"Knowing what to do next"

ScottH9999 at SPAMaol.com ScottH9999 at SPAMaol.com
Sat Apr 14 13:23:58 MDT 2001

About a week ago  Louis Proyect responded to Brian James in a posting which I
append in full at the bottom. This led to a flurry of discussion about Ralph
Nader, which--frankly--bored me. But what I was hoping for, and didn't see
from anyone, was some commentary on the following key lines:

>  Marxist sectarian politics
>  is a breeding ground for fantasy. It lacks the fundamental necessity of
>  what James P. Cannon called knowing "what to do next." That was Lenin's key
>  contribution as well, knowing what to do next.

Some of the important questions that are suggested by this are:

1) First, do people agree or disagree with what Louis wrote? (I agree with

2) Second, how do you suppose Lenin was successfully able to "know what to do
next"? Was it just a matter of his genius? Is it something that the rest of
us mere mortals cannot hope to fathom?

3) Third, in general, HOW do you go about determining "what to do next"? Is
there, perhaps, a METHOD for doing this?

4) I would also like to know if James P. Cannon had anything further to say
about this. (I'd be surprised if he did, but I am willing to be surprised.)

I come from a different Marxist tradition than most of the folks who post to
this list. (I'm a Maoist; the dominant view on this list is obviously
Trotskyite/Trotskyist.) For the most part I don't bother posting to the list
because, well, life is too short to spend it all in fruitless arguments with
Trotskyites (or any other dogmatists). But I stay a member of the list not
only for the frequent news items of interest that get posted, but also
because occasionally there are also comments--like Louis's above--that are
really worth thinking about. That is why I am disappointed when no one seizes
the opportunity to do some public thinking on such important issues.

I can't go into this at any great length here, but with regard to question 3)
above, it is my view that there is indeed a method of determining "what to do
next". It is called "the mass line", or as Mao put it, "the method of from
the masses, to the masses". Although this method was only raised to the level
of conscious theory by Mao, it actually existed implicitly within Marxism
from the beginning--though its use has always been limited--even by Maoists
other than Mao. (The disregard of the mass line by American Maoists has
always puzzled and dismayed me.)

Just briefly, for those who may not be familiar with the term (at least in
the Maoist sense), the mass line means A) gathering the ideas of the masses
themselves about how to promote and advance the mass struggle; B) processing
these ideas (i.e. selecting from among them) by determining, with the aid of
existing Marxist theory, a comparison with similar situations in the past,
and a careful analysis of the actual objective situation, which of these
ideas of the masses are actually most likely to advance the current mass
movement toward revolution; and C) returning these ideas to the masses and
leading the mass struggle on this basis. If mistakes are made, if the mass
struggle does not for some reason advance toward revolution, the method is
used again.

The mass line is a reiterative method, to be used over and over again, to
step-by-step advance the mass struggle toward revolution and through the
entire revolutionary process. It is based on the fundamental points of having
a mass perspective, namely, a) that the masses are the makers of history and
that the revolution can only be made by the masses themselves; b) that the
masses must come to see through their own experience and struggle that
revolution is necessary; and c) that Marxist revolutionaries must join up
with the masses in their existing struggles, bring revolutionary
consciousness into these struggles, and lead them in a way which brings the
masses ever closer to revolution. A mass perspective is based on the
fundamental Marxist notion that a revolution must be made by a revolutionary
people, that a revolutionary people must develop from a non-revolutionary
people, and that the people change from the one to the other through their
own revolutionizing practice. (This is practically straight out of Marx's
"Theses on Feuerbach", written way back in the 1840s.)

This posting is a bit of an experiment. The mass line is something of an
obsession for me. I have about two-thirds of a long manuscript on the topic
posted at:
I would be happy if anyone, ANYONE, would be willing to read and criticize
any part of it--even Trotskyites. (Excuse me, I'll try to be polite: "even

I have tried to discuss the concepts of the mass line with Trotskyists
before, though it's always been a total wash out. It seems to be totally
alien to their thinking. Back in 1994, for example, I dropped into the
"Socialist Action" bookstore in San Francisco for a book sale, and had a
fairly extensive discussion with Jeff Mackler, who is (or was) their
"National Secretary". Of course he started by claiming that he and his SA
comrades were "the only true Bolsheviks in the U.S. today", and then launched
into the usual diatribe about Trotsky vs. Stalin. I tried, though it was VERY
difficult, to get him to talk about issues related to the mass line and
having a mass perspective.

The term 'mass line' itself was familiar to Mackler, but his idea about what
it meant was bizarre in the extreme. I couldn't really get a coherent
statement out of him about it. Instead he kept using it as a spring-board to
launch into attacks on Maoism, Maoist bureaucracy, etc. Trotskyites never
seem to understand that they might actually have some important things to
learn from a great revolution like that in China. As near as I could gather,
Mackler thinks the mass line is a phony bureaucratic trick of some kind. I
then tried to get him to explain how he and his group viewed the relationship
between the day-to-day struggles of the masses and the revolutionary goal.
Again, no clear statement.

I also tried several times to get him to discuss the "transition program" in
light of the above question. He apparently could not see much of a
connection. He did say that Trotsky's transition program is "the central
program of our party", but I got the feeling that I was more familiar with
the document than he was. In my notes I wrote up later, I summarized the
discussion this way:

"Nothing really useful in this conversation (as always with Trots).
Apparently they can't listen, can't consider a problem, can't think. All they
can do is go on forever about Trotsky & Stalin and repeat the portions of the
party line that they have had indelibly impressed on their brains. The only
relevant point is that this group, at least, seems to have nothing of value
to say about the mass line or the mass perspective. They haven't even thought
about these questions enough to see that they could TRY to argue that their
own 'transition program' includes the implicit theory of the mass line. (I
don't say that it really does; only that an intelligent Trotskyite--if one
could be found--might argue this way.)"

The reason I mention all this (including the gratuitous insults) is that this
"Marxism List" does seem to have a number of intelligent Trotskyists (or
ex-Trotskyists, or semi-Trotskyists...), and I am really curious what you
folks might think about the mass line and issues related to it.

And by the way, I explicitly discuss the issue of "knowing what to do next"
in terms of the mass line in chapter 16 of my manuscript, in the section "The
Ideas of the Masses Develop Apace With the Situation". Among my comments

"...the ideas of the masses--which serve as our raw material for the mass
line--tend to develop APPROPRIATELY as the revolutionary situation develops.
Or, as the Germans say, 'kommt Zeit, kommt Rat' (at the right time the right
ideas will arise). This is a very important observation, with important

"1) First, it is one of the reasons why we must not despair if the masses do
not seem to be as revolutionary as we would wish during the early stages of
the revolutionary process. We must really understand that the ideas and mood
of the masses can and will change in a revolutionary direction as the
development of the situation warrants. (Of course this assumes that the
proletarian party is engaging in the necessary revolutionary agitation and
mass line leadership.)

"2) Second, it helps to explain WHY we will be able to learn how to make
revolution from the masses who at first do not seem all that concerned to
make revolution.

"It is this second point I wish to focus on here for a moment. The mass line
is a tool which is primarily of importance in advancing the current
situation. We know at some point a revolutionary insurrection will be
necessary, for example, but it is ridiculous to use the mass line in the
early stages of the development of the mass struggle (i.e., in a
non-revolutionary situation) to try to learn much from the masses about how
to organize the insurrection. That will be possible, and necessary, at some
point, but only in the appropriate situation.

"In processing the ideas of the masses we must not forget that it is the
ideas of the masses with respect to advancing the current situation, WHATEVER
it is, that primarily concerns us. (And, in order to explictly rule out any
revisionist interpretation here we must of necessity repeat that, by
'advancing the current situation' we are always talking about advancing it in
the direction of revolution.)

"Marx said that humanity only seriously tackles the questions it is capable
of resolving, and only WHEN it is capable of resolving them. The proletariat,
specifically, must resolve the difficulties facing it step by step. The
revolutionary process must develop in a step-by-step manner. One of the worst
failings of 'left' adventurists is that they cannot get this fact through
their heads.

"Consider for example an extreme case, the anarchists. They know the state
must be abolished, but they just cannot accept that it can only be abolished
at the appropriate time, when the conditions for its abolition are satisfied.
Because of this, they actually oppose the very measures that in the long run
will lead to the abolition of the state. In their simple-mindedness, they
actually stand in the way of the very thing they most desire.

"The truly revolutionary tasks of the day always correspond to the current
situation, to the actual development of society. Those who can only think
about what we must do on the eve of the insurrection are of no help in
getting us to that wonderful eve. I am not denying in any way that communists
must have a long-term perspective, and must have--at least in general
outline--a basic, overall plan for revolution. Indeed, long-term planning is
as essential in making revolution as it is anywhere, probably more so. But
the plain fact is we can't get anywhere unless we can determine how to take
the very next step. 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single
step.' Naturally that step must be in the right direction, but of all the
steps in the entire journey, it is the one you had best know how to
accomplish right now.

"The mass line is primarily a tool for helping the party leadership determine
the NEXT step in the overall revolutionary process, and how exactly this next
step can best be accomplished. Lao Zi [Lao Tse] is said to have remarked:
'When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.' With the mass line, the
teacher (the appropriate line from the party) can ONLY appear when the
student is ready, because the teacher must first learn from the student (the
masses) what that line should be. I hope the reader reads the deep dialectics
of the mass line into Lao Zi's remark.

"Suppose then, that in our processing of the ideas of the masses we are
unable to find any good ideas for advancing the struggle. What would such a
circumstance mean? It would mean one of two things: 1) either we have not
investigated the ideas of the masses sufficiently, or 2) we are looking for
ideas among the masses which are not really appropriate for advancing the
CURRENT situation.

"'Left'-sectarians do not see much use for the mass line in non-revolutionary
times because they are only looking for overtly revolutionary ideas among the
masses, and can't find many. They are not even looking for the ideas which
can in fact advance the current situation toward revolution, and--since they
are not looking--they never find such ideas. If they try to keep to such a
stance they will end up despising the masses, and forsaking revolution

--Scott Harrison

In a message dated 4/6/01 5:53:49 PM Pacific Daylight Time, lnp3 at panix.com

> >Is it the policy of the Marxmail list to go along with the "national
>  >reconciliation" process?
>  >
>  >Brian James
>  It would really help if you knew something about USA politics. Right now a
>  very bitter fight over the future of the number one Marxist forum in the
>  USA is taking place, namely Pacifica radio. By all accounts, the most
>  recent deepening of the fight stems from reporter Amy Goodman's decision to
>  allow Ralph Nader to use her press credentials to get on the floor of the
>  Democratic Party convention. The people on the Pacifica board are focusing
>  their attack on Amy Goodman because of her temerity in collaborating with
>  Nader, plus her blistering, go for the jugular interview with President
>  Clinton a week before the election. She made the scumbag squirm over
>  Leonard Peltier, Mumia and other questions that never get asked on
>  mainstream media. The Pacifica board is made up of black and Latino
>  corporate types appointed by Mary Frances Berry, a member of the Democratic
>  Leadership Council. Between this rightwing corporate board and the radical,
>  mostly Marxist producers at WBAI in NYC and KPFA in Berkeley, you have the
>  Los Angeles station which reflects Nation Magazine left-liberalism. The LA
>  station wants to destroy the Marxist voices as well, but with more finesse.
>  A Pacifica board member was picketed recently by members of the Green Party
>  in NYC. These folks are not only a base of support for the fight to keep
>  Pacifica radio radical, but local fights to stop spraying of toxic
>  chemicals to kill West Nile virus. A good friend of mine is active with the
>  Upper West Side Greens. He was a member of the Revolutionary Union in the
>  1960s and has a house filled with Marxist literature.
>  This is the real radical movement in the USA. It reaches tens of thousands
>  of people. Pacifica radio Marxists and radicals reach more people in a week
>  than the WSWS website does in a year. You have a very dim idea about how a
>  genuine revolutionary movement will be launched. In the history of the left
>  in the USA, you keep coming across important non-revolutionary figures who
>  were critical in advancing the movement at times of crisis. John L. Lewis
>  was instrumental to launching the CIO in the 1930s despite his outspoken
>  anti-Communism. Martin Luther King, despite his Ghandism and his
>  connections to the Democratic Party, unleashed powerful class forces that
>  threatened the stability of US capitalism. That is why they killed him. The
>  woman's liberation movement was largely the inspiration of Betty Friedan,
>  who was middle-class ideologically (despite an early involvement with the
>  CP and the United Electrical Workers Union.)
>  Against these imperfect realities, you have an ideal of militant workers in
>  coveralls denouncing traitors and occupying factories and waving red
>  banners with hammers-and-sickles. The character Morgan had such fantasies
>  as well, along with those of being a chimpanzee. Marxist sectarian politics
>  is a breeding ground for fantasy. It lacks the fundamental necessity of
>  what James P. Cannon called knowing "what to do next." That was Lenin's key
>  contribution as well, knowing what to do next.
>  Your socialism reminds me of what Bob DeVerney used to tell me about the
>  Spartacist League. They hated the peace movement with its "wimpy" slogans
>  like bring the troops home now. They struggled to find just the right
>  combination of jargon to put on both sides of a leaflet that they could
>  pass out at the demos we were organizing. One can imagine them making sure
>  to include something about the transition from feudalism to  capitalism.
>  Their best bet, Bob said, was to hand out copies of volume one of Capital.
>  Louis Proyect
>  Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/

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