In Defense of the Mass Line against Rightist Attacks


Editors Note: We are republishing this essay, which was one of our first publications as a journal, in light of our upcoming first print publication.

by Kavga

One prominent thread linking various rightist and revisionist strains of thought is the distortion of or attack upon the mass line. Some who claim to adhere to the mass line and those who think they have outstripped it both fundamentally misunderstand that the mass line is the method of Communist leadership in which the guiding thought of revolution is tested, refined, and improved. The revisionists and rightists see the mass line as anything but the Communist method of leadership. Their attacks on the mass line are nothing short of an attack on the concept of leadership—they seek to leave the masses where they are and stubbornly attack anything which moves in a forward motion, the motion provided by correct leadership.

Avakianite Deviation

Revisionist and traitor to Maoism, Bob Avakian, under the common cover of having concentrated the good from Marxism-Leninism-Maoism while rupturing with the ‘bad,’ has claimed to have established a new ideological guideline which he refers to as a “continuity and rupture.” In doing so, he makes his own attack against the mass line. Of course, he tries to justify this attack with an effort to debase Mao, using his own distorted understanding of Mao. According to Avakian:

Mao did not determine that they needed to go to the countryside and launch a people’s war in the countryside, rather than trying to build up the movement in the cities and then launch urban insurrections—he did not determine that primarily, or essentially, by systematizing the scattered ideas of the masses. He did it by making a scientific assessment of the contradictions in society, and the relative strength of various forces, and where the strength of various forces was concentrated—and that’s the way he developed that whole strategic approach of surrounding the cities from the countryside and carrying out a new democratic revolution through protracted people’s war in those circumstances. [1]

Perhaps when making an analysis of objective conditions, the primary consideration was not exclusively the ideas of the masses. But in order to act upon these conditions, in order to mobilize the masses to fight in accordance with the revolutionary strategy, and in order for the Party to lead in this,the mass line was essential. Knowing this, we have to understand basic deviations from the mass line. The first is tailism, which is to tail behind the preexisting consciousness of the masses and to refuse to advance them. The other is commandism, which is to position elites as the wellspring of correct ideas and refusing to advance the masses by never learning anything from them. If we understand these deviations we can understand what the source of correct ideas is, derived from studying Mao’s other writings; It is social practice in three main forms: the class struggle, scientific experiment, and production. All three are constant (at various quantities and qualities) conditions of the masses, they form the reality of the masses. Even so, there are relatively few advanced ideas among the masses, intermediate ideas are more numerous, and some really backward ideas exist. It is the responsibility of the Communist to analyze and synthesize these diverse ideas when attempting to lead the masses. Because of their role in class struggle, experimentation, and production, the ideas of the masses are literally invaluable. No one, regardless of their intelligence, can out-think the masses as a whole. Avakian assumes to have accomplished just that—he has out-thought not only the masses but the entirety of the International Communist Movement.

Here Avakian tries to squirm around his own commandist method of leadership by insinuating that the mass line is somehow antithetical to, or in irreconcilable contradiction with a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. His contempt for the masses is so severe that in his idealism he has come to see them as a hive of false consciousness. In a moment of honesty, and what might be considered a Freudian slip, he admits that his Party, with himself at the helm, only ever distorted of the mass line:

When we tried to incorporate this ‘mass line’ into our party documents—the Party Constitution, or other things—we found we had to strain it, we had to stretch it and twist it so much that it no longer was really the ‘mass line’ that Mao had put forward. [2]

In order to fully promote his own ideas, divorced from class struggle, scientific experiment, and production, he must also attack leadership in the form of the mass line, because it brings one more demarcation between himself and Maoism—all while he is claiming to have merely outgrown it ideologically. This maneuver can only be understood as ego-driven counterrevolutionary rightism in essence. To push this counterrevolutionary ideology on his followers and would be followers, he must not position the masses as being valuable at all to the process of revolution. Consequently, without faith in the masses, one ceases to be a revolutionary and degenerates quickly into a cynic, and comes to see the masses as mainly backward thinking, a mix of bad and worse ideas—especially in a country like the US where ruling class ideology comes in a thousand and one different flavors of reaction.

However, as Mao insisted numerous times in his battles with rightists, 90 percent of the people are good and can become sympathetic to the cause of socialism. The reason for this sympathy lies in the fact that the concrete conditions of the masses in their great majority make them prone to a certain type of thinking and ideas. After all, it is our material reality which determines our consciousness. Mao never professed to leave the ideas of the masses intact or see them as a homogeneous group. Peasant ideology is rooted in feudalism, but the contradictions mean that these ideas can be molded and worked forward with Communist leadership to develop consciousness based on class struggle—class consciousness. The mode of production produces a certain ideology, but it also produces the class struggle which creates opposing ideology. Let’s look into this revisionist distortion by going back to Mao once more and engaging with the assertion that Mao did not use the mass line when coming to his historic and world-changing positions.

In 1927, Mao spent 32 days in Hunan, making a concrete analysis of concrete conditions to be presented to his Party in the Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan. Of course, this great report was initially rejected by the dogmatists and rightists in the Party who, like Avakian, lacked faith in the masses of people. The Hunan report used the mass line; after all, Mao based his analysis of the subjective conditions on nothing less than the ideas of the peasants themselves. He would use the mass line not only to ascertain the subjective factor of the peasantry and the Communists, but to lead the peasants in rising to match what was demanded by the objective conditions. The ideas of the masses are determined by the concrete conditions and by class contradictions, and not the other way around. However, to mobilize the masses in a People’s War, they must be led on the basis of what they can grasp and what Communists can convince them of. In short, they have to be led with the mass line method of Communist leadership. Upon entering Hunan, Mao listened attentively to reports, which necessarily included reports on what the peasants were thinking and feeling (their ideas), of who they thought of as their main enemies and why. It was these reports that led Mao to the revolutionary conclusion that the peasants would rise regardless of the revolutionaries’ ideas about the situation. He issued a stern warning to those who remained in doubt:

In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly. [3]

Take note that the correct understanding of the mass line views it as a necessity to prevent standing in the way of the masses or tailing behind the masses. This is why Maoists insist that it is the method of Communist leadership. Surely Mao’s certainty of increasing uprisings was in no way divorced from the ideas of the peasantry in Hunan—the very peasant masses who would put these ideas into action under the leadership of the Party. Mao himself was no mystic; he was never a fortune teller. It was through analysis and correct leadership methods that everything he predicted would take place in the time frame he laid out in his report.

Ideology and ideas become part of a materialist analysis of concrete conditions. Such an analysis works with the mass line and does not negate it, but completes it and leads the sequence forward. By inserting a false contradiction Avakian simply jettisons the role of the people and cynically insists that their ideas are wrong or irrelevant, or at best inessential. By doing this he places experts, what he calls “scientific revolutionaries,” in command. He sees himself as chief among these, and like every revisionist before him including Liu Shao Chi and Deng Xiaoping, considers the ideas and wishes of the people to be nothing but the ramblings of ignorant and stupid hordes who need to sit down and listen to the experts. He casts aside all lessons of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in this respect. In order to accomplish all this, he makes the assumption (shared by other rightists) that the mass line is not the method of Communist leadership, but a method of analysis by itself. This position has never at any point been held by actual Maoists.

Avakian is but one example of a largely discredited revisionist who openly rails against the mass line. He is given priority here not because he has that many people listening to him, but precisely because he does not. This fact alone should light a fire among other rightists and make them seek to correctly grasp and apply the mass line.

The mass line is the method of leadership and not the method of analysis, but it is produced by and in harmony with dialectical materialism, the philosophic base of all scientific Marxism, which today is expressed in the form of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, principally Maoism, and not any ‘new synthesis.’ Rejecting the mass line is an essential requirement of putting forth a ‘synthesis’ that has never been tested by reality and cannot conform to it, and hence will find no traction when it is propagated to and subsequently interrogated by the masses, which is the third step of the reiterative mass line sequence. By rejecting the mass line, Avakian and his followers have found a way out of the conundrum of the scientific method which tests every theory in practice. Avakian just stops at constructing a hypothesis and pushes this like dope on a few desperate people. Without the mass line, thankfully very few fall for his deceit, and his clique of revisionists shrinks every year and will age into non-existence.

Pragmatism is Not the Mass Line

Many degenerate ideas regarding the mass line are based in a rightist conception of the masses themselves, which sees revolutionary activity as pointless and instead supplements it with protest-activist culture and lifestyle-ism. Think of all the people who show up at every demonstration and pass out their signs to those in attendance just to take propaganda photos that make their three people look like 300. These people are primarily interested in using the intermediate ideas of the masses as an excuse to do next to nothing, exactly what they are used to doing. They are content with protest-hopping, getting into some city politics, or another electoral “criticism” by running their tired and doomed candidates. They think the mass line means kissing ass and false flattery—the very last thing the masses want from self-professed revolutionaries. Groups like the Party for Socialism and Liberation as well as the Avakianites are both guilty of protest-hopping, but while the former takes this rightist approach to elections (claiming that it builds their base), the latter outright rejects the ideas of the masses. Both are fundamentally wrong.

The pragmatists often find themselves in student organizing and protest hopping or just riding waves of spontaneity among the masses, because they reject any attempts to build sustainable organizations of the masses at the community level. Orientation toward whatever movement is in vogue or has mass appeal at the time, without developing real independent structures or authentic base-building projects which go lower and deeper among the most profound masses, are the hallmarks of these deserters and rejecters of the mass line. They believe in doing whatever ‘works.’ This is a major ideological defect since the ‘whatever works’ approach negates politics and will not work in the long term anyway. This right-opportunist error is most evident in the left refoundationalists and big-tent socialists (with one example being Philly Socialists and another being the former Kasama project), as well as front organizations like the People’s Congress of Resistance. Consequently, these same pragmatists, because of their ideological defects (eclecticism among others), tend to attack anything resembling ideologically consolidated and unified Maoists while claiming that their organizations “have Maoists in them.” What else can the pragmatist claim while adhering to a ‘whatever works’ mentality? Surely a Maoist would stand for ideological struggle and find themselves in inevitable contradiction with these projects anyway, and either capitulate to the big-tent eclecticism or be pushed out. The argument that they maintain Maoist members is generally a red herring to distract from their basic opposition to Maoism as an ideology and method of work. In any event, none can claim the leadership of Maoists: they degrade the question of leadership to a trivial matter. This is in harmony with their rejection of the mass line more generally in the ideological sense and more specifically in their practice.

‘Whatever works’ is not the mass line. Whateverism is not Communist by any stretch of the imagination. For the Communist, the question is not what works but what it is working toward, which class is it actually serving. The pragmatist, due to these ideological defects, cannot fathom the relationship between quantity and quality and the dialectical contradictions which have produced them as a unity of opposites which is present in all mass work. The pragmatic approach is to get as many people as possible at the expense of politics rather than to get the politics to as many as possible.

Quantity and quality mutually transform one another in their internal processes. To focus on one at the expense of the other is to reject both fundamentally, settling on a prop, a faked version to display to the armature, and rope them into projects which essentially cannot provide revolutionary leadership to the masses. True quantity and true quality are in reality inseparable. Each is a product of the other’s existence. Those lured in by the very idea of big turn outs are making a fundamental philosophical deviation not based on any revolutionary science or any coherent political theory. They default to populism, right-opportunism in a nut shell. As a contradiction, quality and quantity play off one another and transform one another accordingly. At a certain stage quantitative development will transform into its own specific quality, and that new quality will accomplish a new quantity. In mass mobilizations, Communists, through leadership or even simple participation, must draw the most advanced sections of the masses into increasingly stable and disciplined forms of organization. This is how quantity and quality interpenetrate organizing. Whether Communists accomplish this progression is totally determined by their mastery of the mass line as the method of leadership they are providing. By the way of historical materialism we can detect these sequences throughout every successful revolution to date.

Other Distorters

Many right-opportunists seek rapid expansion of their ‘Parties’ or organizations. These rapid expansions (and the praise for them) lack critical analysis or any Leninist conception of what a Party of professional revolutionaries is, or how these revolutionaries are tempered in class struggle. They attribute this rapid expansion to their use of the ‘mass line’—a mass line which is seen as a method of organization or analysis more so than the method of leadership. Rapid expansion at the expense of temperament and testing is not the mass line. It is, again, populism. The populist, like the pragmatist, is concerned mainly with numbers and reproduction of activism, and only secondarily with politics, so they lean toward eclecticism and become soft on revisionism even while claiming to be consolidated around and united on the basis of Maoism. Not big-tent in form, but dig a little deeper and you will find the same eclectic reasoning behind the demands for a new ‘heterodox’ Maoism as espoused by the rapid expansionist braggarts.

This ‘heterodox Maoism’ is like a ‘new synthesis of communism’ for those who wish to dispense with the content of Maoism while brandishing the name as a distraction. This time, it is Maoism in name, but in essence it consists of whatever academic trends are in vogue at the moment mashed together. After all, in rejecting the mass line, the organization itself will begin orienting toward incorrect sections of the masses, like campus liberals, red-washed postmodernists, and other assorted incorrect ideas. These rightist organizations have to go soft on them or they will alienate their social-media cultural base. They are making ‘revolution’ for the likes, something Avakian correctly points out, only to come to the insane and opposite conclusion that the masses’ ideas are stupid and wrong. We have entered into a revisionist house of mirrors and must start to break them one by one in order to gravitate closer to the truth of these errors.

The claim made by a faction of Canadians that “the mass line is the means by which organization happens” [4] is a distortion of politics, and particularly of Communist leadership. Organization happens regardless of the mass line. Organization happens often with incorrect leadership, incorrect methods of leadership, and even on the basis of many incorrect and sometimes reactionary ideas. Organization can happen spontaneously and organically and is relative to its adjacent disorganization. So the mass line is not the means by which organization happens. In this case, what is correct and what is incorrect have not been understood as one dividing into two, but are instead lumped together for the sake of “rapid expansion” or campus populism, which necessarily has to pander toward the eclectic mess of a postmodern terrain. Two are combined into one, and the mass line is now just “organization” with no class character, a thing any old cretin can use. Calls for heterodoxy are presented as forward-thinking and progressive, but at their core they are calls to make excuses for ideological concessions and break with the uncomfortable question of having a high level of discipline.

To accomplish this rapid expansion, the defector will assert that what they call “political leadership” is preferable to organized leadership. They will frame working for official positions of leadership as “bureaucratic” instead of understanding properly that holding official leadership positions is the result of providing good political leadership, that both are part of a whole and not essentially at odds with one another. Communists believe in the importance of organizing. So, when entering into mass organizations, or mass struggles, the Communist aims to provide the best political leadership possible and consciously works toward earning positions of official leadership via mass democracy. It’s simply false to assume that organizational leadership comes at the expense of political leadership or the other way around. By insisting that these are separate or mutually exclusive, the defector of the mass line attempts to reduce leadership to vague influence. This method allows the mass organizations to float ephemerally beside the Party and reduces the Party’s ability to exercise its full potential in providing leadership to its own mass organization. This is a rightist attack on the mass line.

Rapid expansion is only desirable to rightists who over-value quantity, falsely separating it from quality, in the interests of the so-called mass party. In some instances, this distortion of the mass line is directly offered up as a cloaked pretext to ‘rupturing’ with the very theory of the vanguard Party of professional revolutionaries. Again, the excuse of “continuity and rupture” is unpacked in the same way as Avakian, only the Maoist mask has not yet slipped all the way off.

According to Canadian academic J. Moufawad-Paul, highlighting what he considers the universal tenets of Maoism in his book Continuity and Rupture, “the revolutionary party must also become a mass party and renew itself by being held to account by those it claims to represent (the mass line).”

Moufawad-Paul smuggles in two “ruptures” here which are not actually found in the works or teachings of Maoism’s 6 greatest teachers, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Gonzalo. Those are 1) that the “party” must become a “mass party”, and 2) that the mass line is not so much a method of leadership, but a method of accountability in transforming the vanguard Party of professional revolutionaries into a vast mass party. It should be noted that aspects of the mass line do in fact hold leadership accountable to the masses by basing itself on the masses, however, it is useful to examine Lenin on this question regarding the Party of the proletariat and the mass party. Lenin states:

I assert: (1) that no revolutionary movement can endure without a stable organization of leaders maintaining continuity; (2) that the broader the popular mass drawn spontaneously into the struggle, which forms the basis of the movement and participates in it, the more urgent the need for such an organization, and the more solid this organization must be (for it is much easier for all sorts of demagogues to side-track the more backward sections of the masses); (3) that such an organization must consist chiefly of people professionally engaged in revolutionary activity; (4) that in an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership of such an organization to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organization; and (5) the greater will be the number of people from the working class and from the other social classes who will be able to join the movement and perform active work in it. [5]

Here Lenin makes a clear demarcation between the Party work of the professional revolutionaries who form the stable core of leaders and the masses drawn into the movement. He insists that having this core not only draws more masses into the struggle, but that the drawing of masses necessitates an even firmer core. As we know, the more advanced the resistance becomes, the more repressive the bourgeois state becomes (more autocratic). This nuanced and thoroughly dialectical materialist position put forward by Lenin is the exact opposite of the mass party which this one distorter of the mass line claims is a characteristic of Maoism. Lenin is actually relying on the mass line while promoting the exact antithesis of a mass party. It is clear that through this nascent mass line that Lenin is speaking of the Party’s role in leading the masses. By inserting the bad formula of the “mass party,” Moufawad-Paul is not making an iteration of the mass line but its negation. He is subverting the role of leadership by placing the masses into the party as a mass party. This is a prime example of right-opportunism’s insistence on tailing the masses, and it speaks volumes about the theory of the “mass line” espoused by the party he supports. By seeing the mass line mainly as the way the masses hold the Party accountable and not as the principle means of leading the masses Moufawad-Paul demonstrates a tailist thinking which feeds the ideas of rapid expansion at the expense of ideology and the insistence that the “Maoist party” is a “mass party”.

The Party is able to mobilize the broadest and deepest masses through its successful application and correct grasp of the mass line. Chairman Gonzalo, leader of the Communist Party of Peru and of the protracted people’s war in Peru explained that in order for the Party to carry out its role as leader, the masses must sustain, support, and carry the Party forward. Here, Gonzalo is presenting the dialectical materialist understanding of the relationship between the Party and the masses and the way in which the former leads the later. He explains that the masses “would come to see that it is their Party, that it defends their interests. And it is the masses themselves who will settle accounts, giving a just punishment to those who for decades have sold out and who continue to sell out the proletariat’s basic interests, and they will also condemn and sanction those traitors who try to do so or begin to do so.” [6] In this, we can ascertain how the Party uses its links with the masses to develop a mighty, unstoppable force, even if it is relatively small. What is primary is the link between the masses and the Party, not the quantity of masses in the Party. In the theorizations of both Lenin and Gonzalo we see the fusion of quantity into quality and quality into quantity—the Party itself is viewed as a contradiction which is a focal point of the contradictions of the masses. The quantity and quality contradictions form a unity of opposites and its correct leadership. The mass line is one means in which the Party ensures this unity and replenishes itself with the most advanced and true children of the proletariat. It is no surprise that Moufawad-Paul, in the same book, makes an attack on the Maoist conception of leadership in his critique of what he misunderstands as “Jefatura” put forward by Gonzalo (which simply means great leadership as opposed to nominal elected leadership). This critique goes so far as to unpack the old worn out “personality cult” argument. This has already been addressed in other places so we will leave it, and mention it simply to highlight the overall rejection of leadership espoused by the author.

A fundamental understanding which must be stressed is that the mass line is not a neutral occurrence, or a non-partisan tool or method of organizing. It is not simply “a method of leadership,” it is the Communist method of leadership. It is not one option among several; it is all powerful because it corresponds with reality and the laws of dialectical materialism. Another aberration in theorizing the mass line can be found in the published sections of the book “The Mass Line and the American Revolutionary Movement” by Scott Harrison, a former RCP-USA member who left by the time that party lost all semblance of reason and drifted to the depths of revisionist nonsense. Unfortunately, and in spite of the many good attributes of this book in progress, the author finds himself in contradiction and presents the reader with a peculiar analysis.

Even having left the RCP-USA and articulating some good disagreements with it (Avakianism and their rejection wholesale of the mass line among others), Harrison still did not manage to break with some of the long-held revisionist viewpoints of his former organization.  Specifically, he holds a dogmatic position on October Road insurrectionism, and rejects the universality of Protracted People’s War. This might not obviously come into contradiction for some readers, but by interrogating the most basic assumptions the contradictions can reveal themselves.

Scott Harrison correctly insists that the mass line is the method of Communist leadership, as we have done here. However, things get a bit jumbled when leadership is not clearly defined in terms of trajectory—where is this method of leadership to take the masses? The author in question rejects the validity of Protracted People’s War as a universal strategy to be applied to the particular conditions of each country including imperialist countries, and instead opts for the antiquated theory of October Road strategy (a strategy that has systematically failed in every application). Considering that the insurrection of 1917 with the Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace was in reality part of an overall strategy of Protracted People’s War in all but name, this willful clinging to a mistheorization of the past results in a negation of the mass line. His conception is one in which the role of the masses in armed struggle, their education in revolutionary violence is consciously or subconsciously undermined and subverted. The logic then has to switch back to the pragmatism of “whatever works” as a substitute for the mass line.

Either the masses make history or they do not, either the Party must lead and mobilize the masses in the shaping of the world or it must not. There cannot be both at once. These opposites must outdo one another: they are antagonistic. Any successful application of the mass line method of Communist leadership will certainly involve the masses themselves in the central task, which is the conquest of power, led by the Party. In this long war, the masses themselves will become increasingly accomplished in revolutionary violence: this is where their blood fuses and mingles with the Communists and the Red Army. This is where the Red Army becomes the main force of the Party’s mass work and the masses themselves are drawn into expanding military formations. This entire struggle is for the purpose of preparing the masses of people to exercise their proletarian dictatorship over the bourgeoisie, and every step of the way it is the Party which leads, and the masses are not spectators but fully active agents in this seizure of power. Again it is the masses, led by the Party, who carry on this revolutionary struggle under socialism.

Those who seek to limit the role of the masses when it comes time for the highest expression of class struggle, the armed struggle, are utilizing a hollowed out shell of the mass line. Maoism is a series of contradictions which form a whole body, a coherent ideological basis for making revolution in the world today. It is not a piecemeal mix of spare parts or a mix-a-bag where anyone can just fabricate the aspects they like and expect what they come up with to maintain its integrity. What they come up with, most certainly whether it claims to be the mass line or not, no longer resembles the mass line, let alone Marxism.

This article is limited in its scope, as a genuine and succinct iteration of the mass line and its subsequent theorization is carried out organizationally and primarily through mass work. The intended purpose of this article is to highlight some common errors in grasping the mass line and challenge these viewpoints in the interest of upholding its essence. It is neither intended to be a polemic or a positions document and as such it is restricted by certain considerations. We, the author and editors, recognize these considerations, and have not contended with an overall theorization of the mass line. This article was produced in the interest of ideological struggle and our hope is that it makes a modest contribution to correcting some of the aberrations and deviations from the mass line. As it is an attempt at correction, it is just as much a defense of the mass line against rightist attacks. The correct method of leadership is always in motion; once it is mastered and matures it has a liberating effect on organizing.


[1]: Bob Avakian, The Material Basis and the Method for Making Revolution. Available at:

[2]: Ibid.

[3]: Mao, Report On An Investigation Of The Peasant Movement In Hunan

[4]: Revolutionary Communist Party, The Mass Line and Communist Methods of Mass Work. Available at:

[5]: Lenin, What is to be Done? Chapter 4.

[6]: Interview with Chairman Gonzalo

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