Leonard Nelson: liberal socialist, vegetarian, animal rights advocate (1926)

Leonard Nelson in 1922

Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) was a mathematician and philosopher at the University of Göttingen (Germany), a socialist*, a vegetarian, and an advocate of animal rights. Having been expelled from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in November 1925, Nelson and his allies founded their own political party in 1926: the "International Socialist Fighting League" (Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund, ISK; the current English Wikipedia page translates the ISK's name as "International Socialist Militant League". This (the word "militant"), in all my ignorance, seems quite incorrect. The ISK was in fact an antimilitaristic group, and the word "militant" seems misleading. The German word "Kampf" means "fight", in this case as in "join the fight", or "struggle", in this case as in "a political struggle for social justice". "Bund" can mean union, league, association, coalition, etc., i.e. a group of people who have joined forces for whatever reason.).

I have been aware of this quote (below) since the late 1990s, but I had never looked it up until now. Although some of Nelson's works have been translated into English, I don't think that this particular essay has ever been published in or otherwise translated into English. If I'm wrong, please let me know.

The quote presented below is from an essay that was originally published in 1926 in two issues of the magazine of the ISK (Mitteilungsblatt des Internationalen Sozialistischen Kampf-Bundes, volume 1, issues 3 and 5; and it had the subtitle "From a speech in front of the workers of Kassel"; Kassel is a small town in Hesse, Germany.). Nelson had plans to republish this essay, but that never happened. He died in 1927, of pneumonia. Leonard Nelson is buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Melsungen (Hesse, Germany). If anyone has a picture of his grave (if there still is an individual Leonard Nelson grave; his grave was defiled in Nazi Germany, and his mortal remains were slightly relocated), please do share it!

So, the quote is from the essay "Lebensnähe", which can roughly be translated as "being close to life" or maybe slightly better as "being in touch with reality". I haven't decided on a proper translation of the title yet. I don't think "being in touch with reality" is close enough though. What is meant here, I think, is being close to life in the sense that your ideals and actions are relevant to real life, i.e. that they really make a difference for people (and non-human animals) and also in the sense of making demands that are down-to-earth, that can be put into practice, such as vegetarianism.

In the same essay one can find the information (which is widely quoted but probably also present throughout most ISK publications, I assume) that the ISK promoted (and demanded from its members) vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, and leaving the church (i.e. cancelling membership).

[Lebensnähe] (1926)


A worker who wants to fight against exploitation should, however, really not take part in exploitation himself. A worker, too, can take part in exploitation. In fact he can do so in various ways. He can do so as a strike breaker. He can do so by propagandizing in favour of colonial policies. He can also do so by beating his wife and children. Yes, he can do so in a way that is even worse. He can do so by doing what the capitalist does to him to those who are much less able to defend themselves against him than he is able to defend himself against the capitalist - those who are the most defenceless, who will never be able to join forces by forming coalitions in order to gradually conquer their rights in a class struggle. A worker who does not just want to be a “would-be capitalist” and who is serious about the fight against all exploitation does not give in to the contemptible habit of exploiting harmless animals and he does not participate in the daily murder of millions of animals, which in terms of cruelty, brutality and cowardice eclipses all the horrors of the World War.
These are matters, comrades, that elude voting. Either one should make these demands or one should refrain from doing so. Either you want to fight against exploitation or you let it alone. But if as a socialist you laugh at these demands, then you do not know what you are doing. Then you clearly show that you have never seriously considered what the word "socialism" means.

[...] " [my translation]

(The essay "Lebensnähe" can also be found in (in German): Leonard Nelson (1972), Gesammelte Schriften IX, Recht und Staat, pages 375/376.)

* Note that I use the word socialist because Leonard Nelson used the word socialism or liberal socialism. However, Nelson himself strongly criticized the concept of "collectivism" (what many might refer to as socialism, i.e. that all means of production are state owned or owned by the workers as a collective). His criticism of collectivism included (in my words) that it disincentivizes people to work effectively and efficiently (it does quite the contrary), that it leads to monstrous bureaucracy (which again makes things very difficult and inefficient but may also lead to injustice), that the lack of competition, again, is a disincentive for innovation, technical progress, and effective and efficient work, and that it facilitates corruption and the very power structures, exploitation, and abuse that it originally wanted to abolish. 


Update 24 November 2020

Books by Leonard Nelson in English:

  • Nelson, Leonard: A theory of philosophical fallacies. Springer: 2016. (translated by Fernando Leal and David Carus) [Main text translated from the German language edition: "Typische Denkfehler in der Philosophie" (1921) by Leonard Nelson (Felix Meiner Verlag 2011). Appendix translated from the German language edition: "Die kritische Ethik bei Kant, Schiller und Fries: eine Revision ihrer Prinzipien", Gesammelte Schriften in neun Bänden, vol. VIII, pp. 27–192 by Leonard Nelson (Felix Meiner Verlag 1971)] This book does not seem to contain any reference to vegetarianism or animal rights.
  • Nelson, Leonard: Socratic method and critical philosophy: selected essays. Yale University Press (New Haven): 1949. [available on archive.org] (translated by Thomas K. Brown III; but ... ""The Socratic Method" was originally translated by Hugh Jedell and "The World-View of Ethics and Religion" by W. Lansdell. Thomas K. Brown III has revised both translations and brought their terminology and style into harmony" with the other essays. [...]") ... and ... Dover Publications (New York): 1965. (This is an "unabridged and unaltered republication" of the 1949 edition.) ... and ... other editions by Kessinger Publishing (2007, 2010, ... (?)) This book does not seem to contain any reference to vegetarianism or animal rights. [I'm not sure which German original titles are included in this but certainly not his lecture "Lebensnähe" or his book chapter "Pflichten gegen Tiere" from "System der philosophischen Ethik und Pädagogik (1932/1931 (?), posthumously).]
  • Nelson, Leonard: System of ethics. Yale University Press (New Haven): 1956 (Translated by Norbert Guterman. Forword by H. J. Paton. Introduction by Julius Kraft) ... and ... Elliots Books (?): 1956[I'm not sure what the German original is.]
  • Nelson, Leonard: Progress and regress in philosophy, volume I. Basil Blackwell (Oxford): 1970 (xiv + 256pp., £3) (edited by Julius Kraft, translated by Humphrey Palmer) ["Leonard Nelson's Progress and Regress in Philosophy is a translation of edited lectures, published only recently (1962) in the original German as Fortschritte und Rückschritte der Philosophie, given at the University of Göttingen in the years 1919 to 1926." (Glouberman 1975)] ["Fortschritte und Rückschritte der Philosophie von Hume und Kant bis Hegel und Fries", 1962 ("Verlag Öffentliches Leben" ... and ... "Julius Kraft" ... and ... "Meiner Verlag"). This book does not seem to contain any reference to vegetarianism, but it does seem to contain references to animals. I do not have access to a full text version at the moment. This book does not contain his lecture "Lebensnähe" or his book chapter "Pflichten gegen Tiere" from "System der philosophischen Ethik und Pädagogik.]
  • Nelson, Leonard: Progress and regress in philosophy, volume II. Basil Blackwell (Oxford): 1971 (xiv + 305pp., £3.50) (edited by Julius Kraft, translated by Humphrey Palmer) [German original: see above]
  • Nelson, Leonard: The better security: being the heresies of a revolutionary revisionist. Verlag Öffentliches Leben (Göttingen/Manchester (?)): 1928 (translated by Gerhard Kumleben) [German original: "Die bessere Sicherheit". Verlag Öffentliches Leben (Stuttgart): 1917]
  • Nelson, Leonard: Politics and education. Allen & Unwin (London): 1928 ... and ... Taylor & Francis/Routledge (?): 2018. ... and ... Creative Media Partners (?): 2018 [I'm not sure what the German original is. But again, this book does not contain his lecture "Lebensnähe" or his book chapter "Pflichten gegen Tiere" from "System der philosophischen Ethik und Pädagogik.] This book does not seem to contain any reference to vegetarianism or animal rights. It seems to mention the word "animal" only once, in a quite formidable sentence: "What is usually held to be a defect of the animal here seems to be positively a distinguishing priviledge of man : the satisfaction of not being burdened by reason and responsibility." (pages 52/53) Table of contents: 

Note: This list may not be a complete list of everything that was ever published of his works in English. But it's all that I could find.

In addition, this was published about the ISK (again, note the in my opinion incorrect use of the word militant; see above, but this seems to be the name the ISK members in England themselves chose to use):
  • The Militant Socialist International : its aim, methods and constitution / [publ. an behalf of the Militant Socialist International (Intemacio de Socialista Kunbatalo)] London (International Publishing Co.): 1935 (35 pages)
There are a number of other English language publications about and/or by the "Militant Socialist International". But 1935 may have been when this English name ("Militant Socialist International") was first used. (Nelson had died in 1927.)