The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement


This is an essay on the mass line method of revolutionary leadership, and its associated mass perspective. It is an attempt to give a careful, all-sided, book-length description and analysis of the theory of the mass line from the point of view of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. It is, as far as I know, the first such attempt and no doubt has its shortcomings. But because it is first, it may also have some strengths.

My motive in writing is expressed in these words of Lenin's: "It is a good Marxist custom to give a coherent and complete exposition of the principles underlying one's views and tactics."[1] It seemed to me that with respect to the mass line this had not yet been thoroughly done and therefore wanted doing. The point behind this fine Marxist custom is of course to enable practice to be more fully summed up in theory so that as theory it may in turn better serve to guide new revolutionary practice.

Specifically, it is my goal to defend Mao's theory of the mass line against distortions from both the right and the "left". From first hand experience I know that various incompatible interpretations of the mass line do exist among communists and within the revolutionary movement.

Who I Am

In late 1977 I was expelled from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA because I championed the view of the mass line put forth in these pages (or at least an earlier, less elaborated version of it). The irony in this is that I was sure then, and am still sure, that I was in agreement with the interpretation of the mass line consistently defended by the leadership of the RCP in both public and internal documents (that I saw) up to that time. But the local Party organization didn't see it that way, was no doubt cognizant of the winds of change in the RCP, and booted me out. I submitted an appeal to the Central Committee but I never received a reply. This may have been due to the disruption caused by a faction of revisionists who split off from the RCP in early 1978.

I mention these autobiographical details because in this book I utilize some important comments by the RCP leadership (especially Bob Avakian, its Chairman) on the mass line, having a mass perspective, and related issues. I want it to be clearly understood however that I am speaking for myself and it is quite likely that the RCP will disapprove of the way I use their writings, some of which they have apparently since disowned.

It seems to me that I am still in agreement with the RCP's definition of the mass line itself. (See the frontis quotations, for example.) But on the broader issues of when, where and how to use the mass line, and on many other issues related to having a mass perspective, I am now clearly at odds with them—not so much because my views have changed, but because theirs have. Several of the chapters in this essay go into these differences at length.

I am genuinely sorry to have to criticize the RCP the way I do in this book, because I continue to respect the organization and its leadership. Ever since its founding in 1975 the RCP has been the most important revolutionary communist organization in the U.S. In the 1960s and 70s, the RCP and its main predecessor organization, the Revolutionary Union, played a critical role in the development of the revolutionary movement in this country. And even today, the RCP is still the most significant American revolutionary party.

But over the past 25 years or more, some very serious problems have developed in the RCP which have led to a gradual decline in its size, activities and influence. Unless these problems are finally faced up to and corrected I fear that the positive historical role that the Party once played may be over for good.

However they might be construed, my criticisms of the RCP and other communists—though sometimes a bit harsh—are sincerely meant to be comradely and constructive.

Who You Are

My intended audience is the RCP and other revolutionary-minded groups and individuals, people who want to bring about proletarian revolution in the U.S. and around the world, and who want to study and consider theories about how the people, or the "masses", may be mobilized and led in revolution.

Since I am writing for revolutionaries and serious revolutionary-minded people, I make many assumptions of the reader. I simply assume that revolution is desperately needed, and don't spend any space trying to prove that here. I assume that the reader has at least some familiarity with Marxism, the science of revolution, and at least some appreciation of its importance. For the most part I assume that the basic Marxist-Leninist-Maoist vocabulary and concepts are familiar to you. People with no desire for revolution, or no acquaintance with Marxism, may well find this book incomprehensible or valueless. All I can say is that this book was not written for such folks. Come back later if events change your perspective.

The Genesis of this Book

This essay is the outgrowth of an on-and-off study of the mass line which I have been engaged in for 35 years now. Almost from the day I first heard about Mao's "mass line" I felt that "here is something very important, something we've got to learn and use". But often when I tried to argue for mass line methods with my fellow revolutionaries in the 1970s I found either a lack of appreciation for the mass line, or very different interpretations of it.

This spurred me into more serious study. As part of this study I began to collect quotations from Mao and anybody else on the mass line. This collection has now grown to hundreds of quotes, and over 230 typed pages. I systematically read through everything by Mao which was available in English, searching for connections to the mass line. I've also done extensive investigations of Lenin on the topic, and to lesser extents Marx, Engels, Stalin, and other Marxists. I've read lots of books about Mao and China by friends and foes of the Chinese revolution, and skimmed many more for any mention of the mass line. And I've followed developments within the U.S. and world revolutionary movements with the mass line especially in mind.

So I think I can say that I've done a lot of investigation on the mass line. Do I claim to be a "master" of the mass line? Hardly! For one thing, a real master of the mass line would be someone, or a party, who actually uses the mass line in important and large scale leadership of the masses. Just studying it and writing about it will never make anybody a master. Moreover, even after all this time, I still continue to find new aspects to the theory of the mass line and its associated mass perspective, that never occurred to me before. My view of the mass line and its connections with broader issues of mass revolutionary politics is always developing to some degree. Nevertheless, my basic point of view on the mass line has remained pretty consistent over the past few decades. Consistently Maoist, it seems to me.

My original plan was to publish a small book of "Materials for the Study of the Mass Line", which would be in two main parts: my collection of mass line quotations, preceded by a small interpretive essay of my own, and possibly a few short articles on the mass line by Mao and the RCP. Several things went wrong with this plan. The collection of quotes got too big, and even separating it into 39 sections still left it too disorganized and intimidating to be conducive to systematic study. Bob Avakian and the RCP have apparently disowned their pamphlet on the mass line that I was thinking about including,[2] and would probably not agree to me including it anyway. And, most of all, my own essay got too big, started to expand into a number of peripheral questions related to having a mass perspective, etc.

So, in the end, I decided to just go with my extended essay, which now includes many of the best quotations I've found interspersed in a coherent and orderly sequence (I hope!). Even a lot of the RCP's pamphlet The Mass Line is in here, quoted piecemeal.

Why do we Marxist writers always use so many quotes? Well two reasons I guess. First, other Marxist writers have already expressed many points that need to be repeated, and when they have expressed these points eloquently, it seems the best thing to do is just to quote them. "I quote others only the better to express myself." (Montaigne) And second, to lend authority to what we say. It is a fact of life that what some individuals say carries more weight than what others say, in politics as anywhere else. To lend more weight to my words I think it only natural to show where great individuals like Mao and Lenin "agree with me". I am convinced that the theory of the mass line I present in this book is Mao's theory, and I would like you to see that too.

Organization of the Book

The essay is divided into 43 chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of the mass line, or coming at it from a different angle. Many of these chapters are semi-independent of the rest, and form semi-independent essays of their own. But because my goal was to write an all-sided book on the mass line which adequately explores its many conceptual interconnections, most topics are discussed in more than one place. It is in the nature of the thorough exploration of any complex terrain that this be so.

While it is possible to skip around in the book, the essay as a whole is most coherent if read in the order presented. It is especially important to read the first four chapters before jumping to any of the others. The reason for this is that I have tried to use the dialectical mode of presentation of the material. To suggest what I mean by this, I would like to quote a description by the writer Ilya Erenburg of the method used by Lenin:

His speeches were like a spiral; afraid that people wouldn't understand him he returned to a thought he had already expressed, never repeating it but adding something new. (Some of those who copied his manner of speaking used to forget that a spiral is like a circle and yet unlike. A spiral progresses.)[3]

I would add that the dialectical mode of presentation requires the use of relatively short and simple introductions or initial overviews, followed by spirals which elaborate on points in much greater detail. The first four chapters of this book comprise the initial overview. I only hope that most of the revisitations of ideas in later chapters truly take the form of developing spirals and not mere repetitive circles!

(Many aspects of dialectics, of course, including what I am calling "dialectical presentation", go back to ancient Greece. Although the concept of dialectical presentation no doubt existed before him, Plato was apparently the first to use the word 'dialectic' (dialektiké) to describe this method (for instance in his Socratic dialogs Phaedo and The Republic). As F. E. Peters puts it, in these dialogs Plato envisions the dialectic "as a progressively more synoptic ascent, via a series of 'positions'... until an ultimate is reached." [See his book Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (NY: New York University Press, 1967), p. 36.] We Marxists, however, recognize that a dialectical presentation may not always result in an "ultimate explanation", but more often just in an ever more sophisticated explanation (one that is progressively closer to the complete truth). And indeed we recognize that in some spheres at least (e.g., particle physics) there may not even be such a thing as an "ultimate explanation". Elsewhere Plato (and other ancient Greek writers) often used the word 'dialectic' in different senses, usually idealistic, metaphysical senses we would reject.)

(There are other things besides using spirals which can also be properly considered to enter into a fully dialectical presentation. For example, a historical approach to the material, which shows the dialectical development of ideas in their social context. I don't dispute the importance of this (and of yet other aspects of dialectical presentation), but it should be noticed that to some degree there are conflicts between using the spiral approach and using these other dialectical methods, such as a historical approach. In my view, spirals of presentation are the main thing, and the other features of dialectical presentation are secondary.)

The Length of this Book

"Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders."[4] The length of this book, together with its attempt to be comprehensive and all-sided, clearly places me into the camp of "grinders". I wish it could be otherwise. I admire the "incisors", those who with deft slashes can quickly make their point. I myself learned the mass line primarily from an author who fits that mold—Mao Zedong. But it seems to me that not many others have done so. They seem instead to have missed the whole idea. My own previous attempts to convey the central ideas of the mass line in a concise fashion have proved quite unsuccessful. The only thing left to do has been to start grinding away.

A Self-Criticism

I have a major self-criticism to make regarding the lack of timeliness of this book. Suggestions, critiques and criticisms of all kinds should not only be careful, thoughtful, and complete—they should also be timely. To some degree there is always a contradiction between these goals; the longer you work on making a criticism as complete and correct as possible, the more time goes by, and the less timely the criticism is when you finally submit it. Deciding on the most appropriate compromise here is usually difficult. But it is clear that I have grossly erred by spending way too much time in writing this book. It is now at least a couple decades late.

Ideally, a book like this on the mass line should have made its appearance in the early 1970s, when the reborn American revolutionary movement was first learning about something called the "mass line" and floundering in its attempts to relate it to the basic questions of revolutionary strategy and technique. But with our lack of both theory and experience at the time, nobody was in a position to write such a book—certainly not me.

But by the late 1970s I had completed the basic research for this book, including the study of Mao's writings and the investigation of the relevant aspects of the Chinese Revolution. Since then it has been mostly a matter of getting down all the ideas and quotes on paper in a coherent fashion. Of course that's a big task, but it shouldn't have taken all these years, even given the necessity of holding down a job and some problems with illness.

If the book is so late, can there possibly be any value to it anymore? Well nobody else, as far as I know, wrote a book on the mass line in the meanwhile.[5] The mass line is just as important and indispensable as it ever was. I would like to think that if the book had come out earlier, it might have helped make our revolutionary practice more effective. But there is still the enormous amount of revolutionary activity that lies before us—which looms even more difficult in this age when Soviet revisionism has finally collapsed and temporarily tarnished the whole idea of revolution in the eyes of many. Sooner or later, we have got to get clear on the important topic of the mass line. It is always a shame if any kind of revolutionary work is not done in a timely fashion, but that is never an excuse for not finally getting it done.

I Want Your Criticisms

If you read this book I am sure that with your fresh eyes things will occur to you about the mass line that have not occurred to me. You will probably see flaws in my stand on this or that point, maybe on major points. I will sincerely appreciate any criticisms, big or small, that anyone may care to send me. (My email address is at the bottom of this page.)

Although I have written this book to champion a particular interpretation of the mass line, I feel sure that my efforts will have been of some value even for those who end up disagreeing with me on many points. At least I will have led my readers to consider the theory of the mass line in depth.

I generally use the new Pinyin romanizations for Chinese names. A chart comparing the new and old spellings of the names of some of the major individuals referred to is included as an appendix.


[1] Lenin, "'Left-Wing' Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality" (May 9-11, 1918), LCW 27:325. (See the bibliography for an explanation of this reference code.)

[2] At least this is what a long-time RCP'er told me a number of years ago. The pamphlet in question, entitled The Mass Line [see bibliography], has long been unavailable from the RCP, but I have scanned in a copy and posted it at:

[3] Ilya Erenburg, People and Life: Memoirs of 1891-1917 (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1961), p. 69.

[4] Walter Bagehot, quoted in Rudolf Flesch, ed., The New Book of Unusual Quotations (NY: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 427.

[5] Making use of the Internet, I have searched through the Library of Congress catalog for works on the mass line and found only one pamphlet mention: Health Care in China by the Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute [see bibliography]. The only publications listed with "mass line" in the title are these periodicals:
Mass Line (Ottawa: Canadian Communist Movement (M-L), 1969)
American Mass Line (Cleveland, Ohio: American Communist Workers Movement (M-L), 1970-71)
The Mass Line (Cochin, Kerala, India: 1974-?)
Mass Line: A Marxist Cadres Journal (Kano, Nigeria: c. 1984-?)
The first two of these are long since defunct (both periodicals and organizations, I believe). Despite their titles, the few issues of these first two that I saw contained nothing specific to the mass line. The Kerala journal was much more significant, but the few issues which I have seen also contain nothing about the mass line per se. There was another publication in India called Mass Line which was published by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Central Reorganization Committee until that organization was disbanded in the fall of 1991. This may, or may not, have been a continuation of the journal founded in 1974. I have not seen the Nigerian journal.


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