Who Are The Masses?

Just who are the masses? Words modify their meaning with their context, and words like "people" and "masses" are no exception. If it were not for the existence of social classes we could say that the masses are the totality of the population. But because of the objective existence of classes and class struggle it is more analytically useful to divide the population as a whole into two sections. The masses are the social classes which represent progress and social development in accordance with the Marxist theory of historical materialism, while the enemy is the class (or classes) whose vested interests lie in the preservation of the given stage of society and who oppose any further social development. It is in the interests of the masses to make revolution, while it is in the interests of the enemy class(es) to oppose revolution.

The masses/enemy dichotomy is not quite so clean as implied above, since in the case of the intermediate classes some sections will belong to the masses and other sections will form part of the enemy camp. Even the proletariat and bourgeoisie themselves have individual traitors and defectors from their ranks to the other side. Nevertheless the overall picture can only be comprehended when the masses are understood in terms of classes and strata (sections of classes).

"The masses" and "the enemy" are therefore strategic concepts. It is irrelevant that the masses are for long periods unconscious of their revolutionary interests and historical role. What matters is that when the masses do become conscious of these things, society will be changed. Thus the conscious revolutionary forces at the present time amount to only a tiny part of the masses; but from a strategic point of view it is nevertheless the broad masses that are the indispensable force which will make the revolution. The masses will be able to make revolution because of their strength of numbers — they comprise the great majority (approximately 90%) of the population — and because they are the ones who actually make society function, since it is the masses who do all the work, produce all the goods and provide all the services. In contrast, the bourgeoisie amounts to only a couple percent of the population; even adding in its probable allies doesn't change the fact that the enemy is a tiny minority.

Mass Perspective And Leadership

A mass perspective is a point of view regarding the masses which recognizes:

  1. That the masses are the makers of history, and that revolution can only be made by the masses themselves;
  2. That the masses must come to see through their own experience and struggle that revolution is necessary; and
  3. That the proletarian party must join up with the masses in their existing struggles, bring revolutionary consciousness into these struggles, and lead them in a way which brings the masses ever closer to revolution.

A mass perspective is based on the fundamental Marxist notion that a revolution must be made by a revolutionary people, that a revolutionary people must develop from a non-revolutionary people, and that the people change from the one to the other through their own revolutionizing practice.

The mass line is the primary method of revolutionary leadership of the masses, which is employed by the most conscious and best organized section of the masses, and the proletarian party. It is a reiterative method, applied over and over again, which step by step advances the interests of the masses, and in particular their central interest within bourgeois society, namely, advancing towards proletarian revolution. Each iteration may be viewed as a three step process:

  1. gathering the diverse ideas of the masses;
  2. processing or concentrating these ideas from the perspective of revolutionary Marxism, in light of the long-term, ultimate interests of the masses (which the masses themselves may sometimes only dimly perceive), and in light of a scientific analysis of the objective situation; and
  3. returning these concentrated ideas to the masses in the form of a political line which will actually advance the mass struggle toward revolution.

Because the mass line starts with the diverse ideas of the masses, and returns the concentrated ideas to the masses, it is also known as the method of “from the masses, to the masses”. Though implicit in Marxism from the beginning, the mass line was raised to the level of conscious theory primarily by Mao Zedong:

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.

— Mao, "Some Questions Concerning Leadership" (1943)

Politics must follow the mass line. It will not do to rely on leaders alone. How can the leaders do so much? The leaders can cope with only a fraction of everything, good and bad. Consequently, 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.

— Mao, "Notes on the Report of the Investigation of the
Peking Teachers' Training College" (1965)

The most basic assumptions underlying the mass line are the principles of historical materialism, the fundamental theory of society and its development discovered by Karl Marx. The principles of historical materialism include the following points:

  1. That human society and history can be understood scientifically;
  2. That, however, material production is the basis of social life, and social consciousness is the result of social being;
  3. That society and history are made by the people, by the masses of human beings;
  4. That, however, the prevailing mode of production conditions and sets limits to the changes which can be made in society;
  5. That classes exist through people's relationship to the means of production;
  6. That the history of society, since classes first developed in ancient times, is the history of class struggle;
  7. That "at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production.... From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters" (Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy);
  8. That "at that point an era of social revolution begins" (Ibid.);
  9. That society must ultimately progress to the stage of communism where classes have ceased to exist;
  10. That between capitalism and communism there must be an intervening transition period (socialism), which can only be the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat; etc.

All of these points, and indeed all of historical materialism, are presupposed by the theory of the mass line; properly speaking, the mass line is itself an outgrowth and extension of historical materialism.

The Role Of The Masses

Let's dwell for a moment on the third point listed above, that society and history are made by the people — by the masses of the people. This of course, along with the rest of historical materialism, goes against the received wisdom of the bourgeoisie. History is presented by them as the actions of a succession of great individuals: kings, popes, presidents, generals, millionaires, geniuses, and even an occasional revolutionary leader thrown in. The living conditions and mode of existence of the mass of humanity is treated in the most cursory fashion; and if the life of the masses is seldom mentioned how much rarer is any mention of the historical action of the masses!

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet
Was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War. Who
Triumphed with him?

— Bertolt Brecht, "A Worker Reads History",
Monthly Review, May 1975

For Marxists the masses are not only the subject of history, but the makers of history. Almost any significant historical event, and certainly all the large, really important ones such as the development of an ancient civilization like Greece, the collapse of an empire like Rome, a radical change in society like the French Revolution, were the work of huge numbers of people, not a handful of geniuses or great men (though of course numerous prominent individuals were involved in each case). What the world is today is the product of billions of people, the sweat, energy, wisdom — and the shortcomings — of the broad masses.

A Method Of Leadership

The mass line is a method of leadership. It is in particular a method of leading the masses. This already implies a number of things. First, it implies that the masses need leadership for some purpose or other. This purpose is of course to wage the class struggle and carry out the social revolution. The mass line can only be understood as the basic method of leading the masses in carrying out their historical task of advancing from capitalism (and semi-feudal society in some parts of the world), through socialism, to communist society. Second, the mass line as a method of leading the masses implies a distinction between the masses and those who lead the masses, a dichotomy between the leadership and the led. Third, it implies that there are methods by which the masses can be led, and that these methods can be studied and learned.

A method of leadership is necessary because leadership itself is necessary. The masses are indeed the makers of history. But if the masses were to spontaneously develop a scientific understanding of society and their role in changing it, and spontaneously organize themselves to carry out their historic task, capitalism would immediately and automatically collapse. Such idealistic spontaneity does not, of course, exist. While the basis does exist for the proletariat (because of its class position, the exploitation and oppression it suffers) to become conscious of itself and its historical role, and to organize itself and the broad masses to overthrow capitalism, these things can only happen if the (correct) leadership is developed and if the scientific theory of society and revolution is brought to the masses by that leadership. The masses must therefore bring forth leaders, a section of the masses must constitute itself into a vanguard which leads the whole body forward. The mass line therefore requires the existence of a center of revolutionary leadership, namely the party of the proletariat.

The Three Steps In The Mass Line Method

The tenets of historical materialism and the leadership of the proletarian party towards the revolutionary goal are the basic presuppositions of the mass line. But what exactly is the mass line itself? As we saw earlier it is the method of "from the masses, to the masses" and it can be divided into three components:

  1. Gathering the scattered and unsystematic ideas of the masses.
  2. Concentrating these ideas into a correct line capable of advancing the revolutionary struggle.
  3. Taking this line back to the masses, propagating it broadly and persistently and leading the struggle on this basis.

All three of these steps are indispensable; without any one of them the mass line ceases to exist and the remnant which remains is useless or even counter-productive. To understand the method of the mass line it is therefore necessary to look into each of these three component parts carefully.

Step One: Gathering Ideas

Step one is gathering the ideas of the masses. That this should be the starting point in the process is very significant. It means that among the masses are some very valuable ideas which revolutionary leaders need to learn. To recognize this is a large part of what it means "to have faith in the masses". Of course it follows from a fundamental proposition of historical materialism that we also have faith in the masses as the makers of world history and as the motive force in the revolutionary process. And of course we have faith in the ability of the masses to learn from their experiences and to grasp proletarian ideology when it is properly presented to them. But from the point of view of the mass line method what is key is that we must first believe that the masses do have many crucially important, even indispensable ideas, which we do not yet have. We must first genuinely believe in the wisdom of the masses.

But why should we believe in the wisdom of the masses? Why should we have this faith in them? It is not an unsubstantiated point of dogma. It is based upon both concrete experience and Marxist theory, which itself is the result of practice in making revolution. Experience does show that using the mass line — and therefore the ideas of the masses as a starting point — allows the party to advance the revolutionary struggle. There is a wealth of historical experience in the Chinese revolution under Mao's leadership, for example, to back this up empirically. Considered from a theoretical point of view the masses can be seen to have tremendous knowledge because it is the masses who engage in the great bulk of the human activity which results in knowledge. What is this activity? In a famous quotation Mao rhetorically asks:

Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment. It is man's social being that determines his thinking.... In their social practice, men engage in various kinds of struggle and gain rich experience, both from their successes and from their failures.

— Mao, "Where Do Correct Ideas Come From?" (May 1963)

The masses are a vast repository of correct ideas, of knowledge and wisdom, especially as concerns immediate questions of the day, precisely because the overwhelming proportion of all social practice is carried out by the masses. This is true in general, and it is also true in the revolutionary struggle in particular.

But having recognized this we must move to the other aspect of the dialectic involved here: the knowledge and wisdom of the masses, while great, is scattered and unsystematic. While it is true that among the masses there are many correct ideas, including some which are crucial to advancing the revolutionary struggle at any given time and place, it is also true that there are many incorrect ideas among the masses, including false hopes and fantasies which, if followed, would lead the revolutionary struggle into dead-ends and disastrous defeats.

Why is the knowledge of the masses so scattered, partial and unsystematic? We need mention here only a few of the reasons, such as that workers are kept chained to the job for long hours, and what free time they do have is often necessary to recoup their physical and emotional strength for the next day's work; that in addition every effort is made by the bourgeoisie to keep the training and education necessary for the scientific investigation of society out of the hands of the oppressed; and that there is an all-pervading barrage of bourgeois ideology in all its myriad forms which constantly comes down on the heads of the masses and which has a considerable effect on their thinking. It is for these reasons that the theory of scientific socialism is largely the creation of the radicalized bourgeois intelligentsia and not of the workers themselves (neither Marx nor Lenin was a worker). All of these difficulties can be overcome — because the basis exists in the material life of the proletariat to grasp and utilize a scientific understanding of its overall situation and tasks — but they can only be overcome under the organized leadership of the most far-seeing and conscious representatives of the proletariat, namely the proletarian party.

In addition to all this the masses do not, obviously, comprise an homogeneous group, each identical to any other. Instead the masses are composed of different classes or parts of classes, different strata and groups within classes, and many diverse individuals within the groups and strata. Social being determines consciousness, but the social being of two different people is seldom if ever completely identical. There are wide differences in education and experience. All these things contribute to differences in people's ideas and outlook, even among members of a single class, in a single area, in a single workplace — even in a single family. This is why the masses at any time and place are composed of three parts — the advanced, the intermediate and the backward. Furthermore this three-way division varies from issue to issue, event to event. Someone who is generally speaking advanced may hold a backward point of view on one specific issue. It is only because a few issues are preeminent at any one time that the general divisions can be made.

Every individual has his or her strengths and weaknesses and the masses too have their shortcomings, both as a totality and dispersed among them. The masses are, as I said before, a vast repository of correct ideas, of wisdom and knowledge. But they are also a vast repository of incorrect ideas and false "knowledge" whose source is primarily the bourgeoisie, their system, and the conditions of life they force on the masses.

To gather the ideas of the masses is therefore to gather useful ideas and dangerous ideas, the true and the false, the relevant and the irrelevant, the correct and the erroneous.

Step Two: Processing Ideas

This leads us to step two of the mass line, concentrating the ideas of the masses into a correct line capable of advancing the revolutionary struggle. This obviously must mean picking out from all the gathered ideas of the masses those which are true, valuable and correct, and discarding those ideas which are incorrect or irrelevant. Mao likened this to a factory processing raw materials. The factory is the revolutionary leadership; the raw materials are the ideas of the masses:

Without democracy, it is impossible to sum up experience correctly. Without democracy, without ideas coming from the masses, it is impossible to formulate good lines, principles, policies or methods. As far as the formulation of lines, principles, policies and methods is concerned, our leading organs merely play the role of a processing plant. Everyone knows that a factory cannot do any processing without raw material. It cannot produce good finished products unless the raw material is sufficient in quantity and suitable in quality.
— Mao, "Talk at an Enlarged Working Conference Convened by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China" (1962), Peking Review, #27

Just how is this "processing" done? How does the revolutionary leadership sort through the vast and contradictory views of the masses, discard the erroneous and irrelevant and concentrate the correct and vital wisdom of the masses into a correct line capable of genuinely advancing the revolutionary struggle? This can only be done by applying the science of society and revolution, which is Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

But what can it mean to "apply" Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to the ideas of the masses, or to "process" their ideas by means of it? Does it really all boil down to replacing the ideas of the masses with the ideas of the revolutionary leaders? Or does the mass line simply amount to looking for what communists want to hear among the masses and, when we find it, seizing upon this to justify what we already want to do? Not at all! The mass line is genuinely based on the correct ideas of the masses which revolutionary leaders must learn from the masses. They do not (in general) already know them. These correct ideas are concentrated from the total accumulation of all the ideas of the masses, both those which are correct and those which are incorrect, by determining — with the aid of Marxist theory and a careful study of the objective conditions — what results these various ideas will lead to if used as the basis for action by the masses. This is the very heart of the mass line method.

Since it is necessary to determine the actual results which would follow from any suggested course of action, it is necessary for the party to have a firm grasp of the actual situation the masses find themselves in. All the objective factors must be known: the relative strengths of the different class forces, the various forms of struggle which are possible in the situation, the arenas of struggle where the strength of the masses can best be brought to bear, the mood and resolve of the masses, etc. Learning these things requires, on the one hand, the closest contact with the masses, and on the other hand, an objective, scientific analysis of the situation. They require leadership experience and a knowledge of history (of similar situations in the past); they require, in short, the summation of all past revolutionary practice. The place to find this summation is precisely in Marxist theory.

Genuine Marxists have always viewed Marxism as above all a guide to action and not a sterile dogma. This guidance follows from its most general precepts as well as from its more specific conclusions. As examples of the general precepts we might mention such principles as:

  1. the long-term interests of the proletariat and the broad masses must take precedence over their short-term interests;
  2. the interests of the proletarian movement as a whole must take precedence over the interests of any of its parts;
  3. the proletariat must conquer political power through force of arms;
  4. communists must be willing to make compromises, to maneuver, and to form alliances with even unstable allies if these things promise to weaken the enemy and advance the struggle toward the revolutionary goal; and
  5. communists must unite with the relatively small number of advanced workers and rely on them to help win over the intermediate and backward workers.

These are just a few principles chosen at random. There are literally hundreds of such principles which have been summarized from revolutionary practice over the decades and which are preserved in the writings of the great Marxist leaders for us to study and master. No one can possibly be worthy of revolutionary leadership without ongoing, conscientious study of such principles which the proletariat has learned through bitter struggle and paid for in blood.

In addition to these general principles there are numerous specific conclusions which Marxists have arrived at in particular circmstances. Tactics and methods that correspond to a definite time and place must also be studied as potential options for leadership in the future. But Marxist leadership is not simply a question of mastering the particular conclusions drawn from past practice. No two situations are absolutely identical; conditions change and new situations arise. Specific conclusions drawn from earlier practice may become outmoded or come into conflict with each other. People who have merely memorized the older conclusions will be at a loss as to how to proceed in the new circumstances or will lead the movement astray. This is why Marxism must be viewed as a method as well as a body of principles drawn from past practice. In analyzing a new situation tactics used in the past must naturally be considered, but it is even more important to apply the Marxist method. This means such things as seeking truth from facts, concretely analyzing the factual conditions, and considering the various ideas of the masses in light of the general principles of Marxism.

Step Three: Returning Ideas To The Masses

With the aid of Marxist theory and a study of objective conditions, revolutionary leaders concentrate and systematize the correct and vital ideas of the masses. Step three in the mass line method is to return the concentrated ideas of the masses back to the masses in the form of political line, policies and methods of work, propagating them broadly and persistently and leading the struggle on this basis. Why is this important? Because — returning to one of the fundamental principles of historical materialism — it is the masses who are the makers of world history. It is of no use whatever for ideas, however concentrated and correct they may be, to remain in the heads of a few individuals when only the masses can make use of them to change society. Ideas are just ideas; but once they are grasped by the masses they become a material force in the form of mass action, as Marx and all Marxists since have stressed.

Taking the line back to the masses means first explaining it to them, getting them to really understand it. It means getting them to understand how the line will help them solve a problem facing them, and how it will help them achieve a goal that they wish to achieve. The more important the masses view a struggle to be, the more willing they will be to become deeply involved personally; the more anxious they will be to discuss questions of tactics and strategy; the more interested they will be in discussing the deeper questions like "how did we get into such a serious situation in the first place"; the more ready they will be to cast off aspects of bourgeois ideology which they have absorbed, but which seem now in the heat of battle to be worth questioning.

One of the main tasks in taking the concentrated line back to the masses is to win over as many of them as possible to support it and act on it. The larger the fraction of the masses which support a line, the better the chances of success for the line, the better the chances of achieving the desired goal. Similarly, the more enthusiastically the masses support a line, the better its chances of success. Of course the masses will never be totally of one heart at the beginning or in the midst of struggle. Afterwards, in retrospect, essentially everybody may be in agreement that a line or policy was correct after all, but almost never will this be true at the time the line is first promulgated. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Returning the concentrated line to the masses is testing it to see if it actually does advance the revolutionary struggle and to what extent. During this entire period and process, the leadership needs to monitor how things are going, and needs to appraise things constantly while they are still in progress. This will allow shifts and adjustments which will help to minimize or prevent errors that otherwise would occur.If the line turns out to be wrong, the leaders should be very thankful that among the masses there are some alternative ideas on how to proceed, which can be concentrated with another application of the mass line. But while we recognize that not everyone can really be brought to totally support a line when it is first promulgated, that is the thing to aim for in order to give the line the best chance of success.

If a mistake was made somewhere in the process or for some other reason the line does not lead to any advances, or if it does lead to advances for a while but then no longer, it is necessary to start the whole process over from the beginning: collecting the ideas of the masses, concentrating them with the aid of Marxist theory and returning them to the masses. The mass line is not a one-time thing, but a continuous method of advancing the revolutionary struggle step by step.


What would an accurate brief analysis of the mass line look like? It would look like this: "From the masses, to the masses.” The first thing is to recognize that at the beginning we do not know how to lead the masses very well, if at all. The second thing is to recognize that we must learn how, through study and through revolutionary mass practice. The mass line, properly understood, is not just a method employed by the leaders to lead the masses, it is also a method employed by the masses to lead the leaders. Not only is the mass line the most important single method of leadership, it is the overall method. Other methods are subsidiary to it.

What is the scope of the mass line? In what areas of our work can we employ the mass line, and in what areas can it help us move forward? And at what times is the mass line appropriate? My answer is in all areas, and at all times. Not everybody believes this, however.

The point is to build on what people already know; to connect up what they do not know with what they do know and are concerned with, and to do it in a living, concrete way. That can only mean by presenting them with facts and explanations which truly answer the questions on their minds. When this is done correctly, they will form new questions and seek deeper explanations. This is the way that we all learn and develop. Our goal is to expand people's knowledge, to deepen their understanding, and to broaden their concerns. But this can only be done by starting from where people are at to begin with.

The most lasting benefits of any struggle against perceived oppression are not the tangible gains but the transformations of consciousness of the combatants.

— Robert F. Murphy

Truly great leaders are people who become one with the masses, who learn from the masses, and who strive to lead the masses in struggling for their own real interests. People like this are great, not because statues are built in their honor or because they are adored by the masses, but because they have incorporated the interests and the wisdom of the masses within themselves.