Reply to 'Letter on animal liberation' - Antagonism and Practical History

The authors of Beasts of Burden respond to Gilles Dauvé's Letter on Animal Liberation.

Beasts of Burden was written as a polemical text with the aim of provoking debate, so we were pleased to read you considered response. However, we have found it difficult to answer your response to our pamphlet. Some of your criticisms we fully accept. We are aware that our effort reflects our own experiences in the UK, which gives it a decidedly Anglo-centric flavour, a point also raised by a correspondent in the US where working class hunting is more common. But we find it hard at times to distinguish which comments of yours are general remarks about the animal question, and which are meant to be specific criticisms of what we have written. For example, you state that that it is unlikely that in a communist society everyone would be vegan. Our pamphlet essentially says the same thing: "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." Forgive us then, if we at times repeat some of what we said in the pamphlet in an effort to make sure that we have been understood.

Some points you raise enrich and deepen our analysis. For instance we agree with your point about not being able to understand McDonalds without considering the wider context of fast food, reduced human contract, and speed generally. Your discussion on the nature of the species - "'humanity' evades definition" - is extremely interesting.

We agree that there is no such thing as a wrong turn in history. Furthermore, we also believe that history does not have an aim. History is the activity of civilised humanity over time. We make our own history, but not in circumstances of our choosing (an unoriginal point, but one we will return to). We do not know whether there will ever be a communist revolution. We do, however, believe that one may be possible, and that such a revolution will in part be the conscious action of the communists, the class, humanity, and not simply the blind expression of needs.

We are not primitivists, but your criticism of them that they reject the science of history in favour of anthropology, is both inaccurate and missing the point. Primitivists do not reject the study of history (Perlman's and Zerzan's writings are full of historical knowledge) but they do have the merit of trying to take what is useful from anthropology. Sadly most Marxian communists don't do much more than reiterate Engels. If Marx and Engels had lived another hundred years, it's likely that they'd have found the time to assess the new information and analyses that have appeared in this field since the 1880's. Marx's final years were spent precisely on a study of ethnographical writings.

If there is one common, and crucial, weakness in Camatte, Perlman and Zerzan it is a rejection of the revolutionary specificity of the proletariat. Camatte rejects the proletariat outright. Perlman and Zerzan only see that the proletariat is oppressed, like all the other subject classes in history, slaves, serfs, helots.... To Perlman we are all 'zeks'. Well, we can take inspiration from Spartacus, but we are not slaves. It is the failure of primitivism to identify what is revolutionary in the proletariat, and capitalism, which allows primitivists to posit revolution as being at any time possible, if only we could escape Leviathan's grip. It is this failure which leads to their ahistoricism (in the Marxian, not academic sense). Communism entails the abolition of all classes, but that is not its starting point. Communism develops through class struggle - not exclusively, but without question.

We cannot say for certain that communism was unachievable in the past, but the conditions in which it is possible today are quite different from previous periods with the proletariat as a global class distinct from previous subordinate classes. Primitivism, on the other hand, postulates that communism is only really possible on the basis of an (impossible) return to some previous point in history, and its technology.

What we assert is that the animal question has been largely rejected by the self-designated communist movement, or at the very least, neglected. (Perhaps this is an Anglo-centric opinion though? Your immediate acceptance that there is an animal question, and that there can be people who are both communist and vegan, are not positions that were generally accepted amongst communists here before we embarked on 'Beasts of Burden'.) As a result, the practical and theoretical ramifications of this question have developed independently, through the animal liberation movement, for example. We wish to see the question re-integrated into the self-designated communist movement, that is, we'd like to see the latter be a better expression of communism, the real social movement. We see 'Beasts of Burden', as well your and others' responses to it, as part of that re-integration.

What we are not saying is that animal oppression is the original sin, that it is the cause or catalyst of all other social problems, that everyone must become vegan, that communism is primarily about minimising suffering, that the production line is bad because it was developed in meat-packing.... We are arguing that the animal question is part of the totality that communism addresses. We point out that again and again, methods of oppressing animals were later applied to humans. We point out that even without consciously addressing the animal question a movement that abolishes the factory system, scientific progress, valorisation, the Spectacle, also partially liberates animals. We hold that this is no coincidence, and seek to make this liberation conscious. We believe that it is in the material interests of the human species that the relationship to animals is radically altered. We say this because it has rarely been said by communists, not because we do not think likewise that the relationship between human beings, between men and women, between the human species and the plant world, etc., do not also need to be radically altered.

We do not think we assume that everything is getting materially worse for 'the masses'. On the other hand, we don't think that things are just getting materially better either. Capital is a dynamic system, boom and bust, progress and decadence, co-exist or follow one after the other. An emphasis only on this society's wealth, on only some supposed normal (i.e. West European since 1945) capitalism certainly mistakes the part for the whole. The situationists may have said that it is this society's wealth that need to be criticised, but it's their emphasis on the totality that seems more productive. Our pamphlet does not in itself deal with the totality though, it deals with what has not been dealt with by communists before, as both 'communists' and 'animal liberationists' have remarked to us.

Plants and animals
You mention a friend who tried to "rescue" a tree, and talk about wildflower lovers or vegetal lovers. (We are not "animal lovers" but are sympathetic to animal liberation, just as we are not "nigger lovers" but are sympathetic to struggles by non-white proles.) These isolated, real or imaginary situations are all concerned with one individual's reaction to a specific situation. In fact, we do know of many situations where trees have been defended as part of collective struggle, especially in the anti-roads movement in Britain, and the anti-logging movements in the US and Australia. The anti-roads movement has linked up with striking workers, fought police, organised collective squats and political conferences and now designates itself as 'anti-capitalist' (rather than being specifically anti-roads or environmentalist). We see the expansion of this single-issue eco-struggle into a consciously revolutionary anti-capitalist movement (not without limitations!) as a positive development. We do not dismiss the tree protecting aspect of it, but see this as part of the basis for this movement's radical opposition to this society and its demand for a rapprochement with nature. But there is a difference between an individual acting according to his or her sentiment, and the actions of a collectivity in conflict with capital and the state.

The point you make about hunting being upper-class in England, but not France, is valid, and this was a clear weakness in the text. This weakness will hopefully be addressed in the introduction to the US edition. However, your characterisation of a "decaying rural hierarchic England support[ing] hunting as a lost battle against modern waged classes" doesn't take note of the fact that many hunters these days are individuals from the urban upper and middle classes. Hunting, as we said, still plays a function in Britain of helping socialise new layers into the existing ruling class.

One criticism that in Britain is often levelled against vegans, animal liberationists or what have you, is that these perspectives are a reaction to modern or urban life, an attempt to get back to nature, and one that is based on ignorance of rural life, and completely irrelevant to agrarian life in the "Third World" especially. One observation is that it is remarkable the strength of feeling about animals in England in particular, as opposed to France, Spain, the US. Why is this? Is it just a national characteristic? A "nation of animal lovers", as the cliché puts it? What is specific about English society, in respect to animals, and nature in general?

In England, "the first Capitalist country", the agricultural revolution was essentially completed in the mid-seventeenth century, and no one talks of "English peasants" if talking about the 20th century, or the 19th, or the 18th. Not so with Spain, Italy, France, and still less China, India, Russia. The historical relationship between humans and animals is thus different in England than elsewhere. Britain's position as a small, now densely populated island means that any substantial wilderness likewise disappeared centuries past. With the US, Canada, Australia, there is no peasantry in recent history, but still exists a large wilderness, which was socially important, at least in the last century, and symbolically still is important. England stands out as a country where nature is most capitalised, where people in general have the least direct contact with animals other than as pets. Perhaps there is something more to be said about this confluence of the most capitalistically developed relations with nature, and a large and rising trend toward vegetarianism, support for animal liberation and a generalised wish to be spared the sight and smell of the blood of butchered meat? The development of capitalist society entails the creation of new needs. Although there have been vegetarian and animal liberation tendencies throughout history, in the most developed countries we now see widespread (contradictory!) attitudes developing which could not exist at an earlier stage of society, and which are certainly not the result of advertising. The new desire for a rapprochement with nature is not concerned with a return to the past, but is a result of a certain development of society.

Having made this point, we feel compelled to add that, we do not believe that other countries/territories are destined to undergo identical transformations, nor do we demand that other regions must go through a similar development of agriculture, etc. What we do suggest is that there has been a significant development in how the relation with animals is conceived and that this conception is one that communism must address, just as it addresses the conceptions of, say present-day Indonesia, or of England's past.

Our pamphlet was not intended to be the final word on the animal question. "This text does not claim to have all the answers or to be the 'communist manifesto' for animals..." This is not just false humility, but is reflected in the in the way that the pamphlet is "open at both ends" and in its very structure. We try to leave things open both when talking about the past and, especially, the future. In particular, on the question of agriculture, far from making it the cause of all problems, we put forward two incompatible theories on the relationship between agriculture and civilisation, firstly that the former caused the latter, and secondly that the latter preceded the former. What we state precisely for ourselves is "We should avoid ascribing to agriculture the role of 'original sin', the singular cause of humanity's misfortunes and of our expulsion from some primitive communist Eden. The development of states and classes were contradictory, complex and contested processes taking place over many millennia. While the domestication of plants and animals was an important part of this story, we do not want to suggest that it was the whole story." Nonetheless, a number of responses from different people to our text take our comments as indeed being a robust statement of exactly what went on 40 or 250 millennia ago. It seems that we should have been even more deliberately vague, ambiguous, and incomplete than we were already! In the, at present unlikely, event that we were to do a revised edition, then we would certainly rework this section.

It seems obvious to us that there was an increase in animal domestication, exploitation and so on that developed in tandem with the development of society from primitive communism to civilisation, (with the two dynamically influencing each other, rather than one preceding the other). You say that we could have picked on anything and made a whole history around, for instance war (actually, Perlman does just that to some extent). You also point out that some argue that meat-eating was the origin of human culture. That's true but it is also true that some argue that war has had a positive effect for the development of society (none less than Hegel has done that). One could also point out that war has also created the conditions for revolution. Our counterpoint to such arguments, would be that we do not identify with progress, and further, that we see anti-war movements as an expression (sometimes at least) of human needs and ... communism. Even if war does sometimes result in social progress, we can still look at its negative impact on human society, and the communist potential of anti-war movements. Similarly with the animal question: even if meat-eating did help the development of society in a positive way (which is debatable of course) we can still look at the anti-communist tendencies in animal exploitation, and also at the communist kernel in the movements and theories that oppose this exploitation.

Laissez-faire communism?
There is a tendency to some of the comments in your response, and to some extent in "For a World Without Moral Order" which suggests a fatalistic, libertarian attitude to the nature of communist society. "...f rape is unlikely to happen, it won't be because men will refrain from it ... but because they won't feel the need to." But there is more to the direction that society may take than what needs men may feel. Revolutions certainly are the collective expressions of needs, but they also involve conscious actions, by people trying to push society in a direction that seems desirable as well as merely possible. The question of rape is not likely to be one just left to the winds of fortune, but one which people - women in particular, no doubt - will likely organise around. Part of this conscious, collective organisation would be to demolish the specifically capitalist ideas/ideologies about the place, and desires, of women. Part of this organising may be some form of practical defence. In any case, whatever form such organisation may take, it would be a conscious and collective intervention into social life with the aim of influencing society's development.

One of the most positive things about your previous work (e.g. "Eclipse...") has been the recognition of the existence of communism as a movement in the present. In Beasts of Burden we have attempted to explore the extent to which aspects of animal liberation might be seen as manifestations of such a movement. Your comments about environmentalism (as an expression of capitalist proprietorship) and about struggles against 'abuse' (as inevitably reformist) suggest that you do not see communist tendencies in present social movements, seeing them only as steps towards a purer capitalism. We could argue that there are contradictory tendencies and that, for instance, parts of the radical environmental movement are adopting an explicitly communist (not just 'anti-capitalist') perspective opposed to any form of green capitalism. Furthermore we hold to the view that the communist movement develops through wider proletarian struggles rather than a transcendental revolt emerging from nowhere to overthrow everything.

There is not just one, or just two possible futures - "communism or barbarism" - society could develop in all sorts of different ways, even with several different communisms as alternate possibilities, and with more or less plurality in any eventual communist society. The precise shape that society takes depends, in part (and only in part), on the ideas and actions of the originators, and members of that society. Beasts of Burden is anti-utopian in the sense that we do not attempt to prescribe how people might behave in a future society. But to the extent that communism will be consciously created, the visions people have will affect how that society develops.

Communism will not resolve all conflicts and disagreements within society. We might still be arguing about the status of animals, but in a completely different context. The community (or communities) will still have to make choices between different alternatives.

[i]Taken from the Antagonism website.