[Marxism] A socialist analysis of the value of the animal liberation movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 9 13:11:38 MDT 2008

Debordagoria wrote:
> I'm trying to get my animal rights friends to post this to their forums, and I would like some feedback from the comrades here as well.  
> Michael D.


Your Mommy Kills Animals

Last night I watched a terrific documentary titled “Your Mommy Kills 
Animals” that is scheduled for theatrical release on July 20 and will be 
available on DVD in November. Although I consider myself well-versed in 
the ideas and activity of the radical movement, director Curtis Johnson 
uncovers a reality that was hitherto a blur in my mind, namely the 
animal rights movement. Structured as a debate between opposing sides on 
the issue, it succeeds both in terms of dispensing information–as any 
documentary should–as well as telling a highly dramatic story about some 
unique characters, namely the activists who John Lewis, the FBI’s deputy 
assistant director for counterterrorism, described as the nation’s top 
domestic terrorism threat in 2005.

There’s quite a rogue’s gallery in opposition to animal rights. We see 
Christopher Hitchens holding forth on how the activists become 
self-righteous absolutists in their desire to crush their enemies. 
Hearing these words coming out of his mouth was sufficient to get me to 
bag up all my leather shoes and bring them down to the thrift shop and 
to swear off chicken and fish (I have already given up red meat because 
of my blood pressure.) We also see Ron Arnold, the author of 
“Eco-Terrorism”, making the case against animal rights. Although I am 
very familiar with Arnold from past debates with his British allies, the 
ex-Marxists organized around the website Spiked Online, I have never 
heard him before. Arnold is an odd character. He couches his 
anti-environmentalist and anti-animal rights arguments in populist 
rhetoric, but has been exposed as a tool of big timber and mining interests.

But the chief opponent of animal rights heard from is one David 
Martosko, a truly sleazy character of the sort that has taken money from 
tobacco companies in the past to argue that smoking is harmless. 
Martosko works for the Center for Consumer Freedom, one of a number of 
pro-industry groups set up by Rick Berman, a long-time lobbyist for the 
food, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries. The group was created 
in 1995 as the Guest Choice Network with $600,000 from the Philip Morris 
tobacco company. Ever since the tobacco companies have been forced to 
retreat in the face of law suits and exposures, the focus has shifted to 
new battlegrounds. Apparently, American big business has no patience for 
unruly protestors who question their right to torture animals in the 
pursuit of profit.

On the other side of the barricades are people like Kevin Kjonaas, who 
was among the seven arrested for terrorism in connection with their 
involvement in Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a group that has 
targeted employees, clients and associates of Huntingdon Life Sciences, 
a British research company that tests chemicals and drugs on thousands 
of animals each year. Their appearance and their words are sharply at 
odds with the allegations. Kjonaas is a wispy 29-year-old 
Catholic-school graduate who speaks in a high-pitched voice and might 
remind you of the comic Emo Phillips who was popular in the 1980s. As 
president of the U.S. affiliate of SHAC USA, Kjonaas posted the home 
addresses and telephone numbers of Huntingdon executives on the group’s 
website and organized protests in front of their homes. I can certainly 
understand why somebody who owns a $5 million townhouse in Manhattan 
would not want to have such people mounting a noisy demonstration on his 
sidewalk at 2am, but this hardly amounts to terrorism.

As I watched Kjonaas and other animal rights activists risking arrest 
and pressing their campaign on a no-holds barred basis, I was struck by 
the contrast to the mainstream antiwar movement in the United States, 
which has never reached the same level of militancy and that continues 
to view elected politicians as reachable. For example, when Medea 
Benjamin led a Code Pink delegation to Hillary Clinton’s office, she 
stated “We know that you’re a wonderful woman and that deep down, we 
really think you agree with us.” If Benjamin and her cohorts had 1/100th 
of the spunk and the anger of the animal rights protestors, maybe the 
war would have ended some time ago.

Despite his obvious admiration for Kjonaas and his fellow activists, 
Curtis Johnson is not a mere apologist. He includes interviews with 
animal rights activists who believe that SHAC type militancy is 
counterproductive. They argue that forcing Huntington out of the USA and 
UK has resulted in it setting up shop in places like Pakistan, where 
there is much less oversight. By presenting both sides of the argument, 
he forces us to think about the deeper implications of this type of 
direct action. Johnson also presents the case against PETA and the 
Humane Society, two groups that are synonymous with animal rights to the 
average person, including me. Suffice it to say that animal rights 
radicals view the big, wealthy mainstream groups in more or less the 
same way that Earth First! views the Sierra Club or the World Resources 

The film focuses on current day struggles, but does provide a brief 
background on where the movement comes from. It seems to have gotten 
started in Great Britain as part of a general movement against 
capitalist abuses, including child labor, slavery and the poor laws. 
William Wilberforce, who many of you might be familiar with through my 
review of “Amazing Grace”, was one of the first animal rights activists 
and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Given the obvious moral inspiration of the movement, it might find 
itself marching to the tune of a different drummer than the Marxist 
movement that I have been identified with for the past 40 years. Marxism 
has a tendency to think in terms of objective historical forces and the 
need to focus on human needs, so the notion of struggling on behalf of 
laboratory animals being used for critical scientific research might not 
fit in that well with its agenda. That being said, there are a number of 
activists in the film that think along the same lines. It is not so much 
that they oppose animal testing, but the wanton cruelty that attends it.

If it was up to the pseudo-Marxists who morphed into Spiked Online to 
come up with arguments for exploiting animals as well as nature without 
regard to moral dimensions or environmental sustainability, there were 
always other Marxists who saw things in more holistic terms. My good 
friend Paul Buhle wrote about one of them in the March 1999 edition of 
Capitalism, Nature and Socialism:

Planetary liberation/animal rights

It may surprise or even annoy CNS readers to learn that perhaps the most 
popular and successful attack on U.S. corporate farming during the 1990s 
was launched by Animal Rights leader Henry Spira, notoriously against 
McDonald’s and Perdue. It should surprise them less that Spira, a 
Trotskyist of decades standing, had come to environmental causes toward 
the end of a long career of political activism.

This story demands some extended telling, and Peter Singer’s Ethics Into 
Action (1998),1 published within weeks of Spira’s death, gives us all 
the details we could want. Born to Belgian Jews in 1927, refugees first 
to Panama and then New York, Spira grew up the son of an increasingly 
successful and oppressive businessman. At 16, he could no longer take 
the quarreling and left home. (Decades later, both his father and 
younger sister committed suicide.) As a teen in the early 1940s, he 
first connected with Hashomir Hatzair, a socialist-zionist organization, 
then moved on to the Socialist Workers Party. He remained with the SWP 
for almost 20 years, never feeling disciplined enough to attend meetings 
but glad to be situated on the Left and sometimes with a newspaper eager 
to publish his journalism.

Spira later expressed surprise at his own evolution, but many preBoomer 
Marxists turning to ecology will find the curve of Spiro’s career 
suspiciously similar to their own. Passing through the Merchant Marine, 
then drummed out of the Army for “subversive and disloyal activities” 
(the Workers Defense League helped him win an Honorable Discharge), 
Spira went to work on an assembly line at a GM plant in New Jersey, 
moved on to join the research staff at Bellevue Hospital, and then 
shipped out again. In between jobs, he got a B.A. at Brooklyn College 
and wrote occasionally for the SWP’s weekly Militant. (He also acquired 
an FBI file of considerable heft.) As a reporter, he found himself on 
the scene in Montgomery, as the famed Bus Boycott took shape. Over the 
next decade, he wrote, raised money for, and often took part in the 
southern civil rights struggles. He also went to Cuba and broadcast the 
news about the young revolution. Closer to home, he played a key role in 
the reform campaign to clean up the National Maritime Union.

By the middle 1960s, Spira’s blue-collar life was over, and we might say 
that the working class ceased to be his main concern. His excomrades (he 
also left the Socialist Workers Party about this time) might bemoan the 
abandonment of orthodox Marxism, and the slippery slope to follow. But 
Spira was actually moving toward new shores. He taught in New York City 
schools for seven years, literature and writing to mostly black and 
Hispanic youngsters. At the age of 45, he also started thinking in a 
different way about animals.

Reading Peter Singer (the Australian environmentalist and author of 
Animal Liberation, likewise the author of the biography) helped set 
Spira in motion, but unlike Singer he wasn’t mainly a theorist. He 
wanted to do something, and although he didn’t know it yet, Spira had a 
genius for publicity. As the New York Times recalled in its obit, Singer 
had two great victories: compelling the American Museum of Natural 
History to end its expensive and pointless (as well as cruel) mutilation 
of cats so as to theorize the sexual affects of castration; and 
compelling Revlon to abandon the “Draize Test,” measuring potential 
irritation of cosmetic products by flooding rabbits’ eyes with the stuff.

These may not seem anything like victories for the environment; the 
planet in general and the bird population in particular would be better 
off with a lot fewer cats about. Neither are rabbits endangered (and 
some of the habitats invaded by them are in pretty rough shape). But to 
look at the issues in that way obscures Spira’s basic mentality and his 
trajectory as well.

A moment’s reflection on the old anti-vivisectionist movement and its 
U.S. counterparts provides necessary background. Dedicated to oppose 
cruelty to animals, the Victorian (especially British) middle class 
movement contained another impulse analogous to that of the old labor 
movement: to place restraints upon the recklessness of capitalism and 
raise large philosophical questions about the assumptions of endlessly 
expansive consumerism as the goal (or rationalization) of society. 
British socialist Henry S. Salt coined the term “Animals’ Rights” with 
his 1892 book of the same name, and American radicals from Edward 
Bellamy and Jack London to Upton Sinclair and the Nearings (Scott and 
Helen) put their own stamp on the radical edge of the movement. Such 
radicals, and Auduboners at the turn of the century who successfully 
ended the ubiquitous annual American bird shooting contests, had no 
illusions about power. They hardly expected to win more than a limited 
victory here and there; but they were determined to be heard.

Spira’s own anti-systemic impulse (his Animal Rights International paid 
him $15,000 per year and he usually had only one part-time assistant) 
and sense of proportion turned him against the emerging giant of the 
movement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. When PETA began 
acting like a bureaucracy and when other animal rights advocates turned 
counter-productively violent, he put his energies elsewhere. “Chicken 
Heaven” was his next target, and there he found common cause with 
serious environmentalists.

The character of agribusiness poultry and livestock production is no 
mystery, but the old advertisers’ impulses to portray “contented cows” 
has been progressively mocked by the factory-like raising conditions, 
the use of massive chemical doses, above all, for environmentalists, the 
increasingly toxic effluents in surrounding soil and waterways. Just a 
decade ago, Spira organized a full-page New York Times ad defying TV 
huckster Frank Perdue to prove that his fryers lived in “chicken heaven” 
and (in contrast to consumers’ own lives) “your kids never had it so 
good.” The appointment of Perdue to the Regents of University of 
Maryland’s College Park campus offered Spira more grist for his mill; 
but scandals about the contamination of chickens overtook Spira’s 
effort. (He did the best he could to raise consciousness further: the 
next ads featured a chicken in a giant condom above the headline, 
“There’s no such thing as a safe chicken.”)

Spira continued pretty much this way until his death, in September of 
1998. Probably no one else would have had the initiative to shame the 
Helen Keller International (!) into canceling its “Shoot for Sight” 
event in 1995, intended on bringing down some thousand wild ducks and 
pheasants “for a good cause.” Other activists went after Big Mac, but 
Spira went to the stockholders by becoming one himself. Greenpeace 
Londoners Helen Steel and Dave Morris personally launched the “McLibel” 
campaign that gave the corporation a global bad name (even if it 
formally won a suit against the two). But these efforts also led to the 
International Coalition for Farm Animals, the Humane Society-type 
organization so far most devoted to tackling the conditions of 
production that make cruelty inevitable. The Center for a Liveable 
Future, ironically Spira’s last project, had (and has) the most 
potential for serious and socialistic education.

Singer, who runs for office on the Green ticket in his home district of 
Victoria, Australia, provides a most useful afterward based upon Spira’s 
own practical experience. Ten key strategic and tactical points include 
“Avoid bureaucracy,” and “Don’t assume that only legislation or legal 
action can solve the problem.” As a socialist, he knew better. But Spira 
had learned, over a lifetime of political experience, how to set 
targets, how to rally a constituency without the help of any political 
apparatus to speak of, and how to cross over from pet-linked 
sentimentalism to the large issues. These are lessons we all need to 
absorb, and we can thank Spira for adapting Marxist traditions to the 
new era.

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