“In all the practical work of the Party, all correct leadership is necessarily from the masses to the masses.
“This means: take the ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas); then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action. Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through. And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time.” – Mao ‘Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership’, 1 June 1943, Selected Readings From the Works of Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Languages Press, Peking (1967), p. 236.
This passage illustrates the dialectical development of the Party’s in relation to the rest of the proletariat. The Party grows in strength and membership through debate and study and builds support through consciousness-raising and by fighting for reforms to improve the immediate conditions of the masses whilst at the same time agitating and preparing for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. The Party is made up of militant class-conscious workers, and must seek to spread this militancy and consciousness and learn from the masses so that the Party is at the vanguard of the class struggle, not by giving orders and telling people what to think, but by playing an active part the struggle and by debating openly the questions of the day and the programme of the Party.
The mass line is a leadership method which seeks to raise the consciousness of the proletariat and strengthen the theoretical development of the party and the class by going ‘from the masses, to the masses’ – having centre of gravity in the workplace, community, and social struggles against attacks on living conditions and for reforms, but raising the issue of class.
The mass line does not mean tailing popular notions, for some ideas which are commonly held by working people are reactionary and have been fostered by the ruling class to divide and conquer – racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. The Party is selective, not reflective; because it seeks revolution, ideas which are revolutionary must be developed and those which are reactionary must be confronted. The purpose of the mass line then, is to advance the understanding and organisation of the proletariat with the aim of making a socialist revolution.
The advances in information and communication technology allow the quicker development of consciousness and theoretical knowledge. Where these are not in place, the old-style mass line of literally ‘going to the masses’ may be dominant; even with mass communications, it is important to talk to people uninvolved in political activity, not only for recruitment purposes, but to get a sense of the direction of the masses.