Socialism and Vegetarianism

The Call of the Wildflower

One important aspect of Labour politics has been members of upper class who ceased to believe in what they were doing. Henry Salt[1] was someone whose humane feelings started with animals, and later extended to the poor. He became guilty when it first dawned on him ·that the meat he ate came from killing animals. Later, he also realised that he was in part living on an unearned income that came from other people’s work.

(That is to say, it was an income that someone else had earned and not received.)

Salt’s arguments for vegetarianism convinced many people including Mahatma Gandhi, who was already a vegetarian by custom and habit, but unsure of its justification.

One of his books – The Call of the Wildflower – caught my attention by its contrast with Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.  Salt and London represent different aspects of socialism. Salt lived from 1851 to 1939, neatly bracketing the rather shorter life of Jack London . I don’t know if they knew of each other – if they did, there would probably have been mutual disapproval. Yet both represented necessary aspects of the socialist cause.

Much of Salt’s work was for animal rights. He assumed that the “Rights of Beasts” meant that both meat-eating and animal experiments should be forbidden. I do not accept this – human beings are after all omnivores. We were hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years before we developed agriculture, and to deny meat-eating is to cut off part of our basic nature. Yet I can see that Salt has a serious point. Ignoring the right of animals can very easily lead on to ignoring the rights of other humans. (Though it should never be forgotten that Hitler was a strict vegetarian.)

On a wider view, Salt stood for ethical socialism. As an ex-Leninist, and someone who was expecting the ignominious collapse of East European non-ethical socialism for years before it actually happened, I can see that a sense of ethics is something that the socialist movement needs to recover. Ethical behaviour usually does pay off in the long run. Ruthlessness may be needed in emergencies; it is very unwise to make it a matter of routine. The way ahead lies somewhere between the Call of the Wild and the Call of the Wildflower.


This article appeared in January 1990, in Issue 15 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at

[1] The Savour of Salt. A Henry Salt Anthology, edited by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick. Centaur Press 204 pp. £12.95.