The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement
After going on at such length about the mass line and its associated mass perspective, I would now like to present the best capsule definitions of each that I can construct:
The mass line is the primary method of revolutionary leadership of the masses, which is employed by the most conscious and best organized section of the masses, the proletarian party. It is a reiterative method, applied over and over again, which step-by-step advances the interests of the masses, and in particular their central interest within bourgeois society, namely, advancing towards proletarian revolution. Each iteration may be viewed as a three step process: 1) gathering the diverse ideas of the masses; 2) processing or concentrating these ideas from the perspective of revolutionary Marxism, in light of the long-term, ultimate interests of the masses (which the masses themselves may sometimes only dimly perceive), and in light of a scientific analysis of the objective situation; and 3) returning these concentrated ideas to the masses in the form of a political line which will actually advance the mass struggle toward revolution. Because the mass line starts with the diverse ideas of the masses, and returns the concentrated ideas to the masses, it is also known as the method of “from the masses, to the masses“. Though implicit in Marxism from the beginning, the mass line was raised to the level of conscious theory primarily by Mao Zedong.
A mass perspective is a point of view regarding the masses which recognizes: 1) That the masses are the makers of history, and that revolution can only be made by the masses themselves; 2) That the masses must come to see through their own experience and struggle that revolution is necessary; and 3) That the proletarian party must join up with the masses in their existing struggles, bring revolutionary consciousness into these struggles, and lead them in a way which brings the masses ever closer to revolution. A mass perspective is based on the fundamental Marxist notion that a revolution must be made by a revolutionary people, that a revolutionary people must develop from a non-revolutionary people, and that the people change from the one to the other through their own revolutionizing practice.
The relation between the mass line and a mass perspective is simply that only those with a mass perspective will see much need or use for the mass line. It is possible to have some notion of the mass line technique, and yet fail to give it any real attention because of a weak mass perspective. On the other hand, it is also possible to have a mass perspective and still be more or less ignorant of the great Marxist theory of the mass line.
The mass line and a mass perspective are nevertheless best viewed as intimately related, as integrated aspects of the Marxist approach toward the masses and revolution. I have found the most felicitous phrase for both aspects together to be “the mass line and its associated mass perspective”.
Although I have tried to explore the mass line and its associated mass perspective from many angles in this book, I am aware that there are other relationships which have not been adequately discussed. As I mentioned in chapter 38, a whole lot more can and should be said about the application of the mass line within socialist economic production and distribution. Another aspect of the mass line which I have not much explored here is the deep connection between it and Marxist-Leninist ethical theory. I hope to say more on this in a separate work on revolutionary ethics. A similar connection exists between the mass line and aesthetics, which Mao began to explicate as early as 1942 with his great work Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art.
Even a big book on the mass line cannot explore all its diverse aspects and connections with other subjects for the simple reason that the mass line is connected to virtually everything else in Marxist revolutionary theory. Not only is the mass line important in itself, it is closely connected to everything else of importance in Marxist politics. This, more than anything, explains why a genuinely revolutionary party must constantly be talking about the mass line.
The importance of the mass line can scarcely be stressed too much. It is true that it is not ALL-important; there are many other aspects of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism which are also extremely important (such as maintaining a firm revolutionary orientation, and the constant employment of effective agitation and propaganda, to give two obvious examples). But like these other basic aspects of Marxism, the mass line and its associated mass perspective are so important that they must be constantly promoted. The mass line is so important that it must be considered indispensable; revolution is impossible without it.
The great Chinese revolution would have been impossible without the extremely effective use of the mass line by Mao and the Communist Party of China. Even some bourgeois experts on China recognize this: “The success of the mass line in mobilizing rural support led eventually to a massive popular revolution that crushed the entire framework of previous elite politics and brought to an end the general situation of weakness, disunity, and chaos that had characterized modern China.”1 The Bolshevik revolution would not have happened either if Lenin and the Bolsheviks had not intuitively employed the mass line. And there will never be a successful proletarian revolution in the U.S. unless the revolutionary communist forces master and appropriately utilize the mass line. No matter how favorable the objective conditions for revolution may eventually become, the revolutionary spontaneity will dissipate and the opportunity will be lost if the mass line is ignored.
Like all aspects of Marxism, to be mastered theoretically the mass line must be studied. To be mastered in practice, it must be practiced. The party should continually engage in education on the mass line, not only for its own members, but also for the masses themselves. The masses need to understand the relationship between themselves and their political party. (If they do not correctly understand this relationship it will soon cease to be a correct relationship; and they will certainly end up losing control of their party to the enemy.) The party must continually talk about the mass line; and even more so, it must endeavor to the utmost to put that talk into practice.
It is amazing to me how poor a job we communists have done so far in the period since Mao’s death in continuing the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao—especially with respect to the mass line and having a mass perspective. We really must buckle down with renewed effort and a far more systematic approach to our Marxist heritage and to our revolutionary responsibilities. What, after all, are the requirements and qualifications for “revolutionary successors”? Mao itemized the most important points for us:
What are the requirements for worthy successors to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat?
They must be genuine Marxist-Leninists and not revisionists like Khrushchev wearing the cloak of Marxism-Leninism.
They must be revolutionaries who wholeheartedly serve the overwhelming majority of the people of China and the whole world, and must not be like Khrushchev who serves both the interests of the handful of members of the privileged bourgeois stratum in his own country and those of foreign imperialism and reaction.
They must be proletarian statesmen capable of uniting and working together with the overwhelming majority. Not only must they unite with those who agree with them, they must also be good at uniting with those who disagree and even with those who formerly opposed them and have since been proved wrong in practice....
They must be models in applying the Party’s democratic centralism, must master the method of leadership based on the principle of “from the masses, to the masses” and must cultivate a democratic style and be good at listening to the masses....
They must be modest and prudent and guard against arrogance and impetuosity; they must be imbued with the spirit of self-criticism and have the courage to correct mistakes and shortcomings in their work....
Successors to the revolutionary cause of the proletariat come forward in mass struggles and are tempered in the great storms of revolution. It is essential to test and judge cadres and choose and train successors in the long course of mass struggle.2
I don’t think it should be necessary at this stage to point out the references to the mass line and the various elements of having a mass perspective that pervade the above passage.
* * *
What do I expect to come out of this book? What effect do I expect it to have? I don’t have any grandiose expectations that it will cause numerous readers to suddenly “see the light”, and move immediately and strongly towards more of a mass perspective than they may have had in the past. I’d rather discuss what I hope this book might do. It is often easier to show revolutionary optimism in the area of hopes than it is in the area of expectations.
I hope first of all that this book might find more than a handful of readers, and readers who are equipped to understand it. I hope that such readers will be charitable enough to recognize that there might be things of value here, things to seriously think about, even though they may find lots of other things to disagree with. Every time I go over the manuscript I myself find things that are wrong, things that are one-sided or misleading, things that need to be changed. I know there are still errors in this book, and perhaps some serious errors, but I hope that there is also a great deal of Marxist wisdom deriving from Mao and other revolutionary leaders and thinkers.
I hope that this book will show you that there is a coherent Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory of the mass line, and also a broader doctrine—just as coherent and profound—which constitutes a mass perspective. These theories cannot really be accepted piecemeal; they must be accepted or rejected. You either have a mass perspective, or you don’t. You either understand and use the mass line, or you don’t.
I hope I have been able to show that the ultimate success of a revolutionary party depends on not only having a revolutionary perspective, but also a mass perspective. If you don’t have such a perspective, you can’t make revolution, no matter what your subjective desires. If through some great good fortune you nevertheless have some intial revolutionary advances, then they will eventually fall to pieces without the mass line and a mass persepctive.
I hope that I have been able to get you to see that the mass line is the primary method of leading the masses towards revolution, and that only a party that uses the mass line will be able to lead a revolution successfully. If a party has no use for the mass line, then the masses will have no use for that party. They will have no use for that party in the sense that they will not be attracted to it (at least over the long term), and they will have no use for it in the sense that they will not be able to make use of it for any positive purpose. They will not be able to learn from such a party (nor will that party be able to learn from them).
I hope I have been able to show that these theories of the mass line and a mass perspective derive from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, and that we should return to these still vital ideas. Somehow this extremely basic viewpoint has been lost sight of by people who nevertheless view themselves as following in the footsteps of these great revolutionaries.
I hope I have led the RCP and other communists to reconsider in depth the evolution of their political line since the founding of the Party, and before. I hope that they might come to see that while the major swing to the left in reaction to their own “Menshevik” renegades was overall justified and correct, there may have been some good elements in their earlier line that were thrown out with the bad. I hope there may be those who will give some thought to the possible need for a secondary correction in aspects of the RCP line since Second Party Congress. [Note added March 2018: This paragraph reflects the attitude I had back in the early 1980s when I first drafted this manuscript. Since then, and decades ago now, I have given up completely on the RCP and no longer believe that I, nor anyone else, can influence them in any significant positive way—whether with regard to the mass line or on any other major topic. So today, I would just say that I hope this book—even though it was basically written 40 or more years ago, in another era—will help the current generation of Maoist revolutionaries better comprehend how they must relate to the masses and provide leadership to them based on Mao’s great principle of “from the masses, to the masses”.]
Most of all I hope that I have impressed upon all my readers the extreme importance and profundity of the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory of the mass line and its associated mass perspective. I hope I have led people to consider the mass line far more deeply than they ever have before, and to see its real significance.
If these hopes are even partially realized, I’ll be happy beyond all words!
But I must conclude on a note of caution. What I have been attempting to accomplish with this book is a “change in paradigm” for a whole generation of revolutionary intellectuals. Such revolutions in thought are often almost as hard to accomplish as are social revolutions themselves.
Because I know it is so difficult to get people to question and modify a very basic outlook, I have felt it necessary to go on at considerable length, and to approach the main issues again and again from different perspectives. This makes for some repetition of ideas, but that in itself is also necessary in order to shake an established way of looking at things.
One book by itself cannot accomplish such a conceptual shift; there will have to be a great deal of additional thought and struggle on the part of many individual revolutionaries. But if this book helps in any way to inspire a return to the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao about the relation of the party to the masses and the need for the mass line and a mass perspective in order to bring about revolution, I will consider it to be a great success.
Whether this book helps get the process going or not, one thing is certain: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.”3
Notes1 Brantly Womack, “In search of democracy: public authority and popular power in China”, in the book he edited, Contemporary Chinese Politics in Historical Perspective, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 71.
2 Mao, Quotations, pp. 277-9.
3 William Cullen Bryant, The Battle-Field, first line of stanza 9.
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