Pankhurst practiced prefigurative vegetarianism

This article is republished from an eBook series that has been made freely available.

By Jon Hochschartner

Sylvia Pankhurst, a socialist, Ethiopian nationalist and a feminist, practiced prefigurative vegetarianism for some time, apparently out of concern for non-human animals.

According to John P. Gerber, Pankhurst’s “Socialist Workers’ Federation and their publication,’Workers’ Dreadnought,'” was in Britain a “major theoretical center of left communism.” Pankhurst’s contacts included a veritable who’s who of the European left. “She was in close touch with leading revolutionaries in Russia (Alexandra Kollantai), Germany (Clara Zetkin), Holland (Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek, Henrietta Roland Horst), Italy (Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga) and even Hungary (Bela Kun),” according to Barbara Winslow. Vladimir Lenin criticized her directly in his 1920 book ‘Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder” for her opposition to electoral reformism in Britain.

Interestingly, Pankhurst’s mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette leader, was also vegetarian for a time, according to ‘Current Literature, Volume 45’ a publication edited by Edward Jewitt Wheeler. The same source states Pankhurst’s mother was an admirer of the anti-speciesist anarchist Louise Michel, although she did not accept “the erratic woman’s political theories.”

In 1907, Pankhurst, by all indications, ate non-human flesh. Recalling her time in prison early that year for her own feminist activism, she described the difficulties of vegetarians, but did not seem to count herself among this group. “When we had originally been put in the first class, Mrs. Cobden Sanderson, who was a vegetarian, was daily served the usual prison diet, and though she was obliged to leave the meat, no extra vegetables were allowed her, and she was obliged to live on her potatoes and bread,” Pankhurst said. “Now a special dietary had been introduced for vegetarians, which consisted at this season of an alternation of carrots and onions, with occasional rather stale eggs as a substitute for meat, and milk, night and morning, instead of cocoa and tea.”

Decades later, Pankhurst was practicing prefigurative vegetarianism, for how long I’m unsure. But she gave it up following the outbreak of the Second World War. “Another change in the household resulted from the fact its mistress had been until then, on general humanitarian grounds, a vegetarian,” according to her son, Richard Pankhurst. “But with the introduction of rationing — a system which she had advocated in the a First World War and greatly praised on account of its fairness —she felt it ‘more practical’ to turn to meat-eating like the population at large.”

As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t think individual dietary choices are particularly important to the animal struggle. But I wonder what this abandonment of vegetarianism meant for Pankhurst. Was she giving up what she saw merely as a symbolic gesture toward non-human solidarity? Or did her return to flesh-eating represent the low priority she placed on animal lives and suffering?

In later life, according to Winslow, “Pankhurst never made any attempt to rejoin or work with her former comrades in the Communist Party. Shocked and horrified by [Joseph] Stalin, she denounced the 1936 Moscow Trials as a brutal farce. Having known and admired [Nikolai] Bukharin in particular, she knew he had been framed by Stalin.” Still, according to Winslow, Pankhurst considered herself a socialist for the remainder of her life. She would die of heart failure in late 1960 at the aged of 78.



8 replies »

  1. Could you steer me to an elaboration of your statement: “As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t think individual dietary choices are particularly important to the animal struggle.”

    I searched a bit but unsuccessfully.

    Thanks ahead of time.

  2. If I understand correctly you’re saying an animal harmer can advocate for a society and/or world wherein no animals are harmed. That’s obviously true…but…what happens when the transformation occurs? At that point the animal harmer has to change behaviors…right? In the meantime…is damage being done to the harmer by their destructive behavior (not to mention their victims)?

    Let’s restate…Can a rapist of children and women advocate for a rape-free society/world? Of course…and they could continue doing so (raping) right up to the time of change…at that point they would have to stop. But…does that do their previous victims any good, does their advocacy reduce their culpability for their personal contributions to harming others?

    It seems to me there is more complexity involved than just a question of whether someone can protest and object to a behavior while engaging in that behavior.

  3. Yes, I guess it depends what analogy you think fits best. That’s one of the questions I was sort of asking myself in that first article I linked to. If we are going with the comparison of slave produced goods, which I did in the second article, we should be aware that most abolitionists didn’t engage in a boycott. But again, it’s a really complicated question and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. My instinct though is to make our movement as inclusive as possible and focus on societal change (ie. changing laws) not individual change (changing my neighbor’s diet).

  4. The problem is there are victims involved.

    I agree that focus on the societal change is what’s important. And if you want to leave the neighbor alone while you do that…well ok.

    But…there’s an inherent hypocrisy in advocating against something that you continue to voluntarily participate in that is relatively easy to avoid (living vegan is a change but not a drastic one). Don’t do as I do…do as I say is a shakier (and more assailable) position than no one should do this and therefore I don’t. At least to my way of thinking.

    Advocating against stomping 3 year old children, while stomping a 3 year old, and saying you’re going to keep on stomping them until everyone quits just seems sort of screwy to me. Whether you bother the neighbor or not. 🙂

  5. I don’t really want to get in a long argument, but again, I’d just say it really hinges on what you see as the closest parallel. If we were to move meat eating into the context of the abolitionist movement, would it be closer to owning slaves or using slave produced goods? Because again, most abolitionists used slave produced goods. I think I have a fair idea of how you see it. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure I have a firm, unmovable position on the issue. I just know the focus on individual choices seems unhelpful to me. 🙂

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