Expertise and the Mass Line

     [For a while I subscribed to the "Progressive Economists News List (PEN-L) on the Internet, and occasionally posted a thing or two myself there. One discussion centered on the issue of "experts", and on July 29, 2002, I posted the letter below which connects up that issue with the mass line. Later, another participant in the discussion, Justin Schwartz—who described himself as a "bourgeois liberal"—, criticized my comments and attacked the idea of "vanguard parties". My reply to those criticisms is also posted on this site. —Scott H.]

In a message dated 7/29/02 Jim Devine writes:

> We should never forget that just because "we experts"
> "know more than they do," their insights can be extremely
> useful and even superior.

Experts and authorities are needed everywhere, but as Jim Devine, Michael Perelman, and others have been arguing, there are many potential problems with such people. Among the problems are these two very important ones:

1) Narrowness. Experts often know a lot about very restricted spheres, but are grossly ignorant of other relevant things.

If you have a hard-to-diagnose disease, and go to a variety of medical specialists, each expert will see only what their specialty trains them to look for and see. The cardiologist will focus on the rhythms in your EKG; the rheumatologist on your aching joints; the neurologist on your Bell's Palsy; the ophthalmologist on your double-vision; the dermatologist on your funny rash. I've been through this personally; in my case the cause of it all turned out to be Lyme Disease. My own research suggested this diagnosis to me before any of my doctors came up with the notion. None of the many specialists I saw was willing to take the idea seriously (until I got to a Lyme Disease specialist—whose lab tests finally verified that it was true).

Expertise helps you see things; but it can also prevent you from seeing things. A person's theories guide what they look for, and often even what they are able to see. Narrow theories, as well as false theories of course, are therefore dangerous.

2) Conflicts of interest. "You don't ever ask a barber whether you need a haircut." —"Greenberg's First Law of Experts". And as Judge John Zebrowski of the Los Angeles Superior Court once wrote in a letter to Science News: "Experts seem to be available to swear to almost anything for a fee."

This second problem is the more dangerous of the two, but also in some ways the easier to deal with. Basically, you need to find experts who do not have interests opposed to yours. Of course, this is not always obvious, however. And diverging interests which do not exist at first may develop later. (Dialectical rule: One divides into two.)

For my part, I am deeply suspicious of all bourgeois economists, for example, regardless of their expertise—because I know that their interests are opposed to that of the working class and the masses. (That goes for Keynes too!)

Despite such serious problems as these, however, we do need experts and authorities in all fields of human activity, including not only medicine and economics, but also politics itself. So the question, then, is how do we combine democracy with the need for experts and authorities? Most people of a bourgeois persuasion view this as impossible, but it is not. To begin with we need a special kind of expert—those who are both "red and expert". In other words, we need to eliminate the "conflicts of interest" problem to the maximum degree possible, by employing experts who are determined to work for the interests of the masses. (Of course this can also be done too crudely, which amounts to using those who are red but not very expert. And, under sycophantic regimes even the "redness" can become nominal. This is not what I am defending.)

The broader solution to the problem, including in politics itself, comes from using the mass line, the method of "from the masses, to the masses". This is why Michael's reference to Joshua Horn's book is so very appropriate.

When the mass line method of leadership is used, the ideas about what to do come primarily from the masses initially, but are selected and summed up by the "experts". Then the experts take the best of the ideas and try to get the masses to employ them. It is up to the masses (the people involved in the activity) whether or not to actually implement these refined ideas. The democratic component to the process comes from the fact that the initial ideas come from the masses, and from the fact that it is the masses themselves who must decide whether or not to actually implement the ideas. But the experts play a role too—in selecting from among the ideas of the masses in light of what scientific knowledge they possess, in light of their greater experience and investigations into the objective situation, and (hopefully) in light of their deeper appreciation for the long-term interests of the masses themselves. Of course, in politics, the main body of "experts" is the revolutionary party guiding society.

For much more on Mao's theory of the mass line see my Mass Line homepage [which is now] at:

—Scott H.

— End —

Politics Page on MASSLINE.ORG
Scott H.'s Home Page on MASSLINE.ORG