‘Communism is not a programme one puts into practice or makes other put into practice, but a social movement¼ Communism is not an ideal to be realised: it already exists, not as a society, but as an effort, a task to prepare for. It is the movement which tries to abolish the conditions of life determined by wage-labour and it will abolish them by revolution’ (Dauvé & Martin). Communism is not a utopian blueprint for the future nor has it got anything to do with the ‘communist’ regimes of the past where capitalism was managed by the state. Communism is the movement towards the abolition of states, classes, private property, money and hierarchies of power, and the collective creation of the means to satisfy our needs and desires.
‘Communism is the continuation of real needs which are now already at work, but which cannot lead anywhere, which cannot be satisfied, because the present situation forbids it. Today there are numerous gestures and attitudes which express not only a refusal of the present world, but most of all an effort to build a new one’ (Dauvé and Martin). We believe that many of the activities carried out against the exploitation of animals fall into this category of ‘gestures and attitudes’ and are therefore expressions of the communist movement.
Radicals who scorn the notion of animal liberation have a long tradition to draw upon. Marxist political economy adopted the enlightenment project of the domination of nature in its entirety with the natural world being perceived as an unlimited raw material for industrial progress. Faced with the disastrous ecological consequences of industrial development on the one hand, and the challenge of radical ecological groups on the other, some communists have begun to criticise this model. But few of them have been prepared to extend this critique to the notion of human beings as the only creatures worthy of consideration. To them we say: enemies of civilisation and progress, one step further.
2.1 The secret history of animal liberation
We have our own hidden tradition to inspire us. We may not be able to turn to the ‘founding fathers of communism inc.’ for legitimisation, but over the centuries there have been plenty of rebels and revolutionaries who have fought for their own liberation and that of other human beings whilst also denouncing the abuse of animals.
As Colin Spencer demonstrates in The Heretic’s Feast: A history of vegetarianism, arguments against eating animals have been put forward for at least as far back as written records stretch. While many have eschewed meat for health reasons, or as part of an ascetic package of self-denial and sacrifice, it has often been concern for animals that has been the key factor. In ancient Greece for instance, the Orphic mystery religion held animal sacrifice and meat eating to be equivalent to murder. Similar views were apparently held by Pythagorus and his followers. Many of the arguments still used today for and against eating animals have been rehearsed for thousands of years. For instance, the Greek writer Plutarch (AD 46-120) wrote that ‘We can claim no great right over land animals which are nourished with the same food, inspire the same air, wash in and drink the same water that we do ourselves; and when they are slaughtered they make us ashamed’. He called on carnivores to try meat raw and not to ‘disguise the murdered animal by the use of ten thousand sweet herbs and spices’.
Then as now, vegetarianism was not simply a dietary choice, but had wider implications in view of the social/symbolic power associated with meat: ‘To change one’s diet is to throw into doubt the relationship between gods, men and beasts upon which the whole politico-religious system of the city rests... To abstain from eating meat in the Greek city-state is a highly subversive act’ (Detienne).
In some areas of the world, whole communities have been primarily vegetarian. This may be associated with the influence of Buddhist or Hindu ideas, but it may also be the case that religious ideas simply reflected the existing social practices. The anti-British Indian Mutiny of 1857 was sparked by British ignorance of the importance of vegetarianism. The immediate cause of the Mutiny was the refusal of Indian troops to use rifle cartridges greased with animal fat (since pig fat was used this also offended the Muslim troops).
Vegetarianism has often been associated with religious heresies, a fact adding to their persecution. Cathar heretics brought before the Emperor Henry III in 1052 were accused of having ‘condemned all eating of animals, and with the agreement of everybody present he ordered them to be hanged’ (cited in Spencer). In China, an 1141 edict declared: ‘All vegetarian demon worshippers... shall be strangulated’.
It was amongst such heretic tendencies that radical communistic ideas often flourished, circulating amongst the poor and providing inspiration for ‘millenarian’ revolts. In this context the refusal of meat may have had a class dimension: ‘another thing about not eating meat which gave it a social power as a spiritual message, and it was a message which was preached not only by the Cathars but by other religions which opposed Catholic orthodoxy in this period, was that meat was the food of the hunters, of the dominators, of the people who rode horses, the people who exploited the cultivators of the land, most of whose life was singularly meatless’ (Moore).
During and after the English Civil War, vegetarianism was advocated by some Ranters like John Robins; by a Hackney bricklayer called Marshall who argued that it was ‘unlawful to kill any creature that had life’ and by Thomas Tryon, who condemned ‘killing and oppressing his fellow creatures’ as well as slavery, war and the treatment of the insane (Thomas).
Concern about the treatment of animals, and in some cases, vegetarianism was found amongst eighteenth century radicals like William Blake who wrote that ‘Each outcry of the hunted hare/ A fibre from the brain does tear’; the atheist John Ritson; and John Oswald (1730-93), English Jacobin and author of Cry of Nature. Early in the next century the poet Shelley advocated vegetarianism in his work Queen Mab, which also denounced war and the rule of kings and commerce.
Later in the 19th century the anarchist and Paris communard Louise Michel declared ‘The origin of my revolt against the powerful was my horror at the tortures inflicted on animals’. Michel’s fellow Paris Communard Elisée Reclus, the anarchist communist and geographer, was a vegetarian who opposed the slaughter of animals for food.
Occasionally, opposition to animal abuse was taken up by wider sections of the working class. In Battersea, south London, there were riots on the working class Latchmere Estate in 1906 as locals defended the ‘Brown Dog’ anti-vivisection statue from attack by doctors and medical students.
2.2 The modern animal liberation movement
The modern animal liberation movement includes a diverse range of groups and individuals opposing practices such as hunting, vivisection and the slaughter of animals for food. Given what we have argued about the centrality of animals to capitalism, a movement challenging the position of animals could hardly help but impact on capital.
However, we are certainly not arguing that this movement is in totality a revolutionary movement confronting capital. Like all social movements, the animal liberation movement contains contradictory tendencies - at the one pole a socially conservative position, uncritical of capitalism, parliamentary politics, hierarchical single-issue campaigns, at the other a non-hierarchical, direct action-based approach placing the particular issue in the wider context of radical social transformation. Between these poles various combinations exist (e.g. socially conservative, single issue-based direct action). These contradictions cut across organisations and even individuals.
Despite the criticisms that can be made of animal liberation ideology and practice (some of which we will set out later), some animal liberation actions and attitudes are certainly expressions of communism.
A clear example is the practice of liberating animals from farms, kennels and laboratories in the kind of raid pioneered by the Animal Liberation Front in the 1970s. Saving these animals from suffering and an early death directly confronts the logic of capital, abolishing their status as products, commodities and raw materials by reinstating them as living beings outside of the system of production and exchange.
Communists have criticised capitalist progress and development, including the idea that science and technology are neutral and will lead to a suffering-free golden age. Animal liberationists have put this critique into practice by, for instance, disrupting research and attacking laboratories.
Ideas of animal liberation enrich communist theory by posing the key question of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Marx recognised that communism involves the ‘genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man’ (1844), but his vision of communism as a life where you could ‘hunt in the morning, rear cattle in the afternoon’ suggests that he did not really think through what this would involve.
As Camatte argues, ‘The proletarian movement unfortunately retained certain presuppositions of capital, in particular... the vision of progress; the exaltation of science; the necessity of distinguishing the human from the animal, with the latter being considered in every case inferior; the idea of the exploitation of nature.... All this meant that the demand for a human community was kept within the limits of capital’. Apparent single issue movements focusing on, for instance, animal liberation are therefore necessary to correct ‘the shortcomings of the classical revolutionary movement... which had become infested with notions of power and domination’.
Animal liberation perspectives enable us to see that if the reconciliation of humans and nature is to be more than an empty wish, concrete measures have to be taken to change the way humans relate to animals, such as dismantling the technology of factory farming. They also raise the question of extending the notion of community beyond humans to embrace other species - the fact that animals may not be able to participate in the community as active subjects does not mean they have to be simply objects for human use. As Elisée Reclus argued: ‘When our civilisation, ferociously individualist as it is, and dividing the world into as many little hostile States as there are separate properties and different family households - when its last bankruptcy shall have been declared... then we shall remember all these species that have been left behind on our forward route, and shall endeavour to make of them, not servants or machines, but veritable companions’.
Some anarchists and communists argue that the ‘animal question’ is irrelevant because animals cannot fight for themselves: ‘Animals can never play a part in class recomposition’ (Aufheben, 1995). Yet any class recomposition that does not express the inter-relatedness between humans and other forms of life risks staying on the terrain of capital. By this we mean that the working class needs to overcome its fragmentation and assert itself not only to get a better deal as a component of the capitalist machine, but to challenge the relationship between this machine and life on the planet, human, animal and vegetable.
2.3 Everything that walks on the earth is governed by blows
This brings us to the main ‘communist’ argument against animal liberation, that those involved are ‘projecting the horrors of capitalism away from themselves’ rather than ‘fighting for themselves’. This is sometimes linked to the situationist notion of radical subjectivity in which revolution is seen as the expression of individual needs and desires
Such an approach tends to ignore the fact that people are social animals who do not exist as independent beings in themselves. They exist through social interaction, with other humans, animals and the wider environment. The communist impulse is not just a matter of enlightened self-interest but an expression of our wider communal being in this sense. In any case the need to live in a world where the alienation between humans and nature is overcome has always been part of the communist project, and is as important a need as the more obvious material ones like food and housing.
We don’t see those who actively express this need as being alienated from their own, real needs. On the contrary, as an article on the mass opposition to live animal exports in the mid- 1990's put it: ‘The fact that people are moved to confront the state by the suffering of animals at least gives us hope that people are not completely alienated’ (Do or Die).
The basis of working class concern about animals is not misplaced sentimentality (though we think that sentiment is at least as legitimate a human response as detached scientific rationality) but empathy arising from a shared condition as beasts of burden: ‘everything that moves on the earth is governed by blows’ (Os Cangaceiros). As we argued earlier, the techniques of domination of humans and animals are historically interlinked. For instance, animals are used in experiments precisely because they are similar to humans in some way. If some one feels revulsion at the experiments where a cat or monkey has electrodes planted into their brains, then that is a valid survival ‘instinct’. Those animals are only tortured in those experiments because capital wants to be able to do the same thing to people.
If this empathy has been largely absent from revolutionary theory, it has found expression in revolutionary situations. During the Diggers occupation of St George’s Hill in 1649, Gerrard Winstanley reported that ‘tender hearts’ grieved to see their cows beaten by the lord of the manor’s bailiffs - after all hadn’t they been subject to the same beatings? In the Paris Commune (1871) Louise Michel found time between shooting cops and guarding the barricades to rescue a frightened cat, arguing in her memoirs that ‘everything fits together, from the bird whose brood is crushed to the humans whose nest is destroyed by war’ (Lowry and Gunter). In prison in 1917, Rosa Luxemburg expressed her empathy with the buffalo she saw being mistreated from her cell: ‘The suffering of a dearly loved brother could hardly have moved me more... Poor wretch, I am as powerless, as dumb, as yourself; I am at one with you in my pain, my weakness and my longing’ (Letter to Sonja Liebknicht, Dec.1917).
Compassion is not a word found very frequently in revolutionary discourse, but as Communist Headache argue in relation to animals: ‘Part of class struggle is the struggle against domination. This includes understanding how we are dominated and understanding how we are taught to fetishize domination and so dominate each other within our class. Domination can be countered by compassion, however this compassion needs to be rediscovered as part of a class struggle in which people are coming together in the human community’.
2.4 Confronting the state
In practical terms, participation in action against the abuse of animals involves people in confronting the state (the police, the courts, the law, etc.) and developing imaginative strategies for so doing. Hunt sabbing for example can involve the elaborate use of vehicles, communications, maps and other tools to frustrate the efforts of police and hunt supporters to stop them. It also involves a mass defiance of trespass laws, a general refusal to recognise that the countryside belongs to wealthy individuals who are entitled to do what they like to the animals (and people) who live there.
Hunt sabbing is one of the few forms of animal-related activity to get a begrudging respect from traditional communists. Uniquely it can involve an unmediated confrontation with individual members of the ruling class. Many hunt sabs despise hunters because of what they do to foxes and because they are rich, although those who go sabbing in the expectation of a weekly re-enactment of the peasants revolt can be disappointed at the reality of hours sitting in the back of vans or sneaking through the woods.
While opposition to hunting might not in itself be a marker for subversive attitudes, the act of attempting to sabotage it directly is another matter. New Labour opponents of hunting continue to support the use of repressive legislation against hunt sabs because they recognise the threat posed by groups of (mainly) working class people taking matters into their own hands in defiance of the law.
Other struggles have involved mass confrontation with the state. The movement against live animal exports (1994/95) at Shoreham in Kent and Brightlingsea in Essex saw thousands of local people blocking roads and standing up to the police over several months. The successful movement to close Hillgrove Farm in Oxfordshire, a cat breeder for vivisection, involved frequent violent clashes on the regular demos leading up to its closure in summer 1999. In all these cases, thousands of police were unleashed with baton charges and intense surveillance - at Hillgrove police used section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act to stop and search everybody within a 5 mile radius of the farm who appeared to be on their way to demonstrate (Animal magazine). Whatever the limitations of these movements they posed fundamental questions for those involved about the role of the state and the nature of industrial processes.
Many people who are or have been involved in action against animal abuse have also been involved in other struggles. In this way, the range of practical skills developed in the animal liberation movement have circulated around struggles, becoming tools that can be applied in different situations. This covers everything from printing a leaflet, or moving vans of people around at short notice to clandestine forms of organisation and prisoner solidarity.
2.5 Beyond the ideology of animal rights
Struggles against animal exploitation are (in many cases) an expression of the communist movement, a real social movement suppressing existing conditions. While it addresses only a single issue, animal liberation does pose fundamental questions about the relationship of humans to the world. This can be a starting point for a fundamental questioning of the way we live our lives; on the other hand animal rights ideology can become a limit which prevents a wider critique of society. We need to go beyond this ideology without abandoning what is subversive within what it represents.
‘Spectacular production is obviously keen to keep the unpalatable side of production hidden’ (Law). Those who take the trouble to look behind the screen can be so overwhelmed by the horrors they find there, that everything else seems almost irrelevant. The conflict between humans and animals can come to be regarded as completely overriding any social contradictions, including class, and some individuals can even develop a form of misanthropy in which all humans are seen as intrinsically ‘bad’ with the exception of the valiant few who totally abstain from animal produce.
Total abstention is more or less impossible, and to moralistically condemn others for not going far enough only limits the scope for a movement to develop. Nevertheless, vegetarianism/veganism is not just a matter of sanctimonious handwashing. The ‘question of a loving and respectful relationship with other living beings’ necessarily involves ‘a rejection of nutrition that comes, not only from the genetic manipulation of animals, but also from their cruel treatment in battery conditions or laboratories’ (Dalla Costa). Not eating animals brings about qualitative improvement in the well-being of animals (as well as quantitative reduction in animals killed), even if as an isolated act it can be commodified and turned into another lifestyle marketing niche.
From the standpoint of animals a vegetarian capitalism would be a step forward. But for reasons we have set out earlier, this is an extremely unlikely outcome given the vested interests of the animal industry and the ingrained habits of daily life under capitalism. Moreover vegetarian capitalism would still be dependent upon the exploitation of human animals and the subordination of all forms of life and their habitats to the needs of the economy. So we would have to say Neither McDonalds nor McCartney but international communism!
An overemphasis on boycotting the products of particular companies is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of capitalism. Capitalism is more than the combined efforts of ‘bad’ multinational corporations. It is based on social relations mediated by property and money. As long as these relations exist capitalism will reproduce itself, regardless of the fate of any particular company. In any case, we can’t really separate any one enterprise from the workings of the economy as a whole. Capital flows freely wherever there is a profit to be made, with the same individuals or institutions investing happily in both ‘bad multinationals’ and ‘cruelty free corporations’.
The lack of understanding of the dynamics of present day society, of a class analysis, can result in attacks on low-level workers in industries which exploit animals, as if they are as equally responsible as the managers or bosses. It is ludicrous, as occasionally happens, for McDonalds workers to be denounced as ‘scum’ when their exploitation is as central to the company’s profits as the dead cows in the buns.
We can all recognise these problems, and it suits the views of many anarchists and communists to pretend that all animal liberation activities take place in this reactionary framework. This is not the case. Notably the movement against McDonalds is an actually existing international struggle that takes on work conditions, the critique of the spectacular-commodity and ecological issues as well as animal exploitation, and has even managed to involve meat eaters.
2.6 What’s wrong with rights?
We are critical of the notion of animal rights for the same reason that we criticise human rights. The ideology of rights arose with the capitalist revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, in particular the French Revolution. This ideology played a political and moral compliment to capitalist economics. In the capitalist market, commodities are exchanged on the basis of equality to a sum of money, whether that commodity is sugar or a week’s work. In the political sphere, people are made equal through the granting of rights to everyone. Behind the facade of rights, the dictatorship of capital perseveres, just as the domination of the worker by capital perseveres behind the equal exchange of the labour market.
The notion that we all have rights disguises real inequalities. As Anatole France once said, the rich and the poor alike have the right to sleep on the streets. We all have the right to buy a palace, but we don’t all have the means to do so. As a legalistic concept, rights imply a state to defend and enforce them, which means the preservation of the alienation of individuals from each other, and hence alienation between humans and nature, including other animals.
The bourgeois character of rights has become increasingly apparent with the emphasis on rights and responsibilities. In other words, rights are conditionally granted only to those who play the game and can just as easily be taken away. Rights are a limited recognition granted by the powerful to the less powerful, and as such ‘animal rights’ implies at least a separation between people and animals, and the definitive superiority of people. The end of animal abuse requires the destruction of the capitalist, and indeed civilised relationship between humans and the animal world, and its replacement not with an abstract equality (a capitalistic notion, as in the equality in market exchange of dissimilar goods), but with an appreciation of the difference of the other as an element in social reality.
There is a need to move beyond ‘animal rights’ as such, in order to fight more effectively. People need to understand why animal exploitation occurs as well as how. This is not because we think that everything has to be postponed until ‘after the the revolution’ but because the real emancipation of animals and humans requires a fundamental social transformation in the direction of communism.
2.7 Animals in a Communist Society
Although we would regard aspects of animal liberation as expressions of communism, opposition to the abuse of animals does not always sit comfortably with other aspects of the communist movement. Animal liberation ‘doesn’t just pose an aspect of what appears to be wrong with capitalism which revolutionaries can then fit into their general blueprint for class struggle. It makes demands on a both a perceived revolutionary process and a perceived revolutionary direction’ (Communist Headache).
In some areas there may be apparent contradictions. For instance in Brazil, landless labourers are occupying land belonging to big landowners and cultivating it, including rearing animals. This is an expression of the communist movement too. But the communist movement is not a monolithic entity united around a party line. It is a dynamic entity composed of diverse, and sometimes contradictory efforts. There are many issues on which a range of different positions are possible - for instance the use of technology.
Disagreements would continue even in the society that would emerge as the communist movement developed to a stage where capitalism was in the process of being abolished across large parts of the world. Communism is not the application of a universal moral code, or the creation of a uniform society, and there would be no state or similar mechanism to impose, say, veganism, even if many people thought it desirable. The question of how to live with animals might be resolved in different ways in different times and places. The animal liberation movement would form one pole of the debate.
Others might take a different position, arguing perhaps for free range, non-intensive domestication of the goat in the garden variety (although this apparent idyll would probably still have to involve cruel practices like castration and the separation of animals from their social units).
We can say with confidence though that the status quo would be untenable, and that there would be a radical transformation of the relations between humans and other species.
With the abolition of capitalism, the vested interests of the animal industry would no longer exist; there would be no corporate propaganda for meat. The origins of animal products would no longer be disguised; the production process would be transparent. People would make the decision about whether to eat animal products on the basis of a clear understanding of the health and social benefits and the impact on animals not on the basis of supermarket packaging. This would take place in the context of a process of radical change involving a questioning of much that passes for ‘normal’ in everyday life. We would also expect the removal of systematic violence from human relations to create a generally more compassionate society.
As part of the factory system, factory farms would come to an end - who would want to work in them anyway? We would also expect a move to restore wilderness and reduce the amount of land given over to agriculture. As we have seen, growing food for animals and then eating the animals uses up a lot more land than just producing vegetables for humans to eat.
Anthropocentric humanism has been detrimental to humans as well as animals: ‘The brutal confinement of animals ultimately serves only to separate men and women from their own potentialities’ (Surrealist Group, cited in Law). What Camatte calls ‘the biological dimension of the revolution’ will involve the rediscovery of those aspects of humanity, some labelled as ‘bestial’, that have been underdeveloped by capital such as rhythm, imagination and wildness.
One consequence of this would be that humans would no longer see themselves as always above and distinct from other animals: ‘Communism... is not domination of nature but reconciliation, and thus regeneration of nature: human beings no longer treat nature simply as an object for their development, as a useful thing, but as a subject... not separate from them if only because nature is in them’ (Camatte).