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The Value of Animals

Socialists and the ‘Pet’ Contradiction

by JON HOCHSCHARTNER

Socialists, like everyone else, absorb our culture’s contradictory messages regarding the value of animals. We learn that certain species, such as dogs and cats, should be cherished as members of our families. While other other species, such as pigs and chickens, should be viewed as resources to be exploited. By looking at the relationships between three influential socialists of varying perspectives — Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Alexander Berkman — and their companion animals, I’d like to illuminate the irrational positions they held and so many of us continue to hold toward other species.

In 1938 the surrealist writer Andre Breton traveled to Mexico to visit the exiled Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky. As Breton walked with the old Bolshevik, he was disappointed to find that when Trotsky spoke of his dog, “his speech became less precise, his thought less exacting.”

In fact, Breton continues, Trotsky “went so far as to express love for the animal, lending it natural goodness.” Since here Breton uses the impersonal pronoun, which one would apply to non-conscious objects, it should come as no surprise the surrealist argues, “there was something arbitrary about endowing beasts with feelings.”

But Trotsky, apparently, would have none of it. According to Breton, it “became clear that (Trotsky) was vexed to follow me along this path: he clung to the idea…that the dog felt friendship for him, and in the full sense of the word.”

The Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg had a deep bond with her cat Mimi, who she described as her “daughter.” Her letters include frequent references to Mimi. In one, for instance, she enthusiastically describes Mimi’s meeting with the Russian Marxist Vladimir Lenin.

“She also flirted with him, rolled on her back and behaved enticingly toward him,” Luxemburg writes. “But when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.”

When Luxemburg was imprisoned in 1916 for her opposition to World War I, she apparently had the option of taking Mimi with her. But she regretfully decided it would be cruel to do so, as the conditions were too harsh for her beloved companion.

“Weeks pass without my hearing the sound of my own voice.” Luxemburg writes. “This is why I heroically resolved not to have my little Mimi here. She is used to cheerfulness and bustle; she is pleased when I sing, laugh, and play hide-and-seek with her all over the house; she would be hipped here.”

During anarchist Alexander Berkman’s imprisonment for an attempted assasination of a wealthy industrialist in 1892, he befriended a bird, who visited his cell, who he named Dick. However, one day another inmate kicked Dick to death. Berkman ran at the prisoner and knocked him down, for which Berkman was placed in solitary confinement.

Years later, Berkman recounted the story for a child, saying, “I had a friend who was a bird. He was my best friend when I was all alone and had no friend. I would save part of my roll every day and put it on the window sill and share breakfast. And one day a very bad man came along and killed the bird.”

All four socialists ate the flesh of animals very similar to their companions. So how could Trotsky say he loved a dog, with whom he believed he had a genuine friendship? How could Luxemburg object to a cat living in a human prison? How could Berkman attack a man for killing a bird?

It’s clear from these examples that — in prolonged, close proximity to animals they were less socialized to view as property — that Trotsky, Luxemburg and Berkman recognized their companions as individuals with worth outside of their usefulness to human ends. Sadly, these socialists were unable or unwilling to generalize this insight onto other domesticated species.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.