One step beyond Animal Liberation. An interview with Assoziation Dämmerung

by Marco Maurizi

one struggle

1. Last summer, Tierrechtsaktion-Nord has changed its name in Assoziation Daemmerung. In your “manifesto” you say you made a step “outside” the animal liberation movement “without breaking with it”. Can you give us a picture of the animal liberation movement in Germany and tell us why did you make such a step?

Well, Tierrechts-Aktion-Nord (TAN) was the oldest leftwing animal rights and then animal liberation group in Germany. At our transformation point at the beginning of the last year it had a history of 25 years of struggle against animal exploitation and oppression. A lot of experience had been accumulated in all these years regarding the political positions of the different groups, of the various currents, of the whole range of actions which had been applied by the movement and so on. The most important thing was, and still is, that the group knew the political development and theoretical horizon of the movement by participating in the process of making its history. And the outcome of our analysis of all these various aspects was the following: we had to take the next step in our own development, a step we had discussed internally before eventually transforming the group in a longer process until finally publishing our manifesto.

As in lots of other countries there are three main currents in the animal rights movement in Germany: animal welfarism, animal rights activism and militant approaches which act in favor of animal liberation. TAN started as an animal rights group at the end of the 1980s and transformed itself into an animal liberation group. We have been sharing most of the criticism of the animal liberation movement regarding the two other currents for years – roughly summarized in the argument that both remain bourgeois in theory and praxis, i.e. they help to improve the capitalist society and do not realize that it is the root of oppression and exploitation of animals today, and therefore must be abolished to liberate humans and animals. But we have been missing self-critique of the animal liberationists for years. Especially autonomist leftwing animal liberationists, who dominate the animal liberation faction in Germany, share some of the metaphysical anti-speciesism which they presumably oppose and which is hegemonic for the whole animal rights movement, across all factions. Additionally, they adopted a type of radical leftwing liberalism we do not agree with. We do not think that the liberation of animals can be achieved by „veganizing“ people individually in the first instance. It is not progressive to reiterate anti-communism and anti-collectivism, which are currently resurrected in Europe. We understand the need for vegan counterculture but it is not the central purpose of our politics. In Germany, animal liberation activism has broadly become a part of an autonomist, self-referential consumerist lifestyle for middle class students living up to their dream of rebellion. Their is no adequate theory – just vulgar post-structuralism retelling old ethical narratives, despite the readily availability of good critiques and the rich history of materialistic social theory beginning with Marx and Engels but also including Luxemburg, Gramsci or, above all, the Frankfurt School with the magnificent works of Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer. There has been no connection between animal liberation and other social struggles, neither in the animal rights nor in the animal liberation movement, although animal liberationists always affirm that they strive for the liberation of animals and humans.

These are not problems of the animal liberation movement alone. Feminists, anti-racists and others have made the same experience. But since we always have been active members and observers of the animal liberation movement we noticed that these problems are interwoven in the matrix of our movement today. So we tried to address these problems in various forms: discussions, events, workshops, texts and so on. But in the end we concluded that we need a new framework to overcome these fundamental obstacles and to live up to the slogan One struggle – One fight. So the core of the whole process in our group was the transformation of a single-issue animal liberation group into a radical leftwing group working on the basis of a historical materialist approach to social relations which integrates animal liberation on a theoretical as well as on a practical level. We still adhere to animal liberation as one decisive issue of today’s collective revolutionary struggle but the forms in which we have been active, in which we thought and worked are not appropriate anymore. We have to work together with other progressive groups, organisations and activists to form a front of those who are still convinced that we need a movement that ends the terrible social relations that dominate society today in all its aspects. So, our transformation does not only include a step out of the animal rights/liberation movement as it is today, but also a proposal for new politics, new coalitions, new networks and new ways to promote animal liberation as a part of an anti-capitalist revolutionary process.

2. Marxist politics has always pitched the concreteness of revolutionary politics (base) against the abstractness of bourgeois ethics (superstructure). From the other side, the anti-speciesist movement believes that the moral struggle for animal equality goes far deeper than humanist politics, since it attacks the very roots of power and property relations. So it seems quite difficult to combine them. How do you deal with that problem?

First, one has to state that the dialectics between base and superstructure has been misused historically – by Marxists and by Anti-Marxists. One neither can claim that the base determines all that is happening in the superstructure (vulgar materialism) nor can we conceptualize the superstructure as a completely independent authority (philosophical idealism). Both are relatively independent, and work on the basis of partly autonomous mechanisms. But secondly, we have to begin our analysis of the relationship between human and animals in the capitalist class society with its material relations, i.e. the relations of production. There is a „materialist primacy“ or an „anti-idealist reservation“ in social theory that guarantees us that our analysis does not fall back into idealist or metaphysical philosophical constructions. Therefore it is – third – an illusion, a mistake and ideological to argue that the moral struggle for animal equality moves far beyond the materialist critique of power and property relations. It’s the other way around. We have to look at the capitalist relations of production to understand e.g. the bourgeois moral/ethics of Jeremy Bentham, Peter Singer and other Utilitarian philosophers, and to understand the role animals play against their will in the praxis of capitalist societies. Nevertheless, we have to analyze and criticize the various ideologies, including e.g. the dichotomy of animals and humans, to fully understand why it is possible that animals are systematically tortured and killed. Therefore, we – fourth – can conclude the following: We start our analysis of the social and historical specific relations between animals and humans with an examination of the economic and political praxis in a given society to explore the reasons why and how animals are mistreated, enslaved, tortured and killed. And then we find out by which ideologies theses practices are legitimized, obscured and conveyed. Finally, we look for the reciprocal influences and interconnections.

3. What do you think of the generation of anti-speciesist philosophers (Singer, Regan ecc.) that has been for decades the theoretical bible of the animal liberation movement? And how do you think one should philosophically ground the struggle for animal freedom?

Peter Singer and Tom Regan historically have some undeniable merits, particularly in the Anglophone world. They popularized the case of animal rights in the academic discourse even though they did it in a completely bourgeois way. They gave the animal rights movement an academic and audible voice in two of the politically and economically most important countries (the US and Great Britain). Nearly all leftwing intellectuals abstained from intervening in the young movement although there were some important thoughts in the heritage of Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno’s writings, which could have been a useful start for the movement. Even in the Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, that have been harshly criticized for being Promethean, one finds very important hints to conceptualize a critical theory that includes the roles of animals and to develop political standpoints for a then still inexperienced political movement. And finally, Singer – especially in Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics – shows the double standards of anthropocentric and speciest thinking which lots of people – even progressive ones – repeat every time they talk frankly about animals rights.

So, Singer and Regan were important for the development of the animal rights movement in the US and in Great Britain, but their influence has constantly diminished over the decades, since traditional anarchists’, Post-structuralists’ and finally Marxists’ begun to gain space. And today there are fortunately some currents even in the animals rights movement that do not refer to Singer’s and Regan’s approaches any more. In Germany, Singer and Regan were not really important since their discourse was too radical for the animal welfarists and too bourgeois for the animal rights and liberation movement, although there were German philosophers, e.g. Ursula Wolf, who taught their ethical principals.

We think that the works of Singer and Regan have never been useful to ground a theory of animal liberation or to design a truly critical thinking in favor of animal liberation because they are bourgeois moralists who do not understand the barriers of ethics or positive moral philosophy. These approaches rely on a methodological individualism – a core feature of bourgeois thinking – , abstract, i.e. unhistorical assumptions about humans and human-animal relations, and they abstract from concrete material social structures and so on. So their works are based on a kind of philosophy that was radically criticized and disproved by a lot of leftist theorists throughout the middle of the 19th century, beginning with Marx and Engels. For example, Marx’ critique of Jeremy Bentham in Capital is still valid for utilitarian philosophies today, regardless of the specific current they belong to. Marx polemicises against Bentham by saying that Bentham is the “soberly pedantic and heavy-footed oracle of the ‘common sense’ of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie“ (Capital Vol. I: 758), who assumes “with the naïveté (…) that the petty bourgeois (…) is the normal man“ (Capital Vol. I: 759) on whom he can ground his theory. One could conclude that Singer plays the same role in the post-war period of the 20th century.

On the contrary, one should ground the political struggle for animal liberation in a critical social theory, beginning with Marx and Engels and including the critique of ideology of the Frankfurt School and other insights by critical thinkers. Rosa Luxemburg’s notion of imperialism, for example, can be very useful to understand the commodification of animals and the rest of nature under capitalism to accumulate capital and to expand the areas of investment of finance capital. And her wonderful materialist understanding of suffering that binds the liberation of humans and non-human animals together is absolutely overwhelming. These are the sources out of which radical and critical thinking pours.

4. Marx’ analysis of capitalism seems to have no room for the exploitation of animals. Do you think it should be “updated” in some way?

Yes and no. It is wrong to say that Marx and Engels developed a complete or coherent critique of all the destructive tendencies capitalism develops, especially with regard to the damages the capitalist relations of production inflict upon nature and particularly upon animals. But the critique of political economy is the basis on which we can rest a historical materialist critique of their exploitation and domination. For example, take the two following sentences which make clear why one can say without any difficulty that Marx was the first ecologist and has at least a partial understanding of the dialectical difference between humans and non-human animals:

1. “Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.“ (CW, Vol. V, The German Ideology)

2. “The capitalist production (…) only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.“ (Capital, Vol. I, 638)

The first tells us that we cannot distinguish man and animals by abstract features like reason, philosophical categories, language etc., but by the process of organizing the social production and reproduction, i.e. by the historical specific form of social work. The second phrase tells us – still in a very abstract way – that the very fundamental process of capitalist accumulation leads to a rising destruction of nature including animals.

Finally, Marx shows us a way how to exit the dilemma of social reproduction and destruction of nature. He writes “that cultivation — when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (…) — leaves deserts behind it” (MEW 32: 53). Thus, referring to Marx, we can built a “solidarity of life” (Max Horkheimer) only by organizing an anti-capitalist transformation of the existing social relations.

These insights alone show sufficiently how important Marx and Engels’ works are for a critical social theory of animal liberation.

5. Do you believe that a true revolution in human-animal relations can only take place inside the political frame of a global anti-capitalist movement? Don’t you think that the animal interests will be “swallowed” by it? That every time it comes to choose between human and animal freedom you will be obliged to choose the first for the sake of unity?

We think that a reconciliation of nature and man is only feasible by the real movement that abolishes the present state of things, i.e. the capitalist social formation including all instances of capitalist society ranging from the economy to culture industry.

And yes, on the one hand there is a danger that a wide-ranging anti-capitalist movement absorbs the case of animal liberation. But on the other hand, there is also the danger of being absorbed by bourgeois movements that try to reform capitalism on behalf of exploited and oppressed animals without ever abolishing violence against them and by integrating the next oppositional movement to capitalism – comparable to other green movements. Finally, these problems can only be solved by political struggles against both tendencies by applying Rosa Luxemburg’s strategy of Revolutionary Realpolitik to the struggle for animal and human liberation.

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