Paulo Freire on revolutionary leadership

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is commonly read as a text for progressively-minded teachers, but less so as a text for aspiring revolutionaries. However, scattered throughout the text is a recurring concern for the correct methods of revolutionary leadership, specifically as it relates to building relationships of solidarity with the oppressed.

This flows from the fact that the role of critical pedagogy is not simply to reveal structures of oppression — but also to empower and humanize those who have an interest in overthrowing it.

Below is an except from Chapter 1 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed where Freire comments on the difference between treating the oppressed as subjects rather than objects, and underscores the need to work for liberation with the oppressed rather than on their behalf. After all, Marx famously said that “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.

The correct method for a revolutionary leadership to employ in the task of liberation is, thus, not “libertarian propaganda.” Nor can the leadership merely “implant” in the oppressed a belief in freedom, thus thinking to win their trust. The correct method lies in dialogue. The conviction of the oppressed that they must fight for their liberation is not a gift bestowed by the revolutionary leadership, but the result of their own conscentizacao [critical consciousness].

The revolutionary leaders must realize that their own conviction of the necessity for struggle (an indispensable dimension of revolutionary wisdom) was not given to them by anyone else — if it is authentic. This conviction cannot be packaged and sold; it is the leaders’ own involvement in reality, within an historical situation, led them to criticize this situation and to wish to change it.

Likewise, the oppressed (who do not commit themselves to the struggle unless they are convinced, and who, if they do not make such a commitment, withhold the indispensable conditions for this struggle) must reach this conviction as Subjects, not as objects. They must also intervene critically in the situation which surrounds them and whose mark they bear; propaganda cannot achieve this. While the conviction of the necessity for struggle (without which the struggle is unfeasible) is indispensable to the revolutionary leadership (indeed, it was this conviction which constituted that leadership), it is also necessary for the oppressed. It is necessary, that is, unless one intends to carry out the transformation for the oppressed rather than with them.

— Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993. p. 49.