The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

3. A Quick Overview of the Mass Line

There are lots of questions that come to mind concerning the mass line. We need to explore each of them in turn, and in some depth. But if we plunge right in on this task we run the risk of getting lost in detail; of missing the interconnections between the various aspects of the mass line. Therefore to set the stage, to lay a foundation for the more detailed discussion to follow, it is necessary first to give a brief overview of the mass line.

Historical Materialism

The most basic assumptions underlying the mass line are the principles of historical materialism, the fundamental theory of society and its development discovered by Karl Marx. The principles of historical materialism include the following points:

1)   That human society and history can be understood scientifically;
2)   That, however, material production is the basis of social life, and social consciousness is the result of social being;
3)   That society and history are made by the people, by the masses of human beings;
4)   That, however, the prevailing mode of production conditions and sets limits to the changes which can be made in society;
5)   That social classes exist through people’s relationship to the means of production;
6)   That the history of society, since classes first developed in ancient times, is the history of class struggle;
7)   That “at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters”;[1]
8)   That “at that point an era of social revolution begins”;[2]
9)   That society must ultimately progress to the stage of communism where classes have ceased to exist;
10)   That between capitalism and communism there must be an intervening transition period (socialism), which can only be the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat; etc.

These ten points barely scratch the surface of the marvelously profound scientific theory of historical materialism. All of these points, and indeed the whole doctrine of historical materialism, are presupposed by the theory Mao referred to as “from the masses, to the masses” (which we now also call the theory of the mass line); properly speaking the mass line is itself an outgrowth and extension of historical materialism.

The Role of the Masses

Let’s dwell for a moment on the third point listed above, that society and history are made by the people—by the masses of the people. This of course, along with the rest of historical materialism, goes against the received wisdom of the bourgeoisie. History is presented by them as the actions of a succession of great individuals: kings, popes, presidents, generals, millionaires, geniuses, and—yes—even an occasional revolutionary leader thrown in. The living conditions and mode of existence of the mass of humanity is treated in the most cursory fashion; and if the life of the masses is seldom mentioned how much rarer is any mention of the historical action of the masses!

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet
Was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War. Who
Triumphed with him?
     —Bertolt Brecht, “A Worker Reads History”[3]

For Marxists the masses are not only the subject of history, but the makers of history. Almost any significant historical event, and certainly all the large, really important ones such as the development of an ancient civilization like Greece, the collapse of an empire like Rome, a radical change in society like the French Revolution, were the work of huge numbers of people, not a handful of geniuses or great men (though of course numerous prominent individuals were involved in each case). What the world is today is the product of millions upon millions of people, the sweat, energy, wisdom—and the shortcomings—of the broad masses.

Just who are the masses? Words modify their meaning with their context, and words like ‘people’ and ‘masses’ are no exception. But in talking of the sweep of world history “the masses” are the great majority of the population. If it were not for the existence of social classes we could say that the masses are the totality of the population. But because of the objective existence of classes and class struggle it is more analytically useful to divide the population as a whole into two sections: the people, or the masses—who constitute the overwhelming majority in any society and who do all the work—and their enemies, the few percent of the total population who constitute the ruling class and who live off the labor of the masses. (A further dichotomy, of a different kind, between the masses and their leaders can also be drawn, as we will see shortly.)

A Method of Leadership

The method of “from the masses, to the masses”, or in other words, the mass line, as we saw in the last chapter, is a method of leadership. It is in particular a method of leading the masses. This already implies a number of things. First, it implies that the masses need leadership for some purpose or other. This purpose is of course to wage the class struggle and carry out the social revolution. The mass line can only be understood as the basic method of leading the masses in carrying out their historical task of advancing from capitalism (and semi-feudal society in some parts of the world), through socialism, to communist society. Second, the mass line as a method of leading the masses implies a distinction between the masses and those who lead the masses, a dichotomy between the leadership and the led. Third, it implies that there are methods by which the masses can be led, and that these methods can be studied and learned.

A method of leadership is necessary because leadership itself is necessary. The masses are indeed the makers of history. But if the masses were to spontaneously develop a scientific understanding of society and their role in changing it, and spontaneously organize themselves to carry out their historic task, capitalism would immediately and automatically collapse. Such idealistic spontaneity does not, of course, exist. While the basis does exist for the proletariat (because of its class position, the exploitation and oppression it suffers) to become conscious of itself and its historical role, and to organize itself and the broad masses to overthrow capitalism, these things can only happen if the (correct) leadership is developed and if the scientific theory of society and revolution—Marxism-Leninism-Maoism—is brought to the masses by that leadership. The masses must therefore bring forth leaders, a section of the masses must constitute itself into a vanguard which leads the whole body forward. The mass line therefore requires the existence of a center of revolutionary leadership, namely the party of the proletariat.

The Three Steps in the Mass Line Method

The tenets of historical materialism and the leadership of the proletarian party towards the revolutionary goal are the basic presuppositions of the mass line. But what exactly is the mass line itself? As we saw in the last chapter it is the method of “from the masses, to the masses”. From Mao’s original description of the mass line it is apparent that it can be divided into three components:

1)   Gathering the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses.
2)   Concentrating these ideas into a correct line capable of advancing the revolutionary struggle.
3)   Taking this line back to the masses, propagating it broadly and persistently and leading the struggle on this basis.

All three of these steps are indispensable; without any one of them the mass line ceases to exist and the remnant which remains is useless or even counter-productive. To understand the method of the mass line it is therefore necessary to look into each of these three component parts carefully.

Step One: Gathering Ideas

Step one is gathering the ideas of the masses. That this should be the starting point in the process is very significant. It means that among the masses are some very valuable ideas which revolutionary leaders need to learn. To recognize this is a large part of what it means “to have faith in the masses”. Of course it follows from a fundamental proposition of historical materialism that we also have faith in the masses as the makers of world history and as the motive force in the revolutionary process. And of course we have faith in the ability of the masses to learn from their experiences and to grasp proletarian ideology when it is properly presented to them. But from the point of view of the mass line method what is key is that we must first believe that the masses do have many crucially important, even indispensable ideas, which we—as would-be revolutionary leaders—do not yet have. We must first genuinely believe in the wisdom of the masses.

But why should we believe in the wisdom of the masses? Why should we have this faith in them? Is it just some arbitrary requirement for communists similar to the doctrinal requirement for Christians that they have faith in Jesus, in the Bible, in the “hereafter” and in God? No it is not an unsubstantiated point of dogma. It is based upon both concrete experience and Marxist theory, which itself is the result of practice in making revolution. Experience does in fact show that using the mass line—and therefore the ideas of the masses as a starting point—allows the party to advance the revolutionary struggle. There is a wealth of historical experience in the Chinese revolution under Mao’s leadership, for example, to back this up empirically.

Considered from a theoretical point of view the masses can be seen to have tremendous knowledge because it is the masses who engage in the great bulk of the human activity which results in knowledge. What is this activity? In a famous quotation Mao rhetorically asks:

Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man’s social being that determines his thinking.... In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures.[4]

The masses are a vast repository of correct ideas, of knowledge and wisdom, especially as concerns immediate questions of the day, precisely because the overwhelming proportion of all social practice is carried out by the masses. This is true in general, and it is also true in the revolutionary struggle in particular.

But having recognized this we must move to the other aspect of the dialectic involved here: the knowledge and wisdom of the masses, while great, is scattered and unsystematic. While it is true that among the masses there are many correct ideas, including some which are crucial to advancing the revolutionary struggle at any given time and place, it is also true that there are many incorrect ideas among the masses, including false hopes and fantasies which if followed would lead the revolutionary struggle into dead-ends and disastrous defeats.

Why is the knowledge of the masses so scattered, partial and unsystematic? We need mention here only a few of the reasons, such as that workers are kept chained to the job for long hours, and what free time they do have is often necessary to recoup their physical and emotional strength for the next day’s work; that in addition every effort is made by the bourgeoisie to keep the training and education necessary for the scientific investigation of society out of the hands of the oppressed; and that there is an all-pervading barrage of bourgeois ideology in all its myriad forms which constantly comes down on the heads of the masses and which has a considerable effect on their thinking. It is for these reasons that the theory of scientific socialism is largely the creation of the radicalized bourgeois intelligentsia and not of the workers themselves. (Neither Marx nor Lenin was a worker.) All of these difficulties can be overcome—because the basis exists in the material life of the proletariat to grasp and utilize a scientific understanding of its overall situation and tasks—but they can only be overcome under the organized leadership of the most far-seeing and conscious representatives of the proletariat, namely the proletarian party.

In addition to all this the masses do not, obviously, comprise an homogeneous group, each identical to any other. Instead the masses are composed of different classes (in the U.S. principally the proletariat, of course) or parts of classes, different strata and groups within classes, and many diverse individuals within the groups and strata. Social being determines consciousness, but the social being of two different people is seldom if ever completely identical. There are wide differences in education and experience. All these things contribute to differences in people’s ideas and outlook, even among members of a single class, in a single area, in a single workplace—even in a single family. This is why the masses at any time and place can be viewed as being composed of three parts—the advanced, the intermediate and the backward. Furthermore this three-way division varies from issue to issue, event to event. Someone who is generally speaking advanced may hold a backward point of view on one specific issue. (It is only because a few issues are preeminent at any one time that the general divisions can be made.)

Every individual has his or her strengths and weaknesses and the masses too have their shortcomings, both as a totality and dispersed among them. The masses are, as I said before, a vast repository of correct ideas, of wisdom and knowledge. But they are also a vast repository of incorrect ideas and false “knowledge” whose source is primarily the bourgeoisie, their system, and the conditions of life they force on the masses.

To gather the ideas of the masses is therefore to gather useful ideas and dangerous ideas, the true and the false, the relevant and the irrelevant, the correct and the erroneous.

Step Two: Processing Ideas

This leads us to step two of the mass line, concentrating the ideas of the masses into a correct line capable of advancing the revolutionary struggle. This obviously must mean picking out from all the gathered ideas of the masses those which are true, valuable and correct, and discarding those ideas which are incorrect or irrelevant. Mao likened this to a factory processing raw materials. The factory is the revolutionary leadership; the raw materials are the ideas of the masses:

Without democracy, it is impossible to sum up experience correctly. Without democracy, without ideas coming from the masses, it is impossible to formulate good lines, principles, policies or methods. As far as the formulation of lines, principles, policies and methods is concerned, our leading organs merely play the role of a processing plant. Everyone knows that a factory cannot do any processing without raw material. It cannot produce good finished products unless the raw material is sufficient in quantity and suitable in quality.[5]

Just how is this “processing” done? How does the revolutionary leadership sort through the vast and contradictory views of the masses, discard the erroneous and irrelevant and concentrate the correct and vital wisdom of the masses into a correct line capable of genuinely advancing the revolutionary struggle? This can only be done by applying the science of society and revolution, which is Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

But what can it mean to “apply” Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to the ideas of the masses, or to “process” their ideas by means of it? Does it really all boil down to replacing the ideas of the masses with the ideas of the revolutionary leaders? Or does the mass line simply amount to looking for what communists want to hear among the masses and, when we find it, seizing upon this to justify what we already want to do? Not at all! As the 1976 RCP pamphlet on the Mass Line says,

The mass line is not a gimmick. It is not a question of “taking the positive and getting rid of the negative” or building up what the communists “like” and knocking down the ideas they don’t like.[6]

The mass line is genuinely based on the correct ideas of the masses which revolutionary leaders must learn from the masses. They do not (in general) already know them. These correct ideas are concentrated from the total accumulation of all the ideas of the masses, both those which are correct and those which are incorrect, by determining—with the aid of Marxist theory (and a careful study of the objective conditions)—what results these various ideas will lead to if used as the basis for action by the masses. This is the very heart of the mass line method.

Since it is necessary to determine the actual results which would follow from any suggested course of action, it is necessary for the party to have a firm grasp of the actual situation the masses find themselves in. All the objective factors must be known: the relative strengths of the different class forces, the various forms of struggle which are possible in the situation, the arenas of struggle where the strength of the masses can best be brought to bear, the mood and resolve of the masses, etc. Learning these things requires, on the one hand, the closest contact with the masses, and on the other hand, an objective, scientific analysis of the situation. They require leadership experience and a knowledge of history (of similar situations in the past); they require, in short, the summation of all past revolutionary practice. The place to find this summation is precisely in Marxist theory.

Genuine Marxists have always viewed Marxism as above all a guide to action and not a sterile dogma. This guidance follows from its most general precepts as well as from its more specific conclusions. As examples of the general precepts we might mention such principles as: 1) the long-term interests of the proletariat and the broad masses must take precedence over their short-term interests; 2) the interests of the proletarian movement as a whole must take precedence over the interests of any of its parts; 3) the proletariat must conquer political power through force of arms; 4) communists must be willing to make compromises, to maneuver, and to form alliances with even unstable allies if these things promise to weaken the enemy and advance the struggle toward the revolutionary goal; and 5) communists must unite with the relatively small number of advanced workers and rely on them to help win over the intermediate and backward workers. These are just a few principles chosen at random. There are literally hundreds of such principles which have been summarized from revolutionary practice over the decades and which are preserved in the writings of the great Marxist leaders for us to study and master. No one can possibly be worthy of revolutionary leadership without ongoing, conscientious study of such principles which the proletariat has learned through bitter struggle and paid for in blood.

In addition to these general principles there are numerous specific conclusions which Marxists have arrived at in particular circmstances. Tactics and methods that correspond to a definite time and place must also be studied as potential options for leadership in the future. But Marxist leadership is not simply a question of mastering the particular conclusions drawn from past practice. No two situations are absolutely identical; conditions change and new situations arise. Specific conclusions drawn from earlier practice may become outmoded or come into conflict with each other. People who have merely memorized the older conclusions will be at a loss as to how to proceed in the new circumstances or will lead the movement astray. This is why Marxism must be viewed as a method as well as a body of principles drawn from past practice. In analyzing a new situation tactics used in the past must naturally be considered, but it is even more important to apply the Marxist method. This means such things as seeking truth from facts, concretely analyzing the factual conditions, and considering the various ideas of the masses in light of the general principles of Marxism.

Because of the distortion of the concept by the revisionist Deng Xiaoping, a few words must be said about “seeking truth from facts”. Geremie R. Barmé comments that:

“To seek truth from facts” (shi shi qiu shi), a classical Chinese expression, was reinterpreted for the Communist cause by Mao in his May 1941 speech “Gaizao womende xuexi” [“Reform Our Study”, SW 3:22] in which he said: “ truth from facts. ‘Facts’ are all the things that exist objectively, ‘truth’ means their internal relations, that is, the laws governing them, and ‘to seek’ means to study.” Mao wrote the four characters shi shi qiu shi as an inscription for Qinghai Daily (Qinghai ribao) and it was published on 17 July 1961. After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping claimed that “seeking truth from facts” was the central element of Mao Thought and he used it as the “philosophical basis” for his own pragmatic approach to China’s problems.[7]

Barmé neglects to note, however, that Mao’s comments came in the context of urging a scientific approach to the study of Marxism-Leninism and an integration of Marxist-Leninist theory with the concrete reality of the Chinese revolution. Mao was telling the CPC to apply Marxism-Leninism to the actual conditions the Party faced in China. This is certainly not pragmatism, no matter what Deng thought. Interpreted properly, however, “seeking truth from facts” may well be considered a central element of Mao Zedong’s thought, and even—in generalized form—a central element of Marxism as a whole. (Cf. Lenin’s comment that the living soul of Marxism is the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. [See chapter 20.])

Step Three: Returning Ideas to the Masses

With the aid of Marxist theory and a study of objective conditions, revolutionary leaders concentrate and systematize the correct and vital ideas of the masses. Step three in the mass line method is to return the concentrated ideas of the masses back to the masses in the form of political line, policies and methods of work, propagating them broadly and persistently and leading the struggle on this basis. Why is this important? Because—returning to one of the fundamental principles of historical materialism—it is the masses who are the makers of world history. It is of no use whatever for ideas, however concentrated and correct they may be, to remain in the heads of a few individuals when only the masses can make use of them to change society. Ideas are just ideas; but once they are grasped by the masses they become a material force in the form of mass action, as Marx and all Marxists since have stressed.[8]

The further purpose of returning the concentrated line to the masses is to test it, to see if it actually does advance the revolutionary struggle and to what extent. If a mistake was made somewhere in the process or for some other reason the line does not lead to any advances, or if it does lead to advances for a while but then no longer, it is necessary to start the whole process over from the beginning: collecting the ideas of the masses, concentrating them with the aid of Marxist theory and returning them to the masses. The mass line is not a one-time thing, but a continuous method of advancing the revolutionary struggle step by step.

Such, in brief, is what Mao called the leadership method of “from the masses, to the masses”, which is now also known as the mass line method of revolutionary leadership. But for anyone who actually tried to apply the mass line, this overview probably raises more questions than it answers. We must examine the subject further.


[1] Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Peking: 1976), pp. 3-4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This translation was quoted in Monthly Review, May 1975, p. 13.

[4] Mao, “Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?” (May 1963), SR, p. 502.

[5] Mao, “Talk at an Enlarged Working Conference Convened by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China” (Jan. 30, 1962), Peking Review, #27 (July 7, 1978), p. 9.

[6] The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, The Mass Line (1976), p. 4.

[7] Geremie R. Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996), p. 243, footnote 1.

[8] See for example Marx, MECW 3:182; Mao, Selected Readings, p. 502.

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