[OPE-L] Marxism and bird watching

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Feb 22 2006 - 21:19:02 EST

Written by Grossmann scholar, Rick Kuhn. Why hasn't this
vitally important subject been studied more?

In solidarity, Jerry


Marxism and bird watching


Marxism and bird watching*
The material on this page initially opened with a comment on the
tenousness of the links between Marxism and bird watching. Recent research
has, however, led to a revision of this assessment. It has demonstrated
that the relationship in fact deepened over time.

Both Marx and Engels made early references to domesticated birds. The
Engels family in Barmen kept chickens. In 1838, while a commercial
apprentice in Bremen, Friedrich wrote home to his sister about breeds of
chickens and pigeons he had seen.1 Marx mentioned French roosters in A
Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right2 and items in
the Neue rheinische Zeitung and roast pigeons in the Deutsch-Französische
Jahrbücher.3 While in prison, the Georgian Bolshevik Kamo actually
undertook a program of domestication, taming a sparrow.4 Trotsky continued
this tradition in his comparison between British Labour politicians and
shortbilled pigeons, bred by fanciers, which were incapable of breaking
out of the shell.5 Unfortunately, it must also be conceded that Trotsky's
ornithological interests included duck hunting.

These examples are, it must be conceded, some distance from bird watching.
But, by 1874, Marx's ornithological interests were more profound. While
recovering his health at the spa resort of Karlsbad (now Karlowy Vary in
the Czech Republic), Marx wrote the following to Engels

  The surrounding district is very pretty and one can't get enough walking
through and over the wooded granite mountains. But not a bird lives in
these woods. Birds are healthy and don't like the mineral vapours.6

It seems that the elaboration of historical materialism was associated
with a rising interest in ornithology, not to mention ecology. In
Karlsbad, therefore, Marx drew attention to a significant absense. Of
course Marx's comment implies interest in the subject on Engels's part.
And direct written evidence of Engels's concern with bird anatomy emerged
a couple of years later, in a comparison between human and parrot mouths
as organs for speech, in his discussion of the evolution of humankind.7

It was surely no coincidence (from a materialist perspective) that the
Zimmerwald Conference of 2-4 September 1916, the first international
conference of anti-war socialist organisations during World War I, went
under the cover of a bird watching outing.8 This had, no doubt, inherent
plausibility as there are good views of the autumn migration in some
mountainous areas of the Canton of Bern.

Lenin was a participant in the Zimmerwald Conference. In 1922 he compared
Rosa Luxemburg favourably with the German Social Democrats of the 1920s by
quoting a Russian fable 'Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens
can never rise to the height of eagles.'9 Earlier, the most prominent
reformist Social Democrat in southern Germany, Georg von Vollmar, was much
less flattering in using bird metaphors to describe her, accusing
Luxemburg of 'squawking', and laying 'gaseous eggs'.10

Rosa Luxemburg, herself, was probably the prominent Marxist most involved
in ornithology. She had some university training in botany and zoology and
'though not to be her life's work, these subjects always retained a strong
and almost professional fascination for her'.11 While imprisoned in
Germany, between 1915 and 1918, for her revolutionary and anti-war
activities, Luxemburg took particular pleasure in watching and listening
to birds within and beyond prison walls. In letters to friends she
mentions reading a study of bird migration and encounters with Sparrows,
Blackbird, Nightinggale, Green Finch, Cat Finch and Blue Titmouse.12

Several Marxists have reflected on Hegel's ornithological contention that
'The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are

I would welcome other examples of the synergy between Marxism and bird
watching to add to this page.


* I am grateful to Eric Petersen for many of these references amd to Peter
Storm for a pointer to Luxemburg's comments. return

1. Letter from Frederick Engels to Marie Engels 28 August 1838. return

2. Karl Marx A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right
1844; 'Counter-revolution in Berlin' Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 141, 12
October 1848; 'The Revolutionary Movement', Neue Rheinische Zeitung No.
184, 1 January 1849. return

3. Letter from Karl Marx to Arnold Ruge, written September 1843 published
in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, February 1844. return

4. Nadheza Krupskaya Reminiscences of Lenin International Publishers, New
York 1970. return

5. Leon Trotsky 'The Fabian 'theory' of socialism' in Trotsky's Writings
On Britain New Park, London 1975. return

6 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Werke volume 33, Dietz Verlag, Berlin
1966 pp. 112-113. Also see Walt Contreras Sheasby 'Marx at Karlsbad'
Capitalism Nature Socialism 12 (3) September 2001 pp. 91-97. return

7. Frederick Engels The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape
to Man written 1876, first published 1896. return

8. John Kenneth Galbraith Age of uncertainty Haughton Mifflin, Boston 1977
p. 147. return

9. V. I. Lenin 'Notes of a publicist' Collected Works volume 33 pp.
210-211, written at the end of  February 1922, first published in Pravda
16 April 1924. return

10. J. P. Nettl Rosa Luxemburg Oxford University Press, London 1969 p.
110. return

11. J. P. Nettl Rosa Luxemburg volume 1 Oxford University Press, London,
1966, p. 62. return

12. Rosa Luxemburg The letters of Rosa Luxemburg Westview, Boulder, 1978,
pp. 195-196, 206-208, 228-230, 235. On Luxemburg's grasp of ornithological
ecology also see Sheasby 'Marx at Karlsbad' op. cit. p. 96. return

13. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 'Preface' to The Philosophy of Right
Berlin 1821, translated by S. W. Dyde, 1896. Observations on Hegel's
conclusion have been made by Georgii Valentinovich Plekhanov, critically,
'For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel's Death' 1891, English edition
Selected Works of G V Plekhanov, Volume I Lawrence & Wishart, London 1961.
Leon Trotsky was particularly keen on the Minervan owl:  'The Military
Specialists and the Red Army', December 31, 1918, translated by Brian
Pearce; comparative comments on the nightingale and the owl Literature and
Revolution 1924; The Third International after Lenin 1928; History of the
Russian Revolution translated by Max Eastman 1932;  'German Buonapartism'
1932; Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects chapter 8, 1930; The
Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and where is it going?
translated by Max Eastman 1937. Also see György Lukács 'Class
Consciousness' in History and Class Consciousness 1923, Merlin, London
1967. return


Author Rick Kuhn. Created 30 March 1998. Last revised 19 Apr 2002.
Original URL http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/birds/marxbird.htm

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu Feb 23 2006 - 00:00:03 EST