Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Vegetarianism 'As She is Spoke'

by H. S. Salt


In the present day of -isms, it is perhaps unavoidable that the advocates of each particular reform should devote their practical efforts somewhat exclusively to the main object they have in view, since, for propagandist purposes, concentration is a necessary condition of success. Yet, as we cannot but be conscious that these various social movements have a common origin in the general spirit of the times, and that, although we may nominally regard them as separate, they are in reality continually acting and re-acting on each other, it is well that we should occasionally look around us, and note the correlation that exists, sometimes unsuspected, or even repudiated, between Vegetarianism and other social reforms.

What is the connection between Vegetarianism and Socialism? That there is any connection at all, would be doubtless be indignantly denied by a good many uncompromising champions of one cause or the other; yet close connection there is, nevertheless. Both are direct offshoots of the great growth of Humanitarianism, which, during the last century and a half, has been developing itself, especially among the English-speaking races, with greater and greater rapidity. It is true, of course, that economic and hygienic arguments form an important part of the reasoning advanced by both Socialists and Vegetarians; but I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that humaneness is, in both cases, the guiding and paramount principle. Humanity is the motive-power, justice the watch-word, of both movements; both might be content to be summed up in Wordsworth’s lines:

“Never to blend our pleasure or our pride
With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels.”

The most hopeful sign of the age in which we live is the growing sense of universal brotherhood and compassionate sympathy with the suffering of every sentient being. The selfishness of the individual (misnamed “individuality”) and the selfishness of the tribe (misnamed “patriotism”) seem likely to give way before the advent of a larger cosmopolitan spirit, which will substitute love for hatred, peace for strife, and mutual association for internecine competition. Socialism is the application of this regenerating principle to the human, Vegetarianism to the non-human, races; once let us admit the rightness and efficacy of the instinct of compassion, and it is difficult for any clear-minded man, who has acquainted himself with the facts, to resist either conclusion. We see, on the one hand, a large class of our fellow-beings compelled, by the inequality of the laws which govern the distribution of wealth, to earn a bare subsistence by a life of unremitting toil, while they are preyed on by a host of heartless idlers, who, under the specious forms of “rent” and “interest,” literally devour the substance of the poor. We see, on the other hand, countless numbers of harmless animals condemned to torture and death, in order to satisfy the promptings of a cruel and unnatural gluttony. What must be the humanitarian’s verdict on these two practices? Much the same, I fancy, in both cases. We can never be a humane people, so long as the working classes are sacrificed, body and soul, to the greed of their oppressors, or while the “lower animals” are regarded as mere “live-stock” and food-producers for man. To derive life and enjoyment from the toil and suffering of other creatures, human or non-human, whether you kill them by slow starvation or by a butcher’s pole-axe, is alike repugnant to every dictate of justice and humanity.

It is, of course, impossible, within the limits of this article, to attempt to prove the truth of either the Socialist or the Vegetarian position; I can only indicate the chief reasons which have led some of us to adopt both creeds. If all Socialists had read Mrs. Kingsford’s “Perfect Way in Diet,” and if all Vegetarians had read, let us say, Frank Fairman’s “Principles of Socialism made Plain,”* the misunderstanding that sometimes arises between the two parties would, I think, be sensibly lessened, and they might even recognise that they are working independently towards the same end. At present, Vegetarians are too apt to preach thrift as the panacea for all human ills, and have not sufficiently grasped the fact that to a large portion of our population, ground down under the iron heel of poverty, self-reform is not merely difficult, but impossible. Socialists, on the other hand, too often regard Vegetarianism as a mere fad and crotchet, and are unreasonably ill-disposed towards the practice of thrift, because they fear that it would result in a still further depression of wages—as if there was any probability that all our workmen would suddenly and simultaneously adopt the Vegetarian diet! But, as I have already insisted, humanity is the indissoluble connecting link between the two movements. A Vegetarian, who protests against the cruelties inflicted on the victims of the slaughter-house, cannot consistently be an opponent of a system which holds out a prospect of relief to victims of the sweater’s den; a Socialist, who (rightly, as I think) denounces those who live on the labour of others as robbers and “bloodsuckers,” ought not to be able to regard with complacency the horrible traffic in flesh. It is idle to attempt to limit the scope of the humane feelings to the human race; if the instinct in humanity has any raison d’être at all, it must apply, not to mankind alone, but to all sentient life. “It is abundantly evident,” says Lecky, in his “History of European Morals,” “both from history and from present experience, that the instinctive shock, or natural feeling of disgust, caused by the sight of the sufferings of men, is not generically different from that which is caused by the sight of the suffering of animals... At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family; soon the circle, expanding, includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity; and finally its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

It will probably be found as time goes on, that the Darwinian doctrine of evolution has done much to further the progress of that humane sentiment which underlies both the Vegetarian and the Socialist cause. Where there is a sense of affinity and a solidarity of interests, there a sympathetic humaneness is sure to be developed; whereas, on the contrary, the abrupt division of man from man and class from class, and the supercilious isolation of mankind from the rest of Nature, can only breed antipathy and distrust. Until a revolution is worked in men’s minds on these subjects, it seems impossible that either Socialism or Vegetarianism, or indeed any humane reform, can be thoroughly carried into effect, since the obstacles that now bar the way are inherent in the old system of “each for himself,” on which is based the present constitution of society. But those who are the part emancipated can at least accelerate the day of deliverance by the avoidance of all unnecessary jealousies and misunderstandings, and by remembering, whether they be Socialists or Vegetarians, that their own -ism is but a fraction of a far larger and more comprehensive movement—a necessary fraction, no doubt, yet still a fraction only. No Vegetarians have a right to be scared by the bugbear of Socialism; and the same will apply, mutatis mutandis, to the attitude of Socialists towards Vegetarianism, for they know by experience what is the value of the captious objections that are put forward by timid and prejudiced opponents of every sort of reform; for example, when they see it stated, in some capitalist print, that the working-classes would derive no benefit from a socialist regime, they might at once surmise what further enquiry would corroborate–that this assertion has precisely as much foundation in fact as the familiar argument that the practice of flesh-eating is “better for the animals themselves.” It is, however, no wonder that the principle of humanity and justice find little favour will cold-hearted, self-seeking “men of the world,” who are directly interested in maintaining the present condition of affairs, under which they exist in easy affluence, and gratify every passing appetite without a thought for the suffering thereby occasioned to men and animals alike.

“For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.”

Both Socialism and Vegetarianism are protests against the continuance of this unnecessary and unjustly inflicted suffering—in other words, both are branches of Humanitarianism. Their application and methods may be different, but they both tend towards the same ultimate ideal.

*W.M. Reeves, 185, Fleet-street

Published: The Vegetarian, Vol. II No. 27, July 6, 1889