Preliminary drawing for design of Animal Farm strip cartoon. Source: The National Archives UK
I was chatting to an American communist, a guy who moved to Berlin aeons ago to join the revolution and who's addicted to demonstrations of any kind. I don't know how he manages to pay his rent, he's always at one solidarity event or another, or else fomenting dissent on Facebook. We were chatting about Napuli, that refugee that was doing a hunger strike in a tree on O-Platz, and then somehow we got to talking about how people just didn't really care about the plight of refugees.
I said, “These days everyone wants to be vegan, they're more interested in animals than people.”
“I know, who cares about animals?” the communist said.
"Hold on a second...you're not a vegetarian? I thought people like you...”
“No, I just eat whatever's convenient.”
As a hardcore Troskyist or whatever he was, his view on animals appeared to be unabashedly Cartesian – they're basically unthinking, unfeeling machines we can do whatever we want with. No surprise, considering the approach socialism and communism have historically taken towards nature and the environment – to them, a romanticised bourgeois notion, of course. Organic food is nothing more than a way for the well-off to feel better about their privilege. Pretty much NOTHING matters as much as the empowerment of the working classes, you see. Hence, the dismal environmental record of Eastern Bloc countries – justified by the socialist industrial development for the betterment of the Soviet peoples. Germany's CO2 emissions plummeted after reunification forced inefficient East German factories to shut down. Or remember communism's crowning environmental disaster: Chernobyl. The ultimate failure of the worker's state.
A hard fact to swallow for a lot of hardcore left-wingers is that environmentalism grew out of capitalist societies – not because those societies had worse environmental records, but because the capitalist societies gave them the freedom to assemble, to demonstrate, to criticise and mobilise.
Back to the issue of eating animals: the new vegan movement DOES have a whiff of superficial, Californian feel-goodism to it. Eating animal-free is ALL we need to do – so goes the commonly held belief – and everything else will be better. We'll live until 100, the earth will be healed, world hunger will be abolished, and all-round goodness shall prevail.
My communist pal would chuckle at the notion: the difference between rich and poor is totally unaffected by eating vegan, he would argue. And he's right about that. You can't be a one-issue progressive. Like only care about animals, or only care about refugees, or only care about H&M workers' right to strike...
Animal rights are a sticky issue in Germany. Once you start comparing factory farms to concentration camps and the Holocaust, you're obviously in sketchy territory. But the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian appears to no longer be a good reason to eat meat.
There's renewed debate about cheap meat in Germany, sparked by a price war between the big discount supermarkets. Farmers complained that prices had fallen so low, they could no longer afford to invest in the welfare of their animals. But industrialised farming is cruel and destructive not only to animals (58,350,000 pigs and 627,941,000 chickens are slaughtered in Germany every year), but to the low-wage workers feeding, killing and cutting them up. The massive concentrations of disgusting animal sewage is a huge environmental issue for people living nearby. You've got to see the whole picture – and that includes caring about animals.