Marxism and Animal Rights

Abstract: There is no doubt that Marx and Engels rejected animal rights. However, they did embrace the communist principle, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need." Furthermore, they acknowledged that nonhuman animals have needs. So the principle can enjoin us to respect animals' needs, even if they lack certain abilities (e.g., tool-making, perhaps even self-consciousness). I argue that it is essentially speciesist to restrict this principle to human beings, and that its acceptance implies either animal rights or a substantive equivalent. Marxism may have to undergo a profound dialectical transformation in light of the implications of its own maxim.

No one would rightly suggest that Marx and Engels were anything similar to animal rightists. I use this term to refer, in particular, to those who believe that animals have the right to live free from exploitation for food, clothing, experimentation, entertainment, or for any other purpose. Early in their collaboration, in the 1845 work, The Holy Family, Marx and Engels clearly imply a hostility to animal rights by offering the following appraisal: "Fourier's assertion that the right to fish, to hunt, etc., are innate rights of men is one of genius." (Marx and Engels 1956, 118) No statement by either or both of the two authors has ever surfaced to contradict this sentiment that animals are to be violently exploited (there is plenty of violence involved in both hunting and fishing, we may reflect). However, perhaps Marxism could lend itself to animal rightism, not within the old, doctrinaire form of Marxism, but rather, through a dialectically transformed version.

Dialectical transformation of ideologies, and of reality in general, is intrinsic to Marxist thought, although perhaps some Marxists may see their own beliefs as immutable. It may be argued that there are contradictory tensions in Marxism, which can only be resolved by changing the received view of Marxism into a vision that admits of animal rights, or else a suitable equivalent. I do not think that Marx and Engels would begrudge any reasonable belief of their belief systems, given their notion of dialectics, and of the relativity of truth (i.e., at any juncture, we only approximate absolute truth, and can substantially improve in our grasp of truth). This relativity is even applied to their own views in Engel's Anti-Duhring:

...how young the whole of human history is, and how ridiculous it would be to ascribe any absolute validity to our present views, is evident from the simple fact that all past history can be characterized as the history of the epoch from the practical discovery of the transformation of mechanical motion into heat up to that of the transformation of heat into mechanical motion. (Engels quoted in Selsam and Martel, 1987, 267)

Now, this passage is subject to differing interpretations on the whole, but one part that seems certain is that Engels hesitates to ascribe absolute certainty to his present views. Whether he refers to all of the views he held at that time, or only the views he was entertaining at that juncture of Anti-Duhring, is unclear. It is also unclear whether or not he is pointing to the radical transformation from the use of fire to the harnessing of steam, which presupposes changing belief systems, in order to indicate how much our beliefs might evolve in the future, given how much, evidently, they have changed in the past. In any case, this passage seems to show that Engels might have thought Marxism is open to revision; certainly the statement in no way precludes this possibility.

As I will argue, revision of Marxism in the direction of animal rightism is both necessary and desirable. I will now explore how Marxism conceives of human beings naturalistically as animals, and indeed how alienation from our labor can reduce us to our merely 'animal functions,' according to Marx. The Marx-Engels view of nature as merely instrumentally valuable, seemingly justified by a very multi-faceted picture of human uniqueness will then be unpacked. Finally, a dialectical move towards animal rights will be set in motion by the famous communist maxim endorsed by Marx, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," and various objections will be dealt with on this score, including the notion that rights themselves are hopelessly egoistic, as Marx may have indicated in On the Jewish Question.

Ted Benton, a contemporary British philosopher, sees a "serious gap in the existing literature: a sustained encounter between the moral perspectives and social analyses of the socialist traditions and the literature and practice of 'animal rights'." (Benton 1993, 3) Benton takes a loosely Marxian view to be "paradigmatic of socialism" (Benton 1993, 5), although he is familiar with a diverse spectrum of socialist views. As for socialist movements, and movements taking the part of nonhuman nature, Benton observes between the parties a general hostility and/or indifference (Benton 1993, 1). Marxism is accused by Benton of theoretical blindness in relation to nonhuman nature, despite the materialist, naturalist, and scientific philosophical currents in socialism (Benton 1993, 1). I will also argue that Marxism is underdeveloped with respect to nonhuman nature, and, in particular, in its relation to nonhuman animals (my focus for this study), although, unlike Benton, I think materialism, naturalism, and science are perfectly ambiguous on the question of animal rights, and do not entail a yea or nay on the issue.

Indeed, though, there is much in Marx to indicate that humans are animals who share much in common with other animals--this is a naturalistic perspective, although 'naturalism' is one of the most ambiguous or many-sensed terms in the history of philosophy. Marx did not start out with this naturalistic view, writing in his 1839 notebooks on Epicurean philosophy that: "If a philosopher does not find it outrageous to consider man as an animal, he cannot be made to understand anything." (Marx quoted in Benton 1993, 35). However, by 1860 (and perhaps much earlier), this view shifted, since Marx called The Origin of Species "the foundation in natural history of our whole outlook" (Marx quoted in Benton 1993, 35). Paul Heyer reinforces the idea that the more mature Marx considers humans to be animals:

It is no accident that throughout his writings Marx often described man as an animal or in terms usually applied to animals. It was his way of striking back at the theological and metaphysical doctrines that located the source of human destiny outside of man. In constantly referring to him as an animal, Marx wanted to show that man is both the source of social life activity and the only agent to whom the consequences of this activity are accountable. When Darwinian theory drew man and animal closer together, Marx exuberantly welcomed the revelation. (Heyer 1982, 126-127)

Heyer is implying that by conceiving humans as animals, we remove the idea that we are manipulated by divinity, and so we are left substantially responsible for our own fate. It is not clear if this metaphysical agenda was Marx's primary concern in characterizing humans as animals, as Heyer seems to suggest; it could have been just a matter of true description to Marx, with all of the implications that such may carry.

When, prior to 1845, he referred to humans using the terms species-character, species-being, species-life, species-relationship, species-spirit, and species-powers (Heyer 1982,81), he may have simply been engaged in what he took to be natural scientific endeavor. Humans are part of nature, to Marx, as he thought when he wrote, in his Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts (hereinafter sometimes called Paris Manuscripts): "That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature" (Marx quoted in Heyer 1982, 77). Benton asserts that seeing humans as a species of natural being, or as part of the natural order, means that we are not "ontologically privileged beings" (Benton 1993, 17). In part this is true, but if Benton is trying to draw a moral from our naturalistic continuities with other animals, this not only runs afoul of the old fact-value gap, but brushes aside all that Marx claims on behalf of human uniqueness (see below).

Certainly, Marx's own view of his naturalism in the Paris Manuscripts was strictly humanistic, as are most naturalist views in the world today:

Communism as a fully-developed naturalism is humanism and as a fully developed humanism is naturalism. It is the definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. It is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution. (Marx 1968, 127)

In the above, rather grandiose, passage, not only is Marxist naturalism humanistic, but claims to resolve the antagonisms between humans and nature. Given the humanistic view of Marx, it is no surprise that this resolution is in favor of humans at the expense of other animals.

Indeed, Marx describes what to him is anathema to humans in their highest state--alienation--in terms which pit ourselves against the animal side of our nature. Whatever continuities we may have with animals, as alluded to above, Marx also holds there to be important discontinuities, which will be elaborated and criticized below. For now, we can observe that for Marx, humans are alienated or degraded when they are reduced to mere animality. In the words of Heyer:

...man is regarded as partly animal and partly his own unique creation....[Marx opposed] making the animal life functions an end in themselves through a reduction in the human potential of the labourer... (Heyer 1982, 82)

Not only does a worker lose capacity for free and conscious activity, but, according to Marx, in his Paris Manuscripts:

...[the worker's activity belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.
As a result, therefore, man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions--eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.
Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions. But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all other human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal. (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 299)

Benton perhaps overstates the case when he claims that Marx's whole criticism of capitalism rests on condemning the reduction of humans to the condition of animals (Benton 1993, 23). Not only does Marx acknowledge that we, as humans, share these 'animal functions,' but he merely opposes the idea that this is all there is for human beings. In other words, Marx's critique fundamentally addresses the stunting of human fulfillment--period--and does not logically depend on any comparison with nonhuman animals. Or again, Benton writes, in restoring humanity to the human, this "restores the differentiation between the human and the animal" (Benton 1993, 26). Marx always maintains there is a differential between humans and other animals; even in an alienated state, humans have potentialities that other animals do not have.

Engels, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, also maintains such a difference. In the following quotation, Engels seems to imply that after a communist revolution, we would cease to be animals at all, in a certain sense:

The seizure of the means of production by society puts an end to commodity production, and therewith to the domination of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by conscious organization on a planned basis. The struggle for human existence comes to an end. And, at this point, in a certain sense, man finally cuts himself off from the animal world, leaves the condition of animal existence behind him and enters conditions which are really human. (Engels in Adoratsky 1933, 185)

The fact that it is only "in a certain sense" that we cease to be animals in a communist world implies that in a sense we do not cease to be animals (perhaps Marx's same sense of humans having animal functions). But the sense in which we cease to be animals is the sense that in such a world, we would not longer have to struggle for our existence, as all other animals do. It is likely that Engels's passage is, therefore, easily reconcilable with the interpretation I have given of the 'animal aspects' of the Paris Manuscripts.

In essence, Marx and Engels saw human fulfillment arising through freely chosen labor, with all the values it might have (beauty, friendship, etc.). "In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species life, his real species objectively, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him." (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 300). So writes Marx in his early Manuscripts, implying that alienation of workers from their own labor does not allow them to enjoy the full life of their species. It takes away from humans their birthright of having nature as their inorganic body by taking nature out of the worker's control, and putting it under the control of another.

Obviously, nonhuman nature, including animals, has merely instrumental value at best on the Marx-Engels worldview. Hence Marx writes in the Paris Manuscripts (by way of criticizing Hegel) that "nature too, taken abstractly, for itself, and rigidly separated from man, is nothing for man" (Marx 1968, 193), implying that nature has nothing of value for humanity apart from humanity itself. This says nothing of the existence of nature, which of course the materialist would agree exists apart from humanity: "Nature exists independently of all philosophy" (Engels 1978, 18), as Engels wrote in Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. But nature being nothing apart from man implies that nature is at best of instrumental value--i.e., in relation to human beings. The Manuscripts speak of "the whole of nature [as humanity's] inorganic body: (1) as a direct means of life; and equally (2) as the material object and instrument of his life activity" (Marx 1968, 100). Nature, then, is instrumentally valuable, first, as an efficient cause and condition of life, and second, as a material cause in any human way of life. In Capital (1867), more than two decades later, Marx reiterates his instrumentalist view of the rest of nature:

[Man] confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion that natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adopted to his own needs. (Marx 1990, 286)

But this appropriation of nature, of course, is not to be egoistic, as John Locke would have it. The "human significance of nature only exists for social man, because only in this case is nature a bond with other men, the basis of his existence for others and of their existence for him". (Marx 1968, 129) The latter quotation is from the early Manuscripts, and is a thoroughly circular bit of reasoning (1) which nonetheless weaves the thread of socialism into the fabric of Marx's meditations on the instrumental value of "Nature". Animal rightism, of course, contests the idea that nonhuman animals should be considered to have merely instrumental value. However, Marx and Engels would have to defend the subordination of nonhuman animals like everyone else does: by pointing out morally relevant differences between human beings and nonhuman animals. So it is to Marx's and Engels's account of discontinuities that exist between humans and nonhumans that we now turn.

I will take issue with the alleged human/nonhuman differences, in some cases factually, in other cases by questioning the evaluative implications of these putative differences. In the Paris Manuscripts, Marx claims a uniqueness for humanity in that: "man is not merely a natural being; he is a human natural being. He is a being for himself...." (Marx 1973, 183). If this means that humans can be benefited or harmed as individuals, this is true of nonhuman animals as well and is not--at least today--terribly controversial. What I think Marx is getting at is self-awareness. I think it is fair to say that many kinds of nonhuman animals demonstrate an awareness of their surroundings, objects, and other living beings as individuals. By extrapolation, I think that many are also aware of themselves as individuals, aware of their bodies, the way they feel, etc. Why should they be aware of what they sense visually, for example, but not of how they feel? I do not think it is intelligible to explain the phenomenon of hiding, in particular, without postulating an awareness of self, even self as it would appear to others. Testing for self-awareness in animals by seeing if they recognize themselves in a mirror, by contrast, tests for grasping the concept of reflection, which is altogether different from having an awareness of oneself. But even if, as seems impossible, all nonhuman animals lack a concept of self, they can still be benefited or harmed, and have needs, which may well be enough to give them moral standing in light of the communist principle, "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" (discussed below).

Marx also wrote in Grundrisse that the "human being is in the most literal sense a ... not merely gregarious animal, but an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society" (Marx 1973, 84). Here he seems to recognize that many animals are social in nature, but states that only humans define themselves through relationships. His point is difficult to maintain, however, for once one grants that many animals are social, and that individuating oneself socially means that one's identity is constituted socially, at least in part, it becomes easy to see that a social animal's individuality can be constituted, in part, by what his or her parents taught him or her, the young companions he or she had or did not have, and so on. Those who have companion animals know very well that the personality of an animal can be profoundly influenced by good or bad prior experiences with individuals. So Marx's play for human uniqueness here does not play out. And even if it were true, it baffles me why an atomic individual animal should matter less than one who is social in nature. Certainly we do not discount from having moral standing those human animals who are autistic, and incapable of full human relationship. So how can we consistently discount nonhumans on the same supported basis? It seems that such discrimination is inadmissible.

Labor and productivity define man, says Heyer of Marxism (Heyer 1982, 88). According to Marx himself, in The German Ideology:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness [discussed later in this essay--DS], 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 organization. By producing their means of subsistence, they are indirectly producing their actual material life. (Marx quoted in Heyer 1982, 88)

Whether or not it is true that humans distinguish themselves from other animals on the basis of producing one's own necessities of life, it is not clear how this would give humans moral standing whereas nonhumans would have less or none at all. After all, many humans are not able to produce their own subsistence, such as near-total paralytics, and moral standing is not denied to such individuals. We cannot even take credit for our ability to make our own subsistence; it is not something in the way of merit, but simply the way things happen to be--and the way some, such as paralytics, are not.

Similarly, in Capital, (Marx 1990, 286), Marx's following Benjamin Franklin's definition of man as a tool-making animal does not stand in the way of animal rights. Engels, in Anti-Duhring, claims that "the generation of fire by friction gave man for the first time control over one of the forces of nature, and thereby separated him forever from the animal kingdom" (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 267). In the Dialectics of Nature, Engels points to the human hand and brain as what enables us to use tools, noting that animals only use the limbs of their bodies as tools, and nonhumans' "productive effect on surrounding nature in relation to the latter amounts to nothing at all" (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 211). Humans, by contrast, have left their stamp on all of nature so "that the consequences of [their] activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe" (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 211). Actually, humans now threaten to make life on Earth extinct, or at least a great deal of it, through warfare and environmental devastation. All of these considerations relating to the human ability to use tools in order to produce, and thus to rearrange nature, is altogether ambiguous. It does not make people automatically better--people could also produce bad things. Moreover, the Marxian principle's first phrase, "From each according to his abilities," seems to preclude holding beings to account for their natural ability to produce. Paralytics and nonhuman animals, for example, would have no production expected of them, which is judging according to their ability--but more discussion of this later.

Another candidate for human uniqueness is that human beings alone can consciously make their own history. Writes Engels, in his Dialectics of Nature:

With men we enter history. Animals also have a history, that of their derivation and gradual evolution to their present position. This history, however, is made for them, and insofar as they themselves take part in it, this occurs without their knowledge or desire. On the other hand, the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word [which could imply that we always remain animals in a broad sense--DS], the more they make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces on this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance. If, however, we apply this measure to human history, to that of even the most developed peoples of the present day, we find that there still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set in motion according to plan. And this cannot be otherwise so long as the most essential historical activity of men, the one which has raised them from bestiality to humanity and which forms the material foundation of other activities, namely the production of the requirements of life, that is today social production, is above all subject to...uncontrollable forces... (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 211-212)

Here again we see Engels stressing the human ability to create our own subsistence, a trait already discussed. As for our ability to control our history? To the extent that this is possible, so much the better for us. Engels speaks elsewhere, in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, of humans dominating nature rather than vice versa, and this fully conscious controlling of history is said to be "humanity's leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom" (Engels in Adoratsky 1933, 186). But this power--or even potential power--does not give us more moral worth. Any such power is but an ability, and as the saying goes, "From each according to his abilities...."

The same applies to Marx's observation from his Paris Manuscriptsthat animals only produce "one-sidedly," to satisfy immediate needs, whereas humans can produce beyond immediate needs, and indeed produce things freely, not just according to a stereotype for a given species (Marx quoted in Heyer 1982, 84). (Benton adds that "many animal species display a complexity, diversity and adaptability in their behavior which is denied in Marx's view of them as rigidly stereotypical in their...modes of life" [Benton 1993, 41]). It is all very well that we have such awesome powers of production. But again, owing to its central communist principle, Marxism cannot consistently rank moral standing based on powers or abilities. Insofar as animal rights will have been shown to be the next dialectical phase of Marxism, this power to control history and produce so magnificently should be deployed in the service of all animals, both humans and others. It is not necessary to say, as Benton does, that those things that only humans can do "are generally understood as rooted specifically in human ways of doing things which other animals also do" (Benton 1993, 48). It may be true that humans have unique abilities, and potentialities which other animals, or members of many species of animals, simply are unable to enjoy. But such inabilities are irrelevant on a thoroughgoing Marxian view.

But while I have already addressed Marx's very questionable notion that nonhuman animals lack self-consciousness, would he (and Engels) undercut this by denying that nonhuman creatures have consciousness per se? Marx accepted Feuerbach's dualism in man between consciousness and animal nature (Heyer 1982, 82). According to the Paris Manuscripts, the species-character of human beings, or the character of their life activity, is free, conscious activity (Goldstick 1991, 158). By contrast, nonhuman animals are said to be "immediately identical with [their] life-activity," unable to distinguish themselves from it (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 299). This later statement seems to hark back to self-consciousness, discussed earlier. So when Marx follows the latter statement in the Manuscripts with "Conscious life-activity directly distinguishes man from animal life-activity" (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 299) he seems to be talking about self-awareness, not awareness per se. Again, Marx defines "conscious being" elsewhere in the same document: "[man] is a conscious being, i.e.,...his own life is an object for him." Again, he says "conscious" and refers to being 'self-conscious.' My hypothesis that the two concepts are used interchangeably is confirmed by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology:

...the animal has no 'relations' with anything, cannot have any. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is therefore from the beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all. Consciousness is at first, of course, merely consciousness concerning the immediate sensuous environment and consciousness of the limited connection with other persons and things outside the individual who is growing self-conscious. At the same time it is a consciousness of nature, which first appears to men's relations are purely animal and by which they are overawed like beasts; it is thus a purely animal consciousness of nature (natural religion). (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 203)

This complex passage confirms in the last sentence that animals are capable of consciousness, and one asks if this is possible even if consciousness is "from the beginning a social product," although recall earlier Marx speaking of "gregarious"--i.e., social?--nonhuman animals. It is possible that it is meant that "self-consciousness" is a social product instead. The pair also here mention self-consciousness as something one grows toward, implying that this is the higher human activity they speak of elsewhere. I do not think they have a radical, Cartesian denial of consciousness in nonhuman animals then, even if Marx and Engels use misleading language on occasion to suggest otherwise. In instances where "consciousness" alone is used, they may be supposed to mean "self-conscious," if this is what is denied to animals, or else they would suffer from inconsistency with the sensible attribution of consciousness to animals already cited just above from The German Ideology. Actually, it would be incredible to deny all consciousness or awareness in animals, although Descartes and his followers of him have done so. Our evolutionary continuities with animals seem to require the hypothesis that consciousness, an adaptive means of responding to the environment, and the only way of making sense of other creatures' perceptual abilities, is shared by humans and nonhumans alike. It would certainly be more hasty to deny consciousness in other animals than to assert it, and would certainly betray an unacquainted view of nonhuman animals.

A form of consciousness used in production is emphasized as unique to humans in the following thoughts from Capital: Marx observes that a spider conducts operations not unlike a weaver and a bee not unlike an architect, but the crucial distinction is that the "architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax" (Marx 1990, 284). In fact, the consciousness of animals, although cogent to postulate, remains mysterious in many ways. We do not know the extent to which even insects prefigure their actions mentally, as absurd as it may sound. Certainly these tiny animals mind their environment, and have acute perceptions, along with, seemingly, a will to act in various ways. I would not presume that especially more complex animals have no plans that they execute. Take, for example, the prosaic idea of a dog begging for food, or a rabbit dragging a box across her pen, on repeated occasions, to sit on it and thus be poised to see through a high peep hole into an adjacent pen (an example from my own observations of what I can only call animal reasoning). And again, even if humans did have a unique ability to imagine the future, plan, etc., there is still the communist principle, "From each according to his abilities."

In sum, the following Marxian claims to human uniqueness have been considered: "man" alone is:

  1. a being for himself,
  2. individuated only in the midst of society,
  3. defined by labor and productivity,
  4. productive of "his" own subsistence,
  5. productive beyond immediate physical needs and for others beyond self and kin,
  6. a tool-making animal,
  7. a transformer of nature,
  8. possessed of consciousness and knowledge of nature, and
  9. capable of consciously making "his" own history

The presence or absence of these traits in humans does not give human animals more or less moral standing, and such facts appear powerless to reflect any differently on nonhuman animals. As noted in the critical discussion above, it is more than dubious to deny that animals are self-aware, and no less questionable to claim that lacking any of the other powers or abilities forfeits their moral standing. This was argued to be so, above, not least of all in light of the Marxian principle to which we now turn.

The famous communist principle, which became a world-renowned slogan in Victorian times, was endorsed by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), and is found at the end of the following quotation:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of individuals under division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished, after labor has become not merely a means to life but has become itself the primary necessity of life, after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly--only then can the horizon of bourgeois right be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. (Marx in Adoratsky 1933, 566)

Do I make too much of one principle? Hardly, if it is a central, even essential, component of Marxism, unlike I might add, any backward notion of animals lacking self-awareness. The maxim is not mere hollow rhetoric, or an ideological relic of mostly sentimental value, but a central substantive tenet of Marxism and communism in general. According to the passage, this principle can only be realized in an advanced stage of communist society, in conditions of abundance and advanced human self-development. Does this mean, then, that it is unfair to apply this principle now to animals? If we are working towards a communist society, then the communist principle remains our ideal, to be fulfilled insofar as possible (however much Marx may have hated the term "ideal"). Obviously, as Engels noted in Anti-Duhring, we are forced by sociohistoric conditions to live in a way that is far from ideal, and so we must live according to the norms of a "class morality," as opposed to a "really human morality" in a class-free society (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 252).

A communist cannot fail to hold the communist principle, in any case. Marx says societies cannot inscribe his maxim on their banners now, but individuals can still aspire to it. If we are to evolve a stage of history that is communist which respects the principle, it cannot come without a prior entrenching of respect for the principle by holding it as an ideal which is only fully realistic in a communist society. The principle's realization can and must be approximated in conditions of scarcity, for let us look to the substance of the maxim: if one has the ability to contribute, then one should do so, and if one has needs to be satisfied, they should be. That could hold for any condition of abundance or scarcity, although perfect or full satisfaction of the maxim could only take place in conditions of great abundance. But under scarcer conditions, people still have abilities to help others, both humans and nonhumans, who are in need. That is all that any animal rightist can really ask for, keeping in mind that every being needs to e free from suffering, and needs to live, to exist at all. No other humanistic philosophy, to my knowledge, has a principle that better enables that philosophy to evolve towards animal rightism, especially since the maxim in question unswervingly refuses to demand of individuals anything more than that of which they are capable. Benton, I find, ignores this latter aspect of the maxim, although he focuses on the fact that other animals also have needs (Benton 1993, 212). It may be, as a humanist might object, that unlike many humans, nonhumans do not even have the possibility of producing anything for society (although society seizes many things animals naturally produce), but then, the same is just as true of many human beings, and they are given no diminution of their moral standing.

Can the humanist Marxist claim that we make a category mistake in saying that nonhuman animals have needs, or needs of the kind that mandate protection by the principle? As Heyer points out, Marx himself acknowledged that humans share many needs in common with other animals:

Marx was aware that man shares many life functions with other animals - eating, drinking, and procreating are given as examples of what he calls "animal functions." [see in passage from the Manuscripts quoted in the discussion of alienation--DS] But they are also taken to be human functions when they are discharged in the sphere of all other human activity [based on the same passage from the Manuscripts].(Heyer 1982, 81)

Another example from the Paris Manuscripts is explicit about commonality of need among humans and nonhumans:

The sense caught up in crude practical need has only a restricted sense. For the starving man, it is not the human form of food that exists, but only its abstract being as food; it could just as well be there in its crudest form, and it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding-activity differs from that of animals. (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 308)

The reductionism implied of animals' need for food is also noted; yet nonhuman animals, in many cases, may well appreciate food more, with comparatively enhanced senses, than human beings. Humans share needs with animals for, as Marx says in his Manuscripts, a human is "a suffering, conditioned and limited being, like animals and plants" (Marx 1968, 184). Note here that Marx refers to plants, and prompts us to ask if these, too, have needs. Even if they have needs for survival, do they have needs that matter morally? Plants lack a central nervous system, and are, for all we know, not capable of suffering like us, contrary to Marx's own assertion. Animals, however, are sentient, and are capable of suffering. Things matter to animals but not, one could argue, to plants, and the latter are evidently oblivious to their own survival or death.

To have needs, a being does not have to know what is good or best for that being. Animals may not always know what is good for them, but then, there are humans who never know what is good for them, who have needs all the same--others may well know on their behalf. A paternalistic recognition of animal needs is also possible and sometimes necessary (consider the case of an orphaned wild animal, unable to know or satisfy its own needs).

Of course, the humanist will inevitably suggest that humans have higher needs to fulfill, and this is suggested, perhaps, by a passage from the third volume of Capital:

Beyond [the realm of necessity] begins that development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom which, however can flourish only upon that realm of necessity as its basis. (Marx in Selsam and Martel 1987, 269)

We could even speak of a human need to go beyond basic necessities, and develop freely all possible--and, I might add, worthy--human powers. However, it is not known what kinds of loves, friendships, arts, and aesthetics might exist in the mysterious minds of other animals, and intellectual humility as well as compassion requires us to give creatures the benefit of the doubt as to what higher needs they might enjoy, once allowed the basic necessities of life. According to Benton, and a wide array of naturalists, "for at least some species [a] distinctive pattern of need includes a complex articulation of psychological, social and organic needs and dimensions of need" (Benton 1993, 51). And it may be that animals have different needs, in many cases even lower needs on the whole, but that, too, is irrelevant to Marx's noble principle, since it reads, "...to each according to his needs," which implies that whatever the need of the being who has the need, it is, ideally, to be satisfied, in a way that harmonizes with others' need-fulfillment (otherwise the need of each and every being would not be respected, but rather some at the expense of others).

What if one objects that the communist principle only applies to those with a place in human economics? The following well-known passage from Engel's Anti-Duhring might superficially be taken to suggest that all morality is economically based:

We therefore reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatsoever as an eternal, ultimate, and forever immutable moral law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles which transcend history and the differences between nations. We maintain on the contrary that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society has reached at that particular epoch. And as society has hitherto moved in class antagonisms, morality was always a class morality; it has either justified the domination and the interests of the ruling class, or, as soon as the oppressed class has become powerful enough, it has represented the revolt against this domination and the future interests of the oppressed....But we have not yet passed beyond class morality. A really human morality which transcends class antagonisms and their legacies in thought becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class contradictions but has even forgotten them in practical life... (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 252)

This passage claims that previous moralities were based on economics; hence the selective use of the past tense, and the word "hitherto." There is no claim that communism is likewise merely an outgrowth of economic causality, and not also right or just in itself. Also, the passage advocates a classless society. The abolition of classes is what Engels, in Anti-Duhring, identifies as "the real content of the proletarian demand for equality," deriding other demands for equality as absurd (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 260). A morality that does not work in terms of economic or social classes is well outfitted to include nonhuman animals, at least theoretically, since nonhuman animals are often placed low in hierarchies themselves.

But is communism on behalf of workers, not animals? Even those who are unable to work are to be supported. Marx writes of what is to be deducted from the "undiminished proceeds of labor" in a communist society, including administrative costs, communal services such as schools, and "funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, what is included under so-called official poor relief today" (Marx in Adoratsky 1933, 562, his italics). So Marx here makes provision for needy nonproducers, and nonhuman animals are also needy nonproducers (although they produce in their own ways, one could argue). This is the lowest level in the economic chain, the underclass below the working class, which cannot always fight on its own behalf for what rightfully belongs to it, for what it needs. But the ability to fight that fight is not required, for "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

The argument from marginal cases has been used throughout this paper, drawing analogies between the way we treat human beings with marginal abilities (the very insane, the irreversibly comatose, the severely retarded, extremely autistic individuals, etc.) and the way we treat animals who also have little or nothing of certain abilities (e.g., rationality, moral agency, linguistic competence, etc.). One of the most vulnerable aspects of this argument is that a reductio can be mounted by someone who does not care to give moral standing to human marginal cases, either, so nonhuman animals can apparently be consistently excluded. But at this point, we simply return to the Marxian principle, and recognize that marginal human and nonhuman animals have needs, whatever their abilities. Whether Marxism itself is right or wrong is beyond the scope of this study; it is merely designed to elicit the next stage of dialectical development within Marxism in the direction of animal rights.

Should nonhuman animals then be excluded from coverage by this principle simply because they are not human? That would be speciesism--arbitrarily favoring one species over another. It would not help to point out that anthropocentrism is "natural" for us:

Looking back to the Greek society of Aristotle's day, Marx remarked that it had for its "natural basis" an organization of labor predicated on slavery. This was a result of the social condition of the period--not an expression of any innate differences in human nature between slaves and slaveholders. (Heyer 1982, 92)

A perfect analogy cannot be made with nonhumans, here, since there are innate differences at stake between humans and nonhumans. But that animals can or must have their needs ignored is a social construction, a mere tradition, with a basis in our history, but with no more ultimate justification than the odious tradition of slavery. In a previous quote, Engels describes all moralities hitherto as based on economics, implying that communist morality is free of distortion by any economy. Yet economic interests in producing and consuming animal parts for food, fur, clothing, manufacturing, testing, experimentation, and so forth, are nothing less than immense, and have no doubt prejudiced people as to the place they grant nonhuman animals in the moral scheme of things. In the end, though, speciesism is as unacceptable as Marx's own sexist language would be if offered afresh today, or as the racism which Marx explicitly denounces in Capital: "Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin" (Marx 1990, 414). I must agree with Benton's statement that "Marx's vision of a 'humanization' of nature is no less anthropocentric than the more characteristically modernist utilitarian view of the domination of nature. It is, indeed, a quite fantastically species-narcissism" (Benton 1993, 32). The core of Marxian principle is to see that needs do not go unfulfilled, and it is acknowledged that animals have needs. The principle also states that if one lacks abilities to produce in various ways, one's needs are still to be protected. The only way, then, that the principle could fail to be extended to nonhuman animals (regardless of the original intent of its formulator--logic does not play favorites) is through sheer speciesistic prejudice.

But a Marxian case for animal rights cannot be complete without a vindication of rights discourse itself. Marx himself attacked rights as egoistic in his On the Jewish Question:

None of the rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society, that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and egoistic selves. (Marx quoted in Benton 1993, 107)

Benton thinks that Marx clearly thought that rights are not enough by themselves, but did not necessarily reject them tout court (Benton 1993, 111). I think that if Marx saw rights of the present day as egoistic, he would reject them. However, rights need not be egoistic. They can be used to protect needs, and to guarantee that those who have the ability to see to others' needs will do so, in keeping with the famous principle of communism. The day may come when people will spontaneously respect others' needs as opportunity allows, and not need to be made to confront others' rights to have their needs met. But that day has not yet come. So rights remain a useful tool for the promotion of justice, evading, in their better instances, Marx's criticism of rights as "egoistic."

The task of this paper was not to give a complete defense of animal rights philosophy (2) nor yet of Marxism itself, but merely a showing that on Marxist tenets, animal rights becomes either inevitable as the next stage in the dialectical progression of Marxism, or else difficult to resist theoretically. I do not need to combat skepticism in ethics in this essay, but only to show that Marxist ethics leads to animal rights philosophy as I have construed it. Some even deny there is such a thing as a Marxist ethic, but Marx's and Engels's advocacy of communism as a better future and sometimes rabid condemnation of capitalism presupposes evaluation, just as "Workers of the world unite!" is a flat-out prescription. Also, there is Engels's statement to consider: "That...there has on the whole been progress in morality, as in all other branches of human knowledge cannot be doubted" (Engels in Selsam and Martel 1987, 252). The idea that there can be moral knowledge, and moral progress in history measured against some transhistorical standard, implies that Marx and Engels were not skeptical antimoralists. I, too, subscribe to such a notion of moral progress (albeit I am no Marxist), but insist that Marxism can only make moral progress by overcoming a dialectical contradiction within itself: asserting "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," while taking animals to task for lacking certain abilities, and all but ignoring their needs. If Marx's spirit were able to look back on his work, and see his humanistic biases as things to be put aside, he would not need to avow that he is not a Marxist (as he once did), for this dialectical progression beyond his and Engels's own words of this last century is as Marxian as anything else.

Acknowledgement: Daniel Goldstick provided helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this paper.


  1. After all, he is trying to show that human significance of nature only exists for social man, and his grounds for asserting this is that only in the case of social man is there, in effect, a bond of interdependence with other humans. But the bond of interdependence is just an aspect of social man. So this amounts to saying that the human existence of nature only exists for social man because only in the case of social man do we find social man, or at least a given aspect of it. This does nothing to disprove that at least part of the human significance of nature is that it affects each individual in a unique way.
  2. For persuasive replies to many of the more common objections to animal rights philosophy, see Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights, Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, and Bernard Rollin's Animal Rights and Human Morality.


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