Review of 'Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution'

Zane C. Wubbena I Education I Book Review I October 8th, 2015

The following is a review of

Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution

Peter McLaren, New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2015

Critical pedagogy, in a strikingly similar manner to the religious tradition of Christianity, has come to reflect the internalization of dominant, elite ideology where capitalism goes uncontested for a feel-good sense of human progress. But, as Rancière (1991) tells us, "progress is the pedagogical fiction built into the fiction of society as a whole" (p. 118). We might then ask ourselves: why do so many people commonsensically and with such steadfast conviction, unquestionably wedge their support for elite leadership, characterized by religious beliefs, policies, and discourses, while these contradict or running counter to their own political economic and cultural interests? It is here that Peter McLaren's (2015) Pedagogy of Insurrection: From Resurrection to Revolution makes its contribution. McLaren's book is a mammoth text of interpretative possibility, where readers will find themselves juggling new interpretations and insights that make way for connections that extend well beyond the book's cover. The book comprises a foreword by E. San Juan and a preface by Michael Peters, along with an introduction, 12 chapters, and an afterword by Lilia Monzó. In this respect, the aim of this brief review is to be selective while also maintaining the integrity of the book.

For those unfamiliar or just coming into revolutionary critical pedagogy, McLaren has served as a pedagogical guidepost for this tradition, providing direction but never prescription, for the transformation of our social order toward socialism and then communism. Thus, critical pedagogy is always political and, further, always grounded in a critique of capitalism. For McLaren, the transformation of the social order is not temporal, or at some future moment, but rather the possibilities for transformation are within a dialectic of the present conditions of capitalism. From the dialectic come praxis, reflection and action, for the purpose of revolutionary transformation. Revolutionary scholar-activists often trace their knowledge of the ontological present to Marx's critique of political economy. It is this understanding of the ontological present that provides the impetus for a negation of capital leading to socialist transformation and a communist future. McLaren illustrates that communism antedates Marx and can be found in the teachings of Jesus by providing a critique of contemporary Christianity and, thus, McLaren opens the possibility to include Christians in the revolutionary struggle for a more human future.

McLaren opens new possibilities as well as new challenges and struggles for the dialectic that can be observed with a collection of comrades: including Paulo Freire, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. While chapters one through five build a coalition of comrades as illustrative examples of revolutionary potential, it is in chapter one that McLaren brings the reader into an encounter with Comrade Jesus Christ. To make this encounter possible, McLaren provides a reinterpretation of common misconceptions associated with bourgeois notions of Christianity. Through Marxist-humanist praxis, McLaren opens up new opportunities for critical pedagogy to extend beyond the classroom and into the community in order to situate a revolutionary reading of the Bible and the teaching of communism by Comrade Jesus. McLaren draws on the revolutionary potential of the Bible, cautiously, through an apt awareness of the hermeneutical necessity and its limitations. By bringing readers into an encounter with the communist teachings of Comrade Jesus, McLaren emphasizes the insertion of critical spirituality in social transformation. The possibilities for critical spirituality to contribute to revolution is an important contribution, because so often in the critical traditions religion is found to "alienate humanity from itself by permanently displacing itself in an abstract God, [and an] atheism limited by the fact that it is a theoretical position" (Malott & Ford, 2015, p. 21). McLaren, therefore, situates critical spirituality as an integral, foregrounding dimension to revolutionary transformation.

McLaren's critique of mainstream interpretations of the Biblical text and the teachings of Jesus troubles what has become the perceived compatibility of Christianity with capitalism. What McLaren finds is that contemporary bourgeois readings of the Bible disregard the hermeneutic for a selective, cafeteria buffet-style reading that only and always supports capitalism. This critique, thus, helps to unlock the emancipatory potential of liberation theology. It is also timely considering that wealth and income inequality, especially among Christians, are at the highest levels in the history of the United States. Christians must come to terms with how capitalists have blasphemed against Jesus in their misinterpretations of the Bible's reference to wealth. McLaren shows that Jesus did not condemn absolute wealth, but rather Jesus condemned relative wealth, for example, Jesus said, " And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (p. 106).

Building on the communist teachings of Jesus, McLaren strengthens the transformative power of Marx's critique of capitalism by situating Marx's vision for a communist future in the Biblical teachings of Jesus. McLaren shows how Marx grounded his vision of communism by paraphrasing the communist teachings of Jesus. For example, Marx wrote, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" (p. 107).

The first part of the principle-from each according to their ability-can be understood to mean that all members of society will have the right to use their creative abilities to produce that which benefits the entire society. The second part of the principle-to each according to their needs-explains that citizens will receive from society a fair return for their labor, that is, what is necessary to fulfill their needs. Needs here does not simply refer to material needs, although material needs must be met in order for other needs to be satisfied. (p. 107)

In an interview with Sebastjan Leban, in chapter six, and an interview with Petar Jandrić, in chapter seven, McLaren articulates the parameters of revolutionary critical pedagogy (see also Malott & Ford, 2015). Revolutionary critical pedagogy is grounded in a Marxist-humanismt that places the dialectic as central to human transformation through praxis. This negation that occurs in the present conditions of capitalism is dependent on not only human consciousness but also the material object of negation itself-that is, the negation of the negation. For example, McLaren writes, "Saying 'no' to capital, for instance, constitutes a first negation" (p. 100). It is this first negation where so much of critical pedagogy has become recursively situated. However, to transcend capitalism, we must go one step further- "in order to abolish capital, the negation of private property must itself be negated, which would be the achievement of a positivity-a positive humanism-beginning with itself. … If you stop before this second negation then you are presupposing that having is more important than being" (emphasis added; p. 100). Education, thus, becomes an end-means in itself of creativity (see Biesta, 2014).

In chapters eight and nine, McLaren outlines a "revolutionary critical ecopedagogy" and summons music as a radicalizing force for education. McLaren's ecopedagogy denotes a critique of the capitalist attack on the environment by highlighting the importance for a sustainable future, where capitalism is turned into its negated alternative and the nation state works as an institution to maximize the advantage for the least advantaged in society. McLaren writes,

In this view, any state that fails to provide food, home, education, shelter and medical assistance to its populace is considered "unnatural" and should not be left to die out but should be overturned and a new regime replanted in the soil of the old. (p. 310)

The radicalizing of education in and through music can occur through different genres; rap and hip-hop, the blues, jazz, punk, reggae, rock can serve as a vehicle for class consciousness and the expressive force of resistance as a form of cultural production-but, this cultural production is always incomplete and must take into account and be grounded in capitalist social relations.

In chapter 10 McLaren focuses on the panopticon of surveillance to control Mexican immigration and the militarization of the border, including guns that "supply both sides of the war on drugs and serve to terrorize Mexican communities in Mexico" (p. 368). Chapter 11 homes in on education and class warfare. In this chapter, McLaren examines market reforms in education, like charter schools that serve as sites for accumulation of private profit, and Obama's push for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). STEM serves merely to create surplus labor while poverty is framed as a problem that can be fixed while the frame itself, as an inevitably effect rooted in capitalism, escapes unchallenged.

Next McLaren presents-and performs-a critical rage of catharsis to self expression. Here we find McLaren give an expression to his culling of colligated class-consciousness and rage of resistance and struggle. This rage of catharsis to self, for the reader as it is for McLaren is therapeutic in nature. Through this expressive psychological fix addressing the myriad forms of physical and symbolic violence of capitalism, McLaren essentially reground and renews revolutionary pedagogical critique as something that is always an end and a mean, where a more human future is situated within the present conditions of capitalism. One of the most groundbreaking features of the text takes place in this chapter, and it is a stylistic innovation that weaves together content and form in a truly innovative way, in a way that few-if any-in education or academia dare write today. We see sentences like:

Now, when I dream, I discover myself squatting atop a Gothic cathedral, whose gargoyles perched below my feet are spouting the blood of history's time-enduring saints to quell the maelstrom of angry crowds below-crowds made up of the powerless, the forgotten, the excluded, victims caught in the crossfire of capitalism (the result of watching too many of your Zombie or vampire films, no doubt). I peer down at the collarless, blood-covered, and spindle-shanked figures below, shafts of brilliant light slicing through the clouds that hover hesitatingly over the entangled gloom, and then the noxious exhalation of putrid effluvia wafting upwards from the dank and pungent sewer mist rises to meet the light, and suddenly everyone is playing and celebrating in the city streets, like neighborhood kids who have yanked open a fire hydrant during a heat wave. But what are they celebrating?

What McLaren does in Pedagogy of Insurrection is to widen the call for a revolutionary critical pedagogy. By highlighting the betrayal of the Biblical teachings of Jesus for a more human future, McLaren foregrounds Marx's critique of capital while opening the praxis of a revolutionary critical pedagogy up to Christians, environmentalists, and those concerned with nature, and revolution as music to the soul for a transformation of capitalism to socialism and then communism. This first contribution in particular will no doubt be quite controversial, both for Christians and for Marxists. It is safe to say that we can expect this book to incite challenges, and McLaren is certainly eager to take on dialogues about these important issues.

What McLaren makes clear, and as other critical scholars have argued, is that "pedagogies that do not take political economy into consideration can be subsumed within and made to work to perpetuate capitalist economic and social relations" (Malott & Ford, 2015, p. 50). We find an alternative to capitalism only by critiquing capitalism itself through the negation of materialism with that humanism. Thus, critiques of race, gender, and dis/ability must be grounded in a critique of capital and the material conditions of exclusion and oppression rather than discourses of difference that submit themselves to capitalist logic. Revolutionary critical pedagogy has an essential role to play not only for education and public pedagogy but also for transforming the material conditions for the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.


Biesta, G. (2014). The beautiful risk of education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Malott, C., & Ford, D. (2015). Marx, capital, and education: Toward a critical pedagogy of becoming. New York, NY, Peter Lang.

Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Zane C. Wubbena is a PhD student in education at Texas State University. His studying is informed by critical educational theory, socio-spatial theory, and communications theory with a focus on the interactions of dis/ability, pedagogy, mass media, and space. His publications have appeared in the journals Critical Education, Learning and Individual Differences, Kappa Delta Pi Record, Teaching and Learning in Medicine, the International Journal of Medical Education, and The SoJo Journal: Educational Foundations & Social Justice Education, and Educational Philosophy and Theory. He has an edited book (with Derek R. Ford and Brad Porfilio), titled News Media and the Neoliberal Privatization of Public Education forthcoming through IAP. He also serves as the website director for the John Dewey Society. He can be reached at