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Linking the Animal and Class Struggle

Marx’s Son-in-Law Hated Animals

by JON HOCHSCHARTNER

Paul Lafargue, son-in-law to Karl Marx and a revolutionary in his own right, supported vivisection in the socialist newspaper L’Egalité in late 1881. Lafargue, who would die in a suicide pact with Marx’s daughter, defended the exploitative practice in a manner that revealed his deep speciesism and scathing disdain for animal advocates.

“When it comes to beasts the bourgeois have the tenderness of angels,” Lafargue wrote sneeringly. “Everywhere there are societies for the protection of dogs, cats, sparrows, etc.” The subset of animal advocates that most disturbed him apparently were those opposed to animal testing. “Of all these societies the most bothersome, the most hypocritical, the most nauseating is the anti-vivisection society,” Lafargue wrote. Interestingly, however, Lafargue had many of the same criticisms of welfarist organizations that modern animal advocates do. “All of these societies are speculations,” he wrote. “A certain number of influential members (presidents, secretaries, agents, inspectors, etc) are lavishly maintained on the funds intended for beasts.”

Lafargue continued on, taking anti-vivisectionists to task for their supposed pretentiousness. “Pigeon shooting, where thousands of tamed pigeons are wounded and mutilated for the amusement of a few imbecilic aristocrats, is highly approved of by the anti-vivisection society,” Lafargue wrote. “Several of its most influential members are big pigeon shooters.” Whether these accusations are true I’m unsure. But either way, such gotcha anti-veganism, by which I mean criticism of failures or inconsistencies in animal advocates’ personal practice, is inherently ad hominem. It’s used to ignore the merits of non-human advocates’ policy proposals.

Lafargue bemoaned what seems to be public oversight of animal testing, strangely suggesting that this government regulation was capitalist inspired. “The society of anti-vivisectionist animals of England has pulled so many strings that it has obtained from parliament a law prohibiting physiological experiments on living animals without permission from the police,” Lafargue wrote, disbelieving. “This is how the bourgeois treat their illustrious men. They degrade them to the point of putting them under the control of the cops even in the laboratory.”

Much of Lafargue’s argument rested on a dubious dichotomy between political work on behalf of animals and political work on behalf of the human working class. Animal advocates, “feel themselves to be closer relatives of beasts than of workers,” which, according to Lafargue, was a reflection of their supposedly uniformal ruling-class station. And yet if this were true, why so often was capitalist exploitation justified by comparing the human proletariat to domesticated animals? Challenging speciesism undermines a common ideological rationale for class domination.

Paraphrasing an English factory inspector, Lafargue wrote that “there exist two kinds of experiments: one practiced by physiologists on a few animals, the other practiced on thousands of men by speculators.” As an example of the latter, Lafargue wrote that “two years ago a manufacturer of rice powder in London, Mr. King, falsified his merchandise with clay and arsenical dust.” Human infants who were exposed to the powder died of poisoning. Lafargue seemed to suggest that animal advocates, who were opposed to vivisection, were not outraged by this. My guess is Lafargue was attacking a straw man here. But even if he wasn’t, his accusation that animal advocates’ sympathies were reductionist could easily be flipped to apply to him. Where perhaps anti-vivisectionists were blind to class injustice, he was blind to species injustice. After all, the “few animals” he blithely described as vivisected in the name of anthropocentric science likely had a higher level of consciousness than the human infants poisoned by rice powder.

Ultimately, if indifference to animal exploitation is inherent to socialism as conceived by the likes of Lafargue, it’s not a socialism I want to have anything to do with. Animal liberation and the class struggle are linked, if only because capitalists employ speciesism to justify their exploitation of the human masses.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website at JonHochschartner.com.