Key series: Critical Pedagogy and Alternative Education

Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution
Peter McLaren
465 pp – $42.95 (USD, Softcover)
ISBN 978-1-4331-2896-7
New York: Peter Lang, 2015

By Charles Reitz

MCLaren_Pedagogy of Insurrection-2015Full disclosure: I consider myself an intellectual co-conspirator and pedagogical comrade of Peter McLaren. The critical theoretical power of his analyses has been particularly formative in my own work. Most recently his Pedagogy of Insurrection (2015), but also his Capitalists & Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy Against Empire (2005), Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, and the Pedagogy of Revolution (2000), Revolutionary Multiculturalism: Pedagogies of Dissent for the New Millennium (1997), and Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture (1995) have framed my own critical perspective on politics, pedagogy, and praxis.

Among McLaren’s (2015) most recent contributions is a new discussion of the relationship between education and struggle. This concerns the formation of critical consciousness (i.e. theory formation) and its relationship to radical practice. In a fashion that I take to be a Copernican revolution reversing conventional thinking on the matter, he writes:

Critical consciousness is not the root of commitment to revolutionary struggle but rather the product of such a commitment. An individual does not have to be critically self-conscious and well-versed in the theories of the Frankfurt School or the writings of liberation theologians in order to feel the obligation to help the poor and the dispossessed. In fact, it is in the very act of struggling along-side the oppressed that individuals become critically conscious and aware and motivated to help others. Praxis begins with practice. (McLaren, 2015; pp. 29-30)

This educative power of struggle is illustrated in a recent high profile showdown between students and administrators over institutional racism and related conflicts at “Mizzou,” the University of Missouri, Columbia. Here theoretical deficiencies on the part of the top administration, especially their lack of familiarity with features of the multicultural educational reform movement, led to swift disaster for the system President, Timothy Wolfe. After a semester of student protests―against cost-cutting measures (proposals to eliminate the University of Missouri Press and drastic cuts in health care and other benefits for graduate teaching assistants); against administrative decisions to eliminate the privileges of Planned Parenthood doctors at the university hospital; against administrative cultural insensitivity to issues arising from bigotry on campus; and against the university’s passivity regarding lethal racism in law enforcement at nearby Ferguson, Missouri―system President Wolfe (one of the new corporate kind of university CEOs with no academic background) was cell-phone-videoed responding ineffectually when challenged directly by black students to define “systematic oppression.”[1] When he said this was a matter of the perceptions of discrimination held by the black students, the protesters were aghast, and regarded his response as dismissive victim-blaming. When the video went viral, the struggle widened dramatically with black members of the university’s Division 1 football team announcing that they would strike until Wolfe resigned or was removed from office. A key economic pressure point had been found. The coach and concerned faculty supported the student strikers, and system President Wolfe and campus chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin, resigned seemingly unassailable positions of power in a matter of days.

The social movements of our age have been civilizing forces. BLM [Black Lives Matter], with whom the Mizzou students were allied, has effectively educated the nation about the real nature of undemocratic governance (in municipalities and higher education institutions), and the cavalier use of racist deadly force (on and off the campus). The organized social struggles against racism, sexism, poverty, war, and imperialism, have educated wide swaths of this country’s population outside traditional classrooms about alienation and oppression, power and empowerment. The professoriate, as such, certainly did not lead in these educational efforts, although many individual college teachers, like Peter McLaren now, and Herbert Marcuse in the past, played key roles.

Peter McLaren’s Pedagogy of Insurrection highlights his political-economic focus early on. Its leading section, “Solving the Problem of Inequality: The Market Is Not a Sustainable or Livable Community,” begins with the foundational recognition that “Schools in the main reflect the inequality found in the structure of capitalist society” (p. 19). He makes clear: “the market is not a community. It is only possible to realize your humanity if you are educated in an authentic community . . . . Critical educators assume the position that equality is both a precondition and outcome for establishing community, and a community is a precondition for deep democracy” (pp. 21, 23).

Revolutionary critical educators question capitalist concepts―such as wage labor and value production―alongside their students in order to consider alternative ways of subsisting and learning in the world so as to continually transform it along the arc of social and economic justice. . . . As such, critical pedagogy calls for a movement that is anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-heterosexist and pro-democratic. (p. 35)

This is classic McLaren.

Yet much in Pedagogy of Insurrection takes a surprising and visionary “turn.” To “enrich the debate about the future of humanity” (p. 395), McLaren breaks new ground with several daring, controversial, and well-founded essays on:

1) “Comrade Jesus,”― linking his work to that of Cornel West and Chris Hedges, both radical socialist Christians, and to Thomas Piketty’s contributions in rethinking inequality. “I do not suddenly mention this [the teachings of Jesus] out of some otherworldly penchant, but for a concern for the here and the now. The majority of American citizens are Christians of some denomination or other, and it is important to point out as an incontrovertible fact that the message of Jesus in the Gospels is focused on the liberation of the poor from captivity and oppression” (p. 103).

2) “Comrade Chavez”― McLaren’s long-standing appreciation for the political praxis of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro animates his earlier writings and continues in this volume. And now a discussion of the nature of the socialist leadership of Hugo Chavez is elaborated. “Venezuela’s ongoing Bolivarian Revolution [does not] seem hindered by a lack of poststructuralist insight” (p. 197). “Chávez was not about to let the business sector set the priorities for public education and thereby colonize the commons with the ideas of the transnationalist capitalist class in which the knowledge most valued is that which is the most exploitable in a capitalist economy, and where knowledge becomes fragmented, instrumentalized and narrowly specialized, and is destined to produce self-alienating subjectivities” (p. 171). The electoral successes of Chavez offer strategic lessons.

3) Revolutionary eco-pedagogy and the concept of planetary comunalidad“Critical educators, who have addressed for decades and with firm commitment topics of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and other social justice issues are now casting their eyes to the antagonism between capitalism and nature to ask themselves how we can rationally regulate the human metabolic relation with nature. In our struggle for a ‘transformed economy founded on the nonmonetary values of social justice and ecological balance’ we don’t follow a productivist socialism or capitalist market ecology. We emphasize use value, not exchange value and ‘a liberation from the alienating economic ‘laws’ of the growth-oriented capitalist system’” (p. 301). “[Vandana] Shiva’s general principle of ‘earth democracy’ (2005) is congruent with the idea that the foundations of the means of production in land, seed, water and so on, need to be kept in perpetuity by an arranged social commons” (p. 316). Following Mayer, et al. (2010), McLaren contends “’Comunalidad is a Oaxacan concept that serves as a type of cosmovision, and it deals with ‘the complex intertwining of history, morality, spirituality, kinship and communal practices’ [derived from] ’[t]he concept of reciprocity . . . that requires the other or others to make . . . equivalent response[s], and it is meant to be a permanent relation and inclusive of all members of the community’” (p. 328). My own concept of green commonwealth finds a profound resonance here.

4) Radicalizing education in and through music― McLaren confesses: “My imagination . . . is surrealist and situationist, my spirit is ecumenical and my soul has been humbled by the martyrdom of saints such as Archbishop Óscar Romero. But I can say firsthand that my heart perpetually sings the blues” (pp. 337-38). “Approaching music education from the perspective of revolutionary critical pedagogy will require music educators . . . [to engage] with the notion of the proletarian subject, given that what we stand to lose today is the entire human race (and non-human life as well) and the planet through capital accumulation, war and environmental catastrophe . . . We do this through our protagonistic identification with the oppressed and by enacting a praxis of interculturality” (p. 350). “What song and musicing can do―along with theater and other ‘unorthodox’ approaches to teaching and learning―is to provide alternative and oppositional ontologies and epistemologies that can then serve as mediating languages for reading the word and the world dialectically. This is certainly true in the music of Rage Against the Machine” (pp. 344-45).

5) Guns in the service of capital—“Regardless of rhetoric, guns are mass-produced to kill . . . .” (p. 357). The idea that guns preserve democracy constitutes an unconscionable and egregious swindle of benevolence that is unfathomable in the face of continuous bloodshed” (p. 355). “[G]uns form part of the broader military-industrial complex that encompasses our military, the prison system, the law enforcement industry, the border patrol industry, weapons manufacturing corporations, marketing strategists, training schools and gun safety and crime prevention programs” (p. 357). “We see the interests of the elite capitalist class too clearly in the failure to restrict guns even after such atrocious events as the recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut” (p. 358).

6) The praxis of negation― “We do not want to fit into this destructive society of commodified, monetized relations of capitalism. We refuse to live within relations of subordination wrought by capital with its ever-increasing rate of exploitation. We will not let capital define and redefine us according to its need to maintain its rate of profit” (p. 341). McLaren generously cites my own work on dialectics: “In the language of dialectical materialism, a knowledge that enables the social negation of the social negation of creative labor constitutes the foundation of all critical knowledge (Reitz, 2000)” (p. 343).

7) In its conclusion Pedagogy of Insurrection offers a script to be performed primarily on college campuses, complete with stage directions, expressing the utter revulsion and disgust many of us, educators and students (and especially those of undergraduate age), feel at how perfectly “f…”-ed most of us are in this society. McLaren calls this dramatic theater piece “critical rage pedagogy.” “We are the children of 1968 and of hip-hop; we will not accept bribes; we will not accept financial compensation; we refuse to let our subjectivities be cooked in the ovens of the state; we refuse to ask permission for anything; we refuse to be colonized or to colonize; we refuse to be exiled from our own flesh; we refuse to let our languages, our songs, our histories and our dreams be expropriated by the mass media. We will not let capital disfigure us” (pp. 392-93). This sense of sensuous indignation needs to find expression, and McLaren expresses it. He is reminding us that, like Hamlet, we must harken to the ghosts of those murdered with impunity by sovereign powers (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, and unnamed thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria). We are consigned to consider and to act against the disgrace and dishonor of passivity or complicity with a rotten (vile and grotesque) system. Even if there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, like Prometheus, we are entrusted to care for the prophetic fire―through perpetual engagement in cultural action for freedom.


[1] Joe Nocera, “Athletes’ Potential Realized in Resignation,” The New York Times, November 10, 2015 p. B13. See also John Eligon and Richard Perez-Peña, “Campus Protests at Missouri Spur a Day of Change,” The New York Times, November 10, 2015, A1. The impact of the Mizzou action has sparked a nation-wide campus movement with multidimensional issues and concerns. See


Meyer, L., Kirwin, J., & Toober, E. (2010). An open-ended closing. In L. Meyer & B. M. Alvarado, New world of Indigenous resistance: Noam Chomsky and voices from North, South and Central America. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.

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Charles Reitz

Charles Reitz

Reitz recently retired as Professor of Philosophy and Social Science at Kansas City Kansas Community College, where he also served as Director of Multicultural Education and President of the Faculty Association (KNEA). He was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1946. He attended Canisius College, 1964-68, the University of Freiburg, Germany, 1969-71, and received his PhD in educational philosophy from the University of Buffalo in 1983. He is married to Roena L. Haynie, emerita professor and chair of Social Science at Avila University, Kansas City. Reitz is the author of several publications on the educational and political philosophy of Herbert Marcuse including "Art, Alienation, and the Humanities: A Critical Engagement with Herbert Marcuse" (SUNY Press, 2000) which received a 2002 Critics' Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association; "Marcuse in America: Exile as Educator" in Fast Capitalism, online edition, issue 5.2, Fall 2009; "Herbert Marcuse and the Humanities: Emancipatory Education and Predatory Culture," and "Herbert Marcuse and the New Culture Wars," in Douglas Kellner, Tyson Lewis, Clayton Pierce, K. Daniel Cho, Marcuse's Challenge to Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).