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.