Mass Line: How to Fuse the Revolution With the People

It has been argued by some that Mao’s greatest contribution to revolutionary theory was the articulation and development of the mass line method of leadership. What follows is the text of a pamphlet prepared by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO)  before it split into two groups. This text comes from Freedom Road (Fight Back).

It is presented to encourage discussion (and debate) over how revolutionaries should connect with the people.

By Freedom Road Socialist Organization

This study was prepared by a leading member of FRSO in the late 1980s. Since then this study has been used extensively inside and outside our organization and it has been reprinted in a number of different political settings. The application of the mass line is basic to how we do our work in trade unions, in the movements of oppressed nationalities, in anti-war and other progressive struggles. It informs our work on building a new communist party.

Introduction

1) The mass line is the basic political/organization method of communists. Although the term mass line was coined by the Communist Party of China, the basic method of reliance on, and the mobilization of, the masses of people has been utilized by all successful revolutionary parties.

As a topic, discussion of the mass line encompasses aspects of many things, including philosophy (the relationship between theory and practice, between knowing and doing), Marxist-Leninist strategy and tactics (united front work, correct methods of leadership), and organizational theory (party building - the construction of revolutionary organization).

2) Our starting point is this:

“The people, and the people alone are the motive force in making world history.” (Mao Zedong)

Not only is this historically true, but for us communists it hits on the basic issue of on whom do we rely and how to get stuff done. Perhaps it is self-evident that without people, very little can be accomplished, but this has been the subject of more than a little debate among revolutionaries in the past.

 

Q: Have you seen, or can you think of examples of left/progressive forces that have failed to rely on the people? What has been the result?

Need To Understand How Society Develops

3) Do people make history any old way? NO. They make history according to the laws that guide the development of society. Marxists hold that the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the contradiction between the economic base and the political/ideological superstructure built on it, the contradiction between classes, etc. will determine the limits and possibilities of what people can do in a given time and place.

The point here is that it is very useful for revolutionaries to understand the laws of how society develops in general and the laws that guide the functioning of capitalist society in particular.

For example, based on our understanding of crisis theory (why capitalism goes through periodic crises of overproduction), some of us have been arguing that a major economic downturn will take place over the next several years. Coupled with the moves in the political superstructure to slash the social safety net, this will have a very dramatic effect on the urban poor. This in turn has some implications for our organizing.

Q: Do comrades agree that there are laws of historical development that we can grasp and utilize in our work? Give examples of how this has informed our strategy as an organization.

Marxist Theory of Knowledge

4) People’s thinking is largely determined by the sum total of social relations that they enter into, or find themselves in. Conditions, in the main, determine consciousness. This is materialism 101. However under the right conditions, consciousness can impact in a big way on conditions - this is an important point and we will come back to it later.

5) How do people learn? Through experience, through practice. Practice is the source of all knowledge. If you are carrying out science experiments, trying to produce things, or trying to change society - the process is basically the same. In the beginning you try something out. If it works you sum that up. If it does not work you sum that up too. From scattered observations, and perceptions you move to concepts - to ideas or theory. This is the first part of what we call cycles of theory and practice.

What is correct theory? Correct theory is when our ideas about how things work accurately reflect reality and its inner motion. How can we be sure if our ‘correct’ theory is correct? We put it into practice and check the results. By doing this we not only find out if the theory corresponds to reality, but we often can learn something new and further enrich the theory. In a nutshell this process of practice-theory-practice...from knowing a little to knowing a lot is the Marxist Theory of Knowledge.

6) The general resides in the particular. In U.S. society there are many contradictions. We have some experiences and have read a few books so we have an awareness of them. However, we need to keep in mind that every general contradiction (for example, class, nationality, gender, etc.) exists in a sum total of the particulars. In the real world the laws of development, the laws of capitalism, always show themselves as a sum total of particulars. The starting point for most people is, “Why won’t that supervisor leave me alone,” as opposed to, “This is another contradiction between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.”

We need to be skilled at using those particulars to draw out a more general picture of what this country is about.

7) People learn through struggle. For revolutionaries the implications of this are tremendous. What is being said is that the fundamental way that people need to learn (and this includes us too) about society and how it works is through the fight to change it. Like Mao said, if you want to know what a pear tastes like, you have to change it by eating it.

This is a reason (not the only reason, but nonetheless a very important one) why communists place such a big emphasis on building the day-to-day struggle in defense of the people’s basic interests. We hold that it is through these particular battles that people learn about the nature of the enemy, how this system works and what are the effective methods of struggle. This in turn allows us to: Land blows which weaken and confuse the enemy while winning all that can be won; to accumulate forces for future battles (i.e. to build the respective movements by raising the general level of organization and consciousness) and to create favorable conditions for people to take up revolutionary theory.

Q: Do comrades agree with this? Clearly many who consider themselves ‘leftists’ do not. For example the main form of political activity of the Socialist Workers Party (and many of the sects that adhere to the ideas of Trotsky) is selling newspapers. In the same vein there are a number of organizations that say if only we repeat our ‘good ideas’ long enough and loud enough people will follow.

Methods of Work and Leadership

8) Start from where people are at. Since building the struggle is at the core of our agenda, we can then proceed to outline some key principles and methods of work. The first is that our starting point needs to be the felt needs and wants of the masses of people. Good intentions will not do in this case. They might bring us to the demonstration, but we are likely to be lonely there. So to build struggle, we had better have a handle on what these felt needs are and what people are likely to do in order to achieve them. We have probably all been in meetings where some particular is under discussion, and somebody jumps up and says, “The real issue is X or Y.” Maybe that person is extremely insightful or maybe they are dead wrong (more likely). It really does not matter, we need to start from where people are at.

9) From the masses, to the masses.

“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 action.” (Mao Zedong)

To put this another way, we use Marxism to sum up where people are at. Basing ourselves on what people are concerned about, on what folks actually want, we develop slogans, policies, plans, ways to fight back, that people will take up as their own. It is in this way that revolutionary theory becomes a material force, i.e. when people are acting on it, it moves out of the land of ideas and becomes a material factor in the class struggle. And this is the only way to test whether the theory, analyses, plans, etc. are correct - while creating the basis to deepen the theory.

 

Q: People have many wrong ideas. In urban poor work we run across a lot of people who think that the immigrants are getting all the benefits. Among farmers facing bankruptcy it is not unusual to here talk about ‘conspiracies of Jewish bankers.’ So we have a problem of misidentification of the enemy. Lots of people think we can reason with our opponents and that they would behave differently if they knew what is like ‘to be in our place.’ So, the question of how we will fight comes up. How do we deal with these wrong ideas when applying this method (from the masses to the masses)? Give examples.

10) Struggle for summation. To pull our work forward we need to be practical leaders and organizers of the people’s struggles. This role is not pre-ordained, it needs to be earned. One implication is that communists need to be waging a constant struggle for summation - both among the active elements and for pubic opinion in general. To put this another way, after having organized an action or having done something, there will often be different conclusions that people draw from it.

If we are not good at helping people grasp correct conclusions, our enemies will be glad to do it for us. In many of the battles we fight (particularly the larger ones), our victories will be somewhat limited. For example, in dealing with city or state budget crises or major cuts in the social safety net, the best we can often hope for is to blunt the effects. This does not mean that we should not advocate ‘not one cent in cuts’ - we should. But the reality is we are up against the general laws of capitalism: The rich give with an eyedropper and take away with steam shovel and the only way that many of society’s basic problems are going to be addressed is via revolution.

This means that we have to be good at showing people what was accomplished in the course of a particular battle and what this system is about. There is already an attitude that has been drummed into people's heads that goes ‘you can’t fight city hall.’ We need to help people get past that.

Also, in many battles we face a host of opportunists - trade union bureaucrats, poverty pimps and the like - who want to put their own spin on things. In the trade union movement, these fools say, “If only we were nice to the employer, we would not have all these layoffs.” If we have done a good job at involving people and constantly explaining to people why the employers behave the way they do, people will reject these Monday morning quarterbacks.

11) Campaign method. The enemy is stubborn when it comes down to defending their interests. So a protracted battle is usually called for to get anything. But from the standpoint of people learning about the nature of the system and moving ahead politically, these protracted struggles (i.e. campaigns) provide favorable conditions for us to work in.

This is because people in general need repeated experience to learn from. Perhaps folks think that if only the politicians understood what they were doing to people, they would change their ways. So we take people to see the politicians - who do not change their ways - and sum it up with folks. After doing this for a while people conclude that reason just does not work with these elements and something else is called for.

Q: Do comrades agree that it is important to be building mass campaigns among our respective concentrations? From your experience, why or why not?

12) General calls and particular guidance. At the onset of any campaign, the usual starting point is a general call: “Justice for ___, stop police terror.” But we need to be skilled with particular guidance; we need to have some clear ideas about the particulars of what needs to be done. Perhaps this seems self-evident, but we see it happen all the time. A general call is made, but no one has paid any attention to how to solve the particulars, to make it real.

This method is of great help in doing national or regional work. The call can be made. Leadership can pay serious attention to its application in several cities, union locals, neighborhoods, etc. The lessons can then be propagated to others and the basis has been created to learn by example.

13) Advanced / Intermediate / Backwards. At any given time and place, the masses are made up of the advanced, the intermediate, and the backwards.

Who are the advanced? The advanced are the active elements, the new leaders, organizers and activists. The main criteria for identifying the advanced must be practice, i.e. activity. Good ideas without corresponding action are useless. This does not mean that there are no political criteria for identifying the advanced, because depending on time, place and conditions there generally are. As a practical matter, this becomes striking when you have an active person who clings to disruptive and reactionary ideas, or who persists in causing problems. For example in our anti-intervention work we sometimes find extremely active people whom are not happy if we do not agree to paragraphs in the leaflets denouncing this or that Third World leader. Or, if you have the active person that can’t rest at night if they are they’re not the sole person talking to the press. So political criteria are needed depending what we are doing and what context we are talking about.

Who are the intermediate? They are the majority. The group in the middle. By definition this a group with varied sentiments and contradictory ideas. In most cases, we should design our slogans in such a way, that they appeal to the best sentiments of this group. Being able to move and mobilize this section of the people is often critical to the success of any objective.

Who are the backward? They are naysayers and opposition. Objectively, they generally reflect and articulate the thinking of the enemy in the people’s ranks.

These are not moral categories we have dreamed up to make some people feel bad. Rather, we realize that people are in different places. The advanced in one phase of the struggle may become the backward in the next. Recently we were involved in a struggle to organize a large hospital. Upon achieving victory - winning union representation- some leaders (from the ranks of the advanced) took to pushing collaboration with management as a method to secure a first contract. Some people who talked about kicking ass decided to kiss ass, so we have a case where a few advanced people turned into their opposites.

Public opinion is never uniform - among the people in general, in the movements or in our own organization for that matter. We have different tasks in relation to these different groups, but the first step is identifying who is who and what is what.

14) What are our tasks and method? To unite the advanced to win over and mobilize the intermediate section which creates conditions to win over, neutralize or isolate the backwards. Even when we get to socialism, the active communists are going to be a relatively small minority so we need to rely on the advanced to get things done. It is the advanced who are the bridge to and lever for moving the majority - the intermediate.

The advanced need to be armed with an understanding that addresses the concerns and questions of the intermediate and practical policies need to be adopted as well.

An example: We and the advanced have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to take a strike vote in the work place. The intermediate think something should be done, but they are nervous. So we let folks know there is a lot of money in the strike fund, we set up special committees that can deal with mortgage companies, we time the strike so that people can still get health coverage for a while. In short, we adopt a series of political and practical measures that convince the intermediate that we can do this and win.

Again this is a practical proposition. To focus a majority of our attention on the backward will not get us anywhere. We would get stuck in an endless debate with the passive or hostile. We could focus our main attention on the intermediate rather than the advanced. What happens then? The best that is going to happen is that we bring forward some new advanced folks and the process of mobilization is slowed down…what will more generally happen is that the advanced you have will slip away.

15) To lose the advanced is a disaster and should be avoided at all costs. Not only are the advanced a lever for moving broader numbers of people, they are usually a group of people who we have invested a lot of time and energy in. It often takes years to build up an advanced core in a mass organization and years can be spent replacing it if we lose it. Furthermore it is from the ranks of the advanced that new communists will emerge, so this issue has strategic importance as well.

Because this group is so important we need to be flexible. New advanced people might have illusions about the system; we should work patiently with them to correct their rightist mistakes. More long-term advanced may be frustrated and prone to ultra-left errors (getting way ahead of where the people are at). Again, we should stick with them and be patient - summing up what does and does not work in practice.

Q: Clearly a lot of emphasis is being put on the advanced. Do comrades think this is out of line?

The Mass Line and United Front Work

16) Unite all who can be united to fight the enemy. Leaving aside the strategic question of the united front (issues related to our long term strategy for revolution in this country), in any given struggle we want to unite all who can be united to fight the enemy. Frequently there are other organized forces in the field. Some of these forces are good and honest. Some are led by people who are confused or not entirely stable. And others are lead by straight-up opportunists - we live in a day and age where even the police department has gotten into community organizing.

Clearly, it should not be that hard to unite with those that are honest and good. And while it can be challenging and at times painful to deal with the confused and vacillating, bringing these forces into a united front should not be that mind bending either. However, opportunists and wreckers require special treatment.

By applying the mass line in united front work we can undermine and isolate these elements. The keys are to have a firm line or program that corresponds to the felt needs of the people, an analysis which draws a sharp line of demarcation between the opportunists and the masses (i.e. draw a line between the misled and the misleaders) and policies and plans which are sharpening the contradictions in the opportunist camp.

Sometimes this process can be quite simple. In the welfare work we say that no progressive organization should support legislation that is fundamentally harmful. Honest people, people who want to fight, agree with this. Dishonest people, opportunists, on the other hand are trying to tinker with the legislation to get a piece of the pie (say daycare lobbyists who support workfare as long as there are dollars for daycare) and can be isolated.

This is not to advocate a ‘rule or ruin’ approach. The point is that we want to build the strongest possible fight back, and to the extent the opportunists are a barrier to this, we want to divest them of their mass base and remove them from the political stage. The mass line is an important tool for doing this.

Advanced Actions

17) Role of advanced actions. While it is true that consciousness generally moves from a lower to a higher level, and people learn through practice, it is wrong to adopt a formulaic system of stages that we superimpose on the struggle. There is no rule that goes: First we pass out the leaflets, then we have the mass meeting, then we hold the protest, then we seize the offices. etc. Life is more complicated.

Sometimes it happens that the best way to get a campaign going is to unite the advanced to carry out an action (such as a sit-in or visible confrontation with the governor, mayor, etc.). This in turn galvanizes the advanced core, puts up a pole of resistance that others can rally around, and creates a context where we can have a fight for public opinion.

Create Favorable New Conditions Through Struggle

18) The objective conditions we are dealing with are not static. We can change the conditions through our work, through struggle. By interacting with a situation, we become part of it and alter it.

Q) What can your unit do to create more favorable conditions through its work?

The Marxist Theory of Knowledge is Embodied In Communist Organization

19) We are a democratic centralist organization. We make use of Marxism to analyze the world and what needs to be done. Based on this analysis we develop line, policies and plans. We then put them into practice. If we have a situation in a unit where several different lines are being put into practice at cross purposes, it is not only counter-productive, it is impossible to tell what works and what does not. That is one of the reasons why we insist that the minority is subordinate to the majority and we strive to apply a common plan.

We go through cycles of theory and practice. If, based on the practice, the line proves to be wrong, we sum that up too. In this process the line is changed or improved on. Practice is the sole criterion of truth.

Our structure has a chain of knowledge and chain of command. Lower bodies are subordinate to higher ones. There is more to this than saying our enemies are organized and we have to be to. Hopefully the higher bodies are collecting more knowledge, based on a broader sphere of organized practice than the lower ones, and are in a better position to sum up the work as a whole. For example, a member of a District Committee should take an active interest in all the work of the district. They aren’t simply reps of their areas of work. They have the responsibility to see to it that overall line and strategy of the district, and for that matter the organization as a whole, is being carried out.

Mass Line and Revolution

20) Lenin made the point that three factors are needed for revolution. The people cannot live in the old way, the ruling class cannot rule in the old way, and there must be a strong revolutionary organization. This will take some time.

We are not a large organization, and there will be many twists and turns on the road. There is no reason for us to be boastful at this point in the game. We should be modest and learn from the people as they learn from us. By consistently applying the mass line we can do that. It is a powerful tool for building the struggle, for strengthening the organizations and movements of the people, and constructing revolutionary organization.

We do not know when our class will take power. But we can be absolutely sure that the organization that is at the forefront of the revolutionary process will make use of the mass line.

 


Discussion for Small Groups:

 

Scenario 1:

You and your unit are now in City X. Your unit has done community work around housing issues, but has limited experience with police brutality work. A Latino man has been killed by the police. This is the latest in a string of police murders, some of which have had more struggle around them than others. The city government suspends the cop with pay, but indicates the cop did nothing wrong.

There are some forces that have done work around police killings in the past, but they are concentrating on other issues now, there is no obvious force that is moving to take this up. A member of the unit knew a member of the family of the person killed, but this was several years ago and there is no real link right now. Your district has decided that your unit should try and build a campaign.

Scenario 2:

You and your unit are based among state government employees. Because your district has a sound concentration policy, you are all in the same union with the same contract. Because of favorable conditions and good work, the local has been under your leadership for several years.

Here’s the problem. An unfolding state budget crisis means the employer is proposing a wage freeze and layoffs. About on fourth of the workers are relatively new, have less of a history with the union, and are very concerned about keeping their jobs. Another fourth are reaching the top of their pay scale, are extremely angry that they are being paid less than other state workers, and have confidence in your leadership. Some of the work areas have excellent stewards and the members very involved in the affairs of the union, but this situation is not universal.

Comrades you have the task of putting together a campaign for the best contract you can get.

Questions for both scenarios

  1. What are some of the needed preconditions to make this campaign work?
  2. Who are we going to try and mobilize and bring forward around this?
  3. Police murders or layoffs invoke different sentiments among the people. What are the advanced, intermediate and backward sentiments?
  4. What are the main slogans to mobilize people?
  5. How are we going to find the advanced? When we pull around a core of the advanced, what are the points that we want them to stress with the intermediate?
  6. What forms of struggle should we advocate in order to strengthen the advanced core? Are they identical with the ones we use to advance the struggle overall?
  7. In the course of this fight-back some of the advanced become revolutionary-minded. How do we move them forward to becoming communists?

Some Additional Reading

 

For those folks that want to know more about the mass line, we recommend the following readings. Not every one of these readings uses the term ‘mass line,’ but all of them deal with the whys and how of how communists carry out mass mobilizations.

  • REPORT ON AN INVESTIGATION OF THE PEASENT MOVEMENT IN HUNAN, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol 1, page 23.
  • A TALK TO THE EDITORIAL STAFF OF THE SHANSI-SUIYUAN DAILY, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol 4, page 241.
  • THE UNITED FRONT IN CULTURAL WORK, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol 3, page 185.
  • SOME QUESTIONS CONCERNING METHODS OF LEADERSHIP, Selected Works of Mao ZeDong, Vol 3, page 117.
  • METHODS OF WORK OF PARTY COMMITTEES, Selected Works of Mao ZeDong, Vol 4, page 377.
  • THE PARTY’S MASS LINE MUST BE FOLLOWED IN SUPPRESSING COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARIES, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol 5, page 50.
  • ON THE CO-OPERATIVE TRANSFORMATION OF AGRICULTURE, Selected Works of Mao ZeDong, Vol 5, page 185. Sections 1, 2 ,3, and 12 are of particular importance.
  • THINGS ARE BEGINNING TO CHANGE, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol 5, page 440.
  • THE HISTORY OF THE CIVIL WAR IN THE U.S.S.R., Edited by M. Gorky, V. Molotov, K. Voroshilov, S. Kirov, A. Zhdanov, J. Stalin, Vol. 1, Chapter 5, The Bolshevik Party Works to Win the Masses, International Publishers.
  • ON CONFOUNDING POLITICS WITH PEDAGOGICS, Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 8, page 453.
  • ARMED INSURRECTION AND OUR TACTICS, J.V. Stalin Works, Vol. 1, page 133
  • FANSHEN, Bill Hinton

 

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People in this conversation

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    This document is excellent. Thanks to Tell No Lies for posting it, and to FRSO for developing it.

    I am pretty much in agreement with each and every point here. Moreover, I would like to see Kasama as an organization evolve in such a mass-line direction.

    Just about my only question relates to the way that this document ( in point #13) defines the "advanced" in terms of the level of practical activity, without much regard to the conscious or unconscious politics that underlie and motivate that activity...It seems to me that Mike E, for example, has complicated this identification of the advanced with the most active in, among other places, his summation of the RCP's work in among the coal miners of West Virginia. I am not simply "siding with" Mike's take here, but raising it to complicate the FRSO position above. (I also however think that this document calls us to rethink some of the overall approach that seem to be guiding kasama's project at this juncture...The emphasis on building struggle with real people as the condition of developing correct theory, and creating conditions for mass engagement with communist theory, to me, seems spot-on.

    Similarly, I think that point #11 above, on the "Campaign Method" needs to be elaborated and clarified in relationship to how exactly these specific issue and demand focused campaigns are to be engaged in such a way as to create the space for broadening (and no supressing or indefintely postponing) engagement with communist theory. I think that point that many people need to see their uncorrect ideas fail in practice in order to move to a place where they will move beyond them and consider radically different ideas. But certainly there is the possibility (and the necessity) for people to learn not only from their OWN practical experience, but also from the practical experiences (the successes as well as the failures) of others who have waged similar struggles before them, here in the US as well as in other places around the world.

    But overall, a great document. I plan to forward it to many of my rad-rev minded friends.

  • Guest (celticfire)

    Radical Eyes captured what I think is the heart of the division between the Avakianist conception of the "advanced" and other definitions.

    The RCP has claimed that the advanced are those with consciously revolutionary politics while this FRSO document defines the advanced as "the main criteria for identifying the advanced must be practice, i.e. activity."

    My own personal take is that it is in fact a dialectical interrelationship between both.

    The GPCR had Zhang Chunqiao who wrote "<a href="/http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ARD75.html" rel="nofollow">On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship over the Bourgeoisie</a>" AND Wang Hongwen who could rally the support of thousands of workers and students.

    My problem is that if you define the "advanced" as those who are intellectually revolutionary you discard the importance of practice, which really is the point, isn't it?

    And from my own experience, it is easier to promote/teach revolutionary politics to those who are practically advanced than get the intellectually advanced into practice.

    A lot of this comes from the RWHq split with the RCP. Both took up certain erroneous positions and practices and others were worthy of praise - and obviously we need to critically examine both in order to know how to operate today.

  • Guest (Tell No Lies)

    Radical-Eyes,

    Your comments go straight to the questions that I hoped posting this would raise. The approach to the mass line embodied in this document had a profound influence on my own political development. At the same time I have really appreciated the ways that Mike complicates the question of who is advanced and who is not. There is a strong tendency in the FRSO approach to treat the most active elements as the most advanced. There are some good reasons for this insofar as a willingness to join in collective struggles is critical for transforming advanced ideas into effective practice in which they can be tested. That said, it is also clearly true that many of the people with the sharpest understanding of the system and the dynamics of struggle get sidelined from the more visible expressions of struggle for various reasons (here I think <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2009/07/26/ambush-at-keystone-1inside-the-coalminers-gas-protest/" rel="nofollow">Mike's comments</a> on the role of Black mine-workers in predominantly white mining areas in the 1970s is important). An organization that only recruits from the ranks of leaders pushed forward by mass struggles will therefore miss many people who may have much of value to offer the revolutionary movement. The class struggle is waged simultaneously in many arenas. It is right, I think, to privilege the sorts of collective action that we generally have in mind when we talk of mass movements, but we need to be careful not to ignore people who may seem peripheral to those processes but who are engaged in struggle in the cultural and intellectual arenas that often takes a more individual expression.

    The question of how campaigns can "create the space for broadening (and not supressing or indefintely postponing) engagement with communist theory" seems to me key here. An enormous amount of the mass work that revolutionary-minded folks engage involves precious little of this. And what does occur is often at an abysmally low level. Of course if all you do is hock your newspapers and DVDs at demonstrations you had little or no role in building people will rightly wonder what you really know about leading people in struggle.

    As for the future direction of Kasama, obviously this is not the forum where that discussion will take place. I would like to speak in a more general way however, to the importance of developing fora in which people from diverse radical and revolutionary perspectives can attempt to articulate and argue over the theoretical implications of the whole range of experiences. Newspaper, magazines, conferences, gatherings, and, yes, blogs all have a valuable role to play in developing our collective capacity to analyze at a high level of sophistication political situations that can develop very rapidly. Whether Kasama presently succeeds at that is obviously another question. But I think the effort to be such a space is a valuable contribution to developing the capacity of our movement to apply the mass line with the agility that the highly dynamic political terrain we stand on demands.

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    I am excited to get deeper into this discussion. And to bring others to it.

    In particular I'd like us to dig deeper into these two very sensible points from Celtic Fire:

    1)"My own personal take is that it [what determines who is "advanced"] is in fact a dialectical interrelationship between both [practical activity, and revolutionary communist consciousness].

    and

    2) "And from my own experience, it is easier to promote/teach revolutionary politics to those who are practically advanced than get the intellectually advanced into practice."

    Having come from the Left Forum this weekend, my gut agrees (albeit negatively) with this last comment!

    But then again, however "intellectually" advanced, I am not sure how *politically* advanced many of the "left" intellectuals at this conference in fact are/were. (Liberalism and reformism was in abundance at LF...from the opening keynote on by Jesse Jackson on...which isn't to say there weren't other currents at work too, of course.)

    Certainly we should not necessarily put forth the (formally) *intellectual* classes as the "advanced," either in terms of practical activity OR in terms of radical political consciousness.

    That said, as Tell No Lies mentions, there are people out there--in the intellectual and the cultural arenas, as well as on the "side-lines"--who most certainly have (or are more open to) radical and revolutionary ideas than many super-active and militant trade union activists or, for that matter, many self-identified "left" intellectuals.

    --------------------------

    I would really like to hear people bring in summation of personal experience as well as of historical people's struggles and revolutionary movements to concretize and deepen our understanding of both of CF's points above. (For my part, I am going to reflect a bit on my own past intellecutal and activist practice, with the hopes of posting something along these lines soon.)

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    A follow-up, and a stab at a synthesis:

    I wrote above,

    "there are people out there–in the intellectual and the cultural arenas, as well as on the “side-lines”–who most certainly have (or are more open to) radical and revolutionary ideas than many super-active and militant trade union activists or, for that matter, many self-identified “left” intellectuals."

    It would seem to me then to be a major taks for us to investigate and find out what kinds of *practical* activity these presently less active, but consciously more advanced elements might be drawn into (or are already involved in on some level)...a state of activity, as Celtic Fire postulates, being perhaps more favorable to developing and opening consciousness.

  • Hmmm. I admit have many thoughts on this.

    Althusser urges us to make two reads: first is an initial (rather naive) read, where we let a document wash over us and interact with our own existing thoughts. The second is a much more patient reading in depth, where we notice voids in the text, where we read it in relation to other ideas, in context... and so on.

    A second-style read of this the FRSO document uncovers (for me) that the document gets the role and origins of consciousness basically wrong -- in a way that affects the whole presentation here of mass line. It is a view of mass line that smuggles in a <em>strategic</em> view -- that is often accepted without being openly articulated -- a view that insists that revolutionary and socialist political consciousness emerges (relatively easily and automatically and sequentially ) from the growth and experience of large and progressive mass movements. In other words, that the main task of conscious people is to build "mass movements" -- in the hope (or confidence) that the emergence of those movements will push people and society toward <em>radical</em> change.

    I am under a time constraint right now, so forgive me if i am telegraphic.

    Our common starting point is (or should be) that the people are the motive force in making world history.

    Revolution (at least socialist revolution) cannot simply be made in the name of the people, it can't simply be made by cadre to claim to be representatives of the people. The people themselves have to be deeply involved -- for reasons that go to the heart of both the general human experience and the particularities of our specific epoch.

    But to make <em>communist</em> revolution ( a particularly radical form of change, involving a quantum leap in social dynamics), people have to be conscious in ways that are unique to our times.

    In previous periods, people were also the "motive force" but repeatedly elevated new oppressive classes to power.

    To created a socialist society (with a planned economy governed consciously by social need) and actually dig up the soil of class society over an epoch of transition (starting now under capitalism), requires a great deal of consciousness -- it requires it from communist leaders and cadre, and it requires it of sections of the people (who are not just footsoldiers of the change, but must be alert and active agents of the kind of change we envision).

    Overall, this FRSO statement underestimates the importance of consciousness. It underplays the value of explicit revolutionary and communist work. And it misunderstands where consciousness comes from (and even what people need to be conscious of).

    * * * * * * * *

    <blockquote>"Marxists hold that the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, the contradiction between the economic base and the political/ideological superstructure built on it, the contradiction between classes, etc. will determine the limits and possibilities of what people can do in a given time and place.... The point here is that it is very useful for revolutionaries to understand the laws of how society develops in general and the laws that guide the functioning of capitalist society in particular."</blockquote>

    Here the communist analysis of society is presented mainly as a theory of sobering limits.

    This formulation is (in a number of ways) a capsule of the approach known as "the theory of productive forces" -- a controversial point of view within the communist movement which has historically demanded a close focus on what is (presumably) possible, and therefore privileges the limits imposed by material conditions sharply over the dynamic role of human consciousness and invention.

    There are (in fact) limits to what humans can do in specific moments. (But, as Lenin once pointed out, no one has ever been able to point out <em>exactly</em> what those limits are.)

    More: our theory of the material contradictions within society is not <em>mainly or solely</em> a framework for divining such limits. There has proven to be a very dynamic interplay between human creation and preexisting frameworks.

    Mao pointed out that the bourgeois revolution (and this was true both in France and the U.S.) essentially preceded the creation of the modern industrial system so characteristic of capitalism. In other words, there has often been a powerful initiating role for ideas and politics that made the material basis for a new system emerge. (It is not just or simply the other way around).

    * * * * * * *

    <blockquote>"For example, based on our understanding of crisis theory (why capitalism goes through periodic crises of overproduction), some of us have been arguing that a major economic downturn will take place over the next several years. Coupled with the moves in the political superstructure to slash the social safety net, this will have a very dramatic effect on the urban poor. This in turn has some implications for our organizing."</blockquote>

    I will let this stand on its own... but let me just say that is a mistaken presentation of crisis on every level. It is a mechanical view of crisis as overproduction. It contains the mistaken assumption that crisis under imperialism is cyclical. And it quickly jumps to assume that the most important impact of crisis is the economic impact (from superstructure to economic sphere) on various nets. There is such an impact (of course)... but I'm just saying. (I.e. crisis is presented as a quick door to a movement around day to day demands)

    <strong>Ideas bound to a concept of day-to-day "Work"
    </strong>
    <blockquote>"Do comrades agree that there are laws of historical development that we can grasp and utilize in our work? Give examples of how this has informed our strategy as an organization."</blockquote>

    The main understanding we need to embody from laws of historical development is the possibility and necessity of communist revolution. The world is full of activists and reformers and organizers -- for many causes and goals. But what this world needs badly are communists -- who can creatively and systematically fuse the discontent of the people with goals of socialist (i.e. communist) revolution.

    The phrase "utilize in our work" is (rather clearly) a view that narrows all this to a grabbag of ideas for developing tactics, and for pulling "lessons" out of micro-encounters.

    Fusion of socialism with the oppressed has proven to be a very difficult process -- and the means for doing this actually <em>need to be developed</em> (theoretically and practically). It is a work that lies DIRECTLY in front of us.

    One of the hallmarks of this FRSO document (and of the FRSOs generally) is the assumption that the <em>means</em> of fusion are already well known -- that the method to adopt is the building of the mass movements (either "workplace organizing" or "social movement organizing), and that the presence of "revolutionary socialist" activists within those movement will (at some undefined point by some undefined means) help ease a future (undefined) transition from large-and-militant toward revolutionary-and-socialist.

    (It is a separate question, but I don't believe there are really a spectrum of social movements in the U.S. today. They basically don't exist (at this moment and over this past period). There are a few mass movements (on the right and left) including the progressive movements for immigrant amnesty and for same sex marriage. But the oft-stated view that there is (always? inherently?) a women's movement, or a black liberation movement, or a "labor" movement of social significance is itself based on misleading assumptions and self-deception.

    <blockquote>"People’s thinking is largely determined by the sum total of social relations that they enter into, or find themselves in. Conditions, in the main, determine consciousness. This is materialism 101. However under the right conditions, consciousness can impact in a big way on conditions – this is an important point and we will come back to it later.... How do people learn? Through experience, through practice. Practice is the source of all knowledge. If you are carrying out science experiments, trying to produce things, or trying to change society – the process is basically the same. In the beginning you try something out. If it works you sum that up. If it does not work you sum that up too. From scattered observations, and perceptions you move to concepts – to ideas or theory. This is the first part of what we call cycles of theory and practice."</blockquote>

    This is a misleading presentation of this problem of "where do correct ideas come from?" And the core of the distortion is that it flattens experience and practice -- so that the implication is that people learn mainly from their <em>own direct and often individual</em> practice and experience. And that consciousness arises rather linearly and directly from peoples' <em>own </em>social conditions. (As a result, this kind of assertion has usually led to a theory of "class instincts" among workers, and a strategy that class consciousness will come from day-do-day struggles that are pursued with militancy.)

    The assumption is that the way to raise consciousness is to get people "active," and that once active people have experiences they start to "draw lessons"... and in drawing lessons, they become more conscious.

    This avoids four key things:

    a) There is a conjunctural quality to human events (especially in our epoch) and the leaps of consciousness have a great deal to do with special stresses and ruptures in society generally.

    b) most consciousness arises from the summation of <em>indirect</em> experience, not direct experience. (That is one thing that differentiates modern humans from chimpanzees.)

    Direct experience is mainly a way that peole evaluate complex theoretical summations and strategies. For example: in the 1960s there was a sharp debate over whether the Soviet Union was socialist or socialimperialist. As a teenager I was not able to do all the theoretical work from the ground up, myself -- but I was able (personally) to go to eastern europe and have a series of direct experiences. And (on that basis) I was able to conclude that Eastern Europe could not possibly be socialist, and (on that basis) was able to make an initial personal verdict of which theoretical framework i would embrace and help develop.

    c) the specific consciousness of the need for communist revolution does not arise directly from the conditions of life of the oppressed (and never has).

    It arises from a more complex interaction, involving deep investigation into history, economics, philosophy and political events -- combined with the emergence of radical organizations of struggle among the people.

    d) Often when people "draw lessons" from their own experiences they are not radical ones.

    Workers in struggle often "learn" that you can't beat the system, or that people are hard to unite, or that minor gains don't change their conditions. The horrific history of defeats suffered by Native people in the U.S. "taught" them certain "lessons" from experience -- which were complex and contradictory.

    People with experience with left organizations often learn lessons that lead them toward paralysis or bitterness or passivity.

    The point of understanding the role of experience is we need to understand the larger challenge of helping to lead the larger process so that people "learn" to make revolution (so that enemies are isolated, the people are empowered, the goals are clarified, the lack of alternatives becomes clear to many etc.). This is a process of learning going on in Nepal right now (with results that are still unclear).

    In other words, it is true that large groups of people DO learn lessons from common struggle and from large social events that light the sky -- and they learn those lessons (often) without being themselves active. (For example millions of people learned lessons while "watching" the civil rights struggles in Mississippi, and then learned another lesson when a white assassin killed Martin Luthur King, and then learned yet another set of lessons as the Black Panthers were jailed,gunned down and descended into madness. Some people learning these lessons were themselves active in the events. Others were learning as part of a collective process from largely indirect experience.)

    <strong>Learning from One Experience: Coalfields</strong>

    The experience of the <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2009/07/26/ambush-at-keystone-1inside-the-coalminers-gas-protest/" rel="nofollow">communists in the 1970s coal fields</a> was not JUST about the nature of the advanced -- but also about the fact that a decade of the most militant working class struggle imaginable (coming on the heels of the most radical upheaval in modern U.S. history) did not in any direct or visible way lead to a growth of socialist political "lessons" drawn by those involved. (this underscores the conjunctural nature of possible "fusion" -- and contradicts a notion of consciousness merely arising from either social conditions or the correct collective summation of repeated direct experience -- which was a view that I (naively) held when I went as a young communist organizer into the mines.

    In many ways our ideas are <em>social</em> and arise socially. Their origins are <em>social</em> practice (in the widest, non-direct, and highly mediated sense), and such experiences are congealed in revolutionary political and philosophical theories which sometimes prove organic and attractive, and other times are not.

    <strong>A Laboratory of Tactics?</strong>

    <blockquote>"What is correct theory? Correct theory is when our ideas about how things work accurately reflect reality and its inner motion. How can we be sure if our ‘correct’ theory is correct? We put it into practice and check the results."</blockquote>

    On one level, such a discussion is a popular way of talking about things.

    But who is the "we" here - because if this is meant literally (we being a few organizers working in a few mass organizations or the participants in social movements) then the whole thing becomes a discussion of tactics, of how reforms are demanded, won or lost.

    Really we are talking about ideas in a far wider sense -- including complex, controversial and socially crucial ideas like biological evolution, like the theory of labor value, the need for armed overthrow of the bourgeois state, the strategy of antiimperialist united front, the theory of peoples war, the competing conceptions of revolutionary organization, the need for continuing revolution after the seizure of power, the theory of "white skin privilege" and dozens of other burning questions we face, here and worldwide.

    And yes, there too "practice is the ultimate test of truth" -- but it is not some simple spiral cranked out right around ourselves, but often in a longer arc of experience through which whole peoples, movements and periods of history are gripped by an idea (or two) and where the summation sometimes takes place over decades and is debated by whole movements.

    <blockquote>"The general resides in the particular."</blockquote>

    This is a true observation pulled out of a web of Marxist philosophy. But (within a paragraph) that insight is illustrated by a telling example:

    <blockquote>"The starting point for most people is, “Why won’t that supervisor leave me alone,” as opposed to, “This is another contradiction between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.” We need to be skilled at using those particulars to draw out a more general picture of what this country is about."</blockquote>

    In otherwords, A Marxist insight is immediately reduced into a schema for drawing general lessons about society from the workplace conflict with foremen. A truth is deployed to justify an unspoken and long-established political strategy.

    Is it true that the anatagonism between the people and capitalism can be "drawn out" of a workers dislike for her foreman? Does the general reside in <em>that</em>particular?

    What particulars need to be examined in order to sum up, understand and popularize the nature of modern capitalism and the need for socialism?

    Because the theory put forward here is a narrowiong theory that ASSUMES that the key general understandings that people need reside in the particulars of their own everyday personal lives. And that is not true.

    <blockquote>"People learn through struggle. For revolutionaries the implications of this are tremendous."</blockquote>

    This too is true -- but only if correctly understood. But our experience has communists has shown that there are radically different ways of drawing the "implications" from that.

    It is not true that people only learn through struggle. Nor is it true that all people mainly learn through struggle. Many people who emerge as key leaders and revolutionaries did not learn their insights mainly through the accretion of "struggles" -- though all of them DO develop (and must develop) in the course of major collisions that they participate in.

    And we should not be surprised (again) to have a truth quickly slide into a buttressing of a very <em>specific</em> strategic theory:

    <blockquote>"This is a reason (not the only reason, but nonetheless a very important one) why communists place such a big emphasis on building the day-to-day struggle in defense of the people’s basic interests."</blockquote>

    Actually, in fact, communists debate (among themselves) sharply how much to emphasize the day to day. (I.e. this is not something communists generally or universally "place such a big emphasis on.")

    And in fact, our verdict on that struggle <em>can't</em> be drawn (mechanically, or linearly) from the materialist conception of the world. This is a sleight of hand -- and it is one that asserts a <em>particular</em> set of political assumptions without really engaging the important arguments against them. It simply asserts a particular form of economism as an assumed Marxist orthodoxy.

    <b>I have to go. But will examine the remaining half of this document later -- including the question of "the active and the advanced." To touch on that important question as I close:</b>

    Sometimes the advanced are the most active, sometimes they are not. It depends in many ways what activity people are being active around. In the coalfields, the very miitant and illegal strikes drew workers (in both activism and leadership) who were essentially a cross section of the workforce generally (when it came to politics) -- every political view and inclination was represented (and fought for its line) in the picket movements.

    Some movements, by their nature, are built by the more advanced... but not every movement that erupts is like that.

    The definition we need for politically advanced is quite different than the one we would use for active -- often people are active (even in progressive causes) precisely because they are not particularly advanced, because they are gripped by unjustified hopes and illusions, because they hope to touch the heart of the rulers, because they think deep change will be an easy thing....

    It is a problem when the advanced are not particularly active -- when the emergence of events makes them passive, or the form of the struggle drives them to the sidelines (again the miners struggle in the 1970s).

    But the insistance that the active are the advanced, and that activity is always a sign of political advanced thinking is precisely a (rather mechanical) deduction from the whole view of epistemology laid out above.

    (more later)

  • Guest (Vivid Visionary)

    This is perfect timing for this article and discussion, personally. I've begun organizing against the budget cuts at my university (I wrote a small piece for Kasama a couple weeks ago about this) and have been deeply thinking on how to continue and advance this struggle.

    At our rally on March, our organizing group passed out pledges where students wrote down their concerns and possible solutions to this crisis. After reading them, I got a better sense of where people are at. Most students are concerned with immediate issues, such as class availability, furloughs, etc. There is a minority of students who see education as a human right and view this struggle as absolutely necessary to avoid becoming a "white supremacist school." We might not completely agree with how these ideas are formulated, but it has helped in identifying what the different level of sentiments are amongst the student and faculty.

    Due to our real lack of political experience, we are sort of at a standstill as to how to move forward. On the one hand, we've mobilized a good amount of students in this struggle who now expect a next step. So this isn't to be taken lightly. On the other hand, we have a need to form a more solid core/organization with a degree of political unity before we engage in alliances or fronts that will drown out the needed radical and revolutionary message we've brought to the table.

    We need to unite the advanced, which, in my opinion, constitute the students and faculty who've been organizing with us for the past two months and have shown a commitment to the struggle. This doesn't mean their political consciousness is well-developed, but it does now open the space for these sorts of engagements (which has actually begun from the moment we started organizing and debating the nature of the movement) that can further politicize them and elevate our level of unity and understanding. The process as I see it now includes building on and strengthening the core and developing a plan in which we mobilize the students who showed up to the rally (who I'd designate as the 'intermediate' in terms of interest and understanding of the situation).

    The key issue is: how to radicalize? We've raised strong and relevant demands, which include open admissions, end to privatization, and of course end to the cuts to education. These demands reflect the highest sentiments of the struggle, but how do we fuse this with the broader desires of students who are concerned with much more immediate campus issues? I believe (and this is me throwing shit out there) we have to move the intermediate through a process by which their illusions are shattered in the administration and system. See, most students want to write letters to faculty, politicians, march on Sacramento, etc. What if we engaged in such a process in which at every level we take the time to systematically explain and sum up the struggle from a revolutionary perspective? In other words, how the article formulates it:

    "This is because people in general need repeated experience to learn from. Perhaps folks think that if only the politicians understood what they were doing to people, they would change their ways. So we take people to see the politicians – who do not change their ways – and sum it up with folks. After doing this for a while people conclude that reason just does not work with these elements and something else is called for. "

    Now, I'm not advocating this specific strategy, but the method. Out of our "core group" there are maybe 4 of us who have a deeper understanding of how budget cuts operate within the framework of oppression. Out of these, two of us consider ourselves communists. And of course, there is the complex and fluid intermediate strata which we must engage in if we are to build on this. If we want to politicize students and faculty, don't we have to move through such a process as well? But how? How do we lead this process in a manner which speaks their felt needs and desires, but which also radicalizes and doesn't fall into reformism (despite revolutionary rhetoric)?

    One the main problems I've seen is when people ask us, "where will the money come from to fund education?" We don't have a concrete answer, but it can't be ignored when it's a major sentiment. Some propose taxing the oil corporations. While we understand that it'll take revolution to restructure education (and society) into a meaningful place which serves the people, most students don't and seek immediate solutions to the problem. I think solving this problem and being able to move on will depend on how we mobilize students for such solutions and how students come to break with previously held illusions.

    It's so easy to NOT talk about revolution and communism at my school. It's just so taboo. I constantly get the suggestion that we need to keep revolution and such talk off the table until after we've gotten more people to join us. I strongly disagree out of principle, but don't yet know how to speak these truths in a non-dogmatic, non-alienating way.

    What are others thoughts? Any insights on how to move forward?

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    Thanks, Vivid Visionary, for posting this.

    I only have a moment now, but I did want to briefly note that in reading your post--and in thinking about the FRSO line about people learning through practice, and often needing to see their wrong ideas fail in practices--I could not help but be reminded of the method of the Maobadi in Nepal. Have we not often seen their (controversial) practical moves in and out of the government and so on, discussed as tactical maneuvering designed to teach the intermediate theoretical and practical lessons along these lines? (They also may be described as efforts to isolate the backward and to expose the main enemy of course.)

    Granted the situation of the Maobadi--with a people's army, a strong core of communists, etc--at this point is vastly different from the situation in this country. Nonetheless, I thought that the analogies and parallels here might be worth discussing...

    Gotta run.

  • Guest (celticfire)

    Well I think there is clearly a lot to explore here, especially with some of the things Mike said.

    I think we should unpack more the idea of a conscious revolutionary elements, and what those actually look like in living practice and not in abstraction.

    There is a lot of snags and problems with this old FRSO document that in many ways reflects the pre-split lines, that said I think its general orientation is correct.

    If our orientation is that the motor force of history is fact the masses then in fact we would need people that deeply rooted in struggles as they exist currently, and that means organizations that are not at the moment explicitly revolutionary.

    I think there is value in insisting that ultimately we need a revolution - and obvious that is an important part of the Mass Line, we can't deny that people learn from actual living struggles over questions of social services, health care, wages, etc.

    One of the most profound distinctions of Maoism from Trotskyism is that the tenets of Maoism demand that we *go to the masses* and learn from them and become one with them, not arrogantly and pedantically lecture them.

    Of course there is the possibility of simply taking up a reformist practice, but even then, the masses are learning in struggle. We shouldn't be Committees for Correspondence or the CP, but we shouldn't be the RCP or PLP either.

    The question is not what is ethically aligned to Marxist principles in a given moment, but what will actually lead the masses in understanding the nature of this system, and some times (as Radical Eyes points out) that means departing greatly from our orthodox Marxist principles. The Nepalis are indeed demonstrating this in a living way.

    We will not win socialism with elections in this country (sorry Carl Davidson).

    But how revolutionaries, and more broadly the masses learn that, will be a complicated act involving many sites of struggles - including academia.

  • Guest (red flags)

    We won't "win socialism" with elections in ANY country. Socialism in the communist sense is about a radical change in where agency lies, and it cannot lie simultaneously with the bourgeoisie <i>and</i> the proletariat.

    While I appreciate this text on Mass Line, it actually misses something key in its concern with activism and trade unionism: that communists are revolutionaries, and that revolution is tha act of one class overthrowing another. Mass Line isn't simply a handbook in <i>tactical</i> thinking. Mass Line is a revolutionary epistemology for bringing class consciousness to the proletariat and oppressed peoples, through a communist leadership organization.

    By conflating the advanced with "activists", this falls prey to what was always a weakness in FRSO: treating activists (whether union or social) as their "base" – and Marxism as a private language for keeping these activist machineries coherent. This explains, I believe, their tendency to subordinate their organization at key junctures to capitalist hegemony, to its ruling parties and necessities.

    While Avakian-style idealism in ultra-left guise has been a problem, including the RCP's de facto abandonment of Mass Line in the early 80s, right opportunism and subordination of our activists and movements to what is acceptable to the ruling class and its apparatuses has been a far, far more pervasive and crippling problem. I would argue that the limitation of "communist" work to shop-stewardism and economism has in fact generated (in reaction) the kind of sectarianism blamed generally on its most stalwart advocates. Right opportunism and left sectarianism feed off of each other. A revolutionary communist understanding of the Mass Line is the sword to cut to this gordian knot.

    In power, this <i>pragmatic</i> method confuses mobilization with organization – and again leaves the ruling Communist Party as administrative brokers, which is to say a state bourgeoisie. Out of power, it meant providing "street heat" while opportunist servants of the ruling class like Jesse Jackson brokered this for his capital. That is the history of this, and we must face it frontally and win over communists to be revolutionaries, and revolutionaries to be communists.

    The heart of Mass Line is <i>not</i> a kind of Gus Hall/Saul Alinsky broker method. It is not about how to win reform struggles, or pander to the felt needs of a given sector, but rather how to break out of that (ultimately bourgeois) sectoralism through developing <i>communist</i> politics. That is to say Mass Line is our communist <i>strategic</i> method for building an organic relationship between masses of people, organized in different fora and among the disorganized, and the leadership of a revolutionary organization fighting for communist ends.

    This is the weakness of this FRSO pamphlet. Communist work is not discussed despite the Marxist <i>vocabulary</i>. In this, <a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2009/07/26/ambush-at-keystone-1inside-the-coalminers-gas-protest/" rel="nofollow">Mike Ely's analysis of his own work</a> in the West Virginia coal fields is a very good starting point for discussion. We don't (just) need to be the most militant fighters for the felt needs of a given community. We need to be what Lenin called "tribunes of the people" who create power, which is to say the agency of the proletariat, not simply more-or-less militant brokering of demands.

    This analysis of the then-unified FRSO does not rise about the problem of treating communist organization as a broker-network, or see the great power of Mass Line in making the masses the makers of history on their own terms, which is different from their <i>felt needs</i>.

  • Guest (Red Architect)

    I believe Vivid Visionary brings in a good example to which this discussion of the mass line should be applied to.

    With the increase in student organized movements surrounding the struggle within higher education (stemming from some would say the "crisis theory" and other consequences of capitalism),the practice of the mass line is invaluable. Despite most organizations unfortunately not applying this theory, there is a strong potential that can be gathered from the progress thus far. A large
    intermediate group has emerged from all the protests and grass roots organizing that needs to be taken advantage of. The current "advanced" in this struggle, made up of the critical reformist, opportunist-bourgeoisie, "socialist" organizations and few revolutionaries, need to apply this mass line in order to further isolate the backward and to continue uniting all those who can be united.

    "This is because people in general need repeated experience to learn from. Perhaps folks think that if only the politicians understood what they were doing to people, they would change their ways. So we take people to see the politicians – who do not change their ways – and sum it up with folks. After doing this for a while people conclude that reason just does not work with these elements and something else is called for."

    This falls perfectly inline with the "March on March" campaign that was held in Sacramento today.


    I must also point out that I diagree with:

    "For example, based on our understanding of crisis theory (why capitalism goes through periodic crises of overproduction), some of us have been arguing that a major economic downturn will take place over the next several years. Coupled with the moves in the political superstructure to slash the social safety net, this will have a very dramatic effect on the urban poor. This in turn has some implications for our organizing."

    The implication that the economy (and that interconnected with it) will be the sole reason for a rise in consciousness is naive to think. We should not expect the economic conditions to help provide an environment that makes applying the mass line easier. Rather the mass line should be used to coincide with this "economic downturn" reaction as an equal force to jointly tackle the tasks at hand. Also the times prior to this downturn should be treated with the same fervor to that during the struggle. Both allowing a dynamic approach rather than a mechanical approach that leans towards fulfilling dogma and dismisses the changing need of the people.

  • I would like to simply highlight the comment made by RedFlags above:

    <blockquote>"Mass Line isn’t simply a handbook in tactical thinking. Mass Line is a revolutionary epistemology for bringing class consciousness to the proletariat and oppressed peoples, through a communist leadership organization.

    "By conflating the advanced with “activists”, this falls prey to what was always a weakness in FRSO: treating activists (whether union or social) as their “base” – and Marxism as a private language for keeping these activist machineries coherent. This explains, I believe, their tendency to subordinate their organization at key junctures to capitalist hegemony, to its ruling parties and necessities.

    While Avakian-style idealism in ultra-left guise has been a problem, including the RCP’s de facto abandonment of Mass Line in the early 80s, right opportunism and subordination of our activists and movements to what is acceptable to the ruling class and its apparatuses has been a far, far more pervasive and crippling problem."</blockquote>

  • Guest (celticfire)

    Basically, I agree with what was said in the 9 letters: <b>"A revolutionary organization has to be integrated into living struggles while drawing everything toward communist solutions."</b>

    Absolutely, and resoundingly, YES.

    But how we integrate with the masses and their struggles, and under capitalism, wont those struggles always be defense battles of reforms or conditions?

    And if conscious revolutionaries aren't there because "that a reformist scene" then that means we leave those struggles - and those fighters and allies to be eaten up by capitalism.

    Reforms aren't world changing or historic. We are seeing this process played in in the the current health care reform. And yes the ruling class and shift victories we win and make them victories for them. Hey, it's their dictatorship. But that isn't the point the point is HOW THE MASSES LEARN from these struggles.

    9 letters says "Fusion of socialism with the struggles of the people according to conditions of time and place."

    Again, yes.

    I think we need a rupturing with the idealist RCP methods that castigates masses (and even sometimes blames them). Communist leadership is about becoming one with the masses and leading them on that basis.

    The movements internationally that gaining and making important leaps are in fact taking up staunchly some of the most strikingly felt needs of the masses. In India, the CPI(M) demanded that the Indian government capped interest rates on loans to peasants. Pretty reformist outwardly, but it has activated millions.

    I am not arguing some Browderist methods of just cheer leading reformist struggles, but rather a living engagement of struggles and providing leadership from within.

    Conditions do in fact determine how far we can take things. And Mike is right there is a conjectural element as well. But I can't imagine what good communist intellectuals are (or will be) with no mass basis, no one to hear their analysis and no connection to living struggles.

  • Patrick:

    the expression "becoming one with the people" can be understood in very different ways.

    What does it mean for revolutionaries and communists to "become one" with the people... to be among them? to share their suffering? to take the stand of their interests? To become identical to the people (in culture and views)?

    in fact, the mass line (correctly understood) is precisely a discussion of HOW to be among the people -- what to do there, what to attempt there, what process to unfold, and what it means to become a communist core for a real-world political process of revolution.

    So you write:

    <blockquote>"Communist leadership is about becoming one with the masses and leading them on that basis."</blockquote>

    Well, perhaps. But communist leadership is ALSO about "representing the whole within the part, and representing the future within the present." It is about acting based on the HIGHEST interests of the people (of the world), not the fragmentary, momentary, partial interests of people (in one scene within the world).

    Yes communist leadership requires a connection <em>with the people</em> -- (and most forms of political leadership require that, in our era) -- but what makes it communist is that it seeks connect <em>the people</em> to each other and to the future in a unique way. And for that a transformation of consciousness is as necessary as a transformation of relationships.

  • Guest (land)

    Was surprised to see this. It is old. For debate I would add some of the discussion paper Kasama wrote in its second year. But first. Why was this printed? Does FRSO still go with this?

    The intro said it was to encourage discussion on how revolutionaries should connect with the people. I think the main problem they have or had is that they don't think communists can connect with the people. SO don't be a communist. Don't read communist theory. Be the "left".

    This is such an old and tiresome debate.

    Kasama said in one discussion "we will not arrive on the scene like some magical galvanizing thunderburst to tell everyone else what to think and do."

    Looking for the advanced, intermediate and backward like they have a special teeshirt to identify themselves.

    The other major thing they left out is the world. They don't even say Mao. They say "coined by the Communist Party of CHina." What does that mean?" "Coined"?

    They say "people only learn through struggle." So if you are going to "connect" with people you wouldn't confuse things by discussing theory or new ideas.

    No cutting deep with the theoretical knife here.

  • Guest (land)

    This came to mind.

    In the article "<a href="/http://kasamaproject.org/2009/10/20/mike-ely-on-economic-struggle-and-economism-among-revolutionaries/" rel="nofollow">On Economic Struggle and Economism Among Revolutionaries</a>" Mike Ely wrote:

    <blockquote>"I have always thought that when crisis like this hits the great American middle class, they would 'go mad.' That their profound, personal self-absorption and de-politicization would give way to frenzied political movements that reflect the profoundly low level of their participants."</blockquote>

    Mumia Abu-Jamal tells this story in his new book <a href="/http://www.amazon.com/Jailhouse-Lawyers-Prisoners-Defending-USA/dp/0872864693" rel="nofollow">Jailhouse Lawyers</a>. He is interviewing Delbert Afrika when he was on the outside. Del tells this story of a prisoner who knew he was framed. He does extensive research to prove this. He finally gets his case to court and they throw it out on a technicality. Del said this prisoner just lost his mind. He couldn't believe or understand or accept what the system was doing to him..

    I think if people follow this Left movementism (and all the other directions of the FRSO article) they will lose their minds. Many serious, good-hearted people will just go crazy behind this system if they can't find a way to understand it and change it.
    Or they will give up.

  • Guest (Gary)

    I think this may be a useful organizing tool or basis for discussion about organizing. But have some issues with it. The FRSO takes this Mao quote as its “starting point:”

    “The people, and the people alone are the motive force in making world history.”

    This is from Mao’s “On Coalition Government” (1945) and is stated in the context of predicting the downfall of fascism as the Soviets attack Berlin. Mao calls the “Soviet people” the “main force in the defeat of fascism.”

    I think it’s also important to remember Marx’s statement in “The Holy Family”:

    “History [italicized] does nothing [italicized], it “possesses no immense wealth”, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”

    What does the FRSO document mean when it refers to “people making history”? Fulfilling some predictable plan? People will make history (are doing so right now) no matter what they do. We’re pursuing our human aims right now as we speak. (It’s not like we make more history some times than others.)

    I suppose my point is that the document emphasizes the importance of “the people” but also makes them principally objects rather than subjects.

    The Mao quote is immediately followed by:

    “Not only is this [fact that the people alone make world history] historically true, but for us communists it hits on the basic issue of on whom do we rely and how to get stuff done.”

    What I read here is a notion of historical inevitability to be implemented by the people upon whom the communists rely.


    Then there’s this:
    “3) Do people make history any old way? NO. They make history according to the laws that guide the development of society.”

    I find the very framing of this question condescending to the reader, and the answer unsophisticated. Of course “history” isn’t entirely arbitrary but the number of “laws” (agriculture leads to towns) fairly small. It’s not as though we as Marxists are in possession of the historical laws that guide the development of society.

    In its one example of application of understanding of laws of development, FRSO says “some of us have been arguing that a major economic downturn will take place over the next several years.” Maybe some of them differed. (The stock market rose throughout 2009.)

    The authors are saying that they, understanding the laws of history, apply them through the mass line to get the people to get stuff done (in the hope or expectation it will lead to a revolution and socialism.)

    That’s my preliminary reading, anyway.

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    Obviously, my first post in this thread was very much a *first* read. :) I was (and remain) frankly excited to see Kasama engaging the theory and practice of the Mass Line. So I was a bit one-sided in my initial appraisal!

    That said, (and as I noted above), the FRSO document has its limitations, particularly in 1) equating the "advanced" narrowly with those who are most active within currently exisiting social, labor, and even electoral movements; and 2) failing to make clear how so the various sorts of "campaign" work here espoused is supposed to lead to the development of revolutionary or communist consciousness (rather than say, the continual postponement, suppression, and reining in of such theoretical discussion).

    Furthermore, the document seems to suggest that people can only learn from their OWN experiences (with respect to incorrect ideas), thus implying that people cannot learn from OTHERS experiences of both success and failure. This too is a major problem.

    In a sense revolutionary communist theory can be understood as the critical summation and abstraction of truths from such previous collective experiences, no? Insofar as people can learn from this "second-hand" historical experience, it would seem to be just as essential as people learning from *their own* activism.

    That said, my gut still tells me that people who are involved in *active* struggles around concrete issues, against particular institutions and individuals, with others, and at a certain level of personal committment and/or risk to themselves in many cases will be more open to thinking and rethinking questions of vision, strategy, and tactics than those who are not.

    Furthermore, certainly a propoer summation and theoretical analysis of present day struggles for reform though too can provide a space for digging into the particular and towards the universal, no? Without understating the importance of Mike E's summation of the coal miner struggles, I am not yet convinced--and I think I posted a comment along these lines a ways back in response to that importance article series--that the failure of the party to develop communist consciousness or new cadre in the context of these militant union struggles settles the question that Mike (and others) seem to think it has...That is, from what I have read of this experience, and particularly of the ways that the party tried to bring in more radical rev and com ideas to people, I am not convinced that there may not have been another way of working through the particular and immediate to the universal and the theoretical...(Getting into this more may require a return to the Coal Mine articles.)

    Anyway, I love the formulation Mike posted above about communists needing to draw out the future in the present and the universal in the particular....And certainly some struggles may lend themselves to such drawing out more than others.

    But just on a more basic, immediate level, if we want our ideas (and say, our theoretical website) to be taken seriously (and eventually taken up!) by broader masses of people, it certainly wouldn't hurt to do things and to be involved in things that these people already care about...At the very least such activism now may be a way of convincing the uninitated that we are serious here, that we are on their side, that we *dare* to live these ideas as well as write about them. It might encourage them to get into the theoretical discussion themselves!

    [I see now that Mike E has added more to his above post. I need to re-read it before posting more.]

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    And is there any chance that we could also put up some of Mao's OWN most important writings on the Mass Line?

    Since many seem to think that FRSO's document above has revised and appropriated Mao's ideas in not so helpful ways, why don't we get into Mao's own thoughts on the matter (instead)?

  • Guest (celticfire)

    Mike's experience in the goal mines gets brought up as an example of why we shouldn't (or can't) do mass work a lot. I think this wrong for several reasons:

    1) It was a long time ago. Conditions have changed.
    2) It was an intensely sharp struggle and not an example of typical struggles.
    3) What I read from the summation here is that "we tried this, it didn't work, so we don't do it anymore."

    I also think there is some straw man arguments in saying that this mass line document suggests people "only" learn from direct experience. That's ridiculous and not an honest assessment of what the document actually says.

    And to be honest I don't see what is being presenting as an alternative.

    If the masses are to become the masters of society, especially a socialist one, how else will they learn without DIRECT and REAL participation? (ie, where it is by proxy it is not).

    I agree and firmly unite with the fact the principle task for revolutionary communists in mass organizations to promote revolution and socialism.

    We can't tremble or shrink from the idea of working in organizations that are not 100% commie. That is where the struggle over ideas is happening, where people are physically and literally organizing more people into participation and winning over those minds to revolution and socialism will be key.

  • Thanks, Celtic-fire. I welcome and respect your sharp points.

    I want to start by saying that though my views are being presented forcefully here -- in order to present a pole and help initiate a substantive debate -- i am personally committed to approaching these issues with an open mind, and being transformed by the discussion.

    And if there are misrepresentations of views -- then lets unravel that. Certainly any possible misrepresentations are not <em>intended</em> as cheap misleading distortions -- but are examples of what someone has "heard" from an argument.

    Let me respond briefly to your major points -- in hopes that you can bounce back, engage and help clarify.

    * * * * * * *

    <blockquote>Mike’s experience in the coalmines gets brought up as an example of why we shouldn’t (or can’t) do mass work a lot. I think this wrong for several reasons:

    1) It was a long time ago. Conditions have changed.
    2) It was an intensely sharp struggle and not an example of typical struggles.
    3) What I read from the summation here is that “we tried this, it didn’t work, so we don’t do it anymore.”</blockquote>

    What you are saying here is true: this was not typical, and it was a long time ago, and many things have changed. And we can't simply transfer lessons (true or not) from there to here.

    In some ways, the 1968-1979 coalfield wave of wildcats was even unique: It was perhaps the single largest wave of militant struggle among industrial workers in perhaps the last half century (i.e. in the "modern" world). There were other waves of struggle (black workers among the autoplants, immigrant farmworkers in the 60 and 70s) and there were a few moments of struggle (Hormel, etc.) But the coalfields was truly a-typical.

    And the other thing that is unusual is that we have an initial communist summation of revolutionary work within that upsurge.

    But I would argue that there are a few things about that which lend relevance:

    If the day-to-day struggle, if complex and protracted experience of class-against-class conflict, were a fertile ground for revolutionary politics and real class consciousness -- I think we would have seen a significant number of socialist workers emerge. And I think it is worth asking why it did not happen.

    In many ways our communist work was primitive -- but it was not THAT bad (actually). And we tried (from many different sides) to "bring light into the struggle" -- and really worked in a parallel system, to join and help lead the wildcats, and to develop a political movement that was taylored to recruiting the miners.

    And in some ways, the fact that it was long ago (i.e. emerging on the tail end of the sixties, and awash with the impact of those radical times) makes the question of "why?" even more poignent: The workers who reached out for radical politics (participating in the African Liberation movement, or in organized May Day activities, or in the organized opposition to the radical right's textbook movement were overwhelmingly from <em>outside</em> the wildcat picket activists, and were precisely those workers most influenced by the larger conjunctural trends in society (including many workers influenced by urban northern Black liberation movement, the Panthers or radical ideas within the Army).

    We expected the radical interest to be concentrated among the active workers, but discovered that the advanced (who were interested in being active) emerged somewhere else.

    Isn't there something to learn from that?

    So yes it is atypical, and yes it in the past. But the dynamics may not be so much different today around those fundamental questions (of nationality, class and politics). And i don't believe the real changes that have happened mean that (suddenly) it is the day-to-day struggle for immediate grievances that has become the best arena for political work and transformation.

    <blockquote>"I also think there is some straw man arguments in saying that this mass line document suggests people “only” learn from direct experience. That’s ridiculous and not an honest assessment of what the document actually says."</blockquote>

    Certainly we don't want misrepresentation or strawman arguments. If arguments are subtle, lets respond with subtlety.

    But look at the FRSO document again: what role does it ascribe to indirect knowledge? Does it raise the important communist insight that <em>some</em> key insights must (of necessity) come to working people from without the realm of their own experience? What discussion does it give of theory (and its role -- not just in guiding a movement, but in what we bring to the people)?

    Let me indicate where those questions come up:

    <blockquote>"7) People learn through struggle. For revolutionaries the implications of this are tremendous. What is being said is that the fundamental way that people need to learn (and this includes us too) about society and how it works is through the fight to change it.... Do comrades agree with this? Clearly many who consider themselves ‘leftists’ do not. For example the main form of political activity of the Socialist Workers Party (and many of the sects that adhere to the ideas of Trotsky) is selling newspapers. In the same vein there are a number of organizations that say if only we repeat our ‘good ideas’ long enough and loud enough people will follow."</blockquote>

    If you read this carefully, there is a lot to tease out of this.

    In fact, people learn best in the <em>context</em> of struggle. ("Through struggle" in the sense that it is the learning that happens in struggle, and because of the awakening in struggle.) But this quote implies the "way" people learn is from the struggle itself -- in an unmediated way. And that the very idea of distributing literature is seen as opposition to the idea of learning "through struggle."

    In fact the learning through struggle is rather different and mediated. Mao put it simply "people fight back, then they seek philosophy." In other words, the impetus for learning generates in the struggle but the learning itself involves collective summation -- including in the form of theory and literature. People awaken in struggle, and are suddenly open to a world of ideas (that seemed irrelevant, or too hard, or incomprehensible).

    So in opposition to the idea that people learn what they need <em>from</em> the struggle -- there is in fact a very different dynamic, where people take up struggle and (there! in the struggle!) start to awaken, start to mature, start to form new questions, start to grapple with how to reach victory, start to encounter new ideas.... and then "seek philosophy" (meaning theory, strategy, a new worldview, and yes philosophy proper.)

    These two views of "how people learn through struggle" are very different, and would lead us onto very different roads.

    <blockquote>"And to be honest I don’t see what is being presenting as an alternative."</blockquote>

    All i can say is "stick around."

    To be honest, I think we have a situation where some forces HAVE a worked out theory in their pocket... and are putting it forward. And other forces see a problematic -- a void, a challenge, and are working to reconsider this theoretical question.

    In a tentative sense I have (naturally) some opinions:

    1) I don't thnk all struggles are the same. We should not focus on the handiest "day to day struggles" that present themselves around us. We should identify strategic faultlines that (in a conjunctural process) will be the place where pockets of the most advanced may congeal -- ie. where people have the most chance of learning "through struggle" and being open to revolutionary politics.

    2) I think we should fight for the importance of open communist work. And criticize the notion that communists should mainly be the best organizers for various "mass movements."

    We need to develop creative forms for this open communist work -- that dumps the alienating jargon and exhausted posturing. We should end the hype and self-delusional promotions. But we should be devleoping ways of doing open, shocking <em>communist</em> work as a core part of our activity -- i.e. promoting our final goals, the need for radical change, the fundamental antagonisms of this society, the approach from the whole of humanity not the part, etc.

    3)We should have an approach of "preparing for conjuncture" not "conjuring mass movements into being." The assumption that building stereotypical large movements around traditional demands are a necessary and protracted <em>stage</em> of our work is an assumed (and I believe mistaken) principle. We need to do "mass work" -- and develop deep ties among volatile and awakening sections of the oppressed. But I don't at all assume that a "movementist" orientation is valid -- it seems both sterile and exhausted to me.

    4) the main task is not "get in and get big." In some ways, our immediate task is to figure out what it means to be communist -- and how communists can regroup and prepare (themselves and beginning targeted sections of the people) to play an initiating political role for a future revolutionary movement. And then we need to do it.

    I am not inclined to rush. In the 60s, because of the real urgency of the upsurge and the attacks on the Black liberation movement and the Vietnamese, we rushed into battle (like peasants picking up pitchforks). But today, we are not speaking in the midst of an upsurge, and we are not going to conjure one into being by will alone. And we need to actually think through where we take our stands -- rather than adopt assumed and inarticulated activist strategies... and "just do it."

    <blockquote>"If the masses are to become the masters of society, especially a socialist one, how else will they learn without DIRECT and REAL participation? (ie, where it is by proxy it is not)."</blockquote>

    People learn most things indirectly. Groups of people learn politics from the events they go through collectively -- but even there it is not mostly "direct." (The murder of Martin Luther King, and then George Jackson helped make me and many others into hardened revolutionaries -- those were "real" experiences, but they were not "direct.")

    Groups of people will learn to be "masters of society" through experience (both direct and indirect). ("Learn from Tachai" or "Learn from Taiching" are examples of direct local experiences summed up and then popularized broadly -- as indirect knowledge.)

    The dispute is not over whether knowledge comes from social practice -- the dispute is over how social it is, and whether only the "direct" is "real." And the description of "real" experience as "direct" experience <em>contains the implicit assumption/assertion that you can learn the needed political "lessons" from your own direct experience.</em> That assumption/assertion is profoundly wrong, anti-theoretical, and opposed fundamentally to materialist dialectics.

    <blockquote>I agree and firmly unite with the fact the principle task for revolutionary communists in mass organizations to promote revolution and socialism.</blockquote>

    I'm glad we agree on the importance of "promoting revolution and socialism." But allow me to be precise:

    One: I don't think that <em>speaking</em> about revolution and socialism is literally our "principal task." Though it is an important one. And there is a tremendous pull (these days) for people to really be silent about revolution and socialism. (And let me just note that you left out the word "communist" -- and I suspect that was not incidental.)

    Two: having a communist approach to these matters is NOT mainly a question of how much to "dial up" the talk about socialism. It is about where we send our forces, it is about WHICH struggles we seek to join, it is aobut whether we focus on the immediate or on coming conjuncture, it is about what demands and slogans we think are important to unite people around (which will often be "short" of revolution and socialism -- but will in important ways seek a polarization favorable to preparations for socialism and revolution.)

    <blockquote>"We can’t tremble or shrink from the idea of working in organizations that are not 100% commie. That is where the struggle over ideas is happening, where people are physically and literally organizing more people into participation and winning over those minds to revolution and socialism will be key."</blockquote>

    The fact that you pose it this way suggests that we still dont' understand each other. Of course we need organizations that are not explicitly communist. There is no question about that. We need to be deep among the people -- in many ways. And (obviously) the people are rarely pro-communist now (in any developed way).

    But I am arguing against a default strategic model -- where we do (fairly) generic "activist work" in "mass movements," and then debate amongst ourselves how much-or-little "socialist" talk to sprinkle over our activism. (As if our politics is a kind of powdered sugar we sprinkle on the doughnut of mass movement activity."

    It is not the case that our activity should divide into "mass work" and "communist work." All our work should proceed from the perspective of preparing for communist revolution (and supporting existing communist revolution) -- and it is ALL "communist work" <em>in that sense.</em>

  • <b>Some Notes on Method and the History of Mass Line</b>

    How do we advance this exploration of mass line? Let me discuss here a secondary question of method.

    Radical Eyes says:

    <blockquote> "Since many seem to think that FRSO’s document above has revised and appropriated Mao’s ideas in not so helpful ways, why don’t we get into Mao’s own thoughts on the matter (instead)?"</blockquote>

    Obviously we should get into Mao's own thoughts on the matter -- and we have posted some initial (and famous) quotations by him on this concept. In fact, I think an ongoing discussion of the mass line (in theory, in history, in practice) should be a major focus of this site, for many reasons.

    However, it's not as if Mao is simply being "revised" here. I think as we post his works (including On Practice) I think we will see that there is a way in which Mao's own handling of these matters leaves the door open to an empiricist read -- to an overestimation of direct knowledge, and an over-privileging of immediate practice.

    I think there are many reasons for this: Including the fact that Mao was engaged in a lifelong and rather bitter struggle against those (within China) who valued practice-less scholasticism over scientific/materialist methods. ("Without leaving his gate, the scholar knows the world.") And a bitter struggle against those (within the international communist movement) who privileged Russian experience and Soviet state needs over the lessons and discoveries arising from the Chinese revolution itself. And (thirdly) he was developing a methodology for his mid-level leadership -- on how to lead, innovate and self-critically adjust work.

    There is also a matter that Mao was making statements in the context of a living revolutionary movement: I.e. he was leading a revolutionary army and exercising actual state power in political base areas. His discussions of "the active" and to the "needs of the masses" is in that context -- the active (in this case) are often being active in a revolutionary armed struggle or agrarian revolution etc. And so on. When we try to understand is approach, we can't simply "transfer" his words onto mass movements that (by their nature in this country) are not yet connected to a revolutionary project in any substantive way -- we have to take the differences of context into account.

    But, in a larger sense, I don't think our theoretical problems generally boil down to "unfortunate revisions of already-correct classics" -- our task is not to establish a correct orthodoxy and repudiate "deviations." On the contrary, I believe we will find that our previous inherited Marxism will "divide into two."

    <strong>Revisiting Our Own History -- Around the Mass Line
    </strong>
    In the letter written to Chiang Ching on July 8, 1966 (at the very start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution), Mao Zedong anticipated how his quotes and writings could be used by opposing camps:

    <blockquote> "The rightists in power might use my words to make themselves powerful for a certain time, but the left can use other words of mine and organize itself to overthrow the rightists" (Le Monde December 1972)</blockquote>



    And since Radical Eyes is raising this history of Mao, and those struggles around interpreting Mao's work, it is worth pointing out:

    Key themes of the FRSO paper above (including the privileging of "the general resides in the particular," and a similar privileging of the concept "practice as the ultimate criterion of truth," and more) were precisely some of those phrases from Mao raised by the Deng Xiaoping faction of the Chinese Communist Party, in their (ultimately victorious) battle against the Left.

    These are phrases that (in themselves) are not wrong. (The general does reside in the particular. Practice is, in fact, the ultimate test of truth.) But there is a whole history to plucking these phrases out, making them the foundation of a distinct new edifice, and calling that confection "the mass line."

    Put another way:

    The Chinese communist movement emerged from a militant, nationalist and modernizing mass upsurge in the early 1900s that drew inspiration from a number of sources -- including the western pragmatist John Dewey and the Marxist theorizing of materialist dialectics. There was a complex, modern current -- united on its hatred of feudal backwardness, and the ideologies that served such backwardness. But there remained (inevitably) sharp disputes -- both over quasi feudal dogmatism, and over U.S. style empiricism ("Just the facts, Ma'm. Let's just do it. Whatever works!")

    In the ongoing struggles within the Chinese communist movement there were threads of ongoing parallel set of philosophical clashes -- starting between Mao himself and the dogmatists (of the pro-Soviet kind, represented by Wang Ming) -- but also (increasingly) between Mao and those on the Right who morphed a communist theory of practice into an empirical method of "whatever works in the immediate."

    (And "whatever works in the immediate" is often to forget about the future, to tail the popular consciousness at each moment, etc. I.e. precisely NOT to represent the future in the present.)

  • Guest (land)

    I just want to be clear. I don't think we should steer clear of all activism. At this moment I am thinking ab out a proposal that Kasama can do for May 13th in support of the Move organization.

    What I am wary of is that we divide out work into mass work and communist work and end up not preparing for communist revolution.

    To be silent about what we are. That's is why I loved Jed's speech and why GB hated it. If there were no opportunities for us out there reactionaries like GB would not notice us.

    I have always worked in different organizations. Some better than others. At this moment there are huge numbers of people preparing for the US Social FOrum in Detroit. They are doing every kind of activism there is. We should go and we should go as Kasama and as communists. So it is good we are having this mass line discussion. Because this is going to be a real challenge.

  • Guest (Tell No Lies)

    Mike,

    Could you comment further on John Dewey's influence on the revolutionary movement in China?

  • TNL:

    I don't have a lot of time to run this down... but here is the short story.

    By World War 1, there was a profound crisis in China -- where the old ways were discredited, and China looked like it was the floormat of the world. A new generation of young intellectuals turned to the outside world, seeking to understand how china had become so weak, and how others had become so "modern" and strong.

    This movement ultimately exploded as the May 4th Movement, as the revolutionary Nationalist party, as the great northern expedition, and ultimately its left wing emerged as Mao's communist revolution.

    At the beginnign was a real cloud of intellectual ferment, and various intellectual/student youth explored the ideas of the outside world. Lu Hsun (for example) started as a devote of Japanese style modernization. An important section of youth were influenced by the Soviet Union (obviously!) And there was a powerful influence in that whole world of American idea -- and in particular John Dewey.

    Dewey spent two crucial years in China 1919-21, shortly after the highpoint of this whole upsurge and ferment -- and he had a huge influence on elements within it (not just among liberals but among the left).

    Here are some scholarly articles that give a hint of this:

    http://wwwsoc.nii.ac.jp/jaas/periodicals/JJAS/PDF/2007/No.18-107.pdf
    http://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/tci/article/view/22/44

    Here is a fragment of an article that also looks promising:
    http://www.jstor.org/pss/1186560

    It was an example of what Bill calls a "vital mix" -- and there were many ideologies and philosophies contending to present solutions to China's road of liberation and modernization. (And the relationship of liberation to modernization would be, as we know, contentious down to today).

  • Guest (bill martin)

    Actually, it's "vital mix"--"hot mix" is what I heard in spin class yesterday. Then again, it wasn't that hot.

    [moderator note: typo fixed]

    I wonder if Dewey's ideas resonated in China in part because in his philosophy (and in that of William James, which I find in some ways more profound on this subject) "experience" is the central category, and there is sense that experience counts for a great deal. This was at a time when China had experienced more than a century of foreign manipulation and being carved up, perhaps best concentrated in the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century. Prededing the eruption of the May 4th Movement, especially some of the newly-educated urban youth in China were becoming overwhelmingly aware of China as the mere "object" of Western history, and of the Chinese people as having no status as subject. So I can see the appeal of a philosophy that says "start with your experience," and I think there is still some worthwhile Marxist philosophy to be done in integrating the philosophical category of experience with that of practice.

  • Guest (land)

    This is in response to Vivid Visionary: VV said in reference to activity around the education cuts.

    "It's so easy NOT to talk about revolution and communism at my school. It's just so taboo. I constantly get the suggestion that we need to keep revolution and such talk off the table until after we've gotten more people to join us. I strongly disagree out of principle, but don't yet know how to speak these truths in a non-dogmatic, non-alienating way."

    "Any insights?"

    It's not true that discussion on revolution always drives people away. It is controversial.
    So what becomes interesting is the debate. At one point we did some forums on pro-choice at one university. Because it was public anyone could come. And the pro-lifers would always come to disrupt. And we didn't handle it Kasama-like. We tried to get the University to not allow these people in. What we should have done is welcomed the debate that they brought. I think people learn from debate.

    Another example is Jed's letter on Nepal. If we could get this published in some of the school newspapers.

    We did a panel on Nepal at the recent Left Forum in NY and the first question was "isn't there a violation of human rights here." Eric gave a good answer. And the next question was "what about these child soldiers." This also got a good answer

    Tea Party folks are making it a bigger question by their signs against socialism and health care. Someone said to me "I wish the left was as passionate as they are."

    But my main point/question came off reading the past post by Mike Ely. #21. He said "I don't think all struggles are the same. We should not focus on the handiest "day-to-day struggles" that present themselves around us. We should identify strategic faultlines that (in a conjunctural process)will be the place where pockets of the most advanced may congeal - ie where people have the most chance of learning "through struggle" and being open to revolutionary politics."

    What are these faultline struggles at universities? Maybe it is the budget cuts but maybe it is something else.

    Anyway glad you brought this up. It is part of the mass line and how to fuse revolution with the people.

  • Guest (nando)

    I think we are looking at faultlines in the social formation as a whole (not simply faultlines "where we are.")

    It has been raised that maybe "budget cuts" are a faultline -- but I think that confuses the immediate for the strategic.

    There is an important struggle going on, right now, over cuts at universities. It is important that communists and revolutionaries be in that struggle, among the people, and learning how to do revolutionary political work there. (and this has been true historically as the important NYC history of SLAM and the tuition struggles reveals).

    But we also need to step back (from important, immediate or local struggles) and look <em>strategically</em> at the society -- and at which points are likely to produced radicalized <em>cores</em> of people (the embryos and creators of a larger revolutionary people.)

    In many ways, the struggles in California over the anti-immigration propositions helped radicalize a generation of Latino high school students (who organized statewide walkouts and militant street actions, and awoke to politics). And I suspect that (in someways) the strength of the college struggles in California today is not its own epicenter -- but in part an aftershock of that radicalization among immigrant youth.

    That is what we are looking for -- major conflict and contradiction in society that is not easily resolved (or coopted) by this system, producing determined and righteous forces deep among the people who are determined to fight and learn.

    And the idea of alligning ourselves along faultlines -- in preparation for future eruptions and openings -- is rather opposed to the idea of wondering if every immediate struggle flaring around us is "a faultline" in our institution or community.

    This is also the importance of critiquing the empiricism of the FRSO mass line document (which at its very core seems adverse to strategic views).

    We should not be "whipped around" by the immediate. We should not chase every new flurry of struggle -- like ambulance chasers. Some struggles that arise are important to connect with, some are less important. some we can reach by dedicating our limited forces, some we will mainly reach by writing and analyzing and exposing from a communist perspective (and perhaps connect with advanced forces through that work).

    There are two rather different views involved:

    Will a revolutionary force grow out of the patient organizing by "revolutionary socialists" in the immediate struggles around them -- as mass movements become big, and as the sprinkling of socialist ideas connect with "lessons" of the struggle?

    Or will a revolutionary movement <em>mainly</em> emerge from the wrenchings and dislocations of crisis and conjuncture -- where large numbers of people are forced into political awakedness (sometimes suddenly), and where either we revolutionaries have prepared ourselves and a few emerging cores to connect and influence, or we haven't?

    Is political life linear or conjunctural? What is the relationship of structure to event? Is our job mainly to "organize the mass movement" or "prepare minds and organize forces for revolution"?

    And if our job is to "prepare minds and organize forces for revolution" -- where does that happen best? How do we relate to mass restlessness and struggles that are now emerging? How can we stand with the people, help organize the people <em>in struggle</em>, while (in that process) developing a <em>revolutionary</em> core (not just the bureaucratized structures of institutionalized protest)?

  • Guest (LS)

    nando says:

    <blockquote>That is what we are looking for — major conflict and contradiction in society that is not easily resolved (or coopted) by this system, producing determined and righteous forces deep among the people who are determined to fight and learn.

    And the idea of alligning ourselves along faultlines — in preparation for future eruptions and openings — is rather opposed to the idea of wondering if every immediate struggle flaring around us is “a faultline” in our institution or community.

    This is also the importance of critiquing the empiricism of the FRSO mass line document (which at its very core seems adverse to strategic views).</blockquote>

    FRSO's approach to the mass line is 'empericist'? From a statement like that it appears to me that Nando still has some work to do to break with RCP-style idealism. It just seems that any discussion that starts to get specific about a group of revolutionaries actually implementing the mass line in the real world suddenly produces warnings about the dangers of empricism. Geez. Why do you assume that FRSO doesn't have a similar process of 'aligning ourselves along faultlines' -- of counsciously choosing strategic struggles to dig into? Do you really think FRSO are ambulance-chasers, chasing whatever motion is around?

    The mass line document focuses on a communist method of leadership in a mass movement or organization. Why do you assume that means there is no process of deciding where to deploy communist forces?

  • Guest (saoirse)

    Isn’t it a red organizations role to find many fault lines and sectors of society in which struggle will likely emerge? From anti intervention to immigrant struggles, student work to labor organizing? doesn’t this necessitate years, decades of painstaking work? Some struggles have built in contradictions that capital can’t compromise immediately while others are marginalized or coopted. It would seem that the FRSO document is written for protracted struggle in mass work from student to immigrant rights work. I would really like to hear some alternatives not because I don’t think the document doesn’t have flaws but b/c I think we’re all either doing mass work or looking to involve ourselves in struggles as reds and need real organizing tools.


  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    While we continue to dig into to the theoretical questions around mass line, strategic faultlines, and how to orient revolutionary work in relation to emerging conjuncture, I want to turn back to Vivid Visionary's situation.

    VV, I encourage you not to be derailed from your work with and within the struggle developing in the California educational situation right now.

    I encourage you to plunge into this work, to experiment, to be bold and open-minded, to challenge theoretical assumptions through creative practice, etc (including theoretical ideas being discussed on this list). And then to critically reflect on that practice (and that theory).

    Some major issues to be focusing in on here, (imho) while you work alongside, around, and beyond the already active elements in this struggle, would be: discerning where and who they advanced are in Cali? Are there advanced sectors that are not (yet) active in this struggle and if so what are they waiting for? What is holding them back? What would be the demand or the sitaution that would bring them forward in a mass or militant way?

    Related to answering these questions, and even while you and your comrades put forth demands that you think are appropriate, I would encourage you to be listening to those in the struggle at various levels in order to determine what is really driving them to participate in the actions that they are (or are not). Where in other words is the energy for this activism coming from and where does it seem to be going?

    Nando has suggested above that the recent outbreak of Cali action may find roots in the immigrant rights movement that has flared up here and there over the past several years...I would imagine that proper practical involvement and investigation in the cali struggles will help speak to this assertion.

    If your investigation leads you to think it is the best way to go, I would encourage you to try out that FRSO line on moving the intermediate through actions as a way of teaching lessons.

    Or if you think there is--or can be-- a basis for it, try and stage a discussion about communism and education amongst both advanced and intermediate strata. Try to come up with an event title or draw that connects with where people are at, but then provokes them with a leap into theory...No doubt some of the activist elements will be interested in this leap into big ideas as fatigue around certain tactics sets in...

    The key thing as I see it, VV, is that whatever actions you and your comrades participate in, you critically reflect on them, and pass on a summation of them to others afterwards, so that we may learn from your experiences of practice, and formulate strategy and theory in relationship to this new collective experience.

    *Btw, can we get some kind of critical report on the recent 200-300,000 rally for immigration reform in Washington D.C. *

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    I meant to write:

    "may *stem* from roots in the immigrant rights movement..."

  • Guest (nando)

    LS writes:

    <blockquote>"FRSO’s approach to the mass line is ‘empiricist’?"</blockquote>

    Let me be clear: I know very little about either FRSO. My remark ws about the document, not about either group.

    I do think the document we are discussing is remarkably NON-strategic -- and that a specific strategy is <em>embedded</em> in it without articulation. And that the mass line is reduced to a method for developing shorterm tactics from direct experience (which is part, but a small part, of what a communist mass line is about).

    <blockquote>"From a statement like that it appears to me that Nando still has some work to do to break with RCP-style idealism."</blockquote>

    I think you misunderstood my statement -- but, setting that aside, I would be very open to hear views that disagree with my own. Perhaps I do need to break with previous views. If so, school me.

    <blockquote>"It just seems that any discussion that starts to get specific about a group of revolutionaries actually implementing the mass line in the real world suddenly produces warnings about the dangers of empricism. Geez."</blockquote>

    I don't think that is fair, but I do think it is revealing. The "real world" is immediate tactical questions. Raising the mass line as something for <em>communist</em> policy, for something associated with strategic thinking... is that what you mean by "idealist"?

    Is the direct experience of this or that struggle what defines "the real world"?

    There is a old and familiar current in communist thinking that thinks "being concrete" is good, and "being abstract" is bad.

    <blockquote>"Why do you assume that FRSO doesn’t have a similar process of ‘aligning ourselves along faultlines’ — of counsciously choosing strategic struggles to dig into? Do you really think FRSO are ambulance-chasers, chasing whatever motion is around?"</blockquote>

    As I mentioned above... I have assumed nothing. And would be very interested to hear how FRSO (FightBack) views their work strategically.

    There is a pull toward being "ambulance chasers." But (honestly) FRSO-FightBack is simply not on my radar, and was not a target of my remarks. I know little about FRSO(FB) -- other than what I occasionally read, and would be interested to know more.

    The moment we started discussing "faultlines" there have been remarks (and not mainly here in these threads) speculating that this or that immediate struggle might be such a faultline. And, of course, they might be. For example: is the collapse of social compact (accelerated by the current recession) such a faultline? How should we strategically view possible (or actual) struggles against foreclosures and cutbacks?

    I was remarking that we should (in fact must) be active (as much as possible) in the budget cut sruggles in California (and related struggle in NYC etc.) But there is a <em>separate</em> question (a specifically <em>strategic</em> question) about the role the recession and such "fight back" plays in the preparations for revolution.

    And I would urge that we not confuse the two: An economic recession intensifies many social contradictions in society. It sometimes gives rise to economic struggles (and, ironically, sometimes suppresses them.) It may accelerate the manifestations of new political phenomena. but I don't assume that they will largely take the form of economic "fight back" -- and I don't assume that such arenas are necessarily the best place for radical work.

    On the other hand, these are specific matters to investigate: we need summations of the struggles in California (their content, their motion, their basis among the students, the response of different parts of the ruling class, the work of communists there etc.)

    Anyway, LS, please lay bare some of the points you are alluding to. What is the strategic thinking of FRSO(FB)? What are the faultlines (if any) that the work is aligned along? And what are criticisms or agreements you have of the views expressed here (by me certainly, but also generally)?

  • Guest (land)

    To the VV posts. I did not mean to say that folks should not work with students around school cutbacks.

    What I meant to say is there might be people interested in communism and related things that might not really be all that excited about what is going on around the cutbacks.

    But yeah don't pull back from being part of what is going on.

  • Guest (Avery Ray Colter)

    I find myself very drawn to this discussion of what this mass line is exactly. I am walking into this site as a newcomer to, as they say, communism from the horse's mouth, and am probably about to set myself up for a righteous smackdown, but I find it a little humorous that the RCP is being panned as purely idealistic. It is their propagandizing among the throngs who went out as the aerial bombardment of Iraq commenced, and a subsequent outing to see parts of, to buy and to watch Avakian's DVD, that led me to see how much of what at least their presentation of the situation ringed true in my mind. I have been slowly stewing over this stuff since, reading RCP missives, and the progress of the 2008 election accelerated my hunger to read communist and anarchist and Pareconist material.

    For one thing, the faction being called purely idealist and having adopted "de facto abandonment of Mass Line" seems to be writing quite a bit lately about mass line; they did say that there was an internal cultural revolution a few years back, and perhaps reuptake of mass line was a part of this. For another, for actual locations where I can go and meet people who get together to discuss these matters face to face, I have pretty much RevBooks, Niebyl-Proctor, and AK for the anarchist perspective. Do any of these other organizations mentioned have their own meeting spaces? Are they having local meetings?

    And what I find the most ironic is, Revolution and World To Win has republished some of Kasama's writings, which made this site known to me. Odd then that I would walk right in to see exhortations to bite the hand that has fed me to you. Not that I am blindly loyal to anything, and I am waiting to see how various RCP people answer some questions I've sent in as they've encouraged readers to do. But at least to this set of eyes venturing in from the semi-activist masses, they seem to be at least making their presence known in meatspace, which is more than I can say of other orgs whose names I only know from their mention on RevLeft or here.

  • You write:

    <blockquote>"I am walking into this site as a newcomer to, as they say, communism from the horse’s mouth, and am probably about to set myself up for a righteous smackdown..."</blockquote>

    No need to worry, "smackdown" is not in style here. Welcome Avery.

    Others may have more to comment, so I will keep my own remarks brief:

    <blockquote>"I find myself very drawn to this discussion of what this mass line is exactly.</blockquote>

    Me too. A key problem of radical change is how to fuse revolutionary politics and programs with the people themselves. It is a problem now (for revolutionary preparation and buildup) -- and it is a problem for the socialist period itself (as we can learn from the previous experiences with socialist revolution in the 20th century).

    <blockquote>"I find it a little humorous that the RCP is being panned as purely idealistic.</blockquote>

    The following may be known to you, Avery, and other readers, but let me say for clarity: In communist discussions, <em>idealism</em> has a very particular meaning -- different from the general discourse in American politics. In communist discussoins, idealism does not refer to "high ideals" -- it means not basing politics on reality. It means to proceed from fantasy and self-deception. In this case, the RCP is perceived as withdrawing (more and more) from contact with reality -- in a way characteristic of small self-deluding in-groups. It exaggerates itself and its impact -- and applies magical thinking to the invention of political scenarios, and has developed a particular theory that connecting their chairman to the people can transform American politics "in a telescoped way."

    <blockquote>""It is their propagandizing among the throngs who went out as the aerial bombardment of Iraq commenced, and a subsequent outing to see parts of, to buy and to watch Avakian’s DVD, that led me to see how much of what at least their presentation of the situation ringed true in my mind."</blockquote>

    The RCP (and its RU predecessor) was also my introduction to communist training -- from my teenage years. There is (in the works of the RCP and Avakian) a great deal of true exposure of this system, its nature and its crimes. And, as I think over my own participation in their newspaper over years, I think that such exposure (tirelessly carried out within the U.S.) is one of the real contributions this party has made.

    <blockquote>"For one thing, the faction being called purely idealist and having adopted “de facto abandonment of Mass Line” seems to be writing quite a bit lately about mass line; they did say that there was an internal cultural revolution a few years back, and perhaps reuptake of mass line was a part of this."</blockquote>

    Unfortunately, the opposite is the case. the so-called "cultural revolution" was aimed at the political views called "the get real brigade" -- and it condemned the RCP's own attempts to reach out deeply to the people, and especially its efforts to organize people for sharp struggle.

    In the wake of those internal campaigns (and subsequent purges of activists from membership), the RCP has moved even further from any sense of a mass line -- and its initiatives (like Refuse and Resist, October 22 fight against police brutality, NION antiwar work, La Resistensia campaign of support for the undocumented, the Mumia campaign) have all been sharply criticized, and largely abandoned.

    The RCP's work is now reduced to a non-stop promotion of Bob Avakian -- by proclaiming his leadership and theories in an evangelistic way. This is an example of idealism -- because <em>proclaiming</em> "leadership" is not the same thing as <em>exercising</em> leadership.

    <blockquote>"And what I find the most ironic is, Revolution and World To Win has republished some of Kasama’s writings, which made this site known to me."</blockquote>

    I suspect you are mistaken here. Revolution and AWTW has not published any of Kasama's writing. Though we at kasama have republished some works by Revolution and AWTW. The RCP has adopted a rather odd policy of shunning toward supporters of Kasama -- forbidding anyone associated from Kasama from entering their bookstores, attending their events, and even speaking to their cadre. They have tried in a few cases to insist that other forces shun us as "counterrevolutionary" -- but that has been an epic fail.

    <blockquote>"Odd then that I would walk right in to see exhortations to bite the hand that has fed me to you."</blockquote>

    What you are seeing is a protracted attempt to sum up the experience of revolutionary politics in the U.S. -- which includes the RCP and its experiences. We are trying to do such summation in a balanced way -- focusing on major questions of revolutionary preparation (not on petty personal smears.)

    Feel free to dig into this, Avery. And speak to your own experience and observations of this.