The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement

9. The Spontaneity of the Masses

It is very easy to approach the topic of “the spontaneity of the masses” in a one-sided, undialectical way. Sometimes revolutionaries get the idea, perhaps from a superficial reading of Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, that spontaneity is always a very bad thing which must be fought at all costs. And yet some of the greatest events in history—from slave uprisings in ancient times to proletarian upsurges like the Paris Commune of 1871—were spontaneous actions of the masses. What are we to make of this? Is spontaneity a good thing or a bad thing? Is spontaneity something to join up with or to oppose? Well, it just depends. When the spontaneous action of the masses is in their real interests, it must be supported and joined up with. When such spontaneous action is against their real interests, it must be opposed. And when it is only partially in their real interests, it must be supported to the extent it is in their interests, and opposed or redirected to the extent it is not in their real interests.

What is Spontaneity?

What is spontaneity anyway? In the Marxist idiom spontaneity is unguided mass activity—unguided, that is, by conscious proletarian line and leadership.

Spontaneity is thus a relative concept, a characteristic which comes in various degrees. “There is spontaneity and spontaneity”, says Lenin, pointing out that compared to the early proletarian revolts which took the form of simply smashing machinery, modern economic strikes might even be viewed as “conscious”. Even the machine-smashing revolts themselves expressed an embryonic proletarian consciousness says Lenin.[1] The implication in this last remark is made explicit by Antonio Gramsci when he says that “‘pure’ spontaneity does not exist in history”.[2] Even the most primitive and spontaneous movement has some kind of leadership and some level of consciousness behind it.

Similarly, if we look at the other end of the spectrum, it must be understood that there is also no such thing as a proletarian movement which is entirely conscious, or which completely lacks any element of spontaneity. Even the wisest leaders and parties do not have every single detail of a revolutionary battle worked out ahead of time, let alone every aspect of the overall world proletarian revolution.

The relative blend of spontaneity and consciousness is always an issue in any proletarian upsurge, and frequently a point for struggle, especially if the upsurge is suppressed by the enemy. In the following passage Gramsci discusses one such event, the proletarian revolutionary upsurge in Turin in 1919:

The Turin movement was accused simultaneously of being “spontaneist” and “voluntarist” or Bergsonian. This contradictory accusation, if one analyses it, only testifies to the fact that the leadership given to the movement was both creative and correct. This leadership was not “abstract”; it neither consisted in mechanically repeating scientific or theoretical formulae, nor did it confuse politics, real action, with theoretical disquisition. It applied itself to real men, formed in specific historical relations, with specific feelings, outlooks, fragmentary conceptions of the world, etc., which were the result of “spontaneous” combinations of a given situation of material production with the “fortuitous” agglomeration within it of disparate social elements. This element of “spontaneity” was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it into line with modern theory [Marxism]—but in a living and historically effective manner. The leaders themselves spoke of the “spontaneity” of the movement, and rightly so. This assertion was a stimulus, a tonic, an element of unification in depth; above all it denied that the movement was arbitrary, a cooked-up venture, and stressed its historical necessity. It gave the masses a “theoretical” consciousness of being creators of historical and institutional values, of being founders of a State. This unity between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘conscious leadership’ or ‘discipline’ is precisely the real political action of the subaltern classes, in so far as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.[3]

The richness and complexity of Gramsci’s analysis here mirrors the corresponding richness and complexity of the dialectic between spontaneity and consciousness.

There is, in short, neither pure spontaneity nor pure consciousness in any proletarian (or any other) movement; there is always a blend of the two. Nevertheless, sometimes the blend is relatively rich in consciousness, and sometimes there is only a dash of consciousness in a sea of spontaneity. Thus in speaking of a spontaneous action of the masses we have in mind an action near one end of a continuum, an action which is relatively spontaneous compared to what “might have been”, that is, an action which isn’t guided by the most conscious proletarian ideology or leadership available, which could have conceivably guided the action.

Since the advent of Marxism any movement of the people which is not led by Marxist ideology is of necessity relatively spontaneous, regardless of how well organized it may be. A corollary of this is that any action or movement of the masses which is not consciously aimed toward proletarian revolution (directly or indirectly) is of necessity spontaneous, except of course to the extent it is a consciously bourgeois movement.

It should be noted, however, that although mass struggle which is not consciously aimed at proletarian revolution is necessarily spontaneous to one degree or another, it does not follow that all spontaneous struggle necessarily lacks the aim of proletarian revolution. Moreover, even spontaneous mass struggle which is not consciously aimed at revolution can sometimes objectively lead in that direction.

Spontaneous Actions are Generally Reformist

But generally speaking, especially in “ordinary” (i.e. non-revolutionary) times, revolutionary spontaneity is the rare exception. Under the ordinary conditions of bourgeois society the spontaneous struggles of the masses usually (though not always) take the form of reformist demands within the context of the capitalist system. And even during a revolutionary situation, where mass revolutionary spontaneity really comes to the fore, there will still be other spontaneous mass activity along reformist lines.

Because the dominant form of spontaneous struggle, at least in “normal” times, is reformist, spontaneity tends to take on a generally negative connotation in the eyes of many revolutionaries. It’s not that reformist struggle is a bad thing (except where it is built in opposition to revolutionary struggle), but that in itself it is of no lasting consequence. Even if reforms are won, even major reforms, they will eventually be lost again unless the capitalist system is overthrown. To mention only one historical illustration, all the decades of reforms and improvements won by the German Social-Democrats were totally stripped away by the bourgeoisie during the Nazi period, including even the right to strike, to form unions, and to hold opinions contrary to that of the state. Reformist struggle only becomes completely good, and gains lasting importance, when revolutionary ideology is brought into it, when gains in the revolutionary struggle are made by linking up Marxism with the spontaneous movement, and in the process changing the spontaneous reformist movement into a conscious revolutionary movement.

Therefore it is very wrong for would-be revolutionary leaders of the masses to simply tail behind the spontaneous mass movement, to simply try to organize it, and build it. Lenin even put it as strongly as this:

...the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology...; for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism,... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task, the task of Social-Democracy [i.e., communists], is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social-Democracy.[4]

But what does it mean to say that we should “combat spontaneity” or “divert the working class movement” away from spontaneity and trade-unionist activity? Does it mean that communists should oppose workers’ economic strikes and other reformist efforts? Not at all. Opposing the workers’ spontaneous struggles would simply isolate us from them. Moreover, communists should never oppose what is in the masses’ interests, even if it is only their short term interests—unless of course these short term interests are themselves in opposition to their long term interests. (And it must be clearly recognized that only rarely is spontaneous, reformist, trade-unionist struggle actually in opposition to the long term interests of the workers.)

Or perhaps communists should just ignore such reformist struggles, since they are not revolutionary? No again. You cannot divert something that you ignore. (What it means to “divert” a spontaneous struggle will be gone into when this entire line of discussion is rejoined in chapter 19.)

What is necessary is to join up with the struggles the workers are already waging; yes, their admittedly spontaneous, generally reformist struggles, and bring light into these struggles, to raise the workers’ consciousness. We must make them understand, on the one hand, that—while the day-to-day struggle is necessary, while such struggles can sometimes be successful—sooner or later whatever gains they make in these struggles will be lost; and on the other hand, that in the long run they must overthrow capitalism and take power themselves if they are ever to secure a good life for their class and the people as a whole.

Lenin’s Attitude Towards Spontaneous Reformist Struggles

Because of the extreme importance of this issue, some further discussion is called for both in this chapter, and later in the book. In 1900 Lenin said that

...the task which the Russian Social-Democracy is called upon to fulfill [is] to imbue the masses of the proletariat with the ideas of socialism and political consciousness, and to organize a revolutionary party inseparably connected with the spontaneous working-class movement.[5]

But wait just a minute! Didn’t Lenin change his mind on this? Didn’t he say in 1902, as I quoted a bit earlier, that far from going along with the workers’ spontaneous movement and tendencies, we should recognize that these tendencies are trade-unionist and bourgeois, that we should combat these tendencies, oppose them, and do our damnedest to divert them from bourgeois reformism towards proletarian revolution? Everybody who thinks these two passages from Lenin are opposed to each other, please raise their hands.

In my minds’ eye, I see an awful lot of hands raised. But remember first that I warned you at the beginning of this chapter that it is easy to approach the topic of spontaneity in a one-sided way, to confuse the “good aspect” of spontaneity with the “bad aspect” of it, to neglect to draw important distinctions that very much need to be drawn. The basic distinction that needs to be drawn here is between the spontaneous reformist struggles of the workers and the masses against the bourgeoisie—which are good—and, the spontaneous reformist path along which a simple endless repetition of such struggles leads—which is bad.

For the workers to fight the employers through strikes and by other means; for the masses to struggle for reforms—economic and otherwise—and to fight like hell for them; and for them to resist with all their might the attacks (“negative reforms”) that are always coming down on their heads from the ruling class—all these struggles are undoubtedly good things, and absolutely necessary things for the masses living under capitalism. But to only do this, to stay on this treadmill of only struggling for reforms and warding off an endless series of attacks, and never seeking to change the system itself, is undoubtedly a bad thing, an abysmally unenlightened thing. There is not the slightest contradiction here!

If the working class did not constantly struggle for its immediate interests against the bourgeoisie, if it did not engage in the day-to-day struggle, do you think it could ever suddenly engage in massive revolutionary struggles to overthrow the capitalist system completely? No, it could not. No matter how the enemy suppresses the masses, they will always fight back, and fight back spontaneously, where there is no vanguard leadership. The masses are irrepressible; they can be pushed down, but they will not stay down. Their spontaneous tendency to fight back is one of their greatest characteristics, if not the very greatest of all. Without this characteristic there would be no hope for the workers, and no hope for humanity. To belittle this spontaneous struggle of the masses is unthinkable for a genuine Marxist. We should glory in it; it is a constant reminder to us that no matter how bad the situation may get—total fascism or whatever—, ultimately the people will come back and win. There is not the slightest doubt that from the point of view of Marxism-Leninism the spontaneous struggle of the masses is (overall) a great thing, for us to applaud, encourage, join up with, help organize, and help lead to success where possible.

But on the other hand, we do have to face up to the sad but understandable fact that due to the all-pervading influence of bourgeois ideology the masses tend to focus too exclusively on their short-term, immediate interests, and be ignorant or confused about their own long-term interests. Their spontaneous tendency is in fact only to fight for immediate reforms, to continue on the vicious treadmill that is mere resistance to capitalist exploitation and oppression. This spontaneous tendency must be opposed; we must divert the masses from the path of trade-unionism and reformism and onto the path of revolution. There is not the slightest doubt about this point of Marxist-Leninist theory either.

Thus both quotations from Lenin are completely correct; they are not opposed to each other. We must both join up with the workers’ spontaneous movement, and build a revolutionary party inseparably connected with that movement, and we must divert that movement from the trade-unionist path it spontaneously takes onto the path to proletarian revolution; divert it by bringing light into it about the real ultimate aims of the struggle, and preparing the masses to take the big leap off the treadmill.

When you are on a treadmill, you cannot stop; you must keep running. But the only really intelligent course is to recognize that ultimately you must get off that treadmill, and that the best way to do that is to first, fully understand your predicament, and second, pick up your pace and make a great leap. Thus it is that the path to revolution involves (among other things) more reformist demands upon the bourgeoisie, and more reformist-type struggles, not fewer. The day-to-day struggle must be intensified and made more conscious, not ignored and left to its spontaneous course.

The “spontaneous movement” considered as the sum-total of the admittedly reformist struggle of the workers is the school for revolutionary work, its starting place—and a very good, indispensable thing; the “spontaneous movement” considered as a treadmill, as the path of trade-unionist strivings, is a bad thing, a thing to be changed or diverted. The fact that we can use the phrase ‘spontaneous movement’ in these two different senses explains the confusion here. The clarification of these two different senses should clear up the confusion. (But I know it won’t; that’s why the discussion continues...)

In more than one place Lenin combines both aspects of his point of view into a single coherent passage:

We must carefully study the conditions of the working class in all spheres of economic life, study the forms and conditions of the workers’ awakening, and of the struggles now setting in, in order that we may unite the Russian working-class movement and Marxist socialism, which has already begun to take root in Russian soil, into one integral whole, in order that we may combine the Russian revolutionary movement with the spontaneous upsurge of the masses of the people. Only when this contact has been established can a Social-Democratic working-class party be formed in Russia; for Social-Democracy does not exist merely to serve the spontaneous working-class movement (as some of our present-day “practical workers” are sometimes inclined to think), but to combine socialism with the working-class movement.[6]

Notice that Lenin speaks not of opposing the spontaneous day-to-day reformist struggle or abandoning it, but of uniting with it, of combining the revolutionary movement with it, and thus redirecting its ultimate goal away from a perpetual acceptance of capitalism, and towards revolution.

It is the task of the Social-Democrats, by organizing the workers, by conducting propaganda and agitation among them, to turn their spontaneous struggle against their oppressors into the struggle of the whole class, into the struggle of a definite political party for definite political and socialist ideals. (Lenin)[7]

A Balanced Appraisal of Reformist Spontaneity

So once again, is spontaneity a good thing or a bad thing? It just depends on the precise thing, or the precise aspect of the thing, you are referring to. The spontaneous struggles of the masses—even around reformist issues—are a good thing, they are the starting point for our work, the struggles we must join up with and bring light into. But by itself, without the addition of communist revolutionary ideas, the spontaneous struggle of the masses will go nowhere, will not lead to freedom, and must be seen as a dreary, hopeless, bourgeois treadmill. Spontaneity must be viewed dialectically. As in every other dialectical political process, the object is to enable the progressive aspect to win out over the reactionary aspect. In the case of spontaneous reformist struggles, this is done by combining the revolutionary movement with such struggles, and changing the ultimate aim.

In Lenin’s day it was taken for granted by everybody who called themselves a Marxist that we should of course participate in the spontaneous day-to-day struggles of the workers and broad masses, provide leadership in such struggles, help them towards victory, and help build the organization of the masses in the process. All Marxists agreed on that much, including Lenin. But what the “Economist”, right-opportunist trend within Marxism kept gravitating towards was the view that this was all there was to Marxist work, and all there should be. Lenin viewed such an approach as not only non-revolutionary, but actually anti-revolutionary. He lambasted

...the spontaneity of those workers who were carried away by the arguments that a kopek added to a ruble was worth more than any socialism or politics, and that they must “fight, knowing that they are fighting, not for the sake of some future generation, but for themselves and their children” (leader in Rabochaya Mysl, No. 1). Phrases like these have always been a favorite weapon of the West-European bourgeois, who, in their hatred for socialism, strove... to transplant English trade-unionism to their native soil and to preach to the workers that by engaging in the purely trade-union struggle they would be fighting for themselves and for their children, and not for some future generations with some future socialism.[8]

We Marxists truly do value the spontaneous fight of the masses, but we value it most of all because it can be turned into a successful revolutionary struggle which will get rid of capitalism and all its evils once and for all. The masses are always resisting the enemy, but the point is to turn their spontaneous resistance to specific enemy attacks into conscious full scale opposition to the entire enemy system. The day-to-day struggle, viewed broadly (i.e., not as trade-unionist economic struggle alone), is the only place from which general opposition by the masses to capitalism can arise.

Any resistance by the masses to bourgeois predation is of course a fine thing, but to worship spontaneity to the point where one opposes the infusion of communist ideology into it is to miss the prime reason why Marxists applaud the spontaneous struggles of the masses in the first place. It is to fail to see that the spontaneous struggles of the masses are not in themselves the main thing of importance here; what is most important is where those struggles can lead once communist ideology is added to the equation. Thus Lenin vociferously objected to all worship or glorification of spontaneity in opposition to communist ideology:

...all worship of the spontaneity of the working-class movement, all belittling of the role of “the conscious element”, of the role of Social-Democracy, means, quite independently of whether he who belittles that role desires it or not, a strengthening of the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the workers. All those who talk about “overrating the importance of ideology”, about exaggerating the role of the conscious element, etc., imagine that the labor movement pure and simple can elaborate, and will elaborate, an independent ideology for itself, if only the workers “wrest their fate from the hands of the leaders”. But this is a profound mistake.[9]

The thing that is wrong with spontaneous struggle by itself is not really that it is the “wrong kind of struggle” (usually reformist, not overtly revolutionary), or that it is “not political” (often it is political, or has a political aspect), but rather that it is in fact spontaneous, i.e. unconscious. Therefore what needs to be done is to change it, to make it conscious, to make it lead in the direction that conscious science tells us it must go to resolve the people’s problems, i.e. toward revolution.

There is politics and politics. Thus, we see that Rabochaya Mysl [Economist newspaper] does not so much deny the political struggle as it bows to its spontaneity, to its unconsciousness. While fully recognizing the political struggle (better: the political desires and demands of the workers), which arises spontaneously from the working-class movement itself, it absolutely refuses independently to work out a specifically Social-Democratic politics corresponding to the general tasks of socialism and to present-day conditions in Russia. (Lenin)[10]

Finally, a note by Lenin on the question of why the spontaneous struggle of the masses tends to be trade-unionist, tends spontaneously to come under the ideological domination of the bourgeoisie:

But why, the reader will ask, does the spontaneous movement, the movement along the line of least resistance, lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.[11]

Revolutionary Spontaneity

Not all spontaneous activity is reformist; sometimes it is very revolutionary indeed! There can even be spontaneous armed insurrections. But no matter how revolutionary it is, it would be better still if it were conscious; there is always need for consciousness to be brought into it.

What does it mean to say that spontaneous activity may be revolutionary? Doesn’t revolutionary activity represent the epitome of consciousness? (Not necessarily!) Isn’t revolution the ultimate, conscious goal of revolutionary Marxism? Well, of course it is. But remember that neither spontaneity nor consciousness are absolutes; rather, they are relative poles on a continuum. Thus it is quite possible for individuals and groups of people to subjectively desire revolution, to engage in struggle whose conscious goal is revolution, but to do so in an unorganized, unsystematic manner, and sometimes in a downright foolish manner.

Certainly the recognition that revolution is necessary, and that the people’s struggle should be aimed ultimately at revolution, is the most central point of Marxist consciousness, but it is not the sum-total of it. There is also the little question of appropriate revolutionary strategy and tactics, for example. Lots of people, including anarchists, various revolutionary sects, individuals just awakening to revolutionary politics, and so forth, desire revolution. But such people are by no means fully conscious, since they are not conscious of the hard-won Marxist theory of how best to bring about revolution.

On the other hand, Marxist theory is not “complete” and “perfect” either. One of the main themes of this book is that Marxists must continually learn more about how to make revolution from the masses, that Marxist theory itself must be continually advanced in this regard, and that the mass line is our major method of accomplishing this. Looking at the entire revolutionary movement including the proletarian party, we could say that it is necessary to raise the overall level of consciousness and lower the overall reliance on spontaneity. Viewed this way, there is also spontaneity in the activity of the party itself, and the goal is to transform our own spontaneity into consciousness as well as to transform the spontaneity of the masses into consciousness.

But our sub-theme at present is the spontaneity of the masses in contrast to the relatively much greater consciousness of the proletarian party. The whole point of having a party is to allow the greater level of consciousness and understanding of a well-organized minority to act as a guide for the masses as a whole. That is what it means to be a vanguard.

Spontaneity is often viewed as essentially a rightist phenomenon, but that is not correct. The rightist forms are certainly more common, and the overall rightist tendency of spontaneity is the main danger, but there are also “leftist”, “revolutionary”, forms of spontaneity. One example is brainless individual terrorism, which Lenin criticized along with trade-unionist spontaneity:

The Economists and the present-day terrorists have one common root, namely, subservience to spontaneity... The Economists and the terrorists merely bow to different poles of spontaneity; the Economists bow to the spontaneity of “the labor movement pure and simple”, while the terrorists bow to the spontaneity of the passionate indignation of intellectuals, who lack the ability or opportunity to connect the revolutionary struggle and the working-class movement into an integral whole.[12]

What both types of spontaneity here lack is an appreciation of the need for, and a determination to actually bring about, the merger of the actual struggles of the working class with the revolutionary movement.

This same blindness manifests itself in more subtle ways. It might be thought, for example, that the task of the mass line with respect to the spontaneous struggles of the masses is to pick out the few examples of revolutionary spontaneity from among the mass of spontaneous reformist struggles, to publicize and champion these “good” revolutionary examples, while rejecting or ignoring the many “bad” reformist examples. This is perhaps partly the case on the day of the seizure of power itself. But most of the time, things are not so simple. What Marxists are trying to do is not to find the “best” kind of spontaneity, but to transform all spontaneity into consciousness to the maximum degree possible. Even the most “revolutionary” spontaneity of the masses themselves can sometimes be more of a problem, more of an obstacle to revolution than it is a step towards it.

An example was the spontaneous mass upsurge in Russia during the “April Days” of 1917, which came close to pulling the Bolsheviks into a premature insurrection. As Lenin recounted the story several years later,

The first crisis occurred on April 20. Milyukov’s Note on the Dardanelles showed the government up for what it was—an imperialist government. After this the armed masses of the soldiery moved against the building of the government and overthrew Milyukov. They were led by a non-Party man named Linde. This movement had not been organized by the Party. We characterized that movement at the time as follows: something more than an armed demonstration, and something less than an armed uprising. At our conference on April 22 the Left trend demanded the immediate overthrow of the Government. The Central Committee, on the contrary, declared against the slogan of civil war, and we instructed all agitators in the provinces to deny the outrageous lie about the Bolsheviks wanting civil war. On April 22 I wrote that the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government” was incorrect, since if we did not have the majority of the people behind us this slogan would be either an empty phrase or adventurism.[13]

It is of course true that the role of revolutionary spontaneity in the Russian revolution was overwhelmingly positive, and examples like the above were the exception. (Furthermore, there were even positive aspects in cases like the above; it graphically showed the rapid trend of development in the mood of the masses toward revolution, for example, even if it also illustrated that things were not quite ripe yet.)

To some extent it is in fact necessary to tail after revolutionary spontaneity in the midst of an actual revolution. It is none other than Lenin who said that “when there are objective conditions for a direct revolutionary onslaught by the masses, the Party’s supreme political task is ‘to serve the spontaneous movement’.”[14] (There is indeed spontaneity and spontaneity!) Sometimes what are apparently “rash” acts by the masses may be needed to set the proletarian party itself in motion. But the goal is always to change spontaneity (revolutionary or otherwise) into consciousness, to transform positive experience into guiding theory, and to also learn from negative experience.

So then, is revolutionary mass spontaneity good or bad? The answer is that, in general, like almost all mass spontaneity, it has both a good side and a bad side. The good side is that it is very serious opposition to the bourgeoisie, and more conscious in one very important respect than reformist spontaneity—namely, it is conscious of the need for revolution. But the bad side is that it is still generally unconscious in important respects of how to bring about revolution, it is still disorganized, still far more prone to defeat than conscious revolutionary struggle lead by a genuine communist party. Just as with reformist spontaneity, revolutionary spontaneity has two opposite sides, and our goal must be to resolve the contradiction by helping the positive aspect overpower the negative aspect. In both cases the way to do that is to bring more consciousness to the spontaneously acting masses. Often that consciousness already exists in the ideology of the proletarian party. Sometimes it must be developed on the spot, new consciousness must be created then and there from the ideas and creations of the masses themselves. And it is here where the mass line really shines!

The party must seriously study mass spontaneity, with the aid of the mass line, to discover new ideas and creations of the masses that can advance the revolution. Such discoveries will be found in both “reformist” and “revolutionary” mass spontaneity, as well as in spontaneous mass activity that is quite ambiguous as to whether it is reformist or revolutionary. Thus whether the masses involved in the creation of the Soviets in 1917 viewed their creation as a step towards socialist revolution or simply further reform was initially irrelevant. What was most important was that in fact the creation of the Soviets was a critically important step towards revolution. The Mensheviks who controlled the Soviets during most of 1917 certainly did not view them as a means to proletarian revolution (whatever they may have said at the time); but the Bolsheviks did view the Soviets as a revolutionary weapon, and proceeded to help the masses use them for just that purpose.

Thus it is possible that spontaneous struggle by the masses can be turned into steps towards revolution, even if it is not originally so considered by the masses involved. The key thing is not really whether the spontaneous struggle is originally viewed as revolutionary by the masses, but whether it can be made to serve that purpose. Communists must attempt to turn all the spontaneous struggles of the masses in the direction of revolution, try to make all of them into stepping stones towards that great goal. Certainly in some cases we will be more successful than in other cases, but that should always be our conscious task.

It is of course true that many reformist issues are paltry, and cannot really serve as direct stepping stones to anything revolutionary. But not all steps toward a goal are direct steps, and even small spontaneous reformist struggles can often help generate a climate of class struggle into which revolution can be added. However as Lenin said, speaking of Marx and Engels, “the giants of revolutionary thought,... sought to raise, and did raise, the proletariat of the whole world above the level of petty, commonplace and trivial tasks...”[15] That must be our goal too.

Spontaneity vs. Passivity

While our goal is to transform spontaneity into consciousness, we must recognize that this requires an enthusiasm for mass spontaneity on our part so that we have something to start with, something which can be transformed. It is like finding a diamond. Of course the diamond must be transformed from a rough, raw stone that looks like a misshapen piece of glass; of course its whole value lies in the fact that it can be transformed into a brilliant, sparkling, multi-faceted wonder. But anyone who would conclude from this that a raw diamond is worthless would be crazy. The same holds for mass spontaneity.

Gramsci, who thought a lot about the dialectic between spontaneity and consciousness, had this to say:

There exists a scholastic and academic historico-political outlook which sees as real and worth while only such movements of revolt as are one hundred per cent conscious, i.e. movements that are governed by plans worked out in advance to the last detail or in line with abstract theory (which comes to the same thing). But reality produces a wealth of the most bizarre combinations. It is up to the theoretician to unravel these in order to discover fresh proof of his theory, to “translate” into theoretical language the elements of historical life. It is not reality which should be expected to conform to the abstract schema. This will never happen, and hence this conception is nothing but an expression of passivity.[16]

Gramsci’s point is a good one: the rejection of spontaneity is a form of passivity. This is true not only with respect to spontaneous revolutionary outbursts, but also for spontaneity in general. Even if agitation and propaganda are still engaged in, the rejection of spontaneity means passivity when it comes to the actual leadership of the masses in a revolutionary direction.

Yes, there are dangers in mass spontaneity. But one of the biggest dangers is that revolutionaries will fail to recognize its importance and fail to join up with it. One excuse for taking this position is just that spontaneous outbursts do tend to be disorganized, do tend to be sporadic and unsustainable by themselves. Lenin responded to such criticisms as follows:

The objection will probably be raised that the cited instances [of struggles of Russian workers] are more often spontaneous outbursts rather than political struggles. To which we answer: Were not our strikes mere spontaneous outbursts until the revolutionary circles of socialists undertook extensive agitation and summoned the working masses to the class struggle, to the conscious struggle against their oppressors? Can one find in history a single case of a popular movement, of a class movement, that did not begin with spontaneous, unorganized outbursts, that would have assumed an organized form and created political parties without the conscious intervention of enlightened representatives of the given class? If the working-class urge, spontaneous and indomitable, to engage in political struggle has so far taken mainly the form of unorganized outbursts, only Moskovskiye Vedomosti and Grazhdanin [reactionary publications] can draw from this the conclusion that the Russian workers have not yet, in the mass, attained the maturity for political agitation. A socialist, on the contrary, will draw from it the conclusion that the time has long been ripe for political agitation, for the broadest possible appeal to the working masses to engage in political action and political struggle.[17]

It is amazing that some people completely stand this whole issue on its head and imagine that to join up with the masses in their spontaneous struggles—at least in their more “lawless” struggles—is to become a provocateur. Bob Avakian responded to this view as follows:

Well, you see, when we get this charge of provocateur, it always comes down to the fact that it comes from middle-class elements who accuse us of this when we refuse to stand on the side and tremble at the power of the ruling class and instead unite with the people who themselves, with or without us, with or without any other force, were spontaneously going into the streets to rise up to fight back against the murderous tactics and the policies of the police. The question is, when the masses go into motion, when they go into the streets spontaneously, do you stand with them, do you go into their ranks, do you uphold what they’re doing and point toward the solution which is revolution or do you stand off to the side trembling and saying, oh the poor pitiful helpless masses of people, if they try to do anything, if they try to fight back any way, the state will just come down on them and crush them and wipe them out entirely, so we must stand to the side and call anyone a provocateur who dares to unite with them in fighting back.[18]

“The historical initiative of the masses was what Marx prized above everything else,” said Lenin,[19] and the same could well be said of Lenin himself, and Mao too. In the initiative of the masses there is spontaneity, and as I have been saying, spontaneity has its negative aspects. But it also has its glorious, positive, revolutionary aspects!

Preparing the Ground for Spontaneity—and for Overcoming It!

To the undialectical this chapter no doubt seems strange so far, but I am about to say some even “stranger” things, so brace yourself!

First, although our goal is definitely to transform spontaneous mass activity into conscious activity, it is also good at times to encourage the spontaneous activity of the masses in the first place, both directly and indirectly. Partly this is just to raise the level of mass struggle. Partly it is to encourage the initiative and creativity of the masses. And partly it is to give the party the spontaneous raw material to then begin to transform into revolutionary consciousness.

Second, and I know this sounds crazy at first, spontaneity, and especially revolutionary spontaneity, is not simply the sort of thing that happens all by itself! The ground for it must be prepared! The logican Raymond Smullyan, who is a lover of “paradoxes”, expressed the point this way:

I have been told—by learned sources—that when a truly great musician plays, and his playing sounds so free and spontaneous, that the listener has no idea of the amount of nonspontaneous work, study, scholarship, analysis, and “planning” required to achieve these spontaneous effects.

I shall not argue the point. I only wish to say that if it is true, it leads me to the amazing realization that spontaneity does not come by itself![20]

The same is true in the political sphere: The spontaneity of the masses comes about because of all their prior experiences and attitudes, which to some degree can be influenced by the planned and conscious activity of the proletarian party. The party can and should help move the mass struggle forward, and one of the means of doing this is by encouraging and helping to develop the spontaneous struggles of the masses. Then as these spontaneous struggles arise and proceed, the party must strive to bring revolutionary consciousness into them. We must help bring the raw diamond into existence, as well as to help transform it into the brilliant gemstone of revolution.

Spontaneity and Demagoguery

If revolutionary proletarian ideology is not brought to the day-to-day struggles of the masses and combined with these struggles, then one or another form of bourgeois ideology will remain in control. There is even the serious possibility that fascist demagogues will combine their form of bourgeois ideology with the spontaneous mass movement, and lead the mass struggle in that woefully misguided direction.

Neglecting, or worse still despising, so-called “spontaneous” movements, i.e. failing to give them a conscious leadership or to raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics, may often have extremely serious consequences. It is almost always the case that a “spontaneous” movement of the subaltern classes is accompanied by a reactionary movement of the right-wing of the dominant class, for concomitant reasons. An economic crisis, for instance, engenders on the one hand discontent among the subaltern classes and spontaneous mass movements, and on the other conspiracies among the reactionary groups, who take advantage of the objective weakening of the government in order to attempt coups d’état. Among the effective causes of the coups must be included the failure of the responsible groups [communists] to give any conscious leadership to the spontaneous revolts or to make them into a positive political factor.... The “spontaneous” movements of the broader popular strata make possible the coming to power of the most progressive subaltern class as a result of the objective weakening of the State. This is still a “progressive” example; but, in the modern world, the regressive examples are more frequent. (Gramsci)[21]

So both communists and fascists seek to start with the current struggles of the masses, combine their own ideologies with them, and turn them away from liberal bourgeois reformism and towards their own respective goals. Are these two tendencies therefore essentially the same? Of course not. The two goals are diametrically opposed; the class interests are diametrically opposed. Communists are fighting for the real ultimate interests of the masses, whereas fascists are attempting to trick the masses into struggling against their own ultimate interests. Moreover, most of the tactics employed by the two contending forces are different. The fact that two opposing armies happen to employ one similar tactic does not make them identical.

But it is important to recognize that while there is a spontaneous tendency of the mass movement towards trade-unionism, or in other words towards liberal bourgeois ideology, such a spontaneous tendency can in fact be diverted in various directions. If it is not diverted in the direction of the real ultimate interests of the masses, i.e., towards revolution, there is the all too real possibility that it will be diverted even more strongly against the real interests of the masses, e.g., towards jingoism, war and fascism. A hands-off approach to the spontaneous mass struggle on the part of revolutionaries plays into the hands of the most reactionary forces. Letting the reactionary elements have their way like this not only means directly harming the immediate interests of the masses, it also means allowing the enemy to build another important barrier to revolution.

(For more on the theme of reactionary leadership of the masses, see chapters 12 and 35.)

Spontaneity of the Masses Under Socialism

The spontaneity of the masses continues to exist after the proletarian seizure of power, and continues to have both its positive and negative aspects. Revisionists see only the negative aspects, and oppose mass spontaneity. This is completely understandable, considering their class position. Since they are not working in the interests of the masses, sooner or later the masses will spontaneously turn on them and throw them out, as happened in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990.

But couldn’t it be argued that with the seizure of power and the establishment of the proletarian state, that there is a fundamental change in the dialectic between spontaneity and consciousness, or even that spontaneity is no longer important? This is the point of view espoused by the Soviet revisionist philosopher F. V. Konstantinov:

Planned development not only of production but of society is one of the cardinal laws of socialism as a whole. In socialist society the balance between spontaneity and consciousness has changed fundamentally in favor of the latter. Under socialism not only economic but also social development is planned and directed, but elements of unenvisaged and unplanned development also continue to exist. However, the general direction of development is determined by the Marxist policy of the Party and the Government, a policy resting on the objective laws of social progress.[22]

Even though the above passage recognizes that there remain elements of spontaneity in socialist society, it is still somewhat undialectical and not completely correct. It is true that in genuine socialist society there is much more economic planning, but it is wrong to concentrate mainly on this. It is also true, that in general, in a genuine socialist society, there must certainly be a qualitative increase in conscious action by the masses, which should constantly be organized by the proletarian party and state. But it must not be thought that even in a genuine socialist society that spontaneity is always subordinate to the conscious element, even with regard to just the “big issues”.

It could well be argued that with the development of a genuine communist party which has won the respect and leadership of the masses and which correctly applies the mass line, that there has already been a fundamental change in the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness even before the establishment of a socialist society. But when such a party stops using the mass line even for a short period, when it loses the leadership of the masses, even temporarily, then the relationship is reversed again, whether we are speaking of the period before the proletarian seizure of power or after it.

Probably such reversals are inevitable; even the best of parties sometimes make serious mistakes and temporarily lose the way. The class struggle exists in the party too, after all, as well as subjectivism and narrowness. Even if the party adheres firmly to the revolutionary road at all times, it will not be able initiate every social advance. No one questions the revolutionary fervor of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but it was the masses themselves who initiated the communist subbotniks.[23]

Even in socialist society the party must struggle against spontaneous, rightist trends among the masses (on the one hand), and unite with other spontaneous activity of the masses which advances the revolutionary transformation of society, and bring consciousness into it (on the other hand). Mao, for instance, opposed the spontaneous trend among peasants toward capitalism: “In no way can the spontaneous forces of the countryside be allowed full play.”[24] But Mao also welcomed and utilized the spontaneous progressive creations and upsurges of the masses on many occasions, such as in the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR).

Some people, such as Charles Bettelheim, seem to argue that there was no progressive spontaneity in the Cultural Revolution, and that in fact spontaneity is all bad:

...the Cultural Revolution did not result from “spontaneous” mass action inspired by the illusory views of the “ideology of spontaneity”, but from mass action aided by the political guidelines of Mao Tse-tung’s revolutionary line, and from the activities of the workers, peasants, cadres, etc., who adhered to this line. These guidelines and activities alone made it possible to concentrate the correct initiatives of the workers, and enabled the Chinese masses to unify their struggles and to define the objectives they had to attain before they could hope to overcome a bourgeois line and social relationships that obstruct China’s progress along the road to socialism.[25]

Bettelheim correctly criticizes Lin Biao [Lin Piao, old style] for his stand on spontaneity:

Lin Piao, as we know, also tried to extol spontaneism. For instance, he asserted: “The revolutionary movement of the masses is naturally reasonable. Although there are among the masses certain groups and individuals who commit right or left deviations, the main current of the mass movement is always reasonable and always conducive to social progress.” This is contrary to one of the conclusive lessons of history—that there exist, and can exist, mass movements under bourgeois direction, as is unfortunately proven by the experience of fascism, Hitlerism, varieties of racism, and so on.[26]

Lin Biao’s position here amounts to nothing less than blatant bourgeois populism. But Bettelheim is using these obviously erroneous views of Lin Biao as a means to attack the whole idea that there is, or can be, anything positive about mass spontaneity. He says that “the Cultural Revolution nevertheless became an effective force only because the masses had been summoned to action by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party”.[27] It is true that Mao and the Central Committee did initiate the Cultural Revolution, but it would have been a great proletarian advance even if it had been initiated by the masses in opposition to the Central Committee. The point is not to “extol” spontaneism in opposition to consciousness and leadership, but to recognize that the spontaneous activity of the masses can often play a positive role in the revolutionary struggle. Not everything the masses believe and do is correct, but they are nevertheless capable of making the greatest contributions to the revolution.

The basic problem that the Cultural Revolution was intended by Mao and his revolutionary followers to resolve was the fact that a very large part of the Communist Party apparatus itself had been captured by the revisionists, the capitalist roaders. Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and their cohorts were more or less in control of the Party structure, at least in many regions. This meant that a mass movement to correct this problem, one which was directed against these capitalist roaders who had largely seized control of the Party, could not possibly be organized and directed by that Party!—at least to begin with. What then to do? There was only one option available to Mao: Appeal to the masses directly to criticize the capitalist roaders, to expose them, and when this had been sufficiently done, to reorganize the Party with the revisionists no longer part of it.

As we mentioned, the GPCR was indeed initiated by Mao and this initiation itself represented the most advanced and conscious Marxist-Leninist revolutionary line that existed at that time. The initiation was not itself any sort of spontaneity. However, the direction and control of the GPCR as it then developed in its first few years, was of necessity rather weak. Mao and the small Central Cultural Revolution Group at the very top of the Party could provide only general leadership to the GPCR, as the Party cadre structure which normally provided day-to-day direct guidance to mass movements being led by the Party could not yet be used. In other words, at that point it was actually necessary to encourage and rely upon quite a lot of revolutionary spontaneity among the masses!

Was this spontaneous movement entirely correct? No it wasn’t. There were certainly many errors made, especially by the young Red Guard students; errors and excesses, as well as many very appropriate demonstrations and actions. And overall the spontaneous revolutionary movement in the GPCR was both necessary and correct. It allowed proletarian power to continue for another entire decade, and for the Chinese Revolution to continue and reach new heights during that period.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and the necessity to rely in its early stage on a powerful, if rather chaotic, spontaneous mass movement of the youth especially, make this one of the most interesting and important revolutions in modern history. And it brings out very powerfully the truth that there can also be revolutionary spontaneity as well as rightist, trade-unionist spontaneity.

After the initiation of the Cultural Revolution by Mao, and until the Party was able to be reconstituted (circa 1968-1969), the GPCR was primarily a spontaneous upsurge by the masses against the capitalist roaders controlling a party structure that had become bourgeois. If, as Mao did, we consider the GPCR to have taken place in the period from mid-1966 to 1968, this spontaneous stage is the largest part of it. However, today the GPCR is most often viewed as lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death in September 1976. Looked at this way, the spontaneous mass upsurge stage was only a small part of the Cultural Revolution.

It is often said that the Cultural Revolution in China failed, because immediately after Mao’s death there was a rightist coup d’état by the capitalist roaders, and socialism was soon replaced by a combination of state capitalism and monopoly capitalism. However, Mao understood very well that the one GPCR of 1966-1968 was by itself not going to be enough. There would inevitably have to be a whole series of such cultural revolutions over a period of several decades. In the early 1970s there were in fact two mass movements that might count as smaller “cultural revolutions”, the campaign against Lin Biao and Confucius which then merged into a renewed campaign against Deng Xiaoping with hints of criticism of Zhou Enlai as well. Unfortunately this last mass campaign was cut short by Mao’s death. If any “cultural revolution” failed, it was this last one, because it was aborted by the reactionaries. Perhaps we should conclude from this that the continuing struggles after 1966-1968 should have been more intense and should have involved some further revolutionary spontaneity of the masses!

We must keep in mind, however, that the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (whether dated 1966-1968 or 1966-1976) was the very first of its type, and we will be better prepared next time. There will still inevitably be spontaneity, and that is by no means entirely bad. But next time there should also be more consciousness, more organization, and more success. That is what we are working for, the transformation of hit-or-miss spontaneity into conscious revolutionary theory and action.

It is an unquestionable and indisputable fact that as capitalism develops, as experience of bourgeois revolution or revolutions, and also of abortive socialist revolutions, accumulates, the working class of all countries grows, develops, learns, becomes trained and organized. In other words: it advances from spontaneity to planned action, from being guided merely by mood to guidance by the objective position of all classes, from outbursts to sustained struggle. (Lenin)[28]


[1] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:374-5.

[2] Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930), pp. 196-7.

[3] Ibid., p. 198.

[4] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:384-5.

[5] Lenin, “The Urgent Tasks of Our Movement” (1900), LCW 4:368-9.

[6] Lenin, “Draft of a Declaration of the Editorial Board of Iskra and Zarya” (Spring 1900), LCW 4:325.

[7] Lenin, “Our Immediate Task” (1899), LCW 4:216.

[8] Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?” (March 1902), LCW 5:381.

[9] Lenin, ibid., LCW 5:382-3.

[10] Lenin, ibid., LCW 5:387.

[11] Lenin, ibid., LCW 5:386. For further discussion of the reasons for the masses’ shortcomings, see chapter 8 of this book.

[12] Lenin, ibid., LCW 5:418.

[13] Lenin, “Speeches at a Meeting of Members of the German, Polish, Czechoslovak, Hungarian and Italian Delegations” (July 7, 1921), LCW 42:325-6.

[14] Lenin, “The Crisis of Menshevism” (Dec. 7, 1906), LCW 11:353-4. In another place Lenin wrote of the necessity of adding the revolutionary programme to all the spontaneous revolutionary rivulets, “multiplying its strength tenfold”. [“In the Wake of the Monarchist Bourgeoisie...” (Sept. 5, 1905), LCW 9:223.]

[15] Lenin, “Preface to the Friedrich Sorge Correspondence” (April 19, 1907), LCW 12:378.

[16] Antonio Gramsci, op. cit., p. 200.

[17] Lenin, “Apropos of the Profession de Foi” (1899), LCW 4:289-290.

[18] Bob Avakian, “Two Class Outlooks on Rebellion”, Revolutionary Worker, Vol. 1, #27, Nov. 9, 1979, p. 9.

[19] Lenin, “Preface to the Russian Translation of Karl Marx’s Letters to Dr. Kugelmann” (Feb. 5, 1907), LCW 12:109.

[20] Raymond Smullyan, “A Remark on Spontaneity”, in This Book Needs No Title: A Budget of Living Paradoxes (NY: Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster, 1980), p. 77. Smullyan is a bourgeois professor, very attracted to Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

[21] Antonio Gramsci, op. cit., pp. 199-200.

[22] F. V. Konstantinov, “Development of Philosophical Thought in the U.S.S.R.”, in P. N. Pospelov, et al., Development of Revolutionary Theory by the CPSU (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), p. 67.

[23] Lenin, “A Great Beginning” (June 28, 1919), LCW 39:411 & 423-4.

[24] Mao, quoted in Revolution and Counter-Revolution (Chicago: RCP Publications, 1978), p. 367. See also Mao’s comments in SW 5:198.

[25] Charles Bettelheim, Cultural Revolution and Industrial Organization in China (NY: MR Press, 1974), p. 104.

[26] Ibid., p. 122.

[27] Ibid., pp. 104-5.

[28] Lenin, “The Crisis of Menshevism” (Dec. 7, 1906), LCW 11:349.

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