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11 January 2021

Why George Orwell would be more sympathetic to vegetarianism today

The writer may have regarded vegetarians as sanctimonious but he was repelled by cruelty to animals.

By Freddie Hayward

In Jonathan Cape’s rejection letter for Animal Farm, he wrote that “it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs”. TS Eliot was equally concerned about the leading species on the farm and thought they needed to be “more public-spirited”.

George Orwell later revealed in the preface to the Ukrainian edition that, for him, the animals were more than just necessary scaffolding for a fable. Describing how he arrived at the details of the story, he wrote: “One day… I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge cart horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.”

Orwell was a committed socialist and wrote extensively about the lives of the working class. He also writes knowledgeably and sympathetically about the suffering of the animals on the farm: “The bits, the nose-rings, the dog-chains, the cruel knives with which Mr Jones had been used to castrate the pigs and lambs.” His elicitation of sympathy for the animals is not merely to allegorise the working class. He was acutely aware of animals’ capacity to suffer. In one 1936 essay recounting his experience as a colonial policeman, Orwell describes his attempt to impress a crowd of local people by shooting a rogue elephant. The animal’s suffering and his responsibility for it unnerved Orwell. “It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him,” he wrote. “He was dying, very slowly and in great agony.”

Orwell was not sentimental or idealistic about animals nor squeamish about killing them, but he understood that they could suffer and that it was wrong to treat them cruelly. He often used “animal” as a pejorative, but he also referred to humans as animals. In his essay Such, Such Were the Joys, he reminisces that most of the good memories of his childhood were in some way connected with animals. 

[See also: Jason Cowley’s introduction to the new edition of Animal Farm

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Yet, Orwell disparaged vegetarians. He referred to “fruit-juice drinkers” and “vegetarians with wilting beards”, grouping them in with “Marxists chewing polysyllables… and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers”. For him, they were idealists out of touch with the working class whose eccentric pursuits were alienating people from socialism. 

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He also sensed a misanthropy in the vegetarian. For him, the self-inflicted social isolation entailed by an abnormal diet must imply an antisocial nature. “The food-crank is by definition,” he wrote, “a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.”  In a review of The Way of a Countryman by William Beach Thomas, he worried that those obsessed with the preservation of nature become anti-human – fantasising about the countryside returning to its natural state. 

Perhaps the author of Animal Farm would be more sympathetic to vegetarianism today. Orwell opposed totalitarianism, authoritarianism and any attempt to control what goes on in people’s heads. But he was equally repelled by cruelty and sadism. His experience as an imperial policeman and his time in the public school system heightened his sensitivity to people’s capacity to inflict pain for its own sake. He viewed cruelty as a base tendency that had to be kept at bay.  

This, ultimately, is more central to the vegetarian ethic than a saccharine romanticisation of animals. While he was not opposed to traditional agriculture (he himself reared pigs on the isle of Jura), he saw the whipping of a horse by a child as an exploitative relationship. If faced with the horrors of modern-day factory farming, it seems likely he would find it repugnant. 

[See also: The enduring relevance of George Orwell’s 1984]

Vegetarianism (and veganism, though the concept was not widespread in Orwell’s day) has changed. In the past, the motivation often revolved around issues of naturalness and health. They do still today, but for many the fundamental reason for abstaining from animal products is the horrific conditions required to extract them. The rise of factory farming has brought new levels of pain and suffering for animals. 

The question remains why, then, Orwell was so irritated by vegetarians. Percy Bysshe Shelley was one vegetarian very much concerned with “adding five years on to the life of his carcase”. Shelley harkened back to a time when we were aligned with our nature and abstained from meat. Presciently, he wrote about the inefficiencies of pastoral farming and the health benefits of a “natural” diet. (However, forgetting that alcohol’s provenance lies in the grape and the grain, Shelley saw drink in the same light as meat. Notably, “teetotaller” often falls alongside “vegetarian” in Orwell’s rants.)

Much of Orwell’s animosity is contained in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier, which among other things attempted to answer the question of why socialism, or the left, was not more successful. Reading it today, it’s easy to forget it was written in the 1930s. “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits,” he wrote in a prophetic note for the Instagram age, but “the ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots”.

His comments focus on the people rather than the ideology, on the vegetarian not on vegetarianism – those in a “perpetual quiver of indignation” whose views “change into their opposites at the first brush of reality”. He recognised the exploitation of animals, but he despised the hypocrisy of the sanctimonious and pious left and that, for him, extended to vegetarians.

During the last year of his life, Orwell wrote in an essay on Gandhi:

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection… that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible… No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.”

[See also: “For what am I fighting?” George Orwell on Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon]