January 26, 2014

Mass Line, Mass Work, Marta Harnecker, Willamette Reds & Why The Trotskyites Are Wrong

As you can guess from the title, this will be a long and meandering post. Nothing here will be particularly original or earth-shaking.

This post was inspired by a recent Willamette Reds meeting which was supposed to based on a discussion of Marta Harnecker's Instruments For Doing Politics. Present at our meeting were some folks from Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) and the International Organization for a Participatory Society. I hope that others will read the Harnecker pamphlet and that our friends from CCDS and IOPS will continue to show up at Willamette Reds meetings.

We did base some of our discussion on the reading. But, as with most discussions of this type, the discussion moved to questions which the reading did not address and which we seem to argue over at every meeting. At this point some of us feel like moving on. If this post has any original or novel thoughts at all, it is in my attempt to move things forward a bit.

Some Definitions

I want to start with some simple working definitions of "mass work" and "mass line" and go forward from there.

We get the most succinct picture of mass work and mass line from Mao in his 1944 essay "The United Front in Cultural Work." Mao said:

To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. Unless they are conscious and willing, any kind of work that requires their participation will turn out to be a mere formality and will fail.... There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.

This was drawn out by Mao in 1945 when he said:

Twenty-four years of experience tell us that the right task, policy and style of work invariably conform with the demands of the masses at a given time and place and invariably strengthen our ties with the masses, and the wrong task, policy and style of work invariably disagree with the demands of the masses at a given time and place and invariably alienate us from the masses. The reason why such evils as dogmatism, empiricism, commandism, tailism, sectarianism, bureaucracy and an arrogant attitude in work are definitely harmful and intolerable, and why anyone suffering from these maladies must overcome them, is that they alienate us from the masses.

and in 1948 when he said:

For over twenty years our Party has carried on mass work every day, and for the past dozen years it has talked about the mass line every day. We have always maintained that the revolution must rely on the masses of the people, on everybody's taking a hand, and have opposed relying merely on a few persons issuing orders. The mass line, however, is still not being thoroughly carried out in the work of some comrades; they still rely solely on a handful of people working in solitude. One reason is that, whatever they do, they are always reluctant to explain it to the people they lead and that they do not understand why or how to give play to the initiative and creative energy of those they lead. Subjectively, they too want everyone to take a hand in the work, but they do not let other people know what is to be done or how to do it. That being the case, how can everyone be expected to get moving and how can anything be done well? To solve this problem the basic thing is, of course, to carry out ideological education on the mass line, but at the same time we must teach these comrades many concrete methods of work.

These points are not true because Mao said them. They are true because human experience has tested them and born them out in practice over time. Liu Shaoqi expressed these points and gave them depth in an essay which can be read here.

In 2008 the Freedom Road Road Socialist Organization developed some helpful points on the mass line. That essay can be found here. In that essay the mass line is defined as  "the basic political/organization method of communists." The starting point given is Mao's famous quote that  “The people, and the people alone are the motive force in making world history.” We work from that point to a Marxist theory of knowledge, methods of work and leadership, the questions which come with working in united fronts and the whole matter of leadership.

In 2013  Jan Makandal gave this a specifically class-conscious emphasis in a helpful essay that can be read here. Most helpful for me in this essay is the line Makandal draws between mass line and mass work, on the one hand, and ultra-leftism on the other. I really like Maklandal's emphasis on focused collective work in the essay. And there is a good definition of mass line:

 A Mass Line is the principle guiding the relation between an organization and the masses, working people as a whole and the working class in particular. This principle determines that we go to the masses to return to the masses. What does that mean? It means we must have organizations rooted in the masses, organizations rooted in the struggle of the masses to go to the masses to return to the masses. It means we must take the correct ideas of the masses, synthesize them, and return them to the masses so the masses can identify with those ideas and apply them to their struggles. It means also to take erroneous ideas coming from the masses, synthesize them, define the correct way to combat them, outside any ultra leftist or opportunist orientation, so collectively the masses can reject these ideas in their struggles. But most importantly, it means to bring those ideas back to the masses so that the masses can exercise control over these organizations that are within their midst, these organizations that are in the mist of their struggles.

The Kasama Project brought up valid concerns about how the left might (mis)understand mass line and mass work in 2010. The folks at www.massline.info also took the trouble to compile some guiding documents on the issues of mass line and mass work. So a lot of work has been done in these areas and it shouldn't surprise anyone that a frame of reference has been created here. When it comes to organizing from a communist, left or progressive standpoint---and I know that these are really quite different standpoints to start from---we can say that the most basic work has already been done and the most important point or question is how to move forward from there.

It's necessary to ask ourselves what our mass line is and what our mass work consists of and to make the necessary adjustments over time in order to do our work better. And it's fair for us to ask everyone who shows up at our meetings what their mass line and mass work consist of.

Coming from a trade union background, many of us reject any kind of missionary activity or orientation and we have a clear or specific concept of organizing. Our concepts of organizing may or may not be correct or widely applicable and the concepts and contexts they arise out of and respond to may or may not be widespread. Still, there is a need for us to know our Marxism and take this in to the movements. It is a means of testing whether we are right or wrong and it is a barrier to opportunism and adventurism. Finally---and I think that this is true regardless of the specific methods we use to organize---there are some relatively easy victories that the left can win in the short-term and each victory will bring other victories as well. These points need to be stated up-front and I'll repeat some of these points later on in discussing values.

On the other hand, Harnecker makes two or three mistakes in her essay when she takes up what I am calling "mass work" and "mass line" here. First, she rejects using the phrase "the masses" because, to her, this "seems homogenizing" and she prefers to speak of "the people" or "the popular base." She uses this point to make a break with 20th century Marxism-Leninism.

I am left wondering how we have mass work and a mass line without the masses. I don't see the term as any more or less "homogenizing" than "the people" or "the popular base." Lenin at one point took the phrase with a grain of salt but also used it. So I'm left thinking that Harnecker is really trying to liquidate much of the experience of 20th century socialism. In fact, she uses "Stalinist" as a short-handed criticism in passing and also makes mention of "21st socialism" in passing. This seems to seal the point or concern that she is listing to the right, in an opportunist direction, by searching for a definition of socialism that is at odds with what we know real and existing socialism to be.

Harnecker is largely right, I think, in her use of military/political analogies. There is indeed a class and political war on internationally and the struggle has many components which can best be understood as aspects of either guerrilla or positional warfare. With all of this in mind, then, I tried to make two points at our Willamette Reds meeting. First, that organizing should be, at its base, for us a matter of knowing our Marxism and taking this in to the movements we are naturally parts of. Second, it may well be that a global strategy of encirclement is needed in order for the left to move forward dramatically in the US. That is to say that white skin privilege, the consolidation of an aristocracy of labor here and the consolidation of imperialism and imperialistic relations may have reached points where social change in the US will be as much a product of internal struggles as it will through the the isolation of the US internationally and the defeat of its allied and puppet regimes by popular forces and united fronts elsewhere. And if this is the case, then our anti-imperialist and global solidarity work needs to pick up.

I'll also make one passing note here. Opposition to the union bureaucracy by itself----in fact, the attitude that places one in opposition to nearly everything----is not a mass line and cannot become the touchstone of mass work without disastrous results. Bakunin's line that "I shall be an impossible person so long as those who are possible remain possible" has been transformed via Rosa Luxemburg's saying that "Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently" to the point that Trotskyites often misquote Lenin to the point or effect that ultra-leftism is the price to be paid for reformism or opportunism---and they do so with a particular smirk or snideness that justifies nihilism. We have almost 90 years of the Trotskyites railing against union bureaucrats as the centerpiece of their "mass line" or "mass work" in the trade unions, but where in the trade union movement have the Trotskyites assumed power or control for all of their ranting, done the necessary work that comes with taking power and hung in for the long haul? Where they have hung on the effect has been something terrible: Max Shactman, Martin Abern, Hal Draper, Jay Lovestone and James Burnham all did more than their share of damage to the working class movement.

Softball, Drinking Beer, The Democrats, Kshama Sawant, The Youth And The Machinists Union 

It seems to me that the answer to talk of mass line, mass work, organizing and so-called "hard Marxism" or "Stalinism" in our local socialist groups is to fall back on a number of "unsolvable" problems or frustrations that we probably all feel but experience in different ways.

There is much concern that the local left is rapidly graying and that we represent particular sets of concerns and particular methods of work which began to take shape perhaps 50 or 60 years ago and which were irrelevant by the 1990s. With this comes much conjecturing about where the young people are, what their concerns are and why they're not joining us.

There is a worry that is alternately expressed to the effect that we either do not have enough fun and do not socialize enough or that we don't know how to talk to "average" people and meet people at the points which are most important to them.

There is the (seemingly unending) discussion of our relationship to the Democrats. In the hands of ultra-leftists this becomes something like a rant against the union bureaucracy, the implication being that it is only the alliance between the Democrats and the union bureaucracy which is holding back a revolutionary movement within the trade unions.

And there is, more recently, some discussion about what happened at Boeing in the Puget Sound and the positioning of the union leadership and rank-and-file there.

Perhaps alongside of this we must also mention the conversations taking place on climate change, the tar sands issue and military recruiting. I think of these conversations in a very different category as they arise because we can see some movement here, locally and nationally. Perhaps we can also say that a certain point has been reached in conversations about environmentalism. For some people the worst news that really does confront us is both a springboard for organizing and a recognition that we have been right all along. For others, the emphasis on the worst news before us, at least as how the leading environmentalist groups have presented up to now, has been disempowering and demobilizing.

In a much different category there is a fascination with Kshama Sawant as the "first socialist" elected in a long time, the Ty Moore campaign in Minneapolis and the chances of repeating the Sawant win in other places.

Absent are real discussions on race, sexual preference and identity and gender and on the intersectionality of race, gender and class. This marks a fatal weakness in how we see and approach the world.

If there is an answer to the question of why youth do not participate in our groups as we would like them to it may be found in our mass line and mass work. What concretely is being done to engage with young people and how are the results of this engagement being analyzed and used to improve our work? What is the line and what is the work that we start with and where do we end up?

The young people I engage with weekly range in age from 18 to 25. They have, more or less, the same concerns that I did when I was in that age group. What is different is that they don't have the optimism and experience that being on the left in those years gave me. But if we don't have optimism and experience, how can we transmit it to others and/or build a movement that has optimism and experience as two of its principles and attractions?

Those of us who come out of trade union backgrounds have more time and ability to interact with "average" people than others do, perhaps. I say this with four points in mind, however. First, the use of "average" to describe anyone is certainly "homogenizing"---and is certainly much more so than using "the masses." Second, the labor left locally does not engage people on our terms in a structured way. If there is an absence of engagement, this is our fault. Why have we not built at least a local Jobs with Justice that is viable and sustainable?  Third, the skills we learn in the unions having to do with outreach, conversations and organizing are easily taught and learned. Is there a desire and a mechanism to teach these skills or not? Fourth, why do we tie this to socializing and "having fun" and then tie these things to drinking and sports?

There are negative stereotypes at work here. First, there is the stereotype of the left as funless and overly serious. This just doesn't hold up to reality. Second, there is the stereotype of "average" people, and especially of "average" working class people. Again, the stereotype doesn't meet reality. Working class people do all kinds of things with our time. The left should attract the most thoughtful, the most engaged, the most serious and the most  militant workers. Some of those people may drink, and some may play softball, but you can also look for us in union meetings, at concerts, in libraries, in the forests, in social movements not clearly connected to class struggles and in places of worship.

As an organizing principle, I think, it is demobilizing to emphasize drinking and sports when you have concrete political tasks before you to accomplish. Leadership, which is all-important to movement-building, functions best through example and through hands-on work. In our circumstances, then, good left leadership has to inspire people to put behind them the things which tie them to the worst aspects of this society and challenge them to do more and better for themselves and others. That means getting people to read and discuss and debate. Maybe these are not "fun" activities, but if our people do not learn how to do this we will not advance.

Regarding the connections between the Democrats and the unions, there really isn't much to say at this point. I suspect that the people who bring this up most often and harp on it from an oppositional point of view are doing the work of the bourgeoisie, knowingly or unknowingly. It has become a divisive argument---not even a conversation---in which the oppositional side rejects all commonsense.

No one on my side of the debate is wed to the Democrats or to the union bureaucracy, whatever that is. Still and all, we make the following points:

*The most advanced political position is usually the one we can organize most people around
*A socialist can run as a socialist within most Democratic races
*At this stage practical united front activity against the right is most important
*The core groups which are most key to building a revolutionary movement are generally represented within the Democratic party
*A patient strategy is needed to advance real radical political work and move the center leftwards and the left towards communism

Before giving in to the oppositionalism of the Trotskyites or the defeatism of the social democrats---two sides of the same coin----we need to take up these points and determine if they are true or not. Certain questions go with this and some of those questions are:

*Was it better or worse for imperialism that Humphrey lost and Nixon won in 1968? What was the role of the left in that election?
*Was the main left support for Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 correct or incorrect? What opportunities did those campaigns present for the left and for labor and people of color?
*Is there an opportunity to build unity and consolidate a left movement based on the DeBlasio victory in New York, the national push by Bernie Sanders, the work done by Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond, Ca., Ras Baraka in Newark and Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Miss. or not? What might make this building work possible and what might make it difficult?
*Have Americans ever opted for labor, progressive or radical movements when other forms of addressing problems were available to them?

The situation at Boeing and with the main union there, the IAM, has been tragic. The labor movement is reeling as the truth of how this settlement may impact collective bargaining nationally for many years to come hits home. It is not just that the IAM's top leadership tended to sound much like the company in forcing the settlement, or that workers were effectively whipsawed and played off against one another or that workers were forced into a pragmatic choice between giving concessions or perhaps striking without the support of top union leadership, but that the IAM leadership wasn't thinking in either a traditional trade union way or along the lines of broader working class interests when they intervened and got the company's offer passed with a razor-thin majority. A signal was sent to corporate America that contracts can be reopened and renegotiated, workers can be easily divided, guaranteed wages and pensions are not key fighting issues and even narrow craft interests won't be aggressively contested by union leadership.

The Trotskyites have been among the first to take the most oppositional tone in their analysis of the settlement. Calls for the use of eminent domain during the early days of the fightback at Boeing from that part of the left were badly misplaced and are examples of misleadership. The Trotskyite analysis since then has been only oppositional in character, not giving much or any historical background and not taking up the questions of craft unionism, struggles for workers' control among skilled workers, how communities form at work and how these communities can be alternately inclusive and exclusive and how this influences a union's bargaining and political options. Instead, a "one size fits all" analysis has been offered.

This happens as people---as workers---look at the Boeing settlement with much dismay and many questions about the way forward under new and unfavorable conditions. Even the AFL-CIO leadership shows signs of being willing to through the IAM national leaders under the bus. And some labor leaders are talking about trying to regain political momentum and win politically what has been lost with the disappearance of industrial and pattern bargaining. Under these conditions is it correct to call for a total break with all union leaders and the labor-Democratic alliance? Or is it more correct to use this opportunity to talk affirmatively about the need for classwide unionism and lead the charge politically and in bargaining other contracts and patiently work through the options immediately available to us? Which approach will have the most success among the most progressive trade unionists?

I have questioned elsewhere on this blog some of the key points surrounding the Sawant victory in Seattle. I have not meant to take away anything from the win there, but the points which I have repeated without answer are these: was this not a victory due in large part to Occupy and labor organizing? was this victory not made possible in part by Sawant adopting reformist slogans and issues? is this the content of "revolutionary socialism" now? what will Sawant's relationship now be to the Democrats?

More serious questions have arisen as we have looked at the Ty Moore campaign in Minneapolis. Is it really okay for a white leftist to run against a liberal person of color in a race where there has previously been a color bar established? Is there or is there not a possibility of using Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for progressive ends at this point? Is there a possibility or not of forming a united front for social change and against the right in the wake of the election? Why or why isn't the will there to do this?


The discussion at our last Willamette Reds meeting turned from Harnecker's writing to discussing our values and the place of values in our work. This is a good conversation to have. It's unfortunate that Harnecker did not do some work in this area.

Many years ago I did values clarification work in an industrial city and among industrial workers just as industry was collapsing around us. The unions were disarmed and helpless, there was no existing political alternative to the entrenched political machine and all of the forms of community stability and survival were quickly weakened. This seemed most apparent to me in the unions and in the churches. The suicide rate shot up.

The group I was a part of moved very quickly into organizing, but it was not the mass and regional organizing that was most needed then. We concentrated instead on putting together a relatively small group focused on taking militant actions which we hoped would force the political, church and labor establishments to act positively. This meant intensive work on clarifying our own values and building our capacity to take dramatic risks and survive the consequences. It also meant analyzing and exposing the weakest points of connection between the capitalists and church and labor leaders.

Many of us ended up going to jail as a result of taking part in on-going protests and disruptive activities. Several people lost their jobs for siding with us and have remained blacklisted since that time. One struggle led to another and so we were involved in efforts to democratize two leading unions. The power structure conceded very little in the face of our protests or in response to the more politicized left and labor groups working within the system.

The group I was with erred in not thinking regionally and politically and by being so dogmatic about the matter of values and the necessity to take symbolic and disruptive actions constantly. We took on a general anti-leftism and could be macho in our speech and actions. We tried to be rooted in both the churches and in the labor movement but found it difficult to root ourselves firmly anywhere.

Still and all, I learned a great deal about values, organizing, taking action and class in those days. Today I would frame the discussion around values, class and organizing in very different terms than I did 30 years ago. Today I say that the core values of commitment, courage, optimism, leadership and confidence come to us in their modern form directly from the Black Liberation Movement. I would also say that most good and lasting organizing is based in real human relationships and that such relationships always entail some vulnerability and risk. Some people never get past the phase of forming relationships and living with vulnerabilities while others get so involved in actions that the action become symbolic or are reduced to acts of witnessing and they lose sight of organizing. We need to distinguish phases or steps in the process and we need a collective to push us forward. This is where Marxism and criticism/self-criticism are invaluable.

It seems almost anachronistic to talk about values on the left and in radical ways---and to see leadership especially as a value---but it is necessary to do this, and especially so in the context of the Black Liberation Movement. It is a key area in which white people have to learn from Black people.

The "Marxism" of the ultra-left and the social democrats rejects all of this.

And the conversation does not end there. We certainly can test these values in our political struggles and in our mass work and mass line, but where else are they tested? Where is the real sincerity of our approach and the existential nature of what we try to be tested?

I still believe, as I believed 30 years ago, that we are tested most in the small and ordinary situations that we face daily and in the relationships which we have with others that we probably tend to take for granted. A person who cannot maintain sobriety is unlikely to be a reliable political comrade regardless of how much union or political work he does. A person who curses constantly and swaggers through life will not do good collective work. A person who cannot find balance in her personal life needs to find the right level of order before taking on political or movement tasks. A person who cannot work out a balanced commitment to another person or a family or a community probably can't work out a healthy relationship to an idea or to a party or movement. People whose first instinct is to walk out when they experience difficulties in their personal relationships will not stick around to see a revolution through. The capitalist logic we have been inculcated with works very much against healthy personal relationships and also against social relationships and political organizing. Trotskyism and ultra-leftism reflect capitalist morality to the extent that they pull people away from cooperation with a "my-way-or-the-highway" approach. Read Zhou Enlai's essay "Guidelines for Myself" to better understand these points.If this seems too esoteric or foreign then reflect on what so many of us have learned in the recovery movements and/or in the civil rights movement: maintaining balance, commitment and humility are key.

Something else that is crucial is at stake here. There is a tendency among some of us to go chasing off after our myths of "the workers" or "the people" or "the masses" and taking Mao (and maybe Harnecker) too literally and without some critical thinking. I did this 30 years ago and shared that path with many others. Politics devolves or dissolves into "values" and needed balance is lost. A correct approach is to hold that values and politics push each other forward in the context of social struggles just as social struggles and individual challenges can move one another forward. The near-guarantee of this working harmoniously is the existence of a revolutionary party which turns workers into worker-intellectuals and intellectuals into a force capable of fully serving the people. When the social democrats and the ultra-left reject forming such a vanguard party they are really saying that they have no faith in the lived experiences of working class people, in our values and in the potential of our values to fundamentally change life. Anything and everything which liquidates political organization and building working class leadership needs to be rejected. That said, we need to remember that organization and leadership must be drawn from many quarters.

The conversation about values has been appropriated by the middle-class. It needs to be taken back by the working class and the conversation needs to be led by Black workers.

People of my generation got some of these lessons from the places of worship that we attended as kids or from the military or from working in fully socialized production. Youth today do not have these opportunities in the main. I am less concerned about where someone learned organizing and relationship building and more concerned about how they take those lessons into the left. This gives the left a challenge and a role which rests fully in our political DNA: we can be the school that teaches healthy relationship building and organizing in a heartless and atomizing world. Surely the best young people will be attracted to that.

Tying It Together

What if Willamette Reds and Corvallis CCDS took on just a couple of regional projects and focused entirely on them? What if this meant specializing in a certain area of work, developing expertise, dividing the work so that all tasks were shared and everyone had the opportunity to grow and shine a bit? What if it came to require monthly analysis of the work and changes of course as were needed? What if it meant everyone taking on a teaching role at some level and if everyone were learning together as well? What if we took on these projects as Marxists and talked affirmatively about shared working values? What if we worked towards building a united front with those we disagreed with and formally commited, again on the basis of shared values and a Marxist approach, to seeing our allies through every step of the struggle without abandoning them? What if it meant taking dramatic actions and risks and if we had to do gut checks and support one another in the face of repression? What if we approached this with the mass line now taken by CCDS nationally at first and then built on this line locally and nationally?

What if all of this work and thinking shook us to the core of our white identities and caused us to question white skin privilege? Could we survive that?

I think that this would be a sure path to victories and growth, especially among young people. I think that the first people to criticize and react against it would be others on the left who seem vested in the left not organizing outwards. I'm not sure that most of us are fully capable of making this transition, but I think that we need to try.

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1 comment:

strannik said...

I agree that negative stereotypes are a serious problem on the left- witness the CPUSA's cringeworthy efforts to ingratiate itself with 'average' working people by running z-list sports and entertainment pieces. The other side of that particular coin is left/progressive class prejudice. How often have we seen self-described leftists and progressives perpetuating the caricature of the fat, lazy, gluttonous, dimwitted working class American?
I will be addressing the climate issue in a separate, and very long-winded post.