I have been watching the second season of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire and it got me thinking about the history of the Prohibition era in the United States. I am not an American historian, so I am not really qualified to discuss how the show relates to historical fact (although we all know that history can never be shown accurately on film). But I was curious about the position of the far left in the USA at the time, which is something that is absent from the TV series, even though it takes place as the ‘Red Scare’ was sweeping across the country. On the Marxists Internet Archive, I found a 1932 document written by the Communist Party of the USA’s General Secretary, William Z. Foster, Toward Soviet America, which outlined the Party’s programme in the inter-war period (similar to the CPGB’s 1935 manifesto, For Soviet Britain). Chapter five of the programme put forward the CPUSA’s line on Prohibition, which I have replicated below:
Prohibition, based upon a criminal alliance between capitalists, crooked politicians and gangsters, has bred a growth of criminals such as the world has never seen before. And the “best minds” of the country stand powerless before the problem. The American Soviet government will deal with this question by eliminating prohibition, by establishing government control of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquors; these measures to be supported by an energetic campaign among the masses against excessive drinking.
This way of handling the prohibition question is working successfully in the Soviet Union. Shortly after the October revolution the Soviet government prohibited the sale or manufacture of alcoholic drinks. But soon bootlegging began, with familiar demoralizing consequences: poisonous liquor was made, much badly-needed grain was wasted, open violation of the law existed on all sides. Then, with characteristic vigor and clarity of purpose, the government legalized the making and selling of intoxicating beverages. At the same time, a big campaign was initiated by the government, the Party, the trade unions, etc., to educate the workers against alcoholism. This program is succeeding; the evils of alcoholism are definitely on the decline. Doubtless, the Russians have found the real solution of the liquor question. Just as Socialism is abolishing so many other evils, it is also rapidly wiping out alcoholism and the mass of misery and degradation that accompanies it.
This is an interesting passage, particularly the comparison of Prohibition in the United States with the Soviet Union’s campaigns to eliminate alcoholism. As usual, the USSR was exemplified as the way forward on many social issues, although in reality, these social problems still existed, and perhaps were even worse, in the Soviet sphere. My knowledge of the CPUSA is quite limited at this stage, as well as the anti-alcohol campaigns of the Soviet Union, so if anyone can recommend further reading on the topic, please let me know.
I couldn’t find anything on Prohibition in Militant, the paper of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (not the British SWP), but pdfs of the paper from this period are also available on the Marxists Internet Archive.
Another future research topic maybe?