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Animalists Should Focus on Commonalities, Not Differences

There’s a great joke, of which there seem to be many variations, about the ludicrousness of a certain kind of sectarianism, that animalists could learn from. There appear to be many variations of the gag. In a 2005 article for the Guardian, comedian Emo Phillips, claimed to have come up with the it, originally using the context of Christian denominations. But I originally heard the joke in the context of socialism, and it was very similar, if not identical, to the version reposted to Louis Proyect’s blog, ‘The Unrepentant Marxist,’ which goes like this.

An elderly fellow named Sam was walking along the Brooklyn Bridge one day when he saw a man of similar age, standing on a ledge, about to jump. Sam ran toward the other man, shouting not to kill himself. The other guy, who we’ll call Joe, asked why not? He’d been a socialist all of his life and the possibility of working-class revolution seemed as hopeless as ever. Surprised, Sam said he was a socialist as well, before asking Joe if he had been in Communist Party USA. Joe said he had. Sam said he had too, before continuing, “Did you join the pro-Trotsky Communist League of America in 1928, which later merged with the American Workers Party to form the Workers Party of America in 1934?” Joe answered in the affirmative.

Sam exclaimed, “Spooky, me too! After the WPA was expelled from the Socialist Party of America in 1936 did you go on to join the Socialist Workers Party USA and the Fourth International?” Joe said he did. It went on like this, question after question revealing their common trajectory in the history of leftist sectarianism. Sam asked, “In the 1940 dispute did you side with Cannon or Shachtman?” He finds that they both sided with James P. Cannon. Sam continued, “In 1962 did you join Robertson’s opposition caucus, the Revolutionary Tendency?” And the man on the ledge did, just like Sam.

Sam said, “And I bet that like me you were expelled and went on to join the International Communist League?” Joe said that went without saying. Sam plowed further, “In 1985 did you join the International Bolshevik Tendency who claimed that the Sparts had degenerated into an ‘obedience cult?’” Joe said he hadn’t, which Sam hadn’t either. Finally, Sam asked, “In 1998 did you join the Internationalist Group after the Permanent Revolution Faction were expelled from the ICL?” Joe answered he had joined the Internationalist Group, and exhilarated by their shared history, began to reconsider suicide. But Sam pushed Joe off the bridge, shouting, “Die, counterrevolutionary scum!”

At the risk of ruining the joke, the humor here, of course, largely comes from how much Sam and Joe had in common in relation to an already microscopic political subset, but how ultimately none of that mattered. When Sam discovered they shared a tiny, irrelevant difference, he had to literally destroy Joe. Ironically, Sam opposed Joe with far more vehemence than he might someone whose politics were genuinely well to the right of his.

This dynamic should sound very similar to animalists, and one imagines the gag could be easily rewritten for our context. We all know the countless fault lines — whether one supports individual violence, whether one supports the large non-profits, whether one is a reformist, whether one is a tactical reformist. The different ideological litmus tests we have created, and I certainly include myself in this, are endless. And the great irony is that to those outside the incredibly marginalized anti-speciesist movement, none of these differences matter. To them, we are all those ‘animal-rights wackos,’ just like, to an uninvolved observer, Sam and Joe are both ‘socialist nut jobs.’

Our elevation of comparatively minor tactical or ideological differences between us is really an expression of the powerlessness of our movement. Consciously or not, when we do this, we are conceding that societal change on behalf of animals, however minor, is impossible. We retreat into a sectarian hovel, where we duke it out amongst ourselves, quixotically fighting those who deviate from the correct anti-speciesist line. This of course, doesn’t help animals. The only way to create real change for non-humans is to create a mass movement, which involves coalition building with those one might not entirely agree, including those whose species politics are reformist. We have to unite.

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

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