Drink and the Child

The Board of Education have now made the teaching of teetotalism a normal part of the elementary school curriculum by the issuing of a comprehensive syllabus of lessons on the subject. Now if this were a disinterested endeavour to promote the well-being of the child it would be welcome, but, as in all capitalist “education,” the cloven hoof is visible. The chief object of this latest move is, as will be seen, not humanity, but more profit. Of course, from the professions of bourgeois spokesmen this fact could not be gathered. According to them the capitalist is in business solely for the benefit of the working class. He makes a profit only in order that the workers may get wages. He lives in debauchery and spends huge sums in luxury only to provide work for the lower orders. Indeed, his attitude is summed up in Marx’s ironical phrase, “the bourgeois is a bourgeois—for the benefit of the working class.”

So, in the matter of education this humbug is perpetuated; and the insincerity of the master class is as plain in its temperance proposals as elsewhere. Drink is only a curse to-day because of the capitalist conditions which make for its excessive use and poisonous adulteration. But to remove the economic conditions which engender alcoholic abuse would be to strike a blow at capitalist interests. Instead, therefore, of abolishing the wretched conditions of proletarian life that lay at the root of much of the craving for drink, the capitalists hypocritically try to minimise effects by puritanical legislation, or they try to train the tender sapling during the brief school hours in the fond hope that industrial conditions in later life will not bend it in an opposite direction.

Many eminent men have placed on record the fact that bad air, bad food, monotony and overwork, are prominent among the influences that lead to excessive drinking. Prof. Konig expresses a common view of German physiologists when he says that:

“Taken in moderate quantities in such forms as cognac, brandy, beer, and other beverages, alcohol is likewise an important stimulant to digestion. Brandy, whiskey, sherry, and the like, are therefore favourite remedies in disturbances of the bowels and stomach, and this helps to explain why the poorer classes, who often live upon a wretched diet of the less digestible foods, such as coarse bread and potatoes, have a craving for strong and stimulating alcoholic drinks.”

In few questions, moreover, has the perversion of truth been more effectively organised than in that of the use of alcohol. The noisy and well organised teetotalers have for long, with damnable iteration, dinned exaggerated or lying statements into the public ear on this, matter, particularly in discussing its economic aspects. And now the education authority itself enters more thoroughly into its work of hypnotising the masses by means of early and persistent suggestion of the employer’s side of the case. From the standpoint of economics the teetotal twaddle admits of easy refutation; but even, from the physiological point of view, though, opinions differ among Socialists as to the benefits or otherwise to be derived from a moderate use of stimulants, it is well to remember that the evidence is by no means solely on the side of abstinence.

The Lancet manifesto in favour of the moderate use of alcoholic liquors, which was extensively signed by eminent medical men, will still be fresh in the mind of the reader. At the meeting. of the International Physiological Congress, held at Cambridge in September 1898, an attempt was made to obtain the opinion of leading physiologists regarding this particular subject, and the following statement drawn up by Sir Michael Foster, the president of the Congress, was presented for signature:

“The physiological effects of alcohol, taken in a diluted form, in small doses, as indicated by the popular phrase “moderate use of alcohol,” in spite of the continued study of past years, have not as yet been clearly and completely made out. Very much remains to be done, but, thus far, the results of careful experiments show that alcohol, so taken, is oxidised within the body, and so supplies energy like common articles of food, and that it is physiologically incorrect to designate it as a poison—that is, a substance which can only do harm and never good to the body. Briefly, none of the exact results hitherto gained can be appealed to as contradicting, from a purely physiological point of view, the conclusions which some persons have drawn from their daily common experience, that alcohol so used may be beneficial to their health.”

The occasion was particularly favourable, for some of the most celebrated physiologists of the world and many well-known investigators were present. A very few objected to the phraseology, and one, although believing it to be correct, refused to sign because he feared it might be misused by “the trade.” A large proportion of those to whom it was submitted expressed their approval by their signatures. And, says Mr. W. O. Atwater (Harpers, No. DCVI.) the number and character of the signers are such as warrant the acceptance of the statement as the opinion of the leading physiologists of the day.

But even if the excessive use of alcohol were to cease, and it were clearly proved that the sum of human happiness was increased by its moderate use, the capitalists’ objection would not cease. The real basis of their objection is that it is not a necessary but a luxury, and that if the worker could be got to do without it he could live more cheaply and work for less wages. Macaulay once said that the Puritans “hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” And the modern Puritan looks upon working-class pleasures in exactly the same spirit, particularly when they appear to stand in the way of bigger profits. This, indeed, underlies the whole of the Education syllabus as explained by the Daily News. Pleasure is a thing to which the workers have apparently no right. In choosing their food and drink they must allow no considerations of enjoyment to influence them. Thus the syllabus and notes are quoted by Cadbury’s organ as follow.

“Neither tea nor coffee is good for children ; they should have milk or cocoa instead. Cocoa is better for children than tea or coffee because it is less stimulating and contains a little more real food substance.
“It is true that there is a certain amount of nourishment in beer. There is, for example, a little sugar, and there is a small quantity of the food substance found in meat. To obtain enough food from beer really to benefit the body, however, it would be necessary to take an extremely large quantity. For this reason the good that might be done by the nourishing part of the beer would be more than counterbalanced by the harm done by the alcohol contained in so large a quantity.”

It will be seen that no weight is given to psychological considerations: the amount of nourishment is treated as the only factor, while beer is condemned, apparently, because it would be injurious to subsist solely upon it ! But it is also true that man cannot live by bread alone ; and when the percentages of protein and carbohydrates in an aliment have been found by analysis, the last word has by no means been said on its value. On some people, particularly those in depressing health or circumstances, the pleasure afforded by a small amount of alcoholic stimulant may have a beneficial effect—even from the dietetic point of view—far more important than the amount of actual nourishment imparted. No food-value has yet been ascribed to a hearty laugh, but there is much truth in the popular saying, “Laugh and grow fat.” Indeed, no discussion of the value of alcohol as an aliment can be adequate that does not take the psychological factor into account; and it is, moreover, doubtful, to say the least, if a merely attenuated existence is the life most worth living in any case.

Now, however, we come to what is after all the gist of the whole matter. It is that the capitalist has, rightly or wrongly, become convinced that the abstainer does more work, and the following striking statements are made by the Board of Education.

“Experiments were made by Dr. Parkes with two gangs of soldiers doing equally hard muscular work (mowing), one gang alternately taking beer during the work and the other not. In every case it was shown that although men taking beer might for a short time might gain on the others, yet they soon dropped behind, and at the end of the day the total work they had accomplished was less than that done by those who had no alcohol.
“Mr. Brassey (“Work and Wages”) says: ‘Some of the most powerful of the navvies have been teetotalers. On the Great Northern Railway there was a celebrated gang of navvies who did more work in a day than any other gang on the line, and always left off work an hour or an hour and a half earlier than any other men. Every navvy in this powerful gang was a teetotaler.'”

That is the point. The capitalist believes that the teetotaler can do more work for the same wages. He can live more cheaply, and so soon as abstinence is general, competition on the labour market will make him do more work for a lower wage, thus fitting, according to economic law, the price of his labour-power to his reduced average cost of subsistence. As though to emphasise the fact that it is the profitableness of the wage worker that is the chief care of the education authority, there follows the usual teetotal panegyric on thrift. It is worth quoting.

“The expenditure of £160,000,000, or more, on intoxicating liquors every year is a drain on the resources of the nation and the direct cause of not a little national poverty. It must be remembered how vastly large is this sum, which, it is estimated, is equal to all the rents of all the houses, farms, shops, hotels, etc., in the United Kingdom, so that the amount spent on drink alone would be enough to enable everybody to live rent free.”

The quotation has its amusing side, but how sad are the full facts from the workers’ point of view ? And what a condemnation of the present system it is that the thrift, sobriety and higher efficiency of the workers, while they swell the profits of the masters, simply intensify competition on the labour market, increase the toil of those in work, and augment the number of unemployed ! The net result of the labourer’s “virtue” while the labourer is a hireling under capitalism is a worsening of his economic condition. This side of the medal is not shown to the children. On the contrary, the impression is given to the worker’s child that he and not the employer will receive all the benefit of general thrift and abstemiousness, and that hunger will cease from troubling and the landlord lie at rest. Yet the facts, which the syllabus does not give, are that thrift, if general, means a reduction of the demand for goods, and is consequently a restriction of the market and of the employment for labour ; that increased efficiency on the part of the workers does not increase the demand for products but decreases the number of men the masters need employ to supply the market; and finally, that the less it costs the average worker to live, the lower will competition force down wages. But all this does not matter, for though the worker gets less wages and less employment, the capitalist will get more profit—and that is the real aim of State education to-day. Truly we have much to thank the ruling class for in these matters. The workers schooling is a training for wage-slavery ; no more, no less. The propertyless are taught to revere and defend the interests, the flag, and the Empire of their masters. The supreme aim of it all is the making of docile instruments of profit; and the temperance lessons, stripped of their humbug, are of a piece with the rest. For after all it is capitalism that creates the drink problem, and, in spite of their hypocritical preaching, the masters decline to attack it at its source. They are ever deaf to the appeal of humanity when profit beckons them on. But all their wiles cannot for ever obscure the fact that it is not drink but capitalism that causes the poverty of the workers, and that class rule makes thrift, temperance, and efficiency so many weapons against the latter in the hands of their exploiters. Indeed, no greater condemnation of a system is than that it makes right living a means of increasing the hardships of those who produce. It is the very kernal of the capitalist system that is at fault, and no mere reform can alter it. By Socialism only can these things be changed, for the conquest of capitalist society by the toilers must take place before they can secure the fruits of their industry and the elements of a full and healthy life. Then it will be discovered that intemperance has ceased to be a problem, while
the object of public education will at last be the making, not of cheap wage-slaves but, of better
men and women.

F. C. W.

Leave a Reply