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The Vegetarian Communard

by JON HOCHSCHARTNER

Elisee Reclus, the French anarchist and geographer, was a proselytizing vegetarian who held progressive views of other animals. Serving as a militia member, he was an active participant in the Paris Commune of 1871, a working-class uprising that Karl Marx dubbed “the glorious harbinger of a new society.” After his capture by government forces, Reclus was initially to be deported to New Caledonia, an archipelago off the coast of Australia. But due to the intervention of his supporters, which according to some sources included Charles Darwin, Reclus’ sentence was reduced to banishment, which allowed him to live in Switzerland.

Reclus was sensitive to violence against animals as a young child. “One of the family had sent me, plate in hand, to the village butcher, with the injunction to bring back some gory fragment or other,” Reclus wrote, recalling an example. “I still remember this gloomy yard where terrifying men went to and fro with great knives, which they wiped on blood-besprinkled smocks. Hanging from a porch an enormous carcass seemed to me to occupy an extraordinary amount of space; from its white flesh a reddish liquid was trickling into the gutters.” Overwhelmed by the sight of the slaughterhouse, Reclus apparently fainted.

Reclus wrote perceptively about the process which allows humans to commit such violence, a process we might call speciesist socialization. A child’s horrified reactions to the exploitation of animals “wear off in time; they yield before the baneful influence of daily education,” Reclus stated. “Parents, teachers, official or friendly, doctors, not to speak of the powerful individual whom we call ‘everybody,’ all work together to harden the character of the child with respect to this ‘four-footed food,’ which nevertheless, loves as we do, (and) feels as we do.”

Perhaps anticipating the work of writers such as Joan Dunayer, Reclus recognized the role language plays in denying or rationalizing animal exploitation. “The animals sacrificed to man’s appetite have been systematically and methodically made hideous, shapeless, and debased in intelligence and moral worth,” Reclus wrote. “The name even of the animal into which the boar has been transformed is used as the grossest of insults; the mass of flesh we see wallowing in noisome pools is so loathsome to look at that we agree to avoid all similarity of name between the beast and the dishes we make out of it.”

And of course Reclus believed there was a connection between violence against animals and violence against humans. “Is there then so much difference between the dead body of a bullock and that of a man?” Reclus asked. “The dissevered limbs, the entrails mingling one with the other, are very much alike: the slaughter of the first makes easy the murder of the second, especially when a leader’s order rings out, or from afar comes the word of the crowned master, ‘Be pitiless.'”

Reclus died in 1905 at the age of 75. “It is reported that his last days were made particularly happy by news of the popular revolution in Russia,” according to Camille Martin and John P. Clark. “He expired shortly after hearing of the revolt of the sailors on the battleship Potemkin.”

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website at JonHochschartner.com.

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