Punk Veganism as a Culture of Resistance
Len Tilbürger explores the intersection between the animal liberation movement and punk.
DIY Conspiracy celebrates the World Vegan Day 2022 with this new essay by Len Tilbürger, in which the author explores the intersection between the anarchist strains of punk-rock and the animal liberation movement, thus showing how essential veganism has been for creating a vibrant culture of solidarity and resistance.
It Started With Crass
From the outset there was some crossover between punk and not eating animals. People like Joe Strummer had been vegetarian since the early 1970s—he’d also been involved in the squatter movement, so there was an existing overlap between vegetarianism and radical leftism (if not necessarily, at that stage, anarchism). The first mention of animal rights or animal liberation in a punk song was by Crass in a song called “Time Out” on the album Stations of the Crass in 1979, with lyrics making a direct comparison between the suffering of humans and other animals. From there, animal liberation became a major theme in anarchopunk and other punk subgenres. The influence of Crass, and punk more widely, has led to the spread of veganism and animal rights throughout the world, and has influenced the relationship between veganism and a variety of musical subcultures including hip-hop and techno.
The connection between veganism and punk is most strongly and consistently expressed, and most sensibly understood, in connection with anarchism. Part of this connection stems from the hippie movement—Crass’s previous avant-garde art projects are a good example of that link. They were already vegetarian before they started the band, drawing from their pacifist worldview but also from their anarchist(ic) opposition to exploitation and solidarity with all living creatures. A lot of early punks had an anti-hippie sentiment that might have made them reluctant to become veggie or vegan, for fear of being marked out as a lentil muncher, but they were won over by the moral force of Crass’s argument. Captain Sensible from The Dammed is an interesting case—he went to Dial House, the commune where Crass lived in Essex, to record an EP, and after staying there for just one week he went vegetarian and subsequently wrote and recorded some vegetarian songs (“Wot! No Meat?”, 1985). Crass played a role in creating a kind of hippie/punk synthesis, and vegetarianism was a prime concern throughout the 1980s punk scenes.
Let’s Get Militant
Things soon moved away from the post-hippie vegetarian peace vibe towards a scene that encouraged militant direct action against those who profited from the abuse of animals. The band that personifies this shift was Conflict. Conflict were a lot “spikier” than Crass, a lot less concerned with the pacifism. In this sense they were more in keeping with the wider anarchist movement of the time (groups like Class War, the Anarchist Communist Federation, Direct Action Movement, and Black Flag). They didn’t shy away from the “violence” entailed in direct action and damage to property—they were willing to throw a brick through a butcher’s shop window, willing to damage the infrastructure that exploits animals, willing to inflict an economic toll on that industry. Conflict represented a move to something much closer to the Animal Liberation Front (ALF)—and of course they had several songs celebrating the ALF’s activism (for example “This is the ALF”, 1986).
As the story goes, Colin Jerwood from Conflict was originally made aware of the exploitation of animals when working as a painter in an abattoir. Jerwood was shocked by what he saw, and then went back to the abattoir with a video camera, posing as a student doing some research, to capture footage of the horror that was going on. Conflict projected these images onto a screen behind them when they performed. The reaction of some of the punks chimes with that anti-hippie trope, up to and including taking an anti-vegetarian stance. Imagine it—even though these punks are being shown the horrific abuse that goes on every day in abattoirs they feel a sort of macho compulsion to “front it out”. That’s what Conflict were up against, they were trying to get a message across to people who weren’t already vegetarians. We take it for granted now that there are so many people, not just from punk, who are vegetarian and vegan—it’s the “norm”, it’s what people do. But Conflict were real pioneers in the spread of veganism.
It wasn’t just Conflict of course. Other bands in that anarchopunk subgenre were writing songs about animal liberation: bands like Flux of Pink Indians, Zounds, Subhumans, Rudimentary Peni, Icons of Filth. But Conflict, and perhaps also Antisect, were more thoroughgoing with the theme. And it wasn’t just bands, early punk zines that had animal rights themes included Fack, Guilty of What?, New Crimes, and Tender Mercy (Worley, 2017). Zines have continued their key role in communicating veganism and animal liberation to a punk readership—countless zines include vegan recipes, some were even completely dedicated to vegan cooking. Over the years, some of the zines that have focused on veganism and animal liberation include Artcore, Bald Cactus, Last Hours (which started off as Rancid News), Headwound, Ripping Thrash, and Meat Raffle.
Animal Liberation & Punk
The period of the late 1970s, when punk poked its ugly visage into the public consciousness, coincided with the formation and rise of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). The genesis begins with the Band of Mercy, formed in 1972 by activists emerging from the Hunt Saboteurs Association. The aim of the Band of Mercy, named after a nineteenth-century RSPCA youth group, was to engage in property damage and economic sabotage in defense of animals. They began their campaign by destroying guns and sabotaging hunters’ vehicles by breaking windows and slashing tyres. The group eventually changed its name to the Animal Liberation Front to show that it took inspiration from anticolonial liberation struggles. One of the founders was Ronnie Lee, who himself was in a punk band, as were many other early ALF activists. These two groups—the anarchist punks and the animal liberation activists—came together and were involved in the same radical milieu. It is partly the relationship with punk that saw the animal liberation movement growing in an anarchist direction. As the ALF start to develop and take part in more actions, they used the same imagery and the same logo that the punks used—Ⓐ (the circled “A”).
The animal liberation movement would have not have reached the heights it did if it wasn’t for this relationship with punk—over a prolonged period, activists were engaged in more actions and causing more economic damage in the UK than the rest of the revolutionary left put together. The influence extends beyond the ALF as well. For example Hunt Sabs, they were formed in the 1960s but became a radical anarchist activist group in the late 1970s with the arrival of anarchopunks (who had been politicized by the likes of Crass and, later, Conflict). What drew people to hunt sabbing was partly the same thing that drew people to punk, it was DIY Activism: based around consensus decision making, achieved through small groups of people getting together without appeal to an external authority, organizing without hierarchy. It was a sense of questioning mainstream values, and it was a recognition of “total liberation”—different forms of oppression and domination intersected and were caused by the same factors which were maintained, upheld and reinforced by the capitalist state. Hunt Sabs became anarchist and adopted many of the anarchist organizing principles and cultural signifiers precisely because so many punks joined the movement.
Another common factor across anarchist involvement in punk scenes all over the world today is Food Not Bombs. In the punk scene in Indonesia, for example, vegetarianism and veganism is much less of a norm, but Food Not Bombs actions are incredibly widespread, and they are vegetarian—it provides a focal point of vegetarian and vegan outreach within the punk culture. And that goes across the world, so whether you’re in Malaysia or Indonesia, or Russia or South America, or Europe or South Africa or the US, Food Not Bombs is a punk-associated action, and it is vegan (or at least vegetarian). Animal liberation as it is practiced in “the West”, and especially the Hunt Sabs framing within a particularly English tradition of toffs in red coats chasing foxes, hasn’t transmitted as widely across the world as Food Not Bombs. It’s a really strong connection.
Punk has given veganism a massive boost in terms of awareness; so many people have become aware of the political aspects of animal rights through punk, either through zines, bands singing songs about animal rights, or through distro stalls with leaflets and information. More than awareness-building, punk has been crucial in its fundraising—benefits gigs and record releases for Hunt Sabs and the ALF. These benefits provide a poignantly material connection between punk and animal rights, turning the everyday cultural production processes of punk towards activist causes.
Up the Vegan Punx
Punk has had a direct influence on the people listening to that music, but has also provided a cultural bedrock that has supported radical activism over the decades. Veganism has become part of a punk and anarchist collective identity. It’s all very well, to say “yes, I’m going to make a personal commitment to be vegan and to fight for animal liberation”, but if you don’t have a culture that supports you in that it’s very hard to maintain. You see it all the time, friends that used to be vegetarian in their youth are not vegetarian or vegan now because they didn’t have that network, that culture of support—that’s what punk created and that’s what other cultures are now recreating in their own aesthetic molds. Veganism has been a core part of sustaining and building an anarchist punk culture of resistance around the world. A new book— Smash the System: Punk Anarchism as a Culture of Resistance, published by Active Distribution (2022)—celebrates exactly these sorts of punk cultures, and throughout the book we glimpse the importance of veganism and animal liberation to the punk collective identity.
In different political and ideological contexts, animal liberation has been a part of punk scenes around the world. For instance, in post-communist Czech Republic punk fanzines of the early 1990s, such as Hlučná lobotomie, proved their green anarchist leanings by opposing militarism and nuclear energy, and by supporting the activities of the ALF. In post-apartheid South Africa we see that the spread of veganism was influenced by anarchist punks; in (state) socialist Venezuela we learn about anarchist punks becoming part of grassroots social movements that include the anti-globalisation movement, support for animal liberation and vegan groups, and solidarity with political prisoners; in China hardcore bands like Gouride (狗日的), from Yunnan, have songs promoting veganism as well as denouncing imperialism and consumerism.
In our zine Nailing Descartes to the Wall (2015, new edition 2020) we addressed the “lifestylism” critique levelled at the punk scene by non-punk anarchists—vegetarianism and veganism are often tied into the accusation that punks are “only lifestylists” and not proper anarchists. This criticism ignores the politicising role that punk has in terms of animal rights and the cultural bedrock that sustains and supports activism. The effect has been incredibly pervasive and long-lasting—records from the late 1970s and 1980s retain that impact even now, and that’s because they’re first and foremost part of a vibrant culture that people want to be part of. It is unabashedly bound up with entertainment, with fun. That’s where the power of punk lies, after all: it’s not dry and tedious and it’s not a lecture. If you become vegan or go hunt sabbing just because it’s what the “cool kids” are doing, then great! That’s as good a starting point as anywhere. There remain some stick-up-the-arse “materialist anarchists” who can’t see past the end of their own nose to appreciate the importance of that, even in the face of the immense impact that the punk/anarchist/vegan/animal liberation overlap has had on hundreds of thousands of people.
Len Tilbürger is a guest author of DIY Conspiracy and co-authored Nailing Descartes to the Wall: Animal Rights, Veganism and Punk Culture, together with Chris P. Kale.
- Captain Sensible & The Missus (1985), “Wot! No Meat?”, Animus Records.
- Conflict (1986), “This is the A.L.F.”, The Ungovernable Force, Mortarhate Records.
- Crass (1979), “Time Out”, Stations of the Crass, Crass Records.
- Jim Donaghey, Will Boisseau and Caroline Kaltefleiter (eds) (2022), “Smash the System!”: Punk Anarchism as a Culture of Resistance, Karlovac: Active Distribution.
- Len Tilbürger and Chris P. Kale (2015), Nailing Descartes to the Wall: Animal Rights, Veganism and Punk Culture, London: Active Distribution (new edition published 2020).
- Matt Worley (2017), No Future: Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture, 1976–1984, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.