The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

36. Soviet Revisionism and the Mass Line

Since the Soviet Union and Soviet revisionist Marxism has now collapsed (1991), it may seem that there is no need to examine their "obsolete" views on the mass line. However, while this particular gang of revisionists has bit the dust, revisionism still exists, and will continue to exist in one form or another until communism is achieved on a world wide basis. "Revisionism" is simply a collective name for various bourgeois theories, views, practices and organizations that unjustly call themselves Marxist. Thus combating revisionist views of the mass line will be necessary as long as the revolutionary use of the mass line is necessary.

An investigation of the attitudes of the Soviet revisionists towards the mass line is quite revealing. However the first thing that becomes apparent is the utter inconsistency of their attacks. Some Soviet commentators said the mass line is Leninist but in the hands of Mao was a shuck and a fraud; others said Mao was sincere but the mass line is anti-Leninist. Some said the "Chinese version" of the mass line was incompatible with the correct Leninist principle of "one-man command", while others said that it was simply a means for Mao's one-man personal dictatorship over the masses. Some said the mass line results in incited mob action while others claimed it leads to the passivity of the masses, and so on. Whenever you find something being attacked in this sort of wildly inconsistent fashion it is an easy bet that its enemies are twisting and turning, striving for a line of attack, but really don't have a leg to stand on.

In order to understand Soviet attitudes toward the mass line it is necessary to refer briefly to the days of Lenin and then Stalin. This book contains many quotations from Lenin which show his great appreciation of the creativity and initiative of the masses, and I have pointed out several examples of Lenin's use of the mass line method, such as his recognition of the crucial importance of the soviet form of mass organization for the Russian Revolution. It is true that many bourgeois scholars consider the mass line to be anti-Leninist, a claim discussed in chapter 34 and rejected as being way off base. After Lenin's death however the mass line was employed much less frequently in the U.S.S.R., and eventually not at all. Stalin evidently did not really believe in it as a leadership method despite a few bows in its direction.

Most such bows were in the form of quotes from Lenin, as when Stalin quoted him as saying that "among the mass of the people we (the Communists—J.St.) are after all but a drop in the ocean, and we can administer only when we properly express what the people are conscious of."[1]

However, if you search diligently through Stalin's writings and letters, you will find a few things here and there that suggest at least some appreciation for the mass line technique. In a 1927 letter to Molotov and Bukharin, for example, he criticizes the (pre-Maoist) Communist Party of China as follows:

The CCP sometimes babbles about the hegemony of the proletariat. But the most intolerable thing about this babbling is that the CCP does not have a clue (literally, not a clue) about hegemony—it kills the initiative of the working masses, [and] undermines the "unauthorized" actions of the peasant masses...[2]

Mao, on at least one occasion, unfavorably contrasted the later leadership of Stalin (as well as that of his successors) with Stalin's earlier leadership:

At that time Stalin had nothing else to rely on except the masses, so he demanded all-out mobilization of the party and the masses. Afterward, when they had realized some gains this way, they became less reliant on the masses.[3]

Mao's overall judgment of Stalin, however, was that he did not utilize the mass line:

We follow Lenin in the mass line and the class struggle.... Stalin did not promote the mass line. He played favoritism and was too excessive in the class struggle.[4]

By "playing favoritism" I believe that Mao means that Stalin sought to do favors for the masses, rather than leading the masses to struggle in their own behalf. In an earlier speech at the same Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress in 1958, Mao suggests what he means by favoritism:

We require some things from the top to the bottom, such as government directives and orders, regulations and systems, but the masses must undertake a large number of things. We are opposed to favoritism and peaceful land reform. We call the method of Eastern Europe and North Korea favoritism. Peaceful land reform, without class struggle and without struggling against the landowners and capitalists, ...[is] the wrong line and will produce harmful results.[5]

Of course in the case of land collectivization in the Soviet Union, there was substantial violence and class struggle. But it was also carried out more or less from above, and not primarily by the masses themselves, and hence might well be considered "favoritism". (For more on the contrast between collectivization in Russia and China, see below.)

Furthermore Stalin confused sections of the people with the enemy and in this sense was "excessive" in the class struggle. At times he also used excessive violence against class enemies and wavering elements, when persuasion and supervision by the masses would have been sufficient. In an important editorial entitled "On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" the CPC summed up:

...if we want to avoid falling into such a quagmire [as in the Soviet Union under Stalin] we must pay fullest attention to the use of the mass line method of leadership, not permitting the slightest negligence.[6]

And in a 1979 article, "Stalin's 100th Anniversary", the RCP wrote:

Rather than relying on mobilizing the masses of people to pay attention to life and death political and ideological questions and themselves play the key role in rooting out bourgeois forces (including foreign agents), especially within the Communist Party, almost exclusive reliance was placed on the Soviet security agencies. Significant tendencies toward bureaucratic methods of work were further reinforced. Stalin's idea of the elimination of antagonistic classes also led him to wrongly assess various non-antagonistic contradictions which emerged among the people under socialism as, instead, antagonistic contradictions and the work of the enemy.[7]

Of course the masses were relied on more in other areas such as production, in waging World War II against Nazi Germany and so forth. But overall it cannot be said that the mass line was widely or successfully used in Stalin's day. (The mass line is much more than just "relying on the masses".)

If you compare the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s with that in China during the 1950s the difference is quite striking. In Russia it was basically a change ordered from above, a favor done for the rural masses—which many certainly did not view as a favor at the time because of the way it was carried out; while in China the peasant masses themselves made the change in a mass line way. True, there were some excesses and errors even in China; after all no fundamental change in society on such a huge scale can possibly be carried out entirely smoothly. But in comparing the process in these two countries there can be no doubt that the way it was done in China was much better.[8]

It could be claimed of course that the Chinese had one important factor going for them which the Russians lacked—the prior experience of another revolution. But it seems to me that the mass line approach, developed and institutionalized over the previous couple decades in China, was a much more important factor. After all, "prior foreign experience" did not prevent the North Koreans from following the Soviet commandist model, nor did it keep the Vietnamese from repeating commandist errors in their somewhat botched collectivization drive in North Vietnam in 1953-6.

A few more words should be said about the terrible dangers of "favoritism"—doing things for the masses, rather than using the mass line to mobilize the masses to make the necessary changes themselves. First of all, favoritism or paternalism is undemocratic and commandist, as we saw in chapter 28. (As Mao said, real democracy is a question of the masses controlling their own lives.) But far worse than that, favoritism is inevitably short lived, and inevitably degenerates into exploitation of the masses. Favoritism means that the leading group places itself above the masses, and orders changes that are in fact in the interests of the masses. But the masses thus lose control of their own fate; they surrender it to their leaders and become passive themselves. The leaders can change or die, and as we now know the powerful tendency in socialist society is for people in the ruling Communist party who place themselves above the masses to turn into a new bourgeois strata and then class.

Unfortunately, the masses themselves often look for "favors", and for leaders who will do favors for them. The more bourgeois the society, the more this is true. (Thus the serious dangers posed by opportunists and demagogues.) It is always hard work for the masses to struggle seriously for their own interests. But the only real favor that the proletarian party can do for the masses is "not to do them any favors". The role of the party, both before the proletarian seizure of power and during the socialist transition period, is to help enable the masses to liberate themselves.

The switch from the mass line techniques of Lenin (even if only intuitive) to Stalin's method of paternalism, or doing favors for the masses, is in fact Stalin's worst sin of all. It is even worse than his confusion of sections of the people with the enemy, which led to unjust imprisonment and murder on a massive scale. It is worse than those horrible crimes because it led to the loss of the proletarian state, and the renewed enslavement of the masses as a whole. It is no accident that Mao concentrated his criticism of Stalin on his failure to use the mass line.

The switch to "favoritism" and the elevation of the leadership above the masses is the change that more than any other made the restoration of bourgeois rule inevitable. It is the main reason why Stalin must take much of the blame for the restoration of capitalism in the U.S.S.R. after his death, even though he himself tried to rule in the overall interests of the masses. Those who undervalue the mass line will tend to overvalue Stalin—because they do not understand the fatal mistake for socialism involved in abandoning mass line leadership. Those who fully appreciate the extreme importance of the mass line will understand that the prevailing opinion of Stalin within the current revolutionary communist movement should be downgraded substantially.

Stalin led the Soviet Union for nearly three decades, and during that long period he transformed in a very negative way the basic method by which the CPSU led the masses. Thus the first thing to note about the leaders of the CPSU after Stalin is that they had neither a tradition of, nor experience in, using the mass line. It was an alien concept to them. The other thing to note about Khrushchev and his cohorts and successors is that they—unlike Stalin, for all his faults—were out and out revisionists, i.e. they were not even partially Marxists, but bourgeois, representing a new bourgeois stratum that after 1953 rapidly consolidated itself into a full-fledged ruling class whose interests were diametrically opposed to those of the masses. Thus Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and company had no desire whatsoever to lead the masses in fighting for their own interests, either with the mass line or without it.

As early as 1958 Mao remarked that "Soviet heavy industry is too big and too centralized, disregarding the local areas. It stresses administration and lacks the mass line."[9] A couple years later he criticized an important Soviet textbook on political economy in the same vein: "...this text has certain fundamental arguments that are in error. 'Politics in command' and the 'mass line' are not stressed.... There is no encouraging of the mass movement."[10] And indeed it was not just this one textbook or Soviet heavy industry which lacked the mass line, but all of Soviet society. Neither the mass line nor anything approaching it was practiced in the Soviet Union in (at least) the last 40 years of its existence.

On the other hand, like ruling bourgeois everywhere, the Soviet rulers needed to maintain a facade, a pretense of popular rule and a pretense that they actually represented the interests of the masses and not the interests of their own class. Moreover, the revisionists were in a special situation in that they operated under the signboard of Marxism and had to make a pretense of following Marx and Lenin. Thus the Soviet revisionists from time to time claimed that they, like "all genuine" communist parties, employed the mass line. Indeed it often seemed like they were jealous of the Maoist emphasis on the concept and wanted to convince everyone that the only thing Mao and the Chinese contributed to the mass line was the name.[11]

To the extent that the mass line was accepted (in words) by the Soviets, to that same extent they sought to deny that Mao and the CPC really practiced the mass line at all. One particularly interesting attempt along these lines was the following:

From a Leninist standpoint, the mass line does not only imply the need for close bonds with and reliance upon the masses, but also the fostering of conscious discipline among the masses, and general subordination to a single will. But the Chinese version of the "mass line", as well as the "politics is the guide" line [politics in command—JSH], has proved to be incompatible with one-man command.[12]

Indeed it has so proved, but what a remarkable admission! Of course this business about "one-man command" being Leninist is totally ridiculous; Lenin always championed collective leadership. It is true that the mass line, correctly applied, does result in a single, unified line that the whole party then strives to take back to the masses and to put into effect. But how like a revisionist to interpret this in terms of "one-man command"! It is particularly ironic that the "Maoist mass line" should be castigated in this way since one of the favorite slanders of the Soviet revisionists was that Mao's use of the mass line and "politics in command" was designed to promote his personal "one-man" dictatorship over the masses.

However, the more common tactic of the revisionists was to attack the whole idea of the mass line and not merely the "Chinese version" of it. Usually this was done by simply claiming that the mass line is a fraud and a shuck, or a demagogic trick to fool the masses.[13] Sometimes though the revisionists waxed more theoretical:

Lenin pointed out that by itself the working class was only capable of developing an awareness of its immediate economic requirements, which does not necessarily mean rejection of the capitalist system or bring to light the inner causes of the development of capital and exploitation of the working people, let alone determine the path to be taken in struggle for the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a new, socialist order.
     Mao, on the other hand, claims the masses are capable of understanding the essence of imperialism and exploitation, and the Party must simply "draw from the masses and take to the masses".[14]

This is an important (though really simple-minded) attack on the whole idea of the mass line. We already discussed this criticism in chapter 7 ("Can the Masses Develop Communist Ideas?"), and pointed out that there is no contradiction between Lenin's view that the masses can only spontaneously develop trade-union consciousness, and the mass line view that the masses can develop ideas which can advance the revolution and help lead us to communism. The apparent contradiction comes from not noticing that Lenin was speaking of the masses as a whole or in general, while the mass line searches out the advanced ideas of individuals among the masses. Lenin's comment is true with respect to the masses considered as a whole, but it is not true for many individuals among the masses as Lenin himself often insisted. The truth is that revolutionary and even communist ideas do arise spontaneously among the masses, though spontaneously they will not spread to encompass the masses as a whole.

The fact that the Soviet revisionists counterposed Lenin's discussion of the limits of spontaneous mass consciousness to the mass line shows that: 1) they really didn't understand the mass line at all, and 2) they didn't recognize the wisdom and creativity of the masses. Just as with their Western bourgeois counterparts, the Soviet revisionists did not in fact believe there is anything worthwhile to be learned from the masses. All bourgeois view the masses with varying degrees of contempt and consider them fit only for slavery in its modern form (wage slavery).

The Soviet revisionists were much concerned to try to show that under Mao the Chinese masses were reduced to impotence and passivity, and that they had no say in the running of society.[15] However there are some obvious difficulties with this thesis: First of all Mao led a great mass revolution overthrowing the Chinese reactionaries and booting their foreign imperialist bosses out of China. Here's one ludicrous effort by the East German revisionists (reprinted by the Russians) to somehow explain away this embarrassing fact:

It must be noted, however, that being a politician, Mao Tse-tung had to take the requirements of the day into account in his tactical slogans. Popular slogans and simplified formulations enabled him to mobilize the masses and secure victories in the drawn-out guerilla [sic] war. This enhanced his personal prestige.[16]

So Mao's leadership was nothing special. He "merely" successfully mobilized the Chinese masses in their millions and led them to victory in one of the greatest revolutions in history. But it was all done with mirrors, you see, with "popular slogans" and "simplified formulations". Moreover it took some time, the revolutionary war was "drawn-out". What a crushing critique this is! These fat revisionist usurpers sitting on the backs of the people, and never having led even a puny mass movement in their lives, belched out complaints about how Mao used "simplified formulations" which, oh yes, by the way, were successful! If these people were not the bitter enemies of the masses they repeatedly proved themselves to be, they would have viewed these so-called "simplified formulations" with the greatest respect and would have given them the very careful study they deserve.

The other little difficulty that the Soviet revisionists had with their thesis that the masses were passive and powerless under Mao is the constant mass movements that Mao continued to lead and inspire after 1949. These too had to be explained away somehow. Since there was obviously mass struggle in China, this was "explained" as the action of "incited mobs"[17]—note the classic reactionary viewpoint!—or the action of "inexperienced, and politically ignorant strata"[18]—again note the contempt for the masses.

On the other hand some revisionist propagandists simply contradicted this "passivity" line and condemned Mao for securing "an impulsive upsurge of activity by the masses",[19] as if this somehow was a terrible thing. Of course to most bourgeois eyes it is a terrible thing as is evidenced for example by the absolute horror expressed with regard to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by both the U.S. bourgeoisie and their Soviet counterparts.

The revisionist contempt for the masses is not hard to discover for anyone willing to keep their ears open. In the last years of the Soviet Union both the revisionists themselves, and the growing anti-Soviet bourgeois intelligentsia, began to commonly use a very interesting term for the people: seroye bydlo. It means "gray cattle".[20]

The Soviet revisionists had no desire to mobilize the masses to struggle for their own interests, or to use the mass line in doing so. But this of course does not mean that they had no desire to mobilize the masses at all. On the contrary, like every ruling bourgeoisie they by necessity had to seek to mobilize the masses to work in the interests of their rulers: in production, in war, and so forth. And consequently they had need for every kind of method of mobilizing the masses, from open coercion, to economic incentives, to ideological means.

Just as with the traditional bourgeoisies in the West, the Soviet bourgeoisie placed much reliance on demagoguery—calls to patriotism, and in general, pretenses that they were leading the masses in the masses' own best interests. As we saw in the last chapter, systematic demagogic leadership can show a certain formal similarity in structure to the mass line, except that the ideas of the masses are processed with the "aid" of bourgeois ideology instead of with proletarian ideology (Marxism). This "anti-mass line" was definitely used to a degree in the Soviet Union just as it is used in the U.S. and every other capitalist country. But like the U.S.—and unlike China in the first years of its bourgeois restoration—its use was less systematic because of the lack of a tradition of using the Marxist mass line. And for the same reason it was unlikely that such bourgeois demagogic "leadership" was ever spoken of in the Soviet Union in mass line terminology.

As for the genuine use of the mass line, this awaits the rebirth and development of a genuine communist movement in the wreck of Soviet Union—a movement of which we have so far only a few hints.

The Castroite View of the Masses

The views of the Soviet revisionists on the masses and the mass line were echoed throughout the Soviet camp. We saw this above in the ludicrous comments from East Germany in 1968. The same was true, and remains true, in the revisionist regimes which have not yet fallen, such as Castro's Cuba.

While I am not aware of any specific theoretical comments by the Cubans about the mass line, there is an excellent article by Rudi Mambisa in the international Maoist magazine A World To Win that exposes the bourgeois attitude of the Castro group towards the leadership of the masses.

Mambisa shows how after achieving power Castro simply took it upon himself to nationalize the large sugar cane plantations, which had the effect only of making the Cuban state the middle man for the continued international ownership of Cuban agricultural labor (though by the Soviets instead of the U.S.). He continues:

There was also no question of carrying out [the] mass line, that is, of uniting with and giving leadership to the advanced desires of the exploited masses, which were much more in accord with what Cuba really needed for its liberation than Castro's ideas. The French agronomist Rene Dumont, called to Cuba as an advisor to Castro in 1960, gives this account of a conversation with Castro while accompanying him on a tour of Cuba's countryside during the period when the question of what to do with the latifundia was under discussion within the ranks of the new regime: "My advice was asked for, but not that of the workers and peasants who were to work on these enterprises. I was even forbidden to discuss it with them. 'These people are illiterate and their ideas are usually pretty conservative,' I was told. 'It's our job to lead them.'"[21]

Despite what it says in the Internationale, Castro's view is that the masses do need condescending saviors like him. The Marxist concept of the necessity of the masses liberating themselves is as foreign to him as it was to Nelson Rockefeller.


[1] Stalin, "Concerning Questions of Leninism" (Jan. 25, 1926), SCW 8:64.

[2] Lars T. Lih, et al., eds., Stalin's Letters to Molotov (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 141.

[3] Mao, "Reading Notes on the Soviet Text Political Economy" (c. 1960), A Critique of Soviet Economics (NY: MR Press, 1977), p. 119.

[4] Mao, "Speech at the Conference of Heads of Delegations to the Second Session of the 8th Party Congress" (May 18, 1958), MMTT, p. 121.
     This quotation from Mao is taken from a rotten and almost criminally inadequate set of translations published by the U.S. government, Miscellany of Mao Tse-tung Thought. Unfortunately the Chinese revisionists have attempted to suppress Mao's writings from the period of proletarian power, and I do not have a better translation to work with.

[5] Mao, MMTT, p. 106.

[6] Communist Party of China, "On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat", unsigned editorial in People's Daily, (April 5, 1956), quoted in Frederic Wakeman, Jr., History and Will (Berkeley: University of California, 1973), p. 5. It is often suggested that Mao himself had a role writing this editorial.

[7] Revolutionary Worker, Vol. 1, #34, Dec. 28, 1979, p. 12.

[8] See Thomas P. Bernstein, "Leadership and Mass Mobilisation in the Soviet and Chinese Collectivisation Campaigns of 1929-30 and 1955-56: A Comparison", China Quarterly, #31, July-Sept. 1967, pp. 1-47. Mao stated in his article, "On the Co-Operative Transformation of Agriculture" (July 31, 1955; SW 5:199) that "This road traversed by the Soviet Union is our model." Fortunately, in many respects that proved not to be true.

[9] Mao, "Talks With the Directors of Various Cooperative Areas" (Nov. 30, 1958), MMTT, p. 136.

[10] Mao, "Reading Notes on the Soviet Text Political Economy" (c. 1960), in A Critique of Soviet Economics (NY: MR Press, 1977), p. 107.

[11] See for example, Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: Manual (Moscow: FLPH, 1961), p. 423.

[12] E. Korbash, "The Democratic Centralism Principle and the 'Mass Line'", Chapter III of The Economic "Theories" of Maoism (Moscow: Progress, 1974), pp. 54-5.

[13] See for example, Vladimir Glebov, Maoism: Slogans and Practice (Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1978), pp. 70 & 75.

[14] M. Altaisky & V. Georgiyev, The Philosophical Views of Mao Tse-tung: A Critical Analysis (Moscow: 1971), p. 147.

[15] See for example: V. P. Chertkov, "Maoist Distortions of Lenin's Theory of the Socialist Revolution", in Leninism and Modern China's Problems (Moscow: 1972), p. 39; L. M. Gudoshnikov & B. N. Topornin, "'Left'-Opportunist Revision of Lenin's Teaching on the State", in ibid., pp. 87-8 & 89; and, O. E. Vladimirov & V. I. Ryanzantsev, Mao Tse-Tung: A Political Portrait (Moscow: 1976), pp. 8-9.

[16] "'Thought of Mao Tse-Tung' versus Marxism", originally published in German in Einheit, No. 4/5, 1968 (GDR); English translation in Maoism Through the Eyes of Communists (Moscow: Progress, 1970), pp. 37-8.

[17] L. M. Gudoshnikov & B. N. Topornin, op. cit., p. 74.

[18] Ibid., pp. 87-8.

[19] V. Gelbras, "Anti-Marxist Essence of the Mao Group's Socio-Economic Policy", Maoism Unmasked: Collection of Soviet Press Articles (Moscow: 1972), p. 196.

[20] Reported by Liah Greenfeld, "The Intellectual as Nationalist", Civilization magazine (published by the Library of Congress), March/April 1995, p. 27.

[21] Rudi Mambisa, "Burn Down the Can Fields! Notes on the Political Economy of Cuba", A World To Win, #14, November 1989, p. 84.

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