On the RCP Announcement of their New Programme Project
The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has just posted on the web site for the Revolutionary Worker, their weekly newspaper, an announcement that over the coming months and into the year 2000, they will be engaging in a major project to produce a new Party Programme. This announcement appears in the October 31st issue (#1028) of the RW, and is available on the Internet at: http://www.rwor.org/a/v21/1020-029/1028/prog.htm
I believe this is a significant development which should be of great interest for all of us in the revolutionary movement. The RCP announcement emphasizes that it wants to involve “the revolutionary masses” in helping to develop this new Programme, so now is the time for any revolutionaries who have suggestions or criticisms of any aspect of the RCP’s current Programme and line to speak up. I will be doing that myself. And I’d like to begin doing that by addressing a number of questions and considerations that come to mind in reading over the RCP announcement itself.
1. This is a period of re-examination of line, a period of revolutionary thinking. There is, alas, in all democratic-centralist parties, a tendency to go for long periods without doing much collective thinking. This is not, in my opinion, a necessary consequence of organizing on democratic-centralist lines, but it is nevertheless a generally valid criticism. To avoid this very bad result a number of things must be true, including most of all, a constant stress within the party on democracy and the use of the mass line. (More on that below.) It is a fact that in virtually all democratic-centralist parties to date, including the very best of them—the Bolsheviks under Lenin, and the Communist Party of China under Mao—centralism has been more stressed, and more honored, than has been democracy. As a former member, I think this can fairly be said of the RCP too.
One of the results of this unfortunate tendency is that most party members in such parties do not normally do much thinking about basic political line on their own. They come to view their job as studying and carrying out the existing party line, not rethinking it or helping to develop it further. Moreover, this makes them pretty unreceptive and unresponsive to ideas and criticisms from people outside the party too; they feel their role is always to defend their party’s line against criticisms and new ideas (which are often implicit criticisms if the party does not think of them first).
Thus the tendency in democratic-centralist parties (at least those which do not constantly and genuinely stress internal democracy and the mass line), is for most party members to stop thinking about line, strategy and tactics, even to steel themselves against any tendency within them individually to re-examine any part of that, once the programme, line, strategy and tactics of the party have been set. Their minds tend to close down. You might even say that the party consciously decides to stop considering or thinking about its line and policies once they have been set. That, indeed, for many people, is what having a party line is supposed to mean! That’s the really bad thing.
But the good thing is that right now, at least, during the period of creating, and discussing, and struggling over a new Party Programme, there is the possibility of a collective opening up of all those revolutionary minds. This is a time to shed dogmatic habits, and for everybody to really do some serious revolutionary thinking. Presumably the RCP leadership has already started to do that, or they would not be calling for a new Programme. But now is the time for everybody in the revolutionary movement who has any relationship to the RCP, both Party members and those in contact with them, to put on their thinking caps and join the process and the struggle over a new Programme.
2. How sincere, how genuine is the call for building a new Programme? When the leadership of democratic-centralist parties, whose members normally do not do all that much individual or collective thinking about line, are suddenly told that a new Programme, or significantly new line is to be developed, it is like throwing open the flood-gates. All the suppression of ideas contrary to the organization’s line, most of which is self-suppression—the voluntary suppression of any “tendency towards heresy” (i.e., independent thinking) by the rank and file party members themselves—is suddenly lifted. The leaders, instinctively knowing that this is likely to happen, try to make it a “controlled-release” of pressure. They certainly don’t want such a release to be explosive, to lead to splits, defections, and the like. (But of course, if the lid of the pressure cooker were not on so tight in the first place, there would be much less likelihood of there being such an explosion.)
And in the RCP announcement we do find evidence that the leadership wants to keep this process of forging a new Party Programme under pretty tight control:
But wait a minute! If the current Programme is fundamentally correct, why do they want to replace it?! They continue with their explanation, but to me that explanation is rather weak:
Hmmm. Is the RCP, then, just talking about a new edition of their current Programme, one which perhaps just:
I don’t know how serious they really are about actually creating a new Party Programme, rather than just a new edition of their current Programme. That remains to be seen. But the announcement quotes RCP Chairman, Bob Avakian, on one point, and in a different context it is also true: One change opens the door to further changes. Once one starts to think a little bit, it is sometimes hard to stop thinking! And can that really be bad?
I truly do appreciate the fact that when a new Party Programme is being created, it is not proper to “forget everything you know”, to throw out what is certainly correct and start from scratch. But at the same time, I really hope that the Party will not try to restrict and restrain the process so much that little gets changed, and little gets accomplished. This is a great opportunity, an opportunity that comes all too rarely, and we all must seek to make something truly significant out of it. The emphasis should be on encouraging people to think and contribute, not on defending a document which admittedly needs to be replaced.
3. Does the Party really mean it? Do they really want to hear our criticisms and ideas? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. A lot of people (for example, bourgeois politicians, or all the phony “leftist” groups) say they want to hear the views and ideas of the people, but don’t really mean it. They have no real intention of seriously considering those ideas, or doing anything with them. So a certain amount of skepticism is in order. But with real Maoists it should be different, and I really hope that in this case it will be different. And I for one am at least willing to give it a try. (I should say “yet another try”, because I have been trying to get their attention for years. But remember: Things may be different now, the Party is suddenly actively soliciting the views of the revolutionary masses. They hopefully are in a different frame of mind.)
It is true that in the past the RCP has signaled from time to time that it wanted more input from the revolutionary masses, but it did not follow through. For example, about 5 years ago a Party member told me that they realized that they were not publishing their theoretical journal, Revolution, frequently enough, and moreover they had come to recognize that they were not involving people outside the Party sufficiently in either its practical or theoretical work. He said that a plan had been developed to change this, that Revolution would henceforth be published quarterly on schedule, and that contributions would be actively solicited from within and without the Party. But this did not happen. In fact, there has not been one single issue of Revolution published in all the time since then. I guess it is permanently defunct.
I have assumed that the Party abandoned its theoretical journal because it no longer felt it needed a forum for the serious theoretical thinking of its own members, or even of its own leadership! (Let alone for the thinking of non-Party members.) There are even worse possibilities, such as that the Party didn’t trust the thinking of its own members, and the top leadership by itself wasn’t capable of producing enough material to fill even a quarterly or occasional journal. (Could the Party leadership actually be afraid of the revolutionary thinking of others, and short on revolutionary thinking itself?) Well, I don’t know why they abandoned their theoretical journal; I never got an explanation. Maybe they were just short on money and people. (If so, it was still a very bad decision; any serious revolutionary party must have a theoretical journal first of all.)
One sign that the Party is now serious about listening to the ideas and views of the masses will be if it creates a forum where such ideas might be presented and discussed. It will not do to just solicit ideas from the masses which when received appear “to fall into a black hole” (as many have remarked about the Party in the past) and never be heard of again. As long as people inside or outside of the Party fail to see any sign that their ideas are being given any consideration, they will continue to be reluctant to bother presenting such ideas at all.
So if the Party is really serious about gathering the ideas and opinions of the revolutionary masses it will have to somehow prove to people that it does seriously consider those ideas when it gets them. Resurrecting that 5-year old idea for Revolution would be a good start in that direction. (And anyway, how can any party say it is trying to seriously rethink its Programme and political line when it does not even have a theoretical journal any more? How much thinking is such a Party really doing?)
Another important sign that the Party is now finally serious about gathering ideas and opinions from the revolutionary masses will be if they do not get unduly alarmed or defensive if some people (including me) come up with some rather sharp criticisms of them on various issues. The real test of how serious any person or any group is about hearing the ideas and criticisms of others comes not with small issues and gentle phrasings, but on the more important issues, and when the expressions of opinions turn harsh. A serious party has to be able to truly consider even harsh criticisms, and even somewhat hostile or excessive criticisms, because sometimes there is some validity to them. Sometimes that is the party’s only chance of coming to recognize its shortcomings. Even in the RCP announcement itself there is already some defensiveness, so this will be something to watch out for.
4. Despite what the RCP says, the real issues are pretty basic. The issues that the RCP is seeking input on from outside the Party actually include some pretty basic points of revolutionary theory and strategy, though they may not fully realize this themselves. For example, they say:
Issues like that are about as basic as you can get. And this certainly calls into question the earlier claim in the announcement that the “current Programme sets a fundamentally correct course for revolution”. If it were really true that the current Programme set a fundamentally correct course for revolution, then at a minimum it would already provide the correct answers as to how this reactionary system can be defeated, and how the forces for revolution can be mobilized. These are not secondary points! They are the heart of the matter.
If the Party fails to recognize how basic the real questions are that it itself is raising, if instead they imagine that they might just be looking for a number of immediate practical suggestions about how to advance the struggle, little ideas that can flesh out a Programme that is already fundamentally correct, then they will not succeed in making the big advance that they themselves now seem to see the need for.
Let me be a little bit blunt here. The fact is, the Party has not been successful over the past 20 years in making much progress toward revolution in this country. I know it is painful to face up to a fact like that, but that has got to be recognized first of all if things are going to be any different over the next 20 years. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the Party is really ready to admit this yet.
When the Party is finally ready to admit that it has not made much progress toward revolution so far, the big question is “Why is that?” At this point there are a lot a dodges that all leftist parties like to make, the big one being “objective conditions”. It is true that there cannot be a revolution in any country if the objective conditions are not there for it. It is even true that there cannot be any progress toward revolution if the objective conditions are not there for it. But if, over a long period of time there is no progress toward revolution, a rational person has to start wondering if the reason might be more the line, policies and methods of the revolutionary party or parties. After a long while the excuse of “objective conditions” gets to be more and more feeble, less and less believable.
It is difficult for both individuals and parties to face up to their shortcomings, and to admit that any of their difficulties are not due to others, or “objective conditions”. But no progress can be made in correcting their shortcomings until they do face up to this.
When a party finally recognizes that it is not making much progress toward revolution, and that “objective conditions” and other excuses are not enough to fully explain this away, then it is obvious that there must be something fundamentally wrong with their approach. Not just a few problems around the edges in what is essentially a fundamentally correct approach, but some fundamental error that is being made. And only when the party reaches the point where it recognizes this is there any possibility of determining what that fundamental error is and correcting it.
When the RCP gets to the point—and I hope it is now just about there—where it recognizes these basic, and somewhat bitter, facts, then and only then will it discover that a number of non-Party revolutionaries out there, and likely even some Party members too, already have some suggestions, some inklings at least, about what that fundamental problem is and how to correct it. Until then, even if people push the answer to their difficulties in their face, they won’t be able to recognize its validity.
5. The RCP’s fundamental problem, and its solution. I have my own opinion about this, and I’ll repeat it here briefly, though I doubt any short presentation will sway anybody. The basic reason why the Party has not been able to make any significant progress towards revolution over the past 20 years is that they have abandoned a mass perspective and the mass line—in practice if not in theory. (Now hold on, RCP’ers, I know you don’t agree with that; but just maybe I have some good reasons for saying so! Maybe you should seriously investigate the possibility. You did say that you wanted to hear and seriously consider the ideas and criticisms of others.)
It stands to reason that if any party is having trouble attracting people to its banner, a big part of the explanation has to lie in its method of relating to the masses. This is especially so if that party—as I believe to be the case with the RCP—is genuinely out to represent the real long-term interests of the masses, which means first of all leading them in making revolution. Unfortunately, just working in the real, long-term interests of the masses is by itself not sufficient to attract very many people to your banner. People have to learn through their own experience in struggle who their real friends and enemies are, and even what their own long-term interests are. And they have to learn their own long term interests in the course of battling for their more immediate interests which they do already recognize.
This means that revolutionaries must unite with the masses in those struggles that the masses are already engaged in—even if, as is almost always the case, those struggles are over reformist issues—and in the course of those struggles bring forward the light of revolution. If you don’t do this, then you are missing one of the most essential elements of having a mass perspective. And the RCP explicitly rejected this approach in its current Party Programme which it adopted in 1981 (see pp. 41-46 of that Programme).
What is a mass perspective anyway? After some considerable thought and investigation, I define it this way:
Just standing on the side of the people’s actual day-to-day struggles, waving revolutionary newspapers, will get you nowhere. Seeing that that doesn’t work, and eventually deciding to participate in just a few areas of struggle along with the people (such as against police brutality) is better, but still woefully inadequate. A fundamental change in perspective is needed here.
And what about the mass line? As my friends in the RCP are aware, I have been harping on the mass line for as long as they have known me. I’m always accusing the Party of not using the mass line, and it generally puzzles them that I do so—because they think the Party does use the mass line. (And that is what the Party announcement seems to claim too.) Such conflicting claims are only possible if the two sides have very different conceptions of what the mass line is all about.
Here are some of the many notions of what the mass line means which I have heard either explicitly or implicitly from RCP members and former members (and it usually seems to be just one of these points that an individual has in mind). I also include the approximate date when I first heard the definition:
Now all of these sorts of things are undoubtedly good, and all of them are connected to the mass line. But none of them bring out the real essence of the mass line, not even the last one.
But in Revolution (July 1978, p. 17), the RCP wrote that the “mass line means taking up the ideas of the masses in light of Marxism and the long-term interests of the masses, and in this way concentrating what is correct and returning it to the masses in the form of policies they can grasp as their own.” This is my conception too, though after long study I would elaborate on it as follows:
In my experience, most people who talk about the mass line don’t really grasp all this, don’t really grasp its essence. They don’t really understand that the essence of the mass line lies in learning from the masses how to lead the masses. The whole point is that the proletarian party does not know from the very beginning how to lead the masses in revolution; it has to learn how to lead them by constantly studying the ideas of the masses themselves. Thus when the party, or any unit of the party, is at a loss about what to do next, the appropriate answer (in general terms) is always the same: apply the mass line and find out what to do.
The trouble with just saying that the mass line means “combining the party’s revolutionary principles with the masses”, although that is very poetic and the sort of thing that Mao always used to say, is that there are some people who will always be prone to misinterpreting it. It doesn’t lay sufficient emphasis on the fact that although the party has a lot to teach the masses, the masses also have a lot to teach the party. It makes it sound like the party already has all the big, essential ideas down pat about how to make revolution, and all it needs to do is find out from the masses where to concentrate its forces, how to express its ideas, and a few secondary things like that. It just ain’t so.
There is so much more to say about the mass line and having a mass perspective! But I will try to get the manuscript I have long been working on done to the point where I can submit it to the Party as part of the process of forging a new Party Programme. In the meanwhile, I intend to submit just one chapter of that manuscript (#19) which actually focuses on having a mass perspective, and in the process extensively criticizes a section of the current Party Programme. Note added 10/22/02: I have now posted more than two-thirds of my Mass Line manuscript (including chapter 19) on the net at: http://www.massline.info/mlms/mlms.htm
And what is the relationship between the mass line and having a mass perspective? It 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. (This has been my main charge against the RCP.) 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”.
6. “You say the Party doesn’t use the mass line, but they are attempting to apply it in the very announcement you are discussing!” Yes they are, and I am delighted! There are two very positive aspects to the announcement, from my point of view: First, the old Party Programme, which I think was something of a disaster for the Party and the revolutionary movement in general, is now up for reconsideration and revision. And second, the Party proposes to use the mass line method, to emphasize it, in fact, in the process of forging a new Programme—which suggests that they might have the beginnings of an understanding, at least, of what they have been doing wrong for the past 20 years.
But contrary to the evident belief of the RCP, as implied in the Announcement itself, the Party has not been using the mass line all along. This is the first time in 20 years, since the creation of the previous Party Programme, that the Party has done anything like this. And anyway, the mass line is primarily a tool for leading the mass struggle, something which the Party has been very reluctant to get involved in at all, either with the mass line or without it.
In Mao’s China the Communist Party constantly talked about the mass line, and tried to get all of its members at every level to use the mass line. Noting this “obsession”, one American Sinologist complained exasperatedly that the Chinese Communists “talk forever” about “this seemingly sacred doctrine of the mass line”. But how about the RCP? Since the 2nd Party Congress it has rarely mentioned it at all. In fact, until this announcement, I think about the only mention of the mass line in print has been by Bob Avakian, and only very rarely even by him (once every few years perhaps).
RCP members, in my experience, have very vague and one-sided understandings of the mass line, which is understandable since the Party press never runs articles about the mass line and what it is all about. The Party did have a short pamphlet on the topic back in the 1970s, but that had some weaknesses, and has anyway been out of print for a very long time. However, because of the shortage of materials on the mass line, I have scanned in this pamphlet and posted it on the web despite its limitations: 1976 RCP Mass Line pamphlet
The RCP has not been talking about the mass line because they have not felt much of any need for it. The mass line is a method of leadership, and in its current Party Programme it in effect renounces any intention of trying to lead the masses at all, except in overt revolutionary actions (which are very rare in these times). It gives up on any attempt at leadership of the masses in their day-to-day struggles (considering this to be revisionism), and says that instead it will devote itself almost entirely to revolutionary agitation and propaganda focused around its newspaper.
Well, plainly, that hasn’t worked out very well. The Party has, if anything, diminished in size and influence among the masses since that current Programme was adopted. And the revolutionary movement now is definitely weaker than it was at that time—though it seems to be starting to pick up a bit again recently. In recent years the Party has in effect begun to edge away from its own doctrine in its current Programme, and start to participate in the mass movement again, at least in a few select areas, most notably around the issue of police brutality. That is good, and it has started having some positive results, I believe. But the results have been somewhat limited, and will remain so, as long as the Party continues to remain aloof from all the other struggles of the masses.
7. Summary. I am delighted to see the announcement from the RCP that they intend to create a new Party Programme, because I have long believed that the current Programme has some very serious weaknesses. And I am doubly delighted that they seem to be genuinely seeking input on this from revolutionaries outside the Party, that they recognize the wisdom of using the mass line in this whole process. Not only is this the best way to go about the immediate process of forging a new Programme, but using the mass line and having a mass perspective are in my opinion the most fundamental things to be addressed and emphasized in changing the current Programme, and rectifying the Party’s current political line. While it is still far from certain that the Party is really going to finally address these basic questions and make any fundamental changes, I sincerely hope that they will. Over the coming months I will do everything I can to convince them of this need.
—S.H. (11/2/99; minor revisions on 2/27/00)
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