Anarchism aims for a society free from oppression and domination. These values have in turn led many anarchists to become vegetarians and vegans, or, at the very least, advocate improved animal welfare. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, for example, claimed that “civilized man . . . will extend his principles of solidarity to the whole human race, and even to the animals.” (Kropotkin, 1993, 136) This view was most consistently and fully articulated by the French anarchist and geographer Elisée Reclus, who wrote against the oppression of animals by humans as early as 1896 and 1901.
For Reclus, meat eating rests on a simultaneous process of violence against and degradation of non-human animals. He writes,
Today’s domestication of animals exhibits in many ways moral regression since, far from improving animals, we have deformed and corrupted them. Although through selective breeding we have improved qualities such as strength, dexterity, scent, and speed in racing, as meat-eaters our major preoccupation has been to increase the bulk of meat and fat on four legs to provide walking storehouses of flesh that hobble from the manure pile to the slaughterhouse. Can we really say that the pig is superior to the wild boar or the timid sheep to the courageous mouflon? The great art of breeders is to castrate their animals and create sterile hybrids. They train horses with the bit, whip, and spur, and then complain that the animals show no initiative. Even when they domesticate animals under the best possible conditions, they reduce their resistance to disease and ability to adapt to new environments, turning them into artificial beings incapable of living spontaneously in free nature.
Such degradation of species is itself a great evil, but civilized science goes even further and sets about exterminating them. We have seen how many birds have been wiped out by European hunters in New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and the polar archipelagos, and how many walruses and other cetaceans have already disappeared! The whale has fled the waters of the temperate zone, and soon will not even be found among the ice shields of the Arctic Ocean. All the large land animals are similarly threatened. We already know the fate of the aurochs and the bison, and we can foresee that of the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, and the elephant. (Reclus 2013, 134-5)
This mistreatment of other animals is itself symptomatic of how people destroy the natural environment in order to meet their own ends. Reclus writes,
Isn’t this moreover the way that we act in relation to all of nature? Let loose a pack of engineers in a charming valley, in the midst of meadows and trees, or on the banks of a beautiful river, and you will soon see what they are capable of doing to it. They will do everything in their power to make their own work conspicuous and hide nature under piles of gravel and coal. They will be quite proud to see the sky crisscrossed by streaks of filthy yellowish or black smoke from their locomotives. (ibid, 158)
The violent and non-caring treatment of non-human animals in turn acts as a foundation for violence against fellow humans. Reclus asks how Europeans who committed atrocities when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China came to be “wild beasts with human faces who take pleasure in tying Chinese people together by their clothing and pigtails and then throwing them into a river? How is [it] possible for them to finish off the wounded and force prisoners to dig their own graves before shooting them?” (ibid, 158-9) Reclus replied,
But isn’t there a direct causal relationship between the food eaten by these executioners, who call themselves “civilizers,” and their brutal deeds? They often praise bloody flesh as a source of health, strength, and intelligence. And without disgust they go into butcher shops with slippery reddish pavement and breathe the sickly sweet odor of blood! How much difference is there between the dead carcass of a cow and that of a man? Their severed limbs and entrails mixed in with one another look quite similar. The slaughter of the former facilitates the murder of the latter, especially when an order resounds from a superior, or when one hears from afar the words of his royal master, ‘Show no mercy!’ (ibid, 159)
It is in no way a digression to mention the horrors of war in connection with massacres of cattle and carnivorous banquets. People’s diet corresponds closely to their morality. Blood calls for blood. (ibid, 159)
The murder of non-whites by Europeans rested, according to Reclus, on the same kind of thinking that underlies meat eating culture, such as the notion that it is wrong to kill cats but ok to kill pigs. The morality of white supremacy,
holds that there are two laws for mankind, one law for those with yellow skin and another law that is the prerogative of the whites. Apparently in the future it will be permissible to kill or torture the former, while it will still be wrong to do so to the latter. But isn’t morality equally flexible when applied to animals? By goading dogs on to tear a fox to pieces, the gentlemen learns how to send his marksmen after the fleeing Chinese. The two kinds of hunt are part of one and the same ‘sport,’. (ibid, 159)
To overcome forms of sectarianism such as nationalism or racism humans must come to view one another as part of an international human family. As Reclus writes, “[e]ach individual must be able to address any of his peers in complete brotherhood”. (ibid, 231) Likewise humans should come to consider non-human animals as part of an extended family composed of all living things. We should come to understand that what we are taught to consider “meat on feet” in fact “loves as we do” and “feels as we do”. For the vegetarian,
the real concern is to recognize the bonds of affection and kindness that link man to animals. . . The horse and the cow, the wild rabbit and the cat, the deer and the hare – these are more valuable to us as friends than as meat. We are eager to have them either as respected fellow workers, or simply as companions in the joy of living and loving. (Ibid, 160)
Or as Reclus says elsewhere, vegetarians seek to make other animals “neither our servants nor our machines, but rather our true companions. (ibid, 136) Coming to view other animals as friends rather than food is merely an expansion of what humans already do with their favourite animals. Reclus writes,
just as there are many carnivores today who refuse to eat the flesh of man’s noble companion, the horse, or that of those pampered guests in our homes, the dog and the cat – in the same way it is repugnant to us to drink the blood of the steer, an animal whose labour helps supply us with bread. We no longer want to hear the bleating of sheep, the bellowing of cows, or the grunts and piercing cries of pigs as they are led to the slaughterhouse. (ibid, 161)
The process of coming to treat other animals as friends rests on nourishing, rather than destroying, the natural environment that we share with all other life forms. Reclus writes that we must “develop the part of the earth that falls to us so as to make it as pleasant as possible, not only for ourselves, but also for the animals of our household.” (ibid, 160) As Reclus wrote elsewhere,
To develop the continents, the seas, and the atmosphere that surrounds us; to “cultivate our garden” on earth; to rearrange and regulate the environment in order to promote each individual plant, animal, and human life; to become fully conscious of our human solidarity, forming one body with the planet itself; and to take a sweeping view of our origins, our present, our immediate goal, and our distant ideal – this is what progress means. (ibid, 233)
Kropotkin, Peter. 1993. Fugitive Writings. Edited by George Woodcock. Montréal: Black Rose Books.
Reclus, Elisée. 2013. Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus. Edited by John Clark and Camille Martin. Oakland, CA: PM Press.