On Chickens — “the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world”

Over the weekend, my parents acquired four chickens. Presumably they felt that our garden was lacking in that particular brand of ‘civilised rusticity’ which is the measure of any middle-class Surrey family worth their salt. No longer will we have to suffer the mortifying humiliation of having to buy our eggs from a supermarket. No longer will I flinch with shame each time I am forced to pry open the moulded foam of an egg carton. No, from now on, we may stroll down to the bottom of the garden — buoyant with the knowledge that we truly are living the ‘good life’ — and triumphantly pluck our eggs straight from the hay of our prefab chicken coop.

We have chosen to name our chickens after 20th century communist autocrats; Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (otherwise known as ‘Lenin’), Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro. Whilst I don’t imagine that any of these figures would have particularly appreciated our naming our chickens after them (Castro might have seen the fun in it), I think they would at least have more generally advocated the keeping of chickens.

Take Fidel Castro, for instance, who, during his visit to New York in 1960 to attend the
United Nations general assembly, controversially stormed out of the elite Shelbourne hotel citing unfair treatment (allegedly the hotel management had asked for a $10,000 cash advance for potential damages), amid reports that he and the Cuban delegation had “killed, plucked, and cooked chickens in their rooms”.

Mao Zedong was somewhat more ambitious and authoritarian in his approach to the keeping of chickens, not merely advocating but requiring (as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s collectivist economic and social reforms, known as the ‘Great Leap Forward’) that all farmers met quotas for keeping and supplying the state with chickens, ducks, eggs, and grain.

Indeed, it would seem that to keep chickens is not only a revolutionary act (whether through causing disruption in up-market New York hotels, or, as we can now boast, through putting [admittedly small] dents in the profits of filthy capitalist supermarket corporations), but also more fundamentally aligned with communist principles.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need

wrote Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, and what better maxim to describe the internal logic of chicken keeping? We need eggs, and the chickens are able to supply us with them. The chickens need feed and shelter, and we are able to supply them with it. The chickens are, indeed, our comrades.

Over the weekend, I spent some time observing the chickens, finding them to be, in fact, quite interesting to watch. At one point, I caught the gaze of one of the chickens. As I stared into the eyes of Mao Zedong, I could not help but contemplate the darker truths of his poultry policy; the torture and murder of unnumbered farmers and their families who failed to produce the food that was required of them, and the deaths of anywhere between 15 and 45 million people from widespread famine and starvation. How much of that I was able to glimpse in the eyes of Mao Zedong I cannot say, but I certainly found myself reminded of something said by the German film-maker Werner Herzog –

Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.