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The Mass-Line and McLeftism

After the joint rally in support of the Peoples War in India, which I attended this weekend in Ottawa, my comrades and I encountered two demonstrations in the same city that were arguably better attended than ours.  The first was a reactionary anti-abortion rally; the second was a confused march that was demanding NATO intervention in Syria.  And though it was somewhat disheartening to realize that politically backwards demonstrations were better attended than one with a revolutionary message, it made me think again about how to make sense of a mass-line in contexts where large sectors of the masses are more willing to support retrograde rather than revolutionary politics.

There is, after all, a very crude and dangerous way to understand the concept of the mass-line.  From the masses to the masses, when taken as a slogan blasted out of its theoretical context, can easily become synonymous with uncritical populism.  The masses don't want to support India, and would much rather support the closure of abortion clinics, could easily be mistaken for a "mass-line"––here it devolves into the crude empiricism of counting the numbers and assuming that mass support of a dubious cause represents an authentic expression of rebellion.  And though I'm pretty sure that most leftists would never apply this populism to an anti-abortion rally, I'm surprised at how often this uncritical number counting is applied to other causes––the Syrian pro-NATO rally being a case-in-point.

The Syrian people want NATO to intervene to stop the bloodshed, they are showing their will, and we need to react to this "mass-line" (or, if we're leftists who don't use this jargon, we can replace "mass-line" with "democratic will", "authentic rebellious sentiment", etc.)… I am already hearing these arguments amongst sectors of the mainstream left, but am less shocked than I was around half-a-year ago when the same arguments were being made about Libya.

In November, at the closing party of the Historical Materialist conference, I happened to be sitting at a table where a young and arrogant undergrad was screaming at other lefties about the "authentic will" of the Libyan people and how she supported the NATO intervention because it was "the will of the people."  There were anecdotes a plenty, all based on people she knew and a certain media perspective on Libya, that she used to argue that: a) the majority of the Libyan people wanted NATO to intervene; b) it was their revolution so we had to accept that this was a revolutionary demand.  (As a side-point, I have to say that the woman from the SWP who was arguing against the pro-interventionist, regardless of my feelings for the SWP, was doing an excellent job in the debate.)  And this young and arrogant pro-interventionist's position is not entirely strange because the way was paved by the Gilbert Achcars of the world who, from the very beginning, tried to sell a pro-interventionist strategy as "anti-imperialist".

Well, as it turns out, the so-called "popular rebellion" in Libya wasn't that popular.  Despite the death of Qaddafi, the "popular rebels" haven't been able to establish the minimum requirements for political hegemony––which means, because they are better funded and armed than the supposed "pro-Qaddafi" forces that we are meant to believe are the only thing standing in their way, that the people don't like them.  So much for a popular insurgency: now the US is planning on sending 12,000 troops unto Libyan soil to make sure their "popular" rebels are properly installed.  All of which could be predicted from the very beginning of the pro-NATO Libyan rebellion that the US was pushing in order to take advantage of the spirit of rebellion spreading across the Arab world––but all of which people such as Achcar and the pro-interventionist in November refused to recognize, caught as they were in a mindset that conflated apparent populism with revolutionary sentiment.

All of this is to say that what appears popular amongst the masses does not constitute a political mass-line.  As leftists with any sense we also have to recognize: a) empirical assessments of popular sentiment are not always trustworthy––these resort in appearances, in positivist number counting that is not entirely scientific in the larger sense of scientific; b) how ideology, the ruling ideas of the ruling class, produces popular sentiment and hegemonic consent.

Practicing the mass-line does not mean practicing McLeftism where we assume that the ideological pressure pushed upon disempowered people is somehow revolutionary.  If this was the case, as I have argued elsewhere, then illiteracy would be revolutionary––the majority of people in the world can't read, and a lot of these people claim they are proud that they haven't gone to school––but we know that some of the most radical campaigns have begun by encouraging literacy (i.e. Paulo Freire's political educational programs).  The bourgeois state wants to keep people stupid, to keep them politically illiterate and to cultivate tastes that support capitalism.

From the masses, to the masses means that leftists need to go to the masses to understand the general nature of their demands, the areas where they are expressing their rejection of the status quo, organize these demands into a theoretically concise programme, and return to the masses to test this programme out in order to: a) support the previously unorganized rebellious sentiment; b) reflect this sentiment back to the people originally expressing it; c) raise the consciousness of everyone (including ourselves) involved.  It is not about saying: "hey, it seems like a lot of people in this poor neighbourhood believe in the Rapture so we should support the Rapture as part of our politics."  Belief in armageddon, however, does represent, in a mystified and often problematic way, a rejection of business as usual: obviously people are unsatisfied with this world, but feel too disempowered (and for obvious reasons) to feel that there is any hope in this life––so they imagine this hope elsewhere, just as they imagine that their enemies are the convenient enemies provided to them by the bourgeoisie.

This is why I am not a Draperite, a spontaneist, an autonomist, a movementist, or anyone else who doesn't believe in the necessity of a revolutionary party.  [Edit: Due to an insightful comment, and just rereading the previous sentence now, I realize that this was hastily written.  Draperism does believe in the necessity of the revolutionary party, it just has a strategy of building this party that, for reasons discussed in other posts, I find to be proven false by history and so results, in my opinion, in movementism for some future party that never emerges.  This is what comes of publishing posts late at night without editing.]  The theory of the mass-line, as it was actually conceptualized, requires the existence of a party that is unified in theory and practice.  Granted, this party needs to practice a mass-line, and practice it without condescension, but it is still required because there is no way to organize the movement from the masses, to the masses otherwise.  Without a revolutionary party, without that which can give form and eventual direction to the desire of the most oppressed to live in a better world, we're left with a simply from the masses, one half of the dialectical unity of opposites, where there is no motion and transformation.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but those who preach the most populist interpretation of mass-line politics (or, as aforementioned, whatever synonym they might use for "mass-line"), are quite often the same people who are divorced from the masses.  This is because they never go to the masses, and the most oppressed masses don't even know they exist, while they continue to repeat "from the masses, from the masses, from the masses" and adopt innumerable "popular" causes, or tail supposedly spontaneous uprisings, without even interacting––let alone trying to find a way to empower the most oppressed––with those people they claim to support. 

Nor is this populist approach even consistent: the Gilbert Achcars of the world might support NATO interventions when they're under the impression that this is "the will of the people", but they aren't out their supporting the politics of the Tea Party.  So why support one example of the peoples' "will" and not another?  Clearly because they still have enough sense to realize that revolutionary struggle has made some values part of an historical understanding of leftism.  But if this is the case, they need to ask why these radical truths have been established in one case and not in the other (at least in their minds because, really, they should know about imperialism by now), and if they are honest they will realize it is because these values have been won through struggle, and a struggle pushed by those amongst the masses with the most revolutionary consciousness.

Here again we're confronted with the notion of a revolutionary avant garde, the catalyst of mass-line politics, which is expressed at every moment of positive political change.  The only reason there is access to abortion, for example, is because those with an advanced consciousness about women's needs (the feminist struggle) at a certain period of time organized the mass sentiments of female disempowerment that sprang from pregnancy.  They did not simply accept the empirical studies produced by the patriarchy that "proved" most women were opposed to abortion; they did not wait until there was a random spontaneous uprising amongst their sisters.

And amongst the most disempowered sectors of the masses, amongst the proletariat, where we will be taught as much as we provide political meaning, there are also those who do possess a revolutionary consciousness, the proletariat for-itself and not just in-itself, that we need to meet in order to grow, to benefit from their perspective and experience, and to give us direction.  But you don't find these people simply by waiting for them to reveal themselves and assuming they are evident in every popular movement.


  1. I have to point out that misrepresents Draper's position somewhat - his argument was never that a mass party is inherently a bad thing or some reflexive 'anti-authoritarianism', but that there are many cases in which a mini-party acting as if it is capable of doing the strategies of a mass party (including 'from the masses, to the masses') often is more a help than a hindrance to moving people forward. In such cases, it can be better to produce a political platform and/or specific agitation rather than trying to unite all manner of loose strands and tailism into a tiny 'mass party'. This blog, and many such, are I think an example of what Draper would have supported as platform-based politics that moves people forward on issues, rather than trying to provide 'from the masses, to the masses'-type leadership where it simply does not have the ability.

    1. I was not representing Draper's politics in this piece, though I did group "Draperites" in with movementism in general which, I admit, homogenizes things. All of these positions, Draperism included (and I agree it's not the same as saying the mass party is bad or that it's anarchist in any way), though, eventually lead to the problem I was critiquing. I see this in Draper because of how he imagines that a party will be built, and what he imagined were the key proletarian forces, positions which I feel, despite Draper's intentions, result in political paralysis and movementism… And I say this because I know organizations that have pushed this strategy for a long time and are stagnating because of it.

      The hasty generalization, however, was simply performed under the assumption that people would understand the homogenization – mainly (and I admit it's never wise to assume) because I've complained about this strategy in other posts.

    2. Also, just reread the sentence where I mentioned Draper. You're right, it does misrepresent things: hastily written sentences late at night don't always accurately parallel what I'm thinking. I've added an editorial clarification about that. Thanks for the careful reading!

  2. i know you'll object, but this piece reminds me (in a generally good way) of Upping The Anti's editorial on popular support for Stephen Harper and Rob Ford (

    1. Why would I object? Although I disagree with the organizational line, I think it's a good journal: it carries a lot of left arguments from various positions – some that I like, some that I dislike, some that I half like – and I enjoy reading and purchasing it on a semi-regular basis. Thanks for the link: I don't think I read this specific editorial, but it looks good.

  3. I don't think abortion is a very good example because a lot of those early family planning advocates were mostly concerned about over-breeding working class women presenting a threat to the white race. It is good that abortion is legal now but it didn't come from a good movement at all.

    I am also depressed by white leftists supporting NATO but I'm not really suprised because some communist groups supported colonialism for 100s of years. Leftists in the country I live regularly tell me I should be grateful that colonialism rescued me from savagery and Karl Marx said communism isn't possible without capitalism so therefore colonial genocide was progressive, they might think this would go over well with the masses but it doesn't seem to do them any good anyway.

  4. Although I agree partly with your first comment, I think it needs to be pointed out that the first two countries where abortion was fought for and established were in Russia and then China at the early moments of the revolution––and these successes had nothing to do with the racist family planning ideology that tainted the movement in the US. Moreover, even the US the demand for accessible abortion was never entirely determined by the racist elements that coopted the movement at times. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, during the emergence of radical feminism, the ideology surrounding access to abortion––and this is the ideology that led directly to the Roe v. Wade decision––was of a very different sort. And I would highly doubt that the women of colour involved with Cell 16, who were the first at the forefront of this movement and who were arguing for a revolutionary feminism in line with the Vietcong women, took the biodeterminist view you suggest was intrinsic to the entire struggle. The point being, the struggle was heterogeneous and I would argue that abortion rights were primarily established, in these global moments, by very good movements.

    Your second point is very well put. Part of this post was ironic because although I want to be surprised, I am not entirely surprised. But at the very least the mainstream [meaning settler] left in USAmerica, which has always had a blindspot to the oppression of which it is a part, had tended to hypocritically have a double-standard when it comes to struggles elsewhere. Moreover, Achcar is not part of the "white left" in the US (he's Lebanese and he lives in Europe), and the Syrians demanding NATO intervention were, well, Syrian. So even outside of the usual suspects you've rightly condemned, the support of NATO is shockingly widespread. Indeed, there are a lot of pro-NATO rallies about Syria these days organized by Syrians, encountering anti-NATO rallies organized by other Syrians, and it's from this contradiction, not the predictable chauvinism of settlerism, that my complaint emerges.

  5. I don't quite agree on the focus on advanced cadres making positive change in the world, as the positive change that took place in Russia and China regarding the position of women was only sustainable in any way because the mass of the people supported it. Also, it helps for change to be democratically decided upon by the masses themselves, not passed by 'great cadre' lawmakers appointed by the all-knowing 'party of the proletariat'.

    The job of revolutionary militants is to lead and put forward ideas, programs and principles in the mass movement, not to decide for them or make change for them, as this inevitably leads to Jacobinism or substitutionism of one sort or another, which we should be against.

    1. Hi Michael, since I also believe that a revolutionary party should also practice the mass-line, then I'm in full agreement with what you said. I disagree with top down party structures and feel that any revolutionary structure needs to have a bottom-up approach and can only grow if it is wed with the masses. This article has been precisely about that and I didn't anywhere say that "great cadre" lawmakers from an all-knowing party would pass legislation. What it does argue, though, is that populism is not necessarily the mass-line, and that this confusion is often made.

      Just as we cannot legislate from above, and a party needs to grow by being connected to the masses, neither can we practice tailism––which is most often the practice of people who say things like "the masses aren't ready for this", or "we can't foster education programs with broad participation because they won't like it", or even (to be fair) charges of "substitutionalism" that don't always hold water. (The Draperite position, for example, will argue that the building of any party even is a form of "substitutionalism" and this is such a broadening of the term that it makes it non-sensical.) And you will know that a party has a proper mass-line if it is: a) known and respected by the masses; b) always returning to the masses to test its ideas and holding itself to account. It doesn't have a mass-line if it is just prescribed as a moment of revolutionary purity (i.e. the dogmatism of certain marxist cult groups), but at the same time it doesn't have a mass-line if it takes the most populist "democratic" notions of a social context and assumes these are revolutionary. (Otherwise, in some places in the US, the militaristic racist patriotism would be the ideas of the masses.)

      The point being there is a level of nuance contained in the unity of opposites *from* and *to* the masses and this article was a quick attempt to discuss that, not to argue any form of top-down approach to party structure. Especially since the people who make these claims (which this article critiques) really just move amongst student circles and have no idea what building something sustainable outside of these circles, and outside of social democratic circles, would look like. Much of this also comes from my frustration regarding marxists' inability to think dialectically as well, taking very empiricist positions (either top down or bottom up) about how a party should act.


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