The Mass Line: What It Is and How to Use It

bus line

While organizing people on the bus, I met a Black janitor who was very supportive of our work to fight for better buses and lowered fares, but thought that “immigrants” caused the bus fares to cost more. Instead of agreeing with him, I pointed out the salaries of the administration of the transit agency, and how they had given themselves raises all while cutting bus routes and upping fares and that disproportionately affected immigrant people.

We organize mass movements to create more favorable conditions for socialist revolution. But how revolutionaries organize people is very important. There are many methods for organizing people, such as Alinskyism, which push people to fight for small reforms but ultimately never challenge the logic of capitalism-imperialism.  Many of the world’s revolutionaries use a method called the mass line, which was developed by Mao Zedong but has been a principle of the communist movement since Karl Marx.

The Mass Line is a methodology that encompasses philosophy, strategy, tactics, leadership and organization.  It can be utilized as a tactic, both in military matters and in organizing the masses.  That sounds really complicated, but in reality the Mass Line is remarkably simple theoretically and very complex in action.

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.” The Communist Manifesto

The basic orientation of the mass line is that, as Mao said “the people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.”  This is more than a statement:  it’s an outlook meaning that as revolutionaries we draw upon the experience of people and aid them in liberating themselves.  The mass line is not only a tactic applied to mass movements; it is also an important tool for revolutionaries to prepare the minds of the masses for the revolutionary transformation of society. 


Have Faith in the Masses

Our starting point in anything we do is to have faith and rely on the masses. This means that we trust that people can change the world and that while our enemies might have a lot of money, lots of technology and weapons, we have people and rely on them.  We have to look at what that means as well.

Mao ZedongThe Mass Line is not the same thing as Populism, which is a method of collecting opinions and ideas of the people and simply following that. The problem with this method is that the masses often carry with them conservative and reactionary ideas and opinions.

This is not to say that people are always running around with talking points from Glenn Beck; sometimes the people are more advanced than us revolutionaries.  The mass line is not a method of pedantically lecturing to people or showing off how much we know. It’s about learning from the experiences, insights, hopes and aspirations of the masses and basing ourselves with that to advance a struggle forward.  In some incidents the worse elements of these ideas show up, like the Black janitor who blamed immigrants, and we have to patiently educate people while still being genuinely respectful and open to learning from them. 

Additionally, this means that while Marxists believe that leadership is important, it is not enough. As Chairman Mao said: “Everybody must be mobilized to share the responsibility, to speak up, to encourage other people, and to criticize other people. Everyone has a pair of eyes and a mouth and he must be allowed to see and speak up. Democracy means allowing the masses to manage their own affairs. Here are two ways: one is to depend on a few individuals and the other is to mobilize the masses to manage affairs. Our politics is mass politics…. An active leader followed by inactive masses will not do.”

Revolutionaries rely on the people themselves—not NGO’s, nonprofits or even parties. And an important part of this aspect is that people learn from practice, from actually engaging in doing.  They learn from both direct and indirect experience. In terms of class struggle this means they learn from both engaging in a struggle like a protest or a movement, but they also learn indirectly say, from a book about Marxism or an article about a revolution somewhere. 

Gather, Concentrate and Return

We begin the process of the mass line by meeting people. We talk to them and learn about how they understand the world and the struggle that is at hand (say the closure of childcare at a community college), and we learn what they would like to see happen and how they imagine that process.  We take a lot of notes and listen. Mao spent months learning from people in villages he was visiting and wrote extensive notebooks to collect the information he had learned. He got to know the people, including their hopes and fears.

From this we concentrate or synthesize what we learned. Again, borrowing from my experience bus organizing, we were ready to begin a new campaign and assumed that most bus riders would be upset about the recent fare increase. However, after meeting and talking to hundreds of people on the bus we learned that the largest complaint was about the rude behavior of the bus drivers (and obviously there were were contradictions with that.) This is an important lesson: we cannot substitute what we believe people are feeling for actually engaging with people. 

Starting from what we learned, we develop our line in the form of an agenda, focus or slogan. We then collectively campaign, basing ourselves on what we have learned from people and return it to the people. If they don’t take it up we do get angry about it. It means that we (the organizers, revolutionaries, etc.) did not capture the feelings of the masses adequately or in a timely way, and we have to go back to the learning phase.

Concentrating can also mean injecting bigger truths — or even struggling with the masses themselves to a better understanding of their situation. For example, if in organizing a union, people “like their boss” because he is friendly, but he is constantly cutting their benefits, we may need to struggle with those workers for a better understanding. This is where education and patience come into play.

Leadership: Tailing, Commanding or Leading

Ella BakerThe mass line has sometimes been explained this way: win a victory for the people, win the advanced over to socialism, and strike a blow to the enemy, or win the advanced to socialism, influence the intermediate, and isolate the backwards. Both of these are very important and integral portions of the mass line itself – but these are also only tactics and do not reflect the mass line in its entirety. 

Commandism is a behavior of those who claim to lead. It means ignoring or disregarding the wishes of the masses and instead pushing forward an agenda against their wishes. Tailing is similar to populism. It means just following whatever people know or believe at a given moment.

Being a leader means someone that can lead and be led, that can teach as well as learn, and that can speak for others as well as listen.  Leaders are chosen (and set aside or replaced) by the people themselves.  In The Question of Leadership and 21st Century Socialism, BJ said,“The revolutionary leader in some capacity possesses the ability to articulate and channel the ideas, abilities and talents of the group in a way that moves the group in the desired direction.  A revolutionary leader should value the process as well as the desired outcomes.  Being able to be an active listener is part of the process.”

Summing Up: It’s important!

We learn from experience – both directly and indirectly – and the way we do this is by summing up what we have learned. This happens by writing a description of what happened, what the group did, etc. as well as the good points about that experience and the improvements that will be needed, and finally an overall assessment. 

In the course of the struggle, we help people sum up their experiences.  This is important for many reasons: if we don’t help the masses sum things up, the enemy will; secondly the summation must extract things that advanced the struggle forward and separate things that didn’t. This is all with goal of building class consciousness and contributing to ever more militant and revolutionary struggles. 

Leadership is again needed here. It doesn’t mean we do the actual work of summation for the masses themselves, but rather we assist them. Summations must be collective, based on not just based on the opinions of the advanced of any given moment. 

The Mass Line and Intersectionality

The Mass Line is a strategic Marxist method for building an organic relationship between masses of people, organized in different forces among the disorganized, and the leadership of a revolutionary organization fighting for revolution. That means, above all else, capturing the imagination of the masses for a remarkably better world free of oppression.

Understanding how oppression works is an important step in ending it. Our work must point towards socialist revolution — towards overturning our common oppressor and working to build a new, socialist world out of the ashes of the old. The mass line is an integral tool in that process.  Part of the analysis of FRSO/OSCL is that one form of oppression operates interdependently of the other forms of oppression, not independently

Oppression is a multifaceted system under capitalism and can take on many forms at once, and to add to this complexity, there is an analysis of stratification among the oppressed (for example, a white union worker might make more money and have access to more social privilege than a single Black mother.) We incorporate Intersectionality into the Mass Line by laying hold of the arrangement of social forces and their relation to social privilege.  It means we prioritize the felt needs of those oppressed  and side with them, while engaging and leading their struggle to a higher level.

One of the requirements for those who intend to use Marxism to make revolution within the United States is to expand our understanding of the terrain of oppression and resistance within which that revolution must be grounded.

Recommended Reading:

Mass Work by the Communist Party of the Philippines

Be Concerned with the Well-Being of the Masses, Pay Attention to Methods of Work by Mao Zedong

Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership by Mao Zedong

Some Points on the Mass Line by Freedom Road Socialist Organization

Intersections: Organizing All the Oppressed To End All Our Oppressions by FRSO/OSCL 

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