building from below: the ideas of paulo freire

by Dave Spencer

The Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire (1921-1997) is regarded internationally as the guru of adult education.  Since we are concerned as communists with educating ourselves and with “raising consciousness” among the working class, then it would seem useful to look at Freire’s ideas.


As luck would have it Freire’s classic textbook Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) is not only a statement of the principles on which to practise adult education, it is also a handbook on how to build a revolutionary party.  There are many references to liberation and revolutionary leadership throughout the book.  One of the reasons for this is that in the 1960s in Brazil when Freire was organising Adult Literacy classes on a mass scale, his activity was very radical because only literate people could vote in Brazil.  In 1964 after the coup Freire was jailed and then exiled for his efforts.  He went to Chile and then to UNESCO where he influenced Literacy programmes throughout the Third World.

One might wonder why Freire is not better known on the left. The reason is that his educational principles contradict entirely the practice and the theory of the left groups. Freire stresses the vital importance of educating and organising from below. The life experience of the students must be the starting point of the dialogue and the mutual respect and trust between tutors and students – between the working class and the revolutionary leadership if you will. The “leaders” should go to the working class to engage in discussion and to be prepared to learn, not to impart ready-made gobbits of “truth” or the party line. “The revolutionary’s role is to be liberated with the people, not to win them over”, says Freire.

Freire calls the top-down method, used by left groups, as well as the state, “banking” education.  Charles Dickens criticised this Gradgrind “give me the facts” or “the line” method of education in his novel Hard Times because of its lack of humanism. To Freire there is no neutral form of education – it is either encouraging critical thinking and therefore liberating – or it is uncritical and undemocratic and therefore “domesticating”, i.e. encouraging acceptance of the status quo.

Contrast this to the approach of the left groups. For example, Sean Matgamna of the Trotskyist group AWL wrote an article “The class struggle is the thing” epitomising this approach.  He argues that with the demise of Stalinism and the movement to the right of social democracy internationally, the way is clear for real socialism to show itself at last.  His advice is to go to the working class and to the working class movement — not to learn anything, not to listen, not to engage in dialogue, but “to organise it, to re-organise it, to plant the seeds of unfalsified socialism”. Exactly the opposite of the principles advocated by Paulo Freire! Nothing personal against Sean, but he is arguing for a top down, “banking” approach where the truths have already been decided upon by an elite and it is just a matter of convincing the masses. This is clearly an idealist position, not a dialectical one and is typical of left groups. Freire sees the class struggle as a process in which revolutionaries play the role not of lecturers on the rostrum dishing out pre-existing truths to the workers but of organisers and facilitators of a dialogue in which the day to day experiences of the working class in struggle play a key part. The class struggle is a dynamic process during which lessons are learned through discussion and practice, not by some formulae from Party HQ.

Freire’s principles are consistent with other approaches to broader education based generally on a cognitive approach to psychology. These contrast with more dominant psychological approaches used by the state, like ideas of inherited genetic intelligence and behaviourist notions of changing the environment to change behaviour. The cognitive approaches to child development of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky stress the importance of practical experience in the form of play, active stimulation and problem solving for young children, as against rote learning. As I understand it, these are the principles behind the “Scandinavian methods” used in nursery and infant education. For older children and adults, writers like Michael Apple, H. Giroux and J. Mezirow encourage the development of critical thinking in the classroom as against the regurgitation of facts.

A recent example from my own experience may explain the basic issues involved. I was teaching at the local university and one of the modules I was teaching was “Mental Ill Health”. The new administrator approached me one day for a word and said that he wanted me to break down my 10 week module into parts – quarter of an hour by quarter of an hour in the form of PowerPoint presentations. If I were ill one week this would mean some other tutor could take over.  Assessments of the students’ knowledge would take place in week 3, week 6 and week 9. As I understand it, this is very much what Freire would call the “banking” approach to education! I pointed out that I did not believe in teaching this way. I explained that among the students in my evening class at that time were a young man under medication diagnosed with schizophrenia, two paramedics who were used to sectioning people, a woman whose son had autism and a man whose mother was in the first stages of dementia. I said I thought the life experiences of these students were more important to listen to, to understand and to discuss than me giving a load of “facts” on a slide — not that there are many “facts” in this subject, there are conflicting explanations. Our dialogue would lead to critical thinking and personal development — which of course could be assessed. The administrator did not understand what I was talking about.  I think Paulo Freire would have done.

Freire starts with the oppressed and their “culture of silence”, “fear of freedom”, lack of self-confidence and their fatalism – but also with their wealth of life experience and culture within their communities. The tutors or revolutionary leaders, using their book knowledge, create a dialogue with the oppressed which leads to praxis — that is to informed and agreed action against oppression. Without this democratic dialogue there can be no genuine revolution. Freire is quite definite on these points:

“Manipulation, sloganising, “depositing”, regimentation and prescription cannot be components of revolutionary praxis, precisely because they are components of the praxis of domination…

“Revolutionary leaders who do not act dialogically in their relations with the people either have retained characteristics of the dominator and are not truly revolutionary – or they are totally misguided in their conception of their role and, being prisoners of their own sectarianism, they are equally non-revolutionary. They may even reach power. But the validity of any revolution resulting from anti-dialogical action is thoroughly doubtful.”

This is quite clear and uncompromising and I can think of many examples on the British left where these principles could be applied. The behaviours within left groups are not quirky characteristics of left leaders, as for example described amusingly by Jim Higgins in his book on the SWP or by John Sullivan in his pamphlet Go Fourth and Multiply, they are unfortunately consistent with the behaviours of the ruling class and can be judged as such.

I have dealt here with the basic principles of Freire’s work.  I have argued with Freire that any revolutionary movement can only be built from below, starting with the life experiences of the working class, not from the top down using theory used in a biblical fashion. The question of how Freire’s principles can be implemented in a British context is more complex, requiring further discussion.

9 thoughts on “building from below: the ideas of paulo freire

  1. I very thoughtful comment on Freire and rev partying. The issue you tease out has interested me — but in the way that there is a similarity between Freire’s methodology and that of Lenin.

    I think you maybe are a bit formalistic in your approach and miss the ruling abstractions involved. If the rev parties you know are deposit driven — I don’t think it’s a simple matter of reversing the polarity as the parties you may know would have memberships that are reflective of their social context. You’d get a “Marxist intellectual” approach rather than essentially an organic one. IE:a party of university lecturers if they were all like you.

    At stake is how you relate to what you do and whom you partner rather than just who joins. Unless you want to negate the party building imperative — because party making isn’t necessarily a spontaneous act — there has to be , built in, a way to format the interaction.

    Freire’s methodology was a pedagogy and not an activist means so in itself it requires some tweaking to suit party making. It also does not follow that any ‘organic’ ‘from below’ process would necessarily be revolutionary. That’s the contradiction Lenin tried to address.

    This quote from Lenin captures that relationship I think. When addressing how the Bolsheviks maintained their iron discipine, Lenin wrote:

    “The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat’s revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct. Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement”. (Source)

    Lenin’s argument is not simply about “from below” nor is it Freire-ian –although it isn’t about just “making deposits”. It is a very rich dialectic that can only ‘work’ if all elements are in motion.

    The complication with Freire’s approach is that it could just as easily be deployed by the BNP as a party of the English left.

    I don’t doubt that this is a complicated business, and I’m certain you have a strong argument but only by actually doing can you work out the nuts and bolts. For instance, the SSP , the Socialist Alliance here in Australia and the French NPA — all, to my knowledge, employ party wide consultation protocols as the core way to generate activity and party business. The democratic processes — compared to what is the norm of the British SWP — are very different indeed. But the limitation is , of course, whats’ happening outside these parties and whatever presumed political baggage they supposedly carry.

    But unless you actually “embed” in the working class, any bottom up-ping like that will become a closed circuit and that’s why Lenin’s concept of leadership is so important. You can have a totally democratic party with dedicated grass roots interactivity — like the Zapatistas for instance — and still not get anywhere beyond a certain level of mobilisation. There has to be some seeding, some rational that is much more than just dialogue.

    This is why we reject anarchism isn’t it?

    Similarly, as soon as that link to the masses may be weakened or broken, the whole Freireian modality — just like the strict programatic party approach — closes in on itself.


  2. Brilliant! David this is 100% spot on. I started to teach gardening (the job i have done for 25 years) a few years back and had to do a FE teachers training cert, which was a struggle, but i was saved by coming across Friere, a name i had heard but knew little of. My tutors must have been sick of me/him as every essay i then did was based on his ideas! :D His ideas and writing are not just simply brilliant but so brilliantly clear and simple, it hurts that we have so failed to take account of them.

    And I think that there are other ideas around humanism in teaching, but also critically in parenting in general, that are crucial to our relationships, as political activists, with all those around us. The the left did take on board some of these ideas in the 6ts and early 7ts, but have disregarded since, i suspect as part of the failure of ’68 and the return after to a more ortho-trotskyism.


    John Holt
    Ivan Illich

    and reading these illustrates the tragedy of the narrow, authoritarian, condescending, one way, top down, patronising, condeming, take it or leave it, unempathetic, ( i could go on) attitude ( pedagogy?) of the othrodox left.

    The left have become like the very worst of teachers, the teacher we all hated, that stood at the front of the class, ranting and scrawling unintelligably on the board and shouted at us when we failed to understand, who never gave us a second chance and who condemned us instead of supporting us. It is no wonder that as so many hated these teachers so many in the w/c hate the left.

    I think we also could do well to return to looking at psychology, from Reich thru Carl Rogers. The mechanism of orthodox leftism of today fail to show any real analytical interest in why people do not become revolutionaries, yet again, back in the 6ts and 7ts many on the left did think and orgainise around this. I remember in the early 8ts the feeling that many of the people involved within these area had got lost in theorising! Understanding how people grow learn understand develop and change must surely be central to our politics.


  3. So – this is what you were up to last Monday, Dave, instead of doing the ironing!!!!!

    Not happy with you – and by the way, where’s the feminist perspective?

    Love you loads


  4. Reich thru to Rogers? I don’t think there’s much there of direct relevance to making parties — and Illich’s push is to negate class which I don’t agree with at all.Many of Reich’s formulations about psychology are however very useful and his seminal work, The Sexual Revolution is an important study.(Reich also influenced the work by Alexander Sutherland Neill at Summerhill School) A lot of it is cloud cuckoo stuff too. Carl Rogers is handy if you are running therapy sessions but is nonetheless a rich plea for humanism in psychology..

    However, in psychologistic mode, the core relevance lies with the work of Lev Vygotsky who advanced a more consistent and broader dialectic than Paolo Freire. You have to consider Freire’s pedagogy limitations as a party making tool, just as you have to get over the very narrow concept of a party being essentially a propaganda grouping.

    That’s a mistake. It’s also very idealist, I think.

    Vygotsky’s credentials are excellent. His application of dialectical materialism to human psychology — and later with Luria, to neurology — is a major current within the study of early child hood development so that there are many practicing Vygotskians on the planet today, most of whom are school teachers. His counterposed a Marxist analysis of the development of human thought and thinking to the rigid formulations advanced by Jean Piaget and later, by Noam Chomsky.

    There’s no self evdient contradiction between Freire’s work and Vygotsky’s, except that Vygotsky was a dedicated Marxist.

    But how you apply Vygotsky to party making is still open course work…


  5. To Dave Riley:
    I think in general I agree with the points you have made — although there a lot of them!
    You raise the figure of Lenin. The problem here is — which “Lenin” are we talking about? Both Stalinist and Trotskyist groups have their own versions of Lenin with quotations ripped from context to prove they are right. Your quote is a good one and shows Lenin as a dialectician where the party and the class has a dynamic dialectical relationship. The usual version of Lenin is as an advocate of an elitist, vanguard party leadership who have all the truths to teach their own members and the working class — who are seen as passive followers. This is top-down idealism not dialectical and therefore not Marxist. These groups do not even allow democratic discussion and functioning within their own organisations, let alone amongst the working class. It is entirely likely that both Marx and Lenin would be horrified at the interpretations given to their writings and by the actions of these groups in their names — but we don’t know that.

    What we do know is that the normal attitude of both Stalinists and Trots to “party building” is idealist and that their normal attitude to “scientific socialism” is mechanical materialist and deterministic. Dialectics do not feature. That is where Paulo Freire’s work is so refreshing because he discusses the dialectics of education, the dynamic process of pedagogy as against the sterile “Give them the facts”. And that is where Vygotsky is so important as well, as you point out — the dialectical approach to child development, as against his tutor Pavlov’s determinism. It is cognitive psychology as against behaviourism. I think Glynn’s points are valid and that Carl Rogers’ humanist approach as well as some of the Freudians from The Frankfurt School you mention would be part of a communist approach to psychology — which does not exist at the moment.

    On Corinne’s point about feminist perspectives, I think the feminist critique of bourgeois “scientific method” (eg the “standpoint theory” of Sandra Harding and Jean O’Barr) is correct and should be part of a communist approach to science. It is dialectical!

    By the way I am not an academic — but that’s another story.

    Dave Spencer


  6. Glyn, you may know of the Maurice Brinton pamphlet ‘The Irrational in Politics’ which offers a very interesting appraisal of Wilhelm Reich’s ideas (perhaps sidestepping somewhat the very odd ideas Reich later developed on orgones etc!). Such questions (education, consciousness/culture and psychology, not orgones…) are indeed often ignored by the left.

    I used to really rave about how great ‘The Irrational in Politics’ is, as it was one of the first things really drawing me away from Trotskyism. It has however been pointed out to me that in spite of the second part, which documents accurately enough the Bolsheviks’ denial of women’s rights and perpetuation of bourgeois-family culture (even) before Stalinism, its gender politics are poor. Not only in that it constantly uses ‘He’ to refer to unknown individuals, e.g.

    “this meant one had to recognise some obvious facts, namely that the worker had a childhood, that he was brought up by parents themselves conditioned by the society in which they lived, that he had a wife and children”… etc…

    … but also that it in general lacks any sophisticated understanding of the role of gender division in society, sexism and the division of labour and only refers to those questions superficially.


  7. I just came across this article and comments. People may be interested to know that Freire is is making a comeback in the world of UK ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) through the ‘Reflect for Esol’ project – an excellent thing to be happening, in the teeth of the intensification of the skills-based, target-driven model of education now dominant in Esol.


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