A Marxist turn in animal liberation?

“Bring slaughter to an end: expropriate the meat industry, abolish capitalism”. Rally against the Meat industry, Zurich, Switzerland, 2018

Interview with Daniel Werding, Christin Bernhold and David Müller

Daniel Werding, Christin Bernhold and David Müller are members of the Alliance for Marxism and Animal Liberation. The Alliance is a political association of various animal liberation groups centered in Germany and Switzerland. It was formed to support research, criticism and debate over the ideas of Marxism as they impact the animal liberation struggle and to contribute to a new approach to the praxis of the movement. The Alliance published it’s 18 Theses on Marxism and Animal Liberation[1] in January, 2017. An English translation was released August 2018. Along with 2 other members of the Alliance, they spoke with Currents editor Michael John Addario. The interview was conducted over email between November 2018 and April 2019.

The history of the animal liberation movements in Germany have some clear parallels with the liberation movements in the West, but they have also developed within the unique framework of German philosophy and German society. They also appear to have developed a bit later than the North American and some of the other European movements. Could you tell us a little bit about that history?

The history of what can be called the latest wave of the animal rights and animal liberation movements in Germany started at the end of the 1980s. The movements at that time still described themselves as animal welfarists, although they weren’t really “welfarists” in the reformist (and bourgeois) sense that we see today. Political and theoretical discussions on these issues were just beginning. Most of the activists had an autonomous anarchist background or an affiliation to the Green Party, which was founded at the beginning of the 1980s. Accordingly, their positions were a mixture of moral philosophy and the “unity-of-oppression” approaches. Back then, direct action dominated. This orientation, among other things, led to the first “anti-terrorism” trial against animal activists, which took place in Hamburg.[2] All defendants were found not guilty. The split between welfarists and more radical currents happened quite early – at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.

The differences between the animal rights movement and parts of the autonomous left resulted in an ideological clash at the Tierrechtswoche (“Animal Rights Week”) in Hamburg in 1995.[3] This led to a reorientation within some of the groupings in the movement. They started to engage in theoretical discussions and began to formulate a critique of forms of autonomous politics then dominant in Germany. In the first years of the new millennium, this turn found its expression in new theoretical positions based on the traditional critical theory by Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Birgit Mütherich[4] published her influential book about the problem of human-animal relations in the work of Weber, Marx and the Frankfurt School[5] in 2000. At about the same time, the first platform for campaigning on a national level was founded: Offensive gegen die Pelzindustrie (Offensive Against the Fur Industry), and the first of a number of successful campaigns against the fur trade was launched.[6] Shortly after that, the Jewish-Israeli critical theorist and professor Moshe Zuckermann helped the radical currents of the animal rights and liberation movements to explore the legacy of the Frankfurt School in favor of animal liberation politics.

I am especially interested from what you described, in an earlier conversation, as a “turn to Marxism” in the German animal liberation movement, roughly between 2006 and 2008. How substantive and influential was that turn in practice – and what do you attribute that turn to?

Tierrechts-Aktion Nord (TAN), which is known today as Assoziation Dämmerung (Association Dawn),[7] organized an important congress in Hamburg called “Soften the Stony Heart of Infinity” (a phrase by Adorno) in 2006.[8] The contributions to the congress were published in a book with the same title, published by journalist and longtime animal liberation activist Susann Witt-Stahl.[9]

One of the contributors was Marco Maurizi. Marco is an Italian philosopher, musician and an active intellectual in the broad field of critical human-animal studies. In 2005, shortly before the congress took place, his Nine Theses on Speciesism appeared.[10] Together with his two chapters to Susann’s book, which were the outcome of his talks at the congress, those theses were seminal for the groups who had already been discussing critical theory and animal liberation.

Maurizi’s theses explained, in condensed form, the differences between a historical materialist approach to animal liberation and metaphysical ones. He used Peter Singer’s philosophy as a model for his definition of metaphysical anti-speciesism. Marco’s basic idea is that “speciesism – our belief that man is something other than and superior to every other animal – is the cause of nothing; it is rather the effect of something that the metaphysical anti-speciesists have not yet explained.” Here, “speciesism” is a prime example for what Marx and Engels called “superstructure” and it is the effect of political economic praxis – the “something” that metaphysical anti-speciesist have not yet explained. Even today in human-animal studies, metaphysical approaches have significant influence.

Susann’s book – and especially Marco’s interventions – led to deeper discussions about animal liberation and Marxism. At the same time, however, metaphysical anti-speciesism was getting a big boost by the emerging “human-animal studies” fields in academies in the German-speaking world. These fields are still dominated by left-liberal and radical democratic forces promoting post-structuralism (including Actor-Network-Theory), various new ethical approaches and “denucleated”, or eclectic, readings of the Frankfurt School.

The background against which this latter intellectual development took place was a general movement of the German left to the centre: in the wake of the ideological and political turn to the right and neoconservatism, the weakening of the traditional radical and socialist/communist left and the historic event of massive neoliberal cuts carried out by the first national government of social democrats and the Green Party – in which many leftists had placed big hopes. Economically, German capital was all but entirely uncontested in its dominance – and even gained opportunities for new profits due to the liberalization of the labor market and deregulation of the juridical forms of capital-labour relations. Germany was also being reinvented as a global player, approving its first participation in an open war of aggression after the Second World War, 1999 against the Republic of Yugoslavia, and its second in the still ongoing war in Afghanistan. Thus, if you like, one faction of the animal liberation movement took a “turn to Marxism”, but it was really a counter-current, as in Walter Benjamin’s sense that it has been “brushing history against the grain”. This was unfortunately neither part of a mass movement, nor did it dominate the broader left.

How did the 18 Theses on Marxism and Animal Liberation come to be developed?

Coming out of these intellectual currents, we started meeting in 2014 with animal liberation activists from Switzerland and Germany who shared our point of view and began to discuss Marxist theory and politics and strategic issues in the movement. At that point, we had not yet planned to create a formal alliance. However, the meetings spawned fruitful debates on animal liberation from Marxist and socialist perspectives. It was necessary to elaborate on these perspectives in order to advance it within the movement – as well as make it accessible to people more generally interested in “animal issues”. We also wanted to develop these debates and agendas further. The Tierrechtsgruppe Zürich[11] published an issue of Antidot[12] – a supplement to the Swiss left-liberal weekly newspaper WOZ[13] – in late 2014 focusing on “Marxism and Animal Liberation.” It was a publication of journalism rather than theory, but its essays developed some aspects of the critique we discussed during that time. Reactions to it showed us that there is indeed interest in anti-capitalist and socialist positions on animal liberation. Unfortunately, none of the articles have been translated into English.

We decided to consolidate our efforts and constitute what is now our Alliance and also to develop a statement that basically explains why we think that Marxism and Animal Liberation belong together. We needed something that we could use to present our position to both young comrades within the animal liberation movement and to Marxist comrades who always wondered why their crazy vegan comrades kept arguing that animals are something that Marxism should care about. The process of collective writing and debating took about one year. We wrote down our theses as our theoretical founding document and published it as a brochure in January 2017. After the Theses were released, we discussed them at several events of both the animal liberation movement and the Marxist left. Comrades from different countries translated them into English and French.[14] We hope to facilitate a larger, international debate on Marxism and animal liberation, which we consider long overdue.

How would you summarize the theoretical standpoint of the Theses?

It’s a classical Marxist standpoint from which we address both the animal liberation movement and the Marxist and communist left. We argue that animal liberation and Marxism not only might work together but in fact necessarily belong together and must unite. This is why the text is split into two main chapters: one arguing “Why anti-speciesism must be Marxist,” the other one “Why Marxism must be anti-speciesist.” As historical materialists, we think that animal liberation politics need Marxism to understand the relationship of society to both animals and nature and, at the same time, Marxism needs to recognize that animals must be liberated from exploitation and oppression just like the proletariat – which does not mean that the way they are exploited and dominated by capital works in exactly the same way.

In the first section, we take a critical look at the intellectual currents that are most influential in the animal rights and animal liberation movement at the moment – namely, bourgeois moral philosophy, liberal legal criticism and liberal (post-structuralist) anti-authoritarianism. We argue that all of them have their merits. However, in the end, they are not able to give a satisfactory answer to the question as to why exactly animals are exploited in capitalism, why this exploitation works the way it works and where speciesist ideology really comes from. We then introduce historical materialism and the works of Marx and Engels as a theoretical foundation which is both able and necessary to answer these questions. It also provides the instruments to analyze the economic position animals have in capitalism.

The second section argues that on the other side, Marxism is inconsistent if it keeps ignoring the animals. While arguing that capitalism inherently harms the interests of the proletariat, Marxists are incoherent if they want to abolish capitalist exploitation and oppression in order to liberate the working class but at the same time deny that for animals. This is not a moralism, per se, but a fundamental – revolutionary – moral position that Marxists are driven by in their will to end the systematic suffering that capitalism causes. For historical materialists, there is no justifiable reason not to respect the interests and rights of non-human animals.

A number of scholars have been grappling with elements of Marxism and animal liberation for some time now, among them figures such as David Nibert and John Sanbonmatsu in the US and Dinesh Wadiwel in Australia. The question of animal labour has animated writers such as Jason Hribal and has also been taken up by some academics outside of a Marxist framework. Did you draw from any from these figures?

Our aim was not to write an academic text, but a political essay which outlines common ground for Marxists and animal liberationists. Thus, the number of explicit references is intentionally low. But you can find some references to Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Adorno or Marcuse – some explicit, some implicit. Furthermore, we drew in large extent on our experiences in the debates we have been having in the German-speaking world in which, with all due respect, the scholars you name have not yet become as influential as, for e.g., Gary Francione, Donna Haraway or Carol J. Adams. So, the short answer is that while some of us are familiar with Nibert, Sanbonmatsu and Wadiwel we have not yet discussed them as a collective. And we also found it necessary to formulate a position based on the original works of Marx and Engels, who we don’t consider speciesist or anthropocentric.

Jason Hribal has become a bit famous in Germany, at least in the academic world. But the focus of the reception has been more on his concept of animal resistance and the related reformulation of animal agency. In contrast to him, we do not think that animals “resist” their exploitation and oppression, or that it is helpful to extend agency in such a particular way. We think that it is necessary to be precise with our terms and that a transfer of concepts from the working class to animals is not always easy. This does not mean that animals go voluntarily to the slaughterhouse or that they are not actors in history. Actually, as Marxists we know that not only humans have been making history. But we think that “resistance” is not the right term to conceptualize what animals do. Not every individual or collective act of denial, refusal, non-corporation etc. is automatically an act of resistance – neither in human or in animal histories.

On Hribal’s proposal to consider animal as laborers, the quality of the concept depends a lot on its exact meaning. Obviously, animals do work for their own reproduction and/or for “animal capital.” Incidentally, Marx and Engels had already stated this, although many pro-animal scholars try to prove the opposite. It is actually quite interesting to observe that some post-postmodernists now “rediscover” nature and animals as agents, while Marx and Engels had already considered them to have a history of their own, even in their early works. But does the fact that animals perform labor mean that animals are part of the proletariat, as Hribal assumes? We have been considering the question of animal labor for a while now, and we do not think so. Marx and Engels used this term for a specific class, within the historically particular capitalist social formation, and which is defined by its relation to capital: i.e., with respect to the property relations and the production and distribution of profit. The relation to capital by wage workers and by animals respectively differ. In the latter case, it is a property relation which allows capital to super-exploit animals.

Furthermore, if we consider Hribal’s political definition of the proletariat, we would argue that animals are not a politically conscious part of the working class. We think this particular transfer of a concept does not help us to better understand contemporary society. In the worst case, it confuses our analysis. Nevertheless, we do appreciate the histories Hribal has collected about animals who do not cooperate with their exploiters and oppressors. They are really fascinating and, of course, they contradict the wrong perception of animals as passive material, automatons or machines.

There is a significant anarchist element within many animal liberation movements. Some of this is often more in name – almost as a kind of cultural affiliation – rather than reflecting classical anarchist practice. Is there a genuine Marxist-Anarchist debate or a clash of organizational strategies in the German movement?

The short answer would be no. If you exclude postmodernist neo-anarchism, the genuinely anarchist current within the animal liberation movement is not as strong as it used to be. Unlike the 90s, where, say, the eco-anarchism that many of us grew up with was quite influential, culturally and theoretically, it does not organize itself as an explicitly “anarchist” current anymore. Ironically, one of the few groups which at the moment labels themselves “anarchist” is an animal liberation group in Hannover run by so-called “anti-Germans”[15] who use allegations of antisemitism in order to slander traditional leftists. Secondly, there is simply no organized theoretical debate within the movement about these issues at the moment.

We would actually prefer to have such a “clash of organizational strategies” – at least that would imply a debate, which could potentially push things forward. But strategic debates just aren’t taking place at the moment. Of course, there are activists with an anarchist or libertarian background. So far, no critique or reaction to our theses from an explicitly anarchist point of view has been formulated. There are of course some of our positions and arguments which are questioned, e.g. the focus on the class question as a core question of capitalism, or the necessity to join forces with the labor movement. But since these issues are not really debated with regard to organizational questions, that sort of debate is not happening.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Alliance? How was it formed and how is it organized?

The Alliance was formed in 2014. It is based in several cities in Germany and in Switzerland. We started our collective work with the above-mentioned newspaper supplement Antidot. We outlined some basic ideas on historical materialism and animals and a Marxist approach to ethics as class ethics. We also did some analysis of the German and Swiss meat industry, looked at the interconnections between eco-socialism and animals, criticized the emerging vegan culture industry, and so on. We had rich editorial discussions about the paper and its contents, about debates in the emerging human-animal studies in the universities and about developments on the left. We concluded that we need at least three things: (1) an independent, organizational approach of Marxists and animal liberationists, (2) a collective theoretical and political discussion of the interconnections of Marxism and animal liberation thought, and (3) a strategic debate on how to move forward.

The Alliance thus became formalized and we launched theoretical discussions, the 18 Theses being the first result. We are an association of groups and individuals with different political backgrounds, scattered geographically. We hold collective meetings several weekends a year. For these meetings, we take turns preparing inputs on theoretical and political currents and other issues, to make sure that everybody is on the same page, educate ourselves and be up to date, etc. We have plenary discussions on significant topics in which all activists have a common interest. In addition, we hold regular phone conferences with delegates from all participating groups. Despite our emphasis on theoretical work and idea formation the first phase of our alliance, we see ourselves primarily as a political activist organization. Theory and praxis cannot be separated – both have to be part of what we do politically. It took us most of that first year to write the theses.

The first step to a new strategic approach followed in March 2018. The animal rights/ liberation movements are in a terrible state at the moment. We organized a conference about “The Future of the Movement”. The idea was to present and discuss a proposal for a new movement strategy. Instead of doing only localized work, or a lot of small, single-issue campaigns which are mostly unsuccessful, we proposed to focus the principal forces of the movement collectively on the meat industry, as it is both the main economic profiteer and the most influential political agent in animal exploitation. Additionally, we think that the meat industry could be a focus of opposition for the broader anti-capitalist left, given the relations of exploitation between capital and labor are among the most extreme, considering the social ecological problems produced by the meat industry, and given the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse emissions. That’s where we are at the moment.

The animal liberation movements worldwide are at a critical historical moment. They have struggled to find a place within major left currents – explicitly Marxist or otherwise – even as the needs for them are so politically urgent. The numbers of non-human beings owned and slaughtered every year is the highest in human history and the nature of their use is of an almost incomprehensibly sadistic character. What do you see as the most urgent strategic aims of the movements?

You’re right with that observation. We consider it crucial for these movements to join forces, if only for the simple reason that the bourgeoisie and its apparatuses are pretty well organized and we, as their enemies, must just do the same in order to be powerful. And let’s not forget that the animal liberation movement is not the only left movement with a de facto urgent need for allies.

We think it is vital to focus strategically on the meat industry. It is the embodiment of the global oppression and exploitation of animals, workers and nature. It is responsible not only for most of the systematic slaughter of animals, but also for pollution, deforestation, ecocide, prevention of food sovereignty, the oppression of workers’ rights and the destruction of their unions. It is a primary locus for so many of the contradictions of capitalism. The meat industry can potentially be a political arena in which different anti-capitalist movements meet to join forces. Such a campaign could enable us to create the common ground for animal liberation, eco-activists, unionists, communists, and opponents of imperialism to unite.

Of course, it would be naïve to believe that such a thing could form overnight, not the least of which is due to the mutual skepticism and political differences between and among animal liberation groups and different left currents. We are in relatively uncharted political territory. We do not have ready answers to certain questions. Things must really be tried out in practice.

This requires careful solidarity-building work. For instance, at different sites of the German meat industry, local groups – mainly unionists and residents – can start discussing what to do against the devastating working conditions. The discontent among workers in the meat industry has always been high and everybody knows that. The same is true for citizens living near slaughterhouses. Local campaigns and initiatives need to aim at building bonds with these people. One can build from there. It’s important to keep in mind that workers in the meat industry care about their jobs not because they necessarily want to work killing animals – much of the job is psychologically stressful – but because they need an income. This distinction is important for the question of solidarity. How should our movement act in such a context? At any rate, advancing animal liberation positions in these campaigns would require real participation over the long term, rather than just going to a meeting and speaking against slaughter.

Of course, it is a consistent problem that the Marxist left, social movements and liberal elements that promote technological fixes – such as, say, agroecology – are either ignorant or hostile to the animal question. This has not exactly helped animal liberationists finding their place in “the left,” as you say.

How that’s supposed to change is a matter on its own. But when it comes to the question as to what the animal liberation movement needs to do to develop the potential to build broader alliances, a first thing is giving up single-issue politics. This is the very precondition to be able to even think about joining forces with others. The animal liberation movements must ensure that they do not themselves serve the prejudices that often exist in the Marxist left, like for instance, that they are only interested in vegan consumption, or that they do not pay attention to questions of political economy – especially the exploitation of workers – and so on.

In July of this year, we will participate in an action conference organized by Animal Climate Action (AniCa), which will be discussing strategies against the meat industry and is organizing a major mobilization against the EuroTier 2020 in Hannover, a world leading fair for animal production. We are looking forward to the discussions there.

But how you see such class politics functioning? Democratizing the economy and producing for human need is certainly the socialist project writ large. But in transforming workplaces to worker and council leadership, we can quite easily anticipate class conflicts around the liberation of animals. This seems to me something that must remain at the centre of animal liberation politics generally. As you said, the animal rights movement – even the animal liberation left – has not exactly prioritized socialism and class politics.

Animal liberation class politics have to be developed within the traditional left, the pro-animal movements and society. We have to develop it ourselves – theoretically and practically. The lack of such politics, sometimes even the frank refusal of such politics, is one major reason why we are disconnected from the left. Like it or not, there is no other way than pro-animal class politics if we take into account the objective forces in our capitalist society and the objective of a just and free society for all. Again, simple vegan outreach, “veganizing” education and direct actions are not sufficient – they are often even politically counterproductive. On the other hand, we do not consider the establishment of these politics to be an “automatism”, or a way of least resistance. There are still large reservations among leftists and animal rightists, not to mention the classical social-democratic left within the unions’ apparatuses. Thus, there are going to be conflicts about socialism, animal liberation and their interconnection within the left and with liberals, democrats and so on. But there are always some people who are at least open to discussion and to selective alliances on both sides. Finding them and initiating conversations is one of our first tasks.

With respect to civil society and the state, we have no illusions. As with other locations of class struggle, the ruling classes are not going to like what we want or what we do. One faction does not want to deal with the issues at all and openly fights against us. The other, the more (neo)liberal one, wants to pacify us. These capitalists and politicians promote vegan commodities and lifestyles, improved animal welfare regulations, the acknowledgment of some species and in-vitro meat in order to maintain the bourgeois hegemony with regard to animal exploitation.

However, as the history of the working-class struggles shows, integration is not liberation and the ruling classes have treated those who refused integration with even more rigor. The hard or the soft way, in the end we have to struggle against capitalism and the capitalist class in general and animal capital in particular. Our task is to organize and educate ourselves as best as possible and formulate a strategic project against animal capital that appeals to pro-animal activists and leftists on the one hand and to the broad working class and public on the other.

If we get this done, we are already a big step ahead.

  1. https://www.facebook.com/notes/marxismus-und-tierbefreiung/18-theses-on-marxism-and-animal-liberation/797354620467883/
  2. http://www.taz.de/!288185/
  3. https://al-archive.lnxnt.org/?p=377
  4. Birgit Mütherich (1959 – 2011) was an influential German sociologist who wrote Die Problematik der Mensch-Tier-Beziehung in der Soziologie: Weber, Marx und die Frankfurter Schule. Obituary by Renate Brucker and Melanie Bujok (in German): https://www.tierrechtsgruppe-zh.ch/?p=1657
  5. http://lit-verlag.ch/isbn/3-8258-4753-1
  6. https://offensive-gegen-die-pelzindustrie.net/wordpress/
  7. http://www.assoziation-daemmerung.de/
  8. On the congress, see http://www.tierrechts-aktion-nord.de/kongress/kongress.html
  9. Susann Witt-Stahl (ed.), Das steinerne Herz der Unendlichkeit erweichen: Beiträge zu einer kritischen Theorie für die Befreiung der Tiere, 2007
  10. Nine Theses on Speciesism can be found at http://apesfromutopia.blogspot.com/2011/03/nine-theses-on-speciesism.html; Marco Maurizi’s website (Italian) is at https://marcomaurizi74.wordpress.com/
  11. https://tierrechtsgruppe-zh.ch/
  12. https://www.tierrechtsgruppe-zh.ch/wp-content/files/Marxismus_und_Tierbefreiung_Antidot.pdf
  13. https://www.woz.ch/
  14. The French translation is available at: https://www.facebook.com/notes/marxismus-und-tierbefreiung/18-thèses-sur-le-marxisme-et-la-libération-animale/836381626565182/
  15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Germans_(political_current)