Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 8, 2007

Your Mommy Kills Animals

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Last night I watched a terrific documentary titled “Your Mommy Kills Animals” that is scheduled for theatrical release on July 20 and will be available on DVD in November. Although I consider myself well-versed in the ideas and activity of the radical movement, director Curtis Johnson uncovers a reality that was hitherto a blur in my mind, namely the animal rights movement. Structured as a debate between opposing sides on the issue, it succeeds both in terms of dispensing information–as any documentary should–as well as telling a highly dramatic story about some unique characters, namely the activists who John Lewis, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, described as the nation’s top domestic terrorism threat in 2005.

There’s quite a rogue’s gallery in opposition to animal rights. We see Christopher Hitchens holding forth on how the activists become self-righteous absolutists in their desire to crush their enemies. Hearing these words coming out of his mouth was sufficient to get me to bag up all my leather shoes and bring them down to the thrift shop and to swear off chicken and fish (I have already given up red meat because of my blood pressure.) We also see Ron Arnold, the author of “Eco-Terrorism”, making the case against animal rights. Although I am very familiar with Arnold from past debates with his British allies, the ex-Marxists organized around the website Spiked Online, I have never heard him before. Arnold is an odd character. He couches his anti-environmentalist and anti-animal rights arguments in populist rhetoric, but has been exposed as a tool of big timber and mining interests.

But the chief opponent of animal rights heard from is one David Martosko, a truly sleazy character of the sort that has taken money from tobacco companies in the past to argue that smoking is harmless. Martosko works for the Center for Consumer Freedom, one of a number of pro-industry groups set up by Rick Berman, a long-time lobbyist for the food, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries. The group was created in 1995 as the Guest Choice Network with $600,000 from the Philip Morris tobacco company. Ever since the tobacco companies have been forced to retreat in the face of law suits and exposures, the focus has shifted to new battlegrounds. Apparently, American big business has no patience for unruly protestors who question their right to torture animals in the pursuit of profit.

On the other side of the barricades are people like Kevin Kjonaas, who was among the seven arrested for terrorism in connection with their involvement in Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a group that has targeted employees, clients and associates of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British research company that tests chemicals and drugs on thousands of animals each year. Their appearance and their words are sharply at odds with the allegations. Kjonaas is a wispy 29-year-old Catholic-school graduate who speaks in a high-pitched voice and might remind you of the comic Emo Phillips who was popular in the 1980s. As president of the U.S. affiliate of SHAC USA, Kjonaas posted the home addresses and telephone numbers of Huntingdon executives on the group’s website and organized protests in front of their homes. I can certainly understand why somebody who owns a $5 million townhouse in Manhattan would not want to have such people mounting a noisy demonstration on his sidewalk at 2am, but this hardly amounts to terrorism.

As I watched Kjonaas and other animal rights activists risking arrest and pressing their campaign on a no-holds barred basis, I was struck by the contrast to the mainstream antiwar movement in the United States, which has never reached the same level of militancy and that continues to view elected politicians as reachable. For example, when Medea Benjamin led a Code Pink delegation to Hillary Clinton’s office, she stated “We know that you’re a wonderful woman and that deep down, we really think you agree with us.” If Benjamin and her cohorts had 1/100th of the spunk and the anger of the animal rights protestors, maybe the war would have ended some time ago.

Despite his obvious admiration for Kjonaas and his fellow activists, Curtis Johnson is not a mere apologist. He includes interviews with animal rights activists who believe that SHAC type militancy is counterproductive. They argue that forcing Huntington out of the USA and UK has resulted in it setting up shop in places like Pakistan, where there is much less oversight. By presenting both sides of the argument, he forces us to think about the deeper implications of this type of direct action. Johnson also presents the case against PETA and the Humane Society, two groups that are synonymous with animal rights to the average person, including me. Suffice it to say that animal rights radicals view the big, wealthy mainstream groups in more or less the same way that Earth First! views the Sierra Club or the World Resources Institute.

The film focuses on current day struggles, but does provide a brief background on where the movement comes from. It seems to have gotten started in Great Britain as part of a general movement against capitalist abuses, including child labor, slavery and the poor laws. William Wilberforce, who many of you might be familiar with through my review of “Amazing Grace”, was one of the first animal rights activists and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Given the obvious moral inspiration of the movement, it might find itself marching to the tune of a different drummer than the Marxist movement that I have been identified with for the past 40 years. Marxism has a tendency to think in terms of objective historical forces and the need to focus on human needs, so the notion of struggling on behalf of laboratory animals being used for critical scientific research might not fit in that well with its agenda. That being said, there are a number of activists in the film that think along the same lines. It is not so much that they oppose animal testing, but the wanton cruelty that attends it.

If it was up to the pseudo-Marxists who morphed into Spiked Online to come up with arguments for exploiting animals as well as nature without regard to moral dimensions or environmental sustainability, there were always other Marxists who saw things in more holistic terms. My good friend Paul Buhle wrote about one of them in the March 1999 edition of Capitalism, Nature and Socialism:

Planetary liberation/animal rights

It may surprise or even annoy CNS readers to learn that perhaps the most popular and successful attack on U.S. corporate farming during the 1990s was launched by Animal Rights leader Henry Spira, notoriously against McDonald’s and Perdue. It should surprise them less that Spira, a Trotskyist of decades standing, had come to environmental causes toward the end of a long career of political activism.

This story demands some extended telling, and Peter Singer’s Ethics Into Action (1998),1 published within weeks of Spira’s death, gives us all the details we could want. Born to Belgian Jews in 1927, refugees first to Panama and then New York, Spira grew up the son of an increasingly successful and oppressive businessman. At 16, he could no longer take the quarreling and left home. (Decades later, both his father and younger sister committed suicide.) As a teen in the early 1940s, he first connected with Hashomir Hatzair, a socialist-zionist organization, then moved on to the Socialist Workers Party. He remained with the SWP for almost 20 years, never feeling disciplined enough to attend meetings but glad to be situated on the Left and sometimes with a newspaper eager to publish his journalism.

Spira later expressed surprise at his own evolution, but many preBoomer Marxists turning to ecology will find the curve of Spiro’s career suspiciously similar to their own. Passing through the Merchant Marine, then drummed out of the Army for “subversive and disloyal activities” (the Workers Defense League helped him win an Honorable Discharge), Spira went to work on an assembly line at a GM plant in New Jersey, moved on to join the research staff at Bellevue Hospital, and then shipped out again. In between jobs, he got a B.A. at Brooklyn College and wrote occasionally for the SWP’s weekly Militant. (He also acquired an FBI file of considerable heft.) As a reporter, he found himself on the scene in Montgomery, as the famed Bus Boycott took shape. Over the next decade, he wrote, raised money for, and often took part in the southern civil rights struggles. He also went to Cuba and broadcast the news about the young revolution. Closer to home, he played a key role in the reform campaign to clean up the National Maritime Union.

By the middle 1960s, Spira’s blue-collar life was over, and we might say that the working class ceased to be his main concern. His excomrades (he also left the Socialist Workers Party about this time) might bemoan the abandonment of orthodox Marxism, and the slippery slope to follow. But Spira was actually moving toward new shores. He taught in New York City schools for seven years, literature and writing to mostly black and Hispanic youngsters. At the age of 45, he also started thinking in a different way about animals.

Reading Peter Singer (the Australian environmentalist and author of Animal Liberation, likewise the author of the biography) helped set Spira in motion, but unlike Singer he wasn’t mainly a theorist. He wanted to do something, and although he didn’t know it yet, Spira had a genius for publicity. As the New York Times recalled in its obit, Singer had two great victories: compelling the American Museum of Natural History to end its expensive and pointless (as well as cruel) mutilation of cats so as to theorize the sexual affects of castration; and compelling Revlon to abandon the “Draize Test,” measuring potential irritation of cosmetic products by flooding rabbits’ eyes with the stuff.

These may not seem anything like victories for the environment; the planet in general and the bird population in particular would be better off with a lot fewer cats about. Neither are rabbits endangered (and some of the habitats invaded by them are in pretty rough shape). But to look at the issues in that way obscures Spira’s basic mentality and his trajectory as well.

A moment’s reflection on the old anti-vivisectionist movement and its U.S. counterparts provides necessary background. Dedicated to oppose cruelty to animals, the Victorian (especially British) middle class movement contained another impulse analogous to that of the old labor movement: to place restraints upon the recklessness of capitalism and raise large philosophical questions about the assumptions of endlessly expansive consumerism as the goal (or rationalization) of society. British socialist Henry S. Salt coined the term “Animals’ Rights” with his 1892 book of the same name, and American radicals from Edward Bellamy and Jack London to Upton Sinclair and the Nearings (Scott and Helen) put their own stamp on the radical edge of the movement. Such radicals, and Auduboners at the turn of the century who successfully ended the ubiquitous annual American bird shooting contests, had no illusions about power. They hardly expected to win more than a limited victory here and there; but they were determined to be heard.

Spira’s own anti-systemic impulse (his Animal Rights International paid him $15,000 per year and he usually had only one part-time assistant) and sense of proportion turned him against the emerging giant of the movement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. When PETA began acting like a bureaucracy and when other animal rights advocates turned counter-productively violent, he put his energies elsewhere. “Chicken Heaven” was his next target, and there he found common cause with serious environmentalists.

The character of agribusiness poultry and livestock production is no mystery, but the old advertisers’ impulses to portray “contented cows” has been progressively mocked by the factory-like raising conditions, the use of massive chemical doses, above all, for environmentalists, the increasingly toxic effluents in surrounding soil and waterways. Just a decade ago, Spira organized a full-page New York Times ad defying TV huckster Frank Perdue to prove that his fryers lived in “chicken heaven” and (in contrast to consumers’ own lives) “your kids never had it so good.” The appointment of Perdue to the Regents of University of Maryland’s College Park campus offered Spira more grist for his mill; but scandals about the contamination of chickens overtook Spira’s effort. (He did the best he could to raise consciousness further: the next ads featured a chicken in a giant condom above the headline, “There’s no such thing as a safe chicken.”)

Spira continued pretty much this way until his death, in September of 1998. Probably no one else would have had the initiative to shame the Helen Keller International (!) into canceling its “Shoot for Sight” event in 1995, intended on bringing down some thousand wild ducks and pheasants “for a good cause.” Other activists went after Big Mac, but Spira went to the stockholders by becoming one himself. Greenpeace Londoners Helen Steel and Dave Morris personally launched the “McLibel” campaign that gave the corporation a global bad name (even if it formally won a suit against the two). But these efforts also led to the International Coalition for Farm Animals, the Humane Society-type organization so far most devoted to tackling the conditions of production that make cruelty inevitable. The Center for a Liveable Future, ironically Spira’s last project, had (and has) the most potential for serious and socialistic education.

Singer, who runs for office on the Green ticket in his home district of Victoria, Australia, provides a most useful afterward based upon Spira’s own practical experience. Ten key strategic and tactical points include “Avoid bureaucracy,” and “Don’t assume that only legislation or legal action can solve the problem.” As a socialist, he knew better. But Spira had learned, over a lifetime of political experience, how to set targets, how to rally a constituency without the help of any political apparatus to speak of, and how to cross over from pet-linked sentimentalism to the large issues. These are lessons we all need to absorb, and we can thank Spira for adapting Marxist traditions to the new era.



  1. You might enjoy the following website as introductory material. It works very well at high school and lower division undergrad level


    Comment by Patrick — June 8, 2007 @ 5:38 pm

  2. The meatrix is a good vid. The animal rights movement has always struck me as incredibly, and hopelessly petty-bourgeois. That’s not to say animals should be ruthlessly brutalized and exploited by capitalism for profit, but I do believe the issue tends to attract moralistic middle-class people who are more attached or concerned about animals than the billions of working class people around the world who are crushed and exploited by capitalism.

    The nature of the issue I think strongly pre-determines the class base of the movement and the class base of the movement I think explains its extremely moralistic character. I agree with your comments regarding Code Pink vs. the ELF-types and would add that at least the 60s petty-bourgeois radicals (Weathermen, SDS-split-offs) were militantly antiwar and extremely serious about changing the world even if their politics were highly flawed. It says a lot about the class nature of this war and the chasm separating the classes that the most dedicated and militant middle-class people are focusing their fire (sometimes literally) on animal rights and not the war.

    Comment by Binh — June 11, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

  3. While I don’t share their priorities I share Louis’s grudging respect for the Animal Liberationists militancy. In the mid-1990s it was jokingly proposed that an open letter be addressed to the ALF with each signatory threatening to eat a hamburger a day until they freed Mumia (since evidently nobody else seemed to have the capacity). The point here being double-edged — questioning the ALF’s priorities but also the feebleness of the revolutionary left.

    Comment by Christopher — June 15, 2007 @ 3:48 am

  4. If one extends Marx’s ideas to their logical conclusion to embrace the entire natural world, we realize that exploitation in the name of profit and capitalist brutality is at its most extreme with our mute animal kin. For farm animals, alienation is at its most existential, where entire species are reconfigured and bred for production (we are conditioned in cultural ways).

    I would say smash the factory farm!

    Comment by ceti — June 26, 2007 @ 2:27 am

  5. Animal Rights people in Indiana are Republicans. Funny. Isn’t it?

    Comment by Bruno Masure — November 19, 2007 @ 1:42 pm

  6. “I do believe the issue tends to attract moralistic middle-class people who are more attached or concerned about animals than the billions of working class people around the world who are crushed and exploited by capitalism.”

    Not true. Many people see them as one and the same movement.

    Comment by Simply Red — January 13, 2008 @ 3:04 am

  7. The thing is that the centre of radical and marxist left ideas is that the liberation of the oppressed and the exploited must be the work of the oppressed and exploited themselves, who must be encouraged and supported to reach their full potential of controlling their lives and the world. This is why I don’t believe animals have rights, because they cannot liberate themselves. This doesn’t mean that cruelty is good, but we need to be clear that humans are a higher level, superior animals, because we can analyze and understand. It is fine for us to use animals. Most people would agree that it is even better to not be cruel in using them.

    Comment by John Mullen — January 15, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

  8. […] first came across Huntington in the course of a movie review of “Your Mommy Kills Animals“, a documentary that is sympathetic to the Animal Liberation Front. Things sort of come full […]

    Pingback by Butterflies and Wheels « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 21, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  9. To comment #7, I saw, WTF? Why the good people of the radical left draw a firm line excluding animals from their liberation philosophy is a mystery to me. All this hypocrisy makes me realize, cynically enough, that people do only what is comfortable for them. If Marxists and Trotskyists and what-have-you are addicted to burgers and steaks, they’re not about to give up those pleasures despite the exploitation of animals that accompanies the petty-brougeois needs, or rather desires, of their taste buds.

    Comment by Harvey — October 26, 2008 @ 2:24 am

  10. I have learned a great deal about the history of the animal rights movement from a book written by a dear friend, Diane Beers, Ph.D., who teaches history at Holyoke (MA) Community College. I recommend her book, “For the Prevention of Cruelty,” to everyone who has even the slightest interest or curiosity about animal rights, and especially to people who mistakenly think that this movement has nothing to do with other social justice movements.

    Comment by Allen Young — May 5, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  11. I’d recommend the book “Terrorists or Freedom Fighters” by Steven Best. It should be mentioned that Best considers himself some kind of anti-capitalist.

    Comment by Jon — April 21, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  12. Guess this sort of apologism propaganda for a bunch of violent criminals who engage in terrorist activites to push their ridiculous belief system on innocent people should be expected from a Marxist, especially one whop gets their information from BS sources like Hollywood AgitPropumentaries.

    Comment by Marxist Hypocrisy 101 — January 7, 2011 @ 9:49 am

  13. I love how respected intellectuals who solve their problems through words and facts like Christopher Hitchens comprise a “rogues gallery”, but violently psychotic terrorist thugs like Kjoonas and Steve Best are disengenously presented as valiant lovers of peace and freedom.

    You’d have to go to a Marxist sheep for that sort of bullshit double standard.

    Comment by Marxist Hypocrisy 101 — March 15, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

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