Deng Xiaoping on Mass Movements

An abiding question for Communist Parties is the relationship with mass movements. While Communist Parties need to be involved with mass movements, seeking to guide them as a vanguard Party, we also need to be discerning. Not all mass movements advance the cause of workers, and some actively undermine the conditions of workers.

Historical lessons are useful, especially since Communist Parties have more than a century of experience of involvement with mass movements. Each situation differs, in light of specific economic and social conditions, historical events, and political structures. A good example comes from the Communist Party of China during the Anti-Japanese War (1931-1945), which drew most of Japan’s forces and was the major factor – through massive losses – in Japan’s defeat in 1945.

In 1943, Deng Xiaoping penned an article called ‘The Establishment of Base Areas and the Mass Movement’. The second part (the longest) concerns mass movements and is well worth careful study. The article may be found in the first volume of Deng Xiaoping’s Selected Works. In the quotations that follow, we need to keep in mind that the context of the Anti-Japanese War is quite different. But there are also some deeper lessons that can learned. These concern the underlying principles of Communist Party involvement with mass movements.

The relevant material includes the following, with an emphasis on the vanguard role of the Party and the core role of education and consciousness raising:

What laws should we keep in mind in guiding mass movements in the base areas? First, organise … the masses while arousing them. Second, as soon as they have been aroused, make plans for and regularise the activities of mass organisations. Third, in arousing and organising the masses, pay attention to their political education. When the masses have been sufficiently incited and organised, we should shift the focus of our work to educating them in order to promote their activities in the struggle for democracy …, so that they will become a class for themselves, join the united front, take part in mass guerilla warfare, and consolidate the political and economic rights they have won. Fourth, keep the economic and political struggle of the masses within the scope of the united front. Without a proper understanding of the foregoing laws regarding mass movements and the need to guide the movements gradually from a lower to a higher level, the movements will fall apart and the masses will not become a class for themselves or safeguarding the benefits they have gained.

To summarise the principles espoused here: 1) organise; 2) regularise; 3) educate politically, so that they can become class conscious; 4) ensure that the united front is the horizon for economic and political struggle.

A little later, Deng outlines in more detail the relationship between the Communist Party and mass organisations. The key here is that the Communist Party maintains a vanguard role, especially in political leadership and guidance, but that the mass organisations should have their own organisational structure, leadership, and be financially self-supporting. It should be an independent movement that complements the work of the Communist Party.

We may put these points as follows:

1. Organisational independence of the mass organisation; political leadership by the Communist Party.

Deng writes:

Organisationally a mass organisation is independent; politically it must place itself under Party leadership. The Party, on its part, should strengthen political leadership over the mass organisation, but not act in its place. The work of a mass organisation should be discussed and performed by the organisation itself. The Party exercises political leadership over mass organisations through leading Party members’ groups, not by issuing orders directly to them … While affirming the organisational independence of mass organisations, we should guard against any tendency on the part of a mass organisation to break away from the Party’s political leadership or of a leading Party members’ group to assert its independence.

2. Direct leadership of mass organisations by the organisations themselves.

To quote:

In future we should see to it that mass movements are directly led by mass organisations, especially peasant associations. Party and military cadres sent to engage in mass movements should carry out activities as members of mass organisations or recommended by them. Only in this way can we help foster the masses’ sense of organisation, enhance the prestige of mass organisations and train more leaders from among the masses.

3. Vanguard role of the Communist Party.

To quote again:

At the same time, the Party should provide more effective guidance to mass movements by sending good cadres, who maintain close ties with the masses, to lead mass organisations, paying special attention to raising the competence of mass organisations at the grass-roots level. Since it is impossible to give equal attention to all mass organisations, for the present, the Party should particularly strengthen its leadership over the work of peasant associations, first of all improving their organisation and activities.

4. Financial independence.

Mass organisations should gradually become financially self-supporting, but the government will provide them with adequate subsidies. From now on, the mass organisations should be responsible for their own budget expenditures.

5. Complementary role of mass organisations.

A final quotation from Deng Xiaoping:

The Party should do its utmost to train junior and senior leaders of the masses. We should be aware that the leaders of the masses are our most valuable assets, without whom we cannot sustain the arduous struggles.

To sum up, mass organisations are not simply Communist Party organisations. While under the guidance and political leadership of the Communist Party as vanguard, and even with members of the mass organisations drawn from the Communist Party, mass organisations are independent organisations that assist with the struggle and enable consciousness-raising among the masses of workers.