The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

31. What Contradictions Does the Mass Line Resolve?

There is contradiction (dialectical contradiction) everywhere in the world, and that certainly goes for the masses as it does for every individual among the masses, and also for our relationships with the masses. The scientific Marxist view is not to be afraid of such contradictions, to pretend they don't exist, or to fear the masses, but to learn the methods of resolving these contradictions in a revolutionary way. The mass line is a very important method for accomplishing this.

The mass line may be viewed as a method of resolving a variety of related contradictions, depending upon how abstract our analysis is, which aspects of the topic we focus on, and so forth. To insist that just one of these contradictions must be selected as "the" (only) contradiction which the mass line is designed to resolve would be foolish. It would be just as foolish as to claim that proletarian revolution resolves the contradiction between the social nature of capitalist production and private capitalist appropriation rather than the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Both things are true; these are simply different levels of analysis.

Thus, we may say that the mass line exists in order to resolve (or help resolve) the following contradictions (among others):

*    *    *

I hope you noticed that to a large degree the above contradictions blend into one another; they are all getting at more or less the same thing, or aspects of the same overall thing.

Let's briefly discuss several of these contradictions and their connections with the mass line.

The Broad, Overall Contradictions

The contradictions in the first group in the above list (before the three stars) represent the broad, overall perspectives, the philosophical and political perspectives, the basic revolutionary perspectives on the mass line. The first one on the list, the contradiction between our present ignorance and the need to discover the exact path to revolution, is of course closely related to the Marxist theory of knowledge which was discussed in the previous chapter. The only thing to note here is that by "our present ignorance" I am referring to both the ignorance of the party and of the masses as a whole as to how exactly to proceed towards revolution. The party and the masses together can discover the path, but many parts of the path are at present unknown, remain to be discovered through practice.

The second contradiction is the one between the need for revolution, and the masses' lack of understanding of this need. It was well expressed by the RCP back in 1976:

Objectively, society can only advance at this stage through revolution by the proletariat. But such a revolution can only be made by the determined action of millions. Such a revolution is inevitable, it must and will occur. But this will only happen as the masses—and first and foremost the masses of workers—become convinced of the necessity, of the inevitability of the overthrow and elimination of capitalism.
      How to resolve this contradiction—the answer to this lies in the application of the mass line by the Party of the working class.[1]

This is looking at the big picture, and of course that is exactly what the RCP had in mind here—to get us to look at the big picture, the role of the mass line in the revolutionary endeavor, rather than simply as a leadership tool good for leadership in any direction whatsoever, perhaps even more away from revolution than toward it.

The third contradiction on the list—between the need for a revolutionary attitude and program, and the need to win the support of the masses—is in effect a restatement of the previous contradiction, except that it explicitly mentions the dichotomy between the party and the masses. The fourth contradiction—between the real interests of the masses and their perceived interests—once again gets at the same basic problem: the masses do not yet see the need for revolution because they do not clearly understand their own real, long-term interests, and what must be done to satisfy those interests. The fifth contradiction—between the leadership and the led—is again essentially the same as the third in its intended import, though its brevity is won through the loss of an explicit reminder of the revolutionary point of our leadership work.

The Contradiction Between the Leadership and the Led

This contradiction may well be viewed as the most concise statement of the basic contradiction behind the mass line. But, once again, it is important that the whole revolutionary point of the mass line, and leadership work in general, is not lost sight of when using short-hand expressions like this.

What is the nature of this contradiction between the leadership and the led? To say that there is a contradiction is to say that there is a difference, i.e., that there are two poles, and moreover, that there is a struggle between these two poles. But the nature of such struggles vary tremendously from one contradiction to another. In some cases the struggles are typically gentle and restrained, and can be resolved harmoniously. In other cases, the struggles are very antagonistic and can only be resolved through the forcible suppression of one pole by the other. In the case of the abstract contradiction between the leadership and the led, the nature of the struggle, and thus the nature of the specific contradiction, depends on a variety of factors. But the prime determinant is just what class the leaders represent and just which class or classes are being led. If the leaders represent one class (such as the bourgeoisie) and the led are members of other classes (such as the proletariat and its allies), then the contradiction between the leaders and the led is inevitably an antagonistic one, at least ultimately. (In talking about dialectical contradictions, 'antagonism' means irreconcilability; one pole must suppress or overpower the other.)

On the other hand, if the leaders and the led are from the same class (or the same group of allied classes), and represent the same overall class interests, there will still be struggles, but they will generally be much milder, and quite possible to resolve in a harmonious, nonantagonistic way. Thus the contradiction between the leaders and the led within the people's movement is of an entirely different character than the contradiction between bourgeois "leaders" and the masses they lead.

However, the thing to be emphasized at present is not the possibility of harmoniously resolving contradictions between the leaders and the led within the people's movement, but rather the existence of actual contradictions even there, actual struggle between the two. Revisionists always deny that such contradictions exist, and only those—like Mao—who genuinely do represent the people's actual interests, dare to admit that there is in fact a form of struggle between the leaders and the led.

One of the reasons for this struggle (as I will discuss further in the next section) is simply that people do not always recognize their own class interests. And, in particular, those with more understanding of the people's long-term interests will inevitably find themselves opposed by those with less of an understanding. Thus the proletarian party, which is the vanguard of the class and the masses, and which has in general a deeper understanding of the masses' predicament and the basic solution to that predicament (revolution), will find a lot of opposition from those among the masses who are filled with illusions about "easier paths". The Party will have to struggle with these backward masses to get them to understand the things it understands. There is just no way around this fact.

Even step three of the mass line method, taking the advanced ideas of the few back to the broad masses, is in fact a form of struggle between the Party and the masses. It is an ideological struggle, and it should be a friendly and respectful struggle, but it is still a struggle, and a serious one at that. It is serious because it is important.

One of the ways of downplaying the importance of struggle among the masses, within the revolutionary movement, and within the Party itself, is to always focus single-mindedly on the necessity of unity—while conveniently forgetting that true unity must arise through struggle. Even many Maoists, and nominally Maoist organizations, seem to have great difficulty understanding this, despite what Mao himself had to say about it:

To talk all the time about unity, and never about struggle, is not Marxism. Unity must go through struggle before [higher] unity can be attained. This is the same within the ranks of the Party, class or people. Unity transforms into struggle and again into unity. One cannot talk about unity alone without talking about struggles and contradictions. The Soviet Union does not talk about contradictions between the leadership and the led. Without contradictions and struggles, there will [would] be no world, no development, no life, no anything.[2]

There is not only struggle within the masses, among the people, and within the Party; there is also struggle between the Party and the masses. Such struggle is not a bad thing, but a good thing, as long as it is does not become antagonistic. It will not become antagonistic as long as the Party genuinely works in the real interests of the masses, and continually explains to the masses how it is doing so.

There are other reasons for struggle between the Party and the masses, and, moreover, it should not be assumed that the Party is always correct in these struggles and the masses are always wrong. While the Party has a better overall understanding of the road forward, it is often at a loss as to what the very next step should be (or worse yet, is outright mistaken about the best way to proceed). And, as we have seen, the mass line exists in large part to enable the masses to guide the Party itself on questions like this. Perhaps most of the masses will have various erroneous notions about what to do, or will be at a loss themselves. But there will always be some people who have good ideas about what to do, and step one of the mass line method amounts to a struggle with the Party to enlighten the Party itself, so that it can in turn enlighten the rest of the masses.

And actually, the Party also needs to struggle with itself to learn how to learn from the masses, and to always continue to do so.

The Contradiction Between the Real Interests of the Masses and Their Perceived Interests

Unfortunately people are not completely aware of their own interests, either as individuals or as a class. This is especially true of their ultimate, long-term interests. And it is also especially true of the "lower" classes, and largely explains why they can be oppressed and exploited for long periods by the ruling class.

Because of this contradiction a curious, and potentially depressing, situation often arises. A political party which truly champions the real, ultimate interests of the masses may find little support from the masses. And on the other hand, various opportunist (or even outright bourgeois) parties may find considerable support from the masses, even though they are deathly opposed to the masses' long-term, ultimate interests, and may even make only a pretense of concern for their short-term, immediate interests.

What is to be done about this? Well, the primary method of resolving this contradiction is to educate the masses to understand their real interests. This is always our major task and goal.

But I believe that Marxist politicians, being dialecticians, must go further than that. We must frankly recognize that because of this objective contradiction between the masses' real long-term interests and their perceived interests, which we cannot completely overcome all at once, we must make some concessions to the masses with respect to the issues we take up, and the emphasis we give to various mass struggles. In short, we must give more attention to reformist, short-term interests, than we really believe they inherently deserve.

Of course we should never forget, let alone go against the real, ultimate interests of the masses. But we must recognize that, to a degree, it is necessary to participate in struggles for the masses' perceived interests (where this perception does not go against their real, ultimate interests), in order to help attract them to a party which supports their real, ultimate interests most of all.

This is not a question of trickery. We should not lie to the masses about which of their interests are truly most basic and essential. (We should not soft-pedal the need for revolution for example.) But we must recognize that to win the masses, we must also participate with them in the struggles that they themselves consider to be most urgent and most important. It is this principle which lies behind Lenin's argument that it is the task of communists "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."[3]

Of course it is possible to go way too far with this approach, and degenerate into opportunism yourself. It is always possible to go too far with things that must be done.

But it is also quite possible to err in the other direction, to ignore the perceived interests of the masses, and remain isolated from them. Furthermore, it is possible to become so indifferent to the perceived interests of the masses that you end up opposing many of their struggles around their real short-term interests. It is even possible to turn away from the real interests of the masses completely, stage by stage.

It would be quite nice if all revolutionary leaders had to do is stand up and yell "This way to the revolutionary party; this way to the revolution!". In real life the path to revolution is not so straight and direct. Those who ignore the real contradictions of society, and among the masses, will never be able to lead the masses to revolution.

Some of the More Specific Contradictions Resolved by the Mass Line

One important contradiction to consider is that between centralization and decentralization. Some people have viewed the mass line as essentially decentralist. One Sinologist, for example, talks about "a mass line style of operation, with its emphasis on decentralization."[4] In truth the mass line does allow for certain types of decentralization, as compared to commandist and overly centralist styles of work for example. But it also allows for centralization, as compared with anarchy. The mass line is best viewed as a means of resolving the contradiction between centralization and decentralization, allowing the proper role for each.

Centralization and decentralization are in dialectical opposition to each other, and may even seem to bourgeois minds to be in logical opposition to each other. And indeed, generally if you have more centralization you must have less decentralization, and vice versa. And yet there are methods of increasing and strengthening both centralization and decentralization; and methods of increasing the effectiveness of both. The mass line is the very best of these methods.

The mass line increases and promotes decentralization in that it gathers ideas and experiences of the masses from far and wide. It increases and promotes centralization because it allows a centralized leadership body to concentrate these ideas and select the best of them as the basis for political action by the masses as a whole. It increases and promotes decentralization again by having the many party members take these concentrated ideas back to the broad masses where they can be acted on locally, and by encouraging the cadre to do so in light of local conditions instead of in a strictly uniform and mechanical way.

Amazing as it might seem to those lacking dialectics, if the mass line method of leadership is utilized, both centralism and decentralism will be fostered and enhanced! True, the respects in which each is enhanced will be somewhat different, but overall this is still the basic truth of the matter.

The Contradiction of the Struggle & Creations of the Masses vs. Marxist-Leninist Theory & the Prior Line of the Party

Back in 1981, in the course of criticizing the Chinese revisionists, the RCP made a very interesting and profound comment. To tell you the truth, I found this remark to be quite surprising coming from the RCP, because I have seen little or no evidence that they have been acting in accordance with this principle. Anyway, this is what they did say:

The struggle and creation [sic] of the masses form a unity of opposites with the Marxist-Leninist theory and line of the Party, in which the former is the principal aspect. But the Party plays a dynamic role in pushing this whole process forward, striving to transform each aspect into its opposite on ever higher levels.[5]

This seems to be saying that not only is there a contradiction between Marxist-Leninist theory and line (on the one hand), and the struggle and creations of the masses (on the other hand), but that of the two it is the struggle and creations of the masses which are principal. But what does that really mean? I think it means at least these things:

  1. Marxist-Leninist theory and line are derived from the struggle and creations of the masses.
  2. When there is a conflict between the two aspects of this contradiction, it is the struggle and creations of the masses which should generally overrule the pre-existing theory and line of the party. The mass struggle should be the basis for changing the theory and line of the party.
  3. But the theory and line of the party, when taken back to the masses, can and must also change the nature of the mass struggle, and influence the creations of the masses.
  4. What we are really talking about here is the application of the mass line on a grand scale, and at the most basic level. (From this perspective even engaging in communist agitation and propaganda is in fact the carrying out of step three of the mass line method.)

However, the second point above must be properly understood! The short-term and limited experience of a part of the masses, in this or that locality, cannot overrule the lessons of the long-term experience of struggle of the masses world-wide. We are not embracing pragmatism or revisionism here!

Still, it is true that when there appears to be a conflict between the pre-existing line of the party and the current experience of struggle of the masses, the party needs to study the situation very carefully to see if this difference is due merely to temporary conditions and peculiarities which must inevitably change, or if there is indeed some errors in the theory and line of the party which need to be corrected. If a party is too easily influenced by temporary trends, it is flighty, pragmatic, opportunistic and revisionist. But if the party never corrects its theory and line in the light of the struggles and creations of the masses—even when this is clearly called-for and necessary—then the party is hopelessly doctrinaire and dogmatic, incapable of learning from the masses, and incapable of ever leading a real revolution.

False Contradictions

We have been speaking about real contradictions which the mass line addresses and seeks to resolve. It is of course possible to misunderstand the mass line, or to misunderstand or deny the revolutionary goal, and to set up false contradictions which the mass line is viewed as attempting to resolve.

A bourgeois populist within the mass movement, for example, might well imagine that the basic contradiction resolved by the mass line is that of the "inevitable correctness" of the majority of the masses versus the existing theory and line of the proletarian party. A sectarian dogmatist, on the other hand, might view the main contradiction that the mass line resolves as being between the pre-existing "correct line of the party" and the ignorance and confusion of the masses. The correct dialectical view is that both among the masses, and within the proletarian party, there is a mixture of correctness and incorrectness, of truth and falsehood. And, furthermore, that the masses and the party can help each other correct their weaknesses.

It is also possible to imagine that there are contradictions which (sometimes or always) preclude the mass line from being employed at all, at least successfully. One such example is postulated by a bourgeois commentator on the mass line, James R. Townsend. He writes that

the conflict between theory and practice that has weakened the mass line is illustrated by the Party's refusal to give theoretical recognition to conflicts of interest among the people. The CCP admits, of course, that "contradictions" can exist among the people. But "contradictions," in the CCP definition, are due to imperfect perceptions and behavior; they will resolve themselves in a higher stage of unity after appropriate discussion and education. This view is essential to the preservation of the mass line which assumes that all the people will eventually accept and execute Party policies "consciously and voluntarily." In practice, however, conflicting interests remain.[6]

Of course Marxists do not deny that there are conflicting interests among the masses. Our analysis of the masses into classes, strata and sub-strata is based on such conflicting interests. There will remain conflicting interests even under communism, though these will not be of such a nature to allow the existence of classes. That is, there will not be conflicting interests on basic socioeconomic issues, such as with respect to the ownership and control of the means of production, or with respect to exploitation of some people by others since exploitation will have been abolished. The main point here though is that we believe we can successfully resolve those contradictions among the masses which stand in the way of the advance toward communist society.

It is quite true this means that the narrow self-interests of some will inevitably have to give way to the interests of the masses as a whole. Townsend himself provides a small but typical example of this. At the time the people's communes were being established in China, the issue arose of whether one commune should be set up at a particular location in Shensi, or two. A river ran through the area, and the existing cooperatives on the north side of the river were relatively wealthy compared to those on the south side. Many of the peasants on the north side favored two communes, while those on the south side favored a single commune. The Party led an educational struggle against "particularism" which resulted in the peasants agreeing on a single commune.

The local Party committee claimed at the time that the decision to form one big commune was "unanimously approved". Townsend accuses the Party of "simply refusing to admit that a situation can arise in which genuine popular interests can oppose Party policies even after 'patient persuasion and education.'"[7] I think Townsend has a partially valid point here; I doubt myself that all the richer peasants on the north side of the river really agreed with the decision at the time, at least deep down in their hearts. But there are two important points here that Townsend misses.

First, whoever said that there must be "unanimous approval" before any changes are made in society?[8] In the case in question it was no doubt quite sufficient that a great majority of the peasants involved supported the plan, and that no determined minority was likely to wreck it.

Second, in saying that eventually all the masses will come to agree with the Party's line, we are well aware that for many it will take years of experience before this is admitted on certain specific issues, and that some small number of die-hard individuals may never agree. If things are handled properly, total unity will eventually come, but it may only be with new generations of people. Eventually old class struggles become moot, if the socioeconomic basis for the classes or strata themselves is eliminated.

It is in fact wrong to say that all the contradictions among the people are due to "imperfect perceptions", or that educational campaigns alone can resolve all such contradictions completely. It also takes time, experience, and social change itself. But to imagine that there must be unanimous approval when using the mass line is to have a very bourgeois populist interpretation of it indeed!

Where Do New Things Come From?

Ex nihilo nihil fit. [Nothing can be made out of nothing.] (Lucretius, ca. 55 B.C.)[9]

I would like to close this chapter with two sections about development and the dialectics of change itself. At this point I am jumping to a very abstract level of analysis, but as I proceed I will attempt to connect up these philosophical generalizations to the issues of the mass line and having a revolutionary mass perspective.

The first question is: How do new things arise? Do they arise ex nihilo, out of nothing? No, they arise through the transformation of older things which had a different character, a different essence (in the relevant respects). Thus ice does not arise out of nothing, but through the transformation of something else, liquid water, under certain conditions (low temperatures). Similarly, human beings did not suddenly appear out of nothing, nor out of some idealist "Godhead", but rather we developed out of earlier forms of life, most recently from pre-human ape-like hominids. And life itself did not originally "develop out of nothing" (whatever that might be taken to mean), but through the transformation of at least moderately complex organizations of non-living chemical compounds.

Sometimes we speak as though something new and wonderful appeared out of the blue, out of nowhere, but really it is not true, and when we stop to think about and investigate its origins this becomes clear. New things, and changes in general, are a matter of the transformation of the old into the new, rather than the miraculous creation of the new out of thin air.

From this first basic and rather obvious principle, we can derive a number of subsidiary principles, such as:

  1. To make something new, you must start with something else which already exists, and find a way to transform it.
  2. Often there will be several different existing things which can be transformed into more or less equivalent new things; but...
  3. In these cases, one of the existing things will almost always be more easily transformed into the new thing than any of the others. (There's almost always a "best way" to proceed.)
  4. Thus a careful analysis must be made of existing things to see what to start with in constructing the new thing.
  5. The old thing which can most easily be transformed into the desired new thing may be quite unlike the new thing in important respects. It may be glaringly deficient in the very characteristic that we are most interested in, and thus be overlooked at first. (For example, it is vastly easier to transform an acorn into an oak tree than it is to transform a maple tree into an oak tree—even though in many respects the maple is much more like the full-grown oak than a little acorn is.)
  6. Since anything new is derived from something old, it will still contain elements or aspects of the old thing.
  7. The only way the undesirable remaining aspects of the old thing within the new thing can be eliminated is through a series of further transformations. It is irrational to expect that something totally new can be created through a single transformation. (Is anything ever really "totally new"? Certainly, in the sense that its essential aspect(s) or characteristics may be completely new. But there are always at least some other aspects of the thing which are not new. Thus there is some little bit of truth to the point of view that "there is nothing new under the sun", even though it is essentially wrong.)

Let us now apply these subsidiary principles to a few of the many issues involved in social revolution. Why, for example, must there be the transitional stage of socialism between capitalism and communism? It follows immediately from principles 6 and 7. Socialism is the whole period during which a series of transformations turns capitalism into communism.

Next, how can the proletariat, which originally and for long periods is unconscious of the need for revolution and of its revolutionary role, come to be the revolutionary force which transforms society? Through its own step-by-step transformation. From principle 1 we must find the ways to help transform the proletariat into a conscious revolutionary force.

Things like the above two illustrations are elementary and easy to see (for genuine Marxists). But let's get into some more contentious issues such as the development of revolutionary mass organization and revolutionary mass activity.

How can revolutionary organizations of the masses be developed? The best way is through the transformation of existing non-revolutionary mass organizations into revolutionary mass organizations. This is what happened with the Soviets (workers and peasants councils) in Russia. It was Lenin's brilliant recognition of this possibility which led to the initial proletarian seizure of power.

We should not imagine that the Soviets were revolutionary organizations when they were created early in 1917 (recreated, actually, since they were first created in 1905). On the contrary they were initially controlled by Mensheviks and SRs (so-called "Socialist Revolutionaries") who had no serious desire for proletarian revolution even though their mouths were filled with revolutionary rhetoric in the wake of the overthrow of the Tsar. Most workers, peasants and soldiers viewed the Soviets as their own organizations, but as organizations which existed in order to win concessions from the factory owners, landowners, and officer corps, and to represent their day-to-day, immediate interests. It was the Bolsheviks who turned the Soviets into truly revolutionary organizations through their calls not only for "worker's control" but, much more importantly, for "All power to the Soviets", and through their election to leadership roles in the Soviets on the eve of the October Revolution.

It is true that the Soviets did not always exist; they themselves came into being through the more or less spontaneous transformation of diverse cooperative impulses and earlier organizational efforts on the part of the masses, as well as the efforts of socialist intellectuals. But my point is that the Soviets could not have initially come into being as revolutionary organizations. Why not? Because the building of solid and significant organizations to which individuals have firm loyalty takes considerable time, while the transition from general non-revolutionary consciousness among the workers to a general revolutionary consciousness can be a much faster process. Consciousness can change very suddenly indeed, but solid organization is built only over time.

Thus if a solid organization of the masses themselves does not already exist—one that can be quickly transformed from an organization of resistence and reform into an organization of revolutionary action—there will not usually be time to build such an organization from scratch before the revolutionary opportunity passes.

Now of course some nominally proletarian or mass organizations are really so firmly under bourgeois control or influence that there is no quick and easy way for the masses to ever seize control of them. I am thinking of the typical American labor union, for example. Any proletarian or mass organization with the possibility of quick transformation into a revolutionary organization of the masses must be democratic. The masses must be able to elect new leaders within relatively short time frames; there must not be "constitutional restrictions" which unduely restrict the possibilities for democratic change; there must not be "International" headquarters run by Mafioso or other reactionaries which can take over insurgent local organizations; and so forth.

But the fact remains that if a genuinely revolutionary organization of the masses is to quickly arise in a revolutionary situation, this can only reasonably be expected to happen as the result of the transformation of previously existing non-revolutionary mass organizations, which are nevertheless more or less democratically controlled by the masses who belong to them.

Consequently, it is important for the proletarian party to help the masses build their own independent and democratic organizations today even if for now these organizations are only reformist! Of course the proletarian party itself must always be genuinely revolutionary, right from the very start, and must always promote revolution. But the same cannot be expected to be true of all the progressive organizations of the masses. In this, as elsewhere, we must be dialecticians! We must see the necessity of helping to build organizations which can later make the dialectical leap into revolutionary consciousness and activity.

As with organization, so with political leadership in general, and the demands pressed by the masses on the bourgeoisie and their system. In order for the masses to become revolutionary they must make a transition from their current non-revolutionary state. They must make a transition from a perspective of mere resistence to capitalist predation and of reformism, to a state of revolutionary consciousness. They must make a transition from reformist demands upon the bourgeoisie to revolutionary demands—that is, to demands that can only be satisfied through revolution, and which amount to the demand for revolution: demands like "peace, freedom, and bread" and "all power to the Soviets" in the appropriate context.

We must not imagine that a wholly new class of revolutionary-minded proletarians will somehow arise from nowhere. Instead, the revolutionary proletariat can only arise as a transformed non-revolutionary proletariat. We must not imagine that the proletarian party can suddenly start leading the masses in a revolutionary situation if it has not already been developing its mass leadership while the masses still have a generally reformist perspective. Leadership, like organization, can be quickly transformed in the appropriate situation, but it cannot be developed all at once of out nothing. For the proletarian party to lead the masses in the transition from reformism to revolution, it must start by leading the masses in what is primarily reformist struggle.

And the proletarian party must also seek to transform the reformist demands of the masses into revolutionary demands. The party must always put forth the need for revolution, even in the most reactionary periods. That is a constant in communist agitation and propaganda. But mass leadership must be handled differently; it must evolve with the actual mass struggle, with the actual developing situation.

The demands of the mass struggle must be those the masses can adopt as their own. Through the party's application of the mass line we must learn these demands from the masses themselves, determine which demands will actually advance the political struggle, and popularize these demands among the masses—that is to say, lead the masses on the basis of these demands. In non-revolutionary times, in periods when the masses themselves are not revolutionary, these demands upon the enemy will be primarily reformist demands; otherwise the masses could not accept them and act on them. We must recognize this, and not try to fool ourselves into thinking anything different.

But as objective circumstances change (with developments such as accelerating economic crisis and war), and as the progress of our constant revolutionary agitation among the masses also begins to change the situation, the demands the masses make upon the bourgeoisie must become heavier and more insistent. Some demands will now be appropriate which the bourgeoisie simply could not possibly agree to, demands which amount to the demand that the bourgeoisie abdicate. Some workers will understand this, some will not. These are the "transitional demands" that I will be discussing further in chapter 39. The culmination of this can be viewed not as a "demand" upon the bourgeoisie at all, but rather an open armed insurrection. Leadership around reformist demands will have evolved first into leadership around transitional demands, and then—at the appropriate time—overtly revolutionary leadership of the masses, who only then will be ready for such leadership.

The Dialectics of Change

So new things come from old things which change and develop.

But how do things in general change? People familiar with Marxist dialectics of course know that change takes place through qualitative leaps. In other words the dialectical view is not that something develops gradually and evenly from one thing into another, but that at some point there is a sudden transition, a leap, a revolution. This is true not only in human society, but in nature as well, such as in the change of water to steam as it is heated. But the point I want to emphasize here is that this is not the whole story about change.

(Generally it is necessary to give special emphasis to the importance of dialectical leaps when talking to people about change and development. That is because most people are not used to looking at things this way. But with my present intended audience I assume this first essential characteristic of change is already well understood and completely obvious. That is why I am putting the emphasis here on the other important characteristic of change.)

While qualitative leaps are the essence of change, there is also the aspect of gradual development leading up to those qualitative leaps. Water, for example, does not make the sudden transition to steam unless it has first been gradually heated up from room temperature to the boiling point. Now it is true that if you look at the preliminary gradual process in a detailed enough way, you will find that it also is composed of many small leaps. In the case of the gradually heated water what is going on at a very fine level is the sudden qualitative leap in the acquisition of energy by individual water molecules as they come in contact with the energetic (heated) surface of the tea kettle (or with other, hotter, water molecules). Thus ultimately all change does seem to take the form of dialectical leaps. But nevertheless, from the point of view of the overall process, a large series of very small subsidiary qualitative leaps takes on the appearance of gradual development. It is almost as bad to fail to recognize this as it is to fail to see that this gradual development must lead to a qualitative change if there is to be any fundamental change in the overall situation.

Change is a matter of gradual development leading up to, and preparing the ground for, sudden transition. Thus any intelligent effort to bring about change must not only recognize that a sudden transition or revolution is necessary at some point (though that is the first element of wisdom), but that also the ground must be prepared for that revolution through a period of gradual development. To rationally work to bring about a change is therefore primarily to concern yourself with fostering the gradual development that must inevitably occur before the necessary sudden leap is possible.

Politically, there is the phenomenon of individuals who long for social revolution with all their heart and soul, but are too impatient to do the actual work necessary to prepare the ground for revolution. Because they are so impatient, they abandon the dialectical outlook on change, focus entirely on the need for a sudden transition, and down-play the effort needed to lay the necessary ground work.

Such extreme impatience even leads people to revise their revolutionary theory to fit their subjective desires. "Winning the masses takes time, therefore maybe it is not necessary to win the masses, or maybe it is only necessary to win a small number of the masses..." In such a way are the impatient pushed away from the masses, away from mass revolution, away from Marxism and toward "left" adventurism or even putschism.

"Organizing the masses takes time, therefore maybe it is not necessary to organize the masses, maybe we can just suppose that when push comes to shove the masses will spontaneously organize themselves for revolution..." In such a way are the impatient pushed toward a form of anarchism and aloofness from the masses (even if they still recognize the importance of a vanguard party).

"Participating with the masses in their day-to-day struggle in order to raise their revolutionary consciousness is too big a job, therefore maybe it is not necessary, maybe it is really only a kind of reformism dressed up as revolutionary preparations; maybe the masses do not really need to learn through their own experiences, and maybe we do not need to be there with them to help them with this summation..." In such a way does Marxism get turned into a sort of "leftist" preaching, or a form of evangelism.

"Preparing for revolution takes time and effort, therefore maybe it is not necessary to make extensive preparations, maybe the masses are almost ready to go right now, maybe the revolution could break out any day..." In such a way do the impatient lose the ability to appraise the objective situation, and start to lose contact with reality. This leads to constant predictions of revolution "within this decade", or "within a couple years", or even "within a few months"—which in turn leads to demoralization when the subjective predictions do not materialize.

Extreme impatience can thus lead to ultra-"leftism" in various guises, and to a distortion of Marxism.

Impatience can be a good thing or a bad thing. If impatience with the present despicable bourgeois world turns us into revolutionaries, and gets us working toward bringing about revolution, it is of course a very good thing. But if that impatience gets out of hand and leads us into the renunciation of Marxism and the only real path to revolution, it is a very bad thing. We should be impatient, but we should not let it make us crazy.


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

[2] Mao, "Examples of Dialectics (Abstracted Compilation)" (1959?), MMTT, p. 203. [Very poor translation.]

[3] Lenin, "Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party" (1895-6), LCW 2:112.

[4] John Bryan Starr, Continuing the Revolution: The Political Thought of Mao, (Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 156.

[5] RCP, unsigned article, "A Stagnant Pool vs. The Inexhaustible Yangtse River: Chinese Revisionist Philosophy vs. Mao Tsetung Thought", Revolutionary Worker, #116, (Vol. 3, #14), Aug. 7, 1981, p. 21.]

[6] James R. Townsend, Political Participation in Communist China, New Edition, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 201. Townsend claimed just before this quotation that the mass line was weakened through its misuse during during the Great Leap Forward.

[7] Ibid., p. 202.

[8] Another bourgeois commentator on the mass line claimed more recently that the "Yanan approach called for decisions to be based on a consensus of all those involved in a particular activity." [David H. Kent, "'Budding' the Enterprise: Joint-Venturing with the Chinese State", a paper which was apparently presented at a conference entitled "Management Issues for China in the 1990s" at St. John's College, Cambridge, in March 1994.] Kent teaches in the Department of Business Administration at University College, Dublin. He posted excerpts from the paper on the Internet.
      The truth of this remark depends on what 'consensus' is taken to mean. Sometimes 'consensus' is used in the sense of "general agreement" or "agreement by most people involved"—in which case the remark is true. But often the word 'consensus' is used to mean complete unanimity, in which case the remark is quite false.

[9] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura [The Nature of the Things], circa 55 B.C. One edition is translated by R. E. Latham as The Nature of the Universe, (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1962 (1951)). The quote I used appears on p. 33.

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