Socialists and Vegetarians

Socialists and Vegetarians

From a recent correspondence in the pages of the Commonweal, it appears that there is some danger of our witnessing a very pretty quarrel between Socialists and Vegetarians, in which the former, with the ferocious activity characteristic of the higher carnivora, are disposed to be the aggressors. One would have thought that Socialists had already enough to do in carrying on their crusade against the present system of society; and it certainly is to be regretted that they should devote their superfluous energies to an attack on the votaries of another ism, who, if not welcomed as friends, ought, at any rate, not to be regarded as foes. For, in the name of common sense, what antagonism can there rightly be between these two movements? Stupidity and selfishness—these are the true enemies of Socialism, all the world over; and it so happens that they are the enemies of Vegetarianism also, though the fight goes on in the other fields, and under other conditions of warfare. It would be a sad pity if any social reformers should waste their power in fighting on the wrong side in this question of diet, and thereby undo with one hand some of the good they have been doing with the other.

“But Vegetarianism,” say the Socialists, “is a snare and delusion, because the adoption of food-thrift by the working classes would bring with it a further depression of wages, with the result that the whole advantage would go to the Capitalist.” Now, it must be admitted that the objection would be a serious one if Vegetarianism were likely to be suddenly and generally adopted by working men; but when one reflects that the change in diet, if it comes at all, is quite certain to be very gradual, and that Socialists will not be idle in the meantime, the danger of a reduction of wages caused by food-thrift seems to be somewhat imaginary. Let us suppose that in fifty years hence—a very sanguine estimate—the working-classes will have realized the striking economy of a vegetarian diet. Will not the Socialists have also made their mark by then, and rendered the continued acceptance of starvation-wages an impossibility? We have often read in the columns of Justice the emphatic and satisfactory assurance, “It moves.” This being do, why should Socialists be troubled if Vegetarianism is seen to be moving also, and is it not possible that they are both moving towards the same end? That is a righteous indignation which denounces those so-call philanthropists who take upon themselves to recommend a vegetable diet to the working-classes while they themselves continue to eat flesh meat three of four times a day; but, indignant as we may be at the bad taste not to say hypocrisy of these officious advisers, it is scarcely fair to describe such persons as “Vegetarian Capitalists.” Capitalists they probably are, but they cannot be Vegetarians until they have themselves adopted the vegetarian diet. The truth is that Vegetarians do not pretend that their system can offer a complete solution of the social difficulty, but only that it is an important accessory consideration. Still less have they the bad taste to preach Vegetarianism as a gospel exclusively designed for the poor, the whole point of their contention being that it is good for rich and poor alike. Those Socialists who imagine that the economic advantage of Vegetarianism is the only argument that can be brought forward in its favour, are therefore lamentably ignorant of the raison d’etre of Food Reform. I am not at present concerned to discuss the merits of Vegetarianism; but it may be well at least to point out on what grounds it is advocated by those who practise it.

First, it is indisputable that a great pecuniary saving may be effected by the total disuse of flesh-meat; and this, though not the only or most important aspect of Vegetarianism, is perhaps the most obvious in its bearings on questions both of national and individual interest. Food-thrift, like temperance, puts so much additional power into the hands of those who are willing to practise it. When therefore a capitalist advises his employés to adopt a vegetarian diet, it is possible that, intentionally or otherwise, he is suggesting a course which is more favourable to their interests than to his own. If socialist workers were to give a trial to Vegetarianism, and found that they were as strong, or stronger, in health, and much better off in pocket, their change of diet would be a distant gain to the Socialist cause. But Vegetarians appeal not only to our pockets, but to our sense of justice and humanity. They may, of course, be mistaken in this appeal; and it may be very foolish to condemn the slaughter of innocent animals as brutal and inhuman; yet, whatever some persons may say of this kind of “sentiment,” Socialists are scarcely in a position to ignore it, since by so doing they cut away the ground from under their feet, one of their strongest arguments being itself based on this same sense of justice and humanity. When a Socialist sets aside the plea for humanity to the lower animals as a mere fad and crotchet, a Vegetarian might well retort that if the promptings of gentleness and mercy are deliberately disregarded in the case of the animals, it cannot surprise us if they are also excluded from consideration in those social questions where the welfare of human beings is concerned. If those who live selfishly on the labour of others are rightly denounced as “blood-suckers,” do not those who pamper a depraved appetite at the expense of much animal suffering deserve a somewhat similar appellation? Then again there is the question of good taste which must, sooner or later demand our attention, even when all the capitalists have been driven out and a socialist régime is established. No community possessed of true refinement will tolerate such degrading and disgusting institutions as the slaughter-house and the butcher’s shop, both of them a disgrace to civilization and decency. Here, then, is another point of view which may give socialists pause, before they jump to the conclusion that Vegetarianism is altogether a craze and hallucination. Lastly, Vegetarians assert that the simplicity of a Pythagorean diet is far more conductive to sound bodily health than the habit of flesh-eating; and in this assertion they are, to a great extent, borne out by Sir Henry Thompson’s opinion, that “more than one half of the disease which embitters the middle and later part of life among the middle and upper classes of the population is due to avoidable errors in diet.” Here, once more, is an aspect of the food question which deserves the attention of Socialists, as of all thoughtful people. Is it not possible that even a Socialist community might suffer from these same “avoidable errors” in diet, when it enters on that period of general festivity and unlimited jollification to which some Socialists seem to look forward? It may be that when we have dethroned the capitalist and possessed ourselves of the good things which he now unjustly enjoys, we may still find ourselves exploited and rack-rented, even under a Socialist Government, by such uncompromising landlords as indigestion and gout; and I greatly fear that disease is a capitalist with whom even social-democrats will find it difficult to contend successfully. For these reasons it is conceivable that food reform is a subject of more importance than some socialists are at present willing to admit.

This objection to anything that savours of food-thrift is sadly impolitic and short-sighted, being based on a total misconception of what such frugality really implies. The economy that almost of necessity accompanies a vegetarian diet is very far from being the same thing as niggardly parsimony or churlish asceticism. On the contrary, it is quite compatible with the most open-minded liberality, and the frankest cheerfulness. It is the golden mean between asceticism on the one side, and wastefulness on the other; and is simply the recognition of the fact that Nature’s gifts to men are too bountiful and holy to be either slighted or squandered. Simplicity of diet is found by those who make trial of it to be the pleasantest as well as the most economical method of life; “plain living and high thinking” being no mere empty formula, but the expression of a very important truth.

Henry S. Salt

To-day, November 1896


Included in Henry Salt: Humanitarian Reformer and Man of Letters by George Hendrick