Revolutionary Praxis: From Marx to Freire

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Paulo freire and the influence of gramsci,althusser,and western marxism on his work.

Submitted: July 30, 2017

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Submitted: July 30, 2017



Cole McKenzie


Revolutionary Praxis: From Marx to Freire


Paulo Freire, the revolutionary educator, formulated his ideas from borrowing on a rich philosophical and theoretical tradition. While Freire drew from ideas as varied as Catholic Humanism to Existentialism, the most significant philosophy to his work, was Marxism. Freire illuminates how the class struggle takes place in the context of education, and uses Marxist dialectic to understand history. Freire takes ideas from many Marxist theories before him further than ever before, by using them to confront the issue of education. Freire was in many ways the first to view pedagogy through a Marxist lense. Freire’s seminal work, “The Pedagogy of The Oppressed” lays out his ideas of a new pedagogy. A type of radical education that would serve as a call to revolution. This new education could no longer serve the interests of the ruling class and capitalism, it must have the goal of enlightening and liberating the oppressed classes. This new education would lead the oppressed to what Freire refers to as conscientization, or as most leftists would call the achievement of class consciousness. This would develop into the central goal of Freire’s work, the development of a true revolutionary praxis. In order to understand Freire’s educational and political philosophy and its goals, as well as its historical and contemporary significance, it is crucial to understand the influence of Marxist theory on Freire. We shall examine the purpose and ultimate goals of Freire’s ideas, as well as what must be done to achieve those goals.

Before going any further, it is absolutely necessary to have an understanding of the oppressive nature and functioning of the current system. This is important in an analysis of Freire precisely because we must understand why a new revolutionary pedagogy must be implemented in the first place. Freire follows in the Marxist tradition in stating that the capitalist education system serves the interest of the bourgeoisie. Marx said as far back as 1871 "The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production" (Marx). We shall now look at two key concepts that have been used to describe how the bourgeoisie prevents the proletariat from achieving class consciousness.

First, let us look to the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in particular his theory of cultural hegemony. Before Gramsci, many Marxists looked to the repressive and overtly violent methods to see how bourgeois states maintain their power. Gramsci triggered a revolution in Marxist theory, when he proposed his idea of cultural hegemony. Cultural hegemony is the domination of a society by the ruling class, who impose the values, beliefs, perceptions, and etc. on the rest of society, so that the ideology of the ruling class becomes the accepted social norm. These values become what Gramsci referred to as “common sense”, the “truths” that seem natural and self evident to us, but are really ideological chains holding the oppressed classes down. Gramsci even argued that these methods are in many ways far more effective than direct state repression. Freire shows us the very effect of cultural hegemony in “Pedagogy of The Oppressed”. Freire states “The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom” (Freire 47). This imposition of ruling class values on the rest of society “justifies” the domination and rule over the lower classes.

Now we must understand how the bourgeois state actually succeeds in implementing this hegemonic domination over the proletariat. For this, we must look to the French Marxist Louis Althusser and his theories on ideology and his concept of the Ideological State Apparatuses, or “ISAs”. Althusser followed in Gramsci’s footsteps, by making a distinction between hegemony and direct repression by the state.He proposes two different concepts, one called the Repressive State Apparatus, which has been discussed since the early days of Marxist theory. This includes arms of the state functioning in the public domain. For example, the police, the army, the courts, prisons, and so on. Althusser’s notable contribution however, is the concept of the Ideological State Apparatus. The ISAs that Althusser lists include churches, schools, the family, political parties, communications (which can now be expanded to include social media), and culture. Althusser stresses multiple times in his famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” to never confuse the ISAs with the RSAs. Althusser states the difference between them plainly “What distinguishes the ISAs from the (Repressive) State Apparatus is the following basic difference: the Repressive State Apparatus functions ‘by violence’, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function ‘by ideology’” (Althusser). “Ideology” in the Marxist definition means “false consciousness” which obscures the proletariat from seeing the true nature of class relations. Ideology in Althusser’s view is absolutely fundamental in social control.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the methods the bourgeoisie uses to maintain control of state power and legitimize their rule over the other classes, we can begin to look at how this applies to the Freirean educational philosophy. One of Althusser’s key ideas was that in order to sustain the capitalist mode of production, the system and the ruling class must have a constant supply of labor power. They must constantly reproduce labor power, since the source of the capitalists’ wealth is the labor he buys from the proletariat through wages. One of the ways this is accomplished is by the ISA Althusser considered to be the most influential, the schools. The education system in a capitalist society exists mainly to conform the masses to the hegemonic ideology and values of the ruling class, and therefore to constantly reproduce an efficient and obedient workforce. Marx and Engels spoke of the influence of bourgeois education when they wrote The Communist Manifesto, they said “And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the invented the intervention of society in education; they do but seek to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class” (Marx and Engels 506). Do we not see this in our own education system on an everyday basis? The constant bombardment of students with the demands and needs for them to conform to the capitalist system and wage labor? g, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” (Freire 58). This makes the teacher the only active subject, with the students as passive objects. Freire argues this mode of teaching discourages critical thinking and reinforces systemic oppression, as well as impedes on the progress of human knowledge and learning itself.

Freire’s entire pedagogical theory is devoted to solving these problems, he proposes a new type of revolutionary education to fight back against the oppressive education system of capitalist societies. This system is referred to as critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy views teaching and education as a political act. They reject the so-called neutrality of education, similar to Slavoj Zizek’s view that the truth is inherently partisan. Critical pedagogy believes that education,social justice, and emancipatory movements should go hand in hand. Critical pedagogy is the way that the masses themselves can achieve class consciousness,become empowered in themselves,and eventually pave their own way to liberation. This would become the emancipatory alternative to the oppressive banking model employed by the capitalist ISAs. Freire writes of this new method, “Education as the practice of freedom-- as opposed to education as the practice of domination-- denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world” (Freire 81).  As Che Guevara once said “I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves.”

This new model of revolutionary education will be but one step on the way to a new revolutionary praxis. Let us examine the Marxist ideas on praxis. Praxis has been defined as action oriented towards the transformation of society. There are two forms of praxis in Marxist theory. The non-reflexive/counter-revolutionary praxis, which maintains the status quo. And the reflexive/revolutionary praxis, which leads to revolution and progressive transformation of society. Marxism, which has been called the philosophy of praxis, is unsurprisingly a major inspiration for Paulo Freire. When demanding the removal of ruling class influence on education in The Communist Manifesto, were they not too calling for a pedagogy of the oppressed? Marxists have long described the revolutionary praxis as developing from a dialectical unity of theory and action. Freire describes educational praxis itself as an agent of societal change, and can be used for oppression or revolution. For example, Gramsci viewed hegemony as one form of praxis triumphing over another. The ruling class uses oppressive education to reinforce the counter-revolutionary praxis. Freire developed his educational philosophy as a way to bring about the revolutionary praxis. He stresses the importance of both theory and analysis. Saying, “On the other hand, radical is never a subjectivist. For this individual the subjective aspect exists only in relation to the objective aspect (the concrete reality, which is the object of analysis). Subjectivity and objectivity thus join in a dialectical unity producing knowledge in solidarity with action, and vice versa” (Freire 38). He also stated what he believed the goal of this praxis is. Freire writes “Through praxis, oppressed people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition, and, with their allies, struggle for liberation” (Freire 36).

However, in order to achieve this, and actually make this revolution possible, much more must be done. First of all, we must not simply confine Freire’s teaching to the classroom. His life’s work cannot be distorted into something it was never meant to be. Critical Pedagogy is revolutionary education aimed at actually changing our society for the better. Pointing us towards Freire’s goals of humanization and a world in which it is easier to love. If we turn Freire’s methods into a basic model of progressive education, and not the emancipatory movement it is meant to be, not much will be achieved for us. Furthermore, the curriculum and method of teaching are not the only things that must be revolutionized, the teachers themselves must be. In the interview with Louis Althusser now known as “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon”, Althusser discusses the immense difficulty that comes with being a revolutionary educator. Although Althusser is referring to philosophy teachers, we can apply this to teachers in general as well. When asked why it is so difficult to be a Communist in philosophy, Althusser replies:

“It is not easy to become a Marxist-Leninist philosopher. Like every ‘intellectual’, a philosophy teacher is a petty bourgeois. When he opens his mouth, it is petty-bourgeois ideology that speaks: its resources and ruses are infinite.

You know what Lenin says about ‘intellectuals’. Individually certain of them may (politically) be declared revolutionaries, and courageous ones. But as a mass, they remain ‘incorrigibly’ petty-bourgeois in ideology. Gorky himself was, for Lenin, who admired his talents, a petty-bourgeois revolutionary. To become ‘ideologists of the working class’ (Lenin), ‘organic intellectuals’ of the proletariat (Gramsci), intellectuals have to carry out a radical revolution in their ideas: a long, painful and difficult re-education. An endless external and internal struggle.” (Althusser 1968)

Althusser is saying that the revolutionary educator must undergo a constant revolution within himself. Freire also argues the same point throughout “Pedagogy of The Oppressed”. For example, when he quotes Marx, “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating." (Marx 28).

Paulo Freire, without a doubt, developed one of the most promising and influential systems of liberating education. His ideas have influenced a countless number of important fields since his “Pedagogy of The Oppressed”. This is undoubtedly in part due to Freire’s excellent theorization, and his understanding of class struggle and various theoretical traditions. This has only scratched the surface in describing how Freire draws upon Marxist theory in his work. In order to fully understand this, as well as how he combined it with other political and philosophical traditions, much more extensive research must be done. However, we have been able to observe a few of the theories that Freire uses to develop his pedagogy. And how the rich Marxist tradition is indispensable to Freire’s work, and most importantly,to bringing about the revolutionary praxis that is the ultimate goal of revolutionary education.




Works Cited

Bale, Jeff, and Sarah Knopp. Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation. Haymarket Books, 2012.

"Hegel, Marx, and Freire." Writing Samples / School Work. N.p., 2015. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review, 1972. Print.

Engels, Karl Marx and Frederick. "Manifesto of the Communist Party." Manifesto of the Communist Party. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

Rich, Gibson. "Paulo Freire and Revolutionary Pedagogy For Social Justice by Rich Gibson." Paulo Freire and Revolutionary Pedagogy For Social Justice by Rich Gibson. N.p., 2004. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

Ballvé, Teo. "Hegemony and the Philosophy of Praxis." Territorial Masquerades. N.p., 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

Press, Berkeley Electronic. ""Freire vs. Marx: The Tension Between Liberating Education and Student Alienation" by Jonathan Martin." "Freire vs. Marx: The Tension Between Liberating Education and Student Alienation" by Jonathan Martin. N.p., 1 Jan. 2004. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Selected Works. International Publishers, 1968.

Althusser, Louis. “Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon.” Dec. 1971.


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