The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement
Two Wise Sayings
There are two wise sayings that are worth carefully considering and comparing. The first is something I once found in a fortune cookie and which expresses the essential democratic ideal: “The will of the people is the best law.” But here is a little different idea that is also very good: “Salus populi suprema est lex.” [The good (or welfare) of the people is the highest law.] —Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Legibus, III, 3, 8. So which is it then? Should the highest law be the “good of the people” or the “will of the people”? Obviously there is a lot to be said for both views.
But if we are forced to choose between them, the “good, or welfare, of the people” has to be the highest ethical and political principle, since after all, people do not always choose to do what is actually in their own best interests. On the other hand, Cicero’s statement can be interpreted in a very paternalistic manner, and those who lead or rule paternalistically can easily start to promote their own self-interest rather than the interests of the people. For this reason, over the long run the safest place for important political decisions to be made is by the people themselves—even granting that they do not always choose the course that is actually in their own best interests.
So our solution to this puzzle must be along these lines: To allow (and indeed insist upon) basic democracy among the masses while at the same time finding a way for those among us who better understand the real and long-term interests of the people, and how those interests can best be satisfied, to educate the rest of the masses about this and help them to avoid working against their own true interests.
In other words the best approach in actual practice is not to choose between these two good principles, “the good (or welfare) of the people” and the “will of the people”, but rather to find a way to simultaneously implement them both. But is this really possible? Yes it is!
Fortunately Marxism-Leninism-Maoism has found a brilliant way to do just this. A political party to educate and lead the masses must be drawn from among the masses and must constantly refresh itself with the best new representatives from the masses—that is, especially from among those who have proven in mass struggle that they have both the short-term and long-term interests of the masses at heart. Such a party must continually study society scientifically and carefully investigate the changing objective situation. And such a party must be organized in a way that allows the masses to supervise it, to always be open to criticism from the masses, and always be willing to purge elements in the party who start to think only of their own personal welfare and interests, even if it is only their own personal aggrandizement. And most importantly of all, such a party must lead the masses in the struggle for their own interests via the democratic method of “from the masses, to the masses”.
The leadership method of “from the masses, to the masses”, which is also known as the mass line method of leadership, is our way of combining democracy and the wisdom that comes from all the previous experience and social investigations of the people through the course of history.
The great revolutionary, Mao Zedong, summed this up as follows:
“To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail. ... There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.” —Mao, Quotations, ch. XI; originally from “The United Front in Cultural Work” (Oct. 30, 1944), SW 3:236-7.
This book is devoted to a thorough explication of this great revolutionary theory of mass leadership, the method of “from the masses, to the masses”, which experience has shown to be quite different from, and opposed to, all the methods of leadership commonly seen and practiced by the ruling class in capitalist society. It is the core idea of a genuine revolutionary democracy.
About This Book
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.” 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, much 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 offical written interpretations of the mass line consistently defended by the leadership of the RCP in both public and internal documents (that I saw) at least up to that time. But the local Party organization understood something that I didn’t; namely that the real position of the RCP—even back then—was actually hostile to the whole idea of Mao’s mass line theory, despite their verbal support of it! I’ll explain how this was possible in one of the later chapters of the book. I was quite willing to follow democratic centralism and try to carry out even the aspects of the political line of the organization which I disagreed with. But the RCP has always refused to allow anybody to continue as a member once they realize that member actually disagrees with them on any important point. So they booted me out. I submitted an appeal to the Central Committee but I never even received a reply. However, 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 a lot of attention is paid to the views and evolving political line of the RCP and its leadership (especially Bob Avakian, its Chairman). Mostly I will be strongly criticizing the RCP, though on occasion I will speak positively of some of their views and activities. At first this considerable focus on the RCP was simply for the reason that I hoped to convince them about the validity and importance of Mao’s conception of the mass line which seems so difficult for them to even understand. After many years of abject failure in attempting to do this, some of my friends have suggested that it’s time that I cut out all this criticism of the RCP entirely, as a hopeless attempt to change the views of those who are notorious for not even listening to others. However, I continue to agree with Lenin and Mao that very often the best way to put forward correct ideas is to contrast them with the existing incorrect attitudes and notions, from whatever source. So most of my sometimes appropriately harsh criticisms of the RCP and their views are still in here for that primary purpose.
Who You Are
When I first started working on this book many decades ago, my primary intended audience included first of all the members of the RCP itself, along with all the other revolutionary-minded groups and individuals in America and around the world. I have long-since learned that the RCP and members of other sectarian revolutionary groups are simply not interested. They are incapable of even considering views which disagree in any way with their guru leaders. So, now I would characterize my intended audience as all those revolutionary-minded groups and individuals, all those people who want to bring about proletarian revolution in the U.S. and around the world, and who want to study and seriously consider theories about how the people, or the “masses”, may be mobilized and led in making 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 more than half a century 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 many 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, 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!).
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.)
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.” 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.
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 many decades late. (And as I revise this Preface, the book is still not completed!)
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. 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 for a while loomed even more difficult during the 1990s when Soviet revisionism 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.
As a further explanation (though not actually a good excuse!) for my slowness in finishing this book, which has turned out to be a life-long project, I’ll quote a few paragraphs from a letter I wrote to my sisters in April 2017:
So why haven’t I finished this book long ago? That’s a complicated question. As with my other writings, I see plenty of shortcomings in this manuscript that really should be improved on. One of my friends reminded me many years ago that the “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. In other words, better to get the book finished—even with some shortcomings—rather than to never get it done by forever trying to make it “perfect”. I see the logic in that, but there are other problems too.
One really serious matter is that many of those who have read at least some of what I have posted so far don’t seem to get the fundamental point of it at all! Not only don’t they seem to understand what the mass line is after reading my manuscript, very few people who read Mao’s own writings on the mass line really grasp the main idea. This has puzzled me for decades, though I think I have finally figured out the basic explanation.
A lot of the problem comes in the name of this leadership method itself: “the mass line”. That sounds like we are talking about a “line” (a political line in the Marxist sense) rather than a method of leadership. The name that Mao himself used for this was “the method of ‘from the masses, to the masses’”—which is vastly better.
Zhou Enlai is said to have come up with the name “mass line” (which presumably originally meant something like “a political line derived from the masses themselves”). But the problem soon came to be that those—even in the leadership of the Communist Party of China (other than Mao)—who talked about the “mass line” were not at all focusing on any method of leadership. Instead, for many of these people (who were later identified as “capitalist-roaders”), it became a mere platitude to cover the policies they were implementing in contradiction to the method of “from the masses, to the masses”. Deng Xiaoping, for example, discussed the “mass line” at considerable length in his presentation at the 8th Party Congress in 1956, but there was only one short paragraph in all that verbiage which referred to the central idea of “from the masses, to the masses”.
Things got even worse when Lin Biao and his PLA associates issued the “Quotations of Mao Tsetung” in 1966. Although there is much wisdom in this collection, in the section of the “Little Red Book” on the mass line the bulk of the quotations are on more general principles of Marxism, such as that “the masses are the makers of history”. Those things are very true, but once again the thrust of this section on the “mass line” was to strongly downplay the central notion of leadership as being “from the masses, to the masses”. Most people who call themselves Maoists in the U.S. and around the world get their initial education in Maoist theory by reading the “Little Red Book” (or from comrades who started there), and therefore their basic conception of what the “mass line” is all about is instilled in them from the start in that distorted way. And I have found that no matter how much you emphasize that the mass line is a method of leadership, people just cannot change that initial misconception they get from the “Little Red Book” and from their comrades.
What this all means is that, if you really want to get people to focus on the leadership method of “from the masses, to the masses” you’ve got to call it that and stop calling it the “mass line”. And this in turn means that my whole mass line book really needs to be revised or rewritten! Even the title needs to be changed to something like: From the Masses, To the Masses: The Mass Line Method of Democratic Revolutionary Leadership.
I’ve often thought to myself that in order to write a good and worthwhile book on the method of revolutionary leadership that Mao theorized and championed I first had to write a not-so-good book and learn a lot more about the topic myself as I proceeded. Writing what I’ve got so far has been a life-long educational process for me. But now I should ideally sort of start over. At the very least, finishing the remaining chapters should be done from that revised perspective and at least some revisions should be made in the existing chapters.
In this current posted version at least some of those appropriate revisions have now been made.
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 Pinyin romanizations for Chinese names which became the international standard around 1979. A chart comparing the new and old spellings of the names of some of the major individuals referred to is included as an appendix.
 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.)
 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: http://www.massline.info/rcp/ml_rcp.htm
 Ilya Erenburg, People and Life: Memoirs of 1891-1917 (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1961), p. 69.
 Walter Bagehot, quoted in Rudolf Flesch, ed., The New Book of Unusual Quotations (NY: Harper & Row, 1966), p. 427.
 In the 1990s, making use of the Internet, I searched through the Library of Congress catalog for works on the mass line and found only one pamphlet mentioned: Health Care in China by the Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute [see bibliography]. The only publications listed with “mass line” in the title were these periodicals:
Mass Line (Ottawa: Canadian Communist Movement (M-L), 1969)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 many issues which I’ve seen also have little about about the theory of 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 have viewed itself as a continuation of the journal founded in 1974. I have not seen the Nigerian journal.
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-?)
Go to Chapter 1
Return to The Mass Line contents page.