On the Subject of the Masses
[LOOP is republishing this important and useful article from the Maoist Internationalist Movement as part of our ongoing series of writing on Third Worldist practice in the First World. We begun this series with our essay Why We Organize in the First World. MIM’s article critiques how an invocation of the “masses” is used by First Worldist pseudo-Marxists to justify tailing the imperialist politics of the labor aristocracy. Revisionists misdiagnose as “the masses” a group that is in fact an “enemy population” of the proletariat. This opportunist approach is as common now as it was in 2001.]
Again on the subject of the “masses” in the imperialist countries
by MC5 (April 19 2001)
Most calling themselves “Marxist” continue to misapply Marxism to today’s conditions. There are opportunists changing the definition of “proletariat” and abandoning the labor theory of value – usually without explicitly saying so. There are also dogmatists who quote from Lenin more than 75 years ago in Russia on conditions in imperialist countries today, when Lenin himself never quoted someone from 75 years prior to him on conditions in Russia in his day.
One of the trickiest forms of opportunism and dogmatism stems from the concept of the “masses.” Many opportunists use this word to turn Mao into a bourgeois democratic populist. Others use it to justify failing to analyze conditions of today, since the masses everywhere must be revolutionary and exploited forever, or so the dogmatist reasons, and so we do not even have to apply the definition of “masses” today.
In contrast, MIM has said that in the imperialist countries, the population cannot be the principal source of rational knowledge of proletarian politics. This should be obvious from the lack of socialist history or revolutionary class struggle in the imperialist countries. Nonetheless, MIM finds itself having to defend itself against those who do not know how carefully Marx, Lenin and Mao defined the words “proletariat” and “masses” and how they used them in their context. In particular, there are no timeless “tactics” that apply to the “masses” for all times and places. In this essay, we will distinguish between “population” and “masses.”
It is not a mistake that a more “top-down” approach to rational-knowledge is more necessary the higher the percentage of parasites in a population. That is only another way of saying that when behind enemy lines, we communists do not simply ape the enemy in all ways. We are not fish in the sea seeking to blend in with the enemy population when we are behind enemy lines.
Historically, in Mao’s China, there were people who did have to work behind enemy lines, to fight the Japanese or Chiang Kai-shek. There were two main communist complaints about those people who worked behind enemy lines. First, of course, was that such people became so muted that they became indistinguishable from the enemy, the basic problem of working behind enemy lines. (See for example, Mao’s 1944 essay, “Our Study and the Current Conditions”). Secondly was that once victorious in revolution, the communists who worked behind enemy lines continued to use the same methods they used when behind enemy lines – excessive conspiracy, lack of reliance on the population and even a lack of outspokenness.
In explaining the Bolshevik differences with Menshevism, Lenin says that worker “masses” are only in the “thousands” in “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.” In fact, Lenin says that in the beginning of the revolutionary movement, the reference point of the struggle in the use of the word “masses” is only a few thousand people! The following very long quote from a Comintern speech at the Third Congress addressing many imperialist country comrades mentions all the key issues:
“We must prepare for dictatorship, and this consists in combating such phrases and such amendments. (Laughter.) Throughout, our theses speak of the masses. But, comrades, we need to understand what is meant by masses. The German Communist Workers’ Party, the Left-wing comrades, misuse this word. But Comrade Terracini, too, and all those who have signed these amendments, do not know how the word “masses” should be read.
“I have been speaking too long as it is; hence I wish to say only a few words about the concept of ‘masses’. It is one that changes in accordance with the changes in the nature of the struggle. At the beginning of the struggle it took only a few thousand genuinely revolutionary workers to warrant talk of the masses. If the party succeeds in drawing into the struggle not only its own members, if it also succeeds in arousing non-party people, it is well on the way to winning the masses. During our revolutions there were instances when several thousand workers represented the masses. In the history of our movement, and of our struggle against the Mensheviks, you will find many examples where several thousand workers in a town were enough to give a clearly mass character to the movement. You have a mass when several thousand non-party workers, who usually live a philistine life and drag out a miserable existence, and who have never heard anything about politics, begin to act in a revolutionary way. If the movement spreads and intensifies, it gradually develops into a real revolution. We saw this in 1905 and 1917 during three revolutions, and you too will have to go through all this. When the revolution has been sufficiently prepared, the concept “masses” becomes different: several thousand workers no longer constitute the masses. This word begins to denote something else. The concept of “masses” undergoes a change so that it implies the majority, and not simply a majority of the workers alone, but the majority of all the exploited. Any other kind of interpretation is impermissible for a revolutionary, and any other sense of the word becomes incomprehensible. It is possible that even a small party, the British or American party, for example, after it has thoroughly studied the course of political development and become acquainted with the life and customs of the non party masses, will at a favourable moment evoke a revolutionary movement (Comrade Radek has pointed to the miners’ strike as a good example). You will have a mass movement if such a party comes forward with its slogans at such a moment and succeeds in getting millions of workers to follow it. I would not altogether deny that a revolution can be started by a very small party and brought to a victorious conclusion. But one must have a knowledge of the methods by which the masses can be won over. For this thoroughgoing preparation of revolution is essential. But here you have comrades coming forward with the assertion that we should immediately give up the demand for “big” masses.
“They must be challenged. Without thoroughgoing preparation you will not achieve victory in any country. Quite a small party is sufficient to lead the masses. At certain times there is no necessity for big organisations.
“But to win, we must have the sympathy of the masses. An absolute majority is not always essential; but what is essential to win and retain power is not only the majority of the working class – I use the term “working class” in its West-European sense, i.e., in the sense of the industrial proletariat – but also the majority of the working and exploited rural population. Have you thought about this?”
Historically as a concrete reference point, in 1894, Lenin was giving tactical respect to an enemy that had no army but commanded a few thousand readers and some libraries! Lenin said, “However, it should not be forgotten that these slanderers command all the material means for the most widespread propaganda of their slanders. They possess a magazine with a circulation of several thousand; they have reading-rooms and libraries at their disposal” (“What the ‘Friends of the People’ Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats”).
Concretely, MIM is fortunate to have Lenin’s writings to know that MIM does indeed surpass Lenin at his earliest stages organizationally, while we too would have to give tactical respect to the type of enemy that faced Lenin in 1894. While Lenin in his day and MIP-Amerika both have large territories to cover, MIM today distributes articles in the five and six digits every month just on its web site alone. Lenin did not have this and his newspaper in the early 1890s was not physically superior to MIM’s in quantity; although we may certainly surmise that his literature gathered greater passion from the population, and perhaps more people handed his newspapers on than MIP-Amerika’s, thus meaning more readers per newspaper. Furthermore, MIM’s prison struggle and prison readership alone is reminiscent of Lenin’s reference point of a few thousand people in early stages of struggle. Hence, anyone comparing MIM with Lenin on the “masses” and finding MIM lacking just did not read Lenin very carefully.
Lenin remembered bitterly in his “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” the “reformists” who called him “sectarian” for having only a few hundred organizers and a few thousand people as a reference point. The Liberal leader Struve led the attack along these lines; yet today, people continue to attack MIM along the exact same lines. Lenin stood his ground and believed even such a small element constituted “revolutionary people.”
Even in 1915, two years before the revolution, Lenin says he only had 40,000 subscribers. He made a point of saying that the tzar could repress 5 or 10 times that number and still the 40,000 would not be annihilated in influence (“What has been revealed by the trial of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Duma Group”).
MIM points to Lenin’s precise conception of masses to refute those trying to pull us in a bourgeois populist direction about what our real political roots are and how science is actually applied. It goes without saying that a party of millions can address hundreds of millions of people, but at earlier stages of revolutionary development the word “masses” can be demagogy, a kind of god that supports nihilism or reformism.
Somehow, with the international proletariat’s luck in drawing enemies in imperialist countries, the Trotskyists and crypto- Trotskyists such as Avakian criticizing us “Lin Biaoists” manage to foul up the word “masses” from another angle, by denigrating the exploited and oppressed masses of the Third World. Against these Trotskyists, the term “masses” must be defended. On the other hand, within the imperialist countries we get the social-democrats and other left-wing elements of parasitism trying to have us worship the enemy population as “masses.” Both ultra-purist Trotskyists and reformist left-wing elements of parasitism use the term “masses” only to denigrate the Third World oppressed and exploited while glorifying the labor aristocracy.
Mensheviks have made too much of Lenin’s and Stalin’s relative distrust of the population compared with Mao’s. Lenin said in “What Is To Be Done?” that Russia was a “politically enslaved state, in which nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a thousand of the population are corrupted to the marrow of their bones by political subservience.” For this reason, he thought it might be defensible to have a communist party which commanded loyalty and obedience to itself instead of the state. Thus, some Mensheviks think that for Lenin to say what he did about the labor aristocracy is not surprising, while Mao was more friendly to the “masses,” which includes the labor aristocracy by this line of Menshevik reasoning.
Yet, we must remember that Lenin lived in a semi-imperialist country, one that had “Great Power” status at the time Lenin lived. Mao lived in a country that once had “Great Power” status but was in fact super- exploited and oppressed. Hence, we can say Mao was correct to have more reliance on the population of China than we have on the population of the United $tates or Lenin had in Russia’s population.
This is to leave aside the fact that Mao was careful in defining the word “masses.” When he says “mass line,” it is not an excuse for spontaneity or bourgeois democratic prejudice. Mao’s “mass line” is universally correct, but only if it is universally correctly defined and applied.
Here in the imperialist countries we often fail from step one – defining friends and enemies based on the appropriation of surplus-labor, which is the connection between Marx’s Das Kapital and the political theories of Lenin and Mao. Political theorizing and strategizing in a void without Marx’s labor theory of value is rank opportunism, creating a bourgeois political philosophy of a pre-scientific sort, whether or not it is in the guise of Marxism. There is no meaning to political steering or tactics without the labor theory of value, so any discussion of “ultraleft” or “right opportunism” is completely sterile without an understanding of concrete conditions first. There is nothing permanently politically ultraleft or right opportunist without first defining classes and hence friends and enemies.
Mao himself defined the classes in Chinese society, and specifically Chinese society, in order to define “friend” and “enemy.” In his “Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society” in 1926, Mao talks about many things that are specific to China and even more things that are specific only to semi-colonial and semi- feudal countries. He did not talk about all masses in all countries being the same at all times.
Even in the essay “On New Democracy,” which is not relevant for imperialist country oppressor nations, Mao said, “No sooner had the strength of the proletariat and of the peasant and other petty bourgeois masses brought the revolution of 1927 to victory than the capitalist class, headed by the big bourgeoisie, kicked the masses aside, seized the fruits of the revolution, formed a counter-revolutionary alliance with imperialism and the feudal forces, and strained themselves to the limit in a war of ‘Communist suppression’ for ten years.” Here, Mao contrasted the masses and the enemy. Most references to the “masses” by Lenin, Stalin and Mao speak of “exploited,” “toiling,” “working” or “oppressed” masses – not masses that include substantial enemy sections.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, the “Little Red Book” said the following: “The broad masses of the workers, peasants and soldiers and the broad ranks of the revolutionary cadres and the intellectuals should really master Mao Tse-tung’s thought.” Again, we do not hear the term “masses” used to refer to enemies.
In another context, in his essay, “Speeches at a National Party Conference” in 1955, Mao said, “We often say that we should not become conceited because we have done well in our work and that we comrades should remain modest and learn from the advanced countries, from the masses and from each other so as to make fewer mistakes.” Again, as MIM has always said, there is a distinction to be drawn here. Mao did not lump “the advanced countries” with “masses” here. Let’s also keep in mind he could have said, “learn from the masses of the advanced countries” and he did not. It’s not so simple. There are things to learn from enemies, but we do not refer to it as part of the “mass line,” with “from the masses” and “to the masses.”
In truth, if once in a while, “masses” referred to people that included enemies it would not be so bad – if the enemy component of “masses” is the minority. Such was the case in times during the war against Japan led by Mao. Both Mao and Chiang Kai-shek spoke of the “entire nation” opposing Japan – and for a decisive period of time the conflict with Japanese imperialism was the principal contradiction for the Chinese Revolution. Yet, contrary to the image some would like to foist concerning Mao, Mao was even more precise than just counting a few enemies as “masses.”
In “Is Yugoslavia a Socialist Country?” Mao said in 1963 what he would later say about the USSR. Some people do not realize that Mao never counted the “labor aristocracy” as anything but enemy: “It shows us that not only is it possible for a working-class party to fall under the control of a labour aristocracy, degenerate into a bourgeois party and become a flunkey of imperialism before it seizes power.” Furthermore, Mao said, “Old-line revisionism arose as a result of the imperialist policy of buying over and fostering a labour aristocracy. Modern revisionism has arisen in the same way. Sparing no cost, imperialism has now extended the scope of its operations and is buying over leading groups in socialist countries and pursues through them its desired policy of ‘peaceful evolution.'” Hence, Mao always said the question of labor aristocracy is linked to the question of the restoration of capitalism. For a supposed Maoist to ignore the “labor aristocracy” of the imperialist countries is revisionism. For people to talk about upholding the Cultural Revolution and opposing Soviet revisionism without opposing the labor aristocracy as enemy is just pure hogwash.
In this regard, we must note the revisionist efforts of many to smuggle the labor aristocracy into the “masses,” and then the “mass line,” as an excuse for tailing parasitic demands by the imperialist country parasites. MIM follows the “mass line,” but the population does not get to define whether or not it is “masses” or not. MIM uses the definition of “proletariat” and “masses” laid down since Marx and Lenin. Belonging to the “masses” or the “proletariat” is not a question of self-identification. We do not mean conditions are the same as in the days of Marx and Lenin, but it does mean we have no reason to change the very definition of these words, since capitalism and semi-feudalism continue to dominate the world. People who believe MIM is wrong are free to argue that the proletariat of 2001 is less relevant than in 1901, but our critics should not be allowed to change the definition of proletariat and “masses” to include a majority of enemies.