Mao’s Contributions to Communist Theory and Human Emancipation Are Truly Profound—
But the “Mass Line” Is Wrong
The Chinese revolution, and in particular the revolutionary upsurge of the Cultural Revolution in China (a revolution within socialist society itself!) and the role of Mao Zedong as the leader of that Cultural Revolution, in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, had a major positive impact on masses of people around the world. This included large numbers of oppressed people and educated youth in the U.S. The Red Book of quotations from Mao was in the hands of literally millions of people in countries all over the world, including in the U.S., as well as providing basic revolutionary orientation for the masses of people in China itself.
(I am speaking of the actual role of Mao and the essential emancipating character of the Cultural Revolution in China, not the crude distortions of this by people speaking out of gross ignorance and those anti-communist political functionaries engaging in deliberate and systematic distortion. A serious, scientific analysis of the necessity, the objectives, and the course of the Cultural Revolution in China—including the contradictions it was seeking to address and the contradictions characterizing the process of this Cultural Revolution—can be found in works of mine, and others, at revcom.us.)
Mao’s further development of communist theory was expressed in a number of dimensions, most of all in the understanding of the danger and basis for revolution to be reversed and capitalism restored in a socialist country—and the means for combating this, which was given concrete expression in the Cultural Revolution.
One significant aspect of Mao’s thought (and a chapter in the Red Book) was what Mao referred to as the “mass line.” This was taken up as a significant tool by those of us who, in those times, became not just revolutionary-minded in some general sense but revolutionary communists inspired and influenced above all by the Cultural Revolution in China. Yet, as has become clear in the decades since then, this concept of “mass line” is not correct and actually runs counter to Mao’s overall adherence to, and further development of, communist theory.
As I have learned in a continually deepening way, communist theory must be taken up and applied as a scientific method and approach to understanding and transforming reality. It must continually develop as the larger world continues to develop and change—and this must involve the ongoing interrogation of communist theory itself, in light of the accumulation of experience and knowledge, not just in the realm of revolutionary practice but in the broader dimensions of human endeavor, including the natural as well as the social sciences, the realm of art and culture, and so on. As part of this process—beginning after the defeat of the Cultural Revolution and the ending of the revolution overall in China, and the restoration of capitalism there after the death of Mao in 1976—I have been engaged in and leading a process of subjecting communist theory to critical scientific interrogation, including my own previous understanding of this theory in its development beginning with Marx (and Engels) and carried forward by Lenin and then Mao. The result has been the development of a new synthesis of communism—popularly referred to as the new communism—which is a continuation of, but also represents a qualitative leap beyond, and in some important ways a break with, communist theory as it had been previously developed. This has involved criticism and ultimately rejection of the “mass line” as a basic method and a means for carrying forward the communist revolution.
What Is Wrong with the “Mass Line”
In examining here how the “mass line” does not represent a correct, scientific method and approach to revolutionary strategy and policy, I am going to focus on the concentrated representation of Mao’s thinking about “mass line” in the Red Book of quotations from Mao.
In the chapter on the “mass line” in the Red Book, there are points of orientation that are definitely correct and important—for example, arguments against standing aloof from and having contempt for the masses of people, and criticism of attempting to carry out lines and policies without involving the masses. But the basic method of the “mass line” is contained in the following from Mao:
In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily "from the masses, to the masses." This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.
But, in fact, this is not the Marxist theory of knowledge. This theory of knowledge—as it was developed in the first place by Marx (working together with Engels), and has been further developed since—has drawn from a much wider range of experience and knowledge than “the ideas of the masses.” (And, in different works of Mao, addressing questions other than the “mass line,” he puts forward a more correct presentation of the actual communist theory of knowledge.) And, as I wrote in Breakthroughs: The Historic Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism, A Basic Summary (which is also available at revcom.us and as an e-book): The application of the “mass line” was not actually how Mao proceeded in a basic sense in developing lines, policies, and strategies in carrying forward the revolutionary struggle. That was mainly done by Mao on a scientific basis, and not by drawing from and then concentrating the ideas of the masses and returning that to them. It was done by Mao by analyzing the contradictions that had to be confronted and transformed—to quote Breakthroughs, it was done by “determining which contradictions were essential to concentrate on at a given time.”
(In a Note below, I have listed some of the major decisions by Mao regarding strategy and policy, during the course of the Chinese revolution—before and after the seizure of nationwide power in 1949—that were arrived at not through the application of the “mass line,” but on the basis of the method and approach that I have summarized in Breakthroughs, as cited here. And I have spoken not only to correct lines and policies that Mao led in adopting and applying, but also some secondary but significant erroneous lines and policies.)
To emphasize once more this important point, the “mass line”—“take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action”—is not the means for arriving at a correct line (strategy, policy, etc.). This, again, is because taking the ideas of the masses as the starting point of lines and policies—and even a process of “concentrating” the ideas of the masses (“through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas”)—is too narrow a source of knowledge and too limited a process for arriving at a correct understanding of what needs to be done to advance the revolution and overcome the obstacles to that advance.
Here, I have to say that for some time I myself tried to render “more profound” what Mao says about the “mass line” by reinterpreting this to mean something like applying the scientific method of communism in a broad sense to concentrate what is correct in the ideas of the masses... there was just no help for it. No matter how you twist and turn it, the fact remains that the ideas of the masses—and even the most “advanced” ideas of the masses—are just too narrow a source, and “concentrating the ideas of the masses” too limited a process, for arriving at correct line and policy.
Tailing, Instead of Struggling Against, Backward Ideas Among the Masses
The following statement by Mao concentrates the essential problem with the “mass line:”
Twenty-four years of experience tell us that the right task, policy and style of work invariably conform with the demands of the masses at a given time and place and invariably strengthen our ties with the masses, and the wrong task, policy and style of work invariably disagree with the demands of the masses at a given time and place and invariably alienate us from the masses.
This statement—and this does get to the heart of the matter—is wrong, in terms of the theory of knowledge it puts forward and specifically in its basic assertion that “the demands of the masses at a given time and place” are the standard and criterion for whether lines and policies are correct (or not). It is one thing, it is important, to be aware and mindful of the sentiments of the masses (including the fact that those sentiments will not be “uniform” and static: different people among “the masses” will have different sentiments, and the sentiments of masses may significantly change with changing conditions). It is another thing—it is not a correct approach—to make the sentiments (or “demands”) of the masses the basis for communist policy at any given time.
The reality is that, under this capitalist-imperialist system (or any system of exploitation and oppression), the sentiments and demands of masses are to a very large extent shaped by the operation of this system—its economic system of exploitation, its social relations of oppression, and the political institutions and dominant culture that constantly and massively rationalize and reinforce this exploitation and oppression. (Even in socialist society, it will be the case that among the masses there will be ideas which still reflect, to varying degrees, the influence of exploitative and oppressive relations, which it is not possible to entirely eliminate within socialist society, and which will continue to characterize much of the world during what will be a protracted process of advancing to communism throughout the world.)
It is not hard to see how “taking the ideas of the masses” as the starting point for communist strategy, policy, etc.—and operating according to the standard that “the right task, policy and style of work invariably conform with the demands of the masses at a given time and place”—can easily lead to tailing very wrong ideas and “demands” that masses of people may have at any given time. More than a few communists have fallen precisely into this kind of tailing by applying the “mass line.” In opposition to that, one reason why it is important to be aware and mindful of the sentiments of the masses is that this is necessary in order to effectively struggle against sentiments and demands of (at least many of) the masses, in different situations—rather than simply seeking to “concentrate” the ideas of the masses at any given point. And here it is important to emphasize that it is possible to determine, and act in accordance with, what are the real objective interests of the masses of people—in particular situations and overall in fundamental terms—not by tailing the masses, but by making a scientific analysis, and applying that scientific analysis.
Resolving a Critical Contradiction—Between the Erroneous Concept of “Mass Line” and the Actual Basis for Advancing Communist Revolution
It is fortunate that applying the “mass line” is not how Mao actually developed the decisive lines—strategy, policy, etc.—in leading the Chinese revolution to victory in 1949 and then carrying forward the revolution, in the conditions of the new socialist society, reaching its highest peak in the Cultural Revolution, before this was reversed after Mao’s death in 1976. As emphasized above, in citing Breakthroughs, this was done by Mao by analyzing the contradictions that had to be confronted and transformed—by “determining which contradictions were essential to concentrate on at a given time.”
Yet, there is a critical contradiction here, between the actual method and approach Mao applied in developing line and policy, and what he puts forward in the “mass line” as the basis for doing this. This contradiction needs to be resolved—and can only be positively resolved—by adopting and systematically applying a scientific method and approach to understanding and transforming reality, in the development and application of a communist line (including strategy and policy at any given time), in opposition to the incorrect method and approach of “mass line.”
And this transformation of reality will include, as a very significant aspect, waging ideological struggle to transform wrong ways of thinking among masses of people, winning them to a revolutionary outlook and objectives, based on the scientific approach to reality which, in the main, has characterized communism from its beginning, and which has been further developed, in a more consistently scientific way, with the new communism.
An Important Note
As alluded to above, the following are (some of the) major decisions—correct and important decisions—regarding strategy, policy, etc., that were adopted by Mao, in the course of the Chinese revolution, not through the application of the “mass line,” but by analyzing the contradictions that had to be confronted and transformed—by “determining which contradictions were essential to concentrate on at a given time.”
* Initiating the revolutionary armed struggle in the late 1920s against the ruling forces concentrated in the Kuomintang government, headed by Chiang Kai-shek (and backed by the major “western” imperialists).
* In the mid-1930s, in the context of the invasion and occupation of China by Japanese imperialism, the shift from fighting against the Kuomintang to the United Front with the Kuomintang against Japan.
* The decision to negotiate with the Kuomintang at the end of WW 2, in 1945... and the resumption of people’s war—now directed against the Kuomintang—after the breakdown of those negotiations.
* The decision to enter the Korean War in 1950, after the invading imperialist forces, led by the U.S., were occupying parts of North Korea and advancing toward the Chinese border with North Korea (and the commander of those imperialist forces, MacArthur, was threatening to directly attack China).
* The initiation and the course of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Once again, none of these—and other major decisions, involving the adoption (and changing) of strategy and policies—were based on the mass line, but on an analysis, and ranking, of contradictions.
At the same time, it is necessary to recognize that, although in the main and overwhelmingly through the course of the Chinese revolution—both before and after the achievement of nationwide victory in 1949—the lines and policies adopted with Mao’s leadership were correct and led to crucial advances for the revolution, a sharp example where that was not the case is the policy adopted by China in the early 1970s which could be characterized as an “opening to the West.” This involved not simply the establishment of relations with the U.S., in order to make use of contradictions between the U.S. and its main rival at that time, the Soviet Union. In reality the Chinese approach to international relations and developments, in this period, flowed from an incorrect analysis that the Soviet Union was then the main enemy of the people of the world. There was a definite tendency to evaluate and approach things internationally in terms of how they contributed, or not, to opposing the Soviet Union’s goals and moves in the international arena. (Since the 1950s, the Soviet Union had no longer been a socialist country but had become a capitalist-imperialist power, even as it continued, for some time, to present itself as socialist. Mao and the Chinese Communist Party he led very correctly and importantly analyzed that the Soviet Union had become “social imperialist”—socialist in name but imperialist in fact—but it was not correct, and did real damage, to single out the Soviet Union as the main enemy of the people of the world, and to act—and encourage others to act—in line with this ill-founded analysis.)
One of the most harmful dimensions of this was the support given by China to terribly oppressive governments in the Third World, such as the regime of torture headed by the Shah of Iran and the Marcos regime in the Philippines (a country where, ironically, Maoist revolutionaries were then waging an armed struggle against that very regime).
These serious errors were a reflection and expression both of real necessity—not least the actual threat of a major attack on China by the Soviet Union—but also of nationalist tendencies on Mao’s part (tendencies to evaluate things principally in terms of their effect on China) which were posed, secondarily but significantly, against Mao’s overall communist/internationalist orientation.
In my Memoir (From Ike to Mao and Beyond), I recount a situation where, in the course of a visit to China in 1974, I (together with another person who was part of that visit) raised criticism and waged struggle with representatives of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party over these very wrong and harmful policies. And, beginning with Conquer the World and Advancing the World Revolutionary Movement: Questions of Strategic Orientation in the 1980s, I have made a critical analysis of this wrong policy. (Conquer The World? The International Proletariat Must and Will and Advancing the World Revolutionary Movement: Questions of Strategic Orientation are both available at revcom.us in BA’s Collected Works.)
At the same time, this necessary, scientifically-based criticism has been made in the context of the equally scientifically-based analysis that even while this very wrong policy was being carried out and did real harm, in the first part of the 1970s, Mao and those following his leadership in the Chinese Communist Party did continue to support various revolutionary struggles in different parts of the world during that time, while also giving leadership to the Cultural Revolution within China itself—which, as I have spoken to here, was not only an unprecedented revolutionary movement of masses of people in China itself but was a profound inspiration to literally hundreds of millions of oppressed and revolutionary-minded people throughout the world.
Once more, despite these significant errors, in the main and overwhelmingly, through the course of the Chinese revolution—both before and after the achievement of nationwide victory in 1949—the lines and policies adopted with Mao’s leadership were correct and led to crucial advances for the revolution in China while making crucial contributions to this revolution in the world as a whole. As emphasized at the beginning, as an overall assessment it is true that Mao’s contributions to communist theory and human emancipation are truly profound.