Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Marxism and Vegetarianism
Thomas Riggins

Mark Rowlands has an interesting review of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, EATING ANIMALS, in the TLS of March 5, 2010 ("Choice Cuts"). It raises important moral, and for Marxists, I think, political problems, that arise from the way animals are killed and consumed under the capitalist dominated meat production industry (under which almost ALL our meat is produced in the US-- ie., by CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

Unfortunately, Foer's argument is based on LOGICAL conclusions deduced from readily available empirical facts and , as Rowlands points out human beings in general "don't respond well to logical argument"-- especially when they are engaged in politics. Marxists, however, if they have escaped from the mental disorder of sectarianism and have matured beyond the infantile disorder of ultra-leftism, may prove an exception since their whole philosophy ultimately derives from a logical conclusion deduced from Marx, after he read Hegel's Logic, regarding the way to end human exploitation by means of abolishing the extraction of surplus labor by capitalists.

Well, let us look at Foer's arguments and see if Marxists should also fight to end the exploitation of our fellow animals-- not only on moral grounds but also on the grounds of the SELF INTEREST of the working people of the world. The following is based on Rowlands' review, Double quotes (") are from Foer's book, single quotes (') from Rowlands.

Why did Foer write this book? Because he has recently become a parent and he wanted to set forth examples of the best moral behavior and health behavior for his children. It may turn out that this example applies to all of us.

The book is based on three empirical facts (scientific facts) which are used as premisses to draw a conclusion that any person who is rational (and not an overly irrational teabager) will accept. The premisses are:

1. Human beings do not need to eat animals to live healthy lives.

2. They way animals are now treated and killed for us to eat 'causes suffering on an unimaginable scale' [this presupposes we think this is morally wrong-tr].

3. The way animals are now raised for food is 'environmentally catastrophic.'

THEREFORE: We should not use animals for food as they are now treated and raised.

Notice this is not an absolute vegetarian conclusion, and indeed the author calls for what he terms "contingent vegetarianism"-- but more on this later. Let's look at the evidence for the truth of the three premisses.

Premiss One: The American Dietetic Association says that vegetarian diets are appropriate for humans at all stages of life and that meat eating is unnecessary [like smoking-- it just a bad habit--tr] and is healthy for us--less cancer and heart disease. [Working people would certainly benefit from better and more healthy diets and Marxists should be advocating for vegetarianism as tribunes of the people--tr].

Premiss Two: the 'horrors of factory farms are well known.' Cattle are supposed to be killed by a bolt to the brain, to cite just one example, but investigations have shown a 'non-negligible minority' are still alive and conscious when the skin is peeled off their faces and their legs are chopped off. Similar horrors happen to pigs, chickens, horses, etc. [Since many humans are singularly unaffected by the torture and killing of animals (hunters fishers, fans of cock, dog, and bull fights, fur wearers, etc.,) this may be the weakest premiss-- tr].

Premiss Three: The UN Climate Commission (Pew Commission) reports that the the animal food industry 'is responsible for more climate change emissions than all forms of transport combined-- in fact, nearly 40 per cent more.' Talk about reducing gas emissions! And don't forget all the government unregulated animal poop flooding the nation, getting into the food supply-(E. coli comes from animal intestines--what's it doing in peanut butter?), as well as the water supply. I hope you don't live near a factory pig farm.

What is "contingent vegetarianism?" Foer himself has become "a committed vegetarian." He is not vegan. Cheese and milk seem to be ok, but in so far as the dairy business is also part of the CAFO system (dairy cows end up there as do their calves) premiss two seems applicable.

Foer leaves open the possibility of humane (?) farming which allows for limited meat ending but Rowlands thinks that Foer's arguments are stronger that Foer himself thinks they are. 'The qualified nature of his conclusion -- contingent vegetarianism -- suggests that he hasn't quite understood just how convincing his book is.'

My take is that vegetarianism is the only politically correct position to take vis a vis the interests of the working class, and not only the working class but all of humanity as well. First, how can Marxists not advocate the most healthy diet possible for people? Capitalist agribusiness pushes meat for profit not out of concern for human well being. Second,if we destroy the earth, sea and atmosphere with unending pollution the working people and all other segments of humanity cannot possible survive. CAFOs are major contributors to this pollution. The capitalists have no intention of doing anything serious about ending pollution as long as their super profits keep rolling in. To defend our class and humanity we should advocate AT LEAST contingent vegetarianism.

I think that under capitalism we will not be able to change significantly the eating habits of people. It will take the complete reeducation of humanity that will be required under socialism to bring up future generations of humans dedicated to people before profits, the abolition of war, protection of the environment, the end of economic exploitation, and the end of the killing and eating of animals with all of its attendant cruelty.

Nevertheless, this is a topic worthy of consideration and discussion by the international communist and worker's movement. The time has come for both individual Marxists, and, indeed, whole parties to debate this issue and come to a consensus based on the scientific evidence and the logical conclusions derived from it.