Comments on FRSO’s View of the Mass Line

These are some initial comments on the Freedom Road Socialist Organization’s views on the mass line. Unfortunately I do not have any firsthand acquaintance with the actual mass work of either of the two organizations now using the FRSO name. So these comments will mostly be about the two FRSO documents on the mass line that are posted on this site. Both of these documents were prepared for FRSO members, friends and study group members. As such, neither should be considered a formal FRSO public statement. However they are interesting and show, at the very least, how some FRSO members view the mass line.

The two documents are:

Both of these documents were prepared and initially used by FRSO before it underwent the split in March 1999. I have no reason to think that either of the two present FRSO groups has renounced in any way the views in either of these documents. Consequently, I’ll assume that both documents reflect the general views of both present FRSO groups, though of course they may also include some opinions specific to their authors.

Interest in and Concern for the Mass Line

The first thing to mention is that, whatever else might be said about the FRSO groups—either pro or con—they have engaged in serious mass work. They have sought to join up with the actual struggles of the working class and other sections of the masses. They appear to be attempting to provide leadership to these struggles, and to be trying to use the mass line in doing so.

The very fact that FRSO prepared these two documents on the mass line, and seeks to educate its members and those around it about the mass line, says something quite positive. Especially when other revolutionary organizations in the U.S. have either pretty much ignored the mass line, or are even totally ignorant of it.

Of course it is almost exclusively the Maoist tradition that talks about the mass line, though even among some Maoist groups it is not taken very seriously, or is even totally misconstrued. Both of these documents refer prominently to Mao and his ideas, and quote a number of his statements. The document by Carolyn is interesting in that it gives some considerable attention to some alternative and contrasting styles of leadership—including those of Saul Alinsky. It is a good idea to compare a theory or method you are promoting to various alternative theories.

A third FRSO document, which is mostly just a list of readings for new or potential members, says this about the mass line: “The mass line is one of the most significant contributions of Mao Zedong to revolutionary theory. It goes to the heart of the relationship between conscious revolutionaries and the people that makes revolution possible.” That’s a nice little statement.

The Basic FRSO Conception of the Mass Line

One somewhat strange thing about the FRSO presentation of the mass line in these main two documents is that they call it a “political/organizational method” rather than a method of leadership. I am a little sensitive about the tendency of various folks to characterize the mass line as an organizational method, because this was part of the distorted approach taken by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping in China. (See chapters 34 and 37 of my book on the mass line for more on this.) However, I am not saying here that this shows FRSO to be followers of Liu and Deng. Still, I think it is better to view the mass line as a method of leadership, the method of “from the masses, to the masses”.

Like many people, in China, in this country, and around the world, FRSO seems to have a broader conception of the mass line than just the method of “from the masses, to the masses”. Their conception of the mass line seems to include many elements of what I call “having a mass perspective”, such as that the masses are the makers of history, that we must rely on the masses to make revolution and so forth. And even beyond that, from the various sections in the FRSO document “Some Points on the Mass Line”, it appears that certain philosophical viewpoints (such as that “The general resides in the particular” [§6]), pedagogical principles (such as that “People learn through struggle” [§7]), and principles of struggle (“To unite the advanced to win over and mobilize the intermediate section...” [§14] and the use of “advanced actions” [§17]) are all part of this broad conception of the mass line. But if the mass line includes so very much, where are the boundaries between it and all the rest of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political theory? Or are there any such boundaries at all?!

One problem with lumping so many things together into the “mass line method” in this way is that some key principles tend to get lost or downplayed, even to the point that they are hardly discussed at all. Carolyn, in her document says in question 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?

And the characterization is indeed true; even if you include a whole bunch more into what you call the “mass line”, the core still has to be the method of “from the masses, to the masses”. But if this really is the central core of the mass line how come Carolyn only devotes these few lines in a 8-page paper to it? Something is askew here. She doesn’t really explicate the phrase “from the masses, to the masses” at all! (Presumably this would be done to some limited degree in the verbal discussion in the study group, however.)

What about back in the more fundamental FRSO document on the mass line, the “Some Points on the Mass Line” paper? How much space does it devote to this core topic? Just 13 lines in a 6-page document. And unlike Carolyn’s, this document doesn’t indicate that this particular topic is especially important, or that it is the core of the mass line method. The first paragraph is a key quotation from Mao summing up the mass line method (which unfortunately in the original FRSO document was slightly misquoted):

9. “In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership [the FRSO document has the word ‘work’ here instead of ‘leadership’] is necessarily ‘from the masses, to the masses.’ This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in action.” (Mao Zedong)

Then the FRSO author continues in his or her own words:

To put this another way, we use Marxism to sum up where people are at. Basing ourselves on what people are concerned about, on what folks actually want, we develop slogans, policies, plans, ways to fight back, that people will take up as their own. It is in this way that revolutionary theory becomes a material force, i.e. when people are acting on it, it moves out of the land of ideas and becomes a material factor in the class struggle. And this is the only way to test whether the theory, analyses, plans, etc. are correct... while creating the basis to deepen the theory.

Q: People have many wrong ideas. How do we take them into account when applying this method (from the masses to the masses)? Give examples of applying this method.

This is an awfully brief explanation of such a core concept. Moreover, as it stands, it is quite subject to a rightist interpretation. What does it mean to say that “we use Marxism to sum up where people are at”? The above quote from Mao didn’t bring that out either. The quote is from his first major presentation of the mass line, “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership” (1943). Later on he clarified this important point by introducing his analogy of a factory processing raw materials to make finished goods. In the same way, he said, the Party processes the ideas of the masses, selecting those which will genuinely advance the revolutionary struggle. By leaving out this basic principle that we must pick and choose from among the ideas and proposals of the masses, and pick and choose based not only on whether this is what many people want to do, but also based on whether the proposals will actually advance the revolutionary struggle, the presentation here has a whiff of populism about it. It is true that we must join up with the masses in their day-to-day struggles, and “base ourselves on what people are concerned about”, and so forth. But this not the whole story here! We must do all this with the revolutionary goal in mind.

These are the sorts of misconceptions we can foster if we don’t get into important issues more than for just a short paragraph or two.

The Definition of the Mass Line

Carolyn’s study guide document includes as an appendix the following definition of the mass line:

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.

Taking each of these points in turn: The first point includes that somewhat skewed view of the mass line as a “political/organization method”. More correctly (and more intelligibly), we should say that the mass line is a method of leadership, and specifically a method of revolutionary leadership of the masses. The remark about the roots of the mass line going back to the very beginnings of revolutionary Marxism is quite correct, and something that a great many commentators on the mass line have not understood. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason that Carolyn says this, is that she has a quite broad conception of the mass line that includes parts of Marx’s historical materialist viewpoint. (It is more difficult to see that the specific method of “from the masses, to the masses” also has its roots in the revolutionary practice of Marx, Engels and Lenin.)

The second point consists of two such traditional principles of historical materialism. Since Marx put forth these (and other) principles of historical materialism a century before Mao began to summarize the theory of the mass line, it seems a little strange to call these aspects of historical materialism a part of the mass line, let alone “part of the definition” of the mass line. I think it would be better to say that these, and a number of other, principles of historical materialism are the prerequisites to the mass line, part of the associated mass perspective that goes along with it.

Points three and four get to important aspects of the mass line properly speaking. But here again, if this is all you say about it in your definition, you are presenting a rightist, populist interpretation of the mass line.

The mass line method does indeed help people to “struggle better by clarifying their ideas and summing up the lessons learned in the course of the struggle”, but we really need to say something explicit here about how the mass line method can gradually lead to clarification of the revolutionary goal for the masses. Carolyn’s definition makes it seem like the purpose of the mass line is just to make the day-to-day struggle of the masses more effective, and omits entirely the much more central purpose of moving the mass struggle in a revolutionary direction.

In the same way, while it is genuinely true that “the best ideas of how to win a particular struggle are learned by applying the people’s ideas in practice”, is this all we are trying to do in our leadership of the mass struggle? Is the immediate struggle “everything”, as revisionists like Eduard Bernstein have argued, and the final goal “nothing”?

In this definition of the mass line there is no sense that it is a tool of revolutionary leadership, a method of leading the masses toward revolution. This is very disconcerting.

(For my own quite different definitions of the mass line and having a mass perspective, go to

What About Agitation and Propaganda?

The “Some Points on the Mass Line” document states that “building the struggle is at the core of our agenda” [§8]. Yes, it should be. But is there nothing else at the core that should also be mentioned? Nowhere in this document is there a mention of the importance of engaging in general revolutionary agitation and propaganda among the masses. Neither word appears in the document at all! And this also serves to twist the concept of the mass line in a rightist direction.

When you talk about the mass line you have to talk not only about what it means and how to use it, but you also need to talk about how this mass line method fits into our overall revolutionary work. You have to compare and contrast our mass line leadership tasks to our other important political tasks, and specifically our tasks of revolutionary education of the masses that require ongoing agitation and propaganda.

It is far from clear from these two FRSO documents that there even is anything else to “revolutionary work” besides “building the mass struggle”. A point that I try to emphasize in my mass line book is that there are two main tasks for a revolutionary group or party:

The primary purpose of the second task is to facilitate our work in carrying out the first task. (A major additional purpose of the second task is to facilitate the creation and growth of independent organizations of the masses, organizations which are not under the control of the bourgeois enemy.) And when we do both education and leadership tasks well, we will be able to move the overall mass struggle itself in a revolutionary direction.

Any group which only tries to do the leadership task, and forgets entirely about the educational task, is not really a revolutionary group. It is a mere reformist group in its actual practice, no matter what it may think about itself. Is this the case with the two FRSO groups? Well, not completely. Both have some revolutionary material on their web sites. Both seem to do a certain amount of revolutionary agitation and propaganda among the masses. The larger FRSO group formerly published an occasional magazine called Freedom Road which included some articles on overt revolutionary themes. And they have had a literature table at recent anti-war demonstrations in the San Francisco Bay Area where they were selling not only that publication, but also pamphlets by Lenin and Mao. So, no, I’m not saying that these groups are doing no revolutionary work, or that they are mere reformist organizations.

However, they do seem to be leaning in that direction. When you look at their documents on the mass line, and see them talking about the “core of their agenda” being the building of mass struggle, which of course at present means almost exclusively struggle around reformist issues, and when there is no mention at all of the importance of revolutionary agitation and propaganda, then you do have to worry about them. Their emphasis seems to be entirely on merging with the masses, with little attention being given to the central reason that revolutionaries need to do so, namely, in order to bring the light of revolution to the masses in the course of their own struggles.

It does appear that the FRSO groups are in danger of losing their “revolutionary soul”.

FRSO as the Mirror Image of the RCP

The RCP says that groups like FRSO lost their revolutionary soul long ago. But then the RCP has been focusing its efforts almost entirely on revolutionary agitation and propaganda, and has denounced the practice of joining up with the masses in their own day-to-day struggles as being inherently revisionist in and of itself.

When you compare the RCP to the FRSO groups—especially in relation to their basic political approach to the masses—they seem like mirror images of each other. Where one has a strength, the other has a weakness. Where one has latched on firmly to a basic principle of a correct Marxist-Leninist-Maoist strategy of revolution, the other has abandoned it. Too bad we can’t lock them all in a big room until they straighten each other out!

But they have proven they cannot learn from each other. Indeed, they define their own basic positions as being in opposition to that of the other side. They both act like folks who have only read one book in their entire lives. In the case of the RCP it is Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?; in the case of the FRSOs, it is perhaps Lenin’s ‘Left’-Wing Communism—An Infantile Disorder. But, you know, the funny thing here is that these two books were written by the same person, and are the two sides or aspects of a single unified revolutionary outlook.

The RCP understands the central importance of engaging in the revolutionary education of the masses, through agitation and propaganda. It just doesn’t know how to effectively go about it. The FRSOs understand very well that to influence the masses you must join up with them in their day-to-day struggles, but then seem to largely forget just why they needed to do so.

I note with interest that Carolyn’s study guide document includes among the supplementary readings two of the three articles that made up the 1976 RCP pamphlet, The Mass Line. They don’t recommend the third of the articles in the pamphlet, however, the one entitled “The Day to Day Struggle and the Revolutionary Goal”. Is this because that article is explicitly credited to Bob Avakian, who they don’t wish to agree with on anything? Probably that’s not the reason. After all, the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters group, which split from the RCP in 1978, and is one of the organizations that eventually led to FRSO, itself credited Avakian with writing the other two articles in that pamphlet as well. So what is it that FRSO apparently doesn’t like about that third article?

Well if you look at that article you will see that the whole thrust of it is that the mass line is not just about winning the immediate day-to-day struggles, but rather that the central purpose of it is to advance the mass struggle toward the revolutionary goal. This is exactly the point that the two FRSO groups seem to need to pay some serious attention to!

Final Remarks

There are other points in the two FRSO documents on the mass line that could be criticized. For example in §19 of “Some Points on the Mass Line” the author says “Practice is the sole criterion of truth...” That is true, but in putting forward this view we should also note that it is only true provided that the practice is extensive enough. Otherwise, this is a sure recipe for pragmatism.

But I don’t want to carp too much along these lines. After all, these documents are rather informal, and meant to be introductions to the mass line method for people who are pretty much new to the whole idea. It would be unreasonable to expect such documents to be philosophically balanced and theoretically precise.

However, I believe I have demonstrated that when it comes to the basic presentation of the theory of the mass line itself these two FRSO documents do leave a lot to be desired. I hope that the two FRSO groups will give some consideration to writing up improved introductions to the subject.

I would be happy to post any responses or rebuttals from the FRSO groups (or individuals) regarding any of my comments and criticisms here.

—Scott H.
   Sept. 10, 2003

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