Reply to Undercurrent - Antagonism and Practical History

The authors of Beasts of Burden respond to Undercurrent's review of the article.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on July 5, 2009

Dear undercurrent,

Thankyou for reviewing Beasts of Burden, and making some interesting comments on it. We were (pleasantly) surprised at how favourable your review started. A minor point we'd like to make is that the pamphlet was a collective effort and not the work of a single author, as your review assumes.

One omission from your review was any indication on how your readers might be able to read the pamphlet for themselves. Its available free from Antagonism, BM Makhno, London WC1N 3XX, UK, and is on the web. Your (and our) readers might also like to know of a 'Letter on Animal Liberation' written by a group of French readers of Beasts of Burden, and on the web. Our reply to this letter will be put up on our own websites.

We were a little surprised (and disappointed) that you didn't refer to our postscript, which made some comments on the development of the direct action movement. You have written several articles on this subject, and we would have been interested in your response.

But on to what you did write. One of your criticisms that is undoubtedly valid is that we presented a far too rosy view of primitive communism. We wish to oppose any ideology that venerates the present state of affairs, but should not bend the stick too far in defending previous communist society.

You state that "the author makes the remark that in primitive societies, humans were initially vegetarian, thus trying to assert that there is something natural about choosing this sort of diet". This is completely wrong. We state that early humans were primarily vegetarian not to imply that vegetarianism is natural, but to indicate that the present state of affairs is unnatural, historical, socially determined and therefore not immutable. We often hear that various aspects of this society are natural - competition, male dominance, racism, widespread meat-eating - we wish to show that these phenomenon are socially determined and therefore potentially changeable.

Another point where you appear to have misunderstood our intentions is where you state that "to claim that people's harmonious relationship with nature led them to refrain from destroying it implies 'people' (in general) today have an interest in destroying the environment". This is completely to misread us. When we talk of 'people' in the past, we were specifically talking about a communist, that is, non-class, society. To say that by doing this we forget that present day society is a class society, is complete nonsense.

We find some of your comments a little frustrating. In the first three paragraphs of page 30 (which makes up a significant part of your criticisms) you three times make essentially the same point, that although historically some aspect of capitalist exploitation was rooted in animal exploitation, that needn't have been the case. This is somewhat annoying as we had already dealt with such objections in our pamphlet. We said, "Of course it is possible to imagine a theoretical model of capitalism that does not depend on animals, but this is to confuse an abstraction with the actually existing capitalism that has emerged as a result of real historical processes." You totally ignore our argument and state, for example, "The fact that the first industry to use assembly-line organisation of labour was animal-related does not mean that it could not have been another industry." But it wasn't another industry! Why do you assume that the assembly line was historically inevitable? Advanced industrial capitalism already existed without it. If it had not been developed in the meat-packing industry, why must it be developed elsewhere? It's almost as if you have in your mind the idea of parallel universes, where capitalism develops under differing historical circumstances. If animals had not been commodities, then society would have an extremely different historical basis. How could one say that the production line would necessarily have developed? It seems that for you capitalism is an ahistorical essence that determines the course of history irrespective of the material basis of society. For us capitalism is the name we give to the current society (and its functioning) which has developed from our species' actual history. We don't want to spend too much time arguing about 'what ifs'.

We find the final paragraph on page 30 somewhat surprising. Here you compare animal liberation with shoplifting, and agree that saving animals from labs confronts the logic of capital, but is "no more a pathway to revolutionary consciousness than a variety of other situations". Well, yes, that's exactly what we think, but we were surprised that you said it. Just to clarify, we regard animal liberation as one possible route to radicalisation, but not the pre-eminent way.

Your final paragraph seems out of keeping with the beginning of the article. Early on, you state that the pamphlet is in general terms, "very good", after noting that it is aimed at "people interested in animal liberation who want to consider why animal exploitation exists, as well as how". You finish up saying that the production of our pamphlet seems 'misplaced', unless it persuades animal liberationists to attack capital. Which surely is implicit in the aims you previously acknowledged.

But our pamphlet was not only aimed at animal liberationists, but (as you make clear in the first paragraph of your review) also at communists. Our aim was to try and make communists take the animal question seriously, and also engage intelligently with the best of the animal liberation movement. Its worth noting here, that your review of Beasts of Burden, is very different, and much better, than your previous article on the animal question "Hitler was a Vegetarian", which was shallow, one-sided, insulting, and silly. If the change in your attitude is anything to do with a confrontation with our pamphlet then Beasts of Burden has at least in part, succeeded in its aim.

Communist greetings,

Antagonism, Practical History

Taken from the Antagonism website. Slightly edited to update the web locations mentioned in the article.