First Published: Revolution No. 5, May 1977
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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The mass line will be a sharp and invaluable weapon in the central mass work task of building bases in the industrial working class.
The mass line is the link between theory and practice and the method for ensuring that Communists – that part of the working class which is most conscious – give leadership to the working class. Communists should neither tail behind the spontaneous level of consciousness of the working class, nor run so far ahead of that level that it isolates them from the working class.
Grasped firmly, the mass line will ensure that the political line of revolutionary Communists is increasingly in accord with reality, corresponds closely to the real needs of the working class and therefore that the class-conscious vanguard of the working class rallies round the revolutionary Communist Party, the political Party of the working class. In the long term it is a sure guarantee that the Party’s correct practice will win over the mass of the working class and lead them in their everyday struggle and in the struggle for socialism.
Although the revolutionary Communist Party is absolutely essential for the struggle of the working class for socialism to succeed, the Party cannot be a substitute for the class. The Party will lead the working class, but it is the class itself which will seize state power, smash the bourgeois state and build socialism. As Mao said, “The people and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history”. (’Quotations from Mao Tsetung’, p118).
This point has been expressed differently by Mao in his famous thesis that:
The masses are the real heroes, while we ourselves are often childish and ignorant .. and without this understanding it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge. (’Quotations’, p 18).
As Mao says it is impossible to acquire even the most rudimentary knowledge without this understanding. The task of communists is not to lead the working class by the nose or to idealistically import sectarian principles of their own on the class struggle, but to arm the objectively existing class struggle of the working class with scientific consciousness, i.e. to lead that struggle.
This scientific consciousness will develop through the integration of the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete practice of the British revolution.
At the present stage, when the workers’ movement lacks direction and a guiding theory, it is necessary to study the principles of Marxism-Leninism. These are not developed out of our heads, but reflect the experience of class struggle internationally. Theory, as Stalin pointed out is “the experience of the working class movement in all countries taken in its general aspect”. (’Foundations of Leninism’, Peking edition. p22).
Marxist-Leninists study theory as a guide to action. The integration of the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism with concrete conditions will necessitate investigation of the conditions, learning from the masses, and struggling for correct policies, in the class struggle. Giving importance only to the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism would lead to dogmatism. For example, the tendency to think that what we read in books is necessarily correct, or applicable to every circumstance.
Listening attentively to the views of the working class and learning from their experience in practice can speedily correct any such dogmatist tendencies. Take the question of rallying the vanguard itself for instance.
Rallying the vanguard must be the main aspect of practice for the Marxist-Leninist movement at this stage of revolution, but it is not the only aspect. For a while there was a dogmatist and metaphysical tendency in the CFB (M-L) to think that it was only necessary to rally the vanguard. In reality, whilst leading the masses in-practical political activity will only be the main aspect of practical work at a much later stage of the revolution, it is also a secondary aspect of practice now.
Failure to grasp this led to an idealist view that the vanguard could be rallied by propaganda and fighting the opportunists only, without uniting and giving leadership to the working class in the everyday class struggle. In practice class conscious workers will quite correctly not take seriously Communists who only talk about the need for the Party and socialism but who appear to pay no attention to the actual struggle of the working class against their exploitation and oppression. Paradoxical as it may appear, the main aspect of practice, rallying the vanguard, can only be successfully carried out by paying considerable attention to a secondary aspect, leading the masses in practical political action.
Through the application of the mass line, listening attentively to the views of workers and rank-and-file comrades, this essential truth has been quickly grasped and put into practice. This matter has been summed up and generalised in the line that we build bases in the course of practice at the place of work.
In order to give correct leadership to the working class Communists must have close ties with the masses and be firmly integrated with them.
Communists cannot will the leadership of the working class by confining themselves to shouting from the touchlines. They must convince the working class that it is the Communists who are the best elements of the working class, who tirelessly lead both the immediate and long-term struggles of the working class and who most closely represent their interests.
To do this Communists must be in the midst of the struggles of the working class: “A leading group that is genuinely united and is linked with the masses can gradually be formed only in the process of class struggle and not in isolation from it”. (’Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership’, Selected Readings, p289).
This is the main way that the leadership of Communists is combined with the mass struggle of the working class. Neither of these two aspects can be dispensed with. Work by Communists alone will come to nothing if it is not combined with the struggles of the working class. On the other hand:
... if the masses alone are active without a strong leading group to organize their activity properly, such activity cannot be sustained for long,or carried forward in the right direction, or raised to a high level. (’Quotations’, p132).
The experience of the past few years of class struggle has vividly demonstrated the truth of this thesis. The great struggles of the British working class in the late 1960s and early 1970s against the attacks of the bourgeois Labour and Conservative governments in ’In Place of Strife’ and the Industrial Relations Act gave way to a lull in struggle which lasted until very recently. Again it has been demonstrated that the biggest single factor in the class struggle in Britain is that the working class has no Party.
The purpose then of applying the mass line is not just to develop the leadership abilities of a few Communists as a form of self-cultivation, but to ensure that correct leadership is given to the struggles of the working class.
At this stage of the revolution, when Party-building is the central task and base building is the central mass work task, this means that the mass line is absolutely essential in building the revolutionary Communist Party to lead the revolution.
In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessary ’from the masses to the masses’. This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming “more correct, more vital and richer each time. Such is the Marxist theory of knowledge.” (’Quotations’ p128-9)
The policies that guide the practical work of revolutionary Communists must follow the principles that Mao outlines above.
The ideas that the working class has spontaneously are fragmentary, scattered and unsystematic. No one individual by himself can comprehend an entirely or even mainly correct view because each individual’s views are formulated out of his own direct experience and whatever he knows of other’s direct experience. Therefore to formulate a policy on what one individual or even quite a few individuals think would be to make the error of empiricism – to mistake fragmentary experience for universal truth.
For instance, many workers, out of their own direct experience of economic class struggle, may come to the conclusion that it is necessary to have a general strike to overthrow all the capitalists. This is a partial truth which only sees one aspect of the whole – that an individual capitalist can be defeated though a strike. This view, if generalised, leads to the incorrect tendency of Syndicalism. The International Communist Movement has correctly generalised this partial truth into an overall view, which takes into account this partial view and much other experience, that it is necessary to build the revolutionary Communist Party to lead the working class in overthrowing the bourgeois state.
This is the principal idea, which takes unsystematic and scattered views and concentrates them into correct ideas, that it is necessary to take back to the working class and explain until they “embrace them as their own”.
But we cannot confine the mass line to such general lines as this: specific policies must also be formulated in this way.
Recently there was a big strike of toolmakers working for British Leyland. Several years of pay freezes have seen the pay differentials between the toolmakers and non-skilled workers eroded to such an extent that in some cases the toolmakers were getting less than production line workers. The view of the toolmakers is that they should have a considerable differential over non-skilled workers. What is correct and what is incorrect in this view?
What is correct is that it is just for workers with particular skills to be paid a just reward for those skills – even under socialism skilled workers will be paid more than unskilled workers. The toolmakers can be united with on this just demand.
On the other hand the bourgeoisie uses the multitude of differentials in workers’ pay to play off one section of workers against another. This introduces the bourgeois ideology of competition into the ranks of the workers.
Further there is often an element of petty craft mentality in the demands of these highly skilled workers, so they will not unite with other, less skilled workers, in their just demands.
The policy that takes into account all these different factors, unites with what is positive in the demands of workers, and introduces the proletarian ideology of co-operation into the economic struggle, is the policy of a simplified wage structure, which also recognises the need for differentials. This is why the CFB (M-L) has a slogan of ’simplified wages for unified struggles’ in its base-building work.
Again this is a policy that should be taken back to the workers until they embrace it as their own. When the working class do recognise the correctness of the idea it can be tested in practice. Through this practice much rich experience will be gained leading to further ideas which reflect that practice. These ideas are concentrated again, and again the idea is taken back to the working class and tested in action. The policy’s correctness in terms of how accurately it reflects objective reality and leads the struggle of the working class is strengthened again and again in practice. As Mao says the process is an “endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time.”
Even incorrect ideas of the working class should not simply be rejected out of hand, but should be examined to see what is positive in them.
Even apparently blatantly bourgeois ideas often contain a substantial element of truth in them. Take for instance the fuss created by some sections of the bourgeoisie about ’social security scroungers’, particularly the fact that some lower-paid workers can now find that, after tax, their wages are not a great deal higher than some people on social security.
It is entirely understandable and correct that these workers should resent this situation. But many workers are fouled by this into joining the attack on social security claimants and the lies that are spread about them having holidays in Spain and running Jaguars.
The real villain of the situation is the bourgeois state. Inflation has been so high that many lower-paid workers are paying income tax for the first time. The government’s policy of trying to prop up capitalist industry by taxing the working class has severely curtailed the living standards of the working class.
Lenin pointed out that under state monopoly capitalism “the yoke of a few monopoly capitalists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and terrible.” This is the line that should be propagated, particularly the line that nationalization is state capitalism, as the explanation for the falling living standards of the working class, in answer to the bourgeoisie’s attempts to play off one section of the working class against another.
The mass line is a key part of integrating theory with practice. We must learn from the indirect experience of the international working class movement, and grasp the principles of Marxism-Leninism. But these are still ’abstract’ if they are not integrated with the concrete conditions of the class struggle in Britain. Specific policies will be formed and tested in the struggle against incorrect ideas and by listening to the masses, taking their ideas and concentrating them.
The masses in any given place are generally composed of three parts, the relatively active, the intermediate and the relatively backward. The leaders must therefore be skilled in uniting the small number of active elements around the leadership and must rely on them to raise the level of the intermediate elements and to win over the backward elements. (’Quotations’, p130)
Particularly because revolutionary Communists in Britain are still at the stage of rallying the vanguard, it is necessary to pay particular attention to finding out which workers are the advanced elements, those most conscious of the bitterness of their exploitation and oppression. In Britain, because of the grip of the opportunists on the official ’labour’ movement, the advanced elements are not necessarily the active elements.
It is necessary to pay particular attention, not exclusive attention to the advanced elements. Attention must be paid also to finding and working with the intermediate and backward elements.
In the period of the first historical task of the revolution, the main aspect of mass work is to rally the vanguard: during the second historical task the main aspect is leading the masses, the majority of the working class, in practical political action. These two aspects are not though metaphysically opposed to each other: they are dialectically related, both aspects must have attention paid to them in each period. If the now secondary aspect of working with the majority of the working class is ignored, then it will be impossible to lead them later when the vanguard is won: the majority of the less advanced workers would quite correctly assume that the revolutionary Communists were not interested in their struggles.
The main way that this secondary aspect of working with the majority of workers is carried out is by finding out who the advanced workers are and relying on them to “raise the level of the intermediate elements and win over the backward elements!”
Although revolutionary Communists themselves can do valuable work with the intermediate and backward elements and give them some leadership, mainly by uniting with them in their just struggles, this is secondary to relying on the advanced elements of the working class. Only when substantial numbers of class conscious workers have rallied to the revolutionary Communist Party will it be possible to give real leadership to the workers as a whole. If revolutionary Communists themselves try to do this, instead of relying on the advanced workers, then tailism or commandism, opportunism or adventurism will be the inevitable result.
This means that revolutionary Communists should apply the mass line at all times in their mass work. The quote from Mao above continues:
...and, according to their present level, to awaken them or raise their political consciousness and help them gradually to organize themselves voluntarily and to set going all essential struggles permitted by the internal and external circumstances of the given time and place.
An important aspect of the mass line is that the masses themselves must organize their own struggles and fight for their own liberation. This truth is reflected in the words of the ’Internationale’:
no saviours from on high de liver; our own right hands the chains must sever.
In building bases at the place of work it will be necessary to rally the advanced elements (’to awaken them’) and rely on them to ’raise (the) political consciousness’ of the majority of the workers. The Trotskyist and Anarchist ultra-left style of rushing into a factory and immediately stirring up trouble must be avoided: it is a method of work which attempts to substitute a few heroic individuals for the struggle of the working class. The Marxist-Leninist method of work is to rely on the working class “to set going all essential struggles permitted by the internal and external circumstances of the given time and place”.
There is not yet a revolutionary struggle in Britain though there is a rising tide of class struggle. The revisionist, social democratic and Trotskyite ’agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement still have a substantial ideological, political and organizational hold on the working class movement and are still able to suppress to an extent the struggle of the working class. It is the task of revolutionary Communists to wrest the leadership of the working class from the opportunists in the course of a protracted struggle in the working class movement.
The only way that this can be done is in the course of actual struggle on all three-fronts, ideological, political and organizational. As Mao said: “A leading group that is genuine united with the masses can be gradually formed only in the process of mass struggle.”
At this stage of revolution to win the leadership of the working class it is essential to devote all the practical activity of Communists to the working class movement: the mass line must be grasped firmly in base-building work. The slogan that is the guiding principle for the application of the mass line is ’integrate, investigate, propagate’. This way we can correctly “set going all essential struggles.”
There are two main aspects to integration with the working class. In the different stages of base-building different aspects will be primary. In the early stages the aspect of making friends with the workers and being good work-mates will be primary. This is an aspect of relying on the working class themselves to carry out the class struggle and not acting as ’saviours from on high’.
But even in the early stages of base-building this cannot be the only aspect. The purpose of making friends with the workers and being good workmates is to win the trust and confidence of the workers so that they can see that revolutionary Communists are not sectarians who try to impose their views on things and to run things their way, so that the working class will look to Communists for leadership. The working class are bitterly exploited and oppressed by the bourgeoisie: only Marxism-Leninism shows the way to end that exploitation and oppression.
Therefore just to be good workmates denies that leadership and surrenders the leadership of the working class to the opportunists. All comrades must therefore speak out in the interests of the working class when necessary. Even at this early stage of base-building Communists must also integrate with the working class in the sense of uniting with the working class in the factory in their just struggles against the employers. It is incorrect to stand aside from these struggles for the sake of protecting individual Communists. Certainly in the early stages we should not stir up trouble but where workers are struggling against their exploitation and oppression Communists must play a full part and give what leadership they can. If we fail to unite with and lead workers on these everyday issues then our use of the mass line to make friends with the workers becomes a form of self-cultivation which falls to see that all of our work must be done in the interests of the class struggle of the working class. It is easy to integrate with the working class in a friendly way: it is not so easy to integrate in a principled Communist way.
Communists must thoroughly investigate the state of the class struggle in each factory to find out what the grievances of the workers are: is there no heating in the lavatories? are the prices of canteen meals too high? are there problems with shiftwork? Communists should not imagine that they are too grand to consider these problems – they all stem directly from the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie. The views of the workers on these questions of the general struggle for the defence of pay and conditions should be listened to attentively in order to formulate correct policies on the basis of “from the masses, to the masses” As Mao pointed out “All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual .. ”. (’Quotations’, p124).
Mao further pointed out:
We should pay close attention to the well-being of the masses ...All... problems concerning the well-being of the masses should be placed on our agenda. We should discuss them, adopt and carry out decisions and check up on the results. We should help the masses to realise that we represent their interests, that our lives are intimately bound up with theirs. (’Quotations’, p132).
Whilst Communists must certainly not ignore these questions in a leftist way they must also guard against the rightist errors of economism and spontaneism.
The main reason why Communists must concern themselves with the immediate well-being of the working class is that this is the main way that the question of the struggle for socialism can be raised. Economism neglects to do this and confines itself to the everyday economic struggle, forgetting Lenin’s words that Communists must not be “mere trade union secretaries” but must be “tribunes of the people”.
Out of the everyday economic class struggle Communists must draw general conclusions from particular experience: they must show how each and every instance of exploitation and oppression of workers stems from capitalism and that only the overthrow of capitalism by socialism can liberate the working class and the people. Mao pointed this out when he said, in the rest of the quote above:
We should help them to proceed from these things to an understanding of the higher tasks which We have put forward the tasks of the revolutionary war, so that they will support the revolution and spread it throughout the country, respond to our political appeals and fight to the end for victory in the revolution.
’By showing the working class that Communists “represent their interests” through these methods we teach the working class that it is in their and political self-interest to fight for socialism. We do not do petty bourgeois appeals to abstract moral justice.
Mao says that Communists should “help them to proceed”. This is because he working class cannot spontaneously come to a scientific understanding of its exploitation and oppression and of how to end it -to Communist consciousness. Lenin summed up the experience of the working class movement in its first hundred years or so by saying:
The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary ’Labour legislation, etc... ’What Is To Be Done?’, Peking edition. p37).
If Communists confine themselves to working on the basis of the spontaneously generated ideas in the course of the economic class struggle they will never help the working class to raise their class consciousness to Communist class consciousness. Lenin further pointed out in ’What Is To Be Done?’ that:
...all worship of the spontaneity of the working class movement, all belittling of the role of the ’conscious element’ of the role of Social-Democracy (Communism) means quite irrespective of whether the belittler wants to or not, strengthening the influence of the bourgeois ideology over the workers. (p46)
Propagating the rich lessons of well over one hundred years’ experience of the international working class movement is therefore an absolutely indispensable aspect of base building.
The policies which are propagated must be policies which are in conformity with the views and demands of the working class. Mao teaches us that:
...the right task, policy and style of work invariably conform with the demands of the masses at a given time and place and invariably strengthen our ties with the masses, and the wrong task, policy and style of work invariably disagree with the demands of the masses at a given time and place and invariably alienate us from the masses. The reason why such evils as dogmatism, empiricism, commandism, tailism, sectarianism, bureaucracy and an arrogant attitude in work are definitely harmful and intolerable, and why anyone suffering from these maladies must overcome them, is that they alienate us from the masses. (’Quotations’, p123).
Take the question of unions. Unions are an indispensable and hard won weapon of the working class in its struggle with the bourgeoisie: in the long run it is necessary to turn the unions into fighting organizations of the working class; in the meantime they remain essential defensive organizations.
Some comrades, mistaking the reactionary trade union leaders for the unions themselves, have the view that unions are completely reactionary and that they should not be supported or worked in. Many workers also, fed up with the betrayals of the union leaders, have similar views. Yet there is no doubt that unions are indispensable for the working class and that Communists must work in them.
The view that unions should not be worked in is an ultra-left line that is in essence most reactionary. If persisted in it would leave the majority of the working class under the influence of the Scanlons, Jones, Basnetts and other died-in-the-wool and incorrigible opportunists. As Lenin said:
To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward mass of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labour aristocrats, or the ’workers who have become completely bourgeois. (’“Left Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder’. Peking edition, p44).
Most workers recognise the value of unions and join them: supporting and working in the unions is a policy that “conforms with the demands of the masses”, and will in time “strengthen our ties” with the working class. When workers have the view that ’unions are a waste of time’, it is necessary to unite with them on the often correct criticisms they have of the reactionary features of unions, whilst patiently educating them on the vital necessity of unions to the working class.
At times it will be necessary to go against the tide in fighting for a correct policy. Take the question of racism. The history of Britain as an imperialist power has brought about a situation where there are substantial black national minorities in Britain. Racism is a product of imperialism and is deliberately used by the imperialist bourgeoisie to divide the working class and play off white workers against black workers.
Communists must have an absolutely uncompromising policy on racism, make no concessions whatever to it and firmly support the just struggles of the black national minorities against their bitter oppression. By doing this Communist are taking a stand which is in the interests of the working class and will in the long run unite the whole class, although in the short run it may isolate us from more backward workers.
At the same the leftist method of attacking those white workers who have some racist views must be guarded against. The responsibility for their views lies ultimately with the bourgeoisie and many otherwise class conscious workers have some racist views. In these cases we must explain our policy firmly and patiently until they embrace a correct view. Even here the mass line must be applied. The economic roots which allow the bourgeoisie to many white workers with racism are poor pay, unemployment and poor working conditions: when white workers blame black workers for these things ,unite with them in their concern over their conditions whilst point-out the real culprits – the bourgeoisie. Patient education must be carried out on the fundamental unity of interest of both black and white workers ...in at their common bourgeois enemy.
Grasped firmly, the mass line used in base-building will weld together the struggle to build the revolutionary Communist Party and the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. In this way a Party will be built that has deep roots in the working class and which eventually leads the working class to overthrow capitalism and build socialism.