A Mass Line Study for Socialist Organizing

Prepared by Carolyn 12/98

[This is a document prepared by an East-coast member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization for one or more study groups they organized. As such, it is probably not appropriate to consider this an official FRSO document. But it is quite interesting. In March 1999 FRSO split into two organizations, both of which continue to use the FRSO name. The larger group has a web site at: http://www.freedomroad.org and the split-off organization, which is concentrated in the Midwest, has a web site at: http://www.frso.org   I have made a few small changes where there have been obvious typos or slips of the pen. (For a list of my changes click here.)      S.H.]

The mass line is the political/organizational method developed [by] Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the Chinese revolution. Although the term mass line was popularized in China by the CCP, the method has its roots in the theoretical writings of Marx and Lenin. Mao developed it into a coherent organizing methodology that encompasses philosophy, strategy, tactics, and organizational theory that have been applied by many different Marxist-Leninists (the term used by Mao for his politics) subsequent to the Chinese revolution. The Black Panther Party which sold the Red Book (a collection of quotations from Mao's writings) and organized serve the people programs, an important aspect of Mao's method, first popularized the mass line in the US. In the early 1970s, organizations like the Young Lords, the Bay Area Revolutionary Union and a large section of the student and youth movements in the US formed specifically Maoist-identified communist organizations, which primarily meant upholding Mao's critique of the USSR. The essence of their critique of the USSR was that it had become a state capitalist country run by a new exploitative ruling class that had emerged from inside the Communist Party itself.

For the purposes of this study group, we are going to try to hit on each element of the mass line applying the experiences and organizing lessons of the CUNY student movement.

Some things need to be clarified for those entering into a communist study for the first time. First the mass line is one of a number of different kinds of organizing methodologies that activists can apply to achieve their goals. Often we apply some of these methods in our work without recognizing its [sic] relationship to theory or its historical practice. For the purposes of this study it may be useful to define some of the different organizing methods available.

Probably the most well-known organizing method is Alinskyism, named after Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-born community organizer who helped set up the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and later the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1930s. (Today in New York Alinskyism can be found in groups that do neighborhood-based organizing like ACORN, Mothers on the Move, TICO as well as NYPIRG). The Mid-West Academy is a training center set up by members of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] that draws heavily from Alinskyism. Both Alinsky and DSA come out of the anti-Communist "right-wing" socialist tradition in the US.

Left of this there is the popular education model of Paulo Freire (what might be called a watered-down version of the Maoist mass line). Paulo Freire focused on the relationship between students and teachers in literacy programs in Brazil. His book "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" lays out his theory, and draws heavily on Marx and Mao. Many activists have broadened the scope of Freire's methods, the Brazilian Workers Party being one of the most successful examples.

In the revolutionary left tradition there is Leon Trotsky's "transitional program," for combining reform and revolutionary struggles. This method has been practiced by Trotskyist organizations in Western Europe and the US. The ISO, Spartacist League, Socialist Workers Party, and LRP are all Trotskyist organizations. [The organization named] "Solidarity" comes out of the Trotskyist tradition but has chosen to remain agnostic on some of the principles of Trot groups while maintaining Trotskyist orthodoxy on questions such as opposition to national liberation struggles and downplaying the extent of racism and national oppression in the US.

There are many theorists and revolutions that are of particular importance which don't fit into a category or are more valuable ideas [sic] that aren't a comprehensive theory per se. Two important concepts are: mandar obediencio or "leading by obeying" (the organizing approach of the Zapatistas) and Amilcar Cabral's writings on class suicide and the role of culture in revolution. Some might say I'm negligent for not mentioning Post-Modernism especially considering its prevalence on college campuses. Post-Modernists (or Literary and Cultural studies) have made important contributions toward revolutionary theory. For instance, Focault's writings on the history and role of prisons and insane asylums in Europe are very good. Also cultural studies has been in the vanguard of projecting a radical theory of gender and sexuality. Considering the history of homophobia in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, we need to pay particular attention to these insights. At the same time we need to recognize that Post-modernism is largely a form of radical academic liberalism that uses "criticality" rather than a theory of liberation to effect change in society.


  1. Participants should take the study group seriously; we should try to do the readings at least twice to get a grasp of the material.
  2. Take detailed notes of your thoughts of the reading and in answering the questions at the end of the scheduled readings.
  3. Strong facilitation--a facilitator who is familiar with the readings should run the study group.
  4. Participation--While it may sound obvious, we need to commit to fully participating in the study. This means coming to the study prepared but it also means helping other members of the study group whenever possible with their questions and thoughts on the reading. In the study group we should foster participation making sure that a handful of "experts" don't silence others.
  5. Criticism/Self-Criticism--Critical self-awareness is a necessary prerequisite to improving our work. Always strive to be constructive in making criticisms of other comrades. Our goal is to help each other not cut each other down.


  1. Where Do Correct Ideas Come From? by Mao Zedong
  2. Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work by Mao Zedong
  3. Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership by Mao Zedong
  4. Some Points on the Mass Line by Freedom Road Socialist Organization

Supplemental Readings

  1. Rules for Radicals and Reville for Radicals by Saul Alinsky
  2. Selected Works of Mao Zedong
  3. Mass line is key to lead the Masses in making Revolution and Mass line is key to methods of leading struggle by the Revolutionary Communist Party in the 1970s
  4. Personal Politics by Sara Evans
  5. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1970s by Clayborne Carson
  6. Palante! by the Young Lords


  1. In Where do correct ideas come from?, what does Mao mean when he says that ideas become a "material force which changes society and changes the world"?

  2. Mao says that correct ideas come from social practice and the masses make history. If the masses make history then why is building a communist organization so important? Why not build mass movements and rely on mass organizations like SLAM? Is there an advanced class (meaning section of the student population) in CUNY?

  3. What does Mao say dialectical materialism is?

  4. At the time Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses was written, the Chinese Communist Party was fighting a revolutionary war to overthrow imperialism and establish socialism in China. Mao explains that the central task is to mobilize the broad masses to take part in the war. Mao argues that to mobilize people, the cadre's first concern is the masses' well-being, which he defines as the practical needs of people in their everyday life. Some leftists argue this is just opportunism, getting people to fight in a war by buying them off with things they need. Do you agree? In the struggle to defend Open Admissions and CUNY what are [the] masses' practical needs?

  5. In the student movement activists repeatedly say we need to broaden our support among students. What does Mao say about how to go about doing this? Mao talks about discarding commandist methods and adopting the method of patient persuasion. Can you think of a time in your organizing when you used commandist methods? Describe how your organizing went?

  6. Mao states that "all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily 'from the masses, to the masses'" This is the core of the mass line. Does Mao mean, "whatever the masses understand, that is the mass line, that is what we give to the masses." If not, what does he mean?

  7. Mao also talks about the need for summing up the experience of mass struggles. How do you think you carry out this struggle for the right summation? What is the role of propaganda work in carrying out the mass line?

  8. The main form of political activity of organizations like the ISO, RCP and the Sparts is selling newspapers and organizing forums. Is this the same as the mass line? Why do they spend the majority of their time doing this kind of organizing?

  9. Alinskyist organizers argue that you must organize people around their direct social and economic needs--a new stop light on a busy corner, a wage increase, or an affordable housing project. How is this similar or different than the mass line method described by Mao? How is this approach different or similar to communist organizations like the RCP and the ISO?

  10. In Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership, Mao says there is a need for widespread calls to mobilize large numbers of people. At CUNY the call to Defend Open Admissions serves as that kind of general call. Do you think we have failed to make our general slogans concrete and meaningful to people? Using Mao's method of combining general calls with paricular and specific guidance describe how a campaign to defend open admissions should be built.

  11. How would you evaluate the following slogans raised during the struggle to save open Admissions:

    1. Defend Open Admissions. Free Tuition Now.
    2. Build A United Working Class Movement to Defend Open Admissions
    3. Students Strike Against the Cuts, Shut the City Down!
    4. The students united will never be defeated!
    5. Free Mumia! Hands off Assata! Defend Open Admissions!
    6. Badillo, Badillo, Badillo's on Fire. We don't need no water let the Motherfucker burn.
    7. Defend and Expand Open Admissions and Remedial Classes.
    Can you think of situations in which such slogans would be appropriate? In which they wouldn't? Draw out the negatives and the positives of each slogan.

  12. People have wrong ideas--from homophobia to conspiratorial ideas of how oppression works. How do we take them into account when applying the mass line? Give examples.

  13. Mao says, the masses at any given point are composed of the relatively advanced, intermediate and backwards. What do these different categories mean? Do you agree with Mao? What are the conscious elements?

  14. In Some questions Concerning Methods of Leadership, Mao defines the criteria of a leading group of the Communist Party unit (a group of cadre who work on a particular area of work like the CUNY student movement). Do you think Mao is right? Write down two of your strong points in organizing and two of your weak ones. How do you think your comrades in the student movement could help you improve your weak points?

  15. In 1995 a coalition of different organizations including CUNY students carried out a civil disobedience where they blocked a number of bridges and tunnels going in and out of Manhattan. This was an advanced action. An advanced action usually means uniting a small group of people to carry out a bold and sometimes dangerous action in the hopes that it will in turn galvanize the people you're trying to mobilize and create a new context to move forward. What do you think the criteria are for determining when an advanced action is appropriate or inappropriate? What do we hope to accomplish with an advanced action? What did the action in 1995 accomplish?

  16. In point number 8, Mao argues that "at any one time there can be only one central task," otherwise there will be confusion and disorder. Use this scenario as a hypothetical and apply the lessons of Mao: A new anti-Giuliani student coalition has been formed at your campus. It includes a lot of people who used to work closely with you on open admissions. They don't have a campaign worked out yet but at their first event over 200 people showed up. Your last open admissions event only had 20 people and your core activist group is getting burnt out. After the meeting the leadership of the new coalition asks you to merge your open admissions campaign into their coalition. What do you think you should do? What is the central task for the student movement this year?

  17. Mao argues that the mass line and the Marxist theory of knowledge need to be applied with the correct leadership of a communist party using democratic centralism in order to be successful. How does Mao describe democratic centralism? Is Mao right? Or do you think anyone or any kind of organization can apply the mass line?

"The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge."
--Mao from the Red Book

A Definition of the Mass Line

  1. The mass line is a communist political/organizational method popularized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the method has its roots in the practice of communist revolutionaries dating back to the mid-1800s.

  2. The masses of people and the people's struggles are the makers of history. It is thru [sic] struggle that people learn that they are the makers of history.

  3. Using the method of the mass line consists of helping people struggle better by clarifying their ideas and summing up the lessons learned in the course of the struggle.

  4. The best ideas of how to win a particular struggle are learned by applying the people's ideas in practice.

A Definition of a Political Campaign

  1. A campaign is having a strategy for winning a paricular struggle with short term as well as long term goals. It is not just working on the same issue for a long time.

  2. The three goals of every campaign should be:

    1. Hurt and divide the enemy.

    2. Win what can be won so that people can see that thru [sic] collective action change is possible. The point here is that you're not going to convince people that they should devote all of their time to lost causes. That just reinforces the old adage, "you can't fight City Hall."

    3. Win the best fighters in the movement to revolutionary politics and communist organization.

-- [End of FRSO Document] --

Editing notes: In translating this document into HTML I have made the following changes from my copy of the original, where there were obvious slips of the pen by the author. S.H.:
  • 1st paragraph of initial section: "developed Mao" changed to "developed [by] Mao"
  • 3rd paragraph: "a number of different kind of" changed to "a number of different kinds of"
  • 6th paragraph: "there is the Leon Trotsky's" changed to "there is Leon Trotsky's"
  • Ibid.: "Solidarity comes out of" changed to "[The organization named] 'Solidarity' comes out of"
  • In question 4 in the Questions section: "what are masses practical needs" changed to "what are [the] masses' practical needs"
  • In question 8: "organization like the ISO, RCP and the Sparts" changed to "organizations like the ISO, RCP and the Sparts"
  • Ibid.: "of their time do this kind" changed to "of their time doing this kind"
  • In question 15: "the people your trying to mobilize" changed to "the people you're trying to mobilize"
  • In question 16: "a lot of people you used to work closely with you" changed to "a lot of people who used to work closely with you"
  • In item 2.b) of "A Definition of a Political Campaign": "The point here is that your not going to convince people that they should devote all of their time to lost cause's." changed to "The point here is that you're not going to convince people that they should devote all of their time to lost causes."

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