This article is an attempt to synthesize, on an abstract and universal level, nearly eight years of experience engaging in various types of mass work. As we enter into a new phase of our work –one marked by rapid expansion of the party organization, and the further development of our mass and intermediate organizations – the question of the mass-line and communist methods of mass work carries even greater importance. Without correctly conceptualizing our tasks, and engaging the masses in a correct manner, we will not be able to build revolution in Canada. There is no way around this.
What then is mass work? Mass work is, as the name implies, any sort of political work that engages the masses. It can mean work through the party, either as party campaigns, contingents in demonstrations, publishing analyses, debating, and so on. It can mean the creation of mass and intermediate organizations around specific issues or demographics. It can mean the involvement of party supporters in campaigns or organizations initiated outside the party. In short, any political activity that interacts with the masses can be considered mass work. There are, however, some types of mass work that work better in certain situations: this article will attempt to address this.
Some comrades create an artificial distinction between “party building” work and “mass work”. This incorrect approach tends to take two forms. The first is to de-emphasize party building, and only emphasize work among the masses. These comrades tend to view Maoism or revolutionary communism as an hindrance when engaging with the masses, and hide their politics, exposing themselves politically to only a chosen few. This tendency expresses itself in an anti-party manner. The second, which we have been guilty of at times, is to de-emphasize the importance of work among the masses, and instead emphasize only the importance of so-called party work, chiefly classical forms of propaganda. This type of practice becomes effectively sloganeering. Sloganeering is an idealist approach to organizing; there is no engagement with the material world, the needs of the masses. While it is correct to say that ideas themselves can become material forces, organization is key to the qualitative transformation between ideas and matter: the mass-line is the means by which organization happens. By focusing exclusively on propaganda work, we isolate ourselves and do not give the masses a reason to involve themselves in the revolutionary movement. In effect, without the masses we become nothing more than a sect or a cult. This article attempts to bridge this false dichotomy, showing the importance of each approach when taken together.
Closely related to the above issue is a second one, namely: does the party form mass organizations, or do mass organizations form the party? Again, this is something of a false dichotomy, but not to the same extent as the question above. Unless we adopt a spontaneist view of revolution, it seems obvious that the party initiates mass organizations. A robust network of revolutionary mass organizations can only emerge under the leadership of a party with a correct political line and practice; to expect the party to emerge spontaneously out of a conglomeration of mass organizations is to put the task of party-building off into the indefinite future. This being said, the party is itself built and strengthened through interaction with the mass organizations under its leadership: in this sense, once the party is formed, there is a dialectical interplay between the party and mass organizations, each building the other. However, for this process to be set in motion, a party is necessary. This article will unravel this issue in greater depth, and explore what we conceive to be the proper relationship between party and mass organization.
The article will proceed as follows: after exploring the reason to engage in mass work, a basic conception of the mass-line will be presented. The article will then proceed away from the abstract and toward a more concrete discussion of organization, reform and revolution, communist conduct, communist leadership, and finally, the connection between the mass-line and the revolutionary strategy of protracted people’s war. The goal of this article is both to present our conception of the mass-line publicly, but also to aid the perspectives and efforts of organizers in the struggle for total human liberation, for communism.
Why Do We Engage in Mass Work?
Mass work primarily has five functions. First, mass work is the means by which the masses can be organized for revolution. In this sense mass work––the organization of the masses––is key to advancing the revolutionary movement. We should see in our mass work, and in our mass organizations, the embryo of the institutions of socialism. As such, mass work creates the subjective conditions for revolution in Canada, and is an integral part of the strategy of protracted people’s war [PPW]. Simply put, if the masses are not organized there can be no revolution.
Second, mass work grounds us ideologically and practically in the masses, allowing us to evaluate our own political line against the political line(s) of the advanced sections of the masses. Our line should resonate with the masses if applied properly; if it doesn’t, the balance of forces notwithstanding, then either our line or our methods are incorrect. Mass work, combined with a healthy attitude toward criticism and self-criticism, allows us to evaluate our political line and methods of work.
Third, at the risk of sounding callous, mass organizations and mass work serve as great recruiting pools for the party. Where better to meet, build, and test potential communists than in the midst of the class struggle itself? The party should endeavour to attract to itself the most advanced sections of the masses; those with the leadership and political attitudes necessary to advance the class struggle in Canada. Mass work gives us the ability to find these people, and give them a reason to care about what we do and the political line we put forward.
Fourth, mass work allows us to directly ameliorate the conditions of the masses. This will be dealt with in detail later when reformism is discussed. But principally, by taking on specific demands or campaigns and by winning victories, we can directly improve the conditions of the masses. In turn, this gives the masses a material reason to take us seriously (not in the sense of being taken seriously in the context of bourgeois ideological hegemony, but in the sense of giving the masses a real material reason to consider our political line). While our ability to improve the conditions of the masses is limited by the increasing crises that capitalism will be experiencing as it enters its death-throes, as well as waning Canadian imperialism in light of renewed inter-imperialist conflict, there still may be specific struggles in which we can intervene and win.
Fifth, mass work allows us to create a sense of “community” in the work that we do. Capitalism is alienating and atomizing; increasingly, and especially as a result of secularization, the working class finds itself without any organization or community (church groups, neighbourhood associations, sporting clubs, political parties, unions, etc.). Indeed, bourgeois commentators have noted the “crisis of Canadian politics,” namely declining rates of membership in bourgeois political parties. The result of this atomization is observable even within the left: loneliness, burn-out, expressions of mental-illness, lack of feeling supported, and lack of feelings of solidarity between people in the revolutionary left. Certain types of mass work, by focusing on building community, can alleviate some of the effects of atomization. While this may seem to be the most intangible reason to engage in mass work, the creation of community is absolutely necessary for the success and vibrancy of the revolutionary movement.
These are the five “whys”, so to speak, for engaging in mass work. They are: 1) to organize the masses for revolution; 2) to keep us grounded in the masses; 3) recruitment; 4) amelioration of the conditions of the masses; and 5) to create a sense of community within the revolutionary movement.
What is the Mass-Line?
The mass-line is the basic method of communist organizing; it has been used, consciously or unconsciously, by all successful communist movements. Maoism, basing itself on the experience of the socialist experiments of the 20th century, represents the first codification of the mass-line. Mao was able to draw out the mass-line as a universal organizing method from the particulars of its implementation.
The mass-line consists of two basic principles. The first principle is “From the masses, to the masses.” As revolutionary communists, we adhere to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as our ideological orientation, which is to say we have a certain idea about how the world is run and a certain idea of how the world should be run. The masses do not, largely, share these ideas; they have a myriad of weird, wonderful, and contradictory ideas, some of which are good and useful, and some of which are not. However, this isn’t to say that the masses do not know what they want. In fact, any ten minute conversation with a worker will tell you that they not only have a series of very real and legitimate grievances, but also have a decent idea as to how the world could be better organized. How do we bridge the gap between our Maoist understanding of the world and the masses’ eclectic and often incorrect understanding of the world? How do we bridge the gap between our proposed solutions––socialism and communism––and the very real grievances of the masses?
The mass-line stipulates that we need to “meet the masses where they are at.” It is the job of communists to go to the masses and listen to their issues. We then take their grievances, concentrate them, and synthesize them with our revolutionary ideology to form a concrete and coherent program or campaign, while maintaining and preserving the original good ideas of the masses. This concentrated synthesis is then taken back to the masses and the process is repeated in a constant reiterative process between the party and the masses. Through this process we raise the political level of the masses, while keeping ourselves grounded in them.
It is worth briefly discussing political consciousness. Some comrades understand political consciousness as existing on a continuum with reactionary ideas on one end, and revolutionary ideas on the other end. Thus, they understand the development of revolutionary political consciousness to simply be an accumulation of other correct ideas, step-by-step, oft-times within the framework of bourgeois politics or liberalism. It becomes very easy to justify economism with this understanding: the masses simply have to agree with higher wages, anti-imperialism, and so on and they will suddenly become revolutionaries. What these comrades do not understand is that revolutionary consciousness grows out of a rupture with bourgeois politics: it does not exist on a continuum with reactionary ideas, but itself constitutes an entirely new continuum of political consciousness and activity. As such, bourgeois ideas must be consciously broken with, not simply accumulated. To tie this into reforms, it is not enough to get the masses involved in fighting for a number of reforms: there must be also be an ideological rupture from bourgeois ideology on the part of the masses. Only then is revolutionary consciousness achieved.
The second principle of the mass-line is “unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, and win over the backwards.” In order to effectively do this, we have to look more concretely at the ideas of the masses. Broadly speaking, we can say that the ideas of the masses fall into three categories: 1) the advanced, those closest to MLM, or those with generally revolutionary, progressive, and democratic ideas who are also willing to be active around them; 2) the intermediate, or those that have some advanced and some backwards ideas; and 3) the backwards, those that generally have reactionary, regressive, or undemocratic ideas. When organizing the masses, the mass-line approach is to unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, and to win over the backwards where possible, or to isolate the backwards where winning the backwards over is not possible.
When engaging in any sort of mass-line practice, one must be flexible. This is to say, that while it is helpful in any given situation to categorize the ideas of the masses according to the categories of advanced, intermediate, and backwards, these categories are in reality fluid. As a struggle progresses, the ideas that constitute any of these categories can change: what constitutes the advanced today may constitute the backwards tomorrow. Likewise, people are processes, and over time any person can improve or worsen their own ideas. Any organizer should be able to flexibly adapt their own practice to changing circumstances; the mass-line is not a dogma, it is intended to help and not hinder mass work. It is only through a creative application of the mass-line that mass work can move forward.
The mass-line, when put into practice, is a continuous process. To get a little less abstract, we can generally identify a series of steps that encapsulate any mass-line practice. 1) First, any organizer has to begin with social investigation: figuring out what the issues or grievances of the masses are at all levels (economic, social, political, etc.), and then figuring out how the masses can be broken down into various sections. This can take the form of surveys, reactions to lived experiences, and so on and so forth. Coming out of this process a point of political intervention should be identifiable, with a basic plan of action following soon after. 2) Once these questions have been answered (not in full because one is only able to truly know the world through struggling to change it), one must gather all those forces which are capable and willing to struggle and fight for the campaign that has been initiated. This can take the form of meetings, a campaign call-out, etc.… this is the means by which the advanced are united. 3) Following the gathering of forces, it’s incumbent on organizers to put people into action, to intervene in the world in a political way. Through the process of going to people and engaging in politics with them, one can increase their political level; this is the process of “bringing up the intermediate”. In turn, this also serves as further social investigation for the organizers, where we are able to learn from the masses. 4) After initiating any sort of political action, there will inevitably be some sort of reaction to the work that one is engaging in. An organizer should use this as an opportunity to see what results have been obtained through the political action, and re-evaluate the initial plan. Maybe there is a victory, maybe there isn’t, but either way there needs to be some form of accounting for and systematizing the effort that one has engaged in. 5) Every struggle that isn’t the final struggle against capitalism will inevitably die down at some point. It’s the job of organizers to consolidate the gains made during the campaign, either in the form of ensuring the reform is successfully implemented or, more importantly, organizing new people that have been brought into political life through the work that has been initiated. At the end of the day, winning or losing the specific reform is not what’s important: advancing the class struggle by increasing the level of struggle among the masses and increasing the skills and capacities of revolutionary organizers is decisive. Consolidation should serve this end. In order for consolidation to happen, formal organizations are necessary; there needs to be something for people to be consolidated into. 6) Once new forces are consolidated, a new round of investigation should begin, and the cycle begins anew.
Mass-line is not simply a set of static principles, but when applied, is a radically democratic and vibrant way of organizing.
What the Mass-Line Isn’t
No discussion of the mass-line would be complete without looking at what the mass-line isn’t, or, that is to say, types of practices that invoke the concept of mass-line as a justification for various sorts of opportunism.
The mass-line is not tailism. Tailism is a method of practice by which revolutionaries only allow themselves to follow the most advanced ideas of the masses, never moving beyond these ideas nor putting forward any revolutionary politics; revolutionaries tail the masses. Some use the mass-line as a means of excusing this type of practice, saying that the mass-line means that we have to go to the masses and meet the masses where they are at politically––to learn from them. While this is true, it is only half of the mass-line: revolutionaries are also supposed to raise the political level of the masses in the process of struggle, and this can only be done if revolutionaries openly put forward a revolutionary political program. The mass-line is intended to raise the level of the masses and connect them with revolutionary struggle, not serve as an excuse for revolutionaries to hide their politics.
The mass-line is not econonism. Economism can be characterized as a type of practice in which economic demands are raised to a primary place of importance, while political demands are sidelined or ignored. Fighting for increased minimum wage without simultaneously and openly connecting that struggle with a fight for an end to the wage system and capitalism is an example of economism. While the mass-line is concerned with specific demands and grievances of the masses, it does not stop there: it is a means by which revolutionaries can connect these specific demands with the broader revolutionary struggle, and pull the masses into that struggle. One should not confuse specific tactics or demands with broader strategies.
The mass-line is not bureaucratism. This should be fairly obvious but it is not. In many of our organizing experiences, we have seen otherwise democratic structures mis-used by power-hungry bureaucrats, even when the stakes are relatively low. This is especially common within unions, of both the student and worker variety. There are some people who, without saying it openly but through their actions, conceive of the mass-line not as a radically democratic way of connecting the masses with revolutionaries, but as a means by which the masses can be controlled. Revolutionaries should use the mass-line to awaken the potential of the masses to govern themselves; the organizations formed in the process of struggle should form the basis of socialism.
The mass-line is not commandism. The mass-line is necessary because revolutionaries hold a different set of ideas from the masses about how the world operates and how it should operate; we are Maoists, the masses are not. An organizer must be conscious of this difference. If, for instance, we insist that the masses become Maoists for us to work with them, we will very quickly find ourselves isolated. Commandism is the practice of standing ahead of the masses politically and commanding them to “catch-up.” To act in a commandist manner is to forget about the “from the masses” aspect of the mass-line, and to act as though the masses have nothing to teach us. It is a self-isolating practice, but one that is practiced by much of the left in the imperialist countries. While the mass-line involves raising the political level of the masses, this is done through struggle, not through sloganeering or demanding that the masses politicize.
Finally, the mass-line is not mass fetishism. There is a tendency, predominately but not exclusively among white male communists in the first world, to fetishize the masses. Everything that the masses do, according to these comrades, is somehow sacred and shouldn’t be questioned. This phenomenon is closely linked to workerism, or the extension of “identity politics” to class: to be a worker is considered another aspect of one’s identity. This approach is usually rooted in a romanticized view of the masses and class struggle, and is often found within people that have very little connection to the masses or class struggle. Revolutionaries can and must criticize backwards practices found within the masses, practices like, but not limited to: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The mass-line is a means by which these incorrect ideas can be systematically abolished, not encouraged simply because the masses hold them.
The Question of Organization
Up until now, this article has dealt with fairly abstract questions, sometimes using concrete examples, but focusing on universal principles. Now we will begin to concretely examine types of organizations, struggles, and methods of work.
Before examining concrete types of organization, it is perhaps worth looking at the question of organization more broadly. The question of organization has typified the disagreements between the communist and anarchist camps, with the former falling on the side of organization and the latter generally falling on the side of varying levels of disorganization. Some Trotskyist sects will focus on the necessity of seizing leadership in various bourgeois or labour-aristocratic organizations, anarchists will critique any type of organization other than the lowest level of “voluntary” association as being undemocratic and bureaucratic, but communist methods of organization are not explored. Why is organization (in the abstract) necessary? Why are organizations necessary? What do communist organizations look like? What do mass organizations look like? What is the relationship between these different types of organization? How should communists relate to non-communist organizations?
To situate these questions concretely, let’s examine the current political context in Canada. With the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s, the broad left in the imperialist countries faced a rebirth or revitalization of sorts after the glaring defeats of the 1980s, the fall of the USSR, and the so-called “end of history”. This left, of course, largely was not interested in the launch of the Protracted People’s War in Peru, or the ongoing PPWs in the Philippines and India but sought to chart its own path against “dated” Leninist methods and models. The “new-new left” gained theoretical coherency in what can be referred to as movementism. To a certain extent the attacks on the World Trade Centre in September of 2001 had a chilling effect on the development of the movementist left, but with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the anti-globalization movement developed into a broad anti-war movement, with some of the largest demonstrations in history occurring in opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The movementist left continued to develop more-or-less along these same movement, anti-globalization, and anti-war lines, exemplified by the social forums, until the financial crisis of 2008. The 2008 crisis not only opened space on the level of discourse for critiques of capitalism (it became clear that the “end of history” hadn’t arrived and that capitalism wasn’t working), but also provided a material basis for the radicalization of the working class in the imperialist countries. 2008 was pivotal insofar as it marked a turning point: struggles after 2008 became more consolidated, radical, and ideologically coherent than they had been in the preceding years, albeit still maintaining the same organizational forms of the anti-globalization movement.
More recently we have felt the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis in the series of mass movements that have swept across Canada and the rest of the world. In 2011 the Occupy movement burst onto the political scene, and resulted in occupations in nearly all major and mid-sized cities across North America. Occupy was one of the first truly mass movements to arise in North America in the 21st century (the immigrant rights movement and the anti-war movement are also mass movements of the 21st century). It was also important insofar as it very directly called into question capitalism, and put forward the notion of class and class interests into the mainstream, though in the economistic form of the “1%” versus the “99%”. This was followed in 2012 with the so-called Maple Spring, which was far more radical and long-lasting than anyone could have anticipated: indeed, it resulted in the very fabric of Quebec society being questioned by large numbers of people. In 2013 Idle No More swept across Canada and, for the first time in memory in some locations, notably the Prairies, we saw the mobilization of large numbers of First Nations people against the effects (though notably not the system) of Canadian colonialism. These movements largely ignored the existing left, though certainly copied organizational structures and ideological orientations from the movementist milieu.
What is movementism? We include in the movementist milieu most anarchists, trade union activists, social democrats, revisionist communists, and even some self-styled anti-revisionists. In the context of talking about organization, a unifying feature of the movementists is a mistrust of organization and a belief in the transformative power of spontaneous gatherings. Even where revolution is desired, or talked about on an abstract level, no tactical or strategic discussion of how to build revolution occurs. Instead, there is a belief that a convergence of various movements, small affinity groups, and individuals will somehow result in qualitative leap in the left’s capacity, and a social transformation will follow. This was the “strategy” put forward by the overly-triumphalist sections of the movementist left during the Occupy movement. It was the “strategy” advanced by movementists in Quebec during the Maple Spring. And yet, in each instance, these mass movements ultimately failed, retreated, and capitalism remained unchanged.
The experience of the mass movements of the last 10 years show that movementist or spontaneist approaches to social change are a dead end. The lack of organization among the mainstream left resulted in there being no force capable of seizing on the opportunities these mass uprisings occasioned, notably by applying the mass-line and transforming the uprisings into revolutionary movements. This experience, more than anything else, highlights the need for organization: there must be an organization that can coordinate action among revolutionary forces to intervene in struggles and movements, and that can coordinate and qualitatively transform mass uprisings into revolutionary movements. Organization will allow for the development of revolutionary movements: disorganization will allow for another Occupy.
So what type of organization is necessary? An organization that is able to coordinate the actions of its members toward a common goal. An organization that can serve as a place where the various struggles ongoing in society can be brought together and linked; where they can be politically centralized under a conscious political leadership. An organization that can consciously learn from past mistakes and synthesize experiences in order to move forward. An organization that is composed of the advanced section of the masses. An organization with a coherent structure and ideology, with a plan of action to make revolution. These characteristics describe a vanguard organization, or the party. As Maoists, we all agree on the necessity of the party; we are supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Why bring this up? It is worthwhile to situate and conceptualize the role of the vanguard party as we consider the role of mass organizations. We can therefore say that one type of communist organization is the highly organized vanguard party, and that the experience of mass movements from the last 10 years underlines the necessity of the vanguard party to the revolutionary process.
While a centralized, ideologically coherent vanguard party made up of the advanced sections of the masses is necessary, the masses as a whole will not be able to participate as members in such an organization. This is for a number of reasons: maybe they are not communists, maybe they don’t have time to commit to a party, maybe they have other time commitments, and so on and so forth. However, even those people that aren’t communists need to be involved in the revolutionary process: the success or failure of revolution and of socialism will depend on the direct involvement of the masses as a whole. How do we as communists handle the apparent contradiction between the necessity of the involvement of the masses in the revolutionary process, and the existence of a centralized vanguard party?
Another type of organization is necessary. Here we have what we can call “mass organizations”, or those organizations that exist for the masses. Mass organizations must be democratic. They can be organized around specific issues or around specific demographic groups. They can be ad-hoc, or created with permanence in mind. Mass organizations should generally have a revolutionary leadership––that is to say, they should be consciously involved in the revolutionary movement. Mass organizations should target a certain political level within the masses: i.e. either the advanced, intermediate, or backwards. They should have the lowest possible basis of unity necessary to achieve the political goal that they set for themselves. Mass organizations should be all-encompassing; we should strive to organize the entirety of the masses into various mass organizations. Mass organizations should form the basis for the institutions that will exist under socialism. Mass organizations are another means by which the advanced are united, and the intermediate (and sometimes even backwards) are brought up.
It is worth nothing that “mass organization” is not synonymous with “mass movement.” While mass organizations may be capable of launching mass movements, which will themselves involve different levels of organization, mass organizations put the question and necessity of organization at the centre of their work. Mass organizations are decidedly anti-movementist in this respect.
What about those individuals that are more politically advanced than the mass organizations, but are not yet willing or able to join the Party? Here we insert another type of organization, which can be called an “intermediate organization”. Intermediate organizations have a higher level of political unity than a mass organization generally does, for instance they may be consciously anti-capitalist. However, intermediate organizations generally do not require agreement on a unified revolutionary strategy. In our current Canadian context intermediate organizations are especially important: while there are a number of parties that have set themselves the task of becoming the vanguard of the Canadian proletariat, no party (including our Party) has yet achieved this. As such, there is not a vanguard organization to which new communists will “naturally” flock. An intermediate organization allows new communists to get involved in political work with a lower level of commitment than party membership would entail, but still under the political leadership of the party. Intermediate organizations are themselves transitory; as the class struggle develops and a singular vanguard emerges, the utility of intermediate organizations decreases. Similarly, as the political level of the masses is raised, intermediate organizations should be subsumed into mass organizations.
What should be the relationship between the party, mass organizations, and intermediate organizations? First and foremost, the party must exercise political leadership over the mass organizations and transitional organizations within its fold. While mass organizations and intermediate organizations may be initiated by the party, they must themselves be autonomous organizations and internally democratic. Party members and supporters must be involved in mass organizations and intermediate organizations, but they must not act in a commandist way inside of these organizations: commandism here could be seizing leadership positions and pushing a political line ahead of the political level of the organization’s membership. In turn, the party must incorporate the perspectives advanced by mass and intermediate organizations, and synthesize the correct perspectives into its own political line. In short, there must be a constant dialogue between party and mass organization, with neither overstepping the other in terms of importance: a revolution is impossible without the masses or without the leadership of the vanguard.
What about mass organizations, potential mass organizations, or campaigns that have not been initiated by the party? Generally speaking, restricting ourselves to be only involved in organizations and campaigns we have started is the incorrect approach: it is self-isolating. Applying the mass-line correctly means going to the entire masses, not just those directly organized by the Party. There are plenty of good initiatives launched by the masses that are worth engaging with. These various campaigns and organizations should be appraised on a case-by-case basis, with some of the following criteria being used to make the decision: Can involvement in this campaign raise the political level of the masses? Can it lead to the accumulation of revolutionary forces, either through recruitment into the party, mass organization, or intermediate organization, or through connections to other sections of the masses? Can it be co-opted by the bourgeoisie? Do we have the capacity to involve ourselves in this struggle? While not exhaustive, new initiatives originating outside the party should be evaluated using these concerns. What is most important is that the political line of the party should not be hidden when intervening in these other struggles: there is no way to raise the political level of the masses without being open politically with them.
In almost every location except for perhaps the largest cities, there is a group of “leftists” that are involved in nearly every cause. These folks have a practice that involves moving from rally to rally, sitting on committees, holding panel discussions, supporting picket lines: in short, doing very little. These people have been pejoratively referred to as the “rent-a-crowd”. It is necessary to point out that these people do not constitute the masses; when deciding to be involved in an initiative or not, the rent-a-crowd should not factor into the decision. Indeed, these people largely have other political commitments, are committed to incorrect ideas, and it is generally impossible to have political leadership over them. They are best ignored when possible (their own irrelevancy makes this easy), and defeated politically when ignoring them is not possible.
The institutional form of the relationship between the party, mass organization, and intermediate organization is the united front. The united front serves to bring these various struggles, campaigns, movements, and organizations together in a direct way, literally placing them in dialogue with one another for the purpose of adopting common tactics. The party should attempt to make its political line hegemonic within the united front, but must do this in a political rather than bureaucratic manner. Not all coalitions are united fronts, and indeed, if a coalition or united front stops serving the task of building revolution, revolutionary organizations should have no problem abandoning that specific manifestation of a united front. Building a revolutionary united front is an important milestone for revolution in this country.
Reform VS Revolution?
Having dealt with the mass-line in the abstract, and then concrete types of organization, there is still a glaring hole in the discussion of communist methods of mass work: namely, what mass work can and should look like. How should we decide what types of demands to put forward, or campaigns to initiate? How do we connect tactical decisions with our broader strategic orientation? Why even bother with specific demands or reforms? How do we avoid lapsing into economism?
Revolutionaries need to speak to the masses where they are at in ways that directly influence their day-to-day lives, i.e. on the concrete level of their daily experiences, which at this historical conjuncture largely takes the form of specific reforms or campaigns. In turn, winning specific reforms allows the masses to see that victory is possible, combating the crisis of confidence that afflicts the working class after nearly 40 years of defeats. We have to become less uncomfortable with specific demands, and engage in an actual mass-line practice of consciously synthesizing those demands with our revolutionary program.
It may seem on the surface that what is being proposed is a retreat into economism––that we should focus instead on specific reforms rather than revolution. How do we fight for reforms and meeting the masses where they are at without lapsing into economism?
The answer to this apparent contradiction is a political answer. All reforms have a political content indicated by the class that they serve. For instance, access to clean drinking water is apolitical in an abstract sense: we must drink water to survive. However, the means by which clean drinking water is accessed, who has access to it and who doesn’t, how clean drinking water is achieved, and so on and so forth are political questions. For the fight for any specific reform to not lapse into economism, the struggle must focus itself beyond the specific reform, and put itself in the service of the broader revolutionary movement. It is only by consciously connecting the struggle for a reform to the broader revolutionary struggle, and subordinating the immediate reform to the revolutionary process in an open way, that the struggle for immediate reforms does not lapse into economism. Also, if a reform is won, it must be made clear that the state has not provided the reform, but rather that the reform was wrested from the state through struggle. Economism is combated on a subjective political level by consciously and openly advancing revolutionary politics in the midst of a struggle for specific reforms. Thus, insofar as revolutionary politics are concerned, the dichotomy between reform and revolution is a false dichotomy; the fight for specific reforms, done in a revolutionary manner, is part of the broader revolutionary process.
As with any type of struggle, the question of victory looms large in any discussion of specific tactics. Generally speaking, victory in a struggle is what should be sought after. Not winning a struggle can have a demoralizing effect on its participants. However, the victory of any individual struggle is less important than the advancement of the class struggle as a whole. Struggles should not be undertaken solely with the criteria of whether or not the struggle will be successful; if a struggle will likely lose but will still advance the class struggle, it should be undertaken. What is important is the consolidation process of mass-line practice that was outlined earlier. Struggle, as will be discussed below, is the means of developing cadre capable of leading the masses to revolution. As such, training and developing new leaders can be reason enough for struggle. If, for instance, a strike is lost but the workers involved have gained experience and developed new leaders capable of leading workers elsewhere, the struggle should be seen as a victory in light of the broader class struggle.
Reforms are not the only type of mass practice that can be engaged in within the framework of the mass-line. Two other types of initiative come to mind when looking at specific mass-line tactics. First, we have what can be called “serve the people programs”, a type of practice where communists provide a specific good or service for the masses as a means of building connections with them and organizing them. Perhaps the most famous examples in North America are those programs run by the Black Panther Party, such as their free breakfast program, their free clinics, and their direct actions that replaced state functions in the communities in which they were strongest (adding stop-signs to busy roads, for instance). As with the struggle for specific reforms, what is most important is that these serve the people initiatives are consciously tied back to the party and revolutionary politics in an open manner; revolutionary politics are what make serve the people programs distinct from charity, on a subjective level. The point of a serve the people program is not to provide a service, but rather to use that service to connect with, organize, and politicize the masses.
The second type of initiative would be the defense of the masses in the form of a specific action rather than a protracted campaign. These actions involve the most advanced section of the masses and can often result in concrete organizational gains. Furthermore, the party can come to be seen as defending the interests of the masses, which makes future organizational efforts around specific campaigns easier.
With this in mind, how should one decide what type of reform, campaign, action, etc. to engage in? Social investigation of a given situation––which can take the form of synthesizing lived experiences, or more formally doing survey campaigns––should reveal the needs and desires of the masses in any given context. These contradictions––contradictions insofar as there is an antagonistic contradiction between the demands of the masses on one side and the reality of capitalism on the other––should be broken open in order to mobilize and organize the masses. A struggle should be undertaken with the sole criteria of whether or not it advances the class struggle, whether or not through exploiting the contradictions inherent in capitalist society the struggle organizes the largest number of people around a correct political line and practice. Some communists pontificate over whether or not communists should start struggles or just engage in those that organically arise as the contradictions of capitalism play themselves out: this is a non-issue that is largely dependent on the context. If struggles are ongoing and there is space for communist politics within them, communists should involve themselves in those struggles; if struggles don’t exist, communists should start them as a means of organizing the masses.
Some comrades take an erroneous view that all communists need to be involved in every struggle that exists. This often manifests itself as an insistence that every protest is necessary to attend. While it is correct that eventually communists will need to be involved in every struggle within society, not every communist will be capable of involving themselves in every struggle. This mistaken approach can be called “hyper-activism”. Hyper-activism is incorrect insofar as it does not allow communists to “dig-in” to the masses; to find a section of the masses to really organize, and really lead.
Finally, it is worth briefly talking about the concept of militancy. Militancy means, simply put, the willingness to struggle and be confrontational. It can sometimes mean willingness to engage in physical altercations with police or reactionaries, but this is not the most important aspect of militancy. Importantly, though, the militancy of a tactic is not the criteria on which a tactic should be evaluated: all tactics should be evaluated based on whether or not they will help advance the class struggle by transforming the objective conditions they are used against. Militancy is sometimes necessary, and is sometimes not necessary: it is one approach among many. Specific tactics, insofar as the mass-line is being employed, should primarily be aimed at organizing and engaging the largest possible section of the masses around a correct political and organizational line. There are some comrades who are perhaps too influenced by adrenaline who forget this fact, and in over-emphasizing the importance of militancy in every situation, act in a commandist fashion vis-à-vis the masses.
The question of how communists should conduct themselves, both among the masses and inside the party may seem to be a banal question, but effective mass work without proper conduct is impossible. Insofar as all conduct is concerned, but chiefly toward the masses, communists must conduct themselves humbly and without arrogance. Often communists approach the masses as though communists know everything and simply have to teach the masses the correct ideas. One thinks, for instance, of the myriad rallies that we have all surely attended in which presenters spout off a list of facts and some platitudes that the audience largely knows and agrees with but that passersby are unconvinced of. Instead, to properly apply the mass-line, one must realize that one can both teach the masses the correct political ideas (raising their consciousness), but also communists have much to learn from the masses in terms of understanding concretely how society operates. It is only by approaching the masses in a humble and open manner that we can effectively organize the masses.
Communists must constantly combat sectarianism. Oft-times it is easy to substitute the health or success of an organization for the success of the class as a whole, seeing the advancement of an organization as the advancement of the class struggle. Sometimes it is true that a single organization is necessary for the advancement of the class struggle (as in the case of legitimate vanguard organizations), but many other times it is not. As a result, communists will often look out for their own organization above the interests of the masses: this can manifest itself in various ways, such as not correcting mistaken practices within an organization, covering for mistakes (often very serious ones, such as the SWP’s handling of rape internal to their party), or attacking other organizations in an unprincipled manner. In turn, communists should be open, where possible, to working with other organizations and certainly should be open to working on the initiatives that are brought forward by the masses: sectarians frown on all initiatives not started by the party or its mass organizations, and communists must combat this trend. Communists always struggle for the broadest possible unity, and see struggle against other comrades or tendencies as a means of building unity, not defeating others.
Communists must be principled. In the work that communists do, they should hold to their politics and practice. Communists should be dependable. They should struggle against lapses into various opportunisms, including right opportunism (giving up principles for immediate gains) and left opportunism (posing as more “radical” for the sake of being more radical). It is only by being principled that communists can win the respect of the masses.
Communists should endeavour to be “good people”. Communists should not steal from the masses. Communists should be honest, and not engage in subterfuge or intrigue; political problems should be brought into the open, and open political struggle should be demanded. Communists should generally be pleasant. Communists should put the masses above themselves, and have a spirit of self-sacrifice in terms of how they work with and approach the masses. Communists should combat all forms of oppression. Communists should engage in criticism and self-criticism as a means of correcting mistakes; in turn, communists should not back-down from attacking unjust criticism and should support those subjected to unjust criticism. Communists should, where possible, defend the interests of the masses when they are attacked. Communists should build one another up and support one another, rather than tear each other down. Communists should complete tasks that they set for themselves.
In terms of organizational discipline, communists should strive to adhere to the principles of democratic centralism. Communists should uphold publicly and carry out decisions that are reached by the organization. By opting to join the party, communists give the party a monopoly on their political activity; a communist should be willing to struggle where needed, and should centralize their political activity into the party, intermediate, and mass organizations. Pride of place should not be given to one’s own opinions when they run counter to the democratic will of the organization; this is an anti-democratic approach. Communists should respect elected leadership within the party and mass organizations, even when they personally disagree with the choice made by the organization. In turn, internally there must be freedom of discussion, critique, and debate, and a fully democratic practice. But at the end of the day, communists must be disciplined.
On the flip side, failure to uphold high standards of conduct within an organization and among the masses will lead to an organization’s downfall. The masses will be distrustful of those people and organizations that attempt to change the world without gaining their trust. Constant infighting, which arises either due to subterfuge and intrigue internal to an organization, or due to a stagnation of mass work, further hampers an organization’s ability to act. In turn, not holding oneself or one’s organization to high standards is a sign of individualism, or placing the individual (often times oneself) above the interests of the collective or the interests of the revolutionary process and struggle. This is not to say that individuals should not take the time to properly care for and maintain themselves; sometimes life allows for different levels of activity within the revolutionary movement. But insofar as one’s political work is concerned, individualism (the act of putting the individual before the collective or organization) must be combated at every opportunity in order for struggles to be successful.
There have been frequent references in this document to the concept of political leadership, as opposed to bureaucratic leadership. The necessity of the party to lead the masses in a political rather than bureaucratic way has been emphasized. What then does communist leadership, i.e. the means by which the party leads the masses in a political manner, look like?
While our experiences here are limited insofar as our mass practice is limited, we can at the very least conceptualize what bureaucratic and political leadership looks like. Ultimately, all political organizations have political leadership of the masses as a goal. However, some organizations misunderstand the means by which political leadership is achieved. Bureaucratic leadership upholds the primacy of holding positions in organizations and institutions; bureaucratic leadership is the assumption that power comes from holding positions, and that holding positions is indicative of political leadership. Those that focus on bureaucratic leadership confuse control over an apparatus with leadership over the members of an organization. As such, the primary task for those engaged in a process of bureaucratic leadership is to win these institutional positions; their practice is largely electoral. We can recall trade union bureaucrats, student union bureaucrats, etc., many of whom will self-identify as revolutionary or radical, but hide their politics at every opportunity in order to win elections. They then assume that simply holding a position somehow transforms the class character of an organization and the political outlook of its membership: one thinks of the tragicomedy in which most unions support the NDP, but most union members vote Conservative. An ironic feature of bureaucratic leadership is that as the political difference between leaders and members increases, the members of an organization are less likely to be involved, thus simultaneously entrenching the bureaucracy while lessening their influence over the membership, effectively defeating the proclaimed purpose of holding positions in the first place.
Does this mean that communists should refrain from running for or holding positions in bureaucratic structures or institutions? Of course not: this makes about as much sense as irrational anti-economism. Rather, the holding of positions should not be the primary goal of communist political action, nor should it be confused with actual political leadership. Indeed, political leadership and bureaucratic leadership can and should go hand-in-hand when done properly (i.e. those that have political leadership should hold positions in an organization), but one must not be substituted for the other. If communists seek to hold positions, they should be open about their politics through the election or selection process: the holding of a position in an organization should be seen as part of mass-line practice and should be on the basis of politics rather than simply practice (i.e. we should avoid situations where communists are chosen not because the masses agree with their politics, but because they’re the best or only person for the position). Finally, communists must evaluate whether or not holding the position advances the class struggle, and must be willing to give up positions if the class struggle is not advanced through their possession.
What then is political leadership? Political leadership is fairly straightforward: it is the ability to influence the political outlook and action of the masses through non-bureaucratic methods. As the mass-line is applied properly and the party grows in influence, it is increasingly seen as the sole legitimate defender of the interests of the masses. As such, the masses now have a reason to take the party seriously, and will change their political outlook based on the political positions of the vanguard, regardless of whether or not communists hold institutional positions above the masses. Political leadership is unobtrusive in the sense that the masses must come to their own conclusions, rather than being bureaucratically managed or ordered to certain political positions. Political leadership is, as the name implies, political: it is the ability to influence the politics of the masses. Communist leadership is necessarily political leadership.
Communist leadership is predominately concerned with the question of solving contradictions. Inevitably over the course of struggle, contradictions within the communist movement will arise. These may take the form of personality conflicts, or may represent competing political lines: in either case, the job of communist leadership is to see the contradictions through to a resolution that advances the class struggle. In turn, communist leadership must be able to pick out the contradictions within capitalist society and resolve them in the interests of the working class and the class struggle.
The building of mass leadership is another aspect of communist leadership. Recall that mass organizations should form the core of the institutions of socialism. As such, these organizations need a strong leadership that is able to grow these organizations and see them through to the task of socialist construction. This leadership does not need to be communist, but it must use communist leadership methods; that is to say, must exercise political leadership over the mass organization. Furthermore, the continued existence of mass organizations over time is dependent on the development of new leadership to lead new sections of the masses as organizations expand, or to replace existing leaders as they move on from organizations, are deposed, etc. As such, communist leadership must be concerned with building the leadership capacity of the masses: a leadership that isn’t able to reproduce itself is a leadership that ceases to exist.
Before moving on, it is necessary to touch on questions of marginalization and identity. There are a number of groups within society that for one reason or another are oppressed: these include women, LGBTQ people, racialized people, aboriginals, people with disabilities, and so on and so forth (this list is not exhaustive). Even in the most democratic organizations, it is all too easy to sit back and not combat these other forms of oppression. As a result, it tends to be easier for white, straight, cis-gendered men to take and hold leadership positions. In turn, white, straight, cis-gendered men are seen as natural leaders and have an easier time exercising their authority within organizations. The result is that many organizations wind up being “boy’s clubs” that are unable to speak to the needs of the majority of the proletariat insofar as the organization’s perspectives are limited by the social position and privilege of their leadership. As such, to ensure the viability of all organizations, there needs to be a constant struggle against these forms of oppression: people from oppressed groups should be encouraged to take leadership positions, special emphasis should be put on preparing people from oppressed groups to take leadership positions, and all communists should struggle against oppressive practices as they arise within organizations of any type. This is not to say that politics should be pushed aside in favour of identity, but rather that other forms of oppression need to be taken into account when considering the question of leadership.
In summary, communist leadership is: political leadership as opposed to bureaucratic leadership, concerned with solving contradictions, building mass leadership, and consciously fighting against oppression.
Dual Power, The Mass-Line, and PPW
Until now the question of mass work and the mass-line has only vaguely been situated within the strategy of PPW. It may seem unclear how fighting around specific issues, for specific reforms, or in other ways previously highlighted can transform the struggle in a qualitative manner to a higher stage, namely the launching of PPW. Below is a sketch of how such a transformation could occur: inevitably the actual progression of events will be different, but it is important to consciously connect the mass-line and PPW.
As our mass work becomes more successful and our party and mass organizations grow, we will inevitably come under increased state repression. The defense of revolutionary mass organizations will become a necessary part of our mass work, ensuring that it can continue. This defense may result in violent confrontation with the state. The forceful defense of mass organizations and their activities against state repression can constitute the opening stages of the strategic defensive in an urban setting. In turn, insofar as mass organizations constitute the embryo of what will become the institutions of socialism, the ability to defend mass organizations is the basis for the establishment of dual power. As capacity to defend mass organizations grows, so too does dual power; this is the basis for establishing liberated zones and the transition from the strategic defensive to the strategic equilibrium. Of course that transition will also involve a consolidated military strategy, but that is outside the scope of this document.
The armed defense of mass movements and mass organizations also serves a propagandistic purpose, insofar as it can serve to popularize among the masses the necessity of using violence as a tool of social transformation. The masses will see that the state will violently repress their efforts to change society; in turn they will see that only violence is capable of resisting the state in this respect.
Note that this is not to argue for a spontanaeist approach to the defense of mass organizations, which is to say that in the moment of their repression, the masses will spontaneously come to be able to defend their institutions. The organization of such a force is a necessary political task if such defense is possible. However we should also be wary of lapsing into adventurism on this front; the ability to effectively organize around any military strategy has as a precondition mass support, which means the growth in scale and quality of our mass organizations and mass work.
The conception advanced in this article is formed from the collective experiences of building a revolutionary party in an imperialist country, largely over the eight years of the PCR-RCP’s existence, but with some insight stretching back even before. This being said, in the present period our work is still at a basic level, and as such, our perspectives will be as well. The understanding of the mass-line and methods of mass work advanced above should serve to properly align our practice in the years to come, in order for us to deepen and develop our future perspectives. We have a lot of work to do, and millions of people to organize. Let’s get to it.
 See J Moufawad-Paul’s The Communist Necessity for a more fleshed-out discussion of movementism and the anti-globalization movement.
This is a reproduction of an article which appeared in the most recent issue of Arsenal, the theoretical journal of the PCR-RCP