Summary: Peter McLaren’s Pedagogy of Insurrection represents an effort to ground revolutionary approaches to education in a critique of the fundamental principles of global capitalism—such as wage labor, value production, racism and sexism. This review highlights the contributions as well as some of the contradictions found in this important work of revolutionary theory—Editors
Peter McLaren, Pedagogy of Insurrection (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 444 pp.
Peter McLaren has written an impressive work that encapsulates much of his work on critical pedagogy and revolutionary theory that he has been a leading figure in over the past several decades as well as taking them in new directions. His central aim is to rescue critical approaches to education that have been influenced by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire from the tendency to tame its radical implications for sake of academic acceptability. For McLaren, critical pedagogy is more than a mere teaching method; it is rather a process of directing the educator as well as the student to grasp their ability to challenge the overwhelming power of capital in our everyday lives.
As he forcefully argues, “Critical pedagogy seeks to challenge the core cultural foundations of capitalism that normalize the idea that there exists no alternative to capitalist social relations, no way of challenging the status quo, and no way of defeating inequality, injustice and suffering among human and non-human animals that populate this vast planet of ours. Revolutionary critical educators question capitalist concepts—such as wage labor and value production—alongside their students in order to consider alternative ways of subsisting and learning in the world so as to continually transform it along the arc of social and economic justice.” (p. 35).
The book consists of 12 chapters that bring together numerous aspects of McLaren’s work. They range from the opening chapter, “Comrade Jesus,” in which McLaren develops his affinity for liberation and theology, to “Seeds of Resistance: Towards a Revolutionary Critical Ecopedagogy,” in which he seeks to extend the insights of his Freirean approach to issues of ecology and climate change.
Perhaps the strongest—and most moving—part of the book is its concluding chapter, “Critical Rage Pedagogy: From Critical Catharsis to Self and Social Transformation.” McLaren here gives full expression to the need to challenge the power of capital in every aspect of our personal life, writing, “Capitalism has made us feel alone together and homesick at home and we won’t allow you into our community unless you can enrich the debate about the future of humanity! We want to engage in acts of self-creation, you have forced us to act in self-preservation because you compel us into acts of self-alienation for our survival. We want to be self-motivated; you want to coerce us! You want ownership in severalty, we want collective ownership! You want to create our needs, we want to create our future! You want to manufacture our consent when we are unable to consent to having a life! We will not be cast into your world; we will not let your despotic capitalist mind lead us to suffocate in the urban sprawl of an extractive economy.” (p. 395)
Other chapters of the book re-visit the contemporary significance of Freire’s work, the lessons of Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” the legacy of Che Guevara, and the role of musical education in fomenting social justice. It also discusses ways in which ongoing indigenous struggles in Latin America compel a rethinking of the concept of socialism and how critical race theorists such as Frantz Fanon speak to the present moment.
The great benefit of this book is its effort to promote the development of a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism, something that McLaren sees as integral to his advocacy of a humanist Marxism. He directly tackles the need to challenge value production; discusses Marx’s concept of a post-capitalist society as exhibited in such works as the Critique of the Gotha Program; and seeks to bring to the table such dialectical concepts as Hegel’s notion of “the negation of the negation” and “absolute negativity” in confronting the problems of revolutionary transformation.
He writes, “But it is not only a matter of participation by and of the people that is lacking in bringing about a communist alternative to capitalism, but the fostering of a vision of what a world absent of value production might and could look like. I believe that such a vision can initially be seeded within the discourse of socialist democracy as the first stage of harvesting a communist future.” (p. 27)
While McLaren’s discussion of the need for an alternative to capitalism is the most promising aspect of the book, it is also the dimension that is in many respects most in need of some rethinking and development.
He writes that “absolute negativity as a seedbed for new beginnings is the motor of a renewed critical/revolutionary pedagogy,” while adding, “Now to a certain extent this is happening in Venezuela, where I have been invited to develop radical pedagogical alternatives. It is not a socialist society but the Chávez government is trying to create the conditions of possibility for socialism to emerge. And great experiments are taking place in attempting to create spaces for human development.” (p. 252) Yet if Venezuela is not a socialist society, and if—which simply follows as a logical consequence—capitalist class and property relations have not yet been fundamentally transformed by the “Bolivarian Revolution,” how could it represent the instantiation of ”absolute negativity”?
Moreover, how does one square McLaren’s emphasis on targeting value production in the effort to develop a viable alternative to capitalism with his uncritical portrayal of Chavez and Maduro’s policies in Venezuela? This is not to deny that the “Bolivarian Revolution” has made important gains on numerous fronts, from healthcare and social welfare to the educational system—all of which McLaren discusses in detail. Yet is hard to see how one can make sense of his insistence that we not “suffocate in the urban sprawl of an extractive economy” when the Venezuelan regime that he supports so passionately has achieved what it has thanks to this very same extractivism (95% of its foreign exchange is obtained from oil exports, indicating its integral connection to the global system of value production).
At a number of points it appears that a more consistent embrace of absolute negativity in the form of a spirited critique is needed, given his theoretical allegiances. He writes, “Both Bolivia and Ecuador have utilized their constitutions to re-establish their states in a postcolonial context and are committed to the concept of plurinationalism and the preservation of nature. Here, the state promotes the ethical and moral principles of pluralistic society.” (p. 93). There is some truth in this, yet it is also true that indigenous activists in both countries are increasingly criticizing these leftwing governments for failing to live up to such principles enshrined in their constitutions. This, however, goes unmentioned in the book.
This is not to suggest that McLaren shies away from criticizing the shortcomings of much of what passes for “socialist” politics today. His book contains excellent discussion of the shortcomings of what he terms the “state-capitalist” regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe prior to 1989. He also takes sharp issue, in some very creative ways, with the way orthodox Marxists have fallen short of a humanist perspective: “While class retains a strategic priority, we need to understand that race cannot be reduced to class. But just as postmodern theory has ignored the strategic centrality of race in its discussions of racism, too often Marxists have ignored the intersection of race and class, relegating race as a minor trope within the larger framework of capitalist exploitation.” (p. 87).
It appears, however, that some ideas presented in the book are treated too quickly, without having been given the time to be properly digested and worked through. I will give three examples:
1) In discussing Marx’s conception of the first or initial phase of communism/socialism in his Critique of the Gotha Program, McLaren writes, “Even when we move from socially necessary labor time to actual labor time, we still are outside of the realm of freedom—entering the realm of freedom only occurs when actual labor time also ceases to serve as a standard measure, and labor serves as an end in itself, as part of an individual’s self-activity and self-development.” (p. 314) But how could the initial phase of communism, in which Marx suggests the producers would be remunerated on the basis of actual labor time instead of a social average that operates behind their backs, be “outside the realm of freedom”? After all, Marx is discussing a communist society that has abolished wage labor, value production, and classes. Doesn’t Marx view a communist society as a free one? At issue here is that even though the initial phase of communism is free, it is still defective insofar as it operates on the basis of an exchange of equivalents. Marx, like Hegel before him, understands that there are imperfections even in the realm of freedom—otherwise, there is no impulse for forward movement. This may not be consistent with a certain understanding of Christian eschatology, but Marx does not suggest that a society governed by natural necessity is necessarily an unfree one.
2) In discussing the work of José Porfirio Miranda, who did pioneering work in developing the liberation theology that McLaren embraces, McLaren defends the concept of original sin, writing: “Miranda does not believe that natural man is good. The moral imperative emerges from the infinite dignity of the neighbor, and this criterion evaluates whether or not an action treats the neighbor as a subject or as an object. You can’t found morality on nature, on natural tendencies towards irresponsibility, aggression, sloth, infidelity, etc.’ This is a surprisingly Kantian comment for someone espousing Hegelian dialectics, since Hegel (like Marx) does not embrace moral imperatives that are at odds with nature. On the contrary, Nature, for Hegel, is “unconscious Spirit”; its conscious incarnation is nothing less than ethical life. Marx, like Hegel, derives normative judgments from the content of the object of cognition; they do not presume a binary universe of discursive judgments that stand opposed to objectivity. This should not be taken as a criticism of McLaren’s embrace of liberation theology, which has many vital insights. However, he may wish to expand his appropriation of Christian theology to figures such as Pelagius, who of course opposed the doctrine of original sin.
3) In discussing my recent work on Frantz Fanon, McLaren writes (concerning Fanon’s reading of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic): “It is important to note, according to Hudis, that the Hegelian slave did not actually achieve an independent mind of his own since he becomes aware of the gap between his subjectivity and the objective world, and this mutual recognition requires, according to Hegel, reaching Absolute knowledge itself.” (pp. 89-90). This is actually not what I wrote. Hegel clearly says that the slave does obtain “a mind of its own” in the struggle against the master. Indeed, this is the central point of the master/slave dialectic. What Hegel says (and I underline in my book) is that “a mind of one’s own” is not sufficient insofar as it has not yet surmounted the contradictions of an alienated world. The question of mutual recognition is a somewhat different matter than should not be conflated with the above. Moreover, he reads me as suggesting that Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of race as a “mere” particular means that “Sartre here is closer to Hegel than to Fanon,” when my point is the opposite. Hegel, needless to say, ignored race altogether; but he does not view particularity as “minor term” in the dialectic. My argument is that Fanon is pitting his knowledge of Hegel against Sartre.
These defects should not be taken as undermining the importance of the central thrust of the book, which promotes a critical pedagogy that is thoroughly revolutionary, humanist, and infused with a passionate commitment for all reading it to stand a take in the struggle to create a viable alternative to capitalism. Peter McLaren has done an outstanding job in teaching us to be attentive to the revolutionary possibilities that lie before us and be committed to actualizing them. Beautifully provocative, poetic, and even prophetic expressions find their articulation in the book, especially in the energizing final chapter in which he writes, “Critical pedagogy teaches us that we have the collective power to over come the inimical forces of capital. The Promised Land can promise only to be a place of struggle, springing up where hope is conjugated with the movements of the people toward an anti-capitalist future. We are all merely seeds in the moist soil of the counter-world. It is up to us to decide what that world is to look like and how to get there.” (p. 430)
This is definitely a book that should be read by all those who care about human dignity and freedom.