The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Vegetarians, Vegans and Animal Rights Supporters:
Human Reactions to Animal Suffering

Jan 12, 2017

The following article is translated from an article appearing in the February 2017 issue of Lutte de Classe [Class Struggle], the monthly journal of Lutte Ouvrière, a revolutionary workers organization active in France.

The cause of animal rights has put itself in the spotlight, producing shocking videos showing the slaughter of animals, denouncing the food industry, calling in question our eating and even clothing habits.

One of the best-known organizations of this trend, L214 Ethique & Animaux, only began in 2009. But its videos and photos of badly-treated animals have been shown widely. As one of the organization’s leaders said at a recent demonstration covered by the media, gathering several hundred people against the slaughter of pregnant cows: “Ten years ago there would only have been ten of us for this kind of action, and we’d have been laughed at all afternoon.”

Resting on the growing sensitivity in the population to such questions, several well-known people from the entertainment world, from the media and from the world of writing, published an op-ed article in the press advocating veganism. They defended the idea of following a purely vegetable diet and refusing to use any product coming from the exploitation of animals, including wool sweaters, leather shoes and even honey.

As in other developed countries, a real current has developed around such issues, touching essentially a part of the petty bourgeoisie, and also resonating with the young.

Awareness of Animal Suffering

Ideas about the link between humans and animals have evolved continually, from the standpoint of philosophical and scientific conceptions, as well as in the feelings of the majority of the people. Until the 18th century, even the most advanced thinkers in Europe believed that humans were characterized by having a soul and this differentiated them from the animal world. The first materialists of the 18th century were bold enough to put forward the idea that not only life but also thought emerged from matter alone and its structure, thus linking humanity to all living species. Darwin, with the discovery of the evolution of species, then laid down the precise scientific basis of this unified view of all living beings. Starting in the 19th century, this change in sentiments about animals started to emerge publicly in the cities of the most industrialized countries, beginning with Great Britain where the first law about the protection of animals was passed in 1825. This in turn aroused scientific interest in the study of animal behavior.

Today, scientific discoveries allow us to understand the sensitivity of different animal species, starting from our understanding of their nervous systems. We know that some species have developed language that can be quite elaborate, and that the most evolved species, the great apes, for example, have a consciousness about themselves, with all that this implies about their awareness of others and of the sensitivity and suffering of others. The primatologist Franz de Waal has related how he observed a female bonobo, a species very close to the chimpanzee, help a wounded bird to escape from the enclosure in a zoo where she was held. But of all the animal species, the human species is the one that has been able to produce the most developed abstract thought, the base of all our social development. Our sensitivity to the suffering of others, including the sensitivity to the suffering of other animal species – this respect for the other and for life in general – is above all the expression of our capacity, thanks to our abstract thought, to put ourselves in someone else’s place.

This same capacity is at the base of the thirst of the human species to understand, and therefore of scientific progress. In return, this scientific progress has constantly widened the horizon of our understanding of the world. It is thus that humanity has become aware of the need to be responsible for its environment and for the consequences of its own actions. Taking animal suffering into account is part of these preoccupations and of this consciousness. It is a fundamentally progressive concern and it is positive that such problems emerge.

Marxists, beginning with Marx himself, always saw human beings as a product of nature, even before the success of Darwinism. Marxist philosophy has always defended the idea of respecting this nature and all its forms of life, not from any mystical conception, but from the awareness that our own destiny is linked to nature. Marx summed this up in Capital when he wrote: “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its custodians, its beneficiaries, and ought to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”

Humanity may be able to have a more exact understanding of what it should do, but it is paralyzed by the organization of its own society. The capitalist economy, based on private ownership of the means of production and on the sacrosanct competition, prevents humanity from planning all its activities, and therefore prevents it from mastering and controlling the consequences of its action. This is a fundamental obstacle to human progress and to a harmonious management of human actions and the environment, of which the animal world is a part. To refuse to take this into account is to ignore the essential, even more so because all economic organization and all production are tainted with the search for profit by the capitalist organization of society. Nothing can escape it, not food production, and certainly not the conditions for raising and slaughtering animals.

Food Industry Profits Are Made with No Thought for the Animals OR the Humans Involved

In March 2016, a hidden-camera video made in a slaughterhouse in the Pays Basque region of France by the L214 Association showed how some animals were bled while still conscious, which is illegal. At the time, the government reacted by saying that all slaughterhouses would be systematically inspected. But the same association filmed more videos with hidden cameras, making public the conditions under which cows, sheep, pigs and horses were slaughtered.

The association’s aim is to condemn animal slaughter. But what the videos have also shown is the reality of working conditions in the slaughterhouses: dehumanizing, production-line work, as it exists in many manufacturing companies in different sectors of the economy; but a job made even harder and more violent precisely because of the suffering and putting to death of animals. This aspect of the problem was not examined, neither by animal rights groups nor by the press, yet it is a part of the problem. The situation of the animals in the feed-lots and in the slaughterhouses is, like the situation of the workers, submitted to the pressure for capitalist profit. Directly in private slaughterhouses, indirectly in public slaughterhouses where the conditions are dictated by the economy of budgets. It’s impossible to imagine a multinational food industry accepting lower profits or a smaller market share out of concern for animal suffering. The government, which makes criminal cuts in public spending for hospitals, is going to do the same thing with the veterinary services responsible for controlling slaughterhouses.

Ignoring the fundamental role played by the search for profit, even with regard to animal suffering, means turning a blind eye to the true causes of the ill-treatment that one denounces. Instead of raising this problem and questioning the current economic and social organization of society, some choose to turn towards vegetarianism or even veganism.

Vegetarianism and Veganism: Individual Gestures or Malthusian Concepts?

To eat or not to eat meat is a personal choice which can have very different motives, for example health reasons or dietary habits. There are also hundreds of millions of human beings who are vegetarians out of necessity because meat is not available to them. But there are people who are vegetarians to show their opposition to what happens in slaughterhouses or to denounce the fact of killing animals in order to nourish oneself. Vegans, devoted to veganism, are vegetarians who not only do not eat animals but also refuse to eat or use any product that comes from exploiting animals.

These individual gestures may sound like important attitudes. And from a strict point of view of animal suffering, they are. But if we take a few steps back to look at the overall situation, the gestures are ridiculous, even with respect to what they condemn.

Those who refuse to eat meat still have to feed themselves. What food production today is not tainted with oppression and exploitation? Fruit and vegetables and grains and beans may not suffer, but what about the people who grow them and reap or pick them? There have been shocking videos on that subject too, documentaries showing the harsh exploitation of North African workers, mainly women, in the greenhouses of the south of Spain and the pervading racist and male chauvinist atmosphere that reigns there. But even in France, fierce exploitation is the rule for agricultural workers who are often immigrants. And working conditions in the food industry factories are no better than the conditions in the slaughterhouses!

As for those who refuse all products that come from the exploitation of animals, like leather or wool clothing, they don’t have a similar stance toward the products made by the exploitation of humans. The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013 killed 1,138 workers and wounded more than 2,000. As a result, the world learned about the working conditions in the textile industry in companies who sub-contract for globally recognized clothing labels. We could take many other examples because everything that is produced in this capitalist society is produced by workers, by laborers, office workers, small farmers. In order to survive, hundreds of millions of these workers have no other choice but to be exploited in factories, ports, warehouses, fields. Their lives, in the eyes of those who exploit them, are often not worth much more – and maybe less – than those of a pet.

A few years ago, a current existed in developed countries that condemned fierce exploitation in poor countries, particularly the exploitation of children. But, in this period where there is much back-pedaling and giving up, part of the public has chosen a cause – animal welfare – that is easier to condemn rather than face the immense task of fighting exploitation.

However, the world economy is based on exploitation. From exploitation at its most barbaric, in all senses of the word, found in places like the mines of the diamond-bearing African regions, to exploitation at its most modern and most sophisticated, but which can be just as lethal. The giant Foxconn, a Chinese sub-contractor for Apple, became a striking example that was heard around the world when they set up anti-suicide nets at their plants. There is no point in thinking it possible to live outside this system and even less in being resigned to it. The point, on the contrary, is to fight the whole system. As revolutionary communists, we are not fighting in the name of a generalized condemnation of this or that aspect of the capitalist economy. We are fighting in the name of the global struggle against this society based on exploitation. We are fighting for the emancipation of the oppressed and for a communist society that can, democratically and on a global scale, organize and plan production, taking everyone’s needs into consideration.

Finally, among this trend of people concerned with animal welfare – which goes from people who are shocked by the revelations of how animals are slaughtered to people who are strict vegans – there are those who believe we should stop all production of meat and fish. This means they ignore the consequences such actions would have on the hundreds of millions or even billions of human beings who go hungry or who suffer from malnutrition. Such a stance is no longer a simple individual gesture but a decision to be militant on a very reactionary ground.

The concept is not new: at the start of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution had immersed so many English workers in misery, an English clergyman, Malthus, believed that there were too many poor people to feed and that the most natural thing to do was to let them die. This does not mean that all vegetarians are Malthusian; most people who are sensitive to animal suffering are also sensitive to human suffering. But not all of them.

Anti-Speciesism, a Fashionable but Baseless Theory

“Anti-speciesism” is a fashionable theory among vegans. The term was invented in the 1970s by extrapolating from the idea of anti-racism. According to those who defend it, human beings exploit animals because they consider them inferior: “speciesism,” from this viewpoint, is like “racism” in that one race despises another.

An analogy with racism clouds the issue. For a start, scientific discoveries have shown that there are no races among humans. Humanity is biologically one and indivisible. On the other hand, there are social classes, oppressors and oppressed. Racism is not the product of opposition between races but that of the struggle between social classes. It is an ideology that serves oppressors: to divide the oppressed according to their geographical origin, the color of their skin, their religion or any other excuse. There is no class struggle between animal species and no struggle between species. There is evolution. And if we want to think about the relationship between humans and animal species, we need to look at the biological and social evolution of the human species.

Throughout most of its history, humanity behaved toward the animal world in exactly the same way that the other animals have behaved among themselves; human ancestors were first of all carrion eaters who ate the bodies of dead animals. Biological evolution changed the human species. Equipped with the weapons and tools that they became capable of making, human beings became hunters, i.e., predators like many other animals. Finally, social evolution picked up where biological evolution left off and humanity began to develop its initial know-how and gain its early knowledge. It was about 10,000 years ago that some humans first discovered, independently from one another and in different parts of the world, that it was possible to domesticate animals and grow plants. Having been predators, they became producers. This fundamental step in the history of humanity is based on the domestication of animals and the development of animal husbandry. There is no point in regretting this. It also resulted in a class society, social inequality and even the development of slavery and war. But this extraordinary upheaval, termed the Neolithic Revolution by anthropologists, was the basis for the development of human civilization.

Ten thousand years later, can humanity do without livestock farming? Since billions of humans do not have enough to eat, the answer is obviously no! Will this be true in the future? What will humanity eat? What will the relationship be between human beings and animals? These are legitimate questions. But it is to be hoped that by then humanity will have done away with social inequality and the absurdity of a capitalist organization of the economy based on competition and the search for maximum profit. If humanity were able to use highly-developed productive forces in a democratically planned economy on a global scale, what could it achieve? This would open up so many possibilities that there is no way of telling what might happen.

Sensitivity to animal suffering is a deeply human feeling in all senses of the word: being touched by the suffering of others, being capable of empathy toward others, including animals. And this altruistic kind of feeling should lead to wanting to understand the current world in its entirety. Humanity today is caught up in contradictions where an infinitely tiny minority uses its dominant position to exploit and put a stranglehold on society. Understanding this is the key to many problems.

Understanding this could push people to want to fight consciously against the current capitalist system. That is to say, to expropriate the dominant class so that the world economy serves everyone. That is communism. It may not be the solution to everything, but it is the only way that humanity will at last be able to control what is ultimately its own society and nothing more than the result of its own actions. It is also the only way that it will be able to manage its acts consciously, even, for example, how it feeds itself and its relationship with the rest of the animal world.