Recently I have come across a conceptual distinction between two methods of carrying out the mass line.

The two formulations are:

  • unite the advanced, win over the intermediate, isolate the backwards
  • unite the advanced, bring up the intermediate, win over the backwards

I feel this distinction is significant and has to be addressed, with the second formulation being discarded as generally opportunist.

Deja vu: who are the masses?

If we are to talk about the mass line, we need to first talk about the masses. I have previously defined the masses as “the people in society who are excluded and dominated by a hegemonic class structure, in our case the all-round domination of finance capital over means of coercion, means of production, production of culture, means of information, and so on”. In a sense, we could say the masses are by exclusion those who don’t operate in the repressive and ideological apparatuses of the imperialist state.

There is a tendency among some to reduce the masses to the workers. Such a conception comes from mistaking what determines a class with what makes it revolutionary; in reality, the working class doesn’t have some sort of revolutionary “essence”, it becomes revolutionary only through struggle. Same goes for the other sections of the masses. It is then useful to make a distinction between sections of the masses; Maoists find it most useful to divide the masses according to their strategic orientation in regards to class society.

Conceptual distinctions: advanced, intermediate, backward

Because the masses are dispersed, they must be distinguished on the basis of their relation to revolutionary activity. The place people fit changes with their level of overall political consciousness and relative to the issue brought in front of them. We generally find it most useful to differentiate between advanced, intermediate, and backward.

  • The advanced are the actively engaged people, leaders of mass struggles, organizers in revolutionary organizations, etc. The advanced are vanguard material, and they must be united to form the vanguard organizations and its networks.
  • The intermediate are vacillating people, with contradictory ideas and practices. They are to be won over and mobilized under the political leadership of the advanced.
  • The backward are those in opposition to a revolutionary and emancipatory position and in opposition to the revolutionary organizations. They are the direct subject of the controversy here. Are the backward to be won over or to be isolated?

Mao himself seemed to argue for the second approach of winning over the backward:

“The masses in any given place are generally composed of three parts, the relatively active, the intermediate and the relatively backward. The leaders must therefore be skilled in uniting the small number of active elements around the leadership and must rely on them to raise the level of the intermediate element and to win over the backward elements.” – Mao Zedong, “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership

On the other hand, the Communist Party of the Philippines prefers the first formulation:

“The revolutionary class line distinguishes the true friends of the revolution from the real enemies. It establishes the reliance on the most basic classes and forces while persuading and uniting with the middle forces in order to isolate the diehard enemies. This principle is in accord with the mass line and the political line of the Party.” – Communist Party of the Philippines, “Mass Work

It would seem the first formulation accounts better for revolutionary situations: generally, revolutions are led by an active and militant minority (the advanced) having a friendly-neutral or friendly relationship with a section of the population which are mobilized or remain neutral (the intermediate), and neutralizing/eliminating the reactionary sections (the backward) in order to smash the state (not part of the masses). The second formulation would instead argue for the winning over of reactionary sections, which deprives us of clarity on the existence of enemies.

Intermediate and backward: what is the difference?

The second formulation seems to be unable to usefully distinguish between the backward and the intermediate: if both can be won over, then what is the difference between them? Are the backward just less good intermediates? I would say this is inadequate.

The first formulation, on the other hand, can account for a meaningful difference: the backward can’t be won over, as they have already been won over by the enemy; the intermediate can be won over, as they are still vacillating. If both were possible to win over, the distinction would essentially be useless.

It isn’t impossible for the backward to become intermediate or advanced, or for the advanced to become backward, these are all fluid categories. However, when talking about strategy, we can’t let exceptions become the rule.

The difference in the formulations for the intermediate are between winning over and bringing up. To bring up the intermediate means transforming them into advanced by means of political education. This has never been the tendency in any revolutionary situation – a large portion of the population remains intermediate. The task then, in the long term, isn’t one of bringing up the intermediate to advanced, but rather of winning over the intermediate to a friendly-neutral or friendly position.

It might be useful to distinguish between the mass line when dealing with micropolitics (the campaign method) and when dealing with macropolitics (the mass line at the level of all campaigns put together). In each campaign, when dealing with micropolitics, the strategic orientation should be to bring up the intermediate to advanced in order to bolster the numbers of the advanced. When dealing with all the campaigns put together, however, the objective is to make them last long in order to mobilize the most people possible and to fulfill political objectives; recruitment of the intermediate into the advanced becomes secondary and winning over as many people as possible becomes primary.

What is isolation?

The backward will attempt to block communist efforts at organization and mobilization, and must hence be isolated to safeguard our campaigns and our organizations. The activity of the backward goes from simply disrupting a conference to wrecking within a united front, and must be dealt with accordingly.

As a rule of thumb, isolation is twofold: isolating the backward elements within the organization and outside the organization. The elements within the organization can be isolated by being removed, formally or informally. Outside the organization, their backward behavior and political line must be exposed and they must be known to the united front as a backward element.

Isolation is both passive and active: passive isolation is mostly political education among the advanced which enables them to recognize the backward and discard their wrong political lines and organizational methods, while active isolation is the removal of backward elements, their exposure, confrontation with them, etc.

In communist political work, the isolation and exposure of reactionary elements is absolutely necessary in order to push a communist line. The first formulation accounts for the concrete requirements of communist political work, while the second formulation is opportunist in that it treats contradictions of a more or less antagonistic character as non-antagonistic contradictions.

Klaas V.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. Hmm, maybe there was a mistake in translation? 2 different, though similar, words were used. But what about in Chinese?

  2. Below is a comment on this article from a prisoner comrade in California. This comrade is a member of MIM(Prisons)’s most advanced correspondence study group, and a prolific contributor to Under Lock & Key.


    Ehecatl of United Struggle from Within:
    I would like comrades to direct their attention to the recent RAIM articles we received in the last study pack, to ‘Two Conceptions of the Mass Line’ by Klaas V.

    In “Two Conceptions” Klaas V. addresses a topic of strategic importance for the revolutionary movement, the revolutionary concept of who we refer to as ‘the masses.’ In this article Klaas V presents us with two opposing formulations and lines culminating in two different methods of carrying out the mass line. The first formulation of the masses comes from the Communist Party of the Philippines:

    (1) unite the advanced, win over the intermediate, isolate the backwards.

    The second definition of how to handle the masses comes from Mao Tse-Tung:

    (2) unite the advanced, bring over the intermediate, win over the backwards.

    Before giving us those formulations however Klaas V. gave us his definition of the masses which he defined as such; “the people in society who are excluded and dominated by a hegemonic class structure, in our case the all round domination of finance capital over means of coercion, means of production, production of culture, means of information and so on.” He then went on to add “In a sense we could say the masses are by exclusion those who don’t operate in the repressive and ideological apparatuses of the imperialist state.” He then went on to criticize others within the revolutionary movement of having “ a tendency to reduce the masses to the workers.” Further stating that such “a conception comes from mistaking what determines class with what makes it revolutionary” and that “in reality the working class doesn’t have some sort of revolutionary essence, it becomes revolutionary thru struggle. Same does for other sections of the masses.”

    While on the one hand Klaas V. is correct to say that the working class doesn’t have some sort of revolutionary essence and that they can only become revolutionary thru struggle, he simultaneously misses the point that the revolutionary masses are as fluid as the revolutionary movement itself. Any attempts to straight jacket the mases into arbitrary definitions that are better suited to help us distinguish between class is something of a formulationist error on Klass V’s part despite the contradictory statement and definition he gives of the masses above.

    Therefore Klaas V’s definition of the masses contains something of a dogmatic and purist conception of the so-called “masses” as an ever present phenomenon just waiting to be called into action. However, there is no timeless definition that applies to the masses for all times and places. The Leninist conception of “the masses” as agent of revolution is one that changes in accordance with the nature of the struggle. In other words, the revolutionary masses are not the same in all times and all places. As yet however Klaas V inadvertently goes against Lenin on this by reducing the concept of the masses to abstract and arbitrary definitions which exist outside of space and time and which likewise exists without any contradictions. And as we full well known, nothing exists without contradiction – including the Klass V article in question which is itself contradictory.

    Perhaps it is this purist error attached to his definition of the masses that allows for Klaas to make his “conceptual distinction”, and as a result his second error in regards to defining the masses?

    Klaas V presents us with the two different conceptions of the masses and hence two different conceptions of the mass line from the two different orgs mentioned at the beginning of this critique. Two different organizations who took up armed struggle in the past by their distinction and appraisal of the mass line. One successfully liberated their people from feudal landlords, compradors and imperialism. The other organization never conquered state power and is still bogged down in the Philippine jungle somewhere. And while Klaas V is an avowed Maoist, he uncharacteristically finds more pragmatic unity with the CPP which has found the need to have several rectification campaigns over the years. Thus the second and perhaps more important mistake Klaas makes in his conceptual distinction is his equivocating of “the backward” in Mao’s instructions on the masses with the CPP’s “die hard enemies” of the people.

    Klaas V therefore misses two not so subtle points in making h distinctions. The first being the point I’ve already explained in his misunderstanding of the general composition and role of the masses within different hystorical contexts and settings. The other his taking up the CPP line on how to handle the masses over Mao’s instructions which clearly distinguish the masses in any general place or time as being composed of three parts: the relatively active , the intermediate and the relatively backward. In other words, Mao clearly distinguished even the backward in his society as part of the revolutionary vehicle and generally, though not particularly friendly to the revolution despite what Klaas V says. It seems then that he might’ve made this mistake or dogmatist error based on his reading too much into the CPP’s statement without taking the time to think independently on the matter or conducting separate investigation. However, in my own summary investigation into this matter I did find evidence that Mao likewise considered the backward as enemies of the people at one time or another, y et the context in which he used backward to describe the enemies of the people is different than the way he would eventually use backward in his description of the masses.

    There is at least one instance in which Mao used the term backward to describe the enemies of the people. “In Analysis of the classes in Chinese Society’ in which Mao would ultimately go on to famously ask “Who are our enemies, who are our friends?” Mao refers to the landlord class and comprador class as “the most backward and most reactionary relations of production in China.” Further stating that because of their extreme reactionary character and place in society “The big landlord and big comprador classes in particular always side with imperialism and constitute an extreme counter-revolutionary group.”

    Clearly within this analysis the big landlord and big comprador classes are the most reactionary and the most counter-revolutionary group, also the most backward therefore they do not form a part of the masses.

    As such Klaas V honestly enough questions the distinction between backward and enemy yet he tackles this question from the rationalist point of view but in the process however forgets the place of rational knowledge in informing our strategic orientation. Therefore because Klaas V is seemingly unaware of the scientifically proven correctness of the Leninist conception of the masses he is thus unable to pin-point its social base and hence unable to figure out exactly who to organize. Perhaps he is not even really clear on what the principal contradiction really is then? This is not so much an attack on Klaas V as it is an honest question given his perplexity with the issue at hand. Furthermore Klaas V’s definition of who makes up the masses has hints of opportunism, no? In addition because everyone’s conditions aren’t the same and humyn society is divided between first, second and Third World. The vehicle of revolutionary change will not be identical in every country. Indeed, once again we look to Chairman Mao for clarity on such matters which continue to plague us within our own revolutionary movements today and thus our blind theory is guided by Chinese practice which has subsequently been summed up in rational knowledge. Mao never made the blanket statement of equivocating the die-hard enemies of the people with the socially and politically backward for all times and all places exactly because he knew that matters were so much more complicated than that; they were contradictory. Thus the mass line can only be universally correct but only if it is universally correctly defined and applied. Hitherto, the only instance I found in which Mao equated the die hard or counter-revolutionary enemies of the people with the backward was in ‘Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society’ his first major contribution to Marxism, and even way back then at the very end of that summation he still didn’t simply wave off a huge section of some of the most backward; China’s lumpen-proletariat. Instead he cautiously asks aloud, what do we do with these people? It would take Mao many more years to concretely answer his own question. Furthermore, whereas the former was written in 1926, ‘Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership’ was not written until 1943! With decades of political and military struggle behind him Mao then gave us his more refined and correct answer and instructions not only on what the masses looked like, but how to handle them after years of victory and defeat. Mao recognized that you had to unite various classes in the patriotic war for liberation; a war that was nationalistic in form but socialist in essence. Though he straight up makes this statement in 1926, he wasn’t yet sure if his plan would work because he hadn’t yet put his theory to the test. But by 1943 and in the years leading up to liberation Mao knew his theory was correct and that even the national bourgeoisie and the hated KMT as well as others had to be united and put to use against the bigger threat: Japanese imperialism. So I ask Klaas V since when does backward automatically mean enemy? Furthermore, I would remind Klaas V of a statement by Lenin made in regards to the composition of the masses which flies directly in the face of his attack on the backward:

    “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.”

    While some might focus on the first part of this sentence which singles out the workers, I prefer to focus on the second half of that statement which singles out “the philistine who drag out a miserable existence and who have never heard anything about politics and who within a revolutionary situation begin to act in a revolutionary way.”

    Klaas V’s conception of the masses and hence the mass line is an incomplete and insufficient understanding of the social forces in society and of the balance of power. By labeling the backward as die hard enemies of the people he deprives us of future cadre material and potential revolutionary fighters. In his definition of who constitutes the masses he leaves us with what can only be interpreted as a loose conglomeration of anyone who isn’t an imperialist or a capitalist. In order words, he leaves us pinning our hopes of revolution on a majority petty-bourgeois population. Contrary to such formulations Mao advanced both Marxism-Leninism and the people of China by uniting and bringing forward the the backward. Let us not forget that in its very early stages the Chinese Red Army, which went on to develop into the Peoples Liberation Army, was initially composed of the lumpen-proletariat. Therefore it can even be said that China’s revolution was made by the socially and politically backward. Therefore the backward should not automatically mean enemy and should not automatically meet our scorn, but instead our attention. MIM(Prisons) and MIM before them essentially came to “Fame” in part because of their acknowledgement and work with the backward, and are training the political leaders of tomorrow’s internal national liberation movements, thus building the backbone of the oppressed internal nations. Perhaps then some who think they are advanced are really just intermediate and vacillating people themselves with contradictory ideas and practices and still need to be won over and mobilized under the political leadership of the truly advanced. Unless of course they are really just enemies of the people and as such constitute “active isolation” by their own standards.

    In conclusion, I would like to offer an alternative formulation of the masses within the prison sphere. The masses within the prison sphere are composed of the advanced, the intermediate and the backwards. The advanced can be defined and divided as Maoist or veering towards Maoism, these are truly the vanguard within the prison movement. The other half of the advanced may or may not be revolutionary, which is to say they may or may not be influenced by socialist politics. However, they are determined to unite the prison masses, have influence over the prison masses and will stop at nothing to bring real change to the prison masses. The intermediate are composed of generally educated people, many striving towards intellectualism. Most of these people think there is room for change within prison life. Most of these people are reformers and think the system is ok lest for a few much needed checks and balances. Many are wary of revolution and not completely convinced of the advanced’s stated aims, yet they can be mobilized to work with us. They are vacillating people and we must try to unite them. The other half of the intermediate are potential cadre material and are friendlier to the revolutionary current that underlines the prison movement. Some of these people may or may not become comrades and have adopted a wait and see attitude towards the prison movement, anti-imperialism and communism. Because of their intermediate position they are by “nature” vacillating, but we can most definitely win them over either to the prison movement, anti-imperialism and/or communism. Finally, we have the backward and they make up the bulk of the population. It is thru them that true change will come. The backward can be founds and are the majority of both general pop and protective custody yards. Whether they are active or inactive members of their lumpen organizations or do not belong to any organization these people tend to have low or very low levels of education, are highly philistine and destructive more times than not. They know virtually nothing of politics and are very individualistic – some are sheep (followers), some are not. However, when tensions arise and oppression worsens they can be easily mobilized behind the right program. However, because of their philistine attitude, low level of education and sheep mentality they can capitulate to the enemy just as quickly if not sooner than they can be mobilized. For this reason we must focus on them and build public opinion vigorously amongst them as well as curry their favor. In concentrating on these people we are not just culling the mass line but are developing the proletariat’s rear guard and thus advancing our own revolutionary-nationalists movements.

    Last but not least, a very tiny fraction of the backward are truly counter-revolutionary. They care not about politics or the masses. They are the most backward and the most individualistic. Most of these people are snitches and unstable prison elements and must be neutralized one way or another. But neutralization does not necessarily have to take on an antagonistic form. Even a small fraction of these people can still be won over to the side of the revolution, but they require constant struggle and attention, and in the end may not be worth the trouble.

    The difference between the prison masses and most of people on the street is that while behind prison walls the masses are a ever present phenomenon exactly because their oppression is an ever present phenomenon and so they can be easier pinpointed and defined, whereas on the streets we can only get fleeting images of them during times of strife. For example, during the LA Rebellion of 1992 we saw glimpses of the masses taking to the streets and making their voices heard and weight felt. During the numerous prison hunger-strikes we likewise saw them in action but with direction.

    Recommended reading on the masses: ‘Again on the Subject of the amasses in the Imperialist countries’ – MT14, ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People’ Mao.


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