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Learning together: The Mass Line

By J. Sykes |
March 20, 2022
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Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

In the last article in our series on Marxist-Leninist theoretical concepts, on Marxist epistemology, How We Learn: Theory and Practice, we looked at the process of cognition from a dialectical materialist point of view. In this article we’re going to look at how this plays out from an organizational and practical perspective. Theory and practice are linked together, both for us as individuals and for revolutionary organizations and mass organizations in popular struggles.

Marxists talk a lot about the importance of “correct ideas” or “correct political line.” But what makes them correct? How do we know they are correct?

All successful communist revolutionaries have always relied on the principles of what Mao Zedong called “the mass line,” but it was Mao who explained the mass line both as a method of leadership and as an integral part of the Marxist theory of knowledge. In Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership, Mao said,

“In all the practical work of our Party, all correct leadership is necessarily "from the masses, to the masses". This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas), then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in 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.”

In the process of struggle and summation, the masses of the people learn, and the revolutionary organization also learns. Just as we saw in our last article, there is a process of practice-theory-practice, where, together, our knowledge is elevated to ever higher levels. This process raises the consciousness of the masses and elevates the understanding of the revolutionary organization as it advances the struggle forward. “From the masses, to the masses,” is the core of the mass line.

It is important to distinguish the mass line from the idea that the masses come to a correct analysis “spontaneously.” Some people argue that leadership and revolutionary science aren’t necessary and that mass struggles don’t need leadership or theory. But the ideology of the dominant mode of production, capitalism, will guide people’s thinking in the absence of proletarian ideology, and bourgeois ideas like anarchism or reformism will lead the movements down their own blind alleys. Without medical science we wouldn’t be able to deal with the diseases that affect our society, and likewise without revolutionary science we can’t deal with the problems posed to us by capitalism.

In any situation there is a complex array of contradictory forces. Dialectical Materialism gives us the tools to analyze which of those contradictions are primary, or determining, and which are secondary. Likewise it allows us to analyze which aspect of a particular contradiction is the dominant aspect. There’s a lot to be said about contradiction later in our series, but for now the important thing to understand is that revolutionary theory gives us a tool from which to analyze these contradictions in society in order to understand where to apply pressure, just as geometry and physics allows us to understand how we can use a fulcrum and leverage to amplify force.

So beginning with the principle of “from the masses, to the masses” we see that we have a basic principle for applying the Marxist theory of knowledge to practical struggles. First we start with where people are at. We can look to the advanced fighters in the mass movements that we work alongside of, listen to the demands raised about the masses’ felt needs (for things like better wages, an end to police violence, and similar things), and, using Marxism-Leninism, analyze the contradictions in play to determine what is primary and to apply leverage in the most strategic fulcrum points. Then we can sum up the successes and failures of the struggle together with these advanced mass organizers to build unity around the way forward, collectively raise our understanding, win over the broad, intermediate elements, and defeat or isolate the backwards who stand opposed to progress.

The mass line is the epistemological and organizational link that allows the mass organizations and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries to advance together, for truly neither one can get anywhere without the other. It is also the key to the fusion of Marxism with the workers movement - the tool by which the working class can develop its class consciousness and learn Marxism through practice. In order to build a revolutionary movement capable of taking on the monopoly capitalists who rule this country, in order for the working class and oppressed nationalities to take political power and build socialism, the mass line is absolutely essential, and nothing can be accomplished without it.

If you want to go more deeply into the mass line, I would encourage you to look at the pamphlet Some Points on the Mass Line. As our series continues, in our next article we’ll look at the differences between idealism and materialism as we start to break down the nuts and bolts of dialectical materialism.


You can read all the articles in our series on Marxist-Leninist theory by J. Sykes here.

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