If the dominant ideas of a society are the ideas of the ruling class, even among the masses who have completely different class positions and class perspectives, how can communists organize the masses into a class for themselves, according to their own ideas and toward their own interests? How can we maintain a level of unity with each other which is necessarily very deep—and always deepening—while we win over people with whom we may only be able to unite on a much more immediate and limited level? Conversely, how can we make our campaigns, activities, and slogans relevant to broad sections of the people without losing our particular communist perspectives and outlooks? Is there a way for each of these problems to solve one another?
The methodology that has been developed by communists over the course of history to answer these questions is called the Mass Line.
The Mass Line is usually distilled to two concepts: from the masses, to the masses and unite the advanced, win over the intermediate, and isolate the backward (or unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, win over the backward). These are fairly simple and straightforward in and of themselves, as general principles, but their application gives rise to greater and greater complexity as an organization’s political work reaches higher and higher levels.
A whole article could be dedicated to how communists should undertake social investigation, so without getting too specific on this front, application of the mass line has to begin by having a good handle on the context we are organizing in. We have to understand who the people are, what they think of the world, what makes intuitive sense to them, how they relate to one another as individuals and organizations, and what parts of their lives throw them into the most acute contradictions with the capitalist system. These contradictions will give rise to an array of ideas, most of them bourgeois in nature but some more or less correct.
When communists have done this investigation, we should understand which correct ideas already exist among the masses, even if only in nascent, incoherent and scattered form. This is no easy task, and may give rise to a number of failures before any successes. Through this process though, we will eventually come to really understand the “laws of motion” of the social context we are organizing. This is the from the masses aspect of the Mass Line. We should then take those ideas and use them to develop our slogans, campaigns, demands, etc. This should be done in a way that makes the contradiction between the masses and the capitalist system clearer to people, and provides a jumping-off point for winning people over to a deeper unity with us as communists. This is the to the masses aspect of the Mass Line. If we are successful in implementing the mass line, people will move closer to us ideologically, politically, and organizationally, and from there we can consolidate those gains and start the process anew, only stronger and more knowledgeable than we were before.
But the Mass Line is about more than simply winning sections of the masses over to the ideas we, as communists, already have. This is an aspect of it, but one that will result in a rigid, monolithic organization and practise if it were to eclipse its dialectical counterpart: the Mass Line is about figuring out what the correct ideas are in the first place, though our interactions with the masses in the struggles we initiate.
If this latter aspect were implemented on its own, though, the opposite problem would arise: an eclectic, disjointed, incoherent politics and practise, one that cannot distinguish between correct and incorrect ideas among the masses themselves, an approach which simply slaps a red coat of paint on whatever the masses happen to be doing or thinking and calling it communist.
The inter-penetration of these two facets of the Mass Line in our approach to communist work among the masses—the way each informs the other, allowing our perspectives, our political work and our organizations to leap forward, consolidate, and leap forward again—is fundamental to the practise of Mass Line, and this requires that we consolidate the gains we make along the way. This can mean winning people over to specific theoretical perspectives, founding new organizations, having people join existing organizations, becoming more integrated with the people, etc.
In any context, there will be some forces—organizations, people, institutions—that are more advanced in their perspective and their orientation to the struggle and others that are more reactionary. In implementing the Mass Line, communists need to be able to figure out which are which, and how to relate to them. Broadly speaking, people can be characterized as advanced, intermediate or backward.
These terms are relative and heavily context-dependent. Somebody may be considered “advanced” in the context of a strike if they understand that the company is unequivocally their enemy and that the rank-and-file of their union should have democratic control over bargaining demands, but that same person may be “intermediate” on the question of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.
The advanced forces should be united by communists—around a specific perspective, a set of demands, or an organization, for example—in order to both bring them closer to a communist perspective and to make them more effective over the course of the struggle. This may mean starting a communist group, or it may not, depending on the situation.
Intermediate forces are those who are not hostile to the perspectives of the advanced but are not wholly convinced or not quite ready to make the jump into that advanced perspective. Through the struggle in question, the advanced perspective should show itself to be correct—whether through principled political debate, through the effectiveness of our practise, or through the failure of bourgeois forces—if we are doing a good job. This creates the conditions for intermediate forces to be won over to the more advanced perspective, allowing for consolidation and unity with those forces.
Among the backward there are two broad, fluid categories: those who we are in non-antagonistic contradiction with, and those who we are in antagonistic contradiction with.
There will be some forces who are on our side when it comes to a specific struggle but who are in total disagreement with our perspectives, our demands, our organizations, etc. Among those, some will be genuine in wanting to advance the cause of the people who simply have incorrect political perspectives. We may argue vigorously with these forces, each side understanding the other’s good intentions. Contradictions like these can potentially be non-antagonistic in nature and handled much the same way as dealing with intermediate forces: showing the correctness of our line through debate and practise, winning them over to unity with us. Here we win over the backward.
Sometimes, though, these contradictions can become antagonistic in nature, whether because of the way they are handled or because of the nature of the forces involved. In cases where forces are actively harmful to the masses in a struggle, the communists need to make sure to advance the interests of the masses, even if it means isolating these backward forces. The manner in which this is done will vary from context to context, but universally, we must take care to isolate the backward from the intermediate and the advanced while maintaining the integration of those intermediate and advanced forces with ourselves. We shouldn’t isolate the backward—and the intermediate along with them!
Often the genuine intermediate forces will be able to understand, when we show it to be the case, how backward forces and perspectives will hurt the struggle, moving them away from those backward forces. As this happens again and again, each perspective becoming more clearly articulated, more thorough in its application and broader in its scope, we hope to establish two lines within the struggle: the proletarian line and the bourgeois line, with ourselves the staunchest champions of the proletarian line and the backward forces putting forward the bourgeois line. Through a struggle between these two lines, we can isolate the backward forces from the masses, thus strengthening the proletarian line and our own unity with the masses. It is in this way that we isolate the backward.
The Mass Line is a process that is both scientific and political.
It is scientific in that it requires us to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate our understanding of a situation in light of the material outcomes of concrete practise. We have to make use of the body of experience already gathered about the class struggle in general—that is, theory—and of the specific environment where we’re organizing—including ourselves and our own forces—in order to make our best assessment of that environment and how to intervene in the struggle so that it can be pushed forward. Out of this, we will find that we were right about some things and wrong about others, which in turn forces us to reject, change, or affirm aspects of both the theory we employ and our understanding of particular environment. In this way the Mass Line is itself a methodology for generating knowledge and developing theory. If we’re practising the Mass Line, we can’t just assume that what we already think about a context—a neighbourhood, a school, a workplace, a strike—is correct and cling to that assumption when investigation or practise show otherwise. We need rigour and boldness to make an assessment then implement it in practise, while at the same time having humility and clarity to know what we have done incorrectly and how to correct it.
It is political in that its purpose is not the sterile, detached accumulation of knowledge about the world and how it works but instead the changing of that world, and more specifically changing it to a communist one! When evaluating whether a certain action or slogan or campaign was correct, what basis do we use to determine that? We don’t base it on how well it conformed to our pre-existing ideas, or how much people enjoyed themselves, and maybe not even how many people we engaged or whether we won this or that concession. We base it on whether it moved the class struggle forward, or, to be a little more nuanced about it, whether it moved the class struggle forward as much as was possible. Are we closer to communism because of this? Any of the above factors could—and often do—contribute to how we answer that question, but they are not fundamental in and of themselves. Knowing how to answer this question is difficult, and in itself requires a good understanding of the specific situation you’re in, as well as the state of the class struggle more generally. It could be that a higher level of understanding of the environment we are organizing in is required before we can even determine whether we were correct or incorrect in the approach we took!
Scientific understanding allows for better political interventions, which generates new knowledge that can be used to evaluate our political interventions, which in turn allows us to intervene more effectively in the future, generating new knowledge, better theories, and so on. In order for either the scientific and political aspects of the Mass Line to be effective, they must inter-penetrate with one another in practise.
It is often tempting to use organizational growth as a benchmark for whether our work has been correct, but this is not necessarily the case. We could fairly easily engage in a struggle in such a way that we win one or two new comrades into the Party while alienating ourselves from the masses in general. While winning those comrades is good in and of itself, our activity in this instance could be understood in general as being incorrect.
Likewise, initiating a campaign that develops the independent action and leadership of the masses, brings people into closer contact with the Party and leaves them thinking of us as genuine, dedicated and courageous fighters for their interests could be a huge benefit even if the campaign ends without us recruiting a single member. Such a struggle teaches us a lot about our situation and how to struggle in it, wins people over to our ideas and provides future avenues for engaging with the masses.
A truly successful intervention in the class struggle, one in which our work is largely correct, will yield a result somewhere in between—or rather, be an inter-penetration of—the above examples.
As communists, we fight for the unity of the proletariat, but not unity in the abstract—unity on a correct political basis. Building that unity and discovering that correct political basis are processes that absolutely require one another. They need to be developed in tandem, and developing them is, in the final analysis, the historical mission of the proletariat. In employing the Mass Line, communists help the process along, giving history the push it deserves.