Where Can Animals Fit Into Revolutionary Socialism?

Hi, folks, and happy Labor Day! I took a Monday hiatus last week as I settled back into Vassar campus life here in Poughkeepsie, NY (my last time doing so…), but I’ve returned today to discuss a topic that has become increasingly important to me over the past few weeks: revolutionary socialism. I’m still working out my thoughts and feelings on whether or not I believe that this particular political stance is our best hope in bringing about collective liberation, but after attending a meeting of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) back in my hometown and consuming a whole lot of resources, I’ve gotten pretty jazzed about it.

Just to give you a brief overview before I launch into today’s discussion, the ISO’s political philosophy operates around six principles, as laid out in their Socialist Worker newspaper:

1.) Socialism, not capitalism. Standing in the Marxist tradition — founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and continued by V.I. Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg and Leon Trotsky — the ISO understands war, poverty, exploitation, oppression, and worldwide environmental destruction to stem from the capitalist system in which a minority ruling class profits from the labor of the majority working class. They advocate instead for a socialist society based on workers’ collective ownership of their own labor and wealth.

2.) Workers’ power. Workers play a central role in the capitalist system of production — without them it cannot function — so they also have the power to shut the system down. When workers collectively take control of the wealth they create instead of having it stolen by the ruling class, they can plan that wealth’s production and distribution according to the needs of the planet and all of its inhabitants.

3.) Revolution. While economic, political and social reforms can improve working-class conditions, they cannot in and of themselves bring an end to the oppression that capitalism perpetuates. Our present state was built on capitalism and designed to protect that very system, so we need an entirely different kind of state — one based on a democracy of workers. To achieve this, we must dismantle capitalism.

4.) Internationalism. Since capitalism pervades the globe, the socialist struggle must unite workers worldwide. As such, the ISO opposes imperialism, U.S. military intervention, and immigration controls while supporting struggles for self-determination among oppressed nations.

5.) Full equality and liberation. To ensure that the working class cannot rise up in revolution, the capitalist ruling class divides workers along sexual, gender, racial, national and other lines. This is why the ISO opposes racism in all its forms, supports the struggles for immigrant rights and Black liberation, fights for real equality for women, and advocates an end to discrimination against LGBTQ people.

6.) The revolutionary party. The ISO aims to build an independent socialist organization rooted in workplaces, schools and neighborhoods that unites the most militant workers in order to achieve socialist revolution.

Sounds good, no? Again, I’m still trying to gather more information on the Marxist tradition and the ISO’s activism — critiques of both, in particular — before I commit to focusing my full energies on this revolutionary socialism stuff (“commie shit,” as my housemates affectionately call it). Today, though, I want to explore the question of non-human animals in regards to socialism, especially because most of the socialist literature I’ve read (see the reference list below) seems hostile to integrating anti-speciesism into a socialist politics.

And honestly, I think this hostility is, in many ways, deserved. The most visible animal rights activists and proponents of veganism tend to equate speciesism with racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression; insist that animal agriculture is akin to the Holocaust and U.S. plantation slavery; and take inexcusable stances on issues of oppression worldwide, such as by diminishing police brutality against Black people in the U.S., or by claiming that Palestinians deserve the genocide they face at the hands of Israel because they eat animals. Indeed, most if not all of the socialist literature I found regarding non-human animals heavily cited Peter Singer and his deeply troubling brand of utilitarian, racist, ableist animal rights philosophy.

If we understand speciesism in such a way, then no, I don’t think that we should include anti-speciesism in our collective struggle toward a socialist society. However, if we conceive of speciesism as an ideology that conditions humans to understand non-human animals as commodities that exist purely for human use, and to insist upon the superiority of that use over alternatives that do not involve infringement upon the bodily autonomy of non-human animals, then I think that anti-speciesism falls well in line with a revolutionary socialist politics.

It is capitalism that has conditioned us to think of other beings — human and non — and the earth as commodities, and it is capitalism that has rendered plant-based foods inaccessible to many (with the exception of those like Inuit peoples whose geographical location and climate dictates the animal basis of their diet). With this in mind, I would encourage socialist decriers of anti-speciesism to reconsider speciesism’s basis in capitalism, and to look to those who integrate a more nuanced, kyriarchy-based approach to anti-speciesism into their much broader activism (such as A. Breeze Harper, and Aph and Syl Ko).

Let me be clear: I am not asking for revolutionary socialists to take up anti-speciesism as the driving force behind revolutionary struggle. Far from it. It makes perfect sense to me that, under a politics that depends upon the mass organization of the working class into a united cadre of radicals, we would not focus our energies on a group of beings that literally cannot be organized (save for on an Orwellian Animal Farm).

However, for the socialists listed in the references below — who are truly amazing activists and scholars, to be sure — non-human animals’ inability to “possess the biological and physical attributes that would allow them to engage in the activities and behaviors we associate with ‘liberation'” (D’Amato) seems to preclude us from considering non-human animals among those who will be liberated through working-class revolution. No, non-human animals will not liberate themselves or even be able to engage in working-class struggle, but I certainly don’t think that this “failure” of theirs to function within an anthropocentric framework of social movements should mean that we can just forget about them altogether.

It seems to me that, given the capitalist roots of speciesism, it would make sense to bring non-human animals along in socialist revolution. This doesn’t mean that we dedicate our energies to the impossible task of organizing non-human animals in working-class struggle, just as we don’t dedicate our energies to the similarly impossible task of organizing the physical earth in struggle against the capitalist-induced ecological crisis. What it does mean, at least in my opinion, is that we recognize how oppressive power structures, ideologies and institutions affect non-human animals, and make sure that in a future socialist society, we — as humans — do not re-enact the speciesist aspects of those entities.

In solidarity, Ali.


References

D’Amato, Paul. “Socialism and ‘animal rights.’” SocialistWorker.org. 26 October 2009. Web. 5 September 2015.

Gilbreath, Paul, Doug Burkhart, Doug Harvey, Roger Yates, and Den. “Views in brief.” SocialistWorker.org. 29 October 2009. Web. 5 September 2015.

Grey, Sarah and Joe Cleffie. “Peter Singer’s Race Problem.” Jacobin Magazine. 6 August 2015. Web. 6 September 2015.

Muldoon, Amy. “Socialism and the lives of animals.” SocialistWorker.org. 6 November 2009. Web. 5 September 2015.

World Socialist Movement. “What is Socialism?” World Socialist Movement. n.d. Web. 5 September 2015.

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11 thoughts on “Where Can Animals Fit Into Revolutionary Socialism?

  1. Justin Van Kleeck says:

    Thanks for addressing this. It really bothers me how much non-humans and non-human oppression are left out of–or even perpetuated and promoted by–“revolutionary” philosophies, including socialism and anarchism. I personally cannot accept an exclusion of non-humans from radical liberation theory and praxis, just as it is a mistake to isolate non-human exploitation as its own problem (i.e., failing to be pro-intersectional as anti-speciesist activists).

    I tend to gravitate more towards anarchism than socialism, simply because I do not trust any form of concentrated power to avoid the pitfalls of holding power. Although it is difficult to imagine, a communal-style anarchism feels much more sustainable and in line with the effort to respect individuals fully.

    Anyway, great post, as usual.

  2. Pax Ahimsa Gethen says:

    Great post. I am still researching socialism and anarchism and trying to figure out what holds the most hope for justice for all animals, as well as for the future of this planet. Even if many socialists are incapable of seeing nonhuman animals as people, I would hope that they’d come to see that animal agriculture is inherently unsustainable.

    • Ali Seiter says:

      Right there with you, Pax. Reassuringly, the socialist literature I found did pretty universally decry factory farming, but not “humane” or small-scale animal agriculture.

  3. Eric Sundquist says:

    If you consider what school of thought is doing the most to relieve/avoid nonhuman suffering instead of what’s the most personally comfortable, then Singer deserves a lot more than you give him here. His approach of using sentience rather than species boundaries as the standard for moral concern has generated far more action on behalf of nonhuman animals than any other, at least in the West, where human/nonhuman dualism reigns. Singer didn’t come to his view all by himself, either; 19th century utilitarians were among the leaders of anti-slavery and child and nonhuman animal welfare movements. If you’ve only read “Animal Liberation,” you might pick up Singer’s “Darwinian Left” for some perspective. Maybe one day revolutionary socialism will spill out of the ivory tower and actually make such a difference in the world — and if there’s a strategy for that beyond ISO folks talking to themselves, sign me up — but until that day, I’ll keep using Singer.

    • Ali Seiter says:

      I have a lot of problems with utilitarian philosophy, as well a the racism and ableism embedded into Singer’s work on animal rights. I also reject the notion that Singer was the first to think in anti-speciesist ways; he was just the first one whose ideas gained traction, since he’s in a position of power as a white man at an elite academic institution.

      • Big Poe says:

        There are tons of socialist — or specifically Marxist groups out there, if that’s what you are looking for — that don’t have the ISO’s culty baggage. They just don’t have as much of a college presence as the ISO does for whatever reason.

        Orgs like SPUSA, DSA, Solidarity, etc are much better from what I’ve heard.

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