Philosophy and revolution go hand in hand
Che Guevara, Paolo Freire and the pedagogy of revolution by Peter McLaren
Reviewed by Phil Walden
The author of this book, a Professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is deeply committed to the two humanist Marxists of the title, now both dead with Freire’s passing in 1997.
There is much one can agree with. On the question of the meaning of globalisation, McLaren comments: "Che recognised that globalisation – the global expansion of capitalism – was not an impersonal, natural phenomenon but is controlled by political power and imperialism." This answers those who insist that the world economic system is some sort of abstract juggernaut which cannot be halted or re-routed.
You can also agree with the author when he opines: "Capitalism in advanced Western countries must be dismantled if extra-economic inequalities – such as racism and sexism – are to be challenged successfully."
Again, one can only give assent to the insightful comment that recent decades have seen "the creation of new structures of consumer subjectivity and the demand for new meanings. The circulation of signs has become a strong factor in new modes of class domination, helping to replace older, more authoritarian measures of colonial rule."
When it comes to emphasising the positive contribution of his chosen subjects, McLaren can become powerfully lyrical: "Freire understood that while we often abandon hope, we are never abandoned by hope. This is because hope is forever engraved in the human heart and inspires us to reach beyond the carnal limits of our species being."
Whatever we may think of the spiritual, it is difficult to deny that as a passionate Marxist humanist McLaren has a keen sense of the necessity of basic human solidarity: "To celebrate life always demands sacrificing our ontological security because, as Che and Freire both knew, it is impossible to celebrate life under conditions that do not obtain for all, that did not allow all others to enjoy the fruits of their struggle and labour." In this view Marxist-inspired struggle, even if unsuccessful, cannot be viewed as a waste if only because of the exemplary effect of sacrifice on contemporaries and future generations.
The main criticism of the book concerns its minimalist conception of the role of philosophy in revolution. Though there are a few references to Marxist humanist philosophy, McLaren basically regards historical materialism as the sum total of Marxist philosophy. This narrow view cuts out philosophical reflection on both practice and received theory and serves efficiently to insulate leaderships against criticism. There is a glaring error in McLaren’s understanding of proletarian internationalism, which stems from an erroneous fidelity to the strategy for world revolution of Che Guevara. He tried to build world revolution the wrong way around, from the oppressed periphery outward rather than conceiving of the process needing to start from the major imperialist countries.
McLaren does not recognise this lop-sided view but at one point he cites someone who does Elvia Alvarado who proclaims in Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: "It’s hard to think of change taking place in Central America without there first being changes in the United States. As we say in Honduras, ‘Sin el perro, no hay rabia’ – without the dog, there wouldn’t be rabies."
Amidst his rose-tinted picture of his Argentine-born subject, the author claims: "Che’s Marxism was grounded in historical materialism, in the idea of a self-reflexive agent of struggle". The idea of self-reflexivity is seen by McLaren as inoculating Guevara against Stalinism. This is plausible, but, without philosophy, self-reflexivity remained insufficient to enable Guevara to set about positively undermining the authoritarian Stalinist rule of the Cuban Communist Party.
McLaren’s adaptation to philosophical and political pragmatism creeps in when he unselfconsciously writes that: "In the case of both Freire and Che, it could be said that their own subjectivities were fashioned – were dialectically constituted – out of the everyday theories that they employed to make sense out of their own experiences and those of others in a world of human suffering."
This accurate statement unwittingly highlights the main problem with the outlook of Freire and Guevara. They theorised directly from their experience, but their experience was an insufficient source of inspiration to provide the intellectual means to resolve world-historical problems. In contrast, Bolshevism and Trotskyism has at its best comprehended that the complexity of world capitalism require the use of theoretically sophisticated and intellectually hard-won theories to provide guidance in difficult and complicated class-struggle questions.
The author’s sometimes sentimental approach to theoretical problems can be irritating. According to McLaren the main cause of reformism in those who pursue Marxist humanist politics is "allowing the oppressor ‘within’ to overtake the subject in the back alley of history". This is surely a moralistic conception of the problem, which has at its roots the non-reflective approach of Marxist humanism.
Near the conclusion of the book McLaren makes a revealing assertion: "One of the most important contributions of Che and Freire was the emphasis they placed on praxis. For both Che and Freire, the dialectic must be disencumbered by metaphysics and grounded in the concrete materiality of human struggle." Thus the author openly admits that his heroes had a praxis ontology – the view that reality is largely composed of human practice. That reality is, in fact, mainly composed of what the dialectical critical realist Roy Bhaskar has called the "intransitive dimension" – mechanisms and tendencies outside immediate human control.
My final political point relates to the author’s view of Nikolai Bukharin, who McLaren wrongly lumps in with the vulgar economistic Marxism of the Second and Third Internationals. That Bukharin was in fact a highly dialectical thinker is evident from a study of his work. Those interested should read Bukharin’s Historical Materialism and his Economics of the Transformation Period.
Now we come to the author’s analysis of "critical pedagogy" which purportedly becomes "revolutionary pedagogy" in the career of McLaren’s second subject, the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire.
It is claimed that Freire put forward a pedagogy which allows people to educate themselves through their revolutionary practice. McLaren asserts: "Freire’s primary achievement remains that of his work as the ‘Pilgrim of the Obvious’, a term he often used to describe his pedagogical role." In his literacy campaigns, Freire apparently builds in an element of social critique which cannot help but be anti-capitalist, and it is this that is intended by "Obvious".
What is the connection between critical pedagogical theory and revolutionary politics? McLaren puts forward the case that: "Freire warrants his reputation as a pre-eminent critical educationalist in the way that he was able to foreground the means by which the pedagogical (the localised pedagogical encounter between teacher and student) is implicated in the political (the social relations of production within the global capitalist economy).
"Whereas mainstream educators often decapitate the social context from the self and then cauterise the dialectical movement between them, Freire stresses the dialectical motion between the subject and object, the self and the social, and human agency and social structure."
A serious problem with Freire’s methodology arises from his emphasis on emotions, summarised by McLaren in the following way: "For Freire, pedagogy has as much to do with the teachable heart as the teachable mind, and as much to do with efforts to change the world as it does with rethinking the categories that we use to analyse our current condition within history."
This sentence exhibits McLaren’s commendable rejection of teaching that is not fired by anger against the capitalist system. But would it not be more accurate to say that anti-capitalist values issue from an explanatory analysis of the world, and that you cannot have the former without the latter? Analysis needs to be driven by the necessity to understand the world, not an attempt to make the world fit one’s own emotional reaction to events. There is an element of the latter in Guevara’s, Freire’s, and McLaren’s proudly utopian approach to changing the world. The author states: "The linchpin of revolutionary pedagogy, from the perspectives of both Freire and Che, is Marx’s theory of consciousness/praxis, which maps the movement of their pedagogical problematic onto the terrain of a Marxist humanism."
McLaren does not envisage that "praxis" might be a denial of the reflective philosophical Subject, a Subject that philosophically reflects on her/his own practice. This is linked to his rejection of the idea of a revolutionary party which he regards as a "deus ex machina" concept. That is to misunderstand the root of authoritarianism in (fake) Marxism. It is, in fact, praxis "Marxism" that relies heavily on personal injunctions and supposed moral imperatives to govern action. That easily leads to authoritarianism.
It is dialectical materialism (and now dialectical critical realism) which demands self-critical reflection on previous practice and a thorough analysis of the political, economic and ideological conditions. Such philosophical reflection is the best guard humanity has against authoritarianism, and represents a rejection of the moralism and uninformed utopianism of praxis "Marxism".
In a dialectical materialist/ dialectical critical realist approach, action flows logically from the results of philosophical reflection and is not the premature end-point of a forced process of personalist and moralist assumptions. Here we see some common ground between Marxist humanism and anarchism. Its praxis can only be accidentally revolutionary and on the contrary usually represents reformism or, in the case of Guevara, an ultimately doomed and voluntarist utopianism.
McLaren cites Cornel West, the black American philosopher and academic, who is so enthusiastic about Freire’s work that he can write that Freire "dares to tread where even Marx refused to walk – on the terrain where the revolutionary love of struggling human beings sustains their faith in each other and keeps hope alive within themselves and in history". One is tempted to ask: what greater contribution could Marx have made to struggling humanity than to have written explanatory theory about the way the capitalist system works?
McLaren approvingly quotes E. San Juan who argues that "from a historical-materialist perspective, the dynamic process of social reality cannot be grasped without comprehending the connections and the concrete internal relations that constitute the totality of its objective determinations…Truth in this tradition comes from human practice, the intermediary between consciousness and its object….". This conception of truth elevates practice to a central role for the determination of objectivity (truth) at the expense of reflection and discussion. In this manner ideas become valued for their usefulness for a projected end, and ideas with superior explanatory power are passed over and not aired.
McLaren’s critique of postmodernism focuses on the importance of historical materialism, and on humanist morality. Postmodernism is thought (correctly) to evade class questions and questions of oppression. But McLaren’s anti-philosophy historical materialist humanism is not equipped to do battle with postmodernism, which has to be faced up to at the level of philosophy.
The defence and development of dialectics is crucial to combating the influence of postmodernism. This is why dialectical materialism should see dialectical critical realism as an ally rather than a rival. Both are capable of defending a dialectical philosophical subject, a subject which systematically takes account of the real complexity of the political, economic and ideological world. Such a view has tragically not developed because of the hostility or indifference to philosophy within the organised left. It is to that urgent task we must turn.
Che Guevara, Paolo Freire and the pedagogy of revolution by Peter McLaren. Rowman & Littlefield £15.95