Harry Quelch January 1908

Socialism and Temperance Reform

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XII, No. 1, January 15, 1908, pp. 1-8, (2,310 words);
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

It appears to be pretty generally accepted that “Temperance Reform” is to constitute the piece de resistance of the Ministerial menu in the forthcoming Session. Having established prosperity at home and peace abroad; having abolished poverty and pauperism, settled the education difficulty, and set the unemployed all to work; having pacified India and relentlessly refused to render any assistance to the Russian autocracy; having secured adequate protection for the native races as well as for Asiatic British subjects in South Africa and sent the last Chinese coolie home, this Government of all the virtues and all the talents finds itself free to devote its splendid energies to grappling with and throttling the dragon of drink.

In that commendable enterprise Ministers are, naturally, to have the ardent support of all the anti-Socialist individualist “social reformers.” Peers, prelates and plutocrats, whose fortunes have been made by the merciless exploitation and murder of proletarian men, women and children, with the co-operation of their kept men of the Press—who, like unclean beasts, find a fat living by grubbing amid social garbage and wreckage, and vehemently oppose all proposals to right the economic wrong which causes the ruin in which they revel—are eagerly rallying for this new crusade. They have formulated a legislative programme for preserving the workingmen from the temptation of his own low vices; a programme which, if adopted by the Government, will make English working-class life even gloomier than it is to-day; when “cakes and ale” are almost things of the past and one wonders how the term “Merrie England” ever came to be applied to this puritanical country, except in derision.

This programme not only includes Local Veto, together with the steady reduction of existing licences and the refusal to grant new ones, but also the reduction of the hours of opening of public-houses on weekdays; their total closing on Sundays, and the exclusion of all children under fourteen, from public-house bars, in any circumstances whatever.

It would appear to be scarcely necessary to point out how mischievous, even from the standpoint of temperance, would be the enforcement of such measures. Experience has proved that any form of prohibition has but stimulated that worst form of the drunkard’s vice, secret drinking; and that earlier closing on week-days, as well as total closing on Sundays, has not diminished, but has increased, drunkenness, in any part of the United Kingdom in which it has been tried. “Experentia docet” we are told, but some people never seem to learn from experience, and the teetotal zealots, mistakenly called “temperance reformers,” would appear to be among their number.

Unfortunately some Socialists, inspired by a quite natural detestation of drunkenness, and the other evils of the drink traffic; eager to sweep away the squalor and misery of slumdom, in which drink appears to play so large a part, and anxious to promote sobriety and temperance in the proletariat as means to its emancipation, are lending their aid to a crusade which aims at nothing so much as side-tracking the Socialist movement.

What our friends appear to lose sight of in this connection is that this whole crusade is anti -social and Socialist. Its guiding principle is the theory that the social evils of poverty and want, from which the masses of the people suffer, are due, not to unjust social institutions, to economic environment, and to class robbery, but to the innate depravity of the individual. It is based on the assumption that poverty is at once a crime and its own punishment, that “the poor in the loomp are bad,” and that the British workman is an enemy of humanity—himself included; a sort of wild beast against whom everyone, not excepting himself, needs to be protected; who should be “cribbed, cabined and confined,” with no other function in life than to work and to thank the good God that he is allowed that privilege. Doubtless, if these good “social reformers” had their way, the workman would be carefully escorted to his work in the morning and escorted home at night when his work is done, to be awakened and escorted to his work the next morning, and so on, to the end of the chapter.

One wonders why this elaborate prohibitive programme does not include the re-institution of curfew and the sumptuary laws-but that the latter are quite unnecessary for our poverty-stricken proletariat. What would be still better, however, from the point of view of these Gradgrind puritans, would be to provide housing accommodation inside the factories. Hammocks, into which the “operatives” could tumble at night, when exhausted with their work, might be slung over the machines, and there they would be, ready to resume their daily task at the earliest possible moment. This would have very considerable advantages. Not only would the workpeople be kept from the temptation of the public-house, but they would lose no time; punctuality at work would be ensured, and their cost of living would be enormously reduced. They would need but little clothing, no furniture, and would have no rent to pay. They could save the greater part of their wages, and having few wants would be able to work much more cheaply than they do now—all for the benefit of the good, kind, philanthropic “temperance” capitalists. Colliers, of course, could be caught young and kept down the pit all their lives, as the ponies are. I offer these suggestions to the “temperance reformers,” whose one idea of “temperance” is rigid restriction of individual liberty, and, great as is the concern of our opponents as to how the inventor and the genius are to be rewarded under Socialism, I make them a present of these splendid suggestions for accelerating profit-making—free, gratis and for nothing.

It is peculiarly interesting to a Social-Democrat that the people who are so eagerly demanding this restrictive legislation, who wish to coerce and chain and “prohibit” the working man, are among those who raise the loudest and shrillest outcry against “coddling” the workman, and interfering with his liberty and “freedom of contract,” when it is a question of the legal limitation of the hours of labour; of more stringent factory legislation; of keeping children out of the factories; of providing decent working-class dwellings; feeding starving children or organising the labour of the unemployed. In all these matters legislation is an intolerable interference with individual liberty; in these, laissez-faire, should reign supreme. One of these worthy “temperance” capitalists, a large factory owner and Liberal member for a Yorkshire constituency, denounced in the most violent terms the last Factory Act; the provision in which for the closing of the mills at twelve instead of one o’clock on Saturday he described as an “act of spoliation and robbery.” It was a scandalous confiscation of the capitalist’s property in his wage-slaves to deprive him of even one hour of their labour-time in a week . Why shouldn’t they be “free” to work as long as they liked, or as he, by the coercive power of their poverty, could compel them? Why, indeed! It is only when it comes to a question of how he shall spend his limited leisure, the only relation in which he is free, they are working in the interest of the working class, who, “cannot afford” to buy drink. It is true that the workers cannot afford to buy drink—and tens of thousands of them are total abstainers, although poor—but for the matter of that, they cannot afford to live. And the more cheaply they learn to live the more cheaply they will have to live. Then, again, we are told that the publican is the enemy of the working-class; we are reminded of the enormous profits made by the drink trade, and so on. All that leaves us unmoved. I hold no brief for the publican. On the contrary, I would like to see him abolished. I stand by the only real democratic ternperance policy that of establishing popular restaurants under municipal ownership and control, in the place of the present public-house. There is this, however, to be said in defence of the publican. If he robs the working-man he only robs him as consumer. The working man is not compelled to patronise the publican. At any rate he can live without doing so. In that matter he is a free agent. But the chief robbery of labour goes on in the factory and workshop, and there the workman has no choice. He is not compelled to go to the public-house, but he must go to work or starve. Yet those who cry most persistently for repression and suppression in entirely self-regarding matters, denounce in the strongest terms any interference with the liberty of the workman, and his wife and children, to be exploited in the factory.

It may be, and sometimes is, claimed for this so-called “temperance” legislation that if it does no good it can, at any rate, do no harm That is not so. In so far as it is inspired by any reforming zeal it has the effect of directing attention from the real causes of social evils to some of its minor effects. Just now teetotalism is respectable, and it is regarded as the reverse of “good form” to oppose even the wildest schemes of the “temperance” reformers. But Social. Democrats should not be deterred from opposing what that legal interference with the workman, restrictions, limitations and prohibitions are necessary and justifiable. And yet to the rational mind it would seem that it is just here that these are neither necessary nor justifiable. Surely if a workman is to have any freedom at all, it should be freedom to spend and enjoy in his own way the leisure and wages he has earned by his own labour. If his way and his tastes do not commend themselves to his “betters,” let them show him a “more excellent way,” and provide him with opportunities for the cultivation of higher tastes and for more rational pleasures. The latter, however, do not for a moment enter into the consideration of the “temperance reformer.” Rational pleasures, indeed! What have they to do with the workingman? He has his work—that should be enough for him. And then he is—as his poverty shows—endowed with a double dose of original sin and must be protected from his vices. The whole movement is based on the assumption that the workingman is a vile, incorrigible, drunken beast, incapable of self-control. For, it should be observed, the whole agitation is directed solely against the poor pleasures of the working class; the most sober, the most thrifty and self-respecting and only useful class in the country. It is the common publichouse which comes in for condemnation and for suppression. The grand hotels, in which our masters drink at a sitting more in value than would find a working class family in food for a year, are not to be touched, and no one would dream of interfering with them, or in any way restricting the pleasures of the rich. Oh dear no! It is right that they should enjoy themselves. Have they not earned that privilege by the unpaid labour of the working-class? It is only the latter who should be restricted in their leisure and pleasure, because then they will be able to work more cheaply, and to give still more unpaid labour for the pleasure of their masters.

Of course, the temperance reformers plead that they know to be mischievous from fear of being dubbed the friends of “publicans and sinners.” It is an imperative duty for us to condemn quack remedies for poverty, in whatever guise they may offer themselves; and the more “respectable” and specious they may be the more dangerous are they. Because we recognise the existing evils of the drink traffic that is no reason why we should not oppose the pernicious proposals of the “reformers,” any more than the fact that we recognise—more clearly perhaps than most others—the evils of unemployment, is a reason for our not opposing the mischievous schemes of emigrationists and other philanthropists.

The repressive policy of these reformers will not reduce but increase drunkenness, by stimulating secret drinking. By the exclusion of children from the public-house, the latter will not be improved, and the children will not benefit. The mothers, of whom we have heard so much of late, who take their young children to public-houses and there soak them with spirits, are but a very small minority, and the only effect of excluding the children in their case will be that, either the children will be left to take care of themselves in their squalid hovels—where they will be worse off than in a public-house bar—or the women themselves will get the drink into their wretched “homes” and there indulge in orgies which would not be tolerated in the lowest public-house. That, probably, does not concern our puritanical prohibitionists. The misery, squalor, wretchedness and vice, bred by poverty, is of no moment so long as it is carefully kept out of sight.

We Social-Democrats, on the other hand, want to root out the cause of the evil. We aim at destroying slumdom and poverty. We aim at promoting real temperance by giving the people decent homes and decent places of recreation and social intercourse, by creating a material environment which will discourage vice of all kinds and make decent human life possible for all. For that reason we should strenuously oppose a policy which, in the name of “temperance,” ignores the fundamental cause of the evils against which it is supposed to be directed, and is calculated to intensify the disease it professes to cure.