Some Points on the Mass Line
[This is a document prepared by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization for their members and close friends. I do not know its precise date, but the author says it was in the late 1980s. The FRSO split into two groups in March 1999, long after this document was written, and both groups continue to use the FRSO name. As far as I know, both groups also continue to uphold the basic views in this document. The older, larger group has a web site at: http://www.freedomroad.org and the split-off organization, often called FRSO-Fight Back! (after the name of its newspaper), and which is concentrated in the Midwest, has a web site at: http://www.frso.org Although this is an important document, the version I have was apparently not proofread. 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.) In February 2008 a slightly revised and expanded version of this paper was posted on the FRSO-Fight Back! website, and has also been posted here on massline.info. –S.H.]
1. The mass line is the basic political/organization method of communists. Although the term mass line was coined by the Communist Party of China, the basic method of reliance on, and the mobilization of, the masses of people has been utilized by all successful revolutionary Parties.
As a topic, discussion of the Mass Line encompasses aspects of many other topics, including philosophy (the relationship between theory and practice, between knowing and doing), Marxist-Leninist Strategy and Tactics (United Front work, correct methods of leadership), and organizational theory (Party Building–the construction of revolutionary organization).
2. Our starting point is this: "The people, and the people alone are the motive force in making world history." (Mao Zedong) Not only is this historically true, but for us communists it hits on the basic issue of whom do we rely on. Perhaps it is self-evident that without people, very little can be accomplished, but this has been the subject of more than a little debate among revolutionaries in the past.
Q: Have you seen, or can you think of examples of left/progressive forces that have failed to rely on the people? What have been the results?
Need To Understand How Society Develops
3. Do people make history any old way? NO. They make history according to the laws that guide the development of society. Marxists hold that the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the contradiction between the economic base and the political/ideological superstructure built on it, the contradiction between classes, etc. will determine the limit and possibilities of what people can do in a given time and place.
The point here is that it is very useful for revolutionaries to understand the laws of how society develops in general and the laws that guide the functioning of capitalist society in particular.
For example, based on our understanding of crisis theory (why capitalism goes through periodic crises of overproduction), some of us have been arguing that a major economic downturn will take place over the next several years. Coupled with the moves in the political superstructure to slash the social safety net, this will have a very dramatic effect on the urban poor. This in turn has some implications for our organizing...
Q: Do comrades agree that there are laws of historical development that we can grasp and utilize in our work? Give examples of how this has informed our strategy as an organization.
Marxist Theory of Knowledge
4. People's thinking is largely determined by the sum total of social relations that they enter into, or find themselves in. Conditions, in the main, determine consciousness. This is materialism 101. However, under the right conditions, consciousness can impact in a big way on conditions–this is an important point and we will come back to it later.
5. How do people learn? Through experience, through practice. Practice is the source of all knowledge. If you are carrying out science experiments, trying to produce things, or trying to change society–the process is basically the same. In the beginning you try something out. If it works you sum that up and if it does not work you sum that up too. From scattered observations, and perceptions you move to concepts–to ideas or theory. This is the first part of what we call cycles of theory and practice.
What is correct theory? Correct theory is when our ideas about how things work accurately reflect reality and its inner motion. How can we be sure if our "correct" theory is correct? We put [it] into practice and check the results. By doing this we not only find out if the theory corresponds to reality, but we often can learn something new and further enrich the theory. In a nutshell this process of practice-theory-practice... from knowing a little to knowing a lot is the Marxist Theory of Knowledge.
6. The general resides in the particular. In U.S. society there are many contradictions. We have some experiences and have read a few books so we have some awareness of them. However, we need to keep in mind that every general contradiction (for example, class, nationality, gender, etc.) exists in a sum total of the particulars. In the real world the laws of development, the laws of capitalism, always show themselves as a sum total of particulars. The starting point for most people is "why won't that supervisor leave me alone" as opposed to "god damn those capitalists".
We need to be skilled at using those particulars to draw out a more general picture of what this country is about.
7. PEOPLE LEARN THROUGH STRUGGLE. For revolutionaries the implications of the above are tremendous. What is being said is that the fundamental way that people need to learn (and this includes us too) about society and how it works is through the fight to change it. Like Mao said, if you want to know what a pear tastes like, you have to change it by eating it.
This is a reason (not the only reason, but none the less a very important one) why communists place such a big emphasis on building the day to day struggle in defense of the people's basic interests. We hold that it is through these particular battles that people learn about the nature of the enemy, how this system works, and what are the effective methods of struggle. This in turn allows us to weaken and confuse the enemy, and to create favorable conditions for people to take up revolutionary theory.
Q: Do comrades agree with this? Clearly many "leftists" do not. For example the main form of political activity of the Socialist Workers Party (and many other Trotskyists) is selling newspapers.
Methods of Work and Leadership8. Since bulding the struggle is at the core of our agenda–we can then proceed to delineate some key principles and methods of work. The first is that our starting point needs to be the felt needs and wants of the masses of people. Good intentions will not do in this case. They might bring us to the demonstration, but we are likely to be lonely there. So to build struggle, we had better have a handle on what these felt needs are and what people are likely [to] do in order to achieve them. We have probably all been in meetings where some particular is under discussion, and somebody jumps up and says the "real issue is X or Y". Maybe that person is extremely insightful or maybe they are dead wrong (more likely). It really does not matter, we need to start from where people are at.
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)
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.
10. Struggle for summation. To pull our work forward we need to be practical leaders and organizers of the people's struggles. (This role is not pre-ordained, it needs to be earned). One implication is that communists need to be waging a constant struggle for summation–both among the active elements and for public opinion in general. To put this another way, after having organized an action or having done something, there will often be different conclusions that people draw from it.
If we are not good at helping people grasp correct conclusions, our enemies will be glad to do it for us. In many of the battles we fight (particularly the larger ones), our victories will be somewhat limited. For example, in dealing with city or state budget crises or major cuts in the social safety net, the best we can often hope for is to blunt the effects. This does not mean that we should not advocate "not one cent in cuts"–we should. But the reality is at the end of the day we are up against the general laws of capitalism, the rich give with an eye dropper and take away with steam shovel, and the only way that many of society's basic problems are going to be addressed is via revolution.
This means that we have to be good at showing people what was accomplished and what this system is about. There is already an attitude that has been drummed into people's heads that goes "you cannot fight city hall". We need to help people get past that.
Also, in many battles we face a host of opportunists, trade union bureaucrats, poverty pimps and the like who want to put their own spin on things. In the Trade Union movement, these fools say if only we were nice to the employer, we would not have all these layoffs. If we have done a good job at involving people and constantly explaining to people why the employers behave the way they do, people will reject these Monday morning quarterbacks.
11. Campaign method. The enemy is stubborn when it comes down to defending their interests. So a protracted battle is usually called for to get anything. But from the standpoint of people learning about the nature of the system and moving ahead politically, these protracted struggles (i.e. campaigns) provide favorable conditions for us to work in.
This is because people in general need repeated experience to learn from. Perhaps folks think that if only the politicians understood what they were doing to people, they would change their ways. So we take people to see the politicians–who do not change their ways–and sum it up with folks. After doing this for [a] while people conclude that reason just does not work with these elements and something else is called for.
Q: Do comrades agree that [it] is important to be building mass campaigns among our respective concentrations? From your experience, why or why not?
12. General calls and particular guidance. At the onset of any campaign, the usual starting point is a general call–"Justice for XXX, stop police terror." But we need to be skilled with particular guidance; we need to have some clear ideas about the particulars of what needs to be done. Perhaps this seems self-evident, but we see it happen all the time. A general call is made, but no one has paid any attention to how to solve the particulars, to make it real...
This method is of great help in doing national or regional work. The call can be made. Leadership can pay serious attention to its application in several cities, union locals, neighborhoods, etc. The lessons can then be propagated to others and the basis has been created to learn by example.
13. Advanced / Intermediate / Backwards. At any given time and place, the masses are made up of the advanced, the intermediate, and the backwards. Who are the advanced? The advanced are the active elements, the new leaders, organizers and activists. The main criteria for identifying the advanced must be practice, i.e. activity. Good ideas without corresponding action are useless. This does not mean that [there] are no political criteria for identifying the advanced, because depending on time, place and conditions there generally are. It just depends on what we are doing and what context we are talking about.
Who are the intermediate? They are the majority. The group in the middle. Being able to move and mobilize this group is usually critical to the success of any objective.
Who are the backward? They are naysayers and opposition. Objectively, they generally reflect and articulate the thinking of the enemy in the people's ranks.
These are not moral categories we have dreamed up to make some people feel bad. Rather, we realize that people are in different places. The advanced in one phase of the struggle may become the backward in the next. Public opinion is never uniform–among the people in general, in the movements, or in our own organization for that matter. We have different tasks in relation to these different groups, but the first step is identifying who is who and what is what.
14. What are our tasks and method? To unite the advanced to win over and mobilize the intermediate section which creates conditions to win over, neutralize, or isolate the backwards. Even when we get to socialism, the active communists are going to be a relatively small minority so we need to rely on the advanced to get things done. It is the advanced who are the bridge to and lever for moving the majority–the intermediate.
The advanced need to be armed with an understanding that addresses the concerns and questions of the intermediate, and practical policies need to be adopted as well.
For example, we and the advanced have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to take a strike vote in the work place. The intermediate think something should be done, but they are nervous. So we let folks know there is a lot of money in the strike fund, we set up special committees that can deal with mortgage companies, we time the strike so that people can still get health coverage for a while. In short we adopt a series of political and practical measures that convince the intermediate that we can do this and win.
Again this is a practical proposition. To focus a majority of our attention on the backward will not get us anywhere. We would get stuck in an endless debate with the passive or hostile. We could focus our main attention on the intermediate rather than the advanced. What happens then? The best that is going to happen is that we bring forward some new advanced folks, and the process of mobilization is slowed down–and what will more generally happen is that the advanced you have will slip away.
15. To lose the advanced is a disaster and should be avoided at all costs. Not only are the advanced a lever for moving broader numbers of people, they are usually a group of people who we have invested a lot of time and energy in. It often takes years to build up an advanced core in a mass organization, and years can be spent replacing it if we lose it. Furthermore it is from the ranks of the advanced that new communists will emerge, so this issue has strategic importance as well.
Because this group is so important we need to be flexible. New advanced people might have illusions about the system; we should work patiently with them to correct their right mistakes. More long term advanced may be frustrated and prone to "left" errors. Again, we should stick with them and be patient–summing up what does and does not work in practice.
Q: Clearly a lot of emphasis is being put on the advanced. Do comrades think this is out of line?
The Mass Line and United Front Work
16. Leaving aside the strategic question of the United Front (strategy for revolution), in any given struggle we want to unite all who can be united to fight the enemy, and frequently there are other forces in the field led by different opportunists–we live in a day and age where even the police department has gotten into community organizing.
By applying the mass line in United Front work we can undermine and isolate these elements. The keys are to have a firm line or program that corresponds to the felt needs of the people, and analysis which draws a sharp line of demarcation between the opportunists and the masses (i.e. draw a line between the misled and the misleaders), and policies and plans which are sharpening the contradictions in the opportunist camp.
Sometimes this process can be quite simple. In the welfare work we say that no progressive organization should support legislation that is fundamentally harmful. Honest people, people who want to fight, agree with this. Dishonest people, opportunists, on the other hand are trying to tinker with the legislation to get a piece of the pie (say daycare lobbyists who support workfare as long as there are dollars for daycare), and can be isolated.
This is not to advocate a "rule or ruin" approach. The point is that we want to build the strongest possible fightback, and to the extent the opportunists are a barrier to this, we want to divest them of their mass base and remove them from the political stage. The mass line in is an important tool for doing this.
17. While it is true that consciousness generally moves from a lower to a higher level, and people learn through practice, it is wrong to adopt a formulaic system of stages that we superimpose on the struggle. There is no rule that goes first we pass out the leaflets, then we have the mass meeting, then we hold the protest, then we seize the offices, etc. Life is more complicated.
Sometimes it happens that the best way to get a campaign going is to unite the advanced to carry out an action (such as a sit-in or visible confrontation with the Governor, Mayor, etc.). This in turn galvanizes the advanced, puts up a pole of resistance that others can rally around, and creates a context where we can have a fight for public opinion.
Create Favorable New Conditions Through Struggle
18. The objective conditions we are dealing with are not static. We can change the conditions through our work, through struggle. By interacting with a situation, we become part of it and alter it.
Q: What can your unit do to create more favorable conditions through its work?
The Marxist Theory of Knowledge is Embodied In Communist Organization
19. We are a democratic centralist organization. We make use of Marxism to analyze the world and what needs to be done. Based on this analysis we develop line, policies and plans. We then put them into practice. If we have a situation in a unit where several different lines are being put into practice at cross purposes, it is not only counter-productive, it is impossible to tell what works and what does not. That is one of the reasons why we insist that the minority is subordinate to the majority and we strive to apply a common plan.
We go through cycles of theory and practice. If, based on the practice, the line proves to be wrong, we sum that up too. In this process the line is changed or improved on. Practice is the sole criterion of truth....
Our structure has a chain of knowledge and chain of command. Lower bodies are subordinate to higher ones. There is more to this than saying our enemies are organized and we have to be to. Hopefully the higher bodies are collecting more knowledge, based on a broader sphere of organized practice than the lower ones, and are in a better position to sum up the work as a whole. For example a member of a District Executive should take an active interest in all the work of the district. They aren't simply reps of their areas of work. They have the responsibility to see to it that overall line and strategy of the district and for that matter the organization as a whole is being carried out.
Mass Line and Revolution
20. Lenin made the point that three factors are needed for revolution. The people cannot live in the old way, the ruling class cannot rule in the old way, and there must be a strong revolutionary organization. This will take some time.
We are not a large organization, and there will be many twists and turns on the road. There is no reason for us to be boastful at this point in the game. We should be modest and learn from the people as they learn from us. By consistently applying the mass line we can do that. It is a powerful tool for building the struggle, for strengthening the organizations and movements of the people, and constructing revolutionary organization.
We do not know when our class will take power. But we can be absolutely sure that the organization that is at the forefront of the revolutionary process will make use of the mass line.
Discussion for Small Groups:
[Hypothetical scenario:] You and your unit are now in Chicago. Your unit has done community work around housing issues, but has limited experience with police brutality work. A Latino man has been killed by the police. This is the latest in a string of police murders, some of which have had more struggle around them than others. The city government suspends the cop with pay, but indicates the cop did nothing wrong.
There are some forces that have done work around police killings in the past, but they are concentrating on other issues now, there is no obvious force that is moving to take this up. A member of the unit knew a member of the family of the person killed, but this was several years ago and there is no real link right now. Your district has decided that your unit should try and build a campaign.
- What are some of the needed preconditions to make this campaign work?
- Who are we going to try and mobilize and bring forward around this?
- Police murders invoke different sentiments among the people. What are the advanced, intermediate and backward elements?
- What are the main slogans to mobilize people?
- How are we going to find the advanced? When we pull around a core of the advanced, what are the points that we want them to stress with the intermediate?
- What forms of struggle should we advocate in order to strengthen the advanced core? Are they identical with the ones we use to advance the struggle overall?
- In the course of this fightback some of the advanced become revolutionary-minded. How do [you] move them forward to becoming communists?
-- [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 sect. 3: ‘superstructure build on it’ changed to ‘superstructure built on it’
- 2nd paragraph of sect. 3: ‘laws that guild the capitalist society’ changed to ‘laws that guide the capitalist society’
- 2nd paragraph of sect. 5: ‘and’ removed from ‘accurately and reflect’
- Ibid.: ‘We put into practice...’ changed to ‘We put [it] into practice...’
- 1st paragraph of sect. 8: ‘what people are likely do in order...’ changed to ‘what people are likely [to] do in order...’
- 1st paragraph of sect. 9 (Mao quote): Several errors here corrected. Cf. Quotations from Mao Tse-Tung:
‘In all practical work’ changed to ‘In all the practical work’
‘all correct work in necessarily’ changed to ‘all correct leadership is necessarily’
- 2nd paragraph of sect. 11: ‘doing this for while’ changed to ‘doing this for [a] while’
- 3rd paragraph of sect. 11: ‘agree that is important’ changed to ‘agree that [it] is important’
- 1st paragraph of sect. 13: ‘that are no’ changed to ‘that [there] are no’
- 4th paragraph of sect. 13: ‘Public opinion in never uniform’ changed to ‘Public opinion is never uniform’
- 1st paragraph of sect. 14: ‘to wins over’ changed to ‘to win over’
- 2nd paragraph of sect. 16: ‘which are sharpen’ changed to ‘which are sharpening’
- 4th paragraph of sect. 16: ‘The is not to’ changed to ‘This is not to’
- Ibid.: ‘we what to build’ is changed to ‘we want to build’
- Ibid.: ‘The mass line in an important tool’ changed to ‘The mass line is an important tool’
- Start of last section ("Discussion for Small Groups"): The words ‘[Hypothetical scenario:]’ added to make clear the nature of this exercise.
- There are two questions numbered ‘3)’ in "Discussion for Small Groups" section. I’ve renumbered the questions needing it.
- In the 5th question [called ‘4)’ in the original document!] in the "Discussion for Small Groups": ‘that we what them’ changed to ‘that we want them’
- In the 7th question [called ‘6’ in the original]: ‘How do move them’ changed to ‘How do [you] move them’
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