Animals and Humans – do we exploit animals?

Questions regarding the human species relationship to the natural world can be complicated to understand. It encompasses all three categories of Marxist “philosophy”: dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and scientific socialism. First, let me say that I’m sympathetic to discussions on this subject matter in general; but I find the way Jon Hochschartner’s article compares animal “’exploitation” to human slavery objectionable.

I think articles like this represent a healthy revulsion to the Stalinist perversions which used a very crude, vulgar “materialism” to justify, in “Marxist” language, the degradation of the natural environment in the Soviet Union. It’s a materialism that separated out and elevated (in an exploitative sense) the relationship between humans and the natural world. That is: the natural world is separate and just there for the “taking” by the “superior” human race without regard to real scientific understanding and “nature’s blowback”.

Of course this is a total anathema to the approach by Marx and Engels. Marx had a much more “holistic” view of the human labor process and its relationship to nature. Marx issued a rather harsh critique of this mechanical materialism in his Critique of the Gotha Program:

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Marx also goes over similar ideas in Capital, describing repeatedly the organic relationship (natural metabolism) between human labor activity and the natural world.

What does all this have to do with animal exploitation/cruelty? First, to rationally figure out human relationships to animals, one would have to start by classifying the different interactions between the two.

  1. Animals that are used for human food, their primary and longest use by humans. The introduction of meat into the human diet (mostly by women during the period of the Matriarchy) was a huge advance in providing one of the staples for a healthy diet: protein.The first meat eaten by developing humanity were small animals caught, trapped, ensnared by the women in a given group/clan of humans. Does this mean that in a future socialist society humans will have to continue eating animal meat for a healthy diet? No, I don’t think so. Other healthier, less environmentally destructive substitutes already exist and more can be invented. But at a certain point in our development as a species, meat-eating was a necessary advance.Another aspect was use of animal hides for warm covering. Fundamentally, this allowed the human species to span the globe and survive in the many disparate climates and environments existing on this planet. No other species of animals can or has done this (without the aid of humans).
  2. Beasts of burden. Animal muscle power has long been harnessed to assist human labor activity (plowing fields, transportation, construction, etc.). Like meat-eating, this massively increased the productivity of human labor and greatly advanced the development of our species.
  3. With the advent of class society, animals provided another, but secondary use for humans: entertainment (the [traveling] circus, racing, competitions of all kinds, cock fighting, dog fighting, etc.)
  4. In the modern epoch, animals have been critical in developing medicines, vaccines, and other advances against human disease.
  5. Under modern capitalism, in the developed world, keeping animals as pets has become big business ($40 billion a year in the US). The profound alienation on so many levels that exists under modern capitalism creates a desire for contact, no matter how commodified and mediated, with the natural world. Owning pets has become a substitute for our genuine organic interaction with nature.

Do humans “exploit”’ animal labor in the strict Marxist sense of extracting/capturing surplus value? I think not. But in a just society, alternatives to animal “exploitation” would be employed and new alternatives further developed. The goal of socialism should be not only human liberation, but liberation of the planet and all its creatures from commodification, abuse, and degradation. In fact, true human liberation can not happen without simultaneously freeing all of nature’s creatures as well. Managing the natural resources of the planet will be based upon workers’ democracy and unfettered, objective science, not profit.

Finally, we humans are a totally distinct species with attributes and behaviors that only we possess (labor activity, tool making, consciousness, surviving across the planet, etc.). The more we developed our productive forces through human labor (in the beginning, mostly women’s), the further away from our nearest animal relatives, the great apes, and more unique/distinct as a species we have become. In short, we created ourselves as a distinct/unique species through our human labor activity.

We don’t have “instincts” (biologically pre-programmed behaviors and attributes) like in the animal world. Our behaviors are socially conditioned. For instance, greed is a thoroughly socially conditioned human “instinct”; animals know nothing of greed. We, as a species, are still “evolving” ourselves while most animal species are at the end of their evolutionary paths. The ability of animals to naturally adapt has now been significantly interfered with and degraded by encroaching human activity. The Center for Biological Diversity reports:

We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

Modern behavioral “science” has, intentionally I think, not only blurred the lines between animal behavior and human behavior, but completely misinterpreted animal and, of course, human behavior as well. Further, this corruption has crept into the other natural sciences (biology, anthropology, primatology, archaeology), and even the pure sciences like chemistry and physics.

Towards an understanding of that, I recommend reading Sexism and Science by Evelyn Reed.

For a deeper understanding of Marx’s views, I suggest the following article: Marx’s Vision-of-Sustainable Human Development.

Paul Hubbard


2 thoughts on “Animals and Humans – do we exploit animals?

  1. “Finally, we humans are a totally distinct species with attributes and behaviors that only we possess (labor activity, tool making, consciousness… We, as a species, are still ‘evolving’ ourselves while most animal species are at the end of their evolutionary paths.”

    With all due respect to my comrade Paul, the claims made in these passages are at best fairly outdated by a good margin – numerous species have been found to engage in tool use, tool modification and tool manufacture from great apes to elephants to birds to octopuses to even certain species of fish; and the claim that nonhuman animals lack consciousness is one that no biologist would make in the 21st century, after decades of research which have revealed that animal minds are far more complex, far more interesting, and far more social than previously believed. And I’m not sure what it would even mean for humans to continue evolving, and for other animals to be “at the end of their evolutionary paths.” Evolution doesn’t simply stop for a species – much less for the vast majority of life on earth. Maybe Paul is using a highly idiosyncratic and non-biological definition of “evolution” here, but if so he hasn’t made it clear.

    Paul comments at the end that “‘modern’ behavioral ‘science’ has, intentionally I think, not only blurred the lines between animal behavior and human behavior, but completely misinterpreted animal and, of course, human behavior as well.” He follows this with a link to a book by Evelyn Reed, which he intends as a rebuttal to this modern science, but this is somewhat puzzling, given that the Reed book was written in 1978, before much of the relevant research had been conducted, and appears to tackle myths such as humanity’s innate aggression, the myth of innate male superiority, etc. – myths which were indeed being promulgated in the first half of the 20th century, but which have been increasingly discredited by the same scientists and researchers who have been making more and more connections between the kinds of behaviors once thought uniquely human and the behavior of animals.

  2. Pingback: External Bulletin publishes response to Marxist animalism | Species and Class

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