[Marxism] Socialism and Animal Liberation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 27 13:16:35 MDT 2009


Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, March 1999
Paul Buhle:

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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