Animal liberation activists in the UK have reason to celebrate the election results on June 8th, but animal activists – and the wider left – should not let the resurgence of parliamentary socialism undermine the continued need for a diversity of tactics.
Theresa May called the snap election with the Stalinist intention of ‘crushing the saboteurs’, and the confident prediction that she would achieve a landslide victory. In the run up to the election pollsters and political commentators confidently predicted a 100 seat Tory majority. So confident were the Tories of a smooth victory that they gloated about the return of fox hunting.
The results, which saw the Tories lose their majority and Labour gain 30 seats, were a complete humiliation for May and a rejection of her ideology which has sought to attack human rights, incite hatred against immigrants and undermine compassion for refugees. The Conservatives under May, and David Cameron before her, so closely followed the oppressors’ handbook that they actively tried to dehumanise refugees by referring to ‘swarms of migrants’, whilst their supporters in the right wing media openly celebrated people drowning in the Mediterranean whilst referring to refugees as ‘cockroaches’.
Labour’s results show a resurgence in leftwing ideas, and animal rights must be a core part of this philosophy. Although animal issues did not feature in the election campaign (with the exception of fox hunting ); the Labour left have a long history of combining animal rights with other progressive causes.
Jeremy Corbyn is a vegetarian who supported a number of animal rights causes, including opposition to vivisection, whilst on the backbenches. Corbyn led the opposition to the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act which allowed for the worst and most unnecessary animal experiments to continue. The 1986 Act oversaw the continuation of animal experiments including those to test cosmetics, alcohol and tobacco, as well as warfare research, the Draize eye irritancy test and the LD50 test. Whilst the Labour leadership under Neil Kinnock gave moderate support to the Act, Jeremy Corbyn was passionately opposed to the 1986 Act. Corbyn coordinated sessions to provide MPs with information about the Bill and worked with the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection to mobilise public opposition to vivisection.
The Labour left have also been cautiously supportive of the Animal Liberation Front during certain campaigns. For instance, during ALF activist Barry Horne’s hunger strike MPs Tony Benn and Tony Banks gave moral support. Tony Banks’ efforts included tabling an Early Day Motion calling upon the government ‘to give a pledge that they will end animal vivisection, thus enabling Mr Horne to end his hunger strike’. Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish Labour MP Thomas Graham were the only two signatories alongside Banks.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Labour left embraced some elements of animal rights, and saw the treatment of animals as a site of conflict with the class enemy. For instance, in 1979, John Denham (Labour MP from 1992 to 2015) told Labour’s conference that ‘we are often accused of doing this [opposing hunting] out of crude ruling-class bashing. So what? It is only symptomatic of all sections of the ruling class that all they can think of to do with their spare time is to chase defenceless animals to cruel death’. Val Veness, who was deputy leader of Labour’s Islington Council when they adopted an Animals’ Charter in May 1982, similarly believed that the Conservatives would never make any major reforms in animal welfare because ‘it attacks the very class of people they represent’. Labour produced a Charter for Animal Protection in 1979 which included the warning that ‘those involved with animals often have a vested interest in keeping the public ignorant’.
The Labour left focused on the intersectionality of oppression and the links between animal rights and other social justice issues. Val Veness’ support for animal rights was prompted by her anti-militarism; and she believed that the testing of weapons at Porton Down was an example of ‘animals being used to exploit and keep down another section of humans’. Veness also argued that ‘as a woman, I am oppressed, at the bottom of the pile’ and it would not be appropriate to oppress animals who were ‘the next lot down’.
Veness was typical of some sections of the Labour left in arguing that ‘if you want real socialism, then other species must be liberated’. Tony Benn, who shaped the political outlook of Corbyn and John McDonnell, believed that animal rights must be linked to a wide range of issues, including class, the establishment and the environment. Benn believed that Britain’s agricultural policy was shaped by the fact that the ‘Ministry of Agriculture is doing a deal with the big agri-business’. It was not only corporate interests, but the political establishment that wished to maintain the status quo with regards to animal exploitation. Benn argued that the courts acted in the interests of profit rather than people or animals, and this attitude was particularly prevalent amongst the British monarchy who had a ‘great fear of the animal rights movement’ because of the possibility that citizens would be appalled by the Royal family’s practice of killing animals for pleasure. Benn was also supportive of extra-parliamentary tactics to save animals including direct action, he rejected the situation in which the ‘animal welfare movement has been denounced as terrorists by those who benefit financially from animal testing’.
Benn’s support for direct action represents his – and the Labour left’s – view that direct action and non-parliamentary roads to socialism have always been part of a leftist tradition and is something that the left should be proud of. Tony Benn argued that ‘the debate between extra-parliamentary violence versus parliamentarianism… is highly diversionary’. It would be troubling to see leftist movement’s (including animal liberation) give up on a diversity of tactics and the direct action tradition at the first whiff of parliamentary reform. This does not solely apply to animal liberation and other radical social movements; the Labour left have also been proud of the industrial wing of the labour movement and the role of strike action in securing better conditions for workers. Where previous Labour leaders have encouraged trade unions to remain patient and wait for political reform, the Bennite left have traditionally supported workers’ struggles. At a time when socialist ideas are once again on the political agenda and the Tories are in turmoil, trade unionists should not wait five years for the next election, but can make real gains now through industrial action.
Animal activists are right to celebrate Labour’s de facto victory, but animal liberationists must also remember other leftist traditions that have critiqued the parliamentary road to socialism. In particular, the writings of Guy Aldred and Rosa Luxemburg are instructive for animal liberationists.
The animal liberation movement has been shaped and entwined with anarchist philosophy and tactics, and so at a time when many leftist are putting their faith in political leaders, it is useful to pause and reflect on the traditional anarchist rejection of parliamentary reform. It should be remembered that whilst animal liberation is shaped by a radical, anti-capitalist, anti-statist, intersectional and total liberation philosophy and praxis, the welfare and rights wings of the animal advocacy movement are liberal in orientation and typically support moderate state reforms. The welfare and rights wings may be satisfied with the statement in Labour’s manifesto that ‘Animals in our food chain need welfare standards’, but the animal liberation movement will continue to push for more thoroughgoing revolutionary changes.
Guy Aldred (1886-1963), the British anarcho-communist, clearly set out his opposition to parliamentarianism. Aldred argued that
reform activity means constant trotting round the fool’s parade, continuous movement in a vicious circle. Something must be done for expectant mothers, for homeless couples… for rent-resisters, something to reform here or there, regardless of the fact that capitalism is a hydra-headed monster, that the reforms needed are as innumerable as the abuses begotten of the capitalist system, and such abuses increase with every modification of capitalist administration, the better to perpetuate the system.
Aldred’s critique of parliamentary reform from an anarchist perspective helps to explain why the Labour left have only adopted an animal welfare position, and why anarchists favour direct action. Aldred highlights the core anarchist belief that parliamentarians who seek ‘votes from an electorate anxious for some immediate reform’ must
time the pulse of capitalist society, subject his [or her] first principles to the opinions arising out of capitalist conditions, to current local superstitions and respectabilities and immediate or fancied interests.
If we apply Aldred’s critique of parliamentarism to animal advocates in the parliamentary left, then it could be argued that politicians seeking election must aim to situate their animal advocacy within existing beliefs about the legitimate use of animals, and thus will always adopt a welfare perspective. A party is unlikely to find popular support arguing that meat is murder when the majority of the electorate are meat eaters, and so the position would have to be gradually reduced to a welfarist stance. This also applied to other leftist causes which the Labour leadership slightly backpedalled on, including opposition to the monarchy and nuclear weapons, and support for direct action.
Aldred also explains the anarchist belief that ‘Parliament is an institution existing for the defence of class society, the domination of man by man’, and therefore parliamentary socialism will only achieve ‘a Labour bureaucracy to administer Capitalism and preserve its authority’. It is for this reason that Aldred, and other anarchists, believe that social changes ‘proceed from direct action’ rather than parliament.
However, this is not to say that animal liberationist – who are seeking revolutionary rather than reformist changes – should not support the election of a socialist government who will offer some benefits for people and animals. Revolutionary leftists have often engaged in the struggle for reforms as a means to educate the masses.
Animal liberationists can learn from Rosa Luxemburg’s writings about revolutionary and reformist politics. For Luxemburg, engaging in the ‘practical daily struggle for reforms’ could be a significant means towards reaching the long term goal of social revolution. Luxemburg argued that such reformist struggles were significant in that people become ‘convinced of the impossibility of accomplishing fundamental social change as a result of… parliamentary struggles and arrives at the conviction that these struggles cannot basically change [the] situation’. Animal liberationists can adopt this approach. For instance, the Hunting Ban introduced by Labour in 2004 did not lessen the need for direct action against hunting.
The resurgence of socialism and leftist ideas under Corbyn should be celebrated; a future Labour government led by Corbyn would see the introduction of real reforms that could transform the lives of people and animals. However, the left – and animal liberationists – should not use this as a time to moderate their demands in the hope of appealing to the wider electorate. Animal liberationists should be bold in their demands for a world where all are free. The left must push reforms to their limits, but as animal activists saw after the 2004 Hunting Ban, direct action will still be needed to liberate animals.