The RCP and the Mass Line
The mass line is a concept developed by Mao Zedong and his followers. For the past quarter century the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, has been the most prominent Maoist organization in the U.S. So what are its views about the mass line, and related issues of having a mass perspective?
Well, over the years, these views have changed greatly. In the mid-1970s the RCP gave a lot of attention to the mass line. It was much discussed in internal documents, such as one called the “Main Political Report”, produced at the time of the Party’s creation in the fall of 1975. And in 1975-76 the RCP published three important articles on the mass line, which were later collected together as a pamphlet. (See below.)
In the quarter century since then, however, the RCP has pretty much ignored the mass line. The “Mass Line” pamphlet was soon withdrawn from circulation; at the beginning of the 1980s I was told by a member that “the Party no longer puts that [pamphlet] forward”. For 25 years the Party seldom mentioned the mass line at all. Most of the few mentions were by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Party, but even he only referred to it in passing, and on rare occasions. And no further articles or pamphlets have been published on the topic. Furthermore, there has been no evidence that the Party has actually tried to use the mass line over this long period.
Why this big change from the early days? It seems to me that what happened is that the mass line got discredited in the eyes of the RCP as a result of a big struggle in their midst during 1977-78. A group split off to form an organization called the “Revolutionary Workers Headquarters”. On the most central issues in this struggle the RWH folks were in the wrong, in my opinion. Clearly they were in the wrong about China. Avakian and the folks that remained in the RCP with him maintained that after Mao’s death there had been a revisionist coup, and that China was now on the capitalist road. The RWH group denied this. Events since then have completely proven the Avakian side to be correct about Chinese revisionism, and the RWH faction to be utterly mistaken—as probably many of them would now agree themselves.
The other major issues in the struggle centered around how to build a revolutionary movement in the U.S. Here too the RWH folks seem to me to have been mostly in the wrong, though not entirely so. The RCP charge that the RWH people were “Mensheviks” and that they were in effect giving up on revolution seems to have some validity to it. The RWH itself came to nothing, and while some of its people remain revolutionaries as members of other organizations, most of them seem to have given up on revolution completely.
But on the other hand, the RCP hasn’t done all that great, either. It has never regained the numbers or influence on the masses that it had during the 1970s. Yes, it deserves to be called the revolutionary pole in the struggle with the RWH folks. And it has remained one of the more prominent voices for revolution in the U.S. But clearly the RCP has also been at a loss as to how to really build a growing and developing revolutionary movement in this country.
The RWH folks put a lot of emphasis on the mass line, and accused Avakian and those who remained in the RCP with him of abandoning the mass line and the mass perspective. They viewed the RCP as turning against the long-standing Marxist principle that the masses learn through their own experience in struggle. And there seems to be some considerable truth to this charge too.
The fact that their bitter enemies in this struggle embraced the mass line (at least as they understood it) seems to have left the RCPers with a very bad taste in their mouths for the whole idea—a bad taste that lingers to the present time.
In the course of any struggle, “one divides into two”. This happened organizationally for the RCP in 1978, but it also happened to the theory of the mass line that was once very loosely (and vaguely) held by the whole pre-split Party. The RWH group’s interpretation of it veered even more toward what I call the bourgeois-populist misconception of the mass line—that, “whatever the masses already understand and want to do is right”. But the RCP’s interpretation of the mass line also veered strongly toward what I call the sectarian-dogmatist misconception—that the Party has little or nothing to learn from the masses about how to lead the mass struggle. Both sides sharpened up their own conceptions of the mass line, and both did so one-sidedly, and for the worse. This was a catastrophe for the revolutionary movement in this country.
But it was really nothing all that new. The same thing has happened over and over around the world as young Marxist parties have attempted to both educate the masses about the need for revolution, and at the same time lead the masses in their actual, mostly non-revolutionary, struggles. Those weak on dialectics, and who have not firmly understood the mass line method, are pulled in one of two opposing ways. Some do not want to “give up” revolution, and so move in the direction of becoming a propaganda organization for the idea of revolution. Others wish to remain tight with the masses, and so move in the direction of populism. Neither grasps that there is a better way, a dialectical method, which allows a Marxist party to both continue revolutionary education, and to engage with the masses in their actual day-to-day struggles, and bring the light of revolution to them in the course of those struggles.
In late 1999 the RCP launched a project to build a new Party programme. They said that they intended to use the mass line in doing so, but this did not happen—at least not Mao’s mass line method. There are several documents below from this period, including several of my essays inspired by the new programme project, which focus on issues of the mass line and having a mass perspective. But better, there is a debate, of sorts, between myself and a number of people in or close to the RCP that took place on a web site that RCP supporters set up. It was cut short when they started insisting on the right to censor my contributions. But by then the main thrust of both positions was fairly clear. Although this debate is rather lengthy, I think it provides the best path to really understand the current RCP position on the mass line and related issues.
Materials on the RCP’s position on the mass line and having a mass perspective
Extracts on the mass line from Bob Avakian’s writings. [To be added.]
Pamphlet: The Mass Line by the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (1976) — This pamphlet has long been out of print. Though it is fairly short and has some weaknesses, it played an important role at the time in clarifying a number of things about the mass line for some American revolutionaries.
Documents from an early struggle: The Expulsion of Scott H. from the RCP in 1977 — Proof that it doesn’t pay to be too enthusiastic about the mass line when you are a member of the RCP!
Pamphlet: The Decline of the RCP: A Polemic by the Organization for Revolutionary Unity (circa 1983). This is the first half of the pamphlet including the section criticizing the RCP with regard to the mass line. Citations to documents referred to and a few explanatory endnotes have been added. The full pamphlet is also available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format (without the endnotes).
Book chapter: “The Mass Line, Reformist Struggle, & the Revolutionary Goal”. This is chapter 19 of Scott H.’s book The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement. It is largely a critique of the RCP’s line toward the masses, as expressed in their 1981 Programme.
Essay: “On the RCP Announcement of Their New Programme Project” by Scott H. (11/2/99) — With emphasis on the reference to the mass line in that announcement and project.
Essay: “How to ‘Fake’ the Mass Line” by Scott H. (12/13/01) — Criticism of the RCP and other American Maoists who occasionally mention the mass line, but don’t seem to really use it.
Debate (of sorts): Between Scott H. and several RCP members/supporters in the spring of 2002 regarding the new RCP programme draft and the political line of the RCP, and focusing mostly on issues of the mass line and having a mass perspective. Includes a couple of post-debate exchanges with RCP members about the mass line.
Letter on the Mass Line, by Scott H. (10/9/07) — Discussing the RCP’s peculiar understanding of “leadership”, and what it means to have a mass perspective and a deep understanding of what “the masses are the makers of history” must mean. PDF version [95 KB]; MS Word version [40 KB]
Polemic: Mike Ely’s “Nine Letters to Our Comrades” on the Kasama website. Mike was a long time supporter of the RCP and is a former editor of its newspaper. This polemic is very knowledgeable about RCP viewpoints and their development over time, and presents a restrained but extended critique of many of the Party’s serious errors. One of the important themes is the Party’s relationship to the masses.
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