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Why Can't Vegans Get Some Respect?

Socialists and the Animal Question

by JON HOCHSCHARTNER

Despite government repression of animal activists, in many ways there has never been an easier time to be vegetarian or vegan. One can find a wide selection of food without animal products in the most unlikely of places, such as small towns of upstate New York, where typical accoutrement is not tie-dye but NASCAR caps. The national vegan population is increasing rapidly, doubling between 2009 and 2011, according to a Harris Interactive poll. And yet the socialist left remains particularly inhospitable for those concerned with animal domestication.

This hostility goes back a long way. As Dr. Steve Best points out, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels “lumped animal welfarists, vegetarians, and anti-vivisectionists into the same petite-bourgeoisie category comprised of charity organizers, temperance fanatics, and naive reformists.” Leon Trotsky railed against those opposed to revolutionary violence, scornfully describing their ideology as “vegetarian-Quaker prattle.”

Things aren’t that different today. Paul D’Amato, a writer for whom I otherwise have a good deal of respect, took on the animal question in a Socialist Worker column which reads as little more than uninformed trolling.

“Does a mountain lion that kills a deer have a right to a trial by a jury of its peers?” He asks ridiculously. “Should cows have freedom of assembly, speech and religion?”

He acknowledges he is speaking with tongue in cheek, but insists “there is a point to it.” D’Amato goes on to recount Adolph Hitler’s animal protection efforts, because, you know, animal activists are actually closet Nazis.

Things are hardly any different on the anarchist side of the aisle. For instance, log onto the LibCom.org forums, which are maintained by London-based libertarian communists, and ask, as I have, the otherwise nice folks what they think of vegetarians or vegans. And you’ll see the British didn’t get their reputation for beef-eating for nothing.

And yet animal activists have always been part of progressive change. John Oswald, for instance, was a Scottish vegetarian who was a member of the Jacobin Club, took part in the French Revolution, and died fighting monarchist forces. Elisee Reclus, also vegetarian, was a participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, for which he was imprisoned and exiled. Of course, Mahatma Gandhi, vegetarian, led the movement to topple British colonialism in India. Cesar Chavez, vegan, co-founded the organization that would become the United Farm Workers union. One could go on with such examples. But I would prefer to hear from readers of historical figures they know who incorporated animals in their progressive vision. I am most interested in hearing of leaders who were women, people of color or engaged in explicit class struggle.

In a preface to an edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell explained the central metaphor of his satirical novel, writing, “Men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.” Modern animal activists, such as Bob Torres and David Nibert, have expanded on this unifying theme, injecting Marxist thought into the emerging field of critical animal studies. But there has been no similar effort on the part of anti-capitalists.

I don’t expect the socialist left to suddenly develop an appetite for veggie burgers and almond milk ice cream. The broad movement anti-capitalists hope to create will be reflective of the masses. And veganism is just not where the masses are yet. Much of this has to do with vegan options, at least the processed ones, being prohibitively expensive.This will change when economies of scale come into play.

But the attitude toward animal rights among the socialist left is more reactionary than that of the general population. My low-wage coworkers might think my views regarding non-humans are privileged and eccentric, but they never display the vitriolic scorn my beliefs earn among the socialist left.

My theory is that large segments of the socialist left, which at the moment are disproportionately made up of white-collar workers, has adopted a misguided workerism, by which I mean a perspective that glorifies a crude caricature of blue-collar culture, in an attempt to bond with those on lowest tiers of the capitalist system. To these more privileged members of the working class, casual indifference to animal exploitation is a defining trait of blue-collar workers. That this is immensely condescending should go without saying. But it’s also not based on a socialist understanding of class. For socialists, economic groups are not defined by eating habits, culture or even income. They’re defined by someone’s relationship to the means of production.

My class-struggle resume isn’t anything to write home about. But it’s not something I’m embarrassed about either. I’ve written for a variety of leftist publications, from SocialistWorker.org to Z Magazine. I was active in the Occupy movement, for which I spent a couple days in jail. I filed charges against my employer, and won a settlement, for union-busting. I feel I’ve made some humble contributions. But I’m also vegan. And I’m sick of feeling I’ll be treated like the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield–no respect!–if I don’t hide this in socialist circles.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.