The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

32. The Origin and Development of the Mass Line

Practice and thought might gradually forge many an art. —Virgil

The theory of the mass line has an origin and history of development just like any other part of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism or any theory in the physical sciences. It has not always existed, nor did it spring to life fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Since the early revolutionary activity of the founders of scientific communism back in the 1840s, enormous practical experience has been gained with respect to correct and incorrect methods of revolutionary leadership. During these sixteen decades there have been great advances in the proletarian struggle and also serious setbacks. From these successes and failures alike the leaders of the proletariat have learned many basic principles of leadership and have often made very good use of them. However over most of this period the art of proletarian leadership remained just that—an art and not a science. Gradually though, many of the principles being used implicitly have been summed up scientifically so that today the art of proletarian leadership has become—though only partially, to be sure—the science of proletarian leadership. The two greatest advances in this sphere are: 1) the elaboration of the organizational principles of the proletarian party, of its structure and its role in leading the masses, which is due primarily to Lenin, and, 2) the elaboration of the theory of the mass line, which is due primarily to Mao Zedong.

In saying that the theory of the mass line is largely due to Mao I do not wish to deny for one moment that the mass line method was used quite successfully at times by Lenin and others before Mao; indeed the October Revolution would have been unthinkable had the mass line method not been employed. Furthermore there are aspects of the theory of the mass line which were raised by Marx, Engels and Lenin long before Mao. Many of these aspects have been referred to in this essay, and others will be found throughout the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc. But nevertheless it was Mao who raised the mass line to the level of fully conscious theory, who elaborated it and pointed out its various aspects or elements and their interconnections, and this indeed is one of his great accomplishments for which the people of the world are so indebted.

Of course long before Marxism even existed there were some people who recognized the wisdom of the masses and who perhaps can be credited with having an inkling of something like the mass line method. Over 200 years ago Montesquieu remarked that "In order to do great things, it is not necessary to be superior to other men but to be with them."[1] More than a century before that, the founder of modern experimental science, Galileo, consciously sought to learn scientific explanations for the phenomena of physics from the masses who had direct experience with the phenomena. The scientific principles of mechanics which he summarized and codified in his great book Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences (1632) he largely learned from the artisans who made and experimented with cannons and other armaments—as he gratefully acknowledged in the book's very first sentence. Galileo also remarked that "I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him."[2]

Thomas Paine's Common Sense

An even better example is afforded by the great revolutionary bourgeois democrat Thomas Paine and his famous pamphlet Common Sense (1776). Common Sense is one of the most influential pieces of political propaganda of all time; it played a central role in preparing public opinion for the revolutionary war against Great Britain. Paine assembled a great variety of arguments against the absurdity of a distant island governing a continent, against the whole idea of Kings, and in favor of republicanism and bourgeois democracy. But these arguments were by no means original with Paine. Historian Eric Foner writes that

John Adams always resented the fact that Common Sense was credited with having contributed so much to the movement for independence. Its discussion of that subject, he insisted, was simply "a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months". To some extent, Adams was right, but he failed to understand the genius of Paine's pamphlet. Common Sense did express ideas which had long circulated in the colonies—the separateness of America from Europe, the corruption of the Old World and innocence of the New, the absurdity of hereditary privilege and the possibility of a future American empire. None of these ideas was original with Paine. What was brilliantly innovative was the way Paine combined them into a single comprehensive argument and related them to the common experiences of Americans.[3]


Paine gathered his arguments from far and wide, arguments and ideas which had long been simmering among small numbers of the masses, and selected the most advanced and radical of these arguments, the ones which were most effective in that situation, and combined them into an incredibly powerful revolutionary line. This pamphlet was then circulated in enormous numbers for the times—it was returned to the masses—and was adopted by them as the path forward. Foner quotes one man who said to Paine:

You have declared the sentiments of millions. Your production may justly be compared to a landflood that sweeps all before it. We were blind, but on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes.[4]

Moreover Paine was quite conscious about much of what he was doing. He was an artisan himself and he purposely wrote for the masses and in a mass style:

Common Sense, written in a style designed to reach a mass audience, was central to the explosion of political argument and involvement beyond the confines of a narrow elite to "all ranks" of Americans. The first thing which contemporaries noticed about Common Sense was its tone of outrage.... What contemporaries described as Paine's "daring impudence" and "uncommon frenzy" was far removed from the legalistic, logical arguments, the "decorous and reasonable" language, of previous American political pamphlets.... Paine was the conscious pioneer of a new style of political writing, a rhetoric aimed at extending political discussion beyond the narrow bounds of the eighteenth-century's "political nation". "As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand," he once wrote, "I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." He assumed knowledge of no authority but the Bible, provided immediate translations for the few Latin phrases he employed and avoided florid language designed to impress more cultivated readers.[5]

Though it is by no means the only such example in history, Thomas Paine's Common Sense is the best example I know of the successful use of something like the mass line in the days before Marxism. But "something like the mass line" is still not quite the mass line. Since the mass line as it is properly defined requires the concentration of the ideas of the masses in the light of Marxist theory, the mass line, properly speaking, could not exist before Marxism came into existence.

The Communist Manifesto

What is the very first use of the mass line? A strong case can be made that it was the procedure followed in the development of Marxism itself! (Marxism pulled itself up by its own bootstraps, as indeed human knowledge does in general!)

Mao once asked rhetorically how Marx himself became a Marxist. Was it by reading a lot of Marxist books in his youth?! Obviously not; he and Engels constructed Marxism out of non-Marxism. But how did they do it? Dirk J. Struik has an interesting passage in his book on the Birth of the Communist Manifesto that gets right to my point here:

The Manifesto represents a landmark in the history of thought and especially of socialist thought. Socialism, before Marx and Engels, flourished in dozens of different schools and sects, a conglomeration of brilliant insights, hopeful wishes, militant exclamations and daring deeds. It was incoherent, its course like that of a ship blown over the waters by winds from all sides, unable to set its own direction. What Marx and Engels did was to seek out the sound elements in the many theories, testing their findings against the best of contemporary philosophical and scientific thought and against the accumulated practice of revolutionary struggles. They integrated their discoveries into a new and vital socialist world outlook. As with every great theory, that of Marx and Engels originated as a creative synthesis of scattered facts and doctrines, many already known, but now illuminated by new and deeper insight. Thus Marx and Engels lifted socialism from the realm of utopia to the realm of science.[6]

Struik notes that this synthesis was basically accomplished between 1843 and 1845, and for the next three years Marx and Engels "sought further self-clarification, testing their ideas in the political struggle and in the study of history and economics." And then in February 1848, the new theory was publicly proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto.

I hope you can see the many parallels here between the procedure followed by Marx and Engels and the theory of the mass line as presented in this book. They gathered many radical and socialist ideas, processed those ideas with the aid of the best social theory then available (even though that was then only in the process of becoming Marxism!) and with the aid of a study of history (past experience) and of the objective situation, and then returned the concentrated and powerful result to the masses in a form that still haunts the bourgeoisie today. It was no doubt a procedure followed intuitively, but it was enormously successful nonetheless.

Thus, it really seems to be true that the mass line, as a thorough, if still implicit and intuitive, procedure, arose simultaneously with revolutionary Marxism itself. Marxism, from its inception, has been a method, as well as a doctrine. And as the doctrine developed, so did the method.

Raising the Mass Line to Conscious Theory

With the advent of Marxism begins the more or less unconscious advent and use of the mass line method of revolutionary leadership, though just because it was still unconscious and left in the form of an art and not a science, it must be admitted that its application was generally not as consistent and thorough as would otherwise have proven possible.

The mass line, as a fully conscious theory of leadership, only began to be formulated by Mao Zedong during the Yanan [Yenan] period. Mao himself noted in 1948 that the Communist Party of China had been carrying on mass work for over twenty years and had been talking about the mass line for "the past dozen years".[7] This would place the inception of the theory of the mass line at around 1936; in other words at the beginning of the Yanan period.[8] However, the first extensive written description of the theory of the mass line which is available to us appears in Mao's "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" (June 1, 1943; SW3:117-122), although even there the phrase 'mass line' is not used.

Mao in Yanan (Yenan)
in 1943.

I don't know who first started using the term 'mass line' to refer to the method of revolutionary leadership that now goes by that name. Evidently it was not Mao. It has been credited to various other people including Zhou Enlai.[9] For more about the name 'mass line' see below in this chapter, and chapter 37.

Even before his classic 1943 essay though, Mao briefly suggested the same ideas on a number of occasions. For example in his famous 1942 speech "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art" he said:

Revolutionary statesmen, the political specialists who know the science or art of revolutionary politics, are simply the leaders of millions upon millions of statesmen—the masses. Their task is to collect the opinions of these mass statesmen, sift and refine them, and return them to the masses who then take them and put them into practice.[10]

In fact long before the Yanan period Mao talked here and there of various aspects of what eventually became known as the mass line. Even his 1919 magazine article "The Great Union of the Popular Masses", written before he was a Marxist, contains some hints of the mass line, including a tremendous respect for the wisdom and power of the masses and a great appreciation of the necessity of uniting and mobilizing the broad masses in struggle as the only way to achieve revolutionary victory.[11]

Mao did not elaborate the theory of the mass line all at once and out of the blue. On the contrary, a study of his early writings shows many steps in the direction of the theory long before his classic 1943 presentation. Moreover—and this is a point most commentators on the mass line fail to recognize—even "Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership" itself does not present a complete and exhaustive description of the mass line method in all its aspects. Since even Sinologists who are sympathetic to the mass line don't recognize this, they sometimes argue that "the concept of the mass line... is rather poorly defined, even by Mao himself".[12]

I already stressed the point in chapter 2 that Mao's classic 1943 presentation of the theory of the mass line does not go into all of its aspects, so I won't belabor it here. I will only remind the reader that Mao found it necessary to elaborate on the theory of the mass line on many later occasions, right up until the end of his life. "Some Questions..." was the first general summation of the mass line method, its highest summation to that date. But frankly, looking back at it nearly 50 years later, after Mao and others have clarified and elaborated many points, that essay by itself can no longer be considered a very good overall summation of the theory of the mass line. The essay does not adequately explain, for example, what it means to "concentrate" and "systematize" the ideas of the masses. The role of Marxism in doing this is not discussed (though Mao made this abundantly clear in later writings).

Another point must be mentioned here: the theory of the mass line is the result of Mao's summation of the practice of the Chinese Revolution. Some bourgeois writers have claimed that the mass line dates from well before the Yanan period, that it dates from the Chinese Soviet Republic period (1931-1934) for example, or even earlier.[13] The confusion here comes from the fact that Mao did use mass line methods of leadership before Yanan—but then so did Lenin and Marx still earlier. There was a period when Mao too, like earlier Marxist leaders, used the mass line method more or less unconsciously. But only during the Yanan period did Mao begin the process of scientifically summing up the theory that lay behind this practice.

Connected with this is still another issue: Mao's evident attribution of the mass line to Lenin. I have as much as designated Mao the father of the mass line; but Mao himself often seems to credit Lenin with the honor, as in the following three examples:

We expand on the tradition of the October Revolution and the mass line of Lenin and rely on the masses...[14]

We follow Lenin in the mass line and the class struggle.[15]

We, on our part, stick to studying Marxism-Leninism and learning from the October Revolution. Marx has left us a great many writings, and so has Lenin. To rely on the masses, to follow the mass line—this is what we have learned from them.[16]

On other occasions however Mao speaks of "our mass line" and so forth; he speaks of the mass line as a development of the Chinese Revolution.[17] Moreover the CPC and its members regularly attributed the mass line to Mao.[18] Well there is a simple explanation for this "paradox": Lenin did use the mass line, and did refer to the creative ability of the masses and other aspects of the theory of the mass line on many occasions, and no doubt Mao learned from this as well as from Chinese revolutionary practice. In other words it may well be that Mao "learned" the mass line method from Lenin, at least in part. Nevertheless it was Mao who summed up the theory of the mass line, who commented on it and elaborated it at length, and who became the preeminent theoretician of the mass line. Thus whatever Mao said on the score, it is only sensible to attribute the theory of the mass line to him.

I noted above that in his early descriptions of the mass line method Mao did not use the phrase 'mass line' itself. Instead he referred to it as the method of "combining the leadership with the masses" (SW3:117,120) or "the method of linking the leading group with the masses" (SW3:243). Often it was also referred to as the method of "from the masses, to the masses" as in the CPC "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party" (SW3:208). It is not until the late 1940s that the actual phrase 'mass line' begins to appear in Mao's writings (or at any rate in those available to us in his Selected Works) though it is treated from the outset as an old familiar term, evidently having already achieved widespread verbal use (SW4:184). Since the late 1940s the customary term for the method has been 'the mass line' though the older designations have also continued in use, especially in China. There have of course been widely varying notions as to exactly what sort of thing is referred to by this phrase 'mass line'. I am acquainted with some communists for example who have not identified the mass line with the method of "from the masses, to the masses" (see chapters 40-41).

After the Yanan period Mao continued to develop the theory of the mass line. For example he clarified the whole process of concentrating the ideas of the masses with his very apt simile of a factory processing raw materials into finished goods. But most of all he defended the mass line against rightist interpretations that kept cropping up, such as the bourgeois-populist view that the mass line means "doing everything as the masses want it done".[19] Even worse than the bourgeois-populist misconception of the mass line was the sinister bureaucratic, revisionist interpretation championed by the capitalist roaders Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and their ilk. Their distortion of the mass line will be discussed in chapter 37; for now I will only point out that it is no mere coincidence that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which Mao unleashed against these revisionists put great emphasis on mass initiative and the mass line.

To defend the mass line against rightist distortions is in fact a way of developing the theory of the mass line, of clarifying what the mass line is really all about. Thus Mao's contribution to the elaboration of the mass line during the Cultural Revolution should not be underestimated simply because he did not at that time write out a long essay on the subject. This point also has application to other times and places since the theory of the mass line has long since ceased to be an exclusively Chinese concern. With its spread to other countries comes the necessity to defend it against distortions and misconceptions within those other countries as well. There has been one particularly fine example of this in the United States which will be explored in chapter 40, namely the defense of the mass line as a revolutionary instrument by Bob Avakian and the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The mass line is thus by no means dead dogma. There is no reason to believe that the theory of the mass line is "complete", or "clarified" or "settled" once and for all. On the contrary, genuine Marxism is a living, growing thing, and this certainly includes such younger parts of Marxism as the theory of leadership methods like the mass line. As long as the class struggle still continues, Marxism and all its parts will have to be defended, and hence further clarified, just as it will need to be continually augmented with the further summation of revolutionary practice.


[1] Quoted in Alain Bouc, Mao Tsetung: A Guide to His Thought (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1977).

[2] Quoted in Laurence J. Peter, Peter's Quotations (NY: Bantam, 1979), p. 260.

[3] Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (NY: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 79-80.

[4] Ibid., p. 79.

[5] Ibid., pp. 82-3.

[6] Dirk J. Struik, Birth of the Communist Manifesto (NY: International Publishers, 1971), p. 12.

[7] Mao, Quotations, pp. 122-3; "A Talk to the Editorial Staff of the Shansi-Suiyuan Daily" (April 2, 1948), SW 4:241-2.

[8] Stuart Schram states that "the ideas and methods corresponding to the 'mass line' begin to make their appearance" in Mao's work during the 1927-1936 period "though this concept is formulated systematically only during the ensuing decade". [The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 9.] Schram views the mass line as part of, and indeed a central part of, the "Yenan heritage". [Ibid., p. 86.]

[9] See Stuart Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 98.

[10] Mao, "Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art" (May 1942), SW 3:87.

[11] Mao, "The Great Union of the Popular Masses" (July 21, 1919), China Quarterly, #49, Jan./March 1972.

[12] Edward Hammond, "Marxism and the Mass Line", Modern China, Vol. 4, #1, Jan. 1978, p. 4.

[13] Marcia R. Ristaino, for example, makes such a claim, saying that "the earliest Communist practice of the mass line was initiated in China during the period under study" [i.e., 1927-1928]. [China's Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987), p. 2.] This is wrong if Ristaino means the earliest conscious practice of the elaborated theory of the mass line—that did not occur until the Yanan period. Ristaino is also wrong if she means the earliest unconscious, or semi-conscious, practice of the mass line—that occurred long before by Marx and Lenin. Only if Ristaino means the earliest unconscious practice of the mass line method in China, is she correct. But then, this is hardly a revelation; that is precisely what Mao himself indicated when he said in 1948 that the CPC had been carrying on mass work for over twenty years. (See note 7 above.)

[14] Mao, "Speeches at the Second Session of the Eighth Party Congress" (May 17, 1958), MMTT, p. 106.

[15] Mao, "Speech at the Conference of Heads of Delegations to the Second Session of the 8th Party Congress" (May 18, 1958), MMTT, p. 121.

[16] Mao, "Speech at the Second Plenary Session of the Eighth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China" (Nov. 15, 1956), SW 5:342.

[17] See for example, Mao, "Reading Notes on the Soviet Text Political Economy", c. 1960, A Critique of Soviet Economics (NY: MR Press, 1977), p. 119.

[18] See for example: "Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" (Aug. 8, 1966), reprinted in K. H. Fan, ed., The Chinese Cultural Revolution: Selected Documents (NY: Grove Press, 1968), p. 173; and, Tien Chih-sung, "The Masses Are the Makers of History", Peking Review, #29, July 21, 1972, p. 11.

[19] Mao, "Correct the 'Left' Errors in Land Reform Propaganda" (Feb. 11, 1948), SW 4:198.

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