How to “Fake” the Mass Line
“Always try to be sincere, even if you have to fake it.” –Anon.
Those of us who call ourselves Maoists have learned that Mao thought something called “the mass line” is very important, and so we have to think it is somewhat important too. Since Mao talked about it constantly, all of us have to mention it once in a while too. And since Mao called it the basic method of leadership of the masses, we all need to be able—when pressed—to go back and explain and justify our leadership efforts (and even our leadership failures) in terms of the mass line.
The problem, however, is that—apparently—most people who call themselves Maoists give little or no heed to the mass line in their actual political work. Apparently, most self-described Maoists have little idea what the mass line is really all about, nor its relevance to their activities. And consequently, when on rare occasions they talk about the mass line their words ring totally hollow. It comes across as the after-thought that it is, the rationalization of past activity in mass-line terms, which in reality did not involve the mass line at all.
* * *
For many years I have been trying to get the RCP and other revolutionaries to recognize the importance of the mass line, and to actually start to use it. But without any noticeable effect, I am sorry to say.
However, on May 1, 2001, the RCP published a draft of their new party programme1 in which they actually describe what the mass line is, and moreover do a pretty accurate job of it. True, their description of it is very brief, and certainly doesn’t get into all the important aspects of the mass line. Nor does it expose and criticize any of the many common misinterpretations of it. Moreover, the extreme importance of the mass line is by no means sufficiently emphasized in the programme draft. Still, this brief summary was the first presentation of the theory of the mass line by the RCP since its pamphlet on the topic that came out in 1976 (and which was withdrawn from circulation shortly afterwards).2 Thus after a quarter century of neglect, the RCP seems to be giving the mass line some little attention again—at least in words.
Here, then, is what their new draft programme has to say:
A friend of mine in the RCP asked me what I thought about these passages, and I told him that what is said here seems to me to be entirely correct—as far as it goes! I don’t have the slightest quibble with any of these words. But I think that if it is really true that the mass line is the means by which revolutionary theory is linked with practice, and the means by which the party is linked to the masses, then this mass line thing must be some pretty important stuff. If it is really true that the mass line “is the method through which the party both learns from and leads the masses” then this is not something to just briefly summarize at an abstract level and then move on to other things, but rather something which should be exhaustively discussed and illustrated until people are really clear about it, and about how important it is. If the mass line is really this central and this important—and I certainly think that it is—then it deserves not three short paragraphs in a programme that goes on for 140 pages, but some serious attention and discussion!
In short, even in its draft programme, the mass line seems to be a brief after-thought, perhaps even something inserted to give the document a bit more of a Maoist flavor.
I think that in a real Maoist political programme the mass line would be one of the main and constant themes. One important reason for this is that it has become abundantly clear that the mass line is not a totally simple and immediately obvious concept. In fact, it should be patently obvious by now that the theory of the mass line is notoriously prone to misinterpretation. Mao first outlined the doctrine in 1943, but he found it necessary to later correct a number of confusions and misconceptions. In fact, for the rest of his life he fought against such misconceptions (such as that the mass line is nothing more than “populism”), and continued to clarify the theory—such as by introducing his very apt analogy of the Party being like a factory, which “processes” the ideas of the masses in light of existing Marxist theory, the historical experience of the revolutionary proletariat, and an ongoing, careful analysis of the objective situation.
And, you know, there’s another funny thing here: The RCP itself, in its old pamphlet on the mass line, focused on trying to correct a mistaken, populist misconception of what it was all about. How could the RCP forget that misconceptions of the mass line are rampant—even within its own ranks?! (Well, maybe if you don’t really think about something for 25 years, you can forget quite a lot.)
The RCP draft programme is already excessively long, and it might therefore seem inappropriate to say that it needs to have more about the mass line added to it. But, actually, there is a lot of other stuff in the present draft that should either be cut out or at least be rewritten more concisely.
The new RCP programme draft goes on at great length about what socialist society might be like. I agree that that is an important topic too, especially in a world which thinks it knows that “socialism” and “communism” have been shown “not to work”. But really, the RCP should write a pamphlet devoted to that topic, and not distort its programme by going on too much about it there. This, after all, is the reason that they produced special pamphlets on the Chicano national question and the homosexuality issue. Not everything a revolutionary party believes should be in its programme! Why not? Because it believes so much; because not all of what it believes is of equal importance; because not all of what it believes is known to be correct to the same degree of certitude; and because not everything is immediately relevant.
A party programme should focus on the overall doctrines and overall plans that the party has for society, and in addition to this, on the crucial issues of the general situation it then faces. You know, in the months after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Lenin proposed (and soon got adopted) a completely new party programme. Why? Because he had changed all his ideas? Of course not! It was because the basic situation had changed. You see, Lenin viewed a party programme as the basic document to guide the party in its work. When the focus of its work changes, then you need a new basic guide.
If you have a party programme which focuses more on the tasks in socialist society than on present overall task of overthrowing the bourgeoisie and getting to socialist society, then something is very wrong indeed. The thinking the Party has been doing is not to the point! And why is that, I wonder? I suspect it is because they believe they already have all that figured out. Perhaps they think they already know how to make revolution, and so it is time to devote themselves to questions of how to organize society after the seizure of power. I find that mighty peculiar when it is obvious to everyone else that they don’t have a fully correct revolutionary strategy figured out, and their lack of any progress towards revolution over the past two decades proves this! (I know, I know, they insist on always blaming this lack of progress in even beginning to win over the masses on adverse “objective conditions”. I am sick to death of that excuse which they have already been offering for decades—even during periods when they were predicting revolution in this country within a few years!)
When you really don’t know exactly what to do (the exact steps to bring about a revolution, say), then you should focus your attention on how you can find out exactly what to do. And—how about that!—Maoism has a definite answer to this question: it is the method of the mass line. Mao constantly emphasized that “The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant, and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge.”3 The Maoist way is not to flounder in puzzlement about how to advance the revolutionary struggle, but to learn what to do next from the masses themselves.
My brief critique of the new RCP draft programme is that there is a lot wrong with it, but the main thing wrong with it is something that the Party refuses to recognize it is even having a problem with: namely, the relationship of the Party to the masses, that is to say, its basic approach to the masses. After all, the central problem in making a revolution is how to win the masses to the idea. If you are having difficulty even making any significant progress in this direction (as the RCP clearly is), then you need to figure out why! If the answer to that lies in the theory of the mass line—as I believe it does—then you need to devote a lot of attention to the mass line, and to really come to understand it, to really train the whole Party to correctly understand and actually use the mass line. The bulk of the present draft programme is devoted to other issues, and not to correcting this most critical problem in the Party. That is why, despite some improvements on secondary matters, and some better formulations of their basic line, the new draft programme tends more to confirm the Party in the errors of its ways, than to lead it out of the dark forest into the sunshine.
* * *
One of the major problems with the RCP is that it believes—quite erroneously—that it is already using the mass line, even that it is already systematically using the mass line, and that it has been doing so all along. When the Party announced its new programme project (more than two full years ago now), it even said
But has the Party actually been using the mass line method “to lead everything”, as it claims? Not as far as I can see. As I mentioned above, for 25 years (up until the 3 paragraphs in the Programme draft which I quoted above) they have not even seen fit to present so much as a brief description of what the mass line is all about in their Party publications, and very rarely mentioned the term at all. A party that is not constantly talking about the mass line is almost certainly not using it. (Why? Because it is hard to get people to understand and actually use the mass line; you have to seriously work at it.) And I know from experience that their members have had only the vaguest notion, at best, of the mass line over that whole period.5
But the main thing that puts a lie to the RCP claim that they have been using the mass line “to lead everything” is that, in 1981 they adopted a Programme which in effect renounced almost all leadership of the masses entirely! Why? Because, in non-revolutionary times the mass movement is almost entirely focused on reforms (or warding off ruling class attacks—“negative reforms”), and they decided that they would be pure revolutionaries and only participate with the masses in their struggles, and try to give leadership to them, when the masses decided to do something revolutionary, or at least something overtly directed at the system or the police. You may think I exaggerate a bit here. If so, I suggest you carefully read pages 41-46 of their 1981 Programme (which is still officially in effect), and try to understand what the whole thrust of that passage really is.6 The real line in their current Programme is that it is wrong to participate with the masses in reformist struggle, or to try to give practical leadership to such struggles. They regard doing so as reformism and revisionism. And the only type of “leadership” they sanction in such situations is not really leadership at all, but rather agitation and propaganda in favor of revolution (though of course that is always important to do in addition to leading the mass movement). And over the past quarter century their practice has pretty much followed this “ideal”.
Since the Party in effect renounced leadership of the masses, it naturally had no use for any techniques of mass leadership—including the mass line. Since it had no use for the mass line, it ceased to talk about it, or even think about it. And since it ceased to regularly talk and think about the mass line, the phrase became mere window-dressing, something to be trotted out on rare special ceremonial occasions—such as when a new Programme project was being launched.
Well, even if the RCP has not been using the mass line over the years, haven’t they at least used it during this Programme project itself? As I said in 1999, I really hoped that they would.7 And they claim that they have been. But, again, I just don’t see it. They are (as usual) operating in a secretive way in which it is impossible for anyone to see what they are doing. If they were truly doing things in a mass line way this would not be necessary or desirable. I can only conclude that they still do not even know what it means to use the mass line.
They say that “We know people have differences with us, but we want to study, investigate, and wrangle together.” But have they done this? The Party has published a lot about their new Programme project (though not as much as I expected, and most of it has been reprints of old articles by Bob Avakian, etc.). But I have not seen one single criticism, big or small, by the masses, or even by individual Party members, of either the existing Programme or the new Programme draft. If criticisms are being sought out, then they are being sought out only for the Party itself—and probably only for the Party leadership. No one else is entitled to see or consider them. This is not the mass line way; heck it is not even the democratic way. No matter what it says, things like this show that the Party fears the masses (and maybe even its own members!).
The Party says that “A good MLM Programme, one that is sturdy and revolutionary, cannot be grown in a hothouse”—but then it turns around and tries to do just that. You can only shake your head in disbelief at such hypocrisy.
The Party has tried to do some investigations of changed social situations for its new Programme. It has sent people out to talk with the lower-class masses in Silicon Valley, for example, to try to understand their circumstances better. That of course is good. But what about the big issues, the central questions of how we are to make revolution in this country? In their 1999 programme project announcement they said that “We need people to discuss with us how this reactionary system can actually be defeated. How can the forces for revolution be mobilized, and how can they overthrow this system?” I didn’t see any discussion of these basic issues in the Party press before the draft Programme was published, and I have not seen any discussion of the line of the draft Programme on these important questions since then. And certainly none by the masses. If the Party is getting this sort of commentary and criticisms, then it is not choosing to publish it. If the “mass line” is being used here at all, it is apparently being used in some bizarre, secretive kind of fashion.
Given that the Party has a record of ignoring the mass line over so many years, I for one, am not going to believe that it is actually starting to use it now until I see it with my own eyes! And so far I have seen no such thing.
* * *
Several months ago I put this challenge to an RCP friend of mine: “The Party keeps saying that it is using the mass line. I am seriously interested in hearing some specific examples or illustrations of this. There are never any in the RW. I challenge you to come up with even just one or two good examples.”
On the spot he couldn’t. This already says something negative about the Party. A party that is really using the mass line seriously and regularly would have some ready examples that every party member could use to illustrate the concept. You know, if you are serious about using the mass line it is not enough for the just the party to understand it; you must also work to get as many of the masses as possible to understand what you are trying to do so they can participate more effectively. And you can’t work to educate them in the mass line method if you cannot provide them good and easy to understand examples of how it works.
Over the next couple months, and despite my prodding, my friend still had not come up with any examples of how the Party has used the mass line. It was starting to get embarrassing, I’m afraid. Then, he finally came up with one illustration he was quite sure fit the bill. We had been talking about the one major area where the Party now does participate with the masses in struggle and does provide some actual leadership in that struggle—namely around the issue of rampant police brutality and police murders of the masses. “There’s an example,” he said. (I’m paraphrasing; I don’t remember his precise words.) “We decided this would be a good issue to take up, and that it would be good to hold demonstrations against police brutality, based on what we learned from the masses. That is a good example of how we use the mass line.”
Or is it? Didn’t the Party already know that police brutality and murder was rampant? Didn’t the Party already know that there was some basis for mobilizing a part of the masses against this horrible situation? Didn’t the Party already know that one of the main ways you might reasonably go about this is by organizing demonstrations? What, really, did the Party learn from the masses here that it didn’t already know? What, really, did it do that any left-wing group wouldn’t do when taking up the issue—even if it had never heard of the mass line? (Perhaps there actually are examples of using the mass line in the smaller details of the response of the Party to this problem, but if so I have not yet heard of them.)
Mao called the mass line “the method of from the masses, to the masses”. He recognized that the party itself is often at a loss about how to proceed, and that there are important things it does not know, but which some among the masses do know. The mass line was his method for allowing the masses to first educate the party so that the party could then in turn systematically educate and lead the broad masses. A good example of using the mass line, therefore, first involves the party learning something it did not already know.
(It is true that sometimes using the mass line can merely confirm the tentative ideas that the party already has about how to proceed, as correct and appropriate. But this is really a secondary usage of the mass line, and one that is not as central or as illuminating as those cases where the party actually learns something that it did not know beforehand. That’s why I maintain that a really good example of using the mass line involves learning by both the party and the masses.)
In fact, there is an alternative explanation of why the Party took up the issue of police brutality—one that has nothing to do with the mass line. In my view it most likely took up the issue because, of all the problems which the masses face, this is the one which most directly targets the system and its enforcers, the police. It based its decision not on what the masses were most ready to move on, but based on what it was most ready to move on. It knew, despite what its current Programme says on the matter, that it should be engaged in some sort of mass work, and this seemed the most compatible with its anti-reform-work doctrine. I can’t prove my analysis is correct here, but it sure rings true to me.
So, from my standpoint, I am still waiting for the Party to provide even one or two clear examples of how it has used the mass line. Anytime in its history! I’m not saying that it never has; surely it must have over all that time, if only rarely, or on some small matters. You would expect that any revolutionary party would intuitively use such a method on occasion, even if it had never heard of Mao. Lenin, for example, intuitively used the mass line method at times, long before it was summed up in the form of conscious theory by Mao. (The greatest example of this is Lenin’s recognition of the importance of the creation of the Soviets (councils) by the workers, peasants and soldiers, and his further recognition that this idea of the masses provided a means to bring about a socialist revolution in Russia.)
* * *
My friend’s weak “example” of the RCP’s use of the mass line has got me thinking, however. Let’s see if we can come up with other equivalent “examples” of the use of the mass line in this country, by whomever.
At present the Workers World Party is apparently the leading force in this country in organizing the anti-war movement against Bush’s war on Afghanistan. Why isn’t the RCP playing such a leadership role? Either because it does not choose to, for some reason, or because it is unable to (because it lacks sufficient influence among the masses, etc.). Or, probably for a mixture of these two reasons. Anyway, the WWP, which is a watered-down sort of Trotskyite group—espousing an equally wishy-washy (revisionist) sort of “Marxism”—is playing a leadership role on this issue at present. The WWP never puts things in Maoist terms, although it claims that it supports “socialist China”—both today (when, in reality, China is no longer socialist) and also back when Mao was alive (though it also supported the revisionist Soviet Union back then). As far as I know, they never even so much as mention the mass line, let alone pretend that they are using it. But couldn’t they very well “fake it” if they suddenly chose to? Couldn’t they say something like this: “We learned from the masses that many of them are indeed very opposed to Bush’s war, and that many of them wanted to have demonstrations against it. Our use of the mass line led us to take up this struggle in a big way, and to try to lead it as we have been doing.”
Now of course the WWP would never say such a thing, and even if—bizarrely—they were to say such a thing, it would not be true. Quite obviously they took up this issue because it is something they already thought they should do, and they took it up in the way they have because that is how they have always taken things up. In other words, all the ideas probably already existed in the minds of their Party leadership, or came from their own private thinking. Even if the WWP were to say it was using the mass line it would not convince me, nor would it convince you.
The RCP, to be sure, says it is a Maoist organization, and actually does mention the mass line on rare occasions. But otherwise there is no more reason to believe that it uses the mass line than there is reason to believe the WWP does. There is no visible evidence for it whatsoever!
Anybody can fake their motives and also fake their explanations for how they do things behind the scenes. But what they cannot fake are their public actions; those are available for everyone to see. And if their public actions in no way support their claims of what goes on behind the scenes, then we have to right to be extremely skeptical.
* * *
Unfortunately, faking the use of the mass line is all too easy to do This is especially the case when no other group is using it either, and therefore your group cannot be compared negatively to another.
But since faking the use of the mass line is such a popular activity in nominally Maoist circles, I thought I would sketch a generalized recipe for doing a really thorough job of it:
How to Fake the Mass Line
Well, that’s pretty much it. I realize that these suggestions are rather unnecessary in today’s political climate, since most of those who call themselves Maoists already seem to know them and utilize them conscientiously.
(I apologize for such bitter cynicism on my part, but the ingrained behavior of “Maoists” who won’t learn from Mao is driving me nuts!)
—Scott H. (12/13/01)
Notes1 Draft Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, May 2001, (RCP Publications, P.O. Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654). This draft programme is available at RCP bookstores, or by mail for $4 plus $1.50 shipping. It is also available free on the Internet (in both English and Spanish, and in both HTML and PDF formats) at: http://www.rwor.org
I follow the RCP in its idiosyncratic use of the British spelling ‘programme’ (rather than the American spelling ‘program’) when referring to party programmes—because I too think that a programme for a revolutionary party is extremely important and something to be made special note of.
2 The Mass Line, (RCP Publications, 1976). This pamphlet consisted of three newspaper articles, two unsigned, and the third by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the RCP. According to the “Mensheviks” who split from the RCP in 1978, Avakian also wrote the first two articles. (See Revolution and Counter-Revolution: The Revisionist Coup in China and the Struggle in the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, (RCP Publications, 1978), p. 411.)
This pamphlet is short, and has some problems and errors—which is part of the reason why the RCP dropped it. However, considering the extreme paucity of materials on the mass line, I have taken it upon myself to post it on the Internet. [Now moved to:] http://www.massline.info/rcp/ml_rcp.htm
3 Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (also known informally as The Little Red Book), (Peking: 1966), p. 118. This is the second quotation in the section on the mass line.
4 “Plan for a New Programme of the RCP, USA: An Announcement and a Call to the People”, Revolutionary Worker, #1028, Oct. 31, 1999.
5 For some of the one-sided and very partial notions of what the mass line is all about that have been common in the RCP over the years, see my essay “On the RCP Announcement of their New Programme Project” (11/2/99), especially section 5, at: http://www.massline.info/rcp/rcp_prog.htm
6 New Programme and New Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, (RCP Publications, May 1, 1981). For a very detailed discussion of both what is correct and what is incorrect on pp. 41-46 of this document see Chapter 19 of my book on the mass line, which is available on the Internet at: http://www.massline.info/mlms/mlch19.htm
7 See my essay “On the RCP Announcement of their New Programme Project”, cited above.
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