Mass Groups Vs. Front Groups
A lot of the left in the US talks about building mass groups. A lot of them really are just building front groups, though. It's a really important distinction.
Mass Groups are Broad
Mass organizations are a key concept in Leninist organizing. Lenin lays out the basic ideas in What Is To Be Done, particularly in the section talking he calls Organization of Workers and Organization of Revolutionaries.
His basic idea of how broad a mass organization should be is this: “Let every worker who understands the need to unite for the struggle against the employers and the government join the trade unions. The very aim of the trade unions would be impossible of achievement, if they did not unite all who have attained at least this elementary degree of understanding, if they were not very broad organizations. The broader these organizations, the broader will be our influence over them — an influence due, not only to the 'spontaneous' development of the economic struggle, but to the direct and conscious effort of the socialist trade union members to influence their comrades.”
Lenin talks explicitly about trade unions here. In reality, the Bolsheviks did use some other types of mass organization as well, but the trade unions were the main thing. In revolutionary China, where much of the organizing was done in the countryside, unions played a less dominant role. In the Philippines today, there are numerous types of mass organizations, including for example the public pantries.
What they have in common, what makes the mass organizations, is that the people involved in them are not all communists and certainly not all party members. They are broad and they can't function if they aren't.
Mass Groups Have Contradictions Because They Are Broad
Mao, in his writings on mass line, talked about the need to work with the advanced, the intermediate, and the backwards. Looked at in these terms, a mass organization, if it's going to have a mass character, has to at least have intermediate people in it. And in reality, if it succeeds in doing that, it's going to attract backwards people to it as well. Once it attracts a significant number of intermediate people, backwards people will attach themselves to it, including for opportunistic reasons.
A consequence of this is that a mass group has political contradictions in it. If it has no political contradictions distinct from the political contradictions of the party, it isn't a mass group. It's a front group.
Front Groups Are Way Easier
And much of the left in the US, for a really long time, has operated front groups and called them mass groups. A Red Guards group for example started a purported mass group called Serve The People. Serve The People, in its literature, talked about the need for protracted people's war. That obviously isn't something that intermediate and backwards people are going to sign up to.
Front groups are a lot easier to work in. In a front group, if the party makes a decision, the front automatically follows it, because everyone or practically everyone in the front group is in the party anyway. This is really great if you get directives from the center telling you to do a certain thing or to do it a certain way. The front group automatically follows along.
Mass Groups Can Only Be Led By Persuasion
With a genuine mass group, obviously it's not that simple. In leading a mass group, the only real tool you have open to you is persuasion. No one in the mass group is drawing a wage from you; you can't threaten to fire them if they don't go along. And obviously any kind of intimidation or threats is only going to drive them away.
That means if the party takes a decision, either locally or nationally, and you need to apply it in the mass group, then you need to work on the people in the mass group and organize them into doing it, by explaining what you are trying to do and why. You need to persuade them that it is the right course.
The fact the decision is the party's decision doesn't automatically make it the mass group's decision. Mass groups have to be run democratically, because if they aren't, people won't stay. That means that to make that party decision a mass group decision you have to follow the decision-making process for your mass group.
All of this also means that any decisions have to take careful account of local conditions. If you get a directive from the center which makes no sense in local conditions, you're going to have a hard time convincing a mass group to go along with it. If you try too hard, you may very well damage your standing in the mass group. You could even destroy the mass group.
Mass Groups Are Difficult But Indispensable
Working in an actual mass group is a pain in the ass. It involves real struggles with people you are supposedly organizing with. It does involve dealing with backwards people. Very often it means working with people who make your skin crawl.
So, if it's such a pain in the ass, why bother with it?
The answer is rooted right in the heart of Bolshevism: In the conception of a narrow party. A lot of people don't seem to realize this, but the first point of practical disagreement between the Bolsheviks and the Leninists was over the narrowness of the party. At the second congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party, in 1903, Lenin insisted on a narrow party made up of professional revolutionaries. The Mensheviks wanted a looser party.
The value of the tight party has proven itself. Only tight revolutionary organizations have ever succeeded in leading revolutions, and they have been consistently necessary in maintaining the dictatorship of the proletariat afterwards as well.
But it's obvious that even if the party leads the revolution, it can't carry out the revolution by itself. It needs the working class, at least the great bulk of the working class. And that has to be organized as well.
Even at a smaller scale and on a local level, the numbers of committed revolutionaries are tiny compared to the number of people who become involved in popular struggles.
Mass organizations are the vehicle through which the party gives leadership to the masses. And by leadership, what I mean is that the party helps the masses to follow correct and useful practical and political lines... To make sure the march route is a good route, the slogans are good slogans, and so on. And as I've said, that itself is a matter of persuasion. It can't be done by barking orders, and it can't be done by just putting a banner at the head of the march and tricking people into marching behind it either.
Trotskyists Usually Lack a Concept of Mass Groups
In the dispute between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks over how broad the party should be, Trotsky sided with the Mensheviks. In reality, he was only a Bolshevik for a few months in the pre-revolutionary days, and he never fully absorbed Leninist ideas.
One of his differences with Lenin was over how to analyze broad socialist groups — what today we call social democrats. Even in the 1930s, he called the German Social Democratic Party a working class organization, because its members were mostly working people. Lenin, however, considered groups like the SDP to be “the labor lieutenants of capital”. He analyzed them as bourgeois, in spite of their working class membership.
A consequence of this is that Trotskyists don't consistently see the need for a really narrow party. And if your party really could be that broad, there wouldn't be a need for a mass group.
As a result, Trotskyist groups and groups with Trotskyist histories often fail to understand the real nature of a mass group.
Build Mass Groups, Not Front Groups
Mass groups are an indispensable part of our work. Their indispensable now, as we are barely rebuilding a people's movement. And they will continue to be indispensable as long as class struggle continues.
Mass groups have to bring in as many people as possible. The limit on that is that you can't compromise the political integrity of the mass group. You can't forever follow along in a mass group that is taking a hopelessly opportunist stance, and you can't do much with a mass group where there isn't any practical democracy.
But within those limits, you've got to unite all who can be united.