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A Socialist and Pioneering Animal Advocate

Henry Stephens Salt was a British vegetarian and socialist whose influence on the animal protection movement perhaps cannot be overstated. According to Bernard Unti, Salt’s “prescient work ‘Animals’ Rights’ (1892) anticipates virtually all of the important modern arguments in favor of animals’ interests.” He influenced prominent 20th-century vegetarians such as Mohandas Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy.

Salt, it should be said, was a Fabian socialist, a type harshly criticized by many revolutionaries of the time as being overly reformist. Using gendered language, the Irish republican and socialist James Connolly, for instance, had this to say regarding the subset: “The Fabian Society recruits itself principally among the astute bourgeoisie, whose aim it is to emasculate the working class movement by denying the philosophy of the class struggle, [and] weakening the belief of the workers in the political self-sufficiency of their own class.”

Salt upheld animals’ right to live, so long as they did not pose a genuine threat to humans, in a way that distinguished him from many of his welfarist contemporaries.
“Even the leading advocates of animals’ rights seem to have shrunk from basing their claim on the only argument which can ultimately be held to be a really sufficient one—the assertion that animals, as well as men, though, of course, to a far less extent than men, are possessed of a distinctive individuality, and, therefore, are in justice entitled to live their lives,” Salt wrote. “It is of little use to claim ‘rights’ for animals in a vague general way, if with the same breath we explicitly show our determination to subordinate those rights to anything and everything that can be construed into a human ‘want.'”
As an agnostic, Salt believed many ideological justifications for animal exploitation could be traced to religious sources. “The first [rationalization] is the so-called ‘religious’ notion, which awards immortality to man, but to man alone, thereby furnishing (especially in Catholic countries) a quibbling justification for acts of cruelty to animals,” Salt wrote.
Like many animal advocates today, Salt believed our diction helps buttress non-human exploitation. “A word of protest is needed also against such an expression as ‘dumb animals,’ which, though often cited as ‘an immense exhortation to pity,’ has in reality a tendency to influence ordinary people in quite the contrary direction, inasmuch as it fosters the idea of an impassable barrier between mankind and their dependents,” Salt wrote. “Even the term ‘animals,’ as applied to the lower races, is incorrect, and not wholly unobjectionable, since it ignores the fact that man is an animal no less than they. My only excuse for using it in this volume is that there is absolutely no other brief term available.”
Salt rejected the notion that there was a dichotomy between struggling for the political benefit of animals and struggling for the political benefit of humans. “It is an entire mistake to suppose that the rights of animals are in any way antagonistic to the rights of men,” He wrote. “Let us not be betrayed for a moment into the specious fallacy that we must study human rights first, and leave the animal question to solve itself hereafter; for it is only by a wide and disinterested study of both subjects that a solution of either is possible.”
Salt’s conception of animal rights was progressive enough that he even believed the keeping of companion animals would be rejected in the future. “The injustice done to the pampered lap-dog is as conspicuous, in its way, as that done to the over-worked horse, and both spring from one and the same origin—the fixed belief that the life of a ‘brute’ has no ‘moral purpose,’ no distinctive personality worthy of due consideration and development,” Salt wrote. “In a society where the lower animals were regarded as intelligent beings, and not as animated machines, it would be impossible for this incongruous absurdity to continue.”
Finally, as a socialist, Salt believed the exploitation of animals would continue so long as capitalism existed. “In the rush and hurry of a competitive society,” Salt wrote, “where commercial profit is avowed to be the main object of work, and where the well-being of men and women is ruthlessly sacrificed to that object, what likelihood is there that the lower animals will not be used with a sole regard to the same predominant purpose?”

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

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