Marx on the Animal/Human Distinction: "The Creatures Too Must Become Free"

We are all trying to understand more deeply the relationship between human beings and the rest of the planet's living species. And we have touched a few times (too fleetingly) on the ethical questions for revolutionaries in viewing how animals are treated, industralized and consumed in this society. The following article raises some related questions by examining some little known passages in the writings of Karl Marx (one of the founders of modern communism).

Please share with us titles of other articles (including more recent/modern treatment) that could be shared on this topic -- so that we can engage the ecology, ethics, and production transformations that communists and radicals should consider around the treatment of animals in both food production and the wild.

This article was originally published in Capital & Class, Issue no.72, Autumn '00. It appears on the Marx Myths and Legends site. Thanks to Chris Cutrone for calling it to our attention..

by Lawrence Wilde

The clarion call for the liberation of animals quoted in the title of this paper is cited approvingly by Marx in On the Jewish Question (Marx, 1975: 172). The words themselves belong to Thomas Münzer, the leader of the German Peasants’ Revolt in the early sixteenth century, and what attracted Marx was Münzer’s view that under the dominion of private property and money, nature is treated in such a contemptuous way that it is debased. Münzer had conduded:

"...all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free."


As far as I know there is no further evidence to suggest that Marx was a champion of animal liberation, but his appreciation of Münzer’s position should at least lead us to expect from him a sympathetic view towards (non-human) animals. However, a number of prominent commentators, chief among them Ted Benton and Jon Elster (Benton, 1988 and 1993; Elster, 1985), claim that Marx completely lacked respect for animals, thinking of them as inferior beings. In this paper I will refute this position and argue that Marx has a respectful attitude towards animals and non-human nature in general. This is an intrinsic feature of his humanistic philosophy, which is grounded in defining the human essence by comparing humans with other animals. Shortly after endorsing Münzer’s sentiments Marx characterises his own brand of communism as the equation of humanism and naturalism (Marx, 1975: 296), but if Benton is correct in attributing a form of ‘species imperialism’ to Marx, it would seriously undermine his communist vision (Benton, 1993: 42).

I will argue that Marx’s discussion of the difference between humans and animals is entirely free of prejudice against animals and certainly does not treat them as inferior or deficient beings. Further, Marx’s brief discussions of animals, in particular his recognition of their specific needs and capabilities, indicates that his humanism seeks a harmony between humanity and nature, in which ‘nature’ comprises both human and non-human nature, as a number of commentators have appreciated (Grundmann, 1991; Vaillancourt, 1996; Wilde, 1998: ch.7). The primary political implication is that as the modern maltreatment of animals reflects the extent to which the capitalist accumulation process drives towards the disregard of all natural feelings, resistance to such maltreatment constitutes resistance to the mode of production. Animal welfare activism is, therefore, an antisystemic movement, albeit operating with a high degree of autonomy from anti systemic movements which are either explicitly socialist or else focused on other particular forms of oppression.

Marx’s Essentialism

It is important to clarify just why Marx felt the need to raise the issue of the distinction between humans and animals in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and then return to it in his mature political economy. One of the aspects of alienation described in the Manuscripts is alienation from species being (Marx, 1975: 275-7), a Feuerbachian term for human essence. Like Feuerbach’s discussion of what it is that makes us human (Feuerbach, 1986: 69-71), Marx’s argument is couched in terms of what distinguishes us from other animals. In fact the influence of Aristotle’s De Anima is clear in the work of both Feuerbach (Wartofsky, 1977: 224, 374, 423) and Marx, who translated the text into German as early as 1840 (Meikle, 1985: 58). Whereas Aristotle focuses on ‘reason’ as the defining human quality, and Feuerbach emphasises ‘universality’, Marx argues for ‘conscious life activity’ (Marx, 1975: 276). We will look more closely at precisely what Marx means by this in the next section, but for now let us note that he shares with Aristotle the view that the human being is essentially a social being, a zoon politikon, and the human essence can be realised only in society (Aristotle, 1969: 5; Marx, 1986: 18). But the stress on activity introduces an emphasis on production which in turn brings in a developmental or historical dimension which is not to be found in Aristotle’s philosophy. Despite this important difference, both Aristotle and Marx should be regarded as essentialists (Meikle, 1985; Wilde, 1998, chs.2, 3; Pike, 1999). When they define the essence of the human species they are not simply making an empirical statement but also implying that this essence ought to be fulfilled.


In Marx’s case, he argues that it may be possible to define human uniqueness by such things as consciousness or religion or ‘anything else you like’, but humans really begin to distinguish themselves from other animals when they begin to produce their means of subsistence (Marx,1976a: 31). In other words focusing on consciousness or even language leaves us with the problem of understanding exactly what is going on when animals really think or communicate verbally, whereas the difference in our capacities to produce is tangible. In creating a world of objects humanity proves its species being, so that, in Marx’s view, the history of industry and the objective existence of industry constitute the ‘open book of man’s essential powers’ (Marx,1975: 302). Marx views human essence as creative social activity, something which is expressed throughout human history, but always in distorted ways insofar as the producers themselves are not experiencing work as their act of creation. Only in communist society would we see the ‘real appropriation of the human essence by and for man’ and the ‘true resolution of the strife between existence and essence’ (Marx, 1975: 296). Essentialism is roundly condemned in (post)modern social theory, usually on the grounds that it obstructs the recognition of difference and fails to grasp the rich pluralism of life (e.g. Young,1990: ch.8). But there is nothing in the view that all people should be able to realise their social creativity that stipulates any particular form which the free society should adopt.

I do not want to revisit the old arguments about whether the alienation theme persists in the writings of the mature Marx, or what parts of it may persist, but at this stage we should note that in his later writings Marx affirrns both the idea that there is a human essence, or human nature in general, and that humans can be distinguished from animals in the way they produce. It is absolutely clear in Capital that there are two sorts of human nature, the ‘general’ and the ‘historically modified’. Lambasting Bentham’s utilitarianism, he argues that it is necessary to understand human nature in general (human essence) in order to judge what is good for humans, just as if we are to know what is good for dogs we need to study dog-nature (Marx, 1996: 605n). As for what constitutes quintessentially human production, the discussion in one of Marx’s final works, the marginal notes on Adolph Wagner’s Lehrbuch der politischen Öconomie, closely follows that of the 1844 Manuscripts, as Terrell Carver has pointed out (Carver, 1975; 167). It is also very similar to the discussion in part one of The German Ideology (Marx, 1976a 44). The emphasis is again on the practical activities through which humans reveal their distinctiveness from other animals. Marx is impatient with Wagner’s formulation that the human ‘finds himself’ in relation to the outside world as a means of satisfying his needs. He objects that Wagner’s individualistic and idealistic conception of what it is to be human implies an ‘isolated juxtaposition with nature’ and pictures the human as a ‘non-gregarious animal’ (Marx, 1989: 538-9). They begin, ‘like every animal’, by satisfying their needs, but in constantly developing their needs in interaction with each other and with non-human nature they develop linguistic skills, naming goods because they are useful for themselves and thereby conferring utility on those goods.

We can gain further insight into Marx’s conceptualisation of the human-animal distinction in two separate and apparently ambivalent comments in Capital on Benjamin Franklin’s definition of man as a tool-making animal. His first citation approvingly acknowledges Franklin’s insight that our ability to make and use tools is a distinctively human capacity, although Marx acknowledges that the germ of this ability can be found in some other species (Marx, 1996: 189). Later on, however, he mocks Franklin’s definition as being typical of ‘Yankeedom’ (Marx, 1996: 331n). What is going on here? In the first instance Marx agrees with Franklin that the use of tools is characteristic of purely human productiveness, but ultimately he finds something profoundly wrong with the conclusion that we are therefore to be regarded as tool-making animals. For Marx, it is not acceptable to reduce the difference between humans and animals to a technical proclivity, for this obscures the range of distinctively human needs which go with our difference. ‘Yankeedom’ signifies the most advanced and energetic form of capitalist endeavour which drives towards the commodification of everything and, in the process, denies the workers control over their lives. According to Franklin’s definition there is no necessary problem with this, as long as our animal needs are met. For Marx, it represents an alienation of the human essence and is incompatible with the realisation of human freedom. However, it does not follow from this, as Benton suggests, that distinctively human needs are superior to animal needs, or that animal needs within humans are profaned and regarded as shameful residual features (Benton: 1993: 43-4). Unfortunately such views have been common enough in the past but they are not shared by Marx, for whom the different types of needs are not antagonistic, just different. I hope to make this clearer by examining what Marx says about the human/animal distinction in the Manuscripts, The German Ideology, and the first volume of Capital.

The Human-Animal Distinction in the Manuscripts

Let us take a closer look at what Marx says about the differences between humans and animals in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in the discussion of estranged labour towards the end of the first manuscript. He begins by stating that as a result of alienation the worker feels freely active only in ‘animal functions’ such as eating, drinking and procreating, while in his human functions ‘he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal’ (Marx, 1975: 275-6). He accepts that eating and drinking are genuinely human functions, but when they are separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into ‘sole and ultimate ends’, they are animal functions. So, humans share attributes with other animals, but to express their true humanity they must realise their human essence of social creativity. When their conditions of existence prevent them from doing so they experience a ‘loss of self’. Hence the prevailing discourse of the Manuscripts is one of dehumanisation, implying that capitalist production denies them something which is their due as human beings (Marx, 1975: 137, 212, 284, 303, 308).


Animals in their natural state do not feel this loss of self because the animal is immediately ‘at one’ with its life activity. Marx argues that humans make life activity the object and will of their consciousness; ‘conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity’ (Marx, 1975: 276). He contrasts human production, in its widest sense, with the way in which animals produce:

But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms objects only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty (Marx, 1975: 276).

The theme here is the uniqueness of human universality, the capacity to produce according to plan on a grand scale, over and above what is required by natural necessity and with the knowledge of how the other species produce. Later in the Manuscripts he describes the specifically human natural being as a ‘being for himself,’ manifested by having a known history, ‘a conscious self-transcending act of origin’ (Marx, 1975: 337) Truly human production, then, transcends the instinctive response to immediate physical needs, and we are able to create things in accordance with the standards of other species and imbue our products with aesthetic qualities. The cave paintings of early homo sapiens provide a good illustration of Marx’s conception, for they were created beyond the requirements for physical survival and they often depict the struggle for survival in our relationships with other animals.

Marx’s ruminations on the human/animal distinction seem to me to be entirely without disrespect to animals, and, furthermore, as Erich Fromm has concluded, they constitute perhaps the most significant definition of the species characteristic of the human being (Fromm, 1968: 58, cf.Fromm, 1992, ch.4). However, it seems that any attempt to establish human uniqueness is likely to provoke a hostile response from those who consider that inevitably it degrades animals. Benton, for example, attributes to Marx arguments referring to the ‘merely animal’ or ‘merely existing’ seven times within two paragraphs of Natural Relations (Benton, 1993: 41), despite the fact that Marx does not use the word ‘mere’. Marx intends no slight against animals when defining human uniqueness, nor is it obvious that he operates from an underestimation of animal capabilities and needs. Indeed, as we shall see in the next section Marx does have a view on what constitutes natural needs for animals in general, but first we must deal with the objection that Marx’s emphasis on creative production does not work as a way of distinguishing humans from other animals.

Benton argues that Marx’s formulation ignores the wealth and complexity of social life in other species. It also, he claims, ignores the adaptability of many species in their relationships with the environment. Now it is clearly not Marx’s intention to write a disquisition on animal life, but his characterisations turn on the animals’ meeting of immediate physical needs and their unmediated relationship with their environment. These characterisations are not contradicted by any number of examples of co-operation and ingenuity displayed by many species as long as that activity remained directed towards the meeting of immediate needs. However, Marx’s characterisation of animals would indeed be refuted if Benton is correct in arguing that ‘inventing, making, using and inter-generational teaching of the use of tools are now well recognised as powers of non-human primates’ (Benton, 1993: 36-7). The research cited by Benton, conducted by Jane Goodall in Tanzania, refers to the use of stripped sticks to ‘fish’ termites from their mounds. This use of a stick as a tool is so rudimentary that it surely serves to confirm rather than rebut the fact that humans produce in radically different ways from other animals. Jon Elster falls into the same trap in seeking to minimise the differences in productive capacities between humans and other animals (Elster, 1985: 62-8). In both cases the rhetorical strategy is similar, citing a scientific source to blur the distinction in productive techniques without genuinely getting to grips with Marx’s argument. Do other animals fashion and use tools in the same way as humans? Do they make tools to make other tools? The answer to both questions is plainly ‘no’ and it seems to me that to argue otherwise does animals no favour.[1]

As animal intelligence expert Stephen Budiansky points out, attempts to show that animals can do some things almost like humans ignores the glaring discontinuities between humans and animals:

To play the game of trying to smash the pedestal of human uniqueness by showing that animals can, too (after a fashion), make tools, or create sentences or count, misses this fundamental point (Budiansky, 1999: 18).

To argue that animals use tools almost like humans encourages the view to which Benton rightly objects, that is, that animals are not properly human. Benton accepts that there is no evidence of generation-by-generation cumulative development of collective skills, but he claims this is a ‘purely contingent matter’; just because other animals have not shown this capability there is no a priori reason why they might not at some stage in the future (Benton, 1993: 41). Similarly Elster concedes that there are no documented cases of animals making tools to make other tools, but suggests that ‘such cases might yet be found’ (Elster, 1985: 66). This is sheer sophism. Marx’s claim that there is a qualitative difference in the productive capacities of humans and other animals does not mean that there is no development whatsoever in animal capabilities, as this passage from Capital makes clear:

The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour process (Marx, 1996: 188).

The fact that the ‘germ’ is present in other animals does not detract in the slightest from the force of Marx’s argument that, according to available empirical evidence, humans and other animals can be distinguished in essence by the way in which they produce. This carries no connotations of deficiency on the part of animals. Indeed his characterisation of the animal as immediately ‘one with its life activity’ suggests a simplicity and integrity which many humans might envy. It is possible to view any comparison of closely related forms in terms of inferiority or superiority, but it is not necessary to do so. If we compare a sparrow with an eagle and describe some of the differences in terms of size, speed, and physical power, this should not be taken to suggest that the sparrow is an inferior being. To identify a capability in humans by comparing them with animals does not imply a disability in animals; it states merely that they are different in essence. I think that is Marx’s position and that this is clearly demonstrated in the language he employs.

Animal Needs

Although Marx argues that animals live under the dominion of immediate physical need, this carries no implication that their needs are not to be respected. In the third manuscript of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts there is another reference to animals and their needs which is pertinent to the discussion. Marx launches into an indignant description of the way in which the satisfaction of those needs which we share with other animals is frequently denied to workers in capitalism.


The dwelling in the light, recognised by Prometheus as one of the greatest boons to humanity, is no longer available for the worker; ‘light, air etc.—the simplest animal cleanliness— ceases to be a need for man’ (Marx, 1975: 307-8). He then cites the plight of the Irish poor, forced to exist on a diet comprised exclusively of scabby potatoes, commenting that ‘it is not only that man has no human needs—even his animal needs cease to exist.’ He goes on to say that animals have at least the need to hunt, to roam, and to have companionship. The point of these remarks is to highlight the cruel insensitivity to human needs which capitalist production metes out to its workers, but there is a clear description of animal needs which have been systematically disregarded by twentieth century capitalist production methods—light, air, a varied diet, the freedom to roam and companionship. Marx is not simply concerned to emphasise the difference between humans and other animals but also to demonstrate the extent to which the needs they share are brutally disregarded even in a system devised by humans. The reference to hunting as a need for some animals also reminds us that the needs of different species are often incompatible.

In The German Ideology Marx provides examples in which the development of modern production methods prevents animals from meeting their essential needs. He discusses the effects of the pollution of a river, using an essentialist language which owes much to his Aristotelian philosophical background:

The ‘essence’ of the freshwater fish is the water of a river. But the latter ceases to be the ‘essence’ of the fish and is no longer a suitable medium of existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive the fish of its medium of existence (Marx, 1976a: 58).

The context of these remarks is important, for the point Marx is making is that Feuerbach’s abstract naturalism tends to identify the essence of things, including the human essence, without reference to their historical evolution and their social context. Feuerbach is accused of failing to grasp that essences can be understood only in relation to existence. It is only by recognising the historicity and universality of human activity that we can begin to understand and change the nature of things. He considers that Feuerbach’s philosophy views problems such as the plight of the freshwater fish as ‘inevitable abnormalities’ rather than problems which can be resolved through radical change. A little further on in the German Ideology he argues that human needs are developed uniquely as part of a historical process, by which he means through the conscious creation of the means of production and exchange. He begins by saying that sheep and dogs are not historical in that way, but then says that in their present form, ‘in spite of themselves,’ they are products of a historical process (Marx, 1976a: 82). In other words the physical forms of these animals is altered by human intervention in their breeding. The object of these remarks is not to denounce human interference in nature per se, but to emphasise that what we term ‘nature’ is not pristine, that we are part of nature and have the unique ability to reconstruct our relationship with it. This refers to our relationship with our own nature as well as with non-human nature.

Lost in Translation

So far we have looked only at Marx’s comments on the human animal relationship made relatively early in his life, but we can identify a continuity of theme in two passages from his mature political economy. In the first volume of Capital Marx introduces his discussion of the labour process by arguing that although humans initially laboured instinctively like other animals, through social interaction with their environment they develop the exclusively human characteristic of conscious life activity whereby they are able to plan their work. I have argued that Marx’s formulations in the early writings do not impute a disability to animals when comparing their production to humans, but this reading is thrown in doubt when we read the popular Moore and Aveling translation of this part of Capital. They translate ‘Wir haben es hier nicht mit den ersten tierartig instinktmassigen Formen derArbeitzu tun’ (Marx, 1970: 192-3) as ‘We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal’ (Marx, 1996: 187). In fact Marx does not use the words ‘primitive’ or ‘mere’ and the speciesist connotations are entirely the product of the translators. The superior translation of Ben Fowkes has Marx talking about ‘those first instinctive forms of labour which remain on the animal level,’ but this reference to a lower animal level is not how Marx chose to express himself (Marx, 1976b: 283). The translation by Eden and Cedar Paul gives us ‘those primitive and instinctive forms of labour which we share with other animals,’ and despite the insertion of ‘primitive’ this at least captures Marx’s acknowledgment that there is much we share with other animals (Marx, 1957: 169). A more reliable translation suggested to me by Terrell Carver has Marx saying ‘We are not dealing here with the first forms of labour bounded by instincts as animals are’. Marx did not consider that the instinct-bound production of animals rendered them deficient, but the Moore and Aveling misreading of Marx is unfortunately all too common. It is diffficult for people who have known nothing other than the intensely competitive ethos of capitalist society to grasp that to establish a difference does not have to imply a deficiency on one side.


Indeed the different capacities of humans might well suggest that we are lacking some of the skills which develop in instinct bound production. Marx argues that the productions of spiders and bees put to shame the equivalent efforts of weavers and architects, but ‘what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality’ (Marx, 1996: 188). Marx selects the most intricate of animal productions to make his point, and in so doing reveals a respect for their endeavours and their nature. However, his concern in Capital is to explain what happens to human beings in the capitalist mode of production. Specifically, his purpose in the chapter on the labour process is to show how money was transformed into capital through the extraction of surplus value in the process of exploitation. The controlling power in the labour process shifts from the producer to capital. The formally free individuals enter a contract which deprives the producers of the freedom to exercise the creative power which defines their humanity. In the chapter on cooperation Marx reverts to his earlier humanist discourse when he contrasts this alienated world with the image of a cooperative, planned society, in which the worker ‘strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species’ (Marx, 1996: 334). This is very close to his 1844 articulation of communism as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for humanity.

Marx argues that the ineluctable contradictions inherent in capitalism provide the opportunity to construct a social system in which humanity is able to fulfil its creative potential.[2] But of course Marx is no starry-eyed optimist. The sort of mastery of nature displayed in capitalism amounts to a tragic perversion of our species potential, as he laments in a speech given for the anniversary of the People’s Paper:

At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy... All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force (Marx, 1980: 655-6).

Clearly for Marx mastery of nature is not liberating until such time as we master our own nature and, in so doing, take sensitive and responsible control of the management of the interchange between human nature and non-human nature, including other animals. For Marx, humanity is always ‘part of nature’ (Marx, 1975: 276). In the third volume of Capital he speaks of humanity achieving freedom within the realm of natural necessity, whereby the associated producers govern the interchange with nature in a rational way under conditions ‘most worthy and appropriate for their human nature’ (Marx, 1981: 959) What does he mean by this? We fulfil our nature when we realise our potential for social creativity, when we create a world in which life is sustained harmoniously. It is unimaginable that we could manage our interchange with nature in a truly humane way without actualising our sense of compassion, through which we empathise with the suffering of other species and in doing so manifest our own uniqueness.

Political Implications

The tendency of advanced capitalism to stultify the lives of humans into nothing more than a material force has long been the fate of many species of animals. The logic of accumulation is indifferent to the feelings of the producers and the produced, and the inhumane treatment of animals in the production process bears this out. However, Marx did not simply reveal the logic of capitalist accumulation, he identified the contradictions within it and the social forces which could intervene in order to hasten its end. More often than not socialist resistance has been associated with direct confrontation with capital on economic issues or with the activities of socialist parties in the political sphere. Today, in addition to struggles of this sort, protest movements have developed on a range of issues conventionally termed non-class issues. However, it seems to me that the emergence of these issues and the mobilisation which has taken place as a result should be regarded as important phenomena from a socialist perspective. This is certainly true when it comes to the politics of animal protection.


The first set of issues raised is a particular form of the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production whereby the drive to accumulation actually destroys the very basis of production itself. Marx noted this in relation to soil exhaustion and was very interested in the scientific work in this area conducted by von Liebig and Fraas (Marx, 1996: 506-8; Marx, 1987: 558-9). With animal products it is not simply the animals who are killed but also some consumers. In the drive to minimise the cost of production unsafe feeding methods lead to disease breaking out on a wide scale, as in the recent examples of the salmonella and bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The beef crisis in Britain was not exceptional, it was the all-too predictable outcome of a scramble for profits. It carries with it a survivalist deregulatory ideology of frightening irrationality, expressed by one farmer in a radio interview who asked ‘why should we have to put up with all these regulations when the French get away with feeding their animals on shit?’. The logic of accumulation determines that capitalist farmers will go to any lengths to cheapen their product and increase profitability. That these lengths include the violation of natural laws and the chronic disregard for the natural needs of animals has now become a public issue. What is exposed in this instance is the vacuity of the usual justification for ‘efficient’ production. In this case there is no shortage of meat in the developed world and there is a limit to how much of it people can be persuaded to buy, there is simply no need for this disgusting perversion of nature.

A range of groups have attacked the cruelty inherent in all instances of factory farming, in which the natural needs of animals as described by Marx and others are disregarded. These groups, which have expanded dramatically in size since the 1970s, have used a variety of methods, including legal and illegal direct action (Garner, 1993, chs. 2 and 8). Sometimes the issues are raised in campaigns which are specifically aimed at the insidious nature of corporate power, as when the McLibel campaign exposed the appalling suffering of battery chickens. The furious response of corporations and the state to these campaigns indicates the extent to which the economic and political elites recognise that what is being questioned here are the rights of the owners of the means of production.

The second set of issues is around cruelty to animals outside the horrors of factory farming induding blood sports and circuses (Garner, 1993: 170-4 and 83-4). The campaign to have fox hunting banned has attracted widespread publicity in recent years, and although this issue may seem ‘peripheral’ to some socialists, its greater significance lies in the challenge to the values which society is prepared to tolerate. Interestingly, on this issue of compassion the battle lines are drawn along old-fashioned class lines, despite the claims of the Countryside Alliance to be up holding the interests of poor rural workers. Again, the sentences meted out to hunt saboteurs reveal the class nature of the legal system, just as the pusillanimous backpedalling of the Labour Government shows the mysterious strength of a pro-hunting lobby with little popular support. Other instances of pastime cruelty such as animal circuses, shooting birds and other animals, and bull fights have elicited opposition in recent years. From an essentialist philosophical standpoint, not only do those taking part show no respect for the essence of the animals concerned, but in doing so they betray their own human essence by failing to recognise the cruelty of what they are involved with.

The third set of issues is to do with experiments on animals (Singer, 1990, ch.2). On the question of animal experimentation for potentially life-saving treatments for humans there is an assumption on the humanist side that this is justified. But there can be no justification for all those experiments on animals conducted for other purposes, such as cosmetics. The relationship between humans and animals could never be rendered entirely non-conflictual. Marx’s formulation of communism in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts as ‘the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man’ (Marx, 1975: 296) perhaps promises too much. Herbert Marcuse pointed out that the myth of Orpheus, who tamed the wild beasts by the power of his music, is not a realisable goal when it comes to complex matters about our relations with nature. Nevertheless, operating within a Marxist humanist framework, Marcuse asserts that ‘no free society is imaginable which does not...make the concerted effort to reduce consistently the suffering which man imposes on the animal world’ (Marcuse, 1972: 68).

If resistance to cruelty to animals in the production process is regarded as a struggle against that production process, then in a strong sense the groups involved in those struggles are new antisystemic movements. However, like many of the ‘old’ antisystemic movements, those involved may not see the wider picture and may not be able to link with movements concerned with different forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, or economic exploitation. However, in states where the electoral system permits ‘New Left’ parties to participate in parliament, the politics of animal welfare occupies an important place—Die Grunen in Germany are perhaps the best example. The development of these political forces, and their uneasy and uncertain links with older movements of the Left, is crucial to the development of a long, pluralistic movement for the democratic control of the regulation of all production, which will be a feature of the struggle of all humane forces against capital in the coming century. Marx’s conception of communist society was that of an ethical community operating democratically through free and equal individuals no longer under the tutelage of the law of value. To achieve the consciousness necessary to create this new world, Marx claimed that the alteration of humanity on a mass scale was required. When he talked of revolution it was an ethical as well as a social revolution, through which humanity rid itself of the ‘muck of all ages’ and became ‘fitted to found society anew’ (Marx, 1976a: 52-3). The realisation of our sense of compassion in our dealings with animals is a necessary part of that revolution.



1. Benton admits that there are ‘profound differences’ in production techniques between humans and other species, but tries to reduce the force of this argument by saying that there are profound differences between different groups of humans (p. 37). As Marx is talking about essential difference between whole species Benton’s objection is jejune. There are profound differences.


2. Of course we have a potential to be destructive, and Benton complains that Marx ignores this potential for ‘evil’. But, as Erich Fromm argues, this potential must be regarded as a ‘secondary potentiality’ which develops when creativeness is thwarted (Fromm, 1991, 37-8—for a detailed analysis see Fromm, 1997).



Aristotle (ed. & trans. Ernest Barker) ( 1969) Politics. Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York.


Benton,Ted (1993) Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights and Social Justice. Verso, London.

Budiansky, Stephen (1999) ‘Cheap Imitations of Human Thought’ in The Times Higher Educational Supplement, January 1.

Carver, Terrell (1975) Commentary on Marx Texts on Method.Blackwell, Oxford.

Elster, Jon (1985) Making Sense of Marx.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Feuerbach, Ludwig ( 1986) Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. Hackett, Indianapolis.

Fromm, Erich ( 1968) The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanised Technology. Harper & Row, New York.

- (1991 ) The Sane Society, Routledge, London.

- (1992) Marx’s Concept of Man. Continuum, New York.

- (1997) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Pimlico, London.

Garner, Robert (1993) Animals, Politics and Morality. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Grundmann, Reiner (1991) Marxism and Ecology. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Marcuse, Herbert (1972) Counter-Revolution and Revolt. Beacon Press, Boston.

Marx, Karl (trans. E. & C. Paul)(1957) Capital, vol.1. Everyman Library, London.

- (1970) Werke, vol.23. Dietz Verlag, Berlin.

- (1975) Collected Works,vol.3. Lawrence & Wishart, London.

- (1976a) Collected Works,vol.5. Lawrence & Wishart, London.

- (trans. Ben Fowkes)(1976b) Capital vol.l. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

- (1980) Collected Works, vol.14, Lawrence & Wishart, London.

- (trans. David Fernbach) (1981) Capital, vol.3. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

- (1987) Collected Works,vol.42. Lawrence & Wishart, London.

- (1996) Collected Works, vol.35. Lawrence & Wishart, London.

Meikle, Scott (1985) Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx. Duckworth, London.

Pike, Jonathan E. (1999) From Aristotle to Marx: Aristotelianism in Marxist Social Ontology. Ashgate, Aldershot.

Singer, Peter (1990) Animal Liberation. Thorsons, London.

Vaillancourt, Jean-Guy (1996) ‘Marxism and Ecology: More Benedictine than Franciscan’, in Ted Benton (ed.) The Greening of Marxism. Guilford, New York & London.

Wartofsky, Marx (1977) Feuerbach. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wilde, Lawrence (1998) Ethical Marxism and its Radical Critics. Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Dig in.

0 Character restriction
Your text should be more than 10 characters

People in this conversation

  • Guest (notoharecoursing)

    I'm not a follower of Karl Marx, but if Cameron, Hague, Herbert, etc., think that repeal of the Hunting Act would be a vote winner in rural areas, they are very much mistaken.

  • Guest (Radical-Eyes)

    A good article, well worth taking the time to read. Thanks for posting it.

    The first half of it, which clarifies--and in doing so defends--Marx's attitudes towards animals and the human/animal distinction is helpful and compelling.

    The second half is very interesting and provocative. If rather underdeveloped and less systematic, as well as less grounded in marxist terms of analysis. (By saying this I do not mean to criticize the article, but merely to call attention to a certain varying approach here...)

    Since this is a long-ish article for Kasama, for the sake of discussion I'd like to call attention to a collection of very interesting linked passages that seem to me to cut to the heart of the matter:

    <blockquote>"We fulfil our nature when we realise our potential for social creativity, when we create a world in which life is sustained harmoniously. It is unimaginable that we could manage our interchange with nature in a truly humane way without actualising our sense of compassion, through which we empathise with the suffering of other species and in doing so manifest our own uniqueness."

    <blockquote>"The primary political implication [of this analysis] is that as the modern maltreatment of animals reflects the extent to which the capitalist accumulation process drives towards the disregard of all natural feelings, resistance to such maltreatment constitutes resistance to the mode of production. Animal welfare activism is, therefore, an antisystemic movement, albeit operating with a high degree of autonomy from anti systemic movements which are either explicitly socialist or else focused on other particular forms of oppression."

    *Here is one of those points that calls for more development, methinks.

    <blockquote>"Animal welfare activism is an antisystemic movement"?

    Hmmm...But isn't "animal welfare activism" a very contradictory phenomenon itself? It is one thing to say that such activism is 1) potentially anti-systemic or that 2) in order to truly achieve its proclaimed goals it would have to become a truly anti-capitalist movement. Quite another to say that it already _IS_ anti-capitalist. I am persuaded about both 1) and 2), but to really get the point of concretizing and making this theoretical insight practical we need to extend the discussion into a close and critical analysis of the actually existing "animal welfare" movement, and the political contradictions and social bases thereof.

    <blockquote>"More often than not socialist resistance has been associated with direct confrontation with capital on economic issues or with the activities of socialist parties in the political sphere. Today, in addition to struggles of this sort, protest movements have developed on a range of issues conventionally termed non-class issues. However, it seems to me that the emergence of these issues and the mobilisation which has taken place as a result should be regarded as important phenomena from a socialist perspective. This is certainly true when it comes to the politics of animal protection."

    *Yes, and a similar argument can be made for socialists and communists foregrounding the ecological crisis in our agitation as well. One thing that this article doesn't do much of is to show how factory farming is in fact poisoning the planet in all sorts of ways. So that abuse which capitalism in inflicting on animals is coming back to effect nature more broadly, including humans.

    <blockquote>"If resistance to cruelty to animals in the production process is regarded as a struggle against that production process, then in a strong sense the groups involved in those struggles are new anti-systemic movements."

    *Yes, but again the subjective question of the consciousness and practice embodies in these resistance movements requires attention and analysis, not only support.

    I'm interested to hear people's responses to this.

  • Guest (Adrienne)

    Great article! Thank you for this.

    Radical Eyes, good points. Classifying animal welfare activism as anti-systemic seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

  • Guest (rowlandkeshena)

    While I would call myself a supporter of "animal rights" per say, a few months back there was an article in the International Socialist Organization's Socialist Worker called "Socialism and 'Animal Rights'" by Paul D’Amato, which in turn sparked off a short debate in the letters section over both D'Amato's article and the wider issue of animal rights in the leftist movement. There were four responses "Animal Oppression and Capitalism", "Socialism and the Lives of Animals", "Animal Rights and Self-Determination" and "Our Understanding of Liberation". It was pretty interesting to read, especially since there were voices on both sides of the argument.

    I can't find them in the SW archives (I probably just didn't look hard enough), but I did post them all on my site and they can be found individually at these links if you are interested:

    Socialism and “Animal Rights”

    Animal Oppression and Capitalism

    Socialism and the Lives of Animals

    Animal Rights and Self-Determination

    Our Understanding of Liberation

  • Guest (Grumpy Cat)

    This <a href="/" rel="nofollow">essay</a> by Antagonism is one of the better pieces on communism and animals.
    rebel love

  • Guest (oscarpeter)

    "On Saturday, I went out fox-hunting – seven hours in the saddle,” Friedrich Engels wrote to his great friend Karl Marx in 1857. “That sort of thing always keeps me in a state of devilish excitement for several days; it’s the greatest physical pleasure I know. I saw only two out of the whole field who were better horsemen than myself, but then they were also better mounted… At least 20 of the chaps fell off or came down, two horses were done for, one fox killed (I was in AT THE DEATH).”