the other hand, our fuller theory, that tells us our more long-term goals, and how society must overthrow capitalism and establish socialism and later communism, has arisen from much more extensive practice of the masses in many different countries, over a period of centuries.

So when asked if contemporary mass practice is sufficiently radical to generate the truly radical theory that is necessary to make revolution and to fundamentally change society, we have to give a dialectical answer: Right now that practice is only sufficiently radical to get us started on that path. But as things develop, and we continue our own agitation and educational work, the masses too will change their practice and their ideas, and then we will be able to derive from them the guiding theory to take the next step. Revolutionizing practice proceeds only step by step.

This connects up with the next question of whether, given the limited practice and education of the masses, it is nevertheless possible to learn anything important from them. Clearly it is possible to go too far here, as Charles Bettelheim critized “ultra-leftists”, including Lin Biao, of doing during the Cultural Revolution in China:

      Politically, ultra-leftist spontaneism is a direct extension of empiricism. Spontaneism asserts, as does empiricism, that knowledge can be derived directly from a limited practice and that the masses are therefore never in error. The Marxist view holds that correct ideas derive from practice, and in the first place from the practice of the masses; it is here distorted into the notion that “all the ideas of the masses are correct.”27

All the ideas of the masses cannot possibly be correct because all the masses do not even share all the same ideas! Since there are conflicting ideas, many of them must be wrong. The dominant ideas of the masses also cannot always be correct because much of the time in bourgeois society the majority are tricked and fooled by the ruling class and their agencies of ideological control (i.e., TV, newspapers, schools, churches, etc.). Even in socialist society, the majority ideas of the masses cannot always be correct, because of the lingering effects of their bourgeois upbringing and indoctrination, and because even widespread subjectivism can still exist in any form of society. Even beyond all that, there are at any given time in any society many particular matters about which few if any individuals among the masses have a correct understanding or viewpoint. For example, it would be ridiculous to attempt to gather much in the way of concrete ideas from the American masses right now (2007) on how to organize the distribution of goods in some future communist society. That is a question the masses will certainly have many very important ideas on once socialist society exists, and as it further develops, but it is absurdly premature to try to gather the ideas to precisely decide this now before socialism even exists in this country.

The main point can hardly be stressed too much: What we mostly need to learn from the masses right now is exactly how to lead them in action right now! (And, yes, even in this regard we must sift and refine the huge and diverse assortment of views among the masses with the aid of our existing MLM theory, in light of our revolutionary goal, and in light of a careful investigation of the objective situation.) Certainly we must also keep our ears open for good ideas about future tasks as well, but the main thing is always to discover and implement the appropriate leadership policies for the present time.

Bettelheim’s comment about the dangers of presumed knowledge derived from quite limited practice is indeed very important. This is why when we do use the mass line it should be based on an extensive and ideally even quite thorough investigation of the various views of the masses as our starting raw material. We say that correct knowledge derives from practice, but we also recognize full well that deriving supposed knowledge from very limited practice is a sure recipe for pragmatism, and hence for serious mistakes and political disasters in the mass campaigns based on such pragmatic ideas.

Narrow Conceptions of the Role of the Mass Line in Political Epistemology

One interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed in talking to some members of the RCP, both in the past and more recently, is a tendency to understand quite well the theoretical basis for the use of the mass line within the party, but to seem to focus almost entirely on its role in transmitting knowledge from the lower ranks of the party to the top leadership. Usually there is also a recognition that many of these ideas should come from the masses to begin with, but the entire emphasis is placed not on getting these ideas from the masses, but rather on simply affirming that the party is organized in such a way that these ideas can then be presumed to flow naturally up to the party center.

The underlying theory here, as we discussed in the previous chapter, is that democratic centralism exists in the party as an implementation of the mass line. Ideas come up from the masses and the ordinary party members who are (supposed to be) in close contact with those masses, and then flow up to the top party leaders level by level through the multiple layers of structure in the party. These leaders then pick and choose from among these various ideas and formulate policies and ideas for political campaigns in which the party will try to lead the masses in action. These refined ideas and plans are then sent back down through the party apparatus to the individual rank and file members, who are responsible for attempting to implement the policies and campaigns among the masses they are in contact with.

But for this mechanism to actually work in this ideal way, a number of things must be true. First, the ordinary members of the party must actually be close to the masses; and as we discussed in earlier chapters, that means most essentially that they are participating together with the masses in struggles that the masses themselves see as very important. Second, even if that much is true, these ordinary members of the party must also be trained to understand the importance of the mass line, and specifically in the importance of actively seeking out the ideas of the masses about what to do. If this is not constantly emphasized within the party, then that party won’t actually be gathering very many of the important ideas which are out there all around them. (And this is especially the case if most party members are ex-college students and/or not from a basic working-class background even to begin with.) Third, the party must genuinely promote democracy within its ranks so that members feel not only comfortable with, but even the requirement of, putting forth new and different ideas, and with transmitting ideas they hear from the masses even if they know that these ideas go against the current ones being promoted by the leadership! Fourth, the party leadership must be constantly talking about the mass line, must truly see the need for it, and must really be determined to use it. And fifth, for the method to actually be successful in leading the masses, the party leadership itself must be sufficiently in touch with the current situation and the moods and ideas of the masses that they select policies and campaigns that the broad masses can enthusiastically support.

In the case of the RCP I honestly don’t believe that any of these five points are true any more, and it may well be that none of them were ever completely true. But the broader point I am trying to emphasize at the moment is that no mere formal democratic centralist structure in a party is going to “ensure” the use of the mass line method of leadership at all. In other words, it is only true to say that the democratic-centralist organization of the party “implements” the mass line if 1) that sort of democratic centralism is far more genuine (i.e., far more democratic) than it has usually proven to be in most nominally democratic-centralist parties, and 2) if that party is genuinely committed to using the mass line.

In groups like the RCP, where the “democratic” aspect of what they call “democratic centralism” is purely nominal, this hollow claim that the party structure itself implements “the mass line” is actually often used to oppose democracy within the party! Here is the rationalization that is frequently used: Each individual ordinary member is only in contact with a tiny section of the masses and only gathers a few of their ideas and experiences. It is therefore only the top leadership that is in a position to weigh all the evidence from all the masses that the party is in contact with, consider all the pros and cons, and decide on the line of the party. Furthermore, the top leadership has been selected in large part because they have the theoretical knowledge and practical experience necessary to sift and refine the various ideas of the masses. Therefore any disagreement about the line on the part of the rank-and-file members is totally without any justification and demonstrates a failure to even understand the basic nature of Marxist epistemology.

It is shocking to me that such a crude and woefully distorted conception of the profoundly democratic method of the mass line can be used in such a way to oppose democracy in the party, to beat down different ideas, and to absurdly glorify the ideas of a few top leaders (which in reality rarely come from the masses at all). But numerous ex-members of the RCP have told me how the above argument, or some slight variation on it, was actually used against them and their very occasionally diverent ideas. Indeed, when I was in the Party myself many a long moon ago, it was also frequently used against my own comments, suggestions, and disagreements.

What is wrong, exactly, with this rationalization for beating down divergent ideas? It is actually true that the leadership of the party must make the final decisions about what policies to adopt and what campaigns to promote among the masses. But here is some of the counterpoint that is missing in the above rationalization:

As we discussed at length in chapter 28 on the mass line and proletarian democracy, the mass line is actually the primary means by which the party promotes democracy among the masses it leads, and also within its own membership. And since an essential component of the mass line method is the constant encouragement of mass thinking and ideas, and the constant gathering and consideration of all these ideas by the party, there is no way that the mass line method can be properly understood to be an excuse for the suppression of ideas and criticisms from the masses or from ordinary party members. As I say, it is completely shocking that anybody would have ever thought otherwise. It can only show how utterly unable they are to understand what the mass line is all about.


1   Mao, “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership” (June 1, 1943), SW3:119.

2   For more discussion about why epistemological agnosticism is incorrect see my essay “Do We Know For Certain that the Earth Goes Around the Sun?”, posted at

3   Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), thesis #2, MECW 5:6.

4   Mao, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?” (May 1963), SR, p. 502.

5   Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), thesis #3, MECW 5:7.

6   Edward Hammond, “Marxism and the Mass Line”, Modern China, vol. 4, #1, Jan. 1978, p. 9. I don’t know exactly where Hammond is coming from, but he appears to be far more sympathetic towards Marxism than most Sinologists. But while Hammond’s article has some real insights, it also has its difficiencies. For example, his comments about Stalin’s supposed “theoretical grasp” of the mass line are quite exaggerated.

7   Ibid.

8   Ibid., p. 11.

9   Mao, “On Practice” (July 1937), SW 1:302-3.

10   Ibid., SW 1:303.

11   Ibid., SW 1:304.

12   Ibid., SW 1:308.

13   Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, section II (Proletarians and Communists), paragraph 6. This is on p. 67 in the Norton critical edition edited by Frederic L. Bender, (NY: Norton, 1968).

14   Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, pp. 349-50. Because of his situation in prison, Gramsci could not explicitly refer to “Marxism” or “Marxist” in his writings and often used the word “modern” instead.

15   Mao, Quotations, p. 272; “The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War” (Oct. 1938), SW 2:198*.

16   Mao, “Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work” (March 12, 1957), SW 5:426.

17   Mao, “Preface and Postscript to Rural Surveys: Preface” (March 17, 1941), SW 3:13.

18   Lenin, “Congress of Peasants’ Deputies” (April 16, 1917), LCW 24:169.

19   Mao wrote: “To teach the masses, newspaper workers should first of all learn from the masses. You comrades are all intellectuals. Intellectuals are often ignorant and often have little or no experience in practical matters.” [“A Talk to the Editorial Staff of the Shansi-Suiyuan Daily” (April 2, 1948), SW 4:243.] Mao then goes on to talk about how peasants can much more easily grasp questions of land reform than can intellectuals.

20   Mao wrote: “We should never pretend to know what we don’t know, we should ‘not feel ashamed to ask and learn from people below’ [quotation from Confucian Analects, Book V] and we should listen carefully to the views of the cadres at the lower levels. Be a pupil before you become a teacher; learn from the cadres at the lower levels before you issue orders.” [“Methods of Work of Party Committees” (March 13, 1949), SW 4:378.]

21   Mao, “Speeches at the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress” (May 23, 1958), MMTT, p. 117.

22   An Chun, “Having Faith in and Relying on the Majority of the Masses”, Peking Review, #14, April 6, 1973, p. 5.

23   Lenin, “‘Left-Wing’ Communism—An Infantile Disorder”, (Peking: FLP, 1965), p. 7; LCW 31:25.

24   Raymond Aron, quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter’s Quotations, p. 445.

25   This comment is my paraphrase of a remark which was attributed to Aneurin Bevan. I don’t have a citation for Bevan’s original comment.

26   Lenin quote from Alexander Cockburn, “The melancholy passing of real radicalism”, San Francisco Examiner, Aug. 30, 1991. The fuller quotation, showing its context, is given in chapter 12 in the section on personality cults.

27   Charles Bettelheim, “Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China”, (NY: MR Press, 1974), p. 122.

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