In terms of the history of the vegan social movement, both of these views of veganism are wrong. So, how have these misconceptions about veganism come about?
My thoughts are that (1), the current definition(s) of veganism are weak and lack the depth required to capture what the pioneers of the vegan movement meant by veganism, (2), the movement has been (understandably) involved with making veganism “mainstream” in the last 30 years but with negative consequences, and (3), we often don’t teach, and don’t seem to care about, our own movement’s history.
In relation to the last point in particular, we must be a rare social movement that seems to think that we “can make it up as we go along.” However, we’ve also done that same thing in relation to the meaning of animal rights, so we do have a track record of sloppiness and of business-interests-over-principles.
- […] a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.
When people in the movement talk about veganism, they usually cite this 1979 Vegan Society definition (some say that this wording was pretty much in place by 1988), and others, fewer in number, are content to use the awful definitions of veganism one finds in standard dictionaries.
The (first and British) Vegan Society does not have a very good record when it comes to sorting out a good definition of veganism. Its 1979 definition is weak and it does not anywhere near grasp the “full meaning” of veganism.
On a personal note, people like myself who can be called long-time vegans have been at fault here. We let things slide – big time. 1979 was the year I became a vegan. However, I did not join The Vegan Society (TVS) or really see it has having much to do with my movement for animal liberation. I think in those days, I saw TVS as pretty irrelevant to the direct action parts of the movement which I was immediately involved in. Indeed, in the early 1980s, when the numbers of activists going to prison rose, we rather crossed swords with TVS.
Back in those days people had to be a member of the Society in order to get a diet in prison that vegans eat. One literally had to show senior officers your red TVS membership card. We asked TVS if they were prepared to send a membership card out to new prisoners immediately upon their need for one, and we’d sort out actual paid membership later. The last thing animal liberationists needed on their plate (no pun intended) was a fight with prison authorities to get a vegan’s diet.
TVS refused, so we resolved the problem by forging their membership cards. The result was that activists had no need to officially join the organisation. TVS updated their definition in 1979 – the one virtually everyone uses now – and I don’t think there was much of a discussion about it, at least not in my circles.
As I said, from the 1940s, when TVS was formed, getting the definition sorted out didn’t seem to be the most pressing issue – it’s quite likely that just remaining viable as a group of revolutionary mavericks (for that is what they were) was the priority in the early years. A lot of the initial burden of administration and writing fell on the shoulders of Donald Watson, who also was forced to make an early priority of vegan health issues because some of the first members of the Society got sick and virtually everyone told all of them that living, let alone thriving, without consuming animal products was impossible.
It seems that in the very late 1940s and early 1950s, Leslie Cross was among the first to point out the need to clarify just what being vegan meant. A couple of years ago, a video was circulated from some health vegan who claimed that Cross was some sort of “animal rights extremist” who corrupted TVS and forced it in a new radicalised direction. I do not think the evidence suggests that. Indeed, even Donald Watson, the most famous of TVS co-founders, described veganism as “the greatest cause on earth.” He talked about other movements as “lesser movements.”
That may sound rather arrogant but I think he meant that the vegan movement had a wider remit than most others – and the consequences of bringing about a vegan world would have huge benefits to other animals, of course, but also to human beings, and the environment (then called ecological concerns).
The early vegan movement pioneers were also very practical – they had to be. The movement began during “World War Two,” and food and other forms of rationing (clothes, fuel, etc.) did not end until the mid-1950s with some arguing that the effects of war rationing were felt until the 1970s and 80s. The early vegans were, not surprisingly, part of the grow-your-own veg movement and some of the early movement pioneers, such as Eva Batt, were concerned about soil quality.
The ethos and vision of the vegan movement was summed up in 1995 by Kath Clements in Why Vegan: the Ethics of Eating and the Need for Change
- Veganism is about having a consistent approach to human rights and animal rights, ecology and world food problems.
This is an echo of what Eva Batt wrote in 1964 in a booklet called Why Veganism?
- Veganism is one thing and one thing only – a way of living which avoids exploitation, whether it be of our fellow [human beings], the animal population, or the soil upon which we rely for our very existence.
There are only hints in the 1979 definition of veganism by TVS that give any indication of veganism’s impressive scope and objective expressed by Clements and Batt.
Neither is there much in the 88/79 definition that captures the radicalism of the vegan social movement in the late 40s and early 50s.
For example, in 1951, TVS were clarifying what it means by the term “exploitation,” saying that the Society seeks “to end the use of animals by [humans] for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by [humanity].”
- By the adoption of this rule, the Society has clearly come out on the side of the liberators; it is not so much welfare that we seek, as freedom. Our aim is not to make the present relationship between [humans and other animals]…more tolerable, but to abolish it and replace it by something more worthy.
This sort of rhetoric (not regulation of animal treatment but the abolition of animal use) was to resurface in the rights-based writing of Tom Regan who wrote The Case for Animal Rights in 1983. However, this radicalism rarely featured in The Vegan Society’s claims-making of the 1980s.
In 1951, Leslie Cross also talked about “the second broad aspect of the vegan aim” which included, reminding us of Watson’s “greatest cause” claim, the expected “effect upon human evolution.”
Remembering that these vegan movement pioneers had experienced a huge war that had ended only six years previously, it is not surprising that they believed that human violence – including that against other animals – would “return like a boomerang upon humanity's own head.” Thus, Cross argued that, “Until the present relationship between [humans and other animals] is replaced by one of companionship on a relatively equal footing, the pursuit of happiness by [humanity] is foredoomed to a painful and tragic frustration.”
In 1954, Cross again outlined that veganism means liberation for both humans and other animals. He said that a vegan future would have no butchers’ shops, no vivisection labs, no hunting, and people would be drinking vegan milk. Still part of 21st century vegan claims-making, Cross said that, “The countryside will not be heavy with the anguish of cows crying for their calves.”
As ever, though, benefits to humanity were also outlined: “But some of the changes are not so obvious. The benefits to [humanity] of living in a kindlier and more enlightened world can be envisaged only in broadest outline.”
Moreover, in direct agreement with Watson that veganism is the greatest cause on earth, Cross writes in a 1954 edition of The Vegan, that
- Veganism is the most recent of the periodic surges which have marked the tide of freedom ever since history began. It is distinguished from its predecessors by virtue of the fact that it brings a quite new and distinctive feature into the long fight for liberty; it has driven the tide of freedom beyond what has hitherto been held to be its natural boundary — the concept of [a free humanity].
The “distinctive feature” being spoken of is, of course, that the principles of justice in veganism vaults over the species barrier and declares other animals as rights holders along with human animals. And Cross did write in terms of rights
- Until the advent of veganism, comparatively few [people] regarded the animals as being either worthy of or entitled to the right to be free, and probably fewer still realised the impressive effect which the granting of such a right would have upon the freedom of [humanity itself].
These are the values of vegans – the recognition that the fate of humanity and other animals are bound together on a fragile planet under attack from within. The vegan movement pioneers knew all too well about being attacked by an outside enemy – but their revolutionary thought looked at injustice at home and abroad. Have we lost the radicalism of our movement’s past?
As noted in this blog entry, via the work of pattrice jones, when we say “the mainstream” we are not saying “the majority of humans.” The word sounds like we are saying that, but we’re not. The majority of humanity is made up of marginalised persons of various types.
Leenaert openly characterises his approach as being about “mainstreamness,” and I think we can all see the attraction of veganism “being mainstream.” However, I’m not sure that this notion has been analysed much, certainly not critically. Veganism becoming “mainsteam,” may simply mean that the idea of veganism is better known, more widespread, and more accepted than it has been in the past.
I think that is true. In my time as a vegan, I’ve seen people finally being about to pronounce the word “vegan” and not think it’s something to do with Star Trek. The huge increase in vegan and vegan-friendly eateries, and vegan’s food and clothing being more easily obtainable in stores, makes veganism more “mainstream.” Some people prefer the term “normalisation,” but I think the meaning is generally the same.
I think the difficulty – the mistake – even the betrayal – of vegan values is when vegan organisations try to align with conventional values thought to reflect what’s called, of course, “mainstream values.”
When radical social movement go for “mainstreamness” in this sense, then they may face a very real danger of losing their core, foundational, values. This process, which is predicted in some social movement theorising, is the process I see happening in the vegan movement.
I hope that the first section has sufficiently demonstrated that the origins of the vegan social movement can be described as pro-intersectional in nature, even with the important caveats that the term had not then been coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and the story of the origins of the vegan movement discussed here (revolving as it does around the British Vegan Society) is a very white story.
This initial pro-intersectional impulse was carried through into the 1970s and 1980s as I recall them. I often say that we would be busy sabotaging a hunt on a Saturday, maybe a “Club Row” demo, or something similar – and perhaps less legal – on a Sunday, and then we’d find ourselves engaged in Reclaim the Night and Rock Against Racism events in the week.
That was my sense of the recognition of what David Nibert calls the “entanglements of oppression and liberation” in what we “just did” in the 1980s. A lot of us were influenced by punk music too (not so much me, in all honesty, stuck in Bolan mainstreamness!), so this pro-intersectional orientation was fired up in the mid-1970s.
In campaigning terms, we were at the crest of a wave and we were fighting everything: apartheid, patriarchy, speciesism, racism, hierarchy, injustice, and so on. In terms of values, Steve Best is right (in his 2013 Total Liberation talk) that, whatever our politics as individuals, we are expressing left wing values.
Then there was a change, the start of the slide, and we didn’t take much notice, and barely any action against it. The national animal movement became dominated by a group of animal welfare corporations – and huge blame for the mess we are in can be laid at the doors of one organisation: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA). In my eyes, this transnational abomination has done terrible damage to the animal movement.
Why – and this is a question raised by the Francione countermovement – did we, from the 1990s onwards, just stand there and passively let PeTA get away with its blatant sexist bullshit? After that was seen to be largely accepted by a complacent movement and a cap-in-hand grassroots, then came the ableism, fat shaming, racism, and ground scraping to shallow celebrity culture. PeTA had moved from a radical innovation to a corporate monster dripping in aggressively marketed mainstream patriarchal capitalist values.
One of their greatest crimes was their role – that continues to this day – in the marginalisation of rights-based animal rights thinking in favour of animal welfarism that is nevertheless called “animal rights.” The corporate movement – and the submissive, docile, grassroots – destroyed Animal Rights as an idea, and as the proper articulation of the position of the “animal rights movement.” The way that this movement treated Tom Regan is nothing less than disgusting and shameful. It will take a lot of work to remove that stain from the animal advocacy movement.
The effect, then, of mainstreamness on a once radical movement, is the moderation of the organisations within it, and the marginalisation of any revolutionary values that, although were the initial drivers of the cause, are now seen as “not sellable,” “too extreme,” “too radical,” “purist” and, in a nutshell, “too consistent” for mainstream consumption.
In the meantime, again as Best argues, the movement becomes a laughing stock among progressive movements that should, at the very least, be locked in an alliance for justice with the vegan animal rights movement. By pandering to mainstream values, and doing everything to bend over backwards to meet the conventions of a mass media, we have alienated those who hold the values we hold – or which we once held.
Things are now so bad and so dangerous that, as Christopher Sebastian said in a recent Livegan podcast, there are prominent (and seemingly popular) white supremacists and Nazis currently in the “vegan” movement, not to mention the recent #TimesUpAR revelations about male entitlement, harassment, and violence in a movement made up mainly of females (see this ARZone podcast with Carol J. Adams for an account of that scandalous situation that should have never arisen).
HISTORY OF THE MOVEMENT
By their very nature, social movement move. They evolve and, indeed, move with the times – to not do so would be devastating for them. However, social movements are also grounded in a set of claims and principles, some of which should not bend and should not be diluted or else its original vision may be crushed and lost.
It is clear that I put a lot of emphasis on the values and vision of the founding pioneers of our movement – but I’ve also said that their words are not law, and cannot be thought of in such terms. However, any attempt to alter the principles and values of the vegan movement should – as a bare requirement and also an act of basic manners – acknowledge the principles and values that are under examination.
I don’t see a lot of that in the vegan movement. Indeed, some relative “newbies” have told me, “f*ck the founders,” when I point out what they stood for. That is both ridiculous and juvenile, as if people join a Marxist movement and the first thing they say is, “f*ck Marx!” Actually, some neo-Marxists got close to that after years of reflection, but they were always capable of describing what they thought should be changed and what it was that they were changing.
The new generation of vegans don’t do that – they simply declare what veganism is – it’s “about food,” it’s “only about the [other] animals,” with no acknowledgement that such declarations are totally out of step with the very founders of the vegan social movement in the 1940s – how can anyway be so conceited as to not care about the values of a movement they have just joined?
I argued, here, that the history of the vegan movement reveals that it has an interconnected focus and scope. There appears to be a number of people in the present vegan movement who seem petrified of pro-intersectionality. These people seem not to understand what intersectionality is, or exaggerate what it would do to the animal movement if widely adopted within it. However, by looking at the vegan movement in terms of its focus and scope, that should allay their fears that pro-intersectionality takes away from a concentration on “animal issues.” That is not what pro-intersectionality within the vegan movement would do.
Some may think it rather overblown to say that the vegan movement is in crisis – aren’t we seeing a massive growth in veganism just now? I think the answer to that is yes and no. We are seeing a growth in something that often gets called veganism – but a vegan movement “only about food,” or “only about [other] animals” is not the vegan movement.
There is also the problem that Tom Regan was keen to point out – that it seems to be the case that, yes a lot of people join the animal movement, but a lot leave as well. Some estimate that as many as 80% leave. We should be bothered by that.
I just wonder whether, if people join the vegan movement with a full understanding of its revolutionary reach and ramifications, they may stay – but who are most likely to stay in such a radical movement. People who are radicals – right!
Finally, to remind people what we are all about, again from Tom Regan, this time in a rights-based animal rights context from 1983, remember: “The animal rights movement is a part of, and not opposed to, the human rights movement.”