A Masterful History of Victorian Anti-Speciesism

I recently finished Chien-hui Li’s Mobilizing Traditions in the First Wave of the British Animal Defense Movement. The book is a masterful history of Victorian anti-speciesism, which highlights the various sources of inspiration for campaigners of that era. These included, but were not limited to, Christianity, socialism, natural history, Darwinism, and literature.

When granted a great honor, people frequently describe the experience as humbling. I never quite understood this. Surely the experience is one in which they feel a certain degree of pride. As someone who’s written a number of animal-rights histories, reading Chien-hui Li’s work was humbling in the true sense of the word.

While my books are slightly different — in that they involve original interviews, and Li’s subjects are long dead — they are similar enough in their aims that comparison is hard to avoid. Mobilizing Traditions in the First Wave of the British Animal Defense Movement is so much better than anything I’ve produced, it’s almost enough for me to give up the dilettantism altogether.

My only consolation is Li’s book appears to have been a long time in the making. The writer claims to have been working on the text since the 1990s, when it began as a PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge. But as consolation goes, that’s pretty thin gruel. Anyway, enough about my work!

Perhaps the section of this superior history that impacted me the most was the chapter on Christianity. As Li points out, the modern animal-rights movement is overwhelmingly secular and frequently hostile to organized religion. In contrast, many campaigners in the Victorian era used Christianity as an ethical foundation from which to criticize animal exploitation.

Of course, there were many downsides to this, as Li shows. However, I can’t help but think contemporary activists hobble themselves by not positioning their cause as a extension of religious faith. Twenty-first century America is not nearly as Christian as 19th-century Britain. But it’s still very Christian, like it or not!

This isn’t to suggest activists should cynically adopt religious language they don’t believe in. Rather campaigners of faith might consider being more vocal about their beliefs and how it informs their activism. I’m an atheist on dogmatic days and closer to a Unitarian-Universalist when feeling open-minded. So this isn’t a project I can contribute much to. However, I suspect other campaigners can.

Whenever I read a history of the animal movement, I come away with a mental list of books, people, and events I want to learn more about. Reading Li’s book was no different. Above all else, I wanted to find a copy of J. Howard Moore’s The Universal Kinship, which Li devotes a number of pages to.

My interest piqued, I did a little Google searching and found Eugene Debs was a big fan of the pro-animal text. It was surprising. Sure, in his famous statement to the court, after being convicted of violating the Sedition Act, the socialist recognized his “kinship with all living beings.” But what did that mean, exactly? I’d love to know more.

Wrapping things up, I should reiterate what a phenomenal book Li has written. Quite simply, it’s one of the best histories of the animal movement I’ve encountered. The only criticism I can muster has nothing to do with the text itself. The book is absurdly expensive. I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not received a review copy. I fear many others will miss out.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.