Mao’s Concept of the Mass Line–and Some Misconceptions

Scott Harrison

We hope that this article will be the first in a series of articles and reader commentaries on the mass line and related concepts on FRS.  As the article explains, the concept of the mass line is talked about often, but is often misunderstood and misapplied with bad results. This article  is adapted from a letter written by the author to a fellow revolutionary in December 2009.

One of the biggest problems in talking about the mass line is that there are many different conceptions already out there of what it is all about. Strangely enough, however, both within the Maoist movement and outside of it (including within Sinologist circles) this multitude of different conceptions of what the mass line is very seldom recognized or taken seriously. Everybody seems to jump to the conclusion that their own initial notion of it is the correct notion and the notion that everyone else shares (or at least should share).

If someone were setting out to write a historical treatise on how the term has been used over the past 75 years, including in different countries, then all these various conceptions would have to be mentioned. And I suppose in that case there would be no right or correct view about what the mass line is, and no wrong or incorrect views. (This is the lexical semantics approach that modern dictionary makers use.)

But it has seemed to me that as Maoists we ourselves have the obligation to put forward Mao’s conception of what the mass line is all about. That is, we have the obligation to champion one particular conception of the mass line, and specifically the conception that Mao put forward.

That means we have to start with and maintain a focus on Mao’s writings. And given that even in China there were very different conceptions of the mass line (such as those by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping—which I discuss in Chapter 37 of my mass line book), we have to be very careful even with writings about the mass line by other CCP members and even with official documents of the CCP in cases where Mao did not write those documents. In particular, we have to be very careful with CCP Congress documents which talk about the mass line since these were often written by Liu or Deng and often reflect their views more than they do Mao’s.

Even the CCP didn’t fully grasp or completely implement the notion of the mass line that Mao put forth. The proof of that is that Mao had to constantly talk about the mass line, and continually clarify and refine it over the years to combat a large number of misconceptions, both populist-rightist and anti-democratic “left” misconceptions.

The problem though in learning what Mao’s own conception of the mass line is, is that he himself never wrote a complete and final treatise on the subject. He first broached the topic in a major way in his 1943 essay “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership”. In that essay he does bring out the core concept of the mass line in the name he himself was using for it at the time: the leadership method of “from the masses, to the masses”.

But there are many important aspects of the mass line method that Mao did not discuss in that essay. For example, he did not make it clear there that this is not simply repeating to the masses what we hear from the masses in a populist fashion. Later on, in many separate places, he clarified this with his apt analogy of the party as a factory processing the ideas of the masses and turning out a finished product. In doing so he brought out the role of Marxism-Leninism in doing this processing (sifting, winnowing and synthesizing), as well as the role of scientific investigation of the objective situation in doing so.

So the painful fact is that one cannot learn Mao’s full conception of the mass line by reading any one of his essays, or even by reading section XI on the Mass Line of the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (which is the source of the initial conception for most Maoists). The full Maoist conception of the mass line can only be taken directly from him through a systematic study of his writings. However, I have tried to sum that all up in my mass line book. The first initial summation occurs in Chapter 3, “A Quick Overview of the Mass Line”. But all the points are further discussed and elaborated in later chapters.

The Importance of Contrasting Mao’s Conception of the Mass Line with Other Conceptions

I’ve found that you can’t simply summarize Mao’s conception of the mass line and expect most people to then completely understand it.  Most of the time they interpret Mao’s writings on the topic (or any short summation of them) in light of their own initial notion of what the mass line is all about.

According to Marxist epistemology, this is how everybody proceeds almost all the time. We try to understand new things in light of what we already know. Everyone tries to interpret new ideas and concepts largely in terms of what they already know or believe. In most cases the new must be compatible with the old, must mesh with it. And it is always a struggle to fully accept and adopt new ideas which involve the abandonment of some old ideas. It has taken me decades to understand just how difficult this process is for people when it comes to understanding and adopting Mao’s conception of the mass line which generally conflicts with their initial biases.

Thus it is critically important in propagating Mao’s conception of the mass line to contrast it with the most common misconceptions that people have. The first of these is bourgeois populism. The opposite misconception is what I call the sectarian-dogmatist interpretation of the mass line, although it could also be called a “left”-idealist interpretation. (It is sectarian in that it cuts these groups off from the masses and their struggles and turns them into an isolated sect. It is dogmatic in that it supposes that the group already has all the answers about the road forward and has nothing to learn from the masses about this. It is idealist in that it supposes that leadership only means putting forward ideas and that people can learn directly from those ideas and don’t need any experience in struggle to go along with it.)

I explore these two major ways of going wrong, and contrast them with Mao’s conception of the mass line, in Chapter 4 of my book. However, I’m not sure how successful that chapter is. It does seem to me that the chart, “Three Interpretations of the Mass Line”, at the end of that chapter is pretty straightforward though.

It is particularly important to contrast Mao’s conception of the mass line with that of the two groups named Freedom Road Socialist Organization in one direction, and with the RCP in the other direction. These days we also need to contrast Mao’s view of the mass line with the very different views that exist in India and Nepal.

The Tendency to Confuse the Mass Line with Having a Mass Perspective

One of the most common misconceptions of the mass line in this country, and around the world, is that it is the same thing as what I call having a mass perspective. Here is how I summarize the differences between the two on www.massline.info:

“The mass line is the primary method of revolutionary leadership of the masses, which is employed by the most conscious and best organized section of the masses, the proletarian party. It is a reiterative method, applied over and over again, which step by step advances the interests of the masses, and in particular their central interest within bourgeois society, namely, advancing towards proletarian revolution. Each iteration may be viewed as a three step process: 1) gathering the diverse ideas of the masses; 2) processing or concentrating these ideas from the perspective of revolutionary Marxism, in light of the long-term, ultimate interests of the masses (which the masses themselves may sometimes only dimly perceive), and in light of a scientific analysis of the objective situation; and 3) returning these concentrated ideas to the masses in the form of a political line which will actually advance the mass struggle toward revolution. Because the mass line starts with the diverse ideas of the masses, and returns the concentrated ideas to the masses, it is also known as the method of “from the masses, to the masses”. Though implicit in Marxism from the beginning, the mass line was raised to the level of conscious theory primarily by Mao Zedong.

“A mass perspective is a point of view regarding the masses which recognizes: 1) That the masses are the makers of history, and that revolution can only be made by the masses themselves; 2) That the masses must come to see through their own experience and struggle that revolution is necessary; and 3) That the proletarian party must join up with the masses in their existing struggles, bring revolutionary consciousness into these struggles, and lead them in a way which brings the masses ever closer to revolution.  A mass perspective is based on the fundamental Marxist notion that a revolution must be made by a revolutionary people, that a revolutionary people must develop from a non-revolutionary people, and that the people change from the one to the other through their own revolutionizing practice.

“The relation between the mass line and a mass perspective is simply that only those with a mass perspective will see much need or use for the mass line. It is possible to have some notion of the mass line method of leadership and yet fail to give it any real attention because of a weak mass perspective.

“On the other hand, it is also possible to have a mass perspective and still be more or less ignorant of the Marxist theory of the mass line.

“The mass line and a mass perspective are best viewed as intimately related, as integrated aspects of the Marxist approach toward the masses and revolution. I have found the most felicitous phrase for both aspects together is ‘the mass line and its associated mass perspective.’

The trouble with identifying the mass line with having a mass perspective is that it downplays or even totally forgets the mass line method of leadership, the ―‘from the masses, to the masses’ part. Thus there is a strong tendency for those who don’t actually involve themselves in trying to lead the masses in mass activity directed against the enemy, to play down the mass line as a method of leadership and to focus only on the necessity of having a mass perspective.

The conception of the mass line of the two Freedom Road Socialist Organizations is rightist, populist and conflates having a mass perspective with the use of the mass line. They don’t believe in much in the way of independent revolutionary education (i.e., independent of their mass leadership work), and instead have a conception of the mass line as a replacement for bringing revolutionary ideas to the masses. This means they are tailing the masses instead of leading the masses toward revolution; it is a classic revisionist approach.

All genuine Marxists recognize that it is the masses who are the makers of history. Mao added something more to that, a method of leadership of the masses in struggle. And what Mao added is what he originally called the method of “from the masses, to the masses” and which came to be called the mass line.

The RCP’s Conception of the Mass Line in the 1970s and 80s—and Today

I still agree with the definition that the RCP gives of the mass line from the 1970s and 80s. In the July 1978 issue of (the old) Revolution newspaper, they wrote: “[The] mass line means taking up the ideas of the masses in light of Marxism and the long-term interests of the masses, and in this way concentrating what is correct and returning it to the masses in the form of policies they can grasp as their own.”  Not a bad short summary! And here is their discussion of it from their [current] “Draft Programme”:

“The mass line is the method through which the party both learns from and leads the masses. The party takes the ideas of the masses and concentrates these ideas into a more fully correct and all-sided view of reality. It then returns that synthesis to the masses in the form of line and policies, winning the masses to take these up and uniting with the masses to carry them out. This is a key tool in welding the unity of the party and the masses to advance the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle.” [pp. 28-29]

“The mass line is an ongoing process which links theory with practice and the vanguard with the masses in an ever-deepening way—all in the service of the masses’ fundamental revolutionary interests.” [p. 37]

It was long a mystery to me how the RCP could explain the mass line in a generally correct manner, and then refuse to put it into practice. Over the years it became clear to me that the problem here was with the RCP conception of what leadership and revolutionary political work consist of. On their conception, there is no distinction between propaganda and leadership. For them “leadership” does not necessarily involve getting people to do anything!

From my point of view the RCP has a correct formal definition of the mass line, but has little or no actual use for it, because they are seldom even trying to lead people in actual struggle—since they view that as essentially reformism at this point. Instead, they have a “left” idealist conception of what leadership is—one that really means just political education alone.

In brief, the RCP breaks with the mass perspective and mass line method of leadership by:

  • Not participating with the masses in their own struggles, and not attempting to give leadership to these struggles.
  • Thus, having little occasion to use the mass line method of leadership, since they are seldom trying to lead the masses at all in any actual mass struggles.
  • Confusing educational work with leadership work, or—worse yet in their case—confusing the preaching of outsiders with leadership work.
  • The virtual abandonment of democracy and the mass line method even within their own Party, and the substitution of Bob Avakian as the font of all wisdom.
  • The idealist conception of revolutionary work as being almost exclusively the struggle over ideas.

What to Read

I have been asked what are the five most important pieces to read (and promote) with regard to the mass line. Of course, people should read chapter XI of the “Red Book”, and Mao’s “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership”. But here’s the thing: They should not think they fully understand the mass line after reading those two pieces. The RCP’s 1976 pamphlet, The Mass Line, is still worth reading, and especially Avakian’s third article in that pamphlet which tries to combat rightist (populist) interpretations of the mass line. I would recommend my own mass line manuscript on massline.info, especially the first 4 chapters, and a general perusal of massline.info. Items like Dr. Joshua Horn’s lecture “The Mass Line” are inspiring, but they are not at all good as an introduction to the concept of what the mass line is all about.

But the truth is that there are no really good, short introductions to the mass line available (at least as Mao understood the term). The FRSO documents are rightist, populist and combines the mass line with a mass perspective, as I tried to bring out in my posted critique of them, so they are basically teachers by negative example.

From what I’ve read, the dominant concept of the mass line in the overall revolutionary movement in India is mostly incorrect: For groups other than the CPI(Maoist) it means something like “organizing the masses in their own (mostly) legal struggles as opposed to illegal revolutionary mass action and armed struggle.” That’s clearly a deeply rightist conception. With regard to the CPI(Maoist) itself, an excerpt from the volume Marxism-Leninism-Maoism: Study Notes on the mass line is posted at: http://www.massline.info/India/PeoplesMarch.htm This is a much better conception than the rest of the Indian revolutionary movement, but still doesn’t get into the topic as thoroughly as I would like to see.

One thought on “Mao’s Concept of the Mass Line–and Some Misconceptions

  1. Mass line is one of Mao’s most potent method in unleashing the revolutionary potential of the masses in changing themselves and the society as a whole. He’s laid down some basic precepts but — as Scott Harrison has mentioned — he and the CPC has yet to publish a comprehensive pamphlet summarizing and concentrating the years of revolutionary mass organization experience they’d gone through.

    This is where the CPP under Joma Sison’s leadership has done a splendid job of publishing a 27-page pamphlet on mass work to serve as a manual for party members to do organization work among the masses. It has proven its worth in the Philippines despite decades of joint ferocious and intensive US-GRP counter-revolutionary campaigns; the CPP has been able to penetrate almost every major mass sectors from the peasantry in the rural areas to the workers and petty bourgeoisie in the urban areas extending to even overseas contract workers and migrant communities from the Philippines who could be found all over the world.

    So much has been said about mass line over the years since Mao began emphasizing its importance in party organization work since the early 1940s, please allow me to raise the question on — what are the class composition of the masses? In oppressed nations such as India, Nepal, Philippines, Egypt and Peru, Mao has provided a very comprehensive analysis in his 1926 article on the class composition of a semi-feudal and semi-colonial social structure of an oppressed nation such as China. However, is such a concrete Maoist analysis of the class composition of an oppressed nation applicable to an oppressor-nation or imperialist nation such as USA or Britain? For an oppressed nation, the lines between who are the core social base of the new democratic revolution has been very well delineated by the success of the revolution in China and ongoing ones in India, Philippines and other oppressed nations but for the handful of imperialist nations such as USA and Britain, who constitute the core social base of the socialist revolution in such countries? We’ve yet to see clear indications of who are the most reliable core forces of the socialist revolution there other than the carte-blanche working class which is divided into two; this is very different from oppressed nations whereby the bourgoisie is divided into two not the working class.

    I’m sure this crucial difference in class composition between the two different types of nations in the world today is bound to have a profound impact on how mass line can applied in an imperialist nation, isn’t it? This is where RCPUSA has been the only Maoist party in an imperialist nation to have persistently pointed out since the 1980s as far as I can glean from its newspaper and other publications.

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