The whole point of the first two steps of the mass line—gathering the ideas of the masses, and then processing or concentrating them—is to come up with a political line which may then be returned to the masses to lead them in their struggle. As Stalin said, "A correct political line is not needed as a declaration, but as something to be carried into effect."
The basic reasons why it is necessary to return the line to the masses are that:
1) Only the masses can make use of the line to change society; and
2) If no line is returned to the masses then no guidance is given to the masses, and whatever spontaneous activity the masses may engage in will be blind, and far less likely to be successful.
As I stated earlier, the matter is simple: on the one hand the masses are the makers of history, but on the other hand the masses need leadership.
There is one further purpose in taking the line back to the masses, however, and that is to test the correctness of the line itself—to see if it actually works, and to what extent. As Mao put it:
Only through the practice of the people, that is, through experience, can we verify whether a policy is correct or wrong and determine to what extent it is correct or wrong. But people's practice, especially the practice of a revolutionary party and the revolutionary masses, cannot but be related to one policy or another. Therefore, before any action is taken, we must explain the policy, which we have formulated in the light of the given circumstances, to Party members and to the masses.
Returning the line to the masses is, in an overall sense, the agitational step in the technique of the mass line. But it in itself is typically a fairly elaborate process, with steps or stages of its own.
Taking the concentrated line back to the masses means promulgating it broadly and deeply. But before the line can be successfully promulgated among the masses, it must be promulgated within the party itself.
A line is set and implemented by the party, but it is normally a leadership body within the party that sets the line (based on the application of the mass line both within and beyond the party), while it must be the whole party that implements it (or at least the whole party in the region or area of work in question). The members of the party cannot implement a line they do not understand and support. So the line must be fully discussed within the party, and all party members—especially those in closest contact with the masses—must be able to ask questions and seek clarifications about it and how it is to be implemented. The discussion should continue until there is general understanding, general support, and general enthusiasm for the line within the party.
In saying that the whole party needs to support the new line, one point should be clarified. One of the tenets of democratic centralism is that individual party members have the right to their own personal views and the right to privately disagree with aspects of the line of the party. But democratic centralism also requires that when individual members disagree with a line they still must be committed to supporting it among the masses. They may in some cases not privately support a line themselves, but they must publicly support it, show public enthusiasm for it, and work for its success. This is often hard, but it can be done. (More on this in chapter 29.)
Once the whole party is firmly behind the new line, fully understands it, and firmly and enthusiastically supports it, then the line must be taken back to the masses.
Taking the line back to the masses means first explaining it to them, getting them to really understand it. It means getting them to understand how the line will help them solve a problem facing them, and how it will help them achieve a goal that they wish to achieve.
You might imagine that a political party, whose whole reason for existence is to lead the masses, would be pretty good at returning a concentrated political line to the masses. And yet it is surprising how superficially and poorly done this often is. The RCP spoke to this when they said:
This problem—of failing to explain, even to the advanced workers, lines,
policies, actions, etc. that the Party has taken up—this is a real problem in
developing the struggle in this country today, a basic question of method for
the Party, as the vanguard of the working class. Failing to explain what is
to be done does not mean that people are not told about this or that event,
or are not asked—even urged—to take part. The problem is that the line
on which the action, policy, etc. is based, is not gone into, or gone into
only in a shallow way.
Taking the processed line back to the masses in this way will be especially difficult, and probably impossible, for the party if it has not integrated its members into the life and existing struggles of the masses it is attempting to lead.
One of the main tasks in taking the concentrated line back to the masses is to win over as many of them as possible to support it and act on it. The reason is of course obvious; the larger the fraction of the masses which support a line the better the chances of success for the line, the better the chances of achieving the desired goal. Similarly, the more enthusiastically the masses support a line, the better its chances of success. "When the masses are of one heart, everything becomes easy." (Mao) Of course the masses will never be totally, 100%, of one heart at the beginning or in the midst of struggle. Afterwards, in retrospect, essentially everybody may be in agreement that a line or policy was correct after all, but almost never will this be true at the time the line is first promulgated. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the line turns out to be wrong the leaders should be very thankful that among the masses there are some alternative ideas on how to proceed, which can be concentrated with another application of the mass line. But while we recognize that not everyone can really be brought to totally support a line when it is first promulgated, that is the thing to aim for in order to give the line the best chance of success.
As always in our agitation and propaganda among the masses, getting the masses to support a line should not be viewed as preaching or "forcing something down their throats". Instead, it is a matter of showing them how the line will help them solve the serious problems that confront them, of showing them how the line is in their interests. It means relating the line to their own experiences and situation. It means explaining why things should be done this way and not that way. It means answering every question they have about the line, and going over it in as much detail as the masses wish, until they are satisfied.
If it turns out that this cannot be done, that we can't get the masses to understand, agree with, and act on a line, then the line will fail, and the mass line method will have to be used again to come up with a line that the masses can understand, support, and put into practice. But party members must always remember that every line that the party goes to the trouble of trying to implement among the masses has some serious thought behind it and should be given a chance to prove its worth. Consequently, even if there is initially some resistance—even substantial resistance—among the masses to the line, the effort should continue and perhaps be intensified for a while. If a line is wrong, be assured that this will eventually become obvious. The immediate danger, though, is that a correct line will fail because it is not being propagated among the masses seriously and intensively.
Taking the line back to the masses means giving the line a fair test. The success or failure of the line cannot be evaluated properly if the line was not first implemented properly.
There is an interesting passage in Ray Ginger's book about the Scope's "monkey trial" that is worth considering. True, Ginger has a narrow bourgeois democratic viewpoint here, but try to think in broader terms as you read the following:
The voting records in American elections suggest on their face that a majority almost never exists, that most people are not concerned enough to vote. If we do not stop at counting heads, but seek to gauge the strength of feelings in the several hearts, the point becomes stronger. It seems possible that there has been no issue in our politics in this century, not even the decisions on entry into World Wars I and II, that moved a majority of the American people to clear-cut and deeply held convictions. The point becomes stronger yet if we realize that most people hold opinions that point to conflicting decisions on most questions.... These thoughts are all present in one man, all are relevant to the issue, but they are not all active. Which ones become active depends on the leadership he is subjected to.
Now forget bourgeois elections, let alone the hypothetical religious and patriotic views of a "typical" American (which I excised), and think instead about the more basic points:
First, we see agreement with Mao's view that there is really no such thing as uniformity of public opinion. This is good to remember when taking any line to the masses, even one which was developed from the ideas of (some of) the masses to begin with. And because of this lack of uniformity, both the initial and the later reactions of different people to the line will of course vary enormously. Some may well exclaim, "Well, that's what I've been saying all along!" Other initial responses may range from "Great idea!" to "That'll never work." Here is where applying the subsidiary method of leadership, the single spark method, can be very useful as a means of overcoming widespread initial doubts.
And some backward people will not be won over at all. That should not worry us. On the other hand, neither should we take the possible enthusiasm of a just a tiny handful of people to be general enthusiasm. We must be prepared for various reactions to our line from the masses, and not let the initial negative reactions of some destroy our own enthusiasm, nor, in the other case, let the enthusiasm of a tiny few cause us to take leave of our senses.
Second, we should note well the point that even within many individuals there will be internal conflicts about the wisdom or workability of the line. Most people with doubts will probably be inclined to simply stand aside and watch—at least until the line starts to show them some positive results. But it is well to remember that even many who continue to oppose the line may have internal conflicts which might allow them to be won over later. And on the other hand, even many who support the line and try to put it into effect may also have some doubts, which could lead them to back out later if things do not go well. We must remember our basic principle of dialectics, that there is contradiction everywhere, and try to turn that to our advantage rather than our disadvantage.
Third, we should recognize that many among the masses are rather easily swayed by those whom they view as (more or less) legitimate leaders. This strongly works against us when the authority and leadership of the bourgeois state and media is still very strong. On the other hand, when that authority and leadership starts to break down—even if only on a single issue—it may suddenly become vastly easier for independent mass organizations and the revolutionary party to provide leadership. This is one of the factors that leads to sudden qualitative leaps in the situation.
In socialist society, this factor should generally make revolutionary leadership of the masses easier than we usually find it to be in bourgeois society. Strangely enough, at times it can become "too easy"! In other words, it is sometimes possible for the masses to blindly follow the proletarian party when it makes a rash move. This can lead to disillusionment and loss of respect for the party, and all kinds of other problems. Mao even suggested using the occasional technique of "reverse propaganda" (emphasizing the possible drawbacks and difficulties in some proposed plan), so that the masses genuinely know what they are getting into and are less likely to be put off by initial difficulties.
Taking the line back to the masses should be viewed as an experiment, an experiment which may fail or succeed. (Of course we have some reasonable expectation that it will succeed or we wouldn't try it at all.) If it succeeds, then well and good, and on to the next goal or problem. If it fails, partially or totally, then the mass line procedure must start over from the beginning.
Partial success may be in some locales but not others, or in some respects but not others. If the line is successful some places but not in other places, then obviously an analysis needs to be made to explain this difference. We need to figure out for example if the difference is due to varying local conditions, or to mistakes by some local party branches, or what. If it is just a question of mistakes being made some places, then of course it will be necessary to correct those mistakes, perhaps with additional directions, education and training, perhaps with work teams and help from elsewhere, or perhaps with local personnel changes in extreme cases.
If the partial success is a matter of being successful in some respects, but not in others (rather than in some places but not others), then again an analysis needs to be made to try to explain this. The most likely explanation is that more than one goal was being tackled at once, and one such goal was achieved, while other goals were not. If it is the primary goal that is achieved, then the application of the mass line in this case may be appropriately judged to be successful in the main. If it is only a subsidiary, or lesser goal, then we would have to judge that the line is unsuccessful in the main, even though something useful is accomplished.
This can also be put in terms of (dialectical) contradictions. In any situation there is always a primary contradiction, and our primary goal is to resolve that contradiction. If we do so then our efforts have been successful in the main, even if other (lesser or subsidiary) contradictions remain to be resolved. On the other hand, if only a lesser contradiction is resolved, we had better re-analyze the situation to determine what the primary contradiction we face is, and how we can use the mass line to resolve it.
But even a complete failure of the line to achieve our goal should not be viewed as a total waste of time or a total disaster, because we have also learned something. Failure is a teacher, and really is not such a bad thing if we can then proceed to make use of the lesson. When we say that after a failure we must start the full application of the mass line all over from the beginning, we are not at all saying that we are back to square one. Both the leaders and the masses have new experience and new ideas to contribute and consider, that neither could have had before.
One more thing must be repeated here: The appraisal of a line can only be valid if the line was given a fair test, if it was thoroughly implemented. Before deciding that a line has really failed, totally or in part, we must be reasonably certain that the failure was not simply one of half-hearted or otherwise ineffective implementation of the line.
I said above that returning the line to the masses should be considered an experiment. Various kinds of experiments are possible in social science (despite the bourgeois doubts on this score), and some kinds of experiments are more rational and more likely of success than others. The best social experiments are those based on the mass line.
The primary sense in which the mass line is experimental in its approach is that when we return the concentrated, processed line to the masses we are doing so in order to see whether or not it is successful in advancing the revolutionary struggle. If it is not, the experiment is redesigned and rerun, through another application of the mass line.
But experimentation can be involved in the mass line process in other ways as well. When a line is put into effect—whether it is the result of the previous application of the mass line (hopefully), or not—there will inevitably be variations on how it is done from place to place and from time to time. These variable applications of a line also amount to an experiment. Some of these variations will be more successful than others, and if we compare the results in the better cases against the poorer ones, we can learn something. Sometimes it is even desirable to encourage such variation, or to encourage each locality to come up with "variations on the theme". It may be useful to stage "competitions" of sorts, as to which unit or which locality can come up with the best methods and results. All this is a matter of giving party members and the masses a free hand to demonstrate their creativity. The very best methods are then held up for emulation in the further application of the mass line.
The lessons learned from such variations in the application of a line are often of immediate value, as well as of value in the next overall application of the mass line. The appraisal of the degree of success of the line when it is returned to the masses is not something that is just done when the process is complete—though of course the final summation should be done at that time. The returning of the line to the masses is itself a distinct process that takes a period of time and usually will involve a variety of separate tasks and perhaps even stages. During this entire period and process, the leadership needs to monitor how things are going, and needs to appraise things constantly while they are still in progress. This will allow shifts and adjustments—fine tuning if you will—which will help to minimize or prevent errors that otherwise would occur. Any complex social or biological process requires feedback while underway to help guide it.
Another, more profound, way of expressing the above is to say that the mass line also needs to be applied to smaller subsidiary processes and goals within its application to a larger process or goal. (This is yet another dialectical aspect of the mass line.) Or again, from another point of view, the monitoring process should also be an example of combining the general with the particular, since the leaders cannot monitor the implementation of a line with equal attention in all locations. One, or a few, locations must be monitored especially closely, in conjunction with a general overall monitoring.
While the role of experimentation in the application of the mass line is important and needs to be stressed (as well as the nature of the mass line as itself a means of experimentation), not all social experimentation can be considered to be bound up with the mass line or necessarily conducive to it. In fact, it is even possible to use calls for experimentation as a means of opposing the mass line and mass struggle, or at least slowing it down unjustifiably. This was one of Liu Shaoqi's favorite tricks.
Here is one example: During the 1950s, Mao and the CPC advanced the collectivization of Chinese agriculture through a number of stages and by means of a number of applications of the mass line. The result of all this was a great nationwide experiment with various different degrees and forms of collectivization. Then Mao and the Party used the mass line again to select the very best of these forms as the model for the nationwide implementation of the people's communes. At this point, after all the experimentation that had already gone on and had already been appropriately summed up, Liu Shaoqi tried to stop the advance to people's communes by calling for a very slow, gradual, piecemeal approach—more experimentation! He argued that
We must not set up too many [communes] at one stroke and go too fast. We should first conduct experiments to create the models and then gradually set them up in a well-prepared, methodical and orderly manner, by separate stages and groups.... The practice of daring to think, speak and act should not be followed on a nationwide scale but should be carried out in a small scope with typical experiments conducted first.
Were there some errors made because of the simultaneous, nationwide introduction of the people's communes? Sure. Was there also a great and extremely important social advance? Sure. Was the success primary and were the mistakes easily corrected? Sure. In retrospect, was it right to introduce the people's communes in such a big way? Yes, it sure was. It was a most expeditious, and successful socialist transformation of rural society. And keep in mind that even if the process had been stretched out for decades there still would have been some mistakes made, and probably far more than were made Mao's way. That's assuming the change would and could have been accomplished at all if it had been slowed to a snail's pace. Often it is necessary to strike when the time is ripe, if you really want to accomplish something, and especially if you want to enable the masses to accomplish something. Furthermore, as Mao said, "In any task, if no general and widespread call is issued, the broad masses cannot be mobilized for action." Liu's small-scale, snail's pace approach is not a mass approach, and real Marxists believe that it is the masses who are the makers of history.
Besides the fact that Liu was obviously foot dragging and really using the call for experimentation as a convenient way of opposing the people's communes, there is something else wrong here—the emphasis on small scale experimentation. What is needed for a successful large scale change is some pretty extensive, large scale experimentation by the masses themselves. As Mao put it in his classic 1943 formulation of the principles of the mass line:
Formulate general ideas (general calls) out of the particular guidance given in a number of cases, and put them to the test in many different units (not only doing so yourself, but by telling others to do the same); then concentrate the new experience (sum it up) and draw up new directives for the guidance of the masses generally.
The procedure is thus to go step by step from one or a few individual cases, to small scale experimentation, to medium or large scale experimentation, and general implementation. To keep things always on a level of small-scale experimentation is to sabotage and abort the social change.
Mass movements need to be implemented on the broadest possible front—but only after some tests are done on smaller fronts. "The principle of doing everything on as broad a front as possible is good provided you know where you are going..." (Bertolt Brecht)
At one time the Communist Party of China used the phrase dian-xian-mian ("point-line-plane") to describe this progression of a mass movement. As the bourgeois Sinologist John Bryan Starr describes it:
A campaign was begun, nominally at the instigation of the masses themselves, on a small scale, at a "point"—a few experimental cases usually run where conditions were favorable for the success of the experiment. On the basis of the results of this experimentation, details of the campaign would be determined. The campaign would then be launched on a modest scale, extending the point to a line. Modifications to the procedures of the campaign and sometimes even to its goals would be made on the basis of the results of this initial implementation. Following those modifications the campaign would be launched on a nationwide basis, thereby moving from line to plane.
This is actually a very sensible procedure if it is really followed. But it is important to remember that there are two ways of going wrong here. It is certainly possible to be too rash in the implementation of mass campaigns, to implement them, that is, without careful consideration, planning, experimentation, feedback and guidance. But it is also possible to sabotage and destroy a mass campaign by too much "guidance", by not giving the masses a chance to act on their own behalf and in their own way, by limiting the size and scope of mass activity, and by forever seeking to keep things cool and calm, and "under control". After the Liu Shaoqi bunch managed to substantially undercut the Socialist Education Campaign by these methods, and then interfere with the development of the Cultural Revolution, the Maoists evidently decided not to use the "point-line-plane" analogy any more. The concept had become somewhat discredited by the use to which it was put by the reactionaries. This is unfortunate, but when a slogan or policy which starts out being correct is given a reactionary interpretation, it may need to be dropped if it cannot be rehabilitated.
First, for the benefit of those who may not have had the relevant experience in mathematics or computer programming, let me say briefly what recursion is. Recursion is the continued repetition of the same operation or group of operations, each step (after the first) making use of the results of the previous step, until the solution to the problem is obtained. Each of these steps in the overall process is also known as an "iteration". Recursion can also be viewed as a technique for solving a big problem by first solving a series of smaller versions of the same problem, starting with the smallest and working up to the biggest. But this "ever larger" aspect of recursion, though common, is not essential to the concept.
The mass line is best considered as a recursive technique since in general more than one application of it is necessary in order to fully resolve a problem or achieve a goal. Why? Mao explains this from a philosophical point of view in "On Practice", in a passage which I partially quoted in an earlier chapter:
...generally speaking, whether in the practice of changing nature or of changing society, men's original ideas, theories, plans or programmes are seldom realized without any alteration. This is because people engaged in changing reality are usually subject to numerous limitations; they are limited not only by existing scientific and technological conditions but also by the development of the objective process itself and the degree to which this process has become manifest (the aspects and the essence of the objective process have not yet been fully revealed). In such a situation, ideas, theories, plans or programmes are usually altered partially and sometimes even wholly, because of the discovery of unforeseen circumstances in the course of practice. That is to say, it does happen that the original ideas, theories, plans or programmes fail to correspond with reality either in whole or in part and are wholly or partially incorrect. In many instances, failures have to be repeated many times before errors in knowledge can be corrected and correspondence with the laws of the objective process achieved, and consequently before the subjective can be transformed into the objective, or in other words, before the anticipated results can be achieved in practice.
And this is true even when the mass line is used. Using the mass line improves our chances for a successful first shot, especially when the goal is a subsidiary one, or relatively simple. And using the mass line repeatedly is our best means of achieving our major revolutionary social goals. (Indeed, in reality, our only effective means of achieving them.)
One final point about recursion. In computer programming you usually have the choice of using recursion or not using it. And as specialists in computer algorithms are well aware, a recursive algorithm is seldom the most efficient method (in terms of time and computer resources) of solving a problem. In light of this, someone might wonder if the recursive iteration of the mass line is the most efficient method of achieving revolutionary goals, or if there is some way that this whole technique could be transformed into a more efficient non-recursive process.
I wouldn't say that this is totally inconceivable in all situations, but there are several things to be said against the idea. First, recursion is inefficient primarily because of the rapid growth in processing overhead as the number of iterations gets very large. A recursive computer algorithm that iterates thousands and thousands of times can sometimes be very inefficient indeed. But in the case of the mass line we are never talking about thousands of iterations. Typically the number of iterations required to achieve some particular social goal is very small, just a few—and often only a single go-round is necessary.
Second, and more fundamentally, the overall algorithm here is extremely simple. Here
1. Use the mass line to try to achieve a revolutionary goal.
2. If not completely successful, go to step 1 again.
Almost all the time and effort involved in this process comes in step 1, each iterative application of the mass line. True, we could elaborate on this algorithm a bit, listing the three steps involved in the mass line technique, etc. But the point is that any improvement in the overall efficiency here cannot come in tinkering with the overall algorithm unless that somehow means eliminating the application of the mass line and replacing it with something else entirely. If anybody has any good ideas on this score I would be glad to hear them.
The situation is this: What we know how to do, what we know sometimes works, is to apply the mass line. We do not have any other fundamental leadership procedure; all the other leadership techniques are strictly subsidiary to the mass line (see chapter 13). When an application of the mass line fails, what else is there to do but to apply it again on a higher basis, that is, taking account of what we have learned from the failure of the first application?
And finally, it must be said that the bulk of the algorithms which have been investigated in computer science so far are straightforward representations of procedures in formal logic. The investigations into algorithms appropriate to different kinds of computer architectures, such as neural networks, is just beginning, and it is these kinds of architectures that are more appropriate to the solution of most human problems. I strongly suspect that people will find that with some of these more complex architectures the race will not always be to the non-recursive implementations. In fact, I dare say that in many cases non-recursive implementations will be impossible to come up with.
As we have seen the main point in using the mass line is to discover those correct and vital ideas of the masses which can move the revolutionary process forward. The mass line "works", is effective, because it enables the revolutionary leadership to do just that. The leadership learns some important things from the masses about how to advance the struggle, things it did not already know. Thus the effectiveness of the leadership, and therefore also the mass movement under that leadership, is greatly enhanced. However, there are some other reasons why the mass line is effective too.
We can bring out one of these reasons by first considering the following words of Lenin:
At the beginning of the struggle it took only a few thousand genuinely revolutionary workers to warrant talk of the masses. If the party succeeds in drawing into the struggle not only its own members, if it also succeeds in arousing non-party people, it is well on the way to winning the masses.
The point here is that if whatever the party is saying and doing wins over some of the masses it will most likely be effective in winning over more of the masses if persevered in. It is a test of the effectiveness of the ideas of the party in gripping the masses to see if they have already gripped some of the masses. This applies to ideas which come directly from Marxist theory as well as those which come first from the masses and which are then processed with the aid of Marxist theory. (Of course, much of Marxist theory came originally from the ideas of the masses too, if you look at it from a historical point of view.)
But the point to be emphasized here is that ideas which have already—in some way or other, spontaneously or otherwise—been adopted by some of the masses are just those ideas which stand the best chance of being adopted by the majority. The mass line starts from these ideas which have already shown some effectiveness in gripping the masses. (Sometimes, it is true, it is only a very few people, or even a single person, who contributes the idea that is eventually concentrated via the mass line. But more frequently this idea is share by many more people, sometimes even a rather sizable fraction of the masses.) Of course the revolutionary leadership weeds out many of these ideas in the light of Marxist theory and the study of the objective conditions which the masses face. But those ideas which remain after this concentration process is complete are still from the stock of ideas which has shown at least some effectiveness in gripping the masses. Not only are these concentrated ideas correct and vital and capable of moving the revolutionary struggle forward if and when they are adopted by the masses, there is in many cases already good reason to believe that these ideas will be readily adopted by the masses, given the appropriate work by the party.
All this then is another reason why the party becomes more effective in leading the masses to the extent it uses the mass line. It is another reason why the mass line works. And there are others besides.
Emerson wrote that "There needs but one wise man in a company and all are wise, so rapid is the contagion." Emerson was more or less hostile to the masses, and tended to glorify the "great man", as you can see in this quotation. But the remark can be reinterpreted as an illustration of yet another reason why the mass line works. The good ideas of one person (or a few) are recognized, concentrated, and then propagated amongst the broad masses. The masses can and do recognize good and appropriate ideas as good and appropriate, just as a room full of people engaged in a common enterprise recognize a good idea when they hear it. Though it is genuinely difficult to come up with new ideas about how to advance the situation, it is much easier to recognize those ideas when you hear them. This goes for both "great men" and the masses.
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