August Bebel 1879

Free Development of the Individual

2. Revolution in Food

First Published: Die Frau un der Sozialialismus, Berlin, 1946, S. 463-624;
Source: Society of the Future, Progress Publishers, 1971;
Translated: from the German by Don Danemanis;
Transcribed and HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

To live man needs first and foremost food and drink. Friends of the so-called "natural way of life" often ask why Social-Democrats are indifferent to vegetarianism. Well, everybody lives as he pleases. Vegetarianism, a doctrine that prescribes an exclusively vegetable diet, spread first in circles who were in the pleasant position of being able to choose between a vegetable and a meat diet. The large majority of humanity does not have this choice, it has to live in accordance with its means, the meagerness of which keeps it mainly on a vegetable diet, often on one containing very little nourishinent at that. For our working-class population in Silesia, Saxony, Thuringia, etc., the potato, is the main souice of nourishment, even bread occupies only second place; meat, and then only of the poorest quality, is hardly ever seen on the table. The vast majority of the rural population, even though it breeds livestock, rarely eats meat for it has to sell the animals in order to satisfy its other wants with the proceeds received from sales.

For the innumerable people who are compelled to live as vegetarians an occasional solid beefsteak or a good leg of mutton would definitely enhance their diet. When vegetarians object to the overrating of the nutritive value of meat they are right, but they are wrong when, mainly for sentmental reasons, they oppose its use as pernicious and fatal, for example, because it is against man's nature to kill animals and partake of a "corpse". The wish to live comfortably and undisturbed compels us to declare war upon and exterminate a large number of living beings in the shape of all manner of vermin, and so as not to he eaten up ourselves we have to kill and destroy wild animals. Letting the "faithful friends of man"--domestic aniinals--live unhindered would multiply the number of these "faithful friends" in several decades to such an extent that they would "devour" us by robbing us of food. The claim that vegetable food fosters mildness of temperament is also erroneous. The "beast" was awakened in the mild, vegetarian Hindu when the cruelty of the English drove him to mutiny.

The nutritive value of a food must not be judged by its protein content alone. The proportion of the protein consumed with the relevant foodstuff that remains undigested must also be taken into account. From this viewpoint meat, rice and potatoes are in the proportion of 2.5, 20 and 22, that is, of 100 grammes of albumen contained in meat, 2.5 reappear in excrement, of 100 grammes contained in rice and potatoes, 20 and 22 grammes respectively. The celebrated Russian physiologist Pavlov and his school have shown that many more enzymes are secreted to digest bread than are to digest meat. Pavlov further proved that the digestive juices secreted by the stomach consist quantitatively of two amounts: the gastric juice is secreted partly through the stimulation of the stomach's mucous membrane by the given food and partly as "appetite" juice through the stimulation of the sense organs by the food. The amount of "appetite" juice depends on our psychic condition, such as hunger, worry, anger, joy, etc., and on the nature of the relevant food.

However, the importance of "appetite" juice for the digestion varies for different foods. Some foods, for example, bread, boiled egg-white or pure starch, cannot, as has been proved through experiments, be digested at all if their digestion is not initiated by the secretion of "appetite" juice: they can be digested only if the appetite is stimulated, or if they are taken together with other food. On the other hand, meat, as Pavlov has demonstrated, can be digested in part even without "appetite" juice, although that juice does accelerate digestion greatly (five times). "We must, therefore, take into account circumstances connected with man's psyche. Here is the bridge between the findings of nutrition physiology and social conditions. The modern town-dweller, notably the mass of the working-class, lives in social conditions that are bound to kill all normal appetite. Work in badly ventilated factories, constant worry about where the next meal is to come from, the insufficiency of mental relaxation and cheerfulness, total body exhaustion,--all these are factors in undermining appetite. In this state of mind we are unable to secrete the 'appetite' juice, necessary for the assimilation of vegetable food. On the other hand, in meat we have a food which, in a manner of speaking, takes care of its digestion itself, and a good part of it is digested even without appetite stimulation and, moreover, being a stimulant and at the same time a luxury, it whets the appetite enormously. Thus, meat also promotes the digestion of vegetables eaten at the same meal, and secures more effective assimilation of the substances taken in with the latter. This we regard as a great advantage of animal food for modern man."

Sonderegger hits the nail on the head when he says: "There is no order of rank as regards the need for different kinds of food, but there is an immutable law with regard to the combination of their nutritive substances." It is also true that no one can nourish himself on a diet of meat alone, but can do so on an exclusively vegetable diet, provided he can select it properly. On the other hand, no one will be satisfied with a definite vegetable diet, be it even the most nourishing. Beans, peas, lentils, in short, pulses are the most nutritious of all food, but to live exclusively on them--which is meant to be possible--would be torture. Karl Marx mentions in Capital that the Chilean mine-owners compel their workers to eat beans year in year out because they impart to them great strength and enable them to carry burdens that they would not be able to carry if they kept to any other diet. However, despite their nutritive value the workers reject the beans, but they are nevertheless forced to put up with them. In any case, the happiness and well-being of people does not depend ou a particular type of diet, as is claimed by the fanatics among the vegetarians. Climate, social conditions, customs and individual taste are decisive.

As civilisation advances, a vegetable diet increasingly takes the place of the exclusive meat diet, such as that to be found among hunting and pastoral peoples. A varied agriculture is a sign of more advanced civilisation. Much more vegetable nutritive matter can be obtained from a field of a given size than meat from the same area by cattle-raising. This factor leads to vegetable food assuming ever greater preponderance. The meat deliveries we are receiving as a result of the vandalic methods practised in remote countries, especially South America and Australia, will be exhausted in a few decades. On the other hand, animals are raised not only for the sake of their meat, but also for the sake of wool, hair, bristles, skins, milk, eggs, etc., and many industries and many human wants depend on these products. Also, a large amount of industrial waste products and domestic scraps can hardly anywhere be turned to better advantage than in cattle-raising. In future, the seas will also have to yield to man their wealth of animal food in a much higher measure than they do today. In future, it will rarely happen, as it does today, that in the event of rich catches whole loads of fish are turned into manure because the available transportation or canning facilities are inadequate for their preservation or because high transportation costs prohibit their sale. And it is very probable that with the abolition of the antithesis between town and country, when the population moves from the big towns to the country and work in closed factory premises is linked with agricultural work, once again a meat diet will give way to a predominantly vegetable diet. Admittedly, the lack of stimulants in the vegetable diet can be compensated for by proper, sensible cooking and the addition of seasoning. But a purely vegetable diet is neither likely nor necessary in the future.