The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

19. The Mass Line, Reformist Struggle, & the Revolutionary Goal

The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement. —Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto[1]

I start from the position of the Communist Manifesto that genuine communists represent the interests of the proletariat and the broad masses—all their interests, and only their interests. As communists we have no interests whatsoever of our own, separate from those of the proletariat as a whole. Specifically, communists must represent (champion) both the masses' short-term interests and their long-term interests; their relatively minor interests and their major interests; their temporary or immediate interests and their ultimate interests.

Now of course we must immediately qualify this in one respect: where the interests of the masses conflict with each other, as they sometimes do, we must pick and choose. And in these cases we must always choose the masses' major interests over their minor interests, their long-term interests over their short-term interests, their ultimate interests over their temporary interests, and the interests of the whole over those of any part.

But I also take the position that in general, most of the time, the short-term immediate interests of the masses are not opposed to their long-term ultimate interests. (The need to eat today is not opposed to the need for revolution.) In fact there is a somewhat hidden dialectical unity here which is often obscured by right opportunist practice: The only way you can really effectively work to secure the long-term ultimate interests of the proletariat is if you also pay some real attention to their short-term immediate interests.

A second qualification to the above must also be made. While we must represent or champion all the real interests of the workers and the masses, we must naturally put the bulk of our efforts in on working for their major, long-term, ultimate interests, rather than for their lesser, short-range, immediate interests. This is why our central focus must always be on revolution, since only proletarian revolution encapsulates the major, long-term, ultimate interests of the masses.

But, then again, some of our most important tasks in preparing for revolution can only be realized by participating with the masses in their struggles around their temporary, immediate or short-range interests. Since the bulk of the class struggle of the masses in "ordinary times" consists of struggle over immediate, or short-range, or temporary interests, if we are to really link up with the masses, help build their organization and class consciousness, and win their trust and leadership which are required in revolutionary times, we must participate with them in these immediate struggles.

Thus both because we must champion all the interests of the workers and the masses, and more importantly, because we must especially champion their ultimate interests, we must also participate actively in the day-to-day class struggle of the masses. And we must do this while recognizing full well, and in fact never forgetting, that the day-to-day class struggle is almost exclusively over reformist issues—whether economic, or more "political".

I take the traditional Marxist-Leninist position that revolutionary struggle and reformist struggle are dialectically related, and that revolutionary struggle (at least in an advanced capitalist country) cannot develop and be successful unless revolutionary ideas are brought to the masses in the course of their day-to-day struggles, which at the same time must foster the beginnings of independent mass organization and some mass recognition of the sincerity and trustworthiness of the proletarian party. But I recognize that, amazingly, this is a very controversial position in some quarters; that it may be viewed as a form of right opportunism; and that consequently it requires a good deal of discussion and defense.

The RCP on the Day-to-day Struggles of the Masses

Should communists help build the day-to-day class struggles of the masses? Ever since the Communist Manifesto an affirmative answer to this question has been pretty much taken for granted in the communist movement. But in its current Programme (adopted in 1981), the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA takes a contrary position:

      For many decades there has been a standard conception about how to make revolution in an imperialist country like the U.S. The old Communist Party, USA held it even in its better days, before it sank totally into the sink-hole of revisionism. Further, it has been the prevailing conception, with some variations, in the international communist movement since the 1920s and after the years of Lenin's influence. This concept is fundamentally wrong and has prevented serious preparation for revolution. Its basic starting point is getting into the struggles of the people, particularly around their daily needs. The party then relates to these struggles principally by giving tactical and organizational leadership, and thereby seeks to gain influence and leadership among the people so as to be able to lead a revolution. Sometimes this has taken "left" forms ("everyone follow the communists now and let's march straight ahead from militant economic struggle to socialism"); more often it has taken openly rightist forms of tailing reformist leaders and spontaneity in general. In any case it is invariably a recipe for adapting communist work down to the present level of mass struggle and consciousness, and for ultimately capitulating to the bourgeoisie, especially in the form of promoting the national interests instead of the revolutionary interests of the international proletariat in time of war.[2]

To this "old view" the RCP then contrasts its new approach:

      The plan and central task of our Party is quite different. Its starting point is the necessity for the proletarian revolution. The main way that the Party influences the masses and the mass movements, the main way it works to build the leadership of the proletariat and prepare the working class and broad masses—and the Party itself—for revolution, is to systematically carry out revolutionary agitation and propaganda. This, with agitation the cutting edge and the Party's newspaper the main weapon now, means that, close upon major events throughout society and the world, the Party and Party members expose the bourgeoisie and the imperialist system in a penetrating way, reveal the different and conflicting class forces and class interests involved in all such events—giving thereby a clear and all-around picture of the class structure and class struggle in society and the world as a whole—and train the masses, especially the advanced section of the proletariat, in the application of the scientific method of Marxism....
      As far as relating to the present day struggle, our difference with the economists and reformists is not basically whether to do so, but how and with what aim. First off, the very workings of this oppressive system, here and internationally, bring people into motion against it—far more than all the organizational work of the revolutionaries. The question is whether to tail this, or to utilize all its diverse currents and tributaries for a single revolutionary purpose. This is what it means for the Party and those under its leadership to support every major outbreak of protest and rebellion among the masses of all classes and strata, here and internationally, and assist the struggling masses to both unite more broadly and fight more powerfully and to more consciously aim their fire against the bourgeoisie and the imperialist system and link themselves with the class-conscious proletariat and its revolutionary aims. In all of this a newspaper is essential and central. In fact, one important function of exposure is that it does impel the masses into struggle, and to fighting more consciously against the enemy. But the main point is not to become infatuated in "peaceful times" with leading a non-revolutionary mass movement. The point is to make clear that the whole political system is worthless. The masses must be won to see that the most decisive thing is not just national oppression, or police terror, or rape, or nukes, or the draft, or imperialist acts of aggression, or even world war, but that every outrage is a manifestation of the capitalist system and the rule of the capitalist class, and there is only one solution to all this—mass armed proletarian revolution.[3]

Now there are quite a few different propositions mashed together in the above excerpts (and in the nearby text which I have not quoted more of because of its length)—most of which are correct, but some of which are not—, and I suspect that to a degree these various propositions are deliberately mashed together so that you are expected to either reject it all or to accept it all as a package. But I can't do either. The only thing to do here is to disentangle the package into its separate propositions, and accept or reject each in turn, based on its own merits. Furthermore, because of the way this section of the RCP Programme is written it is difficult to be sure precisely what the Party position is on some of the separate propositions; in some cases a position seems to be stated, but then somewhat retracted or vaguely qualified. Anyway, this is my interpretation.

First, should communists participate in helping the workers and broad masses build their day-to-day struggles? Help them, that is, by providing leadership and helping to build their organization? Traditionally Marxist-Leninists (including Marx, Engels, and Lenin—see below) have always said yes. I say yes. The RCP now says no.

But it is wrong to interpret the traditional point of view of Marx, Engels and Lenin here too narrowly, as revisionists constantly do (and as the RCP also seems inclined to do!). By building the organization of the workers, for example, we do not mean only, or even principally, building the trade unions, for example—especially today when, as the RCP says, "Overwhelmingly the trade unions in the U.S. have become a reactionary political machine".[4] Any real proletarian organization these days must at the very least be independent of the existing trade union structures. This means both independent revolutionary caucuses within unions, and (probably much more important) also organizations completely unrelated to unions and union activity.

Second, should communists make the main thrust of their work among the masses agitation and propaganda against the capitalist system and in favor of revolution (rather than simply building the day-to-day struggle)? Lenin said yes. Revisionists in the old (and current) CPUSA and elsewhere say no (or at least their practice says this). I say yes. The RCP says yes; although with the RCP it seems not to be just "the main thrust", but almost the entire content.

Third, should communists have any relation at all to the workers' day-to-day struggles? Everybody says yes. But I interpret the above passages (as well as much of the recent practice of the Party) to mean that the RCP thinks communists should not "relate" to the day-to-day struggles of the masses by being part of them (by participating in them, helping to lead them to success, etc.), but rather by standing at the side, distributing their newspaper, and otherwise attempting to interject agitation and propaganda into the consciousness of those who actually are involved. I really am not trying to parody their position here, and if I have grossly misinterpreted it, then all I can say is: "Folks, your stand cries out for more clarification!"

"Relating" to struggles by refusing to join up with them, by refusing to participate and help lead them to success, is at best a very external relationship, and is bound to be seen as such by the masses. The whole issue is: Can you really be successful in bringing light into struggles (via agitation and propaganda), if you stand outside them, if the masses who are involved in these struggles see you as standing aloof and as not really interested in joining up in the battles they themselves see as important? I say the answer is clearly "no"; under these circumstances your agitation and propaganda will for the most part fall on deaf ears.

Fourth, is revolutionary agitation and propaganda opposed to, or incompatible with, active participation in the day-to-day class struggle around primarily reformist issues? Lenin said not necessarily; it is actually most effective when combined with the current struggles of the masses. I agree with Lenin. Revisionists in effect say yes, and therefore drop revolutionary agitation and propaganda. The RCP says yes, and therefore drops active participation in much of the day-to-day struggle.

Fifth, are there dangers in participating in reformist work, in getting swept up in it, of forgetting revolutionary agitation and propaganda, and indeed forgetting revolution completely? Lenin said yes. Revisionists sometimes admit to such dangers themselves, but always deny they have succumbed to them. I say yes. The RCP says yes.

He who goes all out, who fights for complete victory, must alert himself to the danger of having his hands tied by minor gains, of being led astray and made to forget that which is still comparatively remote, but without which all minor gains are hollow vanities. (Lenin)[5]

But a point to stress here is that there are all sorts of dangers in communist work, not only physical dangers but also ideological dangers which are really far more serious. We must do what needs to be done despite all temptations and dangers. The RCP seems to be saying that if you get "trapped" into participating with the workers in their day-to-day struggles, you will inevitably end up as a revisionist. I don't believe it. It didn't happen to Lenin's Bolsheviks. (See the discussion of the "October Road" in chapter 42.)

Sixth, is the "whole [capitalist] political system" worthless? All except ex-revolutionaries say yes. It is worthless in the sense that it is fundamentally and essentially opposed to the real interests of the masses. It is worthless in the sense that it cannot be reformed into a system which does represent the interests of the people. The only thing to be done with it is to get rid of it.

Seventh, does that mean that it is impossible to win any reformist victories under this system? That it is impossible to stave off any attacks on the people? That anything won is totally worthless? That there is really no point in resisting the enemy at all in day-to-day struggle? No one who has any concern for the welfare of the people can say these things; and they should not imply them either.

The fact is, the day-to-day struggle of the masses is important. The conditions of life of the masses depend to a large degree upon such struggle. To come straight to the point, their immediate interest in surviving, even if it means surviving as a slave (a wage-slave or otherwise), though definitely subordinate in a clear way to their interest in ending such slavery, and building a new, free life, is nevertheless unequivocally important. I am in no way denying that it will be necessary for many among the masses to be willing to lay down their lives—and to actually do so—in order to get rid of capitalism and its horrors. I am only pointing out the obvious, that while capitalism continues to exist it is necessary to constantly struggle against it even in order to exist as a wage slave. True, this means struggling over the terms and conditions of ones slavery and exploitation; but slaves have to no choice but to constantly struggle over such conditions while slavery still exists.

As perhaps bears repeating, communists should participate in the day-to-day struggle, which means helping to build it and lead it and organize it, for two main reasons. Firstly, because it is important to the masses in the short-run. And secondly, and more important than the first reason, because it is a necessary school of experience for the masses, of learning who they are (the proletariat as a class for itself), who the enemy is, who really stands up for their interests, and who can provide trustworthy leadership, and what the true ultimate goal of their struggles must be; and because it is a laboratory for experimenting with and building various forms of organization and struggle—all of which are essential prerequisites for a successful revolutionary struggle of the masses.

Eighth, does this (the possibility of winning reforms or of staving off attacks) in turn mean that the masses can continually improve their lives through reformist struggle? That despite occasional setbacks the system can gradually be reformed into something qualitatively different and better? That advances won in the day-to-day struggle are cumulative and secure? No, not in the least. No genuine Marxist-Leninist can go along with such nonsense. Sooner or later every reformist victory will be reversed by the ruling class. If the rulers do not succeed in an attack on the masses at one point, they will try again later, and eventually—perhaps during some crisis—they will succeed. No reform won under capitalism is really secure. No victory against bourgeois predation is permanent as long as their system continues to exist. This is why, as undeniably important as the day-to-day class struggle is to the lives of the masses, ultimately it means nothing. Ultimately the only thing that means anything is proletarian revolution.

Ninth, is the experience of the masses in the day-to-day struggle of any real importance? Marxist-Leninists have always said yes. The RCP also still says yes, but they certainly have toned down the emphasis they give this from their 1975 Programme. (I won't say anything more about the experience of the masses here. See chapter 24.)

Tenth, should the party of the proletariat attempt to divert the day-to-day struggle for reforms and turn it into a revolutionary struggle? Lenin said yes. I agree. Revisionists say no, and most of them have little or no conception of what it might mean to do so. The RCP, of course, says yes.

The question, once again, is whether you can really divert something which you stand aloof from.

Eleventh, does attempting to divert the day-to-day struggle mean opposing it? Does it mean refusing to join up with it? Does it mean refusing to give leadership to it, or refusing to help organize it? Not for Lenin, and not for me. As for the RCP, I don't know what to say! They surely don't oppose the reformist struggles of the masses, but in their 1981 Programme they seem to be saying that they have no interest whatsoever in aiding such struggles.

But let us face this issue head on: How can you really be said to be trying to divert something if you are simultaneously attempting to lead it and organize it and generally make it successful? Ah, another dialectical puzzle! I love these things; but I also hate them because they seem to cause so many people so much confusion. When Marxist-Leninists join up with the day-to-day or reformist struggles of the masses they of course seek to lead these struggles to victory (i.e., to win the reforms being aimed at, or to ward off the specific attacks by the enemy, as the case may be). When we speak of diverting the day-to-day struggle what we mean is expanding it, broadening its aims, and specifically adding revolutionary goals to the existing reformist goals. We are trying to divert it in the sense that we are trying to change its ultimate aim, but not in the sense that we are trying to oppose its initial, limited aim. We are trying to change its focus from reformist struggle to revolutionary struggle. So, you see, 'diverting' does not mean (or at least should not mean) 'opposing' in such a context. Anybody who imagines that it is part of his or her duty to oppose the reformist struggles of the masses on "revolutionary" grounds is very confused indeed, and is no friend of the masses. This clearly cannot include the RCP, but you do have to wonder about their evident refusal to participate in much of the masses day-to-day struggles.

(Some very confused types of people have gone so far as to hope that reformist struggles will fail so that the masses will sooner learn the need for revolution. This leads to the old anarchist/Trotskyite theory, "the worse the better". And certain people, such as some petty-bourgeois terrorists have even gone so far with this as to work for the defeat of reformist struggles of the masses "on revolutionary grounds". Such people have of course objectively gone over to the enemy camp, no matter what their conscious motivation might be.)

Twelfth, is it really important to try to build the organization of the masses through their day-to-day struggles? Lenin said yes. But the RCP, with its facile remark that "the very workings of this oppressive system, here and internationally, bring people into motion against it—far more than all the organizational work of the revolutionaries"—seems to be disagreeing, and to be purposely missing the main point of why we are striving to build the masses' organization. Our primary purpose in using the day-to-day struggles to build the organization of the masses is so that they will be in a position to make revolution. Of course the ugly nature of the capitalist system is the main force bringing the masses into motion, a force far more important than anything we say or do, or any organization we build. But this obvious fact is irrelevant to the point here! It is nevertheless important for the party to say and do things that help bring the masses into motion, and to help them build their consciousness and organization in the process.

Thirteenth, can the most important form of organization of the masses for the purpose of making revolution possibly be an organization built around the distribution of a Party newspaper? The RCP says yes:

...the Party works both in times of ebb and in times of upsurge to build revolutionary organization. Besides the Party itself, the principal and ongoing forms of organization built are networks of distribution of the newspaper, which are at the same time hubs of all-around revolutionary activity. In fact, in addition to its main role in creating broad public opinion, a very important role of the newspaper is to be the collective organizer of the Party and the revolutionary movement. But, while basic, this does not exhaust the organizational tasks of the Party among the masses.[6]

The RCP is saying here that while there are also other organizations which the Party must build among the masses, the basic, most important revolutionary mass organization to be built is that of the Party newspaper distribution network. Lenin said that such a newspaper could serve as a focus for building a Party, but he never imagined that its undeniably important distribution network (which of course should involve as many of the masses as possible) could be the primary revolutionary organization for the broad masses. (In fact, once they developed, Lenin clearly viewed the Soviets as the primary revolutionary organization of the Russian masses, the primary mass organization for all aspects of revolutionary education and activity. He said the Soviets constituted "an apparatus by means of which the vanguard of the oppressed classes can elevate, train, educate, and lead the entire vast mass of these classes..."[7]) I agree with Lenin, and with the possibility of organizing other extremely important units from the masses based on a variety of principles—the nucleus of the future red army, to give just one example. But as for the truly fundamental, widespread and effective organization of the broad masses in forms which are essential to making a successful revolution, I don't see how this is possible except on the basis where the masses are—i.e., where they work and live. This has always been the basic Marxist principle of mass organization.

(The RCP Programme says later that "It is a basic principle that the Party must carry out political work wherever the masses are found in significant numbers..." (p. 45), but it does not connect this up with the need to build mass organization wherever the masses are, in order to bring about revolution.)

I suspect that those who pooh-pooh this principle are showing their impatience or impetuosity. If people must be organized where they work and where they live then clearly there is a hell of a lot of organizational work that is needed, most of which will of course have to be accomplished by the masses themselves, but which will also require a good deal of help from the party. But if all we need to do is get a relatively few people organized around the distribution of a newspaper, it may seem we are much closer to the possibility of revolution.

*    *    *

At this point, someone sympathetic to the current RCP standpoint might say: "Aha! What you are advancing is merely "left" opportunism, or the view, as the RCP Programme says, that everyone 'should follow the communists now and let's march straight ahead from militant economic struggle to socialism'." But this is not my point of view at all. I am not saying "let's engage in reformist struggle (economic or otherwise) now, with a reformist perspective, and then when the time comes let's engage in revolutionary struggle, with a revolutionary perspective". Instead, I am saying "let's participate in whatever existing mass struggles there are today—most of which are indeed reformist, and many of which are economic—with the perspective of helping prepare the masses for revolution. There is a subtle distinction here, but a real and crucial distinction—though clearly some people cannot see it.

What this all comes down to is the following extremely basic question: Can communists use reformist day-to-day struggles to build the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, and help prepare them ideologically and organizationally for revolution? The answer is yes, they can and they must! I admit that this possibility may seem strange, or contradictory, or even completely absurd at first. It is a major task of not just this chapter, but the entire book, to attempt to explain just how this can really be possible.

Lenin on the Day-to-Day Reformist Struggle of the Masses

Since the RCP claims that the viewpoint which they are attacking only came to dominate the Marxist-Leninist movement "after the years of Lenin's influence", they are obviously implying that they are returning to Lenin, that they agree with Lenin, and that Lenin would agree completely with their position. I have denied this above, and have already given some of the evidence here and in earlier chapters (especially chapter 9). Now it is time to provide just a bit more of the overwhelming mass of evidence available to back up my claim.

In his version of a party programme, Lenin explicitly states that the party should participate in the workers' existing struggle, to bring light into it (via agitation and propaganda) of course, but also to help them build it:

The Party's activity must consist in promoting the worker's class struggle. The Party's task is not to concoct some fashionable means of helping the workers, but to join up with the workers' movement, to bring light into it, to assist the workers in the struggle they themselves have already begun to wage. The Party's task is to uphold the interests of the workers and to represent those of the entire working class movement.[8]

Lenin, like all real communists up until 1981, took it for granted that we should of course participate in the workers' day-to-day struggles, economic and otherwise:

All Social-Democrats [communists] are agreed that it is necessary to organize the economic struggle of the working class, that it is necessary to carry on agitation among the workers on this basis, i.e., to help the workers in their day-to-day struggle against the employers, to draw their attention to every form and every case of oppression and in this way to make clear to them the necessity for combination.[9]

I don't know how Lenin could have been any clearer on the issue than that. He would have been flabbergasted if any Marxist in his day had denied this elementary point. But we must stress that the overall thrust of Lenin's argument was expressed in the lines immediately preceding the above quotation—that the economic struggle of the workers is not their most important struggle, let alone their only struggle, but rather that the revolutionary political struggle of the workers and the masses is of central importance.

Nevertheless, Lenin said it was a "calumny" (i.e., a false, malicious, and slanderous statement) to claim that "the founders of Russian Social-Democracy only want to use the workers to overthrow the autocracy" and have no concern at all about the workers' livelihood and day-to-day struggles.[10]

Nor can anyone claim that these points of view were only from Lenin's early writings and programme drafts. These views became enshrined in the formal Party Programme of the R.S.D.L.P. and remained there for the whole period until after the October Revolution. And as we saw in chapter 9, and as we will see further below, Lenin held firmly to these views both before and after he wrote What Is To Be Done?, and both before and after the October Revolution.

In the following, Lenin states the principle that Marxism makes use of all forms of struggle, but that the party does not concoct these forms of struggle all on its own; rather it joins up with the forms of struggle the masses are already engaged in:

What are the fundamental demands which every Marxist should make of an examination of the question of forms of struggle? In the first place, Marxism differs from all primitive forms of socialism by not binding the movement to any one particular form of struggle. It recognizes the most varied forms of struggle; and it does not "concoct" them, but only generalizes, organizes, gives conscious expression to those forms of struggle of the revolutionary classes which arise of themselves in the course of the movement. Absolutely hostile to all abstract formulas and to all doctrinaire recipes, Marxism demands an attentive attitude to the mass struggle in progress, which, as the movement develops, as the class-consciousness of the masses grows, as economic and political crises become acute, continually gives rise to new and more varied methods of defense and attack. Marxism, therefore, positively does not reject any form of struggle. Under no circumstances does Marxism confine itself to the forms of struggle possible and in existence at the given moment only, recognizing as it does that new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation changes. In this respect Marxism learns, if we may so express it, from mass practice, and makes no claim whatever to teach the masses forms of struggle invented by "systematizers" in the seclusion of their studies.[11]

As an aside, I might mention that this is exactly the sort of passage in Lenin that I would like to rub in the noses of those bourgeois scholars who claim that Lenin did not use the mass line! (See chapter 34.)

In the next passage Lenin says, among other things, that 1) the party should express the real interests of the masses, and specifically those which the masses themselves sense; 2) that the party should teach the masses organization; and 3) that the party should guide all the struggles of the masses:

To serve the mass and express its properly sensed interests, the advanced detachment, the organization must conduct all its activities in the mass, drawing from it all—without exception—the best forces, checking at each step, thoroughly and objectively, whether the ties with the mass are maintained, whether they are alive. In such, and only in such a way, does the advanced detachment educate and enlighten the mass, expressing its interests, teaching it organization, guiding all the activity of the mass along the path of conscious class policy.[12]

I opened this chapter with a quotation from the Communist Manifesto expressing the view of Marx and Engels about the relation of communists to the day-to-day struggle. Let me now show Lenin's attitude toward that very same quotation:

The Communist Manifesto set forth the fundamental Marxist principle on the tactics of the political struggle: "The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement."[13]

"The fundamental Marxist principle on the tactics of the political struggle", Lenin says.[14] In light of this, and in light of all the foregoing quotations, and the other evidence adduced in chapter 9 and elsewhere, I think we can safely say that Lenin agreed that communists must participate in the day-to-day reformist struggles of the masses, must seek to build and win such struggles, must bring organization and communist ideology to the masses in the course of such struggles, and must lead such struggles in a revolutionary direction. I frankly don't see how anybody can have the slightest doubt about this being Lenin's position (as well as that of Marx and Engels), or claim that somehow this position only came to dominate the Marxist-Leninist movement "after the years of Lenin's influence."

If the RCP wishes to oppose this point of view, they cannot claim the mantle of Lenin. Let them honestly admit that they are departing from the traditional view of Marx, Engels and Lenin, as well as admitting (as they already do) that they are departing from the position of the entire communist movement since Lenin's day and even their own previous viewpoint. I am not saying that we must never depart from Marx, Engels and Lenin; sometimes we do find that even what these great leaders of the proletariat had to say is wrong or outmoded. But the great bulk of the theoretical stands they took are still completely valid, and if we are to abandon their point of view on some particular issue (especially a "fundamental Marxist tactical principle"), it had better be on the basis of exhaustive thought and discussion. Pretending to be in agreement with the founders of revolutionary communism when we are not is the technique of revisionists, not honest revolutionaries.

Not only Marx, Engels and Lenin, stood behind this basic view of the day-to-day struggle, but so did Mao and his followers in China. In the famous Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China declared:

While actively leading immediate struggles, Communists in the capitalist countries should link them with the struggle for long-range and general interests, educate the masses in a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary spirit, ceaselessly raise their political consciousness and undertake the historical task of the proletarian revolution. If they fail to do so, if they regard the immediate movement as everything, determine their conduct from case to case, adapt themselves to the events of the day and sacrifice the basic interests of the proletariat, that is out-and-out social democracy.[15]

Back in 1976 the RCP itself expressed very well an important aspect of the point of view I am arguing for here:

No Party is fit to lead the masses, nor can it be in any position to determine what must be done and how to do it, unless it continually strengthens its ties with the masses and takes part, together with them, in the daily struggle against exploitation and oppression, and assists them in forging links between their struggles against the common enemy.[16]

I think the RCP needs to reaffirm and return to this principle—without, however, returning to some of the genuinely economist attitudes and policies that existed in the Party at that time.

The Fear of Following in Revisionist Footsteps

The attitude of the RCP about participating in the reformist day-to-day struggles of the masses is understandable, even though it is wrong. It is understandable because the Party is clearly determined to remain a revolutionary Party, and never succumb to the revisionist temptations that have destroyed so many once-revolutionary parties around the world during the past 100 years. It is this very determination, this revolutionary staunchness, that attracts me to the RCP, and which makes me hope that eventually they will correct the errors which I think I see in their line toward the masses.

It must also be noted that the RCP itself had a brush with right opportunism in its early years, which gave it quite a scare. I will discuss this struggle briefly in the last chapters of the book. Suffice it to say, for now, that the struggle with their own "Mensheviks" heightened the awareness of the genuine revolutionaries of the dangers on the right, and led to a rectification of the Party line. But unfortunately, the victorious revolutionaries in that struggle seem to have associated aspects of a correct mass perspective with the erroneous right opportunistic line which they vanquished.

This motive, the determination to remain on the revolutionary road, is indeed splendid. But the question arises as to whether it is possible to do so in the long run if you divorce yourself from the masses, even partially. There have been many communists and communist parties which started out being oh so revolutionary, ultra-revolutionary even, but which ended up flipping over into right opportunism when it finally became apparent that their line was leading to isolation from the masses.

There is a real dialectical contradiction between holding firmly to a revolutionary line and uniting with the masses who are not yet revolutionary in order to actually make a revolution. This is probably the central contradiction that a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist party faces and which it must constantly be concerned with. The final resolution of this contradiction occurs only with the completion of the world historical process of communist revolution. In the meanwhile, a fine balance is required, with constant adjustments. (For more on this, and the general topic of the contradictions which lie behind the mass line, see chapter 31.)

It is like going down into the Grand Canyon on a mule. It may seem that there is only one way to make a fatal mistake—to go over the edge on the right (to give up revolution). But actually, it is possible to try to hug the left wall of the canyon too tightly, and thus to slip and bounce off the supposedly safe canyon wall, finally careening over the right edge into oblivion. The mules which carry people down the canyon trails seem to instinctively know this, and have the apparently perverse (but actually intelligent) habit of walking along not the canyon side of the trail, but the precipice side (much to the consternation of their passengers). They are true dialecticians!

History has so far shown only two parties that have been able to balance the poles of this contradiction between revolutionary stance and mass perspective correctly for long enough to make a genuine socialist revolution, and then only as long as their primary leaders—both brilliant dialecticians—were alive (Lenin and Mao). It is evidently tough as hell to deal with this contradiction correctly. Even with the experience of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, it remains difficult for us today. It is a question that requires constant attention and thought by all communists and all revolutionaries.

The simple determination to remain revolutionary, no matter how tenacious, is not enough! To make a revolution you must unite with the struggling masses as well as remain tenaciously revolutionary. You must have a mass perspective as well as a revolutionary perspective. Either one without the other is ultimately worthless.

The fear of falling into right opportunism and economism is justified, and constant attention must be given to preventing this from ever happening to a revolutionary party. But if the fear goes so far as to prevent us from uniting with the masses in their actual struggles, it has become pathological. I see the RCP as having "the 'left'-sectarian flu". Even after more than 25 years it is not yet clear what the final outcome of that disease might be—whether there will be a recovery or if it will eventually prove fatal. But I think it is certainly serious enough to require the medicine of extensive ideological struggle.

Not All Reformist Struggle Is the Same

A while ago I was presenting my point of view to a friend of mine in the RCP, and gave an example of how in some cases the RCP seems to follow the prescription I am urging in general. The example was the struggle for abortion rights for women. I said that here is one place where the RCP seems to be not afraid to join up with a reformist struggle and strive to bring light into it...

At that point my RCP friend said, "But that's not a reformist struggle!" Well, of course the struggle to secure the right of women to have an abortion if they choose is indeed a struggle for a reform, it is certainly a reformist struggle. The whole system is not being directly challenged; just one little secondary aspect of it. The ruling class could give in on the issue without the resulting collapse of capitalism. But the fact that my friend, who is intelligent and well versed in the RCP point of view, did not see it that way is instructive, and in a way encouraging. Evidently what the RCP has primarily in mind by "reformist struggle" is economic struggle, or—perhaps even more limited—the sort of economic things that trade unions fight for (better wages, working conditions, etc.). Participating in other kinds of reformist struggle, such as abortion rights, anti-Ku Klux Klan struggles, anti-nuclear struggles, struggles for housing by the homeless, and so forth, is less "objectionable".

It is a very legitimate question to ask if specifically trade unionist struggle should be viewed and treated the same as other reformist struggle.

It is definitely wrong to imagine (as revisionists do) that trade union struggles are always central, or inherently more important than other reformist struggles, or that economic strikes are always the primary form of mass struggle (though this may be true during some periods). Any tendency towards such a view is a symptom of revisionism. The RCP correctly notes in its 1981 Programme that

the communist movement historically has been infected with a single-minded infatuation with the trade unions and in particular with the erroneous view that organizational leadership of the trade unions is a prerequisite for leading the proletarian revolution.[17]

Engels criticized such an infatuation with trade unions way back in 1879:

For a number of years past the English working-class movement has been hopelessly describing a narrow circle of strikes for higher wage and shorter hours, not, however, as an expedient or means of propaganda and organization but as the ultimate goal. The Trades Unions even bar all political action on principle and in their charters, thus excluding all participation in any general activity of the working class as a class.... One can therefore speak of a labor movement only in so far as strikes take place here, which, whether they are won or not, do not get the movement one step further. To inflate such strikes—..., strikes in which the working-class movement does not make the slightest headway—into struggles of world importance, as is done, for instance, in the Freiheit published here, can, in my opinion, only do harm.[18]

But note well that Engels is only arguing against viewing such reformist struggles as important in their own right. He is not arguing against using the opportunity provided by such trade union struggles for revolutionary propaganda and to build revolutionary mass organization. On the contrary, that is exactly what he is arguing for!

The question we are considering here is: From a revolutionary perspective, that is, from the point of view of what gains can be made in the direction of revolution, are trade union type economic struggles typically less important than other reformist struggles? The answer to this depends on the time and place. At present, in the U.S. I think the answer to this is yes, they are less important. But both the question and the answer are excessively mystifying and contentious when left like this.

What makes any struggle inherently (or immediately) important is whether or not it really affects the major interests of the masses involved—as well as, of course, the question of how many of the masses are involved. But what makes any struggle take on ultimate importance is not only whether it has an inherent importance itself, but also whether it helps prepare people for future struggles which are inherently important. Left to themselves, trade union struggles, like every other kind of reformist struggle, can rarely do this. But when communists and their allies among the advanced workers seize the opportunity to raise people's revolutionary consciousness, advance their independent proletarian organization, and so forth, then even struggles which are inherently unimportant can take on long-range significance.

(This point that some struggles which are inherently unimportant can nevertheless promote future struggles of inherent, and even ultimate, importance, is greatly underappreciated, even by people who consider themselves to be Marxists. Consequently I was astounded to find the following excellent remark in a book by a liberal, Robert F. Murphy, in the course of talking about the struggles of disabled people against uncaring government authorities: "The most lasting benefits of any struggle against perceived oppression are not the tangible gains but the transformations of consciousness of the combatants."[19] Of course Murphy did not have in mind a transformation to a specifically revolutionary consciousness, because—being a liberal—he wouldn't understand the central importance of revolution to satisfying the interests and needs of the people. But it's a very nice comment anyway.)

Thus the primary issue is not really how inherently important one kind of reformist struggle is vis-à-vis another kind of reformist struggle (though of course they vary in importance), but rather what is the potential for one kind, rather than another, to be of long-term significance once communist ideology is brought into it. And here we come to the crux of the matter. The primary determinant of whether or not a reformist struggle has the potential to be of long-range significance is how important it is seen to be at the time by the masses involved. (That, and once again, the number of people that are involved.) The subjective feelings of the masses about the ultimate importance of a reformist struggle may often be greatly exaggerated, but it is nevertheless the intensity of this subjective feeling which primarily lends the struggle the potential for being of long-term significance.

I don't deny that there are other, secondary, determinants of the real importance of a given struggle. One such, is the degree to which the reformist struggle is under the firm ideological sway of the bourgeoisie. But while this does vary, it is possible to exaggerate the importance of this variation. After all, every reformist struggle is more or less under the ideological sway of the bourgeoisie; otherwise it would be a conscious revolutionary struggle, not a reformist struggle. But it still comes down to the basic fact that a reformist struggle can be used to raise people's revolutionary consciousness.

The point, in short, is that if the masses really think it is important, it is important—though not necessarily for the reasons the masses believe. The more important the masses view a struggle to be, the more willing they will be to become deeply involved personally; the more anxious they will be to discuss questions of tactics and strategy; the more interested they will be in discussing the deeper questions like "how did we get into such a serious situation in the first place"; the more ready they will be to cast off aspects of bourgeois ideology which they have absorbed, but which seem now in the heat of battle to be worth questioning.

Thus, the kinds of reformist struggles with which revolutionaries should primarily concern themselves are those which the masses view as important, regardless of whether they are trade union struggles, other economic struggles, or non-economic issues. This is the fundamental principle here, and recognizing this principle is an important part of having a mass perspective.

So we come down to the question of whether the masses really view trade unionist economic struggles as all that important.

It is clear that some strikes and other trade union struggles are viewed as very important by the workers involved. But most strikes in recent decades have not been viewed as all that important even by the strikers themselves. It is not uncommon for strikers to view a strike as simply a short vacation, and many resent even the imposition of any token picketing duty which interrupts such a "vacation". Partly this dispiritedness and lack of militancy can be blamed on the bourgeois union leaders, who like all bourgeois representatives, go to great lengths to keep the workers "under control". But there is also a material basis for their lack of militancy. While almost all economic strikes do concern the interests of the workers, many of them are, in Lenin's words, about adding a kopek to a ruble (or, more likely these days, about subtracting a kopek from a ruble—or, in American terms, subtracting a penny from a dollar). Although people's interests are involved, they are typically not immediate life or death interests.

There are also a number of secondary factors which tend to reduce the significance of trade unionist economic struggles. Strikes, for example, in the advanced bourgeois democratic countries, can be originated relatively easily, and many of them these days are originated not by the workers at all but by the union leaders in order to make a pretense that they are fighting for the workers' interests. Many such strikes are merely called as a conscious prelude to a sell-out agreement, which might cause the workers to revolt against the union bosses if it were not for the token, discouraging strike, which thus becomes an integral part of the whole bourgeois bargaining process.

Many non-trade unionist reformist struggles, by contrast, are the direct creation of the masses, around issues of heart-felt concern to the masses. These kinds of reformist struggles, such as over abortion rights, opposition to imperialist wars, or racism, or police murders, or around homelessness, environmental issues, and so forth, are also subject to varying degrees of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois cooptation, but at present typically involve greater spontaneous participation by the masses, and considerably more mass enthusiasm (or outrage). Moreover, they tend to last far longer.

One other factor which limits the importance of trade union type struggles at the moment is the simple fact that these involve only a small section of the workers, and generally the most backward section at that, since it is the relatively well-off section. The percentage of the work force that even belongs to unions is very low and continuing to shrink, and few workers have been involved in new unionization drives in recent decades.

(Union membership continues to decline precipitously. In 1991 less than 12% of the workers in private industry were unionized, the lowest level since 1929. The peak was 36% in 1953. As of 2003 union membership in private industry was down to 8.2%. The percentage in the labor force as a whole, including government workers, was 12.9% in 2003. But unions of government workers are notoriously weak and ineffective.[20])

Only things the masses feel deeply about are relevant to the question of consciousness-raising. Where there is deep concern, there is the potential for revolutionary enlightenment. There is not deep concern by the workers in the average economic strike in America today. Typically they are token exercises, totally controlled by the usual sell-out leadership, but more to the point, viewed as routine exercises by the masses too. That might well change in the future; if in the midst of the next major economic depression the capitalists try to take away not a few kopeks from the ruble, not a few cents from the dollar, but a third of it, or half of it, then the issue becomes desperate. In a situation like that the attitudes of the workers involved are bound to become very intense, and not only will their level of militancy skyrocket, so will their openness to discussions about the nature of the whole system. Even today some economic strikes are like this, and where this is so it is criminal not to participate in them and take advantage of the opportunity to raise the consciousness of the workers involved.

But it must be admitted that today (1992), at least, most strikes and other trade unionist economic struggles in the U.S. (and the other advanced capitalist, i.e. imperialist, countries) are not like this. In so far as this is what the RCP is getting at in their Programme, they are absolutely correct. To get bogged down in inconsequential trade union struggles, which do not have the potential to be used by revolutionaries to raise people's consciousness, is in effect to say goodbye to the whole idea of revolution. That is out and out economism; out and out revisionism.

But on the other hand it is important to be very clear on why such struggles have such limited significance for revolutionaries today. It is not because such struggles are trade unionist. It is not because they are economic struggles. It is not because they are reformist struggles. It is because these are not serious struggles, it is because they are routine struggles which the masses themselves view as routine. It is for these kinds of reasons that the potential for using present-day trade union struggles to raise peoples revolutionary consciousness is so limited, and thus why such struggles are ultimately of little importance. If we don't understand the reasons why we can't make much headway in this area now, then we will certainly miss the opportunity to make headway when the situation changes and it actually becomes possible.

Lenin, who can hardly be accused of economism, was not above remarking about how the economic struggle of the workers is often extremely important. In 1907 he even said that "the whole history of the Russian revolution shows that all the powerful upsurges of the revolutionary movement began only on the basis of such economic movements".[21] On the basis of this, he argued that "the greatest possible number of Party members must be concentrated on economic agitation among the masses" and "this economic movement must be regarded as the main source and foundation of the entire revolutionary crisis that is developing in Russia".[22]

Of course that was then, and this is now. As I said before, the relative importance of economic struggle varies according to time and place. I am not trying to enshrine any absolutes here. But at the very least it is true to say that economic struggle is sometimes very important, and in many situations successful revolutionary work must be connected up with important economic struggles.

The Use of the Mass Line in Reformist Day-to-Day Struggles

The mass line does have a role to play in advancing the day-to-day struggles of the masses. But this should be viewed as meaning two things. First, it means that the mass line can and should be used to help lead such day-to-day struggles to victory, to achieve their original reformist ends. And second, it means that the mass line should also be used in the "diverting" of day-to-day struggles from being simply reformist struggles, into their also being revolutionary struggles.

The task of diverting the day-to-day reformist struggle in a revolutionary direction is not simply a question of employing agitation and propaganda in favor of revolution while engaging yourself in the day-to-day struggle. It is also a question of leadership, of leading the struggle in such a way that its ultimate focus is on the revolutionary goal. And as with all leadership, our basic tool is the mass line.

To give a simple trade-unionist example: Suppose there is a strike by workers in some industry, and the police are brought in to protect scabs. Not only should communists agitate on the role of the police in the class struggle, and the class nature of the state; to the degree possible in the situation, the struggle itself should be refocused against the police and the government. Of course the struggle must remain a struggle of the masses. We are not talking about replacing the reformist struggle of the masses with the "revolutionary" struggle of a small group of "heroes" or "provocateurs". And I'm not saying that the limited reformist aims of the strike should be forgotten. But to the maximum degree possible the larger aims of the workers' movement (revolution) should be made manifest.

It might be claimed that such a policy will result in most strikes and other reformist battles being lost, and that the workers will turn against us for sabotaging their struggles. It is not inconceivable that this might happen in some cases if the communist leadership is mishandled. But if the mass line is correctly used it will not happen. In the first place, most strikes and reformist battles are already being lost, and always will be under this system. Even where there are victories, the victories are limited and partial, in nearly every case, even in terms of their original reformist goals. This is something we should explain to the workers over and over again, as part of our educational work in explaining why revolution is necessary.

And in the second place, the best chance of winning even the original reformist goals comes in broadening, intensifying, and deepening the struggle. That is not the primary purpose of making the reformist struggle more militant and attempting to refocus it to the degree possible against the bourgeois system, but it is a welcome side effect.

The mass line is fundamentally a tool for the revolutionary leadership of the masses. The role of the second step in the procedure, the processing of the ideas of the masses in light of Marxist theory, is to ensure that this always remains the case. Even when the mass line is employed in reformist struggles, the primary object is not simply to win the reform (or head off the attack), but to advance the revolutionary struggle. It is possible to do this!

Let's sharpen things up just a bit more: The vast bulk of the struggles which lead up to revolution, which prepare the ground for revolution, are not overtly revolutionary struggles; on the contrary, they are struggles around reformist demands. In an advanced capitalist country, at least, openly revolutionary struggles—not only attempts at insurrection, but also armed confrontations with the authorities—before the conditions are well prepared, are usually ill-advised and counter-productive.

But how can reformist struggles prepare the ground for revolution? People who still ask this question just cannot grasp the point of Marxist tactics (or actually, strategy) at all! The ground is prepared for revolution through mass reformist struggles by changing the ideology of the masses engaged in those struggles. The immediate struggles are still reformist in their essence, but when light is brought into them, a new revolutionary goal can arise in the minds of the masses. There is no mystery to this.

This process of the masses learning the need for revolution through their day-to-day struggle is so basic that we may safely say that there will never be a real revolution in an advanced capitalist country where this has not occurred. In the period before the seizure of power, the most important sphere for the application of agitation and propaganda is in the context of the masses' existing struggles. The same goes for the mass line. Agitation will be far more effective when the agitators themselves have joined the masses' struggle. And of course, it is impossible to apply the mass line method of leadership to the struggles of the masses, and help point them in a revolutionary direction, if you renounce any participation or leadership in those struggles to begin with. Thus the two major tools the vanguard has available to turn the day-to-day struggles of the masses in a revolutionary direction, namely agitation & propaganda and the mass line, are both vitiated if the party abandons any direct participation in the day-to-day reformist struggles of the masses.

This also is a way of abandoning revolution, even if it is inadvertent.


[1] Marx & Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party" (1848), MECW 6:518-9.

[2] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, New Programme and New Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1981), p. 41.

[3] Ibid., pp. 41-44.

[4] Ibid., p. 44.

[5] Lenin, "Political Sophisms" (May 18, 1905), LCW 2:427.

[6] RCP, op. cit., p. 44.

[7] Lenin, LCW 26:103.

[8] Lenin, "Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party", LCW 2:112.

[9] Lenin, "Our Programme" (1899), LCW 4:212.

[10] Lenin, "A Retrograde Trend in Russian Social-Democracy" (1899), LCW 4:283.

[11] Lenin, "Guerrilla Warfare" (Sept. 30, 1906), LCW 11:213-4.

[12] Lenin, quoted in Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: A Manual (Moscow: FLPH, 1961), pp. 419-420.

[13] Lenin, Karl Marx (Peking: FLP, 1970), p. 43. This long and careful article was originally written by Lenin for an encyclopedia in 1914, and was published as a pamphlet in 1918.

[14] In the English edition of Lenin's Collected Works, 4th ed., the sentence reads "The Communist Manifesto advanced a fundamental Marxist principle on the tactics of the political struggle". [LCW 21:71] Note the 'a' rather than 'the'. I don't know which translation is better, or if (as I suspect) the choice is somewhat arbitrary due to the absence of the definite/indefinite article distinction in Russian. In any case, it is very clear that Lenin completely approved of the passage in question.

[15] A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement (The letter of June 14, 1963, of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in reply to the letter of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of March 30, 1963), (Peking: FLP, 1963), p. 19.

[16] Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 2.

[17] RCP, New Programme and New Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (1981), p. 44.

[18] Engels, draft of letter to Eduard Bernstein (June 17, 1879), MESC, pp. 300-301.

[19] Robert F. Murphy, The Body Silent (NY: W. W. Norton, 1987), p. 157.

[20] San Francisco Examiner, April 19, 1992. The figures for 2003 are from the San Francisco Chronicle, March 10, 2004.

[21] Lenin, "Draft Resolutions for the 5th Congress of the R.S.D.L.P." (Feb.-March, 1907), LCW 12:142.

[22] Lenin, ibid.

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