What is the Mass Line? Some Experiences and Reflections

In an effort to make our pieces increasingly accessible, we are trying to provide more footnotes for historical references and figures that are not contextualized within the body of texts, and glossaries for communist terminology that we may not find in what the Black Panther Party’s Fred Hampton once called “plain proletarian English.”  Comrade Stella B. provides a glossary for the following terms in this piece: commandism, tailism, economism, reformism, movementism.

 –Uprising Editorial Note

by Stella B.

This article is an attempt to pull together a theoretical synthesis of my own practical experiences, to draw the general from the specific, and share these general thoughts with my fellow cadres. I hope this article can open up discussion and dialogue and encourage comrades to action.

And that was, what the Chinese call the mass line, which means, confidence that the mass of the ordinary people, given the right inspiration, drive, motivation and leadership, can accomplish miracles and can change everything. And change everything for the better. This is what the masses of the people can do.i

The mass line is an integral component of Maoism; it must be given serious consideration, for when we talk about applying Maoism to our context, and of being Maoists, mass line practice is central to this. Mass line is one of the most important methods for revolutionaries striving to tear down the old world of imperialism and build a new world according to the needs of the exploited and oppressed sectors of society and driven by the enormous creativity, ingenuity and power of the people.

In our work as revolutionaries within an imperialist country, correct application of the mass line is paramount! The dictatorship of the proletariat is a political necessity and armed struggle is inevitable. However, it is the ideological orientation and practical organization of society that is pivotal to the success of both. Not only is the mass line central to the success of our revolutionary efforts, it is a great process to engage in now in our non-revolutionary context. We can and must strive to unleash the potential of the masses.

Mao calls on revolutionary cadre to “go to the masses and learn from them, synthesize their experience into better, articulated principles and methods, then do propaganda among the masses, and call on them to put these principles and methods into practice so as to solve their problems and help them achieve liberation and happiness.”ii This is a neat summation of a challenging and often painstaking process of raising class consciousness in working class communities, engaging people in mass formations, sharply critiquing bourgeois society from the perspective of the working class, propagating class consciousness and revolutionary ideas, building mass-based campaigns to engage us in class struggle, debating and discussing our visions of a future society, and all of this within a framework of proletarian internationalism.

A comrade I’ve worked with on a number of projects defines the mass line as:

  • The communist method of leadership – from the masses to the masses – a method present in communist organization from its earliest beginnings but articulated as conscious theory by Mao as part of the Chinese revolution;

  • A revolutionary method aimed at transformative social change – dealing with underlying issues of power and control;

  • A method used by conscious organizers working to change society; and

  • The resolution of the apparent (superficial) contradiction between Marxist theory (the masses are the makers of history) and Leninist practice (the practical need for organization and discipline in the process of making a revolution).

The mass line is a reiterative and dialectical process that involves digging below the appearances of society to the essence of material reality through effective social investigation, applying an accurate and contextual class analysis, and directly engaging in class consciousness raising and class struggle through education, organization, and mobilization. Each time this cycle repeats, more is known about the material conditions and struggles of the working class, our class analysis becomes sharper, our ability to mobilize the masses increases, and our weapon of theory is honed.

Image from Hope and Trimmel
Image from Hope & Timmel, Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers, Book 1.

For the past two decades I’ve been involved in several conscientious, popular applications of mass line practice based on the class struggles of working class communities. This is an attempt to sum up general lessons and dig into the essence of a strong mass line practice.

Four Interrelated Observations on the Application of the Mass Line

1. Struggle with the Masses is a Step by Step Process

First and foremost effective application of the principles of mass line, or “from the masses, to the masses” takes a great deal of time: time spent face-to-face with people wherever they are, one-on-one, in groups, on the streets, in homes, in meetingsiii.

Some revolutionary organizations interpret the application of mass line as putting out the best argument or line to sway the masses. But the mass line is a political, organizational, and ideological practice, not a slogan or mere political position. This un-dialectical approach of sloganeering will lead to errors and isolation. Some revolutionary organizations interpret the mass line as disseminating communist analysis to the masses through newspapers, party propaganda, and militant actions; this type of practice is a form of commandism. In my experience this only alienates communists and cuts us off from access to the main revolutionary forces of society.

The step-by-step process of mass line means learning what issues are impacting the working class and engaging in systematic investigation, education, and struggle. I identify as the main revolutionary forces as low-waged and precarious working class communities, predominantly communities of colour, and indigenous communities. The working class is constantly inundated with conservative, racist, and anti-communist ideas propagated by the bourgeoisie. The internally colonized and oppressed indigenous peoples’ are in constant struggle for survival and are already actively engaged in critical anti-colonial struggles. Simply trying to flog a revolutionary paper or a communist ‘line’ in these contexts can be a major set-back for communist practice and repeats (actively fails to rectify) the mistakes that have already been made by non-indigenous communists working on indigenous territories across the globeiv. We cannot know the answer if we haven’t engaged in collective process (dialogue and struggle) and collective process takes time.

Furthermore there are dozens of examples in the history of revolutionary practice where communists got something wrong, from how production could be better organized to how diseases spread. It was only with the patient application of the mass line process that errors were correctedv.

Mass line is a step-by-step process, and the first step is taken by integrating with the people in an open and humble fashion with an intention to exchange ideas. We must not underestimate the ideological and organizational stranglehold of the bourgeoisie over the masses, or we will be unsuccessful in reaching out to those potentially revolutionary forces that have an underdeveloped class analysis. In this context we must recognize the prevailing attitudes and ideas of the masses, and start from this basis. If there are sparks of struggle, we are drawn there – this is what social investigation is for. But finding the spark of struggle is just the beginning. This is the time that the deep social investigation begins, the results of which can be shared and disseminated through popular publications, handouts, and electronic media, raising class consciousness step-by-step: moving people along a trajectory of class consciousness towards an increasingly revolutionary perspective and challenging the ideas of the people that represent bourgeois individualism, or propagate racism and sexism among the people.non linear

Very few people make a great leap from an almost complete lack of class consciousness to being a revolutionary. For most, this is a process that can take much longer, and being an effective communist leader means taking the time to engage the issues and build unity on class analysis. Avoid commandism by taking the time necessary to “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.”vi Avoid tailism by being willing to share criticisms and challenge other organizers when they drift into economism, reformism or movementism.

On the question of issue selection and propaganda work, we must not fear the appearance of being reformist. We must be engaging in those struggles that we assess are critical for defending the interests of the working class; where the masses are actually at in terms of consciousness; where we have the best chance at advancing a vibrant class struggle. The most important leap we can make at this moment is to carve out opportunities to work alongside the main forces in mass struggles, and to engage in discussions and analysis as leaders, infusing a communist revolutionary perspective. Through correct action, and not through convincing words, will we build the historic alliances necessary to bring down imperialism.

2. Don’t Build a Great Wall

In his inspiring lecture from 1971, Joshua Horn likens the arduous bourgeois professional educational process to building the Great Wall of China, meaning that a vast expanse of knowledge and a great many technical criteria must be met before one can engage in practice.vii Bourgeois-style education is the opposite of the dialectical process of the mass line.


When starting with a new mass line practice, even the more experienced among us must take time to learn the basics of a new situation. A good leader is patient, ready for the repetitious cycles of experience, analysis, and action that build our knowledge and skills and continue to sharpen our class analysis. Our skills as MLM revolutionaries in structural analysis and critical thinking are important to share with new mass organizers. We can share these skills both through the practice of collective class analysis and through agitational propaganda that clearly lays out structural analysis through using the examples of the particular issues facing the communities we seek to organize. Every time I lead a popular workshop or public meeting I learn new things about the conditions and issues, as well and the desires and visions, of working class communities. Many times mass organizers are allowed very intimate and personal glimpses into working class lives and using people’s own lived experiences to explain class analysis can be transformative for people.

As leaders and as revolutionary mass organizers we know that building democratic mass formations and engaging working class communities in class struggle necessitates activating new cadres and providing training. The best way to not learn is to do nothing practical – to erect a Great Wall between revolutionary cadres and the masses.

The very best communist education builds theory out of practice: starting with reflection on lived experiences as the first material practice, and then building with each cycle of education-organization-mobilization, continually deepening theoretical study of Marxism according to the practical experiences of the organizer. Cadre schools and dedicated studies are important opportunities for organizers to discuss and reflect together on their experiences and share lessons and successes, but without prior practical experience theoretical learning is truncated. Linking reflection to action is the best strategy for learning mass line practice.

Image from Hope & Timmel, Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers, Book 2.

Building a Great Wall occurs when we believe we need to have answers before we get started. Democratic formations which are the basis of people power take time and patience, and the structures adopted will change over time. Mass organizations expand and contract according to prevailing conditions. This is the natural cycle of mass organizing, so be prepared for the inevitable down-cycle. That is the time to reflect, assess, produce a written sum-up, and discuss where to initiate the next round of social investigation. Holding mass leadership together during the natural decline is a critical role of revolutionary cadres.

Finally, building a Great Wall happens when we elevate the material interests of the petty-bourgeoisie in our mass line practice. We must be diligent to prevent side-tracking and accommodation to the needs and values of petty-bourgeois individuals for they will steer us in the wrong direction. This form of Great Wall effectively stifles the full creativity of the working class through petty-bourgeois values of individualism, economism, and wrong ideas of success. For example, in health work, physicians are, by law, allowed to practice what are called medically-restricted acts, but in many revolutionary health projects the masses take up these skills and often apply them in innovative, exciting, and revolutionary ways! Many diseases defined by Western bourgeois medicine have been identified by revolutionaries as diseases of capitalism and colonialism. Dedicated social investigation and scientific application of historical materialism pushes us to understand the structural origins of disease and encourage mass campaigns for social, economic, and environmental justice as a component of striving for health for all. This is mass line in action, and it awakens and incites people to struggle.

Perhaps in a truly revolutionary context, such as in the Philippines, Nepal, or elsewhere, a united front forms an integral component of the national democratic struggle. But until we have aroused the masses of the working class to lead the revolution where we are at, the material interests of the bourgeoisie will continue to predominate and must be endlessly rooted out of our minds and actions. Our basic analysis and institutions of the class need to be solid (especially in this context) before we can effectively lead the petty-bourgeoisie and not be distracted and misguided by their participation. If we can’t lead the working class, we definitely can’t lead the petty bourgeoisie, who have their own forms of leadership. In order to build an effective united front, the petty bourgeois elements must be kept accountable to the working class, and this requires an organized working class with representative leadership to be accountable to.

3. Walking on Two Legs

It is people, and not things, that are the decisive factor and that so long as the initiative and creativity of the masses are brought into full play difficulties can be overcome”viii.

Walking on two legs means that the knowledge and experience of the working class is just as important as any bourgeois knowledge, and in fact is the decisive factor. Walking on two legs highlights that drawing out this knowledge and experience, and honing it into the expertise necessary to build a new and better world, is a learned process whose goal is to develop a new working class knowledge and science. For workers possess not only the best knowledge of what working class needs are, but also the best knowledge of how things could be done better. Propagating the expertise of the working class, the brilliant ideas for change, motivates people to keep struggling.

As revolutionary mass activists we can learn to challenge narrow one-sided thinking. Problem solving is the goal of the mass line. In my experience, with each cycle of social investigation and class analysis mass experiences are better synthesized and the ideas for change grow stronger.

Using one example of a cycle of education-organization-mobilization in a working class urban centre in Canada, our initial social investigation identifies that many working class communities rely heavily on services targeted by neoliberal cutbacks – hence the line of “defend public services” resonates with the masses. When presented with the class analysis on how our communities will be impacted by cut backs, people are eager to be organized and are ready to be mobilized to participate in mass action. On sum up organizers identified that there was much more to learn about how public services could be improved, and how services are truncated by bourgeois economic limitations and public spending on unnecessary expenditures such as the expansion of policing. Deeper social investigation in our communities through public meetings, direct contact organizing with people in public spaces involving hundreds of conversations with workers led to the bolstering of the line to not only defend, but to expand public services. The organization then called for the state to divert monies from such things that harm working class communities into such things that could benefit working class communities, such as increased early morning and late night services to meet the needs of shift workers and parents. People respond well to the call that working class people are the experts on what the working class needs, and mass line practice demonstrated this. This is not only economic struggle, but political and ideological struggle. It facilitates class consciousness, challenges bourgeois individualism, raises consciousness on structural racism and sexism, and moves people from shared experience into collective struggle.

Walking on two legs occurs when working class knowledge and expertise equals that of bourgeois professional knowledge, and working class communities start to demand leadership in their own affairs. Once people have some experience using critical thinking and developing class analysis, they are far more open to being organized at a deeper level into revolutionary organization.

4. Strike with a Whole Fist

One question was, how is it that the Chinese can succeed in re-attaching these severed fingers and limbs whereas we can’t? Is it a question of eyesight, better eyesight, or more dexterity?

Does it come from all this wood carving tradition? And of course, it’s nothing to do with this. The real answer, which I didn’t give them, the real answer is that it is a question of politics. And that is what it really is. Because when you really come to think about it, to re-attach four fingers takes about seventeen or eighteen hours’ hard work. And when you’ve done the operation, it’s quite likely that one of the veins will block up and then you’ll have to get out of bed and do another four or five or six hours’ work. You’ve got to have tremendous tenacity, tremendous patience, tremendous confidence, a tremendous desire for it to succeed, in order to do it. Where does this come from? It doesn’t come from any conventional reward, because there isn’t any. Doctors in China are never paid by their patients. They get a fixed salary and you get the same whether or not you have re-attached severed limbs. That makes no difference. Neither is it fame. Because this is a teamwork job and no one person is singled out as the number one. So it’s not fame and it’s not fortune. So what is it? It’s a desire to serve the people. It’s a desire to build up socialist China. It’s a desire to transform the sick man of Asia into the most healthy man in the world. And that’s politics.” (Joshua Horn, ibid)

The Whole Fist = The Party and the Mass Organization

This means that the political will of the people is the driving force of mass work but to strike with a whole fist the fingers of mass work need revolutionary unity. In this way the mass work and the political party are inseparable – a synthesis – a whole; we need unity of the mass and the party to strike with our whole fist. My own experiences include struggles with welfare recipients who occupied welfare offices to demand an increase in welfare rates, with a mass democratic organization fighting for expansion of public services, and militant struggles of mothers and childcare workers to demand childcare for all and an end to the super-exploitative temporary foreign domestic worker program; but what was missing in all of these struggles, which would have seen our mass leaders more effectively through the inevitable difficult times of retraction and losses, is the revolutionary party. A revolutionary party and a greater dialectical materialist orientation would have helped in synthesis, reflection and learning; a revolutionary party with a longer term perspective would have held leaders together through difficult times.

On the flip side, I look around me and I see many of our communist brothers and sisters dispersed, isolated, and lacking any mass base. Communists are not revolutionaries when separated from mass struggle.

The Whole Fist = Collective Power of the Masses Held Together

Another meaning of striking with the whole fist is to consistently build the collective power of the working class and the exploited and oppressed through democratic formations. The mass line is so much deeper than any single campaign or fight or struggle – all of these things can be contained within the mass line, but the mass line is greater than the sum of these parts.

The place to start is by working towards building democratic mass formations with leadership from the main forces of the working class and oppressed sectors. The mass line document of the Communist Party of the Philippines is a good overview on organizing communities along the mass line, although it is essential for organizers in the imperialist countries to work through application in our vastly differing contexts.ix

What holds the working class back from taking action to achieve liberation and to end our exploitation? We need the will to fight – and where does that will come from, and how can will be sustained?x These are critical questions. Breaking down alienation and isolation and tapping the creative force of the masses through generating new visions of the way things can be done can break the stranglehold of bourgeois ideology and help comrades be committed to the struggle for the long-term. Working class control over society is a vision we should all get to participate in deciding, not just a few leaders.

Flip chart images from assorted community workshops.
Flip chart images from assorted community workshops.

The Popular Mass Line and Institutions of Working Class Power

Building mass-level international solidarity and promoting proletarian internationalism is important historical communist practice. Having cadre train and exchange with Marxist-Leninist-Maoist struggles internationally is critical for the development of revolution. This is not revolutionary tourism or voyeurism! On a great number of occasions it has been expressed to me by revolutionaries from a variety of struggles that the greatest contribution we can make to the revolutionary process in the oppressed and exploited nations is to take up anti-imperialist mass struggle within the imperialist countries. The class struggles of oppressed nationalities in the diaspora and as proletarian revolutionaries within a principled internationalism distract and weaken the bourgeoisie and gain footholds for revolutionaries in both the imperialist countries and in those countries where active revolutionary movements exist.

The movement in the Philippines has incredible advanced mass line organizing. Mass organizations operate in a variety of social and economic sectors, and balance collectivizing individual and family needs and alleviating gross poverty and landlord exploitation with political consciousness-raising and mass-led campaigns to target big business and state corruption. Mao talks a great deal about the importance of step-by-step progress from serving the people, to mutual aid, to co-operatives, to collective ownership and control – far beyond the scope of this article – but worthy of consideration and study as a highly significant process.

The level of social investigation in the countryside and in urban poor communities is incredible. Ideological and political unity is built through participation in the Communist Party, and leadership is tested in mass work. There exists a highly principled dialectical relationship between mass projects and the New People’s Army (NPA); for 90% of army work is organizing and only 10% is military work. The people support the NPA; when defense of gains and land tenure is necessary, the NPA is a critical organization for defense of the people’s economic and social interests.xi The NPA holding landlords accountable to economic agreements with peasant farmers and defending land reclamations for collective farming. This was a direct contribution to economic, social, and physical well-being of the people; without the support of the peasant farmers and the agricultural workers, the NPA would serve questionable purpose. This dialectic interplay of mass and people’s army is the foundation of revolutionary military work.xii

hospital Gaza
An image of an operating room in Al Awda Hospital in Gaza, Palestine.

In Gaza, Palestine, the political strength of mass organizations is consolidated through collectivizing common needs and struggles through powerful institutions of people power such as Al Awda Hospital. Of course the process of military defense is very different in Palestine, and while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine does not consider itself a Maoist party, it has good examples of mass line practice.

There are a multitude of such examples and experiences to study and discuss in order to both strengthen our own revolutionary mass practice and to advance proletarian internationalism.

Two Specific Comments on Revolutionary Initiative

Revolutionary Initiative has taken a bold step in initiating and experimenting with genuine mass practice. It was mass practice that drew me to Revolutionary Initiative, and in my years of participation my assessment of my own work has sharpened, my leadership capabilities strengthened, and my will to struggle has been refreshed. While mass practice has a tendency towards tailism and economism this is in part due to the general level of class struggle at this point in the history of communist movements in the imperialist countries. More study and reflection on the lived experiences of the Cultural Revolution and other historical and current revolutionary process will assist our cadres in advancing mass line practice with a revolutionary framework. I applaud the genuine mass-based and humble approach to mass practice of RI that seeks to balance revolutionary leadership with the lived experiences and expressed needs and desire of the working class and oppressed peoples.

Another strength that I have seen in RI is the principled relationship with the mass struggles of indigenous communities. My impression is this relationship can only deepen with engaged dialogue and the collective development of practice based on historical and structural commonalities of exploitation and oppression. There is no quick road in this process: false urgency will lead to errors. Communism requires shared vision and collective leadership, but collective leadership will emerge with time through political practice and not just through ideological exchange.

In conclusion, mass line practice is integral to both building the proletarian communist party and for effective military strategy, and perhaps most importantly it forms the foundation of the world we struggle to build.

There are no straight roads in the world; we must be prepared to follow a road that twists and turns and not try to get things on the cheap. It must not be imagined that one fine morning all the reactionaries will go down on their knees of their own accord. In a word, while the prospects are bright, the road has twists and turns. There are still many difficulties ahead that we must not overlook. By uniting with the entire people in a common effort, we can certainly overcome all difficulties and win victory.xiii

Glossary of Terms

Commandism: The practice of using individual influence or the power of the party to direct mass organizations or mass struggle, rather than working to win over the masses to the correct course of action through persuasion and education (correct application of the mass line).

Tailism: The tendency to underestimate the political consciousness of the masses or to pander to conservative or reactionary elements among the masses. This involves determining a course of action based on the ‘lowest common denominator’ in terms of political consciousness, rather than engaging in principled struggle, through persuasion and education, to win the masses over the correct revolutionary course of action (correct application of the mass line).

Economism: The practice of focusing entirely on economic struggles, struggles for immediate economic gains for the working class, while neglecting revolutionary political work.

Reformism: The view of reforms as an end in itself rather than as a tactic connected to a revolutionary strategy. Some reformists expect that an accumulation of reforms will resolve all of the ‘problems’ in society, others argue that the masses are ‘not ready’ to talk about revolution.

Movementism: The view that positive social change will come as the result of an accumulation of the power and influence of ‘social movements’. It is unclear how these social movements would affect the overthrow of the current system or what kind of social organization would be built in its place. Movementism is also the tendency to put all of ones energy into the building of ‘broad movements’ at the expense of building revolutionary organization.



i Joshua Horn, 1971, “The Mass Line”: http://www.massline.info/China/JHorn-ML.htm

ii Mao Tse-Tung, November 29, 1949, “Get Organized”: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_17.htm

iii Mike Ely of Kasama makes a point about underestimating the role of consciousness, and in my experience, building consciousness can take a lot of time – it doesn’t always, but it can involve multiple discussions and debates. It is arrogant and commandist to think that revolutionary cadre have the right answers and little to learn in this type of exchange – this is the best form of social investigation into the ideas of the people. See Mike’s article here: http://kasamaproject.org/revolutionary-strategy/4041-73two-concepts-of-mass-line-two-different-roads-part-1

iv For a good historical documentary on this issue, Green Guerillas by Rod Prosser, available to view on YouTube

v Study both mass line and dialectical materialism! Philosophy is integral to the communist imagination – reflecting on past experiences through study of mass line and dialectical materialism can garner significant insights and help revolutionaries build on strengths and correct our inevitable mistakes and weaknesses.

vi Mao, Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_13.htm

vii Joshua Horn, ibid. And more importantly his book “Away with All Pests: An English Surgeon in People’s China, 1954-1969”: http://www.amazon.com/Away-All-Pests-English-1954-1969/dp/0853451729

viii Chiang Shan-hao, 1974, “Mass Line in Road Building”: http://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1974/PR1974-04f.htm

ix Communist Party of the Philippines on the Mass Line, available on the massline website maintained by Scott H: http://massline.info/Philippines/masswork.htm

Also read many of the documents available on the CPP/NPA website: http://www.philippinerevolution.net/statements/20120602_on-the-immediate-tasks-of-communists-and-their-struggle-for-socialism

x I recently read an interesting pamphlet by The Institute for Precarious Consciousness entitled “We Are All Very Anxious”. This pamphlet struck a chord with me, as I have witnessed that generalized anxiety is a common working class experience. Indeed, about many physical ailments I encounter I find myself pondering their psycho-social-structural origins. And of course, there is the shocking fact that 22% of middle-aged women in Canada are prescribed a psychiatric drug by their doctor. Although I know from my social investigation that anxiety is a lived reality, and from my Marxist class analysis that it is structural in origin and the economic benefits are reaped by Big Pharma, I have not fully comprehended how big of an impact this phenomena has on worker resistance. But it really makes sense. And the suggestion of The Institute of Precarious Consciousness to “construct disalienated space” could be powerful if contextualized within communist revolutionary mass line practice. In fact, isn’t breaking down alienation a good part of the power of the mass line?

xi For an excellent account of the impacts of war, and the juxtaposition of a just people’s war, see: “Uncounted Lives: Children, Women, & Conflict in the Philippines. A Needs Assessment of Children and Women Affected by Armed Conflict” published by IBON Foundation.

xii This interplay is also apparent in the documentary Red Ant Dream: http://redantdream.com/

xiii Mao Tse Tung, October 17, 1945, “On the Chungking Negotiations”: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_06.htm


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