The Vegetarianism of Eugene V. Debs

A few years back, I wrote an article for CounterPunch about a 1906 book called The Universal Kinship by John Howard Moore. It’s an animal-rights text which is, unfortunately, marred by pseudo-scientific racism that seems to have been popular even amongst progressives at the time. For instance, the book was endorsed by Mark Twain, Jack London, Henry Salt and Eugene Debs.

I was particularly interested in Debs’ praise. “It is impossible for me to express my appreciation of your masterly work,” the labor leader was quoted as saying in advertisements for the text. “It is simply great, and every socialist and student of sociology should read it. I have carried it in my grip over the past few thousand miles and its essence is in my heart.”

In the mid 2010s, I edited a group blog called Species and Class, which sought to make connections between animal liberation and socialism. I frequently wrote about historical leftists who practiced vegetarianism or were sympathetic to nonhumans’ plight. I was unaware of anything to suggest the pioneer of American socialism fell into this category.

I ended my last article on The Universal Kinship unsure about Deb’s species politics. I’m still unsure about this, but I’ve found a few more pieces of evidence I’d like to highlight for those interested. My guess is the labor leader had compassionate beliefs about animal treatment he didn’t always put into practice or prioritize, which is the case for most people.

One thing I noted before is Debs recognized his connectedness with all living beings in a famous statement to the court after his conviction for violating the Sedition Act. But I didn’t make clear the socialist actually used the term ‘kinship’ to describe this connectedness, which, is of course, the same one Moore used. Obviously, this could be a coincidence.

Since writing that first article, I found a review of The Universal Kinship which Debs wrote for The Chicago Socialist. The article used Moore’s work as an opportunity to meditate on the relationship between humans and mules. Debs’ choice of species is perhaps unsurprising, given the similarity of their exploitation to that of proletarians.

The labor leader wrote: “Today, as I saw a brutal human lash a starved and worn-out mule, I said to myself, if that mule were not as far above that man in heart and soul, in sense and conscience, as popular human ignorance supposes him to be below him, he would have but murder in his heart and hooves, and kick his brutal tormenter into kingdom come.”

What actually rekindled my interest in Debs’ species politics, though, was learning the socialist became a vegetarian near the end of his life. According to Ernest Freeberg, in Democracy’s Prisoner, Debs was prescribed a meatless diet while staying at a Seventh-Day Adventist sanitarium, in August of 1917.

Given Freeberg says Debs was fishing just prior to this, one would assume the socialist’s vegetarianism wasn’t motivated by ethical concern. Still, I wonder. The Seventh-Day Adventists are fairly well known for their vegetarianism. Why did Debs choose this sanitarium in particular?

Freeberg describes Debs as coming from out of town and fighting for his place there: “At first the spa’s managers balked at the prospect of providing safe haven to one of America’s most notorious infidels, and when Debs arrived he was told there were no vacancies. After an emergency meeting, the sanitarium directors relented.”

Approximately a year later, the socialist made the aforementioned statement to the court, declaring his ‘kinship with all living beings.’ Was he still vegetarian? In the back of his mind, was he thinking of Moore’s book, The Universal Kinship? I’d love to hear from those with greater knowledge of Debs’ life whether this is at all plausible.

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. He blogs at