This article is republished from an eBook series that has been made freely available.
By Jon Hochschartner
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leader in the Industrial Workers of the World and later Communist Party USA, was a vegetarian for at least a portion of her life. The texts I’ve been able to access suggest her choice was to some degree influenced by animal-welfarist concern.
The inspiration for folksinger Joe Hill’s song “Rebel Girl,” Flynn was a feminist and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, in addition to her roles as a socialist and labor leader. Her activism took her from New York City, where she spent her formative years, to Russia, where she died.
Her dietary change was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle,” which she apparently read as a teenager. “After reading it I forthwith became a vegetarian!” Flynn stated in her memoir. “He wrote this book in 1906 to expose the terrible conditions of the stockyard workers and advocate socialism as a remedy. But the public seized rather upon the horrible descriptions of filth, diseased cattle, floor sweepings and putrid meat packed in sausages and canned food.”
Sinclair was himself a vegetarian, but apparently for health reasons, rather than any sort of concern for animals. “It has always seemed to me that human beings have a right to eat meat, if meat is necessary for their best development, either physical or mental,” Sinclair wrote later. “I have never had any sympathy with that ‘humanitarianism’ which tells us it is our duty to regard pigs and chickens as our brothers.”
This does not seem to have been the case for Flynn. Writing of her visit to the Chicago stockyards in 1907, she said she “couldn’t stand to see the animals killed. The frightened squeals were dreadful. I remained vegetarian. It smelled bad, looked bad, and left a bad taste for days afterward.”
Despite her sympathy, it was clear she believed animal-protectionist concerns should be prioritized below the class struggle. Writing of the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, she said, “The workers of Lowell, a nearby textile town, led a cow garlanded with leaves, to the strikers of Lawrence. I felt sorry for her with her festive appearance and mild eyes. But she had to be slaughtered to feed hungry children. Her head was mounted and hung up in the Franco-Belgian Hall.”
How long she remained vegetarian is unclear. Flynn wrote her memoir at the age of 65 and the tone with which she describes the vegetarianism of her youth sounds patronizing. At the risk of overanalyzing, for instance, the exclamation mark used after declaring her past vegetarianism — “I forthwith became a vegetarian!” — reads to me as if she now thinks her earlier position was absurd or scarcely to be believed at the time of writing.
Her later involvement with Communist Party USA, which was closely tied to the Soviet Union, and of which she eventually became chairwoman, also suggests she might have given up vegetarianism. To what degree,
if any, this is the product of Red-Scare hysteria I’m not sure, but a variety of sources state that vegetarianism was banned in the Soviet Union.
According to the website of the International Vegetarian Union, for instance, “The revolution of 1917 stopped the development of vegetarianism in Russia. The Soviet State authorities considered vegetarianism as a pseudoscientific theory that reflected the bourgeois ideology and therefore harmed to Soviet people. In 1929 the last vegetarian society in Moscow was closed…The leaders of the vegetarian societies were persecuted, many of them arrested and sentenced.” According to the Moscow Times, at one point the Big Soviet Encyclopedia ridiculously stated, “vegetarianism, which is based on false hypotheses and ideas, does not have followers in the Soviet Union.”