Professing Education


Traveling the Path of Most Resistance: Peter McLaren's Pedagogy of Dissent
(Part II)

Interview with Peter McLaren

University of California, Los Angeles

This is a continuation of our interview with Peter McLaren. The first half of this interview can be found in the June issue of Professing Education - Volume 2, Number 1. It is also available online at:

Kenneth McClelland: Democracy as a form of Government and democracy as an ideal for the guiding of one's conduct in life represent two different aspects of what democracy might be about and for. Can you speak briefly to what this means for Professors of Education, to the notion that teaching for intelligent and effective citizenship might involve criticism not only of the external political sphere, but also of one's own personal sphere of conduct?

Peter McLaren: Let's look at the epistemological and axiological basis of democracy, just for a moment. I very much oppose judging a society as more just or less just primarily on the basis of maximizing minimal well being for the poor and the powerless. Relative improvement in conditions for the subaltern, for society's poor and powerless, for the castaways, for los olvidados, does not cut the mustard for me. Nor did it for Marx, from whose work I draw my inspiration. Your question gives me an opportunity to explain why, in the main, I shy away from the concept of education as social justice when the concept of social justice generally is reduced to the redistribution of material wealth. I think to understand my position I need to address this issue.

My own work has moved away from a liberal, Rawlsian or Habermasian conception of social justice premised on the idea of a democratic society preoccupied by the logic of reformism, to, as I mentioned earlier, the idea of a socialist society actively engaged in revolutionary transformation. Let me give you the conceptual basis of the reason that my work has taken this shift. When the production of inequalities begins to affect the weakest, only then does capitalist society consider an injustice to have occurred. Daniel Bensaid (2002), following Marx, points out the irreconcilability of theories of justice —such as those by Rawls and Habermas — and Marx's critique of political economy. Liberal theories of justice attempt to harmonize individual interests in the private sphere. But Bensaid points out, correctly in my view, that you can't allocate the collective productivity of social labor individually; the concept of cooperation and mutual agreement between individuals is a formalist fiction. You can't reduce social relations of exploitation to intersubjective relations. In the Rawlsian conception of the social contract, its conclusions are built into its premises. Bensaid elaborates on his Marxian critique of Rawls by arguing that within political theories of justice, the concept of inequality is tied to the notion of creating a fair equality of opportunity and that these conditions of equal opportunity are to serve the greatest benefit to the least advantaged in society. It is possible for inequality to exist as long as such inequalities make a functional contribution to the expectations of the least advantaged. Bensaid puts it thusly: "This hypothesis pertains to an ideology of growth commonly illustrated the `shares of the cake': so long as the cake gets bigger, the smallest share likewise continues to grow, even if the largest grows more quickly and the difference between them increases." The political conception of justice, be it Rawls or Habermas, doesn't hold in the face of real, existing inequality premised on the reproduction of the social relations of exploitation. The political theory of justice only makes sense in a world devoid of class conflict; in a world primarily driven by intersubjectivity and communicative rationality. Here, class relations and property relations are dissolved in a formal world of inter-individual juridical relations.

This viewpoint accepts a priori the despotism of the market; the whole question of production — and I would return you to the technical explanation of the labor theory of value in my previous question in which I start with Marx from production in order to ground reproduction — is displaced, in fact, is evaded. Let me quote Bensaid (2002) again, who writes: "Capitalist exploitation is unjust from the standpoint of the class that suffers it. There is thus no theory of justice in itself, only a justice relative to the mode of production that it proposes to improve and temper, sharing the old and false commonsensical view that it is pointless to redistribute the wealth of the rich, as opposed to helping them perform their wealth-creating role better, with a view to increasing the size of the common cake!" ( p. 156). As long as you focus one-sidedly on distribution, you create a cover, an alibi in fact, for the social relations of production, for the exploitation of workers by capitalists. Privatization, denationalization, and schools subjected to the guidelines of the private sector — promoted by the OECD, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the European Union _ are the logical result of the logic of profit maximization that drives capitalism. There is talk now of developing a world market of education in the framework of the General Agreement on Trade of Services (GATS). The privatization of education is becoming generalized to the degree that it is being perceived as fundamental to democracy.

If you want to talk about the distribution of objects of consumption — and education certainly has become one of them — then I would, after Marx, urge you to talk about the distribution of the conditions of production, and, of course, we could now enter into a conversation about NAFTA, and the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and development and underdevelopment. But these arguments are now significantly established in the radical educational literature so let's stop here.

K. M.: Some have proposed a new paradigm for the left that is much more Darwinian in its approach to understanding and changing those conditions that afflict the poor, the oppressed, and the otherwise disadvantaged within society. It appears to maintain the core of those things that are and have been integral to a genuine left bearing (fighting unnecessary suffering of the weak and poor, of the exploited and the cheated), yet offers a Darwinian rationale for cooperation that takes seriously both competitive self-interest and altruism. Peter Singer's short, but provocative book dealing with this theme is a case in point, and it offers a kind of counter-narrative to Marxism. For those who profess education from a traditionally left perspective, but who recognize that a certain ennui and impotence has befallen the left in recent times, what is your take on the possibility of a revitalized cooperative left emanating from a more genuinely Darwinian perspective? Is there a real, and perhaps more realistic, alternative here to Marxist and neo-Marxist thinking or will it just become the plaything for old fashioned social Darwinist demagogues?

P. M.: Well, you are referring here to the book, A Darwinian Left, by Peter Singer. I'm familiar with that book but not especially familiar with left Darwinism as a contemporary movement. Let's look at Singer's conception of left Darwinism for a moment. On the one hand, I like the fact that Singer condemns the dangers of a reactionary sociobiology but on the other hand, I seriously question Singer's notion of utilitarianism as the basis of the principle of human nature. Not to mention that Singer really has presented an underdeveloped and in many respects misguided critique of Marxism. His notion that Marx got it wrong because of the history of failed communist governments is puerile. It's too silly even to debate this notion. Singer also goes on to claim that Marx's most serious sin is his idea that there is no fixed human nature. Human nature supposedly changes with every change in the mode of production. And Marx supposedly committed another serious sin when he worked from the perspective of the perfectibility of humankind.

According to Singer, Marx and Engels claimed to have discovered the laws of human historical development that would lead to communist society and that according to these laws, the victory of the proletariat was ensured. Singer is critical of Marx's notion that social existence determines consciousness. Whereas a Darwinian sees greed, egotism, personal ambition and envy as a consequence of our nature, the Marxist would see these as the consequence of living in a society with private property and the private ownership of the means of production. Without these social arrangements, Singer believes that, according to Marx, the nature of people would be transformed such that people would no longer be concerned with their private interests. Darwinians believe that the way in which the mode of production influences our ideas, our politics, and our consciousness is through the specific features of our biological inheritance, and that if we want to reshape society, we need to modify our abstract ideals so that they suit our biological tendencies. According to the Darwininan perspective, all those who profess to be guided by motives other than self-profit — what Marx would call `gross materialism _ are the unwitting victims of an idealist illusion.

Prescinding from this enfeebling yet all-too-familiar interpretation of Marx, let's examine that famous sentence of Marx's (in Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) of which Singer is so critical: "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." As far back as 1980, Jose Miranda pointed out that Marx's notion of determination must be understood in a way that is not deterministic because the German verb bestimmen is all too often translated as "to determine" and this verb means a lot of things unrelated to determinism. (Miranda notes that this major mistake in translation can be linked to translations into languages derived from Latin, where the basic word appears as a form of determinaire.) In Marx's use of this term he in no way excludes the concept of human freedom or contingency; in fact, he uses the term dialectically. Marx makes a fuller explanation of what he meant by consciousness in German Ideology. Marx never forgot that just as circumstances help to form human beings, human beings also help to form circumstances. In contrast to what many critics of Marx claim, human beings for Marx are far from the passive actors of historical processes. Marx did not believe that there was no such thing as human nature. He argued that humans are biological, anatomical, physiological and psychological beings. He argued that an individual's human nature must be addressed, but must also be understood in terms of how it has been modified in each historical epoch. In fact, Marx went so far as to contrast constant or fixed drives (such as hunger and the sexual urge) which are integral and can be changed only in form and cultural direction and the relative appetites (which are not an integral part of human nature and which owe their origin to conditions of production and communication). Humans were species-beings whose natures were clearly trans-historical and relatively unchanging in many respects (see Fromm, 2000). Marx distinguishes clearly between the laws of nature and the result of humans making a choice. Clearly, human beings produce their social relations just as they produce material goods; they are their own products as well as the products of history. And of history, it is quite clear that Marx did not view history mechanically, as if it was some wind-up sequence of causes and effects. Marx is interested in the laws of tendency within economics, not history's predictive capacity or laws of historical inevitability. History for Marx was always pregnant with possibility.

Marx did not reject the notion of human nature so much as a universal and timeless concept of human nature. Marx clearly could identify human characteristics that are universal and historically invariant and which set limits to the plasticity of human nature. This contrasts with the view of Rorty, who believes there are no biological or metaphysical limits on human plasticity. My friend Richard Litchman presciently notes, "the very notion of human nature as a tabula rasa is self-contradictory. Even a blank slate must have such properties as will permit the acceptance of the chalk, as the wax accepts the stylus, the inscribing tool. The issue is not whether there is a common nature, but what precisely that nature is" (cited in Sayers, 1998). When human beings make themselves their own creator by producing their own means of subsistence, then this signals the beginning of human history. The act of production creates new needs, something that Marx referred to as the first historical act. It is important to see Marx's understanding of human nature within the dialectical relationship of needs and productive powers. New needs are created through the productive activity we engage in to satisfy our universal needs, and this activity has to be seen in terms of the social relations which are themselves ultimately determined by such needs (Sayers, 1998). New forms of productive activity may result, and, indeed, new productive powers. Needs never arise in a vacuum. That is why in concrete conditions, human nature, in general, does not exist. Marx is interested in the social development of needs, beyond those necessary only for biological survival.

Singer's left Darwinism is not very helpful as a ground for social explanation without understanding, for instance, how jealousy, or selfishness has been realized in social individuals who are the products of a specific mode of production or a particular historical period. From a historical materialist point of view, nature is a precondition of human development and not an explanation of it. You can't explain the social in terms of the concept of the natural. The laws of natural evolution can't be transferred to social evolution. For Marx, social and moral developments are judged on how they impact on the growth of human nature in terms of the creation of powers and capacities. The stress in Marx is the development of new needs. As Sean Sayers notes: "Paradoxical as it at first seems, the ideal is the human being `rich in needs'. For on Marx's view this is equivalent to the development of human powers and capacities, the development of human nature" (1998, p. 164). True wealth, for Marx, lies precisely in the development of human nature. That is why I prefer Marx's Hegelian historicist approach to human nature over Singer's utilitarian and consequentialist approach to human nature. When Singer claims that the Russian revolution failed because the revolutionaries failed to consider the invariant need on the part of human beings for power and authority, such an argument is as specious as Yak dung. Now what I like about Singer's work is his interest in the evolution of human co-operation. And he claims that most human beings won't co-operate unless it serves their own interests to do so. His notion of reciprocal altruism based on an evolutionary view of human psychology certainly is worth investigating. I like the fact that he wants a less anthropocentric view of our dominance over nature, and to cease our exploitation of non-human animals (something that appeals to my commitment to animal rights), and his commitment to stand on the side of the weak. My commitment is that the development of new and creative vital powers will be best served in the struggle for socialism.

K. M.: I just finished a book on American Progressivism by Roberto Unger and Cornel West, and in it they make what might seem a few radical suggestions. One is that voting should be made mandatory (much like jury duty) with the penalty of a fine to those who do not vote. The other is that the major commercial television networks should be required to grant ample and equal free time to candidates campaigning for office. This would be a condition of their licensing rather than a service paid for by taxpayers. Certainly, one might anticipate grumbling about protection of rights from the 50% plus of the population who presently do not vote, and from CEOs of the television networks who might deem such a measure unfair market interference. Is there a broader democratic good that might be served by enacting such measures, that might lead to more genuine education of and for the people?

P. M.: At some level, ensuring that all the people will vote, that the entire vox populi will be heard, could be beneficial—I would like to think that if more Americans voted in the last election, that we wouldn't have the Bush administration. But of course, we have voter fraud in the United States, and what happened in Florida with the Bush mafia is a good example. What happened there — especially to ensure thousands of African-American votes would not be counted — was a shameful moment in U.S. history. But what good is voting — except as a mere formalist gesture — when the options are so perversely narrow? When you are really making a choice between a hard neo-liberalism and a harder neo-liberalism, between a benevolent imperialism and a more pernicious one under the imperial imperative of the Bush Doctrine of endless and boundless war. Tens of millions of protesters expressed throughout the world, for example on February 15th, with the rejection of the war on Iraq. It was the most unpopular war in history. And yet elected officials ignored the will of the people. It takes a fortune to win elections and they say the United States has the best democracy money can buy. It has the best media money can buy, too. And moneyed interests are linked to the military industrial complex _ just take a look at who owns the major television stations and then see what else is produced by these companies — well, you can trace it all to the killing machines used to support the genocidal activities of Latin American dictators and of White House administrations who have carried out military strikes throughout the world fairly regularly, ever since the end of WWII. Of course, there are some real differences between the Republicans and the Democrats, and some important ones, such as a woman's right to choose, etc. And, yes, I don't want to trivialize that. So having two options I guess is better than having none, even though the two options you are given are still cut from the same imperialist cloth.



Bensaid, Daniel. (2002). Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique. Translated by Gregory Elliot. London and New York: Verso.

Fromm, Erich. (2000). Marx's Concept of Man. New York: Continuum.

Marx, Karl. (1970). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederich. (1970). The German Ideology, Part 1, edited by C.J. Arthur. New York: International Publishers.

Miranda, Jose. (1980). Marx Against the Marxists. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Sayers, Sean. (1998). Marxism and Human Nature. London and New York: Routledge.

Singer, Peter. (1999). A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Peter McLaren is professor in the Division of Urban Schooling, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author and editor of forty books on the sociology of education, critical pedagody, and critical social theory. He is also the inaugural recipient of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Award from Chapman University.

This interview is also published in its entirety in Correspondence (2003), No. 3 - Indian Institute of Marxist Studies (Delhi Chapter).