The Mass Line and Student Organizing

This is an adaptation of a presentation given by a member of the RSM at the Montreal Student Movement Convention in the Summer of 2014.

I. Introduction

This section of the workshop is titled “The Mass Line and Student Organizing”. As the name implies, I’m going to be talking about the relevance of the mass line to work that we do among students, based in the strong class analysis advanced by my comrade beforehand. First I’ll talk a bit about myself to give you an idea of where I’m coming from, and then I’ll talk about the mass line in the abstract, the concrete application of the mass line in our work, why the mass line is important, and finally I’ll draw some conclusions about the mass line’s role in student organizing.

So a bit about me. I’m an organizer with the Revolutionary Student Movement; I currently sit on the coordinating committee of the RSM. I’ve been doing student organizing at various levels since 2007 when I started doing anti-military recruitment work at my high school in London, Ontario. I was very involved with my student union at uOttawa, even sitting on the council at one point. I was initially very supportive of the bureaucratic student unions, but my experiences and disillusionment with that approach to organizing led me to help found the Revolutionary Student Movement. I’ve also done some union organizing with food service workers, working as an in-shop organizer in the industrial cafeteria at Carleton University. All this is to say, what I’m talking about today isn’t borne out of abstract principles or simply from reading interesting articles, but instead is an attempt by me to pick out and synthesize some universal lessons from the work that I’ve spent the last 7 years doing.


II. What is the Mass Line?

What do I mean when I say “the mass line”? The mass line is the communist method of doing work among the masses; all successful communist organizers use it, but it was first synthesized by Mao. Communists aren’t the only ones who use the mass line; I’d go as far as saying it’s a necessary method of work to employ when doing any sort of political organizing, but communists are generally the only ones that conceptualize it in these terms. It is a radically democratic method of doing work, when applied correctly.

And who are the masses we’re talking about when we talk about the mass line? Well, quite frankly, everyone with the exception of the ruling class – in capitalist society capitalists and their stooges. The masses are people with all sorts of ideas and political consciousnesses, good and bad: your family, neighbours, co-workers, friends, etc. . So the mass line is first and foremost a way of doing work that connects us, as communists, with the working class.

The mass line can be broadly summed up in two principles. The first principle is “from the masses, to the masses”. To explain what I mean by this, as communists (or socialists or anarchists or whatever else) we have a certain set of ideas, both about how the world works but also about the type of society we want to live in. The masses don’t necessarily agree with us on these points yet, but rather have a set of very legitimate and real grievances with society as it’s currently structured: rent is too high, tuition fees are increasing, lack of access to services, etc. . And so it’s the job of any organizers to go among the masses, listen to their grievances, synthesize their issues with our understanding of reality, and carry that back to the masses in the form of demands or a political program. It’s an almost metabolic process of constant investigation and dialogue, and it’s a means of not only bringing up the political level of the masses by relating our politics to their struggles, but also of grounding ourselves in the masses. This is the most important aspect of the mass line.

The second principle is summed up in one of two ways. The first says to “unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, and isolate the backwards” whereas the second is to “unite the advanced, raise the level of the intermediate, win over the backwards”. Whichever one applies depends on the context.[1] So what do we mean by this? At the most basic level politics is knowing who our friends and enemies are: what forces can be mobilized in favour of something we want to achieve, and what forces will be mobilized against us. When we’re talking about the masses, we can generally divide them into three categories: the advanced (those with progressive, revolutionary, and democratic ideas who are willing to act on them), the intermediate (those with confused ideas but who are inactive), and the backwards (those with regressive ideas). This second principle of the mass line instructs us to know who constitutes various sections of the masses, and what these political actors are doing and thinking, in order to allow us to properly respond and orient ourselves effectively toward them.

These two principles “from the masses, to the masses” and “unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, and isolate the backwards” are the two basic principles of mass line.


III. The Mass Line is a Process

To get a little bit less abstract, the mass line, when put into practice, is a continuous process.

1) First, any organizer has to begin with social investigation: figuring out what the issues or grievances of the masses are, and then figuring out who the advanced, intermediate, and backwards are. This can take the form of surveys, reactions to lived experiences, and so on and so forth. Coming out of this process there should be a seemingly winnable campaign or goal identified, with a basic plan of action.

2) Once these questions have been answered (not in full; you’ll only be able to truly know the world through struggling to change it), one must gather all those forces which are capable and willing to struggle and fight for the campaign that has been initiated. This can take the form of meetings, a campaign call-out, etc.. This is the means by which the advanced are united.

3) Following the gathering of forces, it’s incumbent on organizers to put people into action, to intervene in the world in a political way and actually carry out the campaign that you’re trying to organize. Through the process of going to people and talking to them about the proposed campaign, you’re able to increase their political level; this is the process of “bringing up the intermediate”.

4) After initiating any sort of political action, there will inevitably be some sort of reaction to the work that you’re engaging in. An organizer should use this as an opportunity to see what results have been obtained through the political action, and re-evaluate the initial plan. Maybe you’ve won, maybe you haven’t, but either way there needs to be some form of accounting for and systematizing the effort that you’ve engaged in.

5) Every struggle that isn’t the final struggle against capitalism will inevitably die down at some point. It’s the job of organizers to consolidate the gains made during the campaign, either in the form of ensuring the reform you’ve fought for is successful or, more importantly, organizing new people that have been brought into political life through the work that you’ve initiated. At the end of the day, winning or losing the specific reform is not what’s important: advancing the class struggle, and increasing the level of struggle among the masses as well as the capacities of revolutionary organizers, is what matters. Consolidation should serve this end. In order for consolidation to happen, formal organizations are necessary; there needs to be something for people to be consolidated into.

6) Once new forces are consolidated, a new round of investigation should begin, and the cycle begins anew.

Mass line is not simply a set of static principles, but when applied, is a radically democratic and vibrant way of organizing.


IV. Concrete Application of the Mass Line: General Assemblies at uOttawa


Moving completely away from the abstract at this point, I’d like to talk about how the RSM has concretely applied the mass line in the various struggles we’ve undertaken. The RSM is relatively new, insofar as we began the process of forming the RSM in December of 2012. Despite having engaged in a number of different activities and campaigns, I’ll be focusing on our most involved campaign: the campaign for General Assemblies at the University of Ottawa.

For us at uOttawa, our experience organizing students through the student union constituted the social investigation we undertook. We knew that students at uOttawa were incredibly disillusioned with the student union and had virtually no confidence in the executives of our student federation; they correctly understood the student federation to be bureaucratic, ineffective, etc. . And so in the process of figuring out what to do, we identified those forces willing to struggle for democratic decision making structures as being part of the advanced in this given context. In turn –and this really set us apart I think from other attempts, of which there were many, to get GAs at uOttawa-  we identified CFS aligned student union bureaucrats as being part of the backwards, insofar as they didn’t fully support the democratic program we were putting forward.

We began the campaign by doing basic promotion (postering, social networks, etc.) for a campaign launch event. This was in February of 2013. The launch event gathered all those who were interested in working towards GAs at uOttawa, uniting the advanced around democratic politics. We came up with a series of 10 essential features that a GA had to include, which consisted of basic things like: all students have a vote, all students can call GAs, all students can put forward motions, etc. but also included more radically democratic demands such as: the GA must be the highest decision making body of the student federation, and the GA should have the ability to impeach student union executives.

We then launched the campaign. We decided that for a GA to have any sort of democratic legitimacy, it would have to be voted in by students, and not pushed through the council of the student union. At uOttawa, in order to get a referendum question on the ballot during the student union elections, it is necessary to submit a petition containing 1500 signatures of undergrad students. Given our size at the time this was a fairly daunting task, but we mobilized and were able to accomplish it. When we relaunched the campaign in September of 2013 we had only a few hundred signatures; by mid-October 2013, we had managed to collect over 1700. Two things are worth noting here: first, collecting petition signatures made it necessary to engage with the student population as a whole, and this engagement necessarily involved political discussion and debate with students, thus “bringing up the intermediate”. Second, as we campaigned more people became interested in the work we were doing, and either got involved with the GA campaign or joined the RSM; the process of consolidation began during the campaign itself.

Afraid to lose the momentum we had built over the 2013 Fall semester, we insisted on holding a referendum as soon as possible. The only date that worked with the exam schedule and within the constraints of the student union’s constitution was the end of November. This was likely a tactical mistake on our part; the poor timing of the referendum combined with a referendum boycott campaign promoted by the campus reactionaries resulted in us missing quorum by a few hundred votes, which was fairly heartbreaking. However, the response was overwhelmingly in favour of GAs, with 86% of students that voted voting in favour. We were able to leverage this support and force the student union executives and council (the more progressive bureaucrats were split between forcing GAs through the council, which we opposed, and holding a second referendum) to hold a second referendum during the student union general elections in February of 2014.

The second referendum was much more successful. The campus reactionaries decided to organize a “NO” side to the referendum, but did so quite poorly. In the end voter turnout was higher than normal for a student election, with over 60% voting in favour of GAs. In the process, the RSM at uOttawa had transformed from being primarily a reading group into an organization that engaged in both theory and practice. Through the process of consolidation –bringing new people in on the basis of GAs, being open with our communist politics, and activating supporters who until then had not had a reason to get involved- our membership tripled; far greater than the 40% growth we were aiming for when we launched the campaign. And now, as we prepare for the new school year, we are beginning our second round of social investigation, looking into how best to mobilize for GAs and what initiatives we will bring forward there.

In conclusion, there are two things worth emphasizing. The first is that when we started the GA campaign, we were unsure if we had the capacity to win. It was only in the process of engaging in that struggle that we built capacity, both by improving the skills of our organizers, and engaging new members. Revolutionaries should adopt a dialectical view of organizing: had we simply looked at the balance of forces in February of 2013, adopting an empiricist view of organizing, we wouldn’t have launched the campaign. But, by understanding that through action there is consolidation and growth, we decided to launch the campaign anyway. The second point is that the GA was never the end goal in-and-of-itself. Yes, there is something to be said for direct democracy and the emancipatory politics behind direct democracy. But direct democracy can also be a platform for reactionary politics; the GA as a decision making model is not particularly special. We understood the GA to be a step in the direction of our final goal, which is the mobilization of all proletarian students towards the destruction of capitalism and the university: GAs are another forum in which to engage in class struggle. And so, I’d like to emphasize, the specific reform was not particularly important: what was important was the campaign’s capacity, and the capacity of GAs, to raise the level of class struggle on the campus.


V. What the Mass Line Isn’t

Up until now, I have only talked about what the mass line is. Before talking about why, abstractly, the mass line is important to communists, I will highlight a few things the mass line isn’t.

The mass-line is not tailism. Tailism is a type of practice by which revolutionaries only allow themselves to follow the most advanced ideas of the masses, never moving beyond these ideas or putting forward any revolutionary politics. Some use the mass line as a means of excusing this type of practice, saying that according to the mass line we have to go to the masses and meet the masses where they are at politically. While this is true, it is only half of the mass line: revolutionaries are also supposed to raise the political level of the masses in the process of struggle, and this can only be done if revolutionaries openly put forward revolutionary politics. The mass line is intended to raise the level of the masses and connect them with revolutionary struggle, not serve as an excuse for revolutionaries to hide their politics.

The mass line is not econonism. Economism can be characterized as a type of practice in which economic demands are raised to a primary place of importance, while political demands are sidelined or ignored. For instance, fighting for increased minimum wage without connecting that fight with the struggle to end the wage system and capitalism, is an example of economism. While the mass line is concerned with specific demands and grievances of the masses, it does not stop there: it is a means by which revolutionaries can connect these specific demands with the broader revolutionary struggle, and pull the masses into that struggle.

The mass line is not bureaucratism. This should be fairly obvious but it is not. In many of our organizing experiences, we have seen otherwise democratic structures perverted by power-hungry bureaucrats, even when the stakes are relatively low –this is especially common within student unions, as I’m sure everyone here can attest to. There are some people, who without saying it openly, but through their actions, conceive of the mass line not as a radically democratic way of connecting the masses with revolutionaries, but as a means by which the masses can be controlled. Revolutionaries should use the mass line to awaken the potential of the masses.

The mass line is not commandism. The mass-line is necessary because revolutionaries hold a different set of ideas from the masses about how the world operates and how it should operate; we are revolutionaries, the masses are not. An organizer must be conscious of this difference. If, for instance, we were to insist that the masses become revolutionaries in order to work with us, we will very quickly find ourselves isolated. Commandism is the practice of standing ahead of the masses politically and effectively commanding them to “catch-up”. It is a self-isolating practice, but one that is practiced by much of the “left” in Canada. While the mass-line involves raising the political level of the masses, this is done through struggle, not through condescension, sloganeering, or demanding the masses politicize.

Finally, the mass line is not mass fetishism. There is a tendency, predominately but not exclusively among white male communists in the first world, to fetishize the masses. Everything that the masses do, according to these people, is somehow sacred and shouldn’t be questioned or criticized. This phenomenon is closely linked to workerism, or the extension of identity-politic type concepts to class: to be a worker is considered another aspect of one’s identity. This approach to the masses is usually rooted in a romanticized view of the masses and class struggle, and is usually found within people that have very little connection to the masses or class struggle. Revolutionaries can and must criticize backwards practices found within the masses, practices like, but not limited to: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. . The mass line is a means by which these incorrect ideas can be systematically abolished, not encouraged simply because the masses hold them.


VI. Why Does the Mass Line Matter?

As anti-capitalists, our goal is revolution. All of Marxism can be summed up under the question “How should the working class go about making revolution?” Why then, as anti-capitalists, is it important to engage in mass work –fighting for reforms, or for struggles that on the surface don’t appear to be revolutionary- rather than simply “revolutionary” work? How does the mass line fit into the broader plan of advancing the class struggle in Canada?

Broadly, there are two large “crises” within the left in North America. First, there is the crisis of organization: there is not, at this time, a revolutionary vanguard or revolutionary mass organizations (or even mass movements!) in Canada or the United States. As such, there is no central organization to which the experiences of class struggle can be systematically summed up as a means of moving the class struggle forward. And as the masses themselves are disorganized, engaging in any sort of sustained political action is difficult.

Second, there is a crisis of confidence. If you were to talk to nearly any worker today, most of them would acknowledge that the present way that society is organized is fundamentally unjust. They wouldn’t be able to articulate precisely what is wrong with society in scientific or Marxist terms, but they would have some idea as to how society could be run better. They may even concede that socialism and communism sound like ideal solutions: Cold War anti-communism is largely a thing of the past. However, almost universally, the masses (and even some of the “left”!) do not believe that any positive change is possible. And how could they be expected to, after nearly 40 years of constant defeats for the working class in North America?

The mass line solves both of these issues. First, the mass line organizes the masses, and builds the capacity of revolutionary organizations. It builds the fighting capacity of the masses and revolutionaries. The proper application of the mass line –I should add this has yet to be figured out by any revolutionary organization in North America- solves the problem of organization. Second, the mass line shows the masses that small victories are possible, and builds their fighting spirit. It unleashes the potential of the masses in the direction of the revolutionary transformation of society. It causes the masses to think “If small victories are possible, then perhaps large victories (like socialism) are too!”. The mass line, if applied in a consciously revolutionary manner, solves the problem of confidence.

More concretely, there are a number of other reasons why revolutionaries need to adopt the mass line as their method of practice. First, organization is absolutely necessary if we are to overthrow capitalism and build socialism. As mentioned above, the masses need to be organized. However, we should go further and say that even if the task of overthrowing capitalism without organizing the masses was possible (it isn’t), the task of building socialism without organizing the masses is impossible. Mass organizations by necessity must form the democratic basis of socialism; if they don’t exist, socialism is impossible.

Second, in a very direct way through the achievement of small victories, the mass line allows us to improve the conditions of the masses. We must not lapse into economism; at the end of the day the specific reform or victory is not important, but rather any mass line activity must serve to raise the level of the class struggle. However, small victories will inevitably be won, and improving the conditions of the masses should be something close to the heart of every revolutionary.

Third, the mass line keeps us grounded in the masses. Everyone is familiar with the stereotyped armchair revolutionary that is well versed in theory, but is totally disconnected from practice and regular people. Many of us know people like this. The mass line forces even the most removed of us out of our comfort zones and forces us to ground our practice in the people themselves, ensuring that our politics are also grounded in the lived experiences of the masses.

Fourth, as we mentioned earlier, ending capitalism and building socialism without the participation of the masses as a leading force is impossible. The only way for the masses to realize that capitalism is their enemy and take up the fight for socialism is to raise the political level of the masses, to show them that their specific grievances relate back to the broader revolutionary struggle. The mass line is the means by which revolutionaries raise the political level of the masses.

Fifth, and perhaps this is a bit crass, but the mass line is the only means by which revolutionaries can build their own forces in a sustainable and effective way. When we consider what a revolutionary vanguard organization should be, we ultimately think that it should be a collection of the most advanced elements of the working class that have united for the purposes of overthrowing capitalism. The only way to figure out who the most advanced elements of the masses are –politically, and in terms of leadership capacity and ability to struggle- is to actively engage with the masses, and build new proletarian leadership within the masses. In this sense, the mass line is not only necessary to solve the problem of organization within the masses, but also to solve the problem of organization within the vanguard as well.

So, with this being said, why should revolutionaries care about mass line methods of practice? Because without the mass line there can be no revolution, and a revolutionary that isn’t working towards building revolution isn’t much of a revolutionary at all.


VII. Students and the Mass Line

In conclusion, it’s perhaps useful to state explicitly why the mass line as a method of work is important for revolutionaries doing work with students. First, the mass line provides a framework that allows for revolutionaries to engage in effective methods of work: to win victories, it is necessary to use the mass line. Second, basing ourselves in a strong class analysis of the conditions on our campuses allows us to identify the advanced and backwards elements, and to correctly orient ourselves and our struggles towards these divergent forces. And finally, the mass line is important insofar as we recognize that in English Canada, proletarian students do not make up the majority of students within universities (though possibly colleges and high schools are majority proletarian, depending on program and neighborhood). The mass line, which is a revolutionary method of work –in other words, sets its sights on the transformation of society and not on a more narrow “student power”, “socialism-on-one-campus” based agenda-, allows us to orient our actions towards the minority of students with revolutionary potential and organize them in the service of the broader working class and revolutionary movement. Without the mass line, student organizing is a dead-end for revolutionaries. With the mass line, and with accurately understanding the role of proletarian students in the broader revolutionary struggle, we can effectively coordinate our on-campus efforts with the struggle that is unfolding in the rest of Canadian society: we can positively contribute to the struggle to end this rotten system and build a better world.


[1] The original quote by Mao stated “win over the backwards”, but for some reason that is beyond me, “isolate the backwards” begins to show up in reflections on the mass line in the 1970s and early 1980s. Generally the two forms are applicable to different situations: “isolate the backwards” works well when doing initial political activities in contexts where there is an establishment left, when dealing with cadre level people of different political tendencies where it is necessary to isolate counter-revolutionary elements from the masses. However, when doing political work in apolitical situations –in places where the masses aren’t coming into contact with an establishment left- “winning over the backwards” is a more possible goal.

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