|Horses so often died from exhaustion, their bodies were left to rot in the streets of major cities|
Vegan socialist Jason Hribal's challenge to anthropocentric leftism, from a 2003 issue of the academic journal Labor History, in which Hribal attempted to redefine the proletariat to include animals, is admirably ambitious in its goals. Unfortunately, in its execution the challenge was woefully under-theorized, with Hribal merely asserting that non-humans should be considered part of the working class, and to the extremely limited degree he attempted to back up his argument, Hribal relied on a source that many socialists will not take seriously.
In his 20-page article, only the last five pages broached the question of whether animals should be considered part of the working class, and within that section the topic was touched on surprisingly briefly given the implications Hribal's claim would presumably have on socialist theory. To defend his position, so far as I can tell, Hribal primarily leaned on two quotations from the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon — and not much else. "Thus," Hribal quoted the Frenchman saying, "the horse, who draws our coaches, and the ox who draws our carts produce with us, but are not associated with us; we take their product, but do not share it with them." In another passage, Hribal quoted Proudhon saying, "The animals and laborers whom we employ hold the same relation to us. Whatever we do for them, we do, not from a sense of justice, but out of pure benevolence."
|Pit ponies, once lowered to their fate in the mines, would labor and die deep below the surface and would never see sunshine or grass again. Many were intentionally blinded to keep them from spooking and ensure efficient work.|
Needless to say, this is pretty-thin vegan gruel, especially given it's supposed to upend a century or more of socialist theory. Further, even if relying on a single, long-dead leftist's words were convincing, relying on a couple of quotes from Proudhon to win anthropocentric socialists to Hribal's view was a poor choice, since many hold the anarchist in low regard. Among other things, as Todd Chretien pointed out, Proudhon was opposed to strikes, ridiculously stating, "It is impossible, I declare, for strikes followed by an increase in wages not to culminate in a general rise in prices: this is as certain as two and two make four."
In response to Hribal, the vegan socialist Bob Torres upheld the conventionally anthropocentric definition of the proletariat. "Thinking more critically about what [Karl] Marx saw as the revolutionary potential of the working class, it seems that using 'working class' to describe non-human laborers can obscure some key differences between humans and animals and the forms of exploitation each experiences," Torres said. "While Hribal argues that animals do indeed struggle against capital, their struggle is necessarily qualitatively different than the global proletarian revolution that Marx hoped for in his understanding of the working class. Animals cannot unite and break the chains that compel them to labor; their resistance to capital is necessarily more limited, if only by the singular and absolute power that humans wield over animals."
To me, the appeal to what Marx intended or meant rings rather hollow. If Marxism is a living ideology, and not a dead dogma, it must be open to the kind of bold reinterpretation which Hribal attempts but ultimately fails to deliver. Torres is correct however when he argues Hribal's definition of the proletariat obscures the difference in revolutionary potential between human and animal laborers. Perhaps Torres' placement of animals within Marxism comes closest to the mark: "As neither exactly like human slaves or exactly like human wage laborers, animals occupy a different position within capitalism: they are superexploited living commodities."
Unfortunately, I don't have the in-depth knowledge of socialist theory necessary to contribute to this conversation in a meaningful way. I was recently introduced to an aphorism by the socialist "Big Bill" Haywood that — while I don't have the scar tissue implied, and have in fact blindly trudged through the first volume of Marx's magnum opus — sums up the common-sense, verging on anti-intellectual approach to socialism I find most appealing. "I've never read Marx's 'Capital,' but I have the marks of capital all over me," the Wobbly leader quipped, upholding the value of experiential education. However, in this case, to redefine animals in an anti-speciesist manner within socialist theory, I'm afraid an encyclopedic knowledge of the ins-and-outs of Marxism will be required to be taken seriously by anthropocentric socialists.