Mass Line: Communist Organization and the Masses

By Jan Makandal
(April 5, 2010)

Mass line is a fundamental principle.

In the political struggle, it is most important for an organization to constantly define its relationship with the masses. In the case of political struggle in the interest of working people, and particularly in the interest of the working class and all classes that are under domination and under exploitation, there is a fundamental principle that needs to be applied to the relationship of an organization with the masses, with all the classes that constitute the masses. This principle is Mass Line.

To better understand this fundamental principle, Mass Line, it is important that we take in consideration other important fundamental principles and positions. The ideological emancipation, meaning the appropriation of workers of their theories guiding their struggles against capitalism, could only be achieved, constructed by workers in their autonomous struggle. Another important principle is the role of social agents [humans] in social relations, in particular their roles in economic relations that determine the development of their social consciousness. But, at the same time, it is important that we take in consideration another important aspect: as long there are classes, there will be class struggle at three levels, economic, ideological and political, with the political level as the principal level addressing the struggle for political power. Even when consciousness is determined by the role of agents in social relations, this consciousness is also the result of class struggles. It is the result of social relations. It reflects class domination at all levels, and likewise the resistance to class domination at all levels. To develop, to construct a Mass Line, we must take in consideration these abovementioned principles. A mass line is based on them.

Only the workers can realize their own emancipation

The working people, in particular the working class, must autonomously organize in order to realize their emancipation. They must play their role at all levels, theoretical, ideological and political to achieve emancipation. The emancipation process will start from the work to autonomously organize and from all types and forms of struggle.

Social consciousness is the result of social relations

It reflects class domination and at the same time, it is engendered by the material basis of the class relations. Hence, the social consciousness corresponding to the radical transformation of a social formation finds its material base, its source of struggle, in the class that is most exploited in the social relations. In the capitalist mode of production or in social formations dominated by capitalism and imperialism, we will find this material basis in particular in the working class. Spontaneously, this class-consciousness starts to take form in its most basic primitive form as class instinct. This class instinct, embedded in the social relations, is born out of the contradictory struggle between imposed dominant ideological processes and structures and nascent rebellion against them, in the broader class struggle. As such, it is not yet able to fully develop itself and can even be deformed. This class instinct is at the level of perceptual knowledge and core ideological values stemming from resistance to objective class relations of domination, oppression and exploitation, as the workers start to take consciousness of their situations.

The limit of spontaneous struggles

Class instinct is very concrete and manifests itself in different forms. It’s important to take this level of consciousness seriously in order to develop it in the interest of working people, specifically the proletariat. We must consider class instinct seriously for the following reasons:

We must be clear on its limitations, how far these limitations can take us, on the impact of these limits on the line being offered to workers and the masses. Taking these limits into consideration, clearly class instinct by itself cannot generate the science or the culture needed to guide the revolutionary process through the destruction of the old repressive structures and the construction of the new emancipated structures. Most of the time, these limits don’t even exceed struggle for reforms and reformism.

Spontaneous consciousness needs to be channeled to confront the problematic of destroying the system of domination and exploitation.

If we remain in the limit of spontaneous struggles, we will face many deviations. The possibility for working class struggle to be recuperated is even higher; we are letting ourselves open for the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie to easily influence working people’s struggles. If the working class remains at the level of spontaneous struggle, the class will develop a tendency for reactive practices that are not thought through and that are not part of an overall tactical and strategic line, which tends to lead finally to economism, terrorism, and populism.

It must clear that a Mass line, the implementation of a Mass line, will be very limited if it does not result from organized work/organized struggle and most importantly a political line. Because of class struggle, organized work/organized struggle doesn’t automatically translate to proletarian work/proletarian alternative. We may find organizations representing themselves as proletarian, communist, Anarchist, Marxist Leninist, Maoist, or Trotskyite that are applying a revisionist line and drowning in deviations. Also, more importantly, inside a genuine proletarian organization, there needs to be a process and a mechanism for struggle between lines and tendencies that originate from these types of deviations: these are the manifestation of class struggle inside the proletarian organization.

To understand the importance of a political line is to understand the importance of theory in guiding proletarian practice, the growth process of knowledge, from empirical, perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge. It requires intellectual labor, with integrity and humility, to recognize when our theory is not validated in order to rectify and consolidate what needs to be consolidated, while also taking into consideration all theoretical assets already available, the theory that has already been developed in the struggle of the working class.

This process involves the appropriation of the general theory by any organization to apply it to the specific reality we aim to transform. Then, the constant uninterrupted process of general/universal to specific, in a constant mode of questioning, rectifying and consolidating so our theory is constantly evolving and deepening, in turn will give a higher level of political line. The development of our theory is in the interest of the proletariat; it must be a collective work, with the utmost advance in proletarian democratic practices, even if in some instances individuals or groups of individuals may have impacted theory and contributed to a leap forward. But, it is only with the fusion/integration of theory in the struggle that theory can be tested and become a material force of the transformations we are aiming for. It is from this fusion/integration that theory is constantly tested, verified and validated so that we can develop a process of interiority of our theory with our class.  Through this process, theoretical appropriation really and effectively becomes collective and theory is popularized. Theory should not be the ownership of anyone; the cult of personality needs to be struggled against. Theory is a powerful weapon only when it is applied, developed and appropriated collectively.

The most important requirements of collective appropriation are:

A] A working class organization, a mass organization based on class interest must be constructed. These organizations must be rooted in the working class and in the masses in order to radically transform social relations. They must remain rooted in the working class and the masses in order to transform these relations. They must develop as the heart and soul of the working class to lead its emancipation through the struggle to transform social relations.

B] The theory guiding the struggle, the praxis of these organizations, the struggle of the workers, the working people and the masses must come from the working class. Taking into consideration because of domination that theory in their interest may not develop spontaneously. These theories, articulated in their own interest, could be blocked, deformed, atrophied and we can even see the masses bringing ideas not in their interest in their midst. This must be countered. We must militate to take the correct ideas, develop these correct ideas, and synthesize these correct ideas in order to constantly elaborate a political line corresponding to the interest of the working class and the fundamental masses at different conjunctures. These ideas must correspond to the interest of the class most fertile to give a most advanced political consciousness, the most revolutionary class in a capitalist dominated social formation: the working class. In order to achieve this goal there must be a dialectical relation between these organizations and the masses, in particular the working class. These organizations must militate from the theory corresponding to the interest of the working class and develop it in the masses and the working class.

The collective organized structure is of utmost importance to the implementation of a Mass Line, from the interest of the working class. Without such an organization, a mass line cannot be implemented. There is a fundamental and dialectical relationship between Mass Line and Democratic Centralism. Without effective democratic centralism within the collective organized structure, the mechanisms to implement Mass line cannot function. Democratic centralism provides the means to coordinate and guide the gathering and circulation of the positions of the masses (stemming from the organization’s militant practice), within the organization. Democratic centralism also enables the process of debate, discussion, and synthesis of an appropriate organizational political line embodying the Mass Line. Democratic centralism also provides the means to plan, coordinate and control the application of that line at the mass level by members of the organization and to continue the process of refining, correcting and adapting our political as situations evolve.

Keeping in mind these dialectical relationships, we must strive to maintain the determinant role of the Mass Line in its relationship with democratic centralism, and the determinant role of democracy in democratic centralism, even if some situations may call for the other aspects to be dominant at times. Principled class struggle, guided by proletarian principles, is the only guarantor that these mechanisms, as well structured as they may develop to be, do not degenerate into bureaucracy, or its opposite. There is no magic formula, no foolproof way to avoid bureaucracy or its opposite (ultra-democratism), or other organizational deviations. There are no foolproof structures, committees, rules of debate, voting procedures…

Fundamentally, these principles and the mechanisms set up to enable their application make up the structural aspects of proletarian organizations, and within the dialectical relationship between structure and practice, play a determinant (but not mechanically dominant) role in enabling democratic processes within proletarian organizations and between proletarian organizations and the dominated classes whose struggles they strive to guide. But we know, as determinant as structures may be, they are all subject to the practices within them. Only the constancy of our class line, empowered by the Mass Line, through our internal struggles, can preserve and consolidate the political direction of our movement.

What is a Mass Line?

A Mass Line is the principle guiding the relation between an organization and the masses, working people as a whole and the working class in particular. This principle determines that we go to the masses to return to the masses. What does that mean? It means we must have organizations rooted in the masses, organizations rooted in the struggle of the masses to go to the masses to return to the masses. It means we must take the correct ideas of the masses, synthesize them, and return them to the masses so the masses can identify with those ideas and apply them to their struggles. It means also to take erroneous ideas coming from the masses, synthesize them, define the correct way to combat them, outside any ultra leftist or opportunist orientation, so collectively the masses can reject these ideas in their struggles. But most importantly, it means to bring those ideas back to the masses so that the masses can exercise control over these organizations that are within their midst, these organizations that are in the mist of their struggles.

In this text, many times we have talked about the working class, working people, and the masses. It is not by accident. This approach is pointing out some very important elements that we must be always conscious of. In the midst of the popular masses, we find different social classes. These social classes have different interests. The position of these social classes, their social relations determine their ideas in general, and their ideas on social problems in particular. In the midst of these social classes, the working class is the only class that has the hegemonic capacity to organize, forge unity through struggle and bring the revolutionary project to maturity. The social nature of other popular classes will not enable them carry through to the end. They will only go part way or their struggles will never abolish class domination; their struggle will always be waged under domination.

To have an uncompromising Mass Line, it must be implemented under the leadership of the working class. If not, we will deviate into populism/reformism. The only organization that can apply an uncompromising Mass Line is a proletarian organization. The objective of the Mass Line is to construct and solidify the development and the constant transformation of the unity of the people’s camp from the interest of the working class. A Mass line is applicable differently in different social classes, even if the principles are the same. It is fully applicable in the working class; in the other classes, it will be applied so the working class defines and specifies the political line for these classes in the logic of the development/alliance/transformation class alliance from the interest of the working class in order for the working class to address two objectives realities: the struggle against surplus value and people’s political power under the leadership of the working class. In this sense, the Mass line must have a proletarian characteristic in its application, in its content in its objective, by the organization applying it.

What is the requirement to have a synthesis of correct ideas? The requirements are that the organization work constantly, permanently and ardently on theory to delimitate correct ideas to erroneous ideas, domination by the bourgeois class and all reactionaries classes are the root causes for many erroneous ideas circulating among the masses and influencing the masses, including the working class. This synthesis means, starting from theories that correspond to the interest of the working class, to work on ideas/theories in order to bring them politically and theoretically to a higher level. This process must be the result of collective work inside the proletarian organization. This process should not be and must not be top-down. In fact, to talk of the proletarian nature of the organization, bureaucratic practices are to be firmly struggled against, the cult of leaders and reliance on leaders, not to minimize important contribution of individuals, to define the path is the reproduction of bourgeois ideology. The political work of producing new theories must and should always be collective, clearly taking into account the inherent contradictions such as unequal development of militants belonging to the organization. This synthesis is to be guided by three principles: centralization and sharing of experience, centralization and sharing of knowledge, and centralization and sharing of conclusions drawn out of actual militancy. For such synthesis to happen, the organization needs to have the higher form of internal proletarian democratic practices, while at the same demarcating itself from liberalism and bureaucracy. It is from this process that we can bring a correct alternative to the masses and the working class, an alternative historically determined by the level of consciousness with an objective to always bring it to a higher level.

To collect ideas from the masses:

A] If we are starting from scratch, we would need to define the correct way to identify and integrate ongoing struggles and movements or situations that show potential for militancy, depending of organizational capacity. This is also from the objective interest of the working class.

B] If our presence is weak and bleak, we need to construct an embryonic autonomous organization with the objective to construct a mass movement organization.

C] If a Mass organization already exists, it must be constantly consolidated.

In general, there must be or we must work toward articulation between all organized levels. The democratic level/the mass organized level must be dialectically connected, in a relative autonomy, to the proletarian revolutionary level. Mass line must be applicable at all organized levels, in particular at the proletarian revolutionary level. The most correct application at the revolutionary level requires that mass organizations militating at their level first do their own synthetization. We must avoid a dangerous mistake. Mass organizations mustn’t be front organizations of the revolutionary level. It shouldn’t be the driving belt for revolutionary positions even if those positions are politically temporarily diluted. If that happens, Mass line is not applicable, we are outside of the norm to apply and implement Mass Line.

To avoid this danger, it is necessary that we respect the relative autonomy of the mass organization. This autonomy is not a dogma, not a recipe. This autonomy should not be viewed as absolute organizationally. With the presence of proletarian revolutionary militant in the mass organization, the possibility and the necessity of continuous political work, based on persuasion, political rapprochement [unity building] is always there and always constant. The Mass organization should never be forced to implement the position of the revolutionary organization, even if it is correct. What is important and fundamental is for the masses to appropriate and identify really with their positions so theory becomes an objective guide for actions; this is the proletarian process of empowerment.

The proletarian revolutionary organization must do its own autonomous work in the mass movement, propaganda and agitation, determined by what the moment historically requires and what is necessary to develop the capacity of the working class. This will allow the revolutionary organization to be pro-active, not be in the defensive, prepared for what is coming.

It may happen that there is a non-correspondence, even a big non-correspondence, between the positions of the revolutionary organization and those of the majority of the mass organization. They could even be in contradiction to a certain extent. This objectively reflects the level of the mass organization. This reflects its real capacity. The correct solution, for this non-correspondence and/or contradiction, is to respect the democratic level with the application of mass line and to progressively consolidate the mass organization.

Another aspect is for the revolutionary organization to never view itself as isolated. Most likely, the response to isolation could be populism/opportunism. The correct approach is to view the revolutionary level in objective minority and define the correct orientation to surpass it, based on revolutionary integrity.

For the Proletarian Revolutionary level to apply Mass Line:

Mass line must have class content and a class interest. The revolutionary level must be aware of the class characteristic of Mass Line. Mass Line must be elaborated from the interest of the working class. It must always allow us to elaborate a political line for the working class and the political line of the working class for others dominated classes. This is not a simple mechanism, and a simple principle; it must be a class position in a general problematic. A principle that is integrated in an a general proletarian problematic where the working class is constantly addressing the problematic of class unity among workers, with others dominated classes, the problematic of its leadership as the only class historically capable of leading society to a new social relation by eventually abolishing wages and classes. In the final analysis, for the revolutionary level to apply Mass Line, it must be done from the perspective of constantly confronting the social problematic emanating from the revolutionary process.

Mass line can’t be applied outside a correct application of democratic centralism. Democracy must be always, in the final analysis, the determining factor. We must be firm on the necessity to implement and apply Mass Line. It is also necessary to wage political and ideological struggle against political and ideological positions preventing a correct methodological approach of Mass Line. In particular, struggle needs to be waged against:

Elitism: contempt for the masses.

Vanguardism: thinking that since we have knowledge we are the leaders, putting totally aside the principle that only the masses make history. Ideas, however advanced, become revolutionary only when the masses appropriate them and ideas are a systematic guide for practice.

Intellectualism: when our ideas become the property of a small circle of individuals or one, delving into theory for the sake of individual promotion, and neglecting practice as a determining aspect.

Bureaucratism: in all its diverse forms, under the basic principle of a non-dialectical relation of democratic centralism, when centralism is not determined by democracy and exists exclusively outside any democratic practices and democratic practices are simply a formality, a rubber-stamping exercise.

At the same time we must struggle against:

Followership: function in a setting of a non-critical analysis perspective. Criticisms are not allowed.

Workerism: not thinking that workers are also under ruling class domination and are reproducing, in their midst, the dominant ideology.

Ultra-democratism: a never-ending process of debate with no synthesis and centralism, so theory never becomes a guide for praxis in the dialectical relation of theory and practice.

Different forms of liberalism where no organizational discipline is respected and practice is done from an individualist method.

Populism: the interest and the role of the working class are not clearly defines. Mass line can’t be applied if the objective direction of the working class is not clearly defined.

It is very important to define the meaning of the leadership of the working class to demystify the myth from empirical/perceptual knowledge drawn out from mostly negative past experiences. It is not to say that the questions raised by many tendencies, Anarchist and other trends for example, are not valid. The questions raised by Anarchists are valid and need to be explored, but their conclusions are, in a sense, biased, sectarian. In this approach, the dialectical process of perceptual knowledge to rational knowledge is very limited and still remains at the level of perceptual knowledge, which they are drawing general conclusions from. This is what makes this demarche (way of proceeding) empirical. Their contributions remain limited and they are not able to really participate and develop proletarian theory, as they should.

Working class leadership is central to determining a correct position in a Mass Line. Mass line is applied in the class alliance of working class with other dominated classes. The form Mass Line is applied, whatever the class it is applied with, requires that we apply it from the objective interest of the working class. The struggles, the demands of others classes, are not totally isolated, don’t becomes issues oriented struggles like we sees now in struggles dominated by NGO’s. These entire struggles are waged in the objective to weaken capitalism and eventually transform society. This is the importance of the objective leadership of the working class. The organization that could concretely implement it is a working class organization at all levels. In a sense, this is a concrete materialization of the objective leadership of the working class but at the same time, allowing to objective materialization of leadership, without deviating to opportunism, reformism and populism. The class alliance under the leadership of the working class is a fundamental principle for the working class. The working class, in the revolutionary process of constructing an alternative to capitalism, has to face two periods dialectically linked with their own sets of contradictions and universalities as well as their specificities. These periods are the pre revolutionary period and the post revolutionary period. These periods are part of a whole, part of two complex realities, where the post revolutionary periods are determinant. How the working class deals with the pre revolutionary periods, the level of unity of the subjective factors with the objective factors will be principal in how the working class will lead society to the abolition of classes and wages. The working class will not be able to achieve its historical objective if it is unable to democratically convince other dominated classes on the objectives and goals of the revolution. This unity can’t be imposed. It needs to be materially constructed in struggle in the class alliance, a complex reality in its self.

In this context, our elaboration of the different levels of organization of the working is quite limited. It is important to point out Mass line is to be applied at all levels of organization of the working class. Certainly, the capacity will be different to implement at the mass level to the revolutionary level.  The proletarian revolutionary organization needs to be well aware of the inherent limitation of the mass level and do what is necessary for a correct and just implementation of the mass line at the mass level. The application of mass line at the mass level does objectively open the field for many deviations. The nature of the mass/democratic level, the objective limitation of the mass level, a level that is functioning under the limitation of domination, a level that historically aims to enlarge bourgeois democratic rights even with the objective to weaken the bourgeoisie, is still limited and puts us in a situation to face these deviations daily and struggle against them without falling into ultra-leftism or reformism. One the correct ways to deal with that objective reality is a combination of the autonomous practice of the revolutionary level and maintaining a militant presence at the mass level and doing the necessary political work to raise the political consciences of the workers, the masses and the mass organization. The autonomous practice of the revolutionary level is to construct representativity in the masses in general in order to transform, to destroy and in order to offer alternatives to the old forms of society.

The working class is not a strictly national class. The working class is an international class that reproduces itself in each specific social formation and each class in each social formation needs to build relations between themselves. The historical objective of the working class depends fundamentally on those relations. This is the reason it is an international class. Besides that, the stage of imperialism puts us face to face with another global objective reality, in this reality, a global working class. The working class, in each social formation, must ardently work to build relations based on the principle of unity-struggle-unity with workers from other social formations. The unity of the international working class is fundamental in defeating capitalism and imperialism. Unity in struggle must be constructed in the international proletariat. One of the principal elements for that unity to be building is the unity on the lessons learned from previous practices, positive or negative, of the international proletariat. Again, the three C’s abovementioned must be applied from the dialectical relation of specific to general and general to specific.

Mass line in the context of the development of proletarian theory at the international level

Some tendencies may label this presentation as Maoist presentation, as part of Maoism since we are using a concept defended by Mao. They may try to stay they agree but the concept is ill utilized. The may even go as far as staying we are using the wrong concept to define a political orientation. They may stay this eclecticism. From the start let’s clearly state that this is not the case. The working class must learn correctly from the experience of the Chinese masses, and the international working class must be clear on the question of Mass Line.

Let’s be precise. Before Mao, other revolutionary militants defended the principle of Mass line. The revolutionary practice of the Chinese people, in particular Mao, deepened this principle. Even with the contribution of Mao, Mass line can’t be the property of Mao. Mass line needs to become the collective property of the working class, and guiding the class, in all social formations to defeat capital and addressing all contradictions the working class faces in building unity with other dominated classes and defining the means, in that unity, to achieve its historical goals. We must, as well reject, all unilateral criticism of the revolutionary experience of the Chinese people.  The experience of the revolutionary peoples of China is quite problematic, this is what has led the social formation into the problems facing them now. Unilateral rejection or to just label the experiences as Maoism will not only help us understand the problems and will not help the international proletariat learn and define correct practices to overcome these limitations. WE MUST RECOGNIZE, WITHOUT ANY OPPORTUNISM, THE RESPONSIBILITY OF MAO.

To equate the victory of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie in China to a simple coup d’etat is simply masking the real problems, and worse, it will never allow us to understand the fundamental reasons of the reversal in the transformation of the Chinese social formation. The Chinese proletariat is facing new battles necessary to wage in the development of Chinese imperialism. The Chinese proletariat will need to learn from the experiences of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution in order not to develop paternalistic relations, based on a cult of personality, as they did with Mao. At the same time, we must deepen the assets of the Chinese revolution and render them universal for the international proletariat. In order to do that the international proletariat must rupture with Maoism, a brand of populism, reproducing the same cult of personality benefiting radical petit bourgeois class interests and their reproduction. We must also debunk the notion that Maoism is a new stage of proletarian theory. We are in the same stage for the last 90 years or so.

We are in the period of imperialism and proletarian revolution. All stages in proletarian theory must correspond to a new stage to proletarian struggle internationally. It is certain, the Bolshevik revolution, the Chinese revolution, and the Vietnamese revolution are enclosed in a stage and the need to enter a new stage is present. We have enough elements in the struggle of the international proletariat to do so, but our experiences are limited, very limited. Much more needs to be accomplished by the international proletariat to really enter a new stage. One the important contradictions that new stage needs to overcome, is the constant search for an individual, a revolutionary militant to associate, as essential, to associate with that stage. We almost had this with Gonzalo of Peru. The thought process of identifying an individual as representing a new stage is deeply flawed, presenting theoretical positions as dogma, enshrining the positive as well as the negative aspects of their contributions, to be quoted from to validate our arguments. This is completely anti proletarian. If we take the Peruvian experience as an example, this was clearly a complete fabrication of petit bourgeois wild imagination.

It is important, from the conception of proletarian internationalism, to work, to develop theory from a collective conception, even if, at times, some ideas do originate from particular individuals. This individual origination is irrelevant, accidental, besides being historically determined by broader social forces. The collective development of proletarian revolutionary theory is what is corresponds to the class nature of the proletariat. This is what is corresponds to communism. We must overcome the form and limitations that all the previous stages took, that corresponded to previous levels of capitalism, and the form proletarian struggles took, and the maturity of these proletarian struggles.

We must work for our theory to be collective.
We must apply Mass Line from the interest of the working class.

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