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Marx, Animals, and Humans

A Reply to My Critics

Members of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee

Members of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) on the job in 1930s Chicago. From “Not Just Signing Cards,” Socialist Worker, August 23, 2017.

Ted Benton is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex, UK, where he taught social theory and environmental social science for over forty years.

This is a response to John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark’s “Marx and Alienated Speciesism” and Christian Stache’s “On the Origins of Animalist Marxism: Rereading Ted Benton and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” both of which appeared in the December 2018 issue of Monthly Review.

I very much appreciate the efforts of John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Christian Stache in subjecting my work on this topic to sustained critical attention.1 Although the texts they cite were written more than a quarter-century ago, it is encouraging to find there is still enough energy in them to provoke this response, as well as that I can still stand by most of what I wrote. As for what Stache calls an organic intellectual, I have spent most of my politically active time engaging in dialogue with others with whom I disagree to a greater or lesser extent (for example, in the UK Red-Green Study Group). My experience has been that to have a productive dialogue in such a situation, it is advisable to begin by trying to grasp what the purposes of one’s interlocutor are in what they say or write, and to take account of the context of their utterances. This does not rule out criticism of their purposes, of course, but that can only be done if one first finds out what they are. Foster and Clark proceed as if my purpose was to attack Marx for his views of the human-animal relation. Their essay is devoted to showing that my reading was mistaken and to defending Marx’s position.

In the relevant chapter of my book, I state my purpose thus: “My purpose in this chapter is to excavate and defend the relatively neglected naturalistic side of Marx’s thinking in this early text. This naturalistic view of human nature, suitably qualified and elaborated, forms the basis of much of the argument in subsequent chapters of the book.”2

My aim was to show the value of Marx’s ideas against “readings of Marx which have been deeply inimical to environmental values.”3 In the book and in subsequent, various interventions and publications, I went on to engage critically with a range of non-Marxian forms of animal advocacy, on the basis of Marx’s naturalism, his critical political economy of capitalism, and his critique of liberal rights in On the Jewish Question. While accepting the conceptual case for extending utilitarian and rights-based ethics to include at least some animals, I have argued that the various forms of incorporation of nonhuman animals as (fictitious) commodities in modern capitalism render these moral (and legal) claims even less materially effective than the same so-called protections in the case of humans subject to the same economic and political relations. In short, the argument moves from rights to the need for transformed relations. I have also used an ecologically informed historical materialism to argue for new ways of valuing and protecting species beyond the sphere of rights, but essential to human well-being (for instance, in “Animal Rights: An Eco-Socialist View,” in Animal Rights: The Changing Debate; “Rights and Justice on a Shared Planet: More Rights or New Relations?”; and in various books on natural history, such as Bumblebees).4

Unlike Foster and Clark, Stache does begin by recognizing my work as “promoting a mutual rapprochement between Marxists and animal-rights/animal-liberation advocates.” He concludes, however, that my achievement has been the exact opposite: “The discourse on Marxism and animals, and vice versa, has been narrowed down to and dominated by Benton’s misreading, obstructing further investigation into Marx’s legacy for a critical social theory of animal exploitation and liberation.”5 Stache greatly exaggerates my influence and offers no explanation for the surprising subservience of comrades to my baleful example. Clearly, he does not think my efforts make a contribution to developing Marx’s legacy in this domain, but I am disappointed that he does not discuss them or show what the alternative might be.

In fact, neither Foster, Clark, nor Stache engage with this body of work. Both critiques focus exclusively on the alleged failings of my Marx scholarship in relation to the Paris Manuscripts. Foster and Clark claim that my criticisms are based on a few sentences of Marx’s, taken out of context. One of these is: “If a philosopher does not find it outrageous to consider man as an animal, he cannot be made to understand anything.” Though my critics deploy impressive classical scholarship to contextualize this statement, I remain unconvinced that Marx did not mean it. However, I used the quotation from 1839 to illustrate how far Marx had come by 1844. Far from my analysis of the Manuscripts being a matter of a few sentences taken out of context, it is the (provisional) outcome of decades of struggling to grasp the complexities and conceptual structures at work in a fragmentary group of texts, written for self-clarification, by one of the greatest thinkers of the modern world.

Stache holds me personally responsible for promulgating a humanist, antinaturalist reading of the Manuscripts, but in fact the recovery and publication of the text in 1932 was welcomed by anti-Stalinist Marxists and those opposed to economic-reductionist versions of the tradition precisely for its antinaturalist and humanist philosophy. Humanist readings of Marx’s early works provided a foundation for a revitalized humanist Marxism, which became known as Western Marxism and included most of the thinkers in the Frankfurt School of critical theory. These approaches had and still have enormous value, but, with some notable exceptions, their humanism came at the neglect of the naturalist and materialist underpinning of classical historical materialism. By the time I came to read the Manuscripts, these were already by far the dominant readings. By then, urgent and pressing questions about our relation to the rest of nature had risen high on the political agenda. If our tradition was to have anything distinctive to offer on these issues, then the materialist tendency in Marx’s thinking needed to be recovered. That was precisely what I undertook in my discussion of the Manuscripts—up until then the key textual support for humanist Marxism.

Both critiques of my work provide naturalistic and materialist readings of the Manuscripts, presumably intended to run counter to my own. In fact, both are very close indeed to my “recovery” of the materialist tendency in the Manuscripts.6 But what do they say about the textual support for the hitherto dominant humanist tendency? I doubt whether to dismiss it as “a few sentences taken out of context” would have carried much weight then and would be seriously inadequate even now. Stache, in contrast, does acknowledge that the Manuscripts are fragmentary, transitional, and “lack a coherent line of argumentation,” including residues of Feuerbachian-inverted Hegelianism.7 Unaccountably, however, Stache claims that none of this affects what Marx says about humans and animals. Unlike Foster and Clark, he does address the criticisms I make of Marx’s use of a human-animal opposition in presenting his concept of alienation, as well as my treatment of Marx’s vision of a future reconciliation of humans and nature as a “species narcissism.”

On the first issue, I think there is just a misunderstanding. My intention was not to argue that Marx was somehow indifferent to animal suffering, or sought to downgrade animals, much less to justify “an exploitative and instrumentalist approach to animal-human relations that ignored or denied animal suffering.” My point was a simple one: to characterize human alienation under capitalism as the reduction of workers to the status of animals, and their needs to crude, physical, animal ones, leaves no conceptual space to criticize the distortions, stunting, and denial of the needs of animals who are also caught up in capitalist relations—though this might well have been what Marx wanted to do and certainly did do in his later work. I appreciate and agree with Foster and Clark’s account of the later development of Marx’s work, which is quite consistent with my own view of the transitional character of the Manuscripts and my recognition of the shift in his thinking by the time of his statement about Darwinian evolutionism being “the foundation in natural history for our whole outlook.”8

Now, to the contested concept of species being. Marx’s view of humans as historical beings whose practical and cognitive work of transforming nature and at the same time their own nature and needs, continued in an alienated form under capitalism, is a powerful one. Thus far, there is no disagreement between myself and my critics. However, the version of this theme developed in the Manuscripts presents the reconciliation between humans and nature, to be achieved under communism, as one in which humans come to “duplicate” themselves in a transformed nature, one in which they see their own powers and needs reflected back to them. Numerous passages bear this out. I will give just one: “The object of labour is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created.”9

I criticize this rendering of the idea of reconciliation between humans and nature, partly because it abandons the recognition of the transhistorical dependence of humans on nature that is asserted elsewhere in the Manuscripts, and partly because it allows no room for a more contemplative, curious, noninterventionist love of nature for its own sake. However, I do not, as Foster, Clark, and Stache suggest, criticize it as a Promethean advocacy of domination of nature. On the contrary, the way Marx writes about the historical formation of the human senses (sensibility?), of our aesthetic and spiritual need for nature, has great depth and needs to be retained and developed alongside and in relation to the more naturalistic and materialist themes. Stache says I separate out a good, naturalist Marx and a bad, humanist Marx. I feel this is an unreasonable caricature, as I have tried to understand the Manuscripts as a moment in which a great thinker struggles to reconcile opposed intuitions about our relation to other species and the rest of nature—that is, to take account of what we share as “active natural beings,” but at the same time to acknowledge the implications of the evolutionary emergence of a species with qualitatively new powers, capable of history, of transforming both its own conditions of life and those of its fellow species, and practically and morally reflecting on that capacity. The difficulty of reconciling within a single frame these two opposing intuitions was a challenge, never fully resolved, shared with both of Marx’s great contemporaries, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.10

After decades of further experience, I now wish I had said more about Marx’s insistence on our so-called human needs in relation to the rest of nature—our need for beauty, for cognitive, spiritual, and identity-forming engagements with the physical and living world. The struggle against capitalist destruction of nature needs more than an appeal to rational regulation and what is referred to as sustainability. It needs the inspiration of a poetic, imaginative, sensuous, and cognitive love of nature. One of the reasons for engaging in critical dialogue with other radical social movements is that they, too, have developed rich cultures of resistance and visions of possible futures from which we can learn, at the same time as staking out a claim that our tradition also has much to offer. There are clear differences of political strategy between us, but there is no space to say more here.

P.S. It might go some way to softening the hostility to my earlier work to mention that the 1988 essay had a question mark after its title, “Humanism = Speciesism,” to indicate the provocative and exploratory character of the discussion.11 It was dropped in error during the publishing process, but I had it replaced when there were requests for republication, such as in John Sanbonmatsu’s Critical Theory and Animal Liberation (Plymouth, England: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

Notes

  1. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Marx and Alienated Speciesism,” Monthly Review 70, no. 7 (December 2018): 1–20; Christian Stache, “On the Origins of Animalist Marxism: Rereading Ted Benton and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” Monthly Review 70, no. 7 (December 2018): 22–41.
  2. Ted Benton, Natural Relations: Ecology, Animal Rights, and Social Justice (London: Verso, 1993), 23.
  3. Benton, Natural Relations, 24.
  4. Ted Benton, “Animal Rights: An Eco-Socialist View,” in Animal Rights: The Changing Debate, ed. Robert Garner (Basingstoke, England/London: MacMillan, 1996); Ted Benton, “Rights and Justice on a Shared Planet: More Rights or New Relations?” Theoretical Criminology 2, no. 2 (1998): 149–75; Ted Benton, Bumblebees (London: HarperCollins, 2006).
  5. Stache, “On the Origins of Animalist Marxism,” 23.
  6. For example, Benton, Natural Relations, 44–57.
  7. Stache, “On the Origins of Animalist Marxism,” 26.
  8. Benton, Natural Relations, 35.
  9. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Collected Works, vol. 3, Marx and Frederick Engels (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 277.
  10. See chapter 6 of Ted Benton, Alfred Russel Wallace: Explorer, Evolutionist and Public Intellectual (Manchester: Siri Scientific, 2013).
  11. Ted Benton, “Humanism = Speciesism: Marx on Humans and Animals,” Radical Philosophy 50, (1988): 4–18.
2019, Volume 71, Issue 01 (May 2019)
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