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On Methods of Leadership

An excerpt from "Grasp Revolution, Promote Production —
Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation"

EDITORS' NOTE: This is the ninth in a series of excerpts published in the RW from an important tape-recorded talk by Bob Avakian in the first part of 2002: "GRASP REVOLUTION, PROMOTE PRODUCTION, Questions of Outlook and Method, Some Points on the New Situation." These excerpts have been edited for publication in the RW. Footnotes have also been added.

We often talk about the mass line and how it applies not only more broadly in society and in our work among the masses, but also within the Party itself. And this is an extremely important principle of leadership in an overall sense. Once again, though, it does get us back to the dialectical relation between centralism and initiative, even between coercion and persuasion1, in the sense that, for example, in the Party we do have democratic centralism and this includes principles of discipline. We can't have a vanguard party if everyone just goes off and does whatever they want. We'd just have total laissez-faire: everybody carry out a different line and "we'll see who's right." On the other hand, we also can't have a vanguard party and be consistent with and actually fulfill everything we're setting out to do, if we have all centralism, if we don't have a lot of initiative within an overall framework where we're all pulling together. It's the correct handling of this contradiction that's important.

So there is democratic centralism and it does have to be upheld—and if people don't uphold it, we have to have criticism and we have to dig into the roots of why they're not upholding it (and not just yell at them about not doing it). When necessary we have to struggle with people and insist that they uphold principles of discipline, and that in an overall sense we are all pulling in the same direction; and around major questions where lines have been set, we have to all be carrying out that line, even in order to learn more fully.

This is not just an organizational question in a narrow sense, it also has to do with the whole theory of knowledge. In fact, if we all go off in different directions, we're not going to be learning as much as if, around things that have been decided as matters of policy and line, we all pull in the same direction, even while carrying out different particular tasks, and then we systematically sum that up and learn more (and, if people have disagreements with the line at any given time, they should "carry out down-carry it out with the Party members and others they are leading—while "raising disagreements up-raising to higher levels of leadership their criticisms and disagreements). And, at the same time, on another level we should be learning from many different things in society and many different people and forces, including those who don't follow our line and aren't under our discipline, and won't be for a long time, if ever.

Within all this, the mass line, even inside the Party, is crucial. What did Mao mean by the mass line? Well, one of the emphases he gave to it was in his formulation that we have to enable the masses to master every movement we launch. This is true more broadly, but it's also true within the ranks of the Party. And where we're in a position of leadership with regard to people in the Party, it's important to apply this principle, that we have to enable the masses—in this case Party members that we're leading, or members of the RCYB who are not in the Party but are close to the Party and, generally speaking, following its line—we have to enable them, as Mao said, to master every movement we launch.

Along with that is another important principle that Mao stressed, which is that a line and viewpoint has to be explained not just once, or a few times, but repeatedly. We have to keep coming back to things, going over the line and deepening the line, not only in an ongoing way through the course of carrying things out in practice, but in a concentrated way in summing up practice. And through that we should be enriching the line as well as enabling people to more firmly and deeply grasp the essence of the line and to carry it out more consistently, while we learn to correct those aspects that prove to be wrong or that no longer correspond to conditions since they've changed.

This gets back to the "grasp/promote" principle. What is the importance of it here? In other words, there is the press of circumstances and there are all these tasks that have to be carried out (and it's hard to even get a meeting together sometimes). Why is it important to discuss the larger questions and the larger implications of what we're doing, not only in relation to the particular struggle but in terms of how these relate to our larger and strategic objectives and our final aim of communism? Not that we want to do that mechanically—because in fact we don't want to do anything mechanically, we don't want to turn things into meaningless rituals—but in a living, vibrant sense.

In an overall and living sense, we need to infuse into what we're doing the back and forth dialectic between that and our larger objectives. We need to discuss the larger objectives that characterize any particular struggle—making that the universal in one sense—the struggle against the imperialist juggernaut, or against police brutality, or around the environment, or the oppression of women, and the question of abortion in particular, or Mumia, or whatever it might be. There is an aspect in which (or a level on which) we should take that as a universal and discuss particular policies involved in that struggle in their relation to that struggle as a whole (as the universal in that context). But then, in the larger sense, we should link that up with our highest strategic objectives. If we don't approach things this way, then we're not really enabling the masses (both Party members and others, depending on the particular circumstances) to master a movement that we've launched—to master and take up, with their own conscious initiative, something that we've decided is an important front of struggle, an important arena to be battling in.

Through the process of practice-theory-practice, we are going to have to come back to and continually deepen people's grasp—as well as our grasp overall—of the particular struggle and how it fits into larger things. And in that context we will need to repeatedly explain a line and a viewpoint and a method, and not simply say it one time and think that people should get it—and if they don't get it, it's because they don't want to, or something's wrong with them, or they have an opposing line, or whatever. If they do have an opposing line, that will hopefully come out—and we should be good at actually drawing out opposing lines—but we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that that's the case if people are having difficulty carrying out a movement that we launch or a line or policy that we're seeking to carry out, or if they're even spontaneously gravitating to doing different things because they're running up against contradictions that are difficult to solve. We shouldn't assume that it's a matter of will on their part—or lack of will—or that they have a bad line. We should dig deeply into it and, again, repeatedly explain what it is we're seeking to accomplish and how it fits into the universal of, say, the particular battlefront—like the resistance to the juggernaut—and, in a larger sense, into our most strategic objectives.

To get to the heart of the mass line, Mao defined it in essence as taking the scattered ideas of the masses and systematizing them by applying our world outlook and method (what today we call MLM) to them and then returning this to the masses in the form of line and policies and uniting with the masses and persevering together with them to carry this an ongoing process. It doesn't end with one cycle. You keep repeating the different phases of this, and it goes back and forth. It's analogous to and closely intertwined with the practice to theory and back to practice dialectic.


This has a lot to do with the question of the dialectical relation between learning and leading. One of the things that Mao said which is very important to grasp is that the important thing is to be good at learning, and what we don't know, we can learn. This is important because a lot of times we don't know things and people get intimidated by things—they feel overwhelmed by things, and they say, "I don't know how to do this." And it may be true that, at the given time, they don't know how to do it; but, as Mao said, the important thing is to be good at learning.

Now, while this principle—the important thing is to be good at learning—has broad and general application, the key to learning in the fullest sense is once again to be continually deepening our grasp and application of our world outlook and methodology. And being good at learning has everything to do with being able to lead. Leading—which is what the mass line is all about, after all—is a matter of learning and leading, and the dialectical relationship between the two. And, since they are dialectically related, there is learning within leading and leading within learning. Learning does not mean tailing. That's what I mean by saying there is leading within learning. The application of the mass line is not a recipe for tailing. It is important to remember Lenin's very important observation—which was directed at Kautsky2 in particular but has more general application—that some of the worst "sins" and crimes against the masses are carried out in the name of the masses. Tailing the masses doesn't do them any good, and it doesn't do any good for our revolutionary cause. So there is leading within learning. But very importantly there is also learning within leading. This is what the mass line is all about. If we're not good at learning, then we're also not going to be good at leading, both within the Party and more broadly. The key is to apply MLM throughout—to apply it both to learning and to leading, and to continually forging and reforging the correct synthesis of learning and leading.

There is also a dialectical relation between unleashing people and relying on them and their conscious initiative, on the one hand, and leading them, on the other hand. This is an important unity of opposites. We can put it this way: to unleash also means to lead, as well as vice versa (to lead also means to unleash). If we just unleash people, it's like throwing them in the deep end of the pool when they can't swim. That's not very helpful, and they're not going to appreciate it and thank us for it. So just saying—and we've had this experience—"Ok, you go out and do this, go talk to these people, go organize this"...people come back and say, [BA laughs] "I ran into all these contradictions!"

We used to assume, for example—and experience has taught us that it's more complex than this—that if someone came out of a certain section of the masses, they could more readily do political work among that section of the masses. Well, that's true, but it's true in a dialectical sense and not in a linear sense, and not necessarily in an immediate sense. Sometimes the hardest thing for people to do—and this has come up among the basic masses as well as other sections of the people—is to do political work among the people from whom they've come, their "homies" so to speak. We've had this experience where people become very advanced and they go to carry out work among the people they've grown up with, and those people say, "So're not down with the hood anymore?" This is because now there's a qualitative difference and people recognize that you've made a leap to being something other than what you were before.

So there's the question—this is why I say it's true in a dialectical but not a linear sense—there's the question of another leap. This applies in terms of being able to do propaganda and agitation, for example. People who come out of the masses, or a particular section of the masses, know the language of those masses; they know how they think about things, how questions present themselves to them—and this is all very valuable and important—but what they don't know, spontaneously, even when they become a communist, is how to break things back down to the masses, how to break down lines, policies, or theoretical concepts, how to make these accessible to the masses. How to do that in a way that utilizes the language the masses are familiar with but doesn't just tail them and instead actually gives them a synthesis that's different than the way they spontaneously see things. That requires another leap. And it requires leadership to enable people to do that.

To unleash people means to lead them. And, yes, we should—we must—definitely unleash them. Harking back to what I was saying earlier3, we shouldn't be, most of the time, finely calibrating everything they do and looking over their shoulder and asking them to report back to us about every particular thing they're doing (now get your cellphone and call us every minute) or, with every person they're working with or that they're hanging out with, they should talk to us about what to say—like literally every sentence they have to report back to us and we have to tell them what to say next. That's not unleashing people. In fact, it's not leading them either. We should unleash them, and we should lead them: we should let them take, and help them take, conscious initiative. But that's the point: they require help. Being unleashed also means being given help, given leadership. Just as we have to learn from people in order to lead them, so people when they're unleashed need to be led. That's another unity of opposites, and we have to handle that contradiction correctly as well.

This comes out, it has application, within the Party as well as more broadly. And—I'm saying this once more because it's so important—there is no magic formula for this. There is only our world outlook and methodology and learning how to apply it concretely to the particularity of contradiction and to handling the relation between particularity and universality (or between the immediate thing and larger objectives) and continually forging and reforging and deepening our ability to do that. There's no quick and easy shortcut to doing this. It's a question of constantly struggling, but that's also what makes it so exhilarating. Mao said, "Making revolution means solving contradictions." He didn't say, "Making revolution means bemoaning contradictions." He also didn't say it means avoiding them. It means confronting and solving contradictions. And this applies to methods of leadership, both within the Party and more broadly, as well as to everything else.



1. These questions, of centralism and initiative, and the relation between coercion and persuasion, were discussed in an earlier excerpt in this series, "Valuing Dissent...Why?" in Revolutionary Worker No. 1184. [back]

2. Karl Kautsky was the leader of the largest socialist party in the world, in Germany, at the time of the outbreak of World War 1. But that party had been seriously corrupted by reformist tendencies and it fell into outright opportunism in supporting "the fatherland-that is, its own imperialist bourgeoisie—in that war. [back]

3. This refers to a discussion in an earlier excerpt—"Marxism `Embraces But Does Not Replace' " in Revolutionary Worker 1180. [back]