The Dead End at Freire

Speech by Rich Gibson at

Canadian Society for the Study of Education

University of British Columbia

Vancouver BC, June 2 2008


To open, I want to note the passing of two great cultural fighters, Utah Phillips and, yesterday, Bo Diddley. Most people on the left are familiar with the great anarchist troubadour Phillips, but few know that Bo Diddley, living in Archer, near Gainesville, Florida, was a dedicated anti-racist who gave time and money to the cause. We will miss them both. What they did mattered.


Now, to the dead end, literally, at Freire. I am going to treat Paulo Freire as he should ask to be treated–as a problem–using the outlook of dialectical materialism, Marxism, the careful examination of matter, motion, and people–and change–with the view that we can comprehend and transform the world.


First, those who agree with me that the greatest possibility in the US and much of the world is the emergence of a mass, popular, fascist movement with millions of people marching to its tune, will have to forgive me for saying that I am not going to write down, or speak publicly, about what would need to be done. Political conditions inside the fading US capitalist democracy and the Patriot Act today make that unwise.


This possibility is not the only possibility. I speak today out of what is–I think–a second-tier hope rooted in the notion that we really cannot predict tomorrow with certainty.


Part of the reason that the emergence of fascism is possible, and that real fascism exists for some people in the US–and because of the US fascism exists for thousands of people outside the US–is a failure of the left which I believed betrayed the core of Marxist theory and practice: the reality of a whole, a totality, capitalism and class struggle on the one hand, the necessity of revolution, and the long term goal of a caring community where people could live more or less equitably, creatively, in freedom won through community, sharing, an ethic of equality on whatever hands are left over.


Paulo Freire is not the sole or even the main key to that betrayal but within his paradigm-shifting works (he said, “I am a contradictory man”) we can find significant tendencies that illuminate the signal failures of the derailed project for social justice–evidenced by the March 15 demonstrations in the US, drawing about 10% of the numbers five years ago even before the Iraq invasion. Worse, in those five years, the lessons learned are not lessons but delusions. As both an action project, and a pedagogical project, the US and North American left is almost utterly disheveled and is more an obsequious bow than a mass resistance.


My chapter in the book, Neo-Liberalism and Education Reform (edited mainly by Wayne Ross) focuses on Freire in theory through a close examination of his texts, and in practice through a careful study of his work on the Grenada literacy projects during the New Jewel period. As a reminder, 10 of the Grenada 17, the overthrown government of Grenada, remain in a 17th century jail: The last prisoners of the Cold War are black.


Only a brief summary is possible in my 15 minutes.


Freire claimed to be a devout Catholic Marxist–a flatly impossible contradiction–yet he embodied it and was a self-proclaimed postmodernist too. He said his see-judge-act system of literacy could lead to social justice and overcome original sin, or injustice.


His literacy system was borrowed from Catholic Base Communities in Brazil, designed to defeat rising communist work among peasants. He left from there to a brief stint in Chile working for the social democrat Allende and on to—Harvard!– then to the World Council of Churches in Geneva where, for 15 years,  he complained about “exile” yet was well compensated.


Freire was usually a revolutionary wherever he was not–or after the revolution was won–and a liberal reformer wherever he was–as with his return to Brazil in a top education job for the ne-liberal Workers Party behind the corrupt rule of “Lula.”


Freire was made an icon, and protested only mildly, by American postmodernists whose views he both led and adopted. A little publishing cabal flourished with uncritical praise for Freire. Postmoderism, religion with an angry cloak (Breisach) raised every narrow identity, every neurosis, ever standpoint of what was really a tiny capital, to a central issue beyond critique, worthy of worship. Finally and predictably, it became ego over solidarity. Academic postmodernists became priests of a whine from the ivory tower, at base a whine about the vanishing of their protections and privileges.


Perhaps the real promise, the only promise the Republican and Democrats (McWarcriminal or Obamagogue or Hillbillary) will keep, the guarantee of perpetual war, will have the hidden benefit of killing postmodernism which tried to disconnect past, present, and future and deservedly giving this Versace-clothed update of the right wing of Menshevism a secret burial where it can never be found again—maybe in one of those mystical “spaces”  or “interventions,” it enjoyed so much.


Freire’s contradictory work was adopted, easily, by banks, Catholics and other mystics pretending to work for justice when they work for the Pope and unreason, postmodernists, mechanically Marxist parties of all sorts, most of the latter imposing Taylorist production methods in the name of the Theory of Productive Forces–a prime propellant of dogmatic Marxism.


The Theory of Productive Forces argues that the basis for social justice has to lie in abundance, that abundance can only be gained, following some sort of advance to power, through boosting production, which requires experts, who receive more pay because they somehow “deserve it,” which in turn creates a supervisory, ruling, class–meaning capitalist social relations restored full tilt, overseen by a party promising benevolence and sharing–in the distant future.


This, then, is a big part of what came of Bolshevism and Chinese “communism.” It very quickly blew back into the educational systems where, like elsewhere, the goal became national economic development behind bourgeoisie values and the ethic of old: “Do what you are told,”–sometimes masked as “party discipline.”


This is what Freire called “critical” consciousness, but it is not what the project should be–class consciousness, a mass of class conscious people prepared to make serious sacrifices for equality while facing an enemy that we can easily see is well organized, has a central command, a history of rule and mentoring for rule, a disciplined military, and an enemy obviously prepared to wantonly spill—Rivers of Blood.


So what of the contradictory Freire? He was an Objective Idealist. A Christian Marxist, a cul de sac, a dead (literally as people did fight and die and Freire was well on for that) end.


Following his work will lead directly to people participating in their own oppression–voluntary servitude–in slightly new ways–behind language of empowerment.


Objective Idealism which Freire lifted from Hegel, the high-watermark of bourgeois philosophy (compare Pedagogy of the Oppressed to Chapter 8 of Hegel’s Phenomenology   or check Taylor’s, The Texts of Paulo Freire, which rightly suggests Freire’s plagiarist habits)...objective idealism is the belief that while the world originates in the mind, there is indeed a world, which does change, a world of interest to God or the mind, and is likely to be a microcosm of the Mind. God might be interested in class struggle in this viewpoint.      


Let's look at a simplified approach to how the unity and struggle of opposites (dialectics) within Freire works. What I am about to pose is but two useful photos of what should be better seen as a complex film always in motion, the Objective Idealist Freire riding on the same tracks as the Mechanically Materialist Freire.


I will pose two Freire's. In the first instance, I will try to summarize, in a brief format, Freire's analytical process as it appears in his theoretical work. This addresses Freire as an objective idealist (Catholic humanist), with Freire answering questions like: What is the motive force of history? How do we know this? Who is positioned to make change? How will they do that? What kind of pedagogy do you propose? Why? What is the source of alienation and exploitation, and what shall we do about it? Who are our friends? Where does the government come from and who does it serve? Where does racism come from? What shall we do about that? How shall we fight? How will we know when we win? What do we need to know to avoid recreating the mistakes of the past, to act anew?

Under the second heading, I will apply similar questions to Freire's practice, where we see the most orthodox of mechanical materialisms. The binary I am proposing, which Freire's objective idealism allows him to encircle, is most easily seen in two of Freire's works, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and, Pedagogy in Process: Letters to Guinea Bissau, the former representing the humanist tilt and the latter the mechanist side. His most recent books, Politics and Education, Pedagogy of Freedom, and Pedagogy of the Heart, perhaps more even than others, are rife with the contradictions I outline.


The outline I offer now portrays Freire in two parts, Objective Idealist and Mechanical Marxist, somewhat unfair as he embodied both. Such is a problem of dialectical exposition which would be graphed better as a spiral rather than opposing lines. Imagine Freire as a train running on two separate tracks, one train, different tracks. Perhaps that will help.


This handout was then distributed to the audience at UBC:


                                Unresolved Contradictions in the Works of Paulo Freire


                                                      The Objective Idealist Freire


1. All of history is seen as "a process of human events." (Freire, 1973, p.147). The "fundamental theme of our epoch is domination, which implies its opposite, liberation" (Freire, 1973, p.93). Oppression equals "dehumanization" (Freire, 1980, 28).


2. Culture and language are the primary indicators of this process. Silence is a prime indicator of oppression  (Freire, 1985, p. 73; Freire, 1994, p.231).


3. Hence, to grasp history, analyze culture and language...


4. ...through literacy achieved via cultural investigation and dialogue.


5. Middle-class leaders and teachers are motivated, and linked to the masses and students, by respect, benevolence, dialogue, and love, which overcomes inequality.  This requires the "class suicide," of the teacher-leaders. (Freire, 1978, p.103).


6. Literacy classes are student-centered, texts rise from student experience.

7. Inequality is examined as dehumanization, "spiritual weariness, historical anesthesia," cultural invasion. (Freire, 1994, p.123).


8. Change is achieved through new consciousness gained through literacy, and new approaches to language. Coming to voice becomes change: education for freedom (Freire, 1985, p.78).

9. The state, government, is mediated terrain, a potential ally (Freire, 1991, p.37, 157).


10. In political activity, pluralism, such as Freire's Workers Party of Brazil. National culture and economic development are privileged.

11. False consciousness is defeated by critical analysis (Freire, 1973, p.34-35).


12. Alienation is annulled by deconstructing hegemony. Will defeats might (Freire, 1994,172).


13. Truth is located within Freire's mind, or God's. The test for truth is in theory (Freire, 1973, p.18)


14. In theory: this is the post-modernist Freire; sex-gender, race, class, nation, are simultaneously pivotal. "Class struggle is not the mover of history, but it is certainly one of them" (Freire, 1994, p.91).


15. Racism is analyzed primarily as an ideological system--or an ethical problem.

16. Resistance, revolution, or praxis is equated to literary deconstruction.


17. Inequality is overcome by heightened consciousness. The oppressors are liberated (Freire, 1980, p.28).

In sum, the outline above amounts to traditional social Democracy.


Next, I pose (again, for sake of exposition, urging the reader to see that this is an interplay which is presented as a frozen moment) the questions noted above to the revolutionary Freire, the Freire who advised the Grenadian and Cabral revolution of Guinea Bissau. This is the mechanist side of Freire. It should be clear that this Freire is no stranger to the idea that violence is the mother of social change. (Gibson, 1994, 326).


                                                The Mechanically Materialist Freire


1. All history is the history of the struggle for production, then class struggle. "Relationships can never be understood except in the light of class analysis" (Freire, 1978, p.8).


2. Production and technology are the primary indicators/motivative forces. (Freire, 1978, p.56)

3. Hence, to transform reality; analyze and achieve national production...(Freire, 1973, p.32; Freire, 1978, p.47).


4. Through literacy won via directive and steered dialogue: re-education. (Freire, 1978, p.114).

5. Teachers and leaders are motivated by love, party or leader-worship, and national economic development. Personality cults rise: Cabral, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, Castro, etc. (Freire, 1994, p.167-173, Freire, 1980, p.164).


6. Inequality is checked via revolution and the vanguard revolutionary party.

7. Change is achieved via revolution and the vanguard party.


8. The state, government, is to be smashed, then appropriated. (In the case of Chile, failure to conduct this activity made counter-revolution possible.)

9. False consciousness is defeated by national commitment to revolutionary national economic/technical development (Freire, 1978, p.51).


10. Alienation is annulled in praxis by revolution, then economic improvements. National development requires support for the national bourgeoisie. (Freire, 1978, p.112)

11. "Democratic" centralism in politics, i.e. New Jewel, Guinea Bissau, Cuba, etc.


12. In theory, class is pivotal; race, sex/gender, nation secondary. (Subverted by emphasis on national development.)

13. Racism is analyzed as system of exploitation, usually overcome by the revolution (Cuba).


14. Resistance is guerrilla or revolutionary war.


15. Truth resides within, and is tested by, usually, the central committee


16. Inequality is purportedly defeated by technological change which creates abundance, that is, by the restoration of capitalist relations. The party bourgeoisie, red experts, etc., promise an egalitarian future.

In sum, this amounts to dogmatic, vulgar, or mechanical Marxism.

                                                                End of document.


Social democracy as seen in Allende's Chile, and vulgar, doctrinaire, dogmatic strains of Marxism, as seen in caudillo Castro's Cuba, charismatic Bishop's Grenada, not-Communist China, or the collapsed Soviet Union, are failed systems. I characterize these systems as idealism in power, and mechanical materialism in power. Within the Left, the history of what can be properly called Right (Chile) and Left (U.S.S.R.) Hegelianism, the elements of Freire's contradictions, both of which rely heavily on the good will of intellectuals and the postponement of equality in exchange for abundance, will not get anyone to critical egalitarian or even democratic citizenship. As noted earlier, in Freire's day- to- day life after his exile from Brazil, it is fairly clear that he was a liberal reformer wherever he actually lived, and not necessarily, but often, a socialist revolutionary where he did not.


In the mechanically pseudo-Marxist Freire, the Freire of Grenada for example, or later on in Lula’s Brazil, critical consciousness is overwhelmed by demands for national economic development using the capitalist slogan, “We are all in this together,” undermined by realities of exploitation, alienation, and multiple forms of domination.


So, what in broad terms are we to do to supercede Freire, to negate his negation, or perhaps more clearly, to retain what of him we support, to abolish what we do not, and to then raise his work to our own, higher, level? What, again, shall we do while facing the very real potential of the emergence of fascism?

Well, Freire and I would agree, and I hope you will too, that justice demands organization–and we must connect that to reason, passion, and power. In embryo form, that is being done in the Rouge Forum which combined more than a decade of theoretical and practical class struggle, from publishing books to leading massive school wildcats and walkouts matched by the beginnings of Freedom Schools. You can see from our presentations today that there is a wide range of views in the Rouge Forum. Our solidarity is won through years of common struggle and the trust that underlines friendship.


Such an organization does need, as Freire often suggested, an ethic that people understand and can use to judge what they do, what the organization is, where they have been, and where they are headed. This is what I have developed, based on what I think are vital lessons from the struggles of millions of people who have gone before us:


Things change; a fact and an ethic. This means revolution always seen on our horizon. Perhaps a counter-question might offer a benchmark to test: Do masses of people, individually and collectively, understand that things change, and how, and why, better, because of a given action or even a lesson plan? Did people become, in shorthand, more class-conscious? Did they see themselves as part of things changing? Or did they learn better to do what they are told to do?


There is also an ethic behind the next social change, an ethic that can give it a vision, a body, a collective, and a practice:


We can, as a class-community, understand and change our world;


Reason, to gain and test knowledge in the struggle for the truth, over mysticism and fear;


Equality: from each per commitment to each per need; Exploitation is unethical;


All Must Rise: we have a right to rebel with deepening wisdom, and under every social system to demand control over the products and processes of our work, meaning class struggle does not end;


Freedom--for curiosity, radical criticism, sensual inquiry, and the right to err;


Solidarity, An Injury to One is an Injury to All;


Aesthetics, beauty...the right to art, pleasure, sensuality, creativity, music, dance;


Communist democracy, related to mass critical consciousness;


Resistance and direct action in the least alienating ways possible;


Education, to raise our understanding of the whole, and its parts;

Courage, the ethic that says: You Are What You Do;


Internationalism, Anti-Racism, Anti-Sexism:


Revolution, struggle: we are not all in this together;


Sacrifice for equality,


To overcome capitalism in total,


For survival, inclusion, community, and love-Harmony for the first time ruling disharmony.


We will win. Over time, we will win. In the Master/Slave relationship, it is too easy to see defeat after defeat. We need to remember that in our struggle, we win by defining ourselves and remaining sane, but in the long term, we win as well. Those who demand victory on victory are not fighters, but opportunists.


Again, though, justice demands organization.


Up the rebels! Death to the fascists! Thank you.


These handouts were offered to the audience:


Some Concepts in Dialectical Thinking:


Dialectical Materialism Outline:


Distributed as well were copies of Substance News, Rouge Forum flyers and posters


Rich Gibson is co-editor, with Wayne Ross, of Neo-Liberalism and Education Reform, the organizing topic of this presentation. He is an emeritus professor of education at San Diego State and, among others, the author of How Do I Keep My Ideals and Still Teach? (now available online) and The Torment and Demise of the United Auto Workers Union at Cultural Logic, online as well. He is a co-founder and organizer for the Rouge Forum.