Skip to content

On Radical Abolitionism and Guilt

Frequently, when I read Steve Best, I feel guilty.

"He's talking about me," I say to myself. Though I'm not a Francione-style abolitionist, and much of what Best writes isn't directed at me, plenty of what he writes is.

And I don't mean me personally (though I probably should).

The latest example of a Best article that makes me feel guilty is "Manifesto for Radical Abolitionism: Total Liberation By Any Means Necessary." Why the guilt? Because I don't take enough of a stand. I am not a fundamentalist pacifist. I do not believe that our war can be won by vegan education alone and that some day, the oppressors of humans, nonhuman animals and the planet are going to see the error of their ways and transition to a nonviolent, non-exploiting way of life. And I don't think that converting one person at a time to veganism via my spectacular baking or my blogging is going to make up for the people of China and India rapidly increasing their consumption of animals. And I don't think my Daiya pizzas, even if I could make a lot of them and distribute them about my comfy suburban town along with leaflets, are going to do anything to alter the power architecture of American society. This is not to say that I'm going to stop what I do; I'm just realistic about how far it will go to address the actual cause of the rampant exploitation and massive slaughter I want to eliminate.

As Best writes, "Psychological and ethical change is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of the large-scale social transformations needed for creating viable democratic and ecological cultures." He refers to Paulo Freire, a favorite of mine who, Best writes, "insisted-education can only be part of a much broader and multi-pronged movement of resistance, struggle, and change. Thus, like all prior revolutions, human and nonhuman animals will not win liberation because oppressors suddenly see the light, but rather because enough people become enlightened and learn how to rock the structures of power, to shake them until new social arrangements emerge."

I know how many feel about Best, and about Francione, and both of those discussions get very old for me, very quickly, which is why I decided to avoid them months ago. And both discussions often degenerate into all kinds of name-calling and ignoring of the issues. But when it comes to the ideas of alliance politics, total liberation, and expanding the idea of what might be necessary to even come close to our goal as vegans, how do you feel about Best's Radical Abolitionism? Are there parts of it that resonate for you?

And please, if you hate him, or Francione, or me, please keep that to yourself and stick to the question.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nick #

    I agree that "human and nonhuman animals will not win liberation because oppressors suddenly see the light, but rather because enough people become enlightened and learn how to rock the structures of power, to shake them until new social arrangements emerge."

    But we are nowhere near that critical mass, and I think the best way to get there is through non-violent education, changing peoples' minds one at a time. Someday there will be so many of us that we'll be able to "rock the structures of power."

    November 16, 2009
  2. I agree with Nick. This kind of argument about total abolition reminds me of my days working at a rape crisis center. I was lucky enough to have a very wise mentor there, who told me up front, "We cannot end rape. We are going to do our best here and now." She was adamant that goals set too high burn people out, and while I very much appreciate the folks who work at extreme ends of the spectrum, I personally have to keep perspective on these things. Reaching people one at a time is best for my introvert self, and I'd hate to think folks have guilt about that.

    November 16, 2009
  3. "those discussions get very old for me"

    haha, me too.

    November 16, 2009
  4. Sunny #

    Thank you for this! I was strongly interested in animal welfare and vegetarianism as a kid, which progressed to veganism and animal rights in my late teens; but I've never really read any books or lengthy essays about animal rights. I just spent a lot of time analyzing and thinking about it (and participating in online communities/discussion) and came to my own conclusions, which have evolved some since I started.

    Recently I came across Francione online, and was excited that a lot of his stances seemed to fall in line with mine. So I added him on Twitter; his posts came off aggressive, which I can deal with, and I still agreed with a lot of things he said.. but when he started talking about peace being the only way, and how "people who promote violence against institutional users fail to understand that as long as demand persists, someone will fill that demand".. well, my heart sank a little.

    I just had a comment-discussion with someone recently who felt the same way – she made a post in a vegan community I watch, and she made an offhand remark about direct action abolitionists being violent psychos. In the discussion she repeatedly insisted that direct action, even if no people were harmed or even present, is violence, and that violence is never the answer, that violence begets violence, etc. Honestly, this viewpoint is fairly bizarre to me… I can understand considering purely peaceful strategies to potentially be the best in a logical way, like, "I think this method the most effective way to reach people and make the changes I want to see" – but to not only reject direct action, but DENOUNCE it and write everyone involved off as crazy criminals??

    Anyway, I read the article you linked and most of it resonated with me strongly. It was also really nice to hear an influential person take the stances he does, and it was interesting to consider the suggested tie-ins between animal rights, the environment, and anarchy. Is is true, though, that Best's philosophies make it much more difficult to feel SATISFIED with what you're doing, whereas Francione is comforting in a way, because his to-do list for individuals seems much more manageable and comparatively easy and feasible. With Best's beliefs and goals – where do you even START? Animal rights, human rights, freeing the earth, ending capitalism – he's not trying to adjust the system to be one that respects animal rights, as it adjusted to respect the legal rights of black people; he's saying we need to throw it all out and start over.

    So of course it's overwhelming, and intimidating, and it may make your personal work seem small by comparison – not because what you do isn't important (because it is!), but just because what you're looking at is, by comparison, so HUGE. Reading and thinking about this kind of thing taps into my inner ferociousness about the horrors and injustices in the world, it gets me riled up and wanting to do something, to be a part of it – but what can I do? What am I even capable of doing? I am capable of being vegan, I am capable of adopting and fostering animals, I am capable of making vegan food to share, I am capable of gently expressing my beliefs with everyone I know and leaving them more educated and thoughtful, I am capable of sending e-mail to officials, I am capable of volunteering at a farmed animal rescue. What else? I don't really know.

    Unrelated, but I'm always surprised to see facebook profiles for groups like ALF or the one for Steven Best's group… those are the kinds of things I'd like to add, but publicly attaching yourself via Facebook to a group advocating illegal "terrorist" actions, which is directly linked to your name, location, and people you know… doesn't that seem like you're just asking to get your name added to a watchlist? Even if your profile is private, like mine, I hardly rely on that to keep my information safe if the U.S. government really desired access to the profiles of everyone declaring their support of so-called terrorism. I always shy away from paranoia, but that seems "fairly likely" rather than "paranoid" considering the laws that have been passed in the last few years.

    November 16, 2009
  5. Mary #

    This is going very well so far. Thanks for the comments.

    Like Sunny, I have a bit of paranoia about certain online communities and pages so I stay away.

    Nick, I hear you (and brittany) and I'd ask: Is there some kind of number for critical mass? Or percentage of the population as vegans? Or maybe something about vegan businesses (which have increased in number, and of course that's fantastic)? We're apparently doing quite well on the Amazon bestseller list, which is great.

    What haunts me is that animals, human and not, and the planet, need so much right now. There's so much injustice and so much suffering right now, and I feel like I owe the animals more than what I do (the list Sunny provides minus the sanctuary). I feel an urgency for justice that makes my blogging and my vegan outreach and my carefully-researched consumerism and my donations to sanctuaries seem futile and quite bourgeois. Hence the guilt.

    November 16, 2009
  6. Sunny #

    "What haunts me is that animals, human and not, and the planet, need so much right now. There's so much injustice and so much suffering right now, and I feel like I owe the animals more than what I do"

    Yes, this. It's difficult knowledge to live with.

    November 16, 2009
  7. I agree this is going quite well. I admit I was surprised by your post, Mary, as I just (finally!) listened to your interview on Animal Voices and didn't think you'd be posting about this sort of thing much now. I hope there isn't too much comment moderation on the back end.

    I have to admit that I largely ignore Francione. His writings had barely been on a blip on my vegetarian radar and had no noticeable impact on my switch to veganism two years ago. (I seem to owe that to another angry white dude, who despite helping me switch over with his book, shall remain nameless b/c I'm sick to death of praising a specific subset of the population for these achievements that historically rest on the shoulders of us all.)

    What I like to believe – and certainly what is true now – is that my anti-oppression ethics come from a history of studying human and animal oppression alike. Perhaps I'm lucky that I understood structural racism, patriarchy, and class divisions before going vegan. It has helped me maintain a position that my choice does not translate for many, and it humbles me to consider why this occurs. That the only vegans I know personally are white and from my own class group, for example, is quite telling. That Francione narcs on those who largely agree with him is also telling. I didn't know that before reading this essay, embarrassed as I should likely be to admit that.

    FWIW, I also agree w/ Sunny re: FB. While I'm a bit of an intentional luddite in that I actively refuse to use Facebook (though I do use other social networks), I'm amazed at what choices people make about which parts of their activism they publicize. Yet another example of why media literacy is a critical part of our resistance.

    I agree with the guilt, but I guess I have nothing new to say about how to mitigate or solve it, whether through self soothing or direct action. Living outside the United States has simply forced a shift in a way I can't necessarily defend or explain. When I don't speak the native language fluently, it's pretty hard to figure out how to combat the old ladies who wear fur in my neighborhood, let alone the legions of people who don't even know veganism exists. My in-laws cook vegetarian food because there's no way to convey veganism to them. It was easy to be vegan when my best friends were vegans who lived on my block, when vegan restaurants were accessible a short walk from my home. Being away changes that and sometimes even challenges the privilege that is veganism (since I'd argue it is, or mostly would be for people who don't practice it). When am I a cultural imperialist and when am I acting in good conscience? If you answered, "You are both all of my time," then you've figured out my own guilt.

    November 16, 2009
  8. I feel like I should also take this moment to say that a large part of my own guilt comes from the total lack of sanctuaries where I currently live. I'm pretty sure there isn't a farmed animal sanctuary in the entire country. My partner and I visited a farm last year, just because I missed the animals so much, but we haven't gone back. We know the farmer kills the female piglets, for instance, and even though I endlessly enjoyed scratching his enormous sow who had already given birth to thirteen litters of babies, my heart is heavy knowing that she may have never had a back scratch before I came along. I miss my direct contact with them as much as I miss knowing that I positively impact their lives. There doesn't seem to be a way to navigate that right now. It makes me deeply sad to live in a space so out of line with my own beliefs, and yet, that feels like what the rest of my life will now look like. How do people shake that off without feeling horribly defeated and misanthropic?

    November 16, 2009
  9. AngelaS #

    Parts of Best's article, as well as several of these comments, strongly resonate with me.

    No matter what any of us does, the nonhuman animals continue to suffer in greater numbers. And whether I rescue and rehabilitate an animal or engage in a given campaign, my contribution is never enough.

    It's clear that systems of oppression, global conditions, and ecological crises are linked with speciesism and nonhuman exploitation. The growth in global meat demand and human population necessitates increased animal exploitation. In this respect, Nick's comment concerns me: "But we are nowhere near that critical mass, and I think the best way to get there is through non-violent education, changing peoples' minds one at a time."

    While none of the problems are new, the idea of building alliances outside of our community is. History shows us that divergent groups have been able to unite and successfully pursue common agendas. This lesson is being lost on us. It seems to me that we are locked in a pattern of reacting to crises and have lost our ability to find new solutions.

    We all acknowledge the same things: feelings of not being able to do enough, systematic oppressions, vegan "elitism", etc.

    I am tired of waiting for "one day" to arrive. I am not promised tomorrow.

    I agree with Sunny that his beliefs do make it difficult to be satisfied. But I wasn't satisfied before I read his essay. And I suggest that anyone who is satisfied is merely complacent or naive.

    You said "With Best's beliefs and goals – where do you even START? Animal rights, human rights, freeing the earth, ending capitalism… he's saying we need to throw it all out and start over."

    We may need to figure out the "where", but the more urgent question is answered, "how": by expanding outside of our community and building alliances, rather than remain marginalized, spinning our wheels.

    November 16, 2009
  10. Thanks for writing about this, Mary.

    I strongly agree with and endorse the Manifesto. We need to remember that "By Any Means Necessary" doesn't necessarily mean the use of force; if peaceful actions are effective at winning liberation, they are the way to go. We need alliance politics (especially building ties across race and class), total liberation (that's nonhuman animals, human animals, and the earth), and a diversity of abolitionist tactics (conventional and unconventional). With a commitment to reflective, thoughtful, and determined struggle, our movement will be unstoppable – we can shake the foundations of human supremacy and bring justice for all animals.

    November 17, 2009
  11. John #

    So glad you brought this up Mary. I just recently read the manifesto that Steve Best put out and I feel I'm definitely inline with his philosophy on abolitionism.
    I often feel I don't do enough in my every day life to make a sufficient impact on animal rights and liberation but depending on ones own situation in life we can only do so much. Not everyone wants to risk arrest or imprisonment by attempting to break into a lab or mink farm to liberate the animal prisoners being held captive there but you can still show and voice your support for the people that have the resources and courage to carry out such acts.
    Francione's Ahimsa preaching can only go so far. I'm wondering if someone stole the 7 dogs that he adopted and places them in a lab for experimentation what he would do about it. Would he then become "violent?" I'm getting ready to unfollow him on Twitter because his twits are getting rather "if you do nothing today at least talk to someone about veganism"….or something like that. Well you know what? I've spoken to people, many. Co-workers, family members, showed them the facts, brought up their contradictions/hypocrisies, debated for hours on end, tried the health aspect of a vegan diet method, some watched "Earthlings", and not one of them did I convince to even at least adopt a vegan diet let alone give up wearing animal products. So if you're looking for "masses" trust me it ain't gonna happen in our lifetime. That's not to say we shouldn't be looking out for future generations either because it's those generations that we need to rely on by making an impact right now. Sure we all want peace as the ultimate goal but there are billions suffering now and whatever we can do to grant freedom to those in captivity is certainly better than none at all. Whatever means necessary…yep!

    November 17, 2009
  12. What resonates with me in Best's essay is the anti-hierarchy and anti-capitalism stances. Of course, Francione agrees with them (at least from my understanding of his work). What doesn't resonate with me are the insulting tone and words (Franciombes, referring to people who like Gary). The essay reminds me of right-wing radio and makes me quickly want to tune out.

    As for the use of "sabotage" and violent acts against the property of those with different views, I certainly empathize and understand. The typical discussion is whether one would support Jews smashing the tools of oppression used by the Nazis. Of course, overt acts likely would've brought more, harsher oppression and revealed underground groups so those in power could better smash them. Who's to say the type of actions Best proposes would've even worked in Nazi Germany or if he would've quickly been executed and his followers silenced?

    But the way I always look at it is this: Would I support the same tactics if they were done by anti-abortionists who believe human life begins at conception and therefore abortion is murder? Do I support when they "sabotage" and engage in non-pacifist actions against abortion doctors and staff? And the answer is no. Further, I have views that many in the U.S. vehemently disagree with and if I became well-known and influential in my views, would I support those who disagree if they firebombed my house? No.

    Is what I do enough? I put out a vegan newsletter. My wife and I give a lifetime home to farm animals set to be put down by our local animal control/humane society. I speak my truth often – in public forums with a mainstream audience and especially with animal rescue people who are not vegan. I support financially people and groups whom I think are doing good work, such as Peaceful Prairie, Tribe of Heart and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. (And I buy Gary's books, and I've interviewed him for the daily newspaper in my town.) Of course it's not enough. But if you ask me if I'm going to instill fear in others by threatening (or doing) violent acts against their possessions, no. I wouldn't even do it if I thought it would work, and I've seen no evidence it will work.

    November 17, 2009
  13. Liberation by any means necessary – I don't disagree with that. But it's also a question of whether the means actually leads to the end/liberation. Often what some advocates means by that line, is that nonviolence in itself represent a restriction, a hindrance. But the view that violent actions is inherently more efficient than nonviolent is also a dogma that might restrict us and the creativity of our activism.

    Defenses that are given for nonviolence is not only that it's morally right but that it's the most efficient way to achive lasting sosial change. I'm tired of people, both it's advocates and it's critics, portraiting nonviolence or pacifism as an all or nothing position, as a dogma.

    Like the eastern tradition of ahimsa. Even among those that view all violence as evil, they may still think it's better to support a lesser violence if it can hinder a bigger violence. To be passive, and let the bigger violence happend, is the most violent action in that case. For example most jains, the most strict followers of ahimsa, do not object to state enforcement, punishement of criminals or the military. That's not only violence but it's reactionary violence. So I think a serious adherence to ahimsa in some cases might be in line with militant activism.

    What concerns me most in this discussion is not any concrete oppinions of what is right or wrong, or whether or when violence is justified, but the aggressiv retorice. That's violence. What are Franciombes anyway? Is it a mix of Francione and Zombies? A bit disrespecful.

    I read somthing by Gandhi where he wrote that if a nonviolent action isn't efficient enough then it isn't because it wasn't violent enough but because it wasn't nonviolent enought. Not that I belive everything Gandhi says but it's an unusual and interesting perspective.

    November 17, 2009
  14. John #

    "What are Franciombes anyway? Is it a mix of Francione and Zombies? A bit disrespectful." Take it easy there veganimal. No harm no foul. We'd love lasting social change but we need change now! If you're neck is on the chopping block would you rather have someone attempting to rescue you from danger with any means necessary or someone passing out leaflets to passers-by?

    Please don't use the abortion issue as an analogy. These are living breathing…been out of the womb animals who are being used in every way possible…no question there.

    Does sabotage work? Sure it does. If it makes one/people think, if it draws attention, whether in a negative manner or not. No it may not change someone into a vegan overnight but neither is some professor from Jersey saying "go vegan."(sorry..was that disrespectful?) You need everything…education, media coverage, protests, liberation (legal or illegal methods) and sabotage when necessary.

    November 17, 2009
  15. John writes: "Does sabotage work? Sure it does. If it makes one/people think, if it draws attention, whether in a negative manner or not. No it may not change someone into a vegan overnight but neither is some professor from Jersey saying "go vegan."(sorry..was that disrespectful?) You need everything…education, media coverage, protests, liberation (legal or illegal methods) and sabotage when necessary."

    John, these things are interconnected, are they not? In other words, one action in the name of a cause will impact on another. It seems to me, then, that we have to be reflexive about what we do, IF we care about education and the mass media.

    If we care nothing about what the media thinks or says, or how the general public may perceive animal advocates, then we would not worry about some act like, say, digging up a dead body to emotionally distress a target family. If we do care about these things, then we are in an entirely different ball game in which "by all means necessary" is a counterproductive idea.

    November 18, 2009
  16. John #

    "by all means necessary" key word being "necessary" You're right Roger. Each campaign may need a different strategy. Burning down a KFC is not going to stop KFC in it's entirety..which by the way I'm not against. It really has to start at the core. Educating the younger generation, which isn't going to happen in schools. Sure they may learn how to adopt a "healthier" diet but no teacher's going instruct their kids to stop eating animal products. Can you imagine the reaction of the parents??

    Here's my conclusion. We all want peace in the world do we not? That will never be attained as long as there is religion, different traditions, customs, etc…which there will always be. No, don't stop working towards that goal but at the same time do all you can to save those from suffering now and if requires an act of violence to achieve it then well…you have to make that decision.

    Of wait I'm not done yet…Francione's philosophy rejects any animal welfare movement as he sees it as hurting the "cause." It's his "cause" that he's concerned about though. I'm not a fan of PETA but don't you think the resources and the relationship with the media and celebrities has enabled them to display and give more attention to acts of animal abuse which in turn has gotten the public to think twice, think a little deeper into their consumerism? Welfare groups have changed peoples opinions and diets yet Francione constantly criticizes them for causing more harm then good, when isn't it the ultimate goal to have everyone become vegan??

    November 18, 2009
  17. Hi John. As for education in schools, I have recently become involved in an initiative called The Irish Animal Education Trust which is putting together materials relevant to the whole of the Irish school curriculum, including videos suitable for all ages.

    I think the job there is to plant some seeds of change – and for the older kids to challenge dominant social values. I think you are, of course, right about traditions and religion: speciesism is deeply embedded in the fabric of society, as is racism and sexism.

    As far as I see it, the strength of vegan campaigning is that it represents a mega-campaign because ethical vegans remove themselves from virtually all forms of animal use. For me, getting 10-20-30 people living as vegans is much better than closing down a fur shop or even a laboratory.

    As for PETA, I'm sure Mary would not want us to rehash all the problems of this corporation (it would take too long for a start!) Chief problems for me are their deliberate distortion of animal rights theory, their following of Singer's philosophy (and therefore use "rights" as a convenience), their sexist campaigns which trample over women's rights just to underline that they are not rights-based, their announcing as massive victory little baby steps (at best) like getting KFC to gas chickens, and the fact that they are not consistent in their approach (probably because they rely so much on vegetarian celebs). Is veganism their moral baseline – or just another choice of several choices (especially when their philosopher says people can legitimately have the "luxury" of not being vegan now and then)?

    Imagine how that would play out in human rights terms.

    November 18, 2009
  18. All of these words, compassion, non violence and justice are also intuitions or feelings we have and are our subjective experience of emotions. They are literally what we feel about the world…..and why we care about non humans. Our feelings of right and wrong. Our feelings Of what justice might be…our feelings of Compassion and empathy. Non violence seems like a dual citizen though. It can be a concept that we feel and it can be an action we do or don't take. However….our feelings about what happens to animals is based on our feelings against violence and harm to others is what motivates all of us.
    I really dis like all the big masculine childish psuedo violent tough guy postering that animal rights activists talk about when they speak about Animal liberation a lot of the time. None of them are black panthers or even Islamic Jihadists ready to kill in the name of animal rights. Are they?
    Yet they talk such smack it degrades the issue and alienates people.
    The theorists who speak about the upcoming violence against animal killers are they going to celebrate when AR activists start blowing themselves up in crowded markets or public places? It really is stupid! How much sympathy did the 911 hijackers get when they decided to use violence to get their message out to the public? How many people have gone anti choice after an abortion clinic gets bombed or a doctor/abortion provider gets blown away?
    Rescuing animals is very different than making violent threats against other humans. We need to build empathy for our cause of animal rights by explaining to others and making the detailed claims about what animal rights consist of clear to people. We need to end now… our focus on regulations on treatment issues and we need to start changing the world with our examples of veganism. Educating people and providing information to those who care about animals and violence will eventually work.

    Name one animal rights person who became so or went vegan because a violent action scared them into doing so?


    November 19, 2009
  19. Hyperbolic much, Philip? I encourage you to read the Manifesto itself before jumping to conclusions about what it advocates. Steve Best said on the Radical Abolition group on Facebook ( ) that he will be posting a FAQ to accompany the Manifesto, which will help clarify things to avoid such absurd reactions that have no basis in reality.

    November 19, 2009
  20. I agree with AngelaS – The situation is so immense, so dire… No matter what we do… It never seems like "enough"…

    But surely there's enough room within the movement to allow everyone ample opportunity to advocate in their most effective way.

    I don't see any one method that is the "only" method. I think Animal Rights will eventually be obtained through a "holistic" approach… One that includes cultural change through education, the arts, legislative and political measures, human health and environmental issues, leafletting, direct action, and delicious vegan foods. IOW – Everything combined will eventally swell into an inevitable change.

    But as peaceful as many of us would hope this happens, I think once there is a sizable "force" of ideology, it will be met with physical resistance. I believe in time, this "revolution" will become violent due to the powerful interests that stand to loose so much. Has any ruling system ever forfeited without a fight? Even though change will happen in increments, the last vestiges will not surrender easily.

    In the meantime, I try to judge each act by the success or negative impact it made. Not all "campaigns", by all groups are ineffective, all the time… Each action should be objectively judged, if it was of benefit or not.

    I try to be a peaceful human… But if I witness a dog being brutalized, I may have to use force to restrain the perpetrator. And society would applaud me for helping a victim. Unfortunately, if I attempt to rescue a dozen dogs being brutalized in a lab, I am a terrorist. There is a very long road in getting society to realize the connection between the two…

    Which brings me to the last point regarding the tactics/timing of direct actions against medical research… Because it appears to be the least "frivolous" use of animals, it will probably be the last to fold… Trying to convince society to eliminate animals for "science" while they still haven't eliminated them for "furs" or "rodeos" seems na├»ve and imprudent. Animal liberation from labs will be the toughest battle… Seems we should save this one for last. (?)

    November 21, 2009

Leave a comment to brittany Cancel reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS