The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

4. Misconceptions and Distortions of the Mass Line Method of Leadership

Another preliminary task is to briefly characterize the most common misconceptions of the mass line, since the best way to fully understand something is to contrast it with potential misunderstandings. When later we further explore various questions related to the mass line it will be easier to see how differences over these questions can lead to fundamental error.

There are lots of political errors which can appropriately be viewed as being based (at least in part) on misconceptions of the mass line. These include commandism, tailism, adventurism, sectarianism, bureaucratism, dogmatism, empiricism, pragmatism, syndicalism, etc. Of course many of these trends involve other “mistakes” in addition to an incorrect understanding of the mass line but in this essay only their relationship to the mass line will be gone into.

“Internal” Errors in Applying the Mass Line

As an aid in sorting out all these erroneous trends and their various relationships to the mass line I would like to first draw a distinction between 1) errors which are primarily internal to the mass line method itself, and 2) those which are primarily external (but still related) to it. [However, some people have found this section a little confusing; if so, you may wish to just jump to the chart at the end of this chapter which summarizes the two main ways of misinterpreting the mass line, as compared with Mao’s understanding of it.]

To see what I am getting at here by “internal” errors it is helpful to recall the remark made in chapter 1 that quite often commentators seize upon only a single aspect of the mass line and fail to recognize its other aspects. In the last chapter three basic steps in the mass line method were listed: 1) gathering the ideas of the masses; 2) concentrating the ideas of the masses with the aid of Marxist theory and an evaluation of the objective situation; and 3) returning the concentrated ideas to the masses. It would be an example of an “internal” error in understanding (or applying) the mass line to seize upon just one or two of these steps and ignore the other(s), or to give undue emphasis to one step at the expense of the others. Of course of these three steps the third is least likely to be ignored by anyone consciously seeking to apply a method of leadership—to lead, some kind of line must be put out to the masses—and therefore the most common errors here are to seize upon the first step and ignore the second, or vice-versa.

Rightist Internal Errors

It is a rightist error to recognize the first step in the mass line method but not the second. Someone holding this view of the mass line understands the importance of gathering the ideas of the masses but fails to recognize the necessity of processing these ideas with the aid of Marxist theory. Of course there must still be some method of choosing between the various contradictory views of the masses which have been gathered. Since for these rightists the choice is not made on the basis of Marxist theory it has to be made on some other basis, which often means choosing whichever view the majority of the masses support. This conception of the mass line, which I will call the bourgeois-populist conception, can be characterized by the slogan “Whatever the masses already understand and want to do is right”. This idealizes the masses and as much as views the majority as infallible. The Marxist view, in contrast, is that while among the masses there exist many important correct ideas, these are by no means always shared by the majority. In general such vital ideas are first held only by a few people and only after the full application of the mass line—including wide and persistent propagation of these concentrated correct ideas among the masses—will the majority come to share these ideas.

A concomitant rightist view is that the mass line is “simply a set of techniques” for mobilizing the masses. Such a characterization makes it sound like anybody—even the bourgeoisie—could use the mass line. This is akin to bourgeois populism in that it also leaves out step two of the three-part mass line method, processing the ideas of the masses with the aid of Marxist theory. The bourgeoisie is obviously not going to be able to do this, nor will they want to. It is important to recognize that there is a technique to the mass line, a technique which has to be mastered. But part of this technique involves the application of Marxist theory to process the ideas of the masses. To speak of the technique of the mass line in opposition to employing Marxist theory is absurd. (See chapter 35.)

The bourgeois-populist conception of the mass line is clearly tailist since it follows after the majority of the masses instead of leading them. It turns the notion of a vanguard party into a joke. It likewise is guilty of empiricism and pragmatism in that it denies that Marxist scientific knowledge exists which is higher than mere mass opinion. It reduces the mass line to an opinion poll, and the role of the communist to that of George Gallup.

“Leftist” Internal Errors

The opposite of this is the “leftist” error of recognizing the second step in the mass line method but not the first. As with the bourgeois-populist conception this really means distorting the step it recognizes as well, since you can’t very well process the gathered ideas of the masses if you haven’t gathered any. This view does however recognize the centrality and importance of Marxist theory and it may also recognize the importance of objective conditions in determining a correct line and course of action. But it fails to recognize that it is the ideas of the masses which form the raw material and starting place for the mass line method and that the role of Marxist theory and the analysis of objective conditions in the mass line is to process these ideas.

The core of this misconception of the mass line, which I will call the sectarian-dogmatist conception, is the notion that correct ideas do not come from the masses but exclusively from the vanguard party itself. According to this view the workers are not capable of originating ideas which can advance the struggle (except possibly on minor questions of tactics, etc.) but only of grasping ideas put forward by communists. And thus the first step of the mass line—insofar as it is recognized at all—is reduced to merely checking with the masses to see how well they have grasped the ideas which communists have been presenting to them.

This sectarian-dogmatist conception might be characterized by the slogan, “Follow us, we have all the answers”. Besides the obvious arrogance and dogmatism, this leads to bureaucratism and commandism. This in turn alienates the masses and leads to isolation and sectarianism. (In socialist society it leads to the oppression of the masses and fosters the development of a new state bourgeoisie.) Philosophically it represents the sin of rationalism, which here takes form as the view that the proletarian party somehow, spontaneously, develops every necessary correct idea, or even the view that all such ideas are already known by the party.

“External” Errors in Applying the Mass Line

I have characterized the bourgeois-populist and sectarian-dogmatist conceptions as errors which are primarily “internal” to the mass line method, which result from undue emphasis on one of its aspects at the expense of another. By “external” errors I mean conceptions of the mass line which result from an inadequate appreciation of the place of the mass line method in the overall revolutionary process; that is, an incorrect understanding of the relations between the mass line and other important revolutionary activities.

Rightist External Errors

As with the “internal” errors, the rightist “external” errors are the most common and hence the most pernicious. Perhaps the most widespread example of this is the failure to understand the proper relationship between the mass line and Marxist agitation and propaganda. The starting place for the mass line method itself is the various ideas of the masses, and through the application of the mass line the revolutionary leadership seeks to change the prevailing ideas among the masses as a whole, to bring them into line with the concentrated views of what is originally the minority about how to advance the struggle. But all this is only one aspect of revolutionary work. Another aspect is constant agitation and propaganda, the constant education of the masses in the revolutionary outlook of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. The goal of Marxist agitation and propaganda in its most general sense (as contrasted to its more limited goal in step three of the mass line method) is to bring the ideas of the masses into line with the whole of scientific revolutionary theory (Marxism) and not simply into line with what part of the masses already correctly understand to be a step forward in the revolutionary struggle.

It may be helpful at this point to note that there are two different relations between Marxist theory and the mass line method. One of these relations is as an integral part of the mass line method itself—namely in step two of the three step procedure outlined above, the processing of the ideas of the masses by means of Marxist theory. The other relation is “external” to the mass line process, though central to revolutionary work as a whole. Mao remarked that “To overthrow a political power, it is always necessary first of all to create public opinion, to do work in the ideological sphere.”[1] How is public opinion created? Through agitation and propaganda of course. The importance of this is stressed by Lenin:

...the principal content of the activity of our Party organization, the focus of this activity, should be work that is both possible and essential in the period of a most powerful [revolutionary] outbreak as well as in the period of complete calm, namely, work of political agitation, connected throughout Russia, illuminating all aspects of life, and conducted among the broadest possible strata of the masses.[2]

Marxist theory must guide this agitation and propaganda, and this is in fact the most important role of Marxist theory in revolutionary work (though by no means its only role).

The relation of Marxist theory to agitation and propaganda is a relation which is external to the mass line method itself, though as just mentioned there is also an internal relation between Marxist theory and the mass line. In saying that agitation (and propaganda) bear an “external” relation to the mass line I am not denying the close connection which should always exist between the mass line and Marxist agitation. But the point is to conceptually differentiate the two so that neither gets ignored.

The most common rightist “external” error in connection with the mass line is in fact to downplay or “forget” agitation and to consider that since Marxist theory is employed in the mass line method itself there is no need for its independent employment in agitation and propaganda. Marxist agitation is thus reduced to, and identified with, the third step of the mass line method itself—broadly propagating the concentrated ideas of the masses to the masses. This is to confuse the educational role of Marxist theory with its role in political leadership; it is in Lenin’s phrase “to confound politics with pedagogics”.[3] This is also a kind of tailism and empiricism, and of a much more profound sort than is exemplified by rightist errors internal to the mass line method.

“Leftist” External Errors

There are also external errors in the opposite direction. Sometimes even those who genuinely favor Marxist agitation and propaganda view such work as being the same thing as applying the mass line. In effect this is to abandon the mass line method of leadership since it is not seen as adding anything to the work already encompassed under agitation and propaganda. This “leftist” error also amounts to confounding politics with pedagogics, of viewing political leadership as nothing more than Marxist education. In fact revolutionary leadership is a lot more than this, though to be sure, agitation and propaganda form the indispensable foundation for correct leadership.

Both the “left” and right error here come from not recognizing that while political education and political leadership are obviously intimately connected, they are distinct processes neither of which can replace the other. They both identify Marxist agitation and propaganda with the mass line method of leadership, one resulting in the emasculation of Marxist agitation, the other resulting in the emasculation of the mass line and leadership in general.

The Relation Between Internal and External Errors

The purpose of distinguishing internal and external errors in applying the mass line is to help clarify the different ways in which it is possible to go wrong. But in real life internal and external errors are most often combined and intermingled. Someone who makes a serious rightist error, for example, is probably not simply showing a momentary aberration but an underlying rightist outlook which will lead to other kinds of rightist errors as well. This is why rooting out an error is apt to be a much more difficult job than merely addressing the one concrete point of disagreement. Erroneous outlooks, like icebergs, are mostly below the surface. This is true even when those making the error attempt to be open and above-board with their views. It is why political disagreements among revolutionaries should always be hashed out in depth and why it is wrong to abandon the line struggle at the moment when those holding the erroneous outlook first change their minds about the specific point which gave rise to the discussion. The discussion should always be pursued further in order to discover what underlying outlook gave rise to the specific disagreement in the first place.

(In this connection, I might mention my “Law of Dribbling Corrections”, which seems at least as valid in politics and social science as it is in natural science: If any false theory is finally recognized as completely erroneous by those who have upheld it, this will only be done gradually, one small point at a time. Corollary: The public confession of such errors will be even more gradual.)

The bourgeois-populist distortion of the mass line typically involves downplaying Marxist agitation and propaganda as well as failing to process the ideas of the masses with the aid of Marxist theory. Similarly the sectarian-dogmatist distortion of the mass line involves more than just failing to base the mass line on the ideas of the masses; by concentrating exclusively on Marxist education it means in effect giving up Marxist leadership of the masses altogether. Thus by and large the main errors associated with attempting to apply the mass line are encompassed by one or the other of these two opposite distortions: bourgeois-populism and sectarian-dogmatism.

Three Interpretations of the Mass Line

Interpretation I. Sectarian-Dogmatist
II. Maoist Interpretation III. Bourgeois-Populist
 Gather and sum up the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the the masses to determine what various sections understand and what various actions they want to take.  Gather and sum up the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses to determine what most of them understand and what action (if any) most of them want to take.
 Formulate a program of action based (supposedly) on the theory of M-L-M, the world-wide experience of the proletariat, and an analysis of the objective conditions. Actually in practice this amounts to basing such action only on the ideas in the minds of the formulators.  Concentrate these ideas with the aid of M-L-M and an analysis of the objective conditions into a correct line capable of advancing the revolutionary struggle, by analyzing concretely what the various ideas of the masses would result in if made the basis for action.  Leave these ideas as they are.
 Take this line to the masses, propagate it broadly, and lead the struggle on this basis.  Take this line back to the masses, propagate it broadly, and lead the struggle on this basis.  Take this line back to the masses, propagate it broadly, and lead the struggle on this basis.
with M-L-M
& Agitation
 Compatible; but in practice M-L-M propaganda & agitation are often toned down in a futile attempt to avoid the inevitable results of this method.  Fully compatible and based on the assumption that M-L-M propaganda & agitation are always vigorously carried on.  Compatible, presumably; but likely to be minimal or absent in practice.
Slogan  “We have all the answers; follow us.”  “From the masses, to the masses.”  “Whatever the masses already understand and want is right.”
 “Left” deviation.  Correct line.  Right deviation; revisionism.
 Adventurism; arrogance; commandism.  Marxist-Leninist-Maoist leadership.  Tailism.
 Rationalism; dogmatism.  Dialectical materialism & the Marxist theory of knowledge.  Empiricism; pragmatism.
Result  Isolation and alienation from the masses.
 Revolutionary movement generally growing and developing.
 Aimless drift; masses led into ambushes and dead-ends.


[1] Mao, quoted in “A Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (Aug. 8, 1966), in K. H. Fan, ed., The Chinese Cultural Revolution: Selected Documents (NY: Grove Press, 1969), pp. 162-3.

[2] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:514.

[3] Lenin, “On Confounding Politics With Pedagogics” (June 1905), LCW 8:452-3.

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