Freire: What we are up against, and the role of the radical

Paolo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThe last of four posts on Paulo Freire, I am finally getting to his more concrete theorisations of what we are up against, and the role that radicals should take. This is because in my own mind — and as it is structured in the book itself — this must be based firmly around an understanding of how our existing structures strip away our humanity and how each of us needs to recover this for ourselves through a process of struggle. This consists of a process of collectively finding voice, naming our reality, and acting upon it.

The role of the radical is thus one based is love, faith in others and humility, to echo the last post:

The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side. (39)

This sits in an utter negation of more commonly understood definitions of both charity workers and too often revolutionaries:

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples — need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world. (45)

People often set out to deliver false charity, but I found particularly apt this description of the pitfalls of charity and the upper class vanguards:

It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and more to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them their deformations, which include a lack confidence in the peoples’ ability to think, to want, and to know…. these adherents to the people’s cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust. (60)

To recap the points made in earlier posts, people must liberate themselves through a combination of reflection and action, to carry out a revolution otherwise is simply to oppress in a new way.

It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection — only then will it be a praxis.

Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever the stage of their struggle for liberation. (24) The content of that dialogue can and should vary in accordance with historical conditions and the level at which the oppressed perceive reality. But to substitute monologue, slogans and communiques for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication. (65)

On Education

Freire’s writings on education have often been removed from the more revolutionary nature of his work, but I like how it engages with the process of education as it is now, bringing insights into how hegemony is created and oppression maintained and most importantly, how it must be undone through a very different process:

Indeed, the interests of the oppressors lie in “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them,” (1) for the more the oppressed can be led to adapt to that situation, the more easily they can be dominated. To achieve this the oppressors use the banking concept of education in conjunction with a paternalistic social action apparatus, within which the oppressed receive the euphemistic title of “welfare recipients.” They are treated as individual cases, as marginal persons who deviate from the general configuration of a “good, organized and just” society. The oppressed are regarded as the pathology of the healthy society which must therefore adjust these “incompetent and lazy” folk to its own patterns by changing their mentality. These marginals need to be “integrated,” “incorporated” into the healthy society that they have “forsaken.”

The truth is, however, that the oppressed are not “marginals,” are not living “outside” society. They have always been “inside” the structure which made them “beings for others.” The solution is not to ‘integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.” Such transformation, of course, would undermine the oppressors’ purposes; hence their utilization of the banking concept of education to avoid the threat of student conscientizacao. (74)

Another key point around the use of ‘marginal’, the understanding of where people sit within the system. Following Marx, Freire understands that the oppressed, the labourers sit at the very heart of the system.

I find Freire’s formulation of precise strategies of capitalism to promote dehumanization so useful. Above all they are antidialogic, destroying the spaces of communication and collectivity that make possible a different world. They are:


The first characteristic of antidialogical action is the necessity for conquest. The antidialogical individual, in his relations with others, aims at conquering them—increasingly and by every means, from the toughest to the most refined, from the most repressive to the most solicitous (paternalism).

Every act of conquest implies a conqueror and someone or something which is conquered. The conqueror imposes his objectives on the vanquished, and makes of them his possession. He imposes his own contours on the vanquished, who internalize this shape and become ambiguous beings “housing” another. From the first, the act of conquest, which reduces persons to the status of things, is necrophilic. (138)


As the oppressor minority subordinates and dominates the majority, it must divide it and keep it divided in order to remain in power. The minority cannot permit itself the luxury of tolerating the unification of the people, which would undoubtedly signify a serious threat to their own hegemony.

One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action which is almost never perceived by the dedicated but naive professionals who are involved is the emphasis on a focalized view of problems rather than on seeing them as dimensions of a totality. In “community development” projects the more a region or area is broken down into “local communities,” without the study of these communities both as totalities in themselves and as parts of another totality (the area, region, and so forth)—which in its turn is part of a still larger totality (the nation, as part of the continental totality)—the more alienation is intensified. (141)


By means of manipulation, the dominant elites try to conform the masses to their objectives. And the greater the political immaturity of these people (rural or urban) the more easily the latter can be manipulated by those who do not wish to lose their power.

The people are manipulated by the series of myths described earlier in this chapter, and by yet another myth: the model of itself which the bourgeoisie presents to the people as the possibility for their own ascent. In order for these myths to function, however, the people must accept the word of the bourgeoisie. (147)


In this phenomenon, the invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, in disrespect of the latters potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression.

Whether urbane or harsh, cultural invasion is thus always an act of violence against the persons of the invaded culture, who lose their originality or face the threat of losing it.(152)

This is part of the process of cooptation.

Neither the professionals nor the discussion participants in the New York slums talk and act for themselves as active Subjects of the historical process. None of them are theoreticians or ideologues of domination. On the contrary, they are effects which in turn become causes of domination. This is one of the most serious problems the revolution must confront when it reaches power. This stage demands maximum political wisdom, decision, and courage from the leaders, who for this very reason must have sufficient judgment not to fall into irrationally sectarian positions.

Professional women and men of any specialty, university graduates or not, are individuals who have been “determined from above”34 by a culture of domination which has constituted them as dual beings. (If they had come from the lower classes this miseducation would be the same, if not worse.)… since many among them—even though “afraid of freedom” and reluctant to engage in humanizing action—are in truth more misguided than anything else, they not only could be, but ought to be, reclaimed by the revolution. (158)

Sentences like this, you realise just how close Freire is to a world of actual revolution, to armed struggle in Brazil and elsewhere throughout Central and South America. It is like reading Angela Davis, I am so jealous of those who were able to work in times of such hopeful uprising.

I find these four divisions of capitalism’s operation so interesting, these are their counters:


In the dialogical theory of action, Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world…. there are Subjects who meet to name the world in order to transform it. (167)

I love, too, that being so close to revolution there is no room here for romanticisation, love, faith and humility do not require naivete, they simply require moving alongside people rather than in front of them.

This confidence should not, however, be naive. The leaders must believe in the potentialities of the people, whom they cannot treat as mere objects of their own action; they must believe that the people are capable of participating in the pursuit of liberation. But they must always mistrust the ambiguity of oppressed people, mistrust the oppressor “housed” in the latter. (169)


the leaders must dedicate themselves to an untiring effort for unity among the oppressed—and unity of the leaders with the oppressed—in order to achieve liberation. (173)


In the theory of antidialogical action, manipulation is indispensable to conquest and domination; in the dialogical theory of action the organization of the people presents the antagonistic opposite of this manipulation. Organization is not only directly linked to unity, but is a natural development of that unity. Accordingly, the leaders’ pursuit of unity is necessarily also an attempt to organize the people, requiring witness to the fact that the struggle for liberation is a common task. (175)

I think the whole of Freire’s understanding about the role of voice, dialogue and praxis far overflows these categories, so they are not as useful as the formulations of what we fight against. But still. Useful. Perhaps of their time, but on the whole this book is timeless and quite magnificent.

Other posts on Freire and popular education…















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