The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

35. Can the Bourgeoisie Use the Mass Line?

Listen, learn, lead. (Newt Gingrich)[1]

Earlier (chapter 4) I said that the bourgeoisie cannot use the mass line since (for one thing) using the mass line means processing the ideas of the masses in light of Marxist theory, which is obviously something the bourgeoisie has no interest in doing, and could not do in any case. But let us not consider the Marxist mass line but a hypothetical bourgeois "parallel", which we might call "the anti-mass line".

The anti-mass line is, we might suppose, the ultimate method of counter-revolutionary leadership. Like the mass line it consists of three steps: 1) Gathering the ideas of the masses, 2) Processing the ideas of the masses with the aid of bourgeois ideology, and 3) Returning the concentrated shit back to the masses, attempting to lead them away from revolution on this basis. Of course the bourgeoisie will also persevere in their independent "pedagogical" efforts, their strictly-bourgeois agitation and propaganda against revolution and communism and in favor of the permanence of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie (though of course they will never openly call it that). Given the near monopoly on the mass media enjoyed by the bourgeoisie wouldn't such a sinister perversion of the mass line be frightfully effective?

There probably has never been a bourgeois theoretical description of the "anti-mass line" in just these terms, but actually such methods are far from rare on the part of the enemy. There is in fact a standard name for such leadership methods: demagoguery. Is it effective? Yes, unfortunately, sometimes it can be. Demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini (and many a lesser figure) have shown themselves quite able to (mis-)lead a section of the masses, sometimes a very large section, by appealing to their prejudices, their erroneous ideas, the selfishness and other bourgeois characteristics which capitalist society has molded into them. Demagogues look for the short-term interests of the masses with which to obscure their long-term interests, their partial interests with which to obscure their overall interests, and scapegoats who may be offered up in place of the real enemies of the people.

Naturally demagogues must present themselves as friends of the masses, as people who represent the interests of the masses. For this reason demagoguery tends to appear most readily within revolutionary and other mass movements. It is certainly no accident that both Hitler and Mussolini claimed to be revolutionary socialists at the beginning of their careers. Especially at a time when genuine revolutionaries are not yet in leadership of the mass movement there are real dangers present from all sorts of demagogues. In 1902 Lenin remarked that

...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 worse 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.[2]

But while admitting here that demagogues can be successful for a time in swaying the masses, Lenin also puts his finger on the reason why such bourgeois-leadership-in-disguise is bound to fail eventually: the masses will learn through their own bitter experience that the demagogues are not acting in the people's interests but rather against their interests. Of course as long as there is not an effective focus for proletarian leadership, a proletarian party known to and respected by the masses, new demagogues will inevitably arise to replace those who have become discredited. The only real escape from this endless chain of charlatans—and all bourgeois leaders are charlatans and are more or less demagogic—lies in building and strengthening the proletarian party and its ties to the masses. To be sure, this is something we already knew we have to do; but it shows why we can and will triumph in the end over the bourgeoisie no matter what depths of demagoguery they may stoop to.

The bourgeoisie can and sometimes does use something like the "anti-mass line" to mislead the masses. But there are inherent difficulties and limitations in doing so. It requires close contact with the masses, which most bourgeois find repulsive. It requires some mobilization of the masses, which the bourgeoisie always fears may get out of hand. But most of all it requires fooling the masses about what is in their own interests, and eventually the masses are bound to learn the truth and turn against their false "friends". As Lenin said, the bourgeoisie "can attempt to lead part of the masses only by concealing its aims",[3] and what is concealed must eventually be exposed.

"The Socialist People's Libyan Jamahiriyah"

While this book is focused on using the mass line to make revolution in the U.S., it is worth noting that revolutionary bourgeois nationalist and anti-imperialist forces around the world are also sometimes attracted to ideas somewhat like that of the mass line. Recently, for example, I stumbled across the following comment by James C. Davies in the journal Political Psychology:

The state structure of Libya in recent decades has changed from monarchy to "The People's Socialist Libyan Arab Republic" to "The Socialist People's Libyan Jamahiriyah," in which the last word means "government through the masses." Actually, it's still a dictatorship, but one in which the leader says there is really no oppression because really there is no government: the people have total power.[4]

While I admit that I know very little about Libya, I think I know enough to laugh at the notion that it has "government through the masses," however opposed to American imperialism Gadhafi might be.

The thing that is wrong here is not the goal of "government through the masses", or the goal of all power to the people—but the painful fact that "saying so doesn't make it so." A major part of achieving these goals in reality is finding ways to expose and overthrow all the phonies—East, West or otherwise—who falsely make such claims of their exploiting class dictatorships.

Bourgeois political scientists, like Davies, have no trouble seeing through absurd claims like that of Gadhafi, but are totally incapable of seeing through the equally ridiculous claims of Western bourgeois "democracy".

We Maoists must pay increasing attention to arming the masses to spot phonies as they develop, especially since that may sometimes be from within the proletarian party itself. The masses cannot hope to achieve and hold on to genuine power until they become very skilled indeed at evaluating their own leaders and spotting and removing the demagogues and phonies.


[1] Quoted in Evan Thomas, "A Heroic Failure" (a semi-sympathetic article about the reactionary Republican Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives), Newsweek, Aug. 19, 1996, p. 53. The article seems to suggest that this is just a common managment school slogan that Gingrich likes to repeat.
   Back in 1978, and also true to his right-wing "populist" stance, Gingrich told a gathering of college Republicans: "Don't try to educate [the public]. That's not your job." [Quoted in Michael Kramer, "Newt's Believe It or Not", Time, Dec. 19, 1994, p. 44.]

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

[3] Lenin, "The Russian Revolution and Civil War" (Sept. 1917), LCW 26:31. Lenin was speaking specifically here on the eve of the October Revolution of the nature of bourgeois leadership of part of the masses in the revolutionary civil war, but the point is equally valid for all bourgeois "leadership" of the masses.

[4] James C. Davies, Department of Political Science, University of Oregon, in a book review in Political Psychology, Vol. 16, #4, Dec. 1995, p. 867.

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