American history

For the socialization of medicine! The CPUSA and Universal Healthcare in the 1930s

This is the fifth and final post in a series on the American Communist Party’s health journal from the mid-to-late 1930s, Health and Hygiene. This final post looks at the CPUSA’s national health policy and its call for universal healthcare, an issue that still affects Americans today.

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Health insurance and medical co-operatives

One of the underlying problems of health policy in the United States has been health insurance and people’s access to the health system. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms in the 1930s, some form of free-to-access government funded healthcare system was proposed, but opposition from the American Medical Association (AMA), the health insurance industry and some politicians prevented this reform from being realised. The Communist Party and the editors of Health and Hygiene supported health insurance is a first step towards the ‘socialization of medicine’, with three physicians writing in June 1935, ‘We contend that genuine socialization can come only through the establishment of a comprehensive system of social insurance.’ Such a programme, according to these physicians, would provide:

  1. Full medical and dental attention to all working people – workers, farmers, and professionals, employed and unemployed, and their families.
  2. Control only by those who are interested in its honest and efficient functioning, those who give the care and those who receive it.
  3. Financing through taxation of those sections of our population which are able to pay, that is, those in the higher-economic brackets.

They highlighted the problems of the current state of healthcare in the United States by stating that in 1929, before the onset of the Great Depression, only 20 per cent of the working class had any form of dental care, and that 50,000 people would die per annum from sickness and ill health, due to the lack of a proper healthcare system. While the AMA opposed this form of healthcare, these three physicians argued that was also in the economic interests of healthcare professionals. Their reasoning was thus:

Just as the people in general seek doctors to treat them, so the practitioners today – more and more of them – seek patients to treat. There is genuine unemployment among the practitioners even as there is among those who would be patients…

What keeps the patient from the doctor? The answer is clear and simple: He cannot pay for medical and dental care.

However in another article in October 1937, Kingsley Roberts, the Medical Director of the Bureau of Cooperative Medicine, claimed that compulsory health insurance was panacea as it still meant that the poorest people only received treatment from the doctors with the lowest levels of competency. The alternative to this that Roberts proposed were medical co-operatives, which distributed costs evenly amongst its members and encouraged ‘group practice’, where ‘[o]rganized groups of physicians representing all branches of medical science’ are available for consultation within one cooperative. For Roberts, cooperative medicine made ‘a direct attack on the economic problems of present-day medicine with a view of making the best in medical science available to the people on the most favourable terms.’ Another article by Roberts from March 1938 succinctly defined the medical cooperative as:

the method by which numbers of lay-men band together and make periodic, fixed, pre-payment for the medical services of a number of physicians employed to keep them well and to give them regular medical attention when they need it.

The journal noted that most local medical societies, as well as the AMA, opposed these cooperatives, but the Medical Society of the County of New York was praised for embracing medical cooperatives, with journal calling this ‘statement given out by a group of 430 progressive physicians… a forward step’. Roberts concluded his article by declaring:

Active cooperation between progressive doctors and lay organizations is essential if consumer of medical service are to take their rightful part in arranging for more adequate distribution of medical care to all the people. The doctors who wish to support cooperative health organizations must struggle against the national medical officialdom which is grossly misrepresenting them. Laymen must fight reactionary propaganda which has confused and misled in the past.

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The national health program of the CPUSA

The call for the creation of medical cooperatives was what Trotskyists would have later described as ‘a transitional demand’, implemented before the socialisation of the health system as part of a workers revolution. Writing in the The Communist, William Z. Foster stated that the ‘preservation of the health of the people as a political question should, therefore, be the concern of the government’, proposing ‘a federal health program to guard the people’s physical welfare’. Foster acknowledged that ‘capitalist exploitation… deteriorates the workers’ health’ and that ‘only under a socialist system [would] the people’s health be fully protected’, it was important to recognise that ‘by insistent and intelligent mass struggle the toilers can accomplish very much even under capitalism in protecting their health.’ Therefore Foster argued:

It is the political task of the Communist Party to give all possible aid in the development of a national health program and in the organization of the struggle in support of it.

As seen throughout the run of Health and Hygiene, Foster emphasised that there were a number of different areas of social policy that needed to be addressed to create a positive effect on the health of the American working class. This included higher wages, strengthened food and drug quality laws, the abolition of slums and unsanitary low-rent housing, strengthened laws relating hazardous workplaces, increased rests and recreation for workers, economic safeguards (such as pensions and unemployment payments), and greater health education. Foster admitted that ‘[t]he labor movemebt has in the past grossly neglected the whole matter of the people’s health’, but claimed that the Communist Party was taking the issue seriously now, ‘giving its support to the progressive body of doctors who constitute the Medical Advisory Board of the Daily Worker.’ Like the physicians who wrote about health insurance and medical cooperatives, Foster encouraged the Communist Party, as part of the broad Popular Front, to campaign for a national health program, predicting that ‘health and social security legislation will be one of the main arenas of political struggle during the next few years.’ At the same time, Foster maintained that the various areas of struggle outlined above were areas where workers could achieve significant victories at the local level, while the larger national health program campaign moved more slowly.

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Conclusion – into the inter-imperialist era

The journal, for reasons unknown, wound up in late 1938, even though further issues were promoted. But this happened to several journals produced by the CPUSA during the Popular Front era as the Party entered the inter-imperialist era when the Soviet Union signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany. Most of those who were on the journal’s editorial board remained in the Communist Party and were involved in other ‘front’ organisations during and after the Second World War.

In his book The Lost World of British Communism, Raphael Samuel suggested that during the Popular Front period, the Communist Party of Great Britain was very concerned with appearances and promoted ‘cleanliness and respectability’ amongst its members. Reading through the pages of Health and Hygiene, this concern can also be detected within the Communist Party of the USA. The journal promoted an outwardly Marxist viewpoint of health and healthcare, but at the same time, relied on the authority of its contributors as respected members of medical community. While praising the healthcare system of the Soviet Union, there was little in the journal that explicitly advocated a socialist revolution and the editors were very much concerned with promoting practical and immediate advice for its readers, as well as short-term and tangible campaign goals for trade unions and other organisations.

This three year print run of Health and Hygiene reveals an insight into how left-leaning progressives viewed medicine, disease and healthcare in the 1930s, at a time when the Federal Government under Franklin D. Roosevelt was moving (somewhat) to the left with his New Deal reforms. Although there was support within the CPUSA (and by the journal) for most of the reforms undertaken by the Democrats, the journal continually campaigned for the working class, in their trade unions and other local organisations, to take control of their own health, especially pushing for greater safety in the workplace, tougher consumer protection laws, and a reform of social housing across the nation.

A socialist guide to sex: The CPUSA and sex education in ‘Health & Hygiene’

This is the second part of a series of blog posts on the Communist Party of the USA’s health journal from the 1930s, Health and Hygiene. This post is dedicated to the coverage of sex and birth control issues in the journal. The first post can be found here.

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Sex and masturbation

Although sex education, particularly influenced by the purveyors of eugenics and social Darwinist birth control, was widespread in the United States in inter-war period, it wavered between pragmatism and upholding traditional Christian morality, including abstinence before marriage and from masturbation. The journal tried to counter this moral view of sex with a progressive and ‘matter of fact’ attitude towards sex and masturbation. The journal pronounced that many sexual ‘difficulties’ related back to the ‘morality taught to us in childhood’, which was ‘derived from religion’ and thus, ‘Questions about sex are lied about or completely repressed.’ Although many people may have moved away from religion in their adult life, the journal proposed that many were still unconsciously wedded to these beliefs. For example:

We may no longer believe that God will punish us for masturbation but we continue to believe that our masturbation has weakened our body and injured our sex organs.

The purpose of this morality was to make people compliant in the face of capitalism and bourgeois authority. The journal argued that ‘guilt feelings aroused by sex makes people timid before authority and afraid to fight for their rights.’ Therefore the fight against capitalism entailed a fight against conservative attitudes to sex, with the debut issue of the journal stating:

Just as we must fight to overthrow the present vicious economic system so we must fight against the wrong attitudes to sex [that capitalism] has implanted in us.

This Christian morality was blamed for sexual ‘frigidity’ in women and couples not enjoying sex after marriage, but the journal still warned against sex before marriage. When a young woman wrote to the journal in January 1936, saying her fiancé ‘think we should have sex relations before we get married’ and that she often thought ‘he is right and that it is only prejudice that keeps me from it’, the journal’s psychiatrist replied:

it might seem at first that it would be wiser for you to have sexual relations with your friend before you marry. This is not the case. Sexual relations are a part of life and cannot be isolated from it. To be satisfactory they must be part of an acceptable relationship.

The journal suggested that ‘[e]ven when we have consciously emancipated ourselves from [traditional feelings about sex], they continue to linger on, as unconscious feelings of guilt’. This could, the journal warned, bring on sensations of guilt for the young women, especially if found out by family and friends. The journal warned that her fiancé may also change his mind if they had pre-marital sex:

your friend, though he had the best intentions in the world, might easily, as a result of his own unconscious feelings of guilt about sex, feel that you had degraded yourself by having such an affair with him, and this might endanger his love for you.

Despite this warning against sex before marriage, the journal featured several articles discussing ‘frigidity’ in women, which argued that women needed to feel liberated from traditional views about female sexuality and be more willing to enjoy sex for sex’s sake within the realm of a heterosexual and monogamous marriage. According to an article in the journal from March 1936, 1 in 4 married women in America ‘get so little pleasure from sexual relations that they can be called frigid.’ This concept was borne out of the fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis in the United States in the inter-war period and proposed that women had internalised traditional morality that denied that women had ‘sexual curiosity, desire or knowledge’. The journal suggested that to overcome this ‘frigidity’, the woman had ‘to “let go” sufficiently to enjoy sexual relations’, while the role of the man in developing a sexual relationship was downplayed. As the journal stated, ‘[t]he husband’s skill and technique are factors to a certain extent, but their importance has been exaggerated.’

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As well as being taught from an early age that ‘only men and “immoral” women [had]… sex desires’, the journal’s psychiatrist pointed to another range of factors that they claimed caused ‘frigidity’. These included ‘improper methods of birth control’, such as the withdrawal method where ‘[t]he women’s uncertainty that the man will withdraw in time, especially when combined with a fear of pregnancy, may be of decisive importance.’ Another factor was the linkage of sex with large families and poverty, with the journal suggesting that to some young women, ‘Sex becomes synonymous with children one cannot afford to have, and a deep fear of pregnancy may result.’

An article published a few months later concluded that the combination of a husband’s encouragement, along with possible help from a psychiatrist, could help a married woman to overcome her frigidity. It stated:

Such a woman responds to gentleness, kindness, and affection during the daily round of life as well as during sexual relations. Encouraging her to express herself, giving her the feeling that her place in her husband’s affections is secure, encourages her to discard these relics of childhood. Tact and patience on the husband’s part will often result in the gradual development of an adult reaction to sex.

 In an exhibition of the journal’s Communist Party origins, it put forward the Marxist argument that women’s frigidity came from her inferior status within the capitalist system and the ‘solution to this problem… can only be a social one.’ The journal surmised:

Individual women may be cured, but most of them continue suffering and a million new cases crop up for the few that are helped. Just as our society creates frigid women, so a rational society could create normal ones. Women’s inferior position and their sexual exploitation are merely parts of the larger exploitation on which our society is based.

Sexual ‘weakness’ in men and their attitudes to sex were handled differently by the journal, and much less column space was dedicated to this issue. While a female reader was explicitly discouraged from partaking in pre-marital sex, the journal discussed a man’s sexual history without any criticism, writing:

When he was about seventeen or eighteen he had his first sexual experience and at this time ejaculated almost before he began intercourse. However, after a few experiences of this kind his ability improved and he had no further trouble except on rare occasions. He continued more or less regular sexual relations with different girls.

‘Weakness’ in this case was ‘rapid ejaculation’, or is better known today as premature ejaculation. The cause of this, the journal suggested, was that the man was ‘anxious and over-anxious to please [his wife], to be an ideal mate for her.’ The solution to premature ejaculation was, according to the journal, was to stop ‘worrying about not being the ideal’ and to be himself, alongside some possible help from a psychiatrist.

More room was dedicated to the topic of masturbation over the run of the journal. Famous psychiatrist and former member of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Frankwood E. Williams wrote a substantial article on the subject for the journal in November 1935 (less than a year before he died). Williams stated that there was ‘nothing surprising’ and ‘nothing unhealthy’ about masturbation, especially by adolescents and unmarried people. Psychiatrists were particularly concerned of the supposed mental and physical effects of sexual frustration and the journal advocated masturbation to relieve this tension. Williams wrote that people who engaged in masturbation should not feel guilty for doing so, but at the same time warned about masturbating ‘too frequently’, cautioning that for some ‘masturbation may become a permanent substitute for normal sexual intercourse.’ As humans were seen as social animals, Williams argued in the journal that sexual intercourse was preferable to masturbation and that it should be preferably only undertaken by married people ‘when the wife is absent or ill, or intercourse for any reason is at the time impossible.’ Williams’ main argument that it was anxiety and guilt caused by people worrying about masturbating that did the damage, concluding, ‘it is not the masturbation which is harmful, but the worry it produces.’ Like other discussions of female sexuality in the journal, discussion about female masturbation saw it as ‘more complicated’, but did acknowledge that ‘[m]asturbation interests women as well as men’.

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An illustration of the myths of masturbation

Birth control and abortion

By the 1930s, the concept of birth control had won acceptance amongst a significant number of Americans, although, as today, a vocal moral minority campaigned heavily against the promotion of birth control, especially to adolescents and unmarried people. At the same time, birth control became for many synonymous with eugenics and social Darwinism, which the Communist Party and the journal’s editors strictly condemned. The journal strongly advocated for knowledge of effective birth control methods to be provided to all women and called for the repeal of all anti-birth control laws. This was portrayed as a class issue:

While the wealthy upper classes have been able to obtain the necessary information wherever and whenever they desired it regardless of the laws, those who have the greatest need for birth control information – the low-income classes – have been unable to obtain it.

The journal enthused that a number of birth control centres were being opened by workers’ organisations, but warned against other centres or clinics run by religious organisations or for profit. With regards to the former, the journal criticised the Catholic Church for its promotion of the ‘rhythm method’ as an effective method of birth control. ‘There is not enough scientific evidence’, the journal’s Eric Matsner stated, ‘to prove that the average woman can rely on this method.’ But in a later issue, the journal conceded:

most women will prefer not to rely on the “safe period” as a method of birth control… However, the “safe period” does work in some cases, and for a woman whose religious scruples will not allow her to use other methods, it may be recommended as better than no method at all.

With regards to the latter, the journal warned:

The public should be on guard against a number of so-called “birth-control clinics” which have been opened by commercial firms. The interest of these firms is naturally not in the reliability of the advice given, but in selling their products.

From this, the journal also warned against birth control methods and ‘abortion’ pills being peddled by many, which were ineffective, costly and possibly dangerous. Writing on birth control methods, Matsner that a suitable doctor needed to consulted for the preferred method of birth control to be effective, which was the insertion of a diaphragm (not mentioned by name in the journal). Matsner wrote:

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the woman who buys a contraceptive device at the drug store and attempts to fit herself runs a great risk of becoming pregnant. Only a physician, and a qualified one at that, can prescribe the size and type of contraceptive she needs. Yet a company that is doing a nation-wide business through drug stores sells its contraceptive device with the claim that “one size fits all normal women”.

With regards to abortion, in an article by Vivian Terry written in June 1935, the journal noted that there were ‘many medicines on the market that are supposed to bring on menstruation’, but Terry stressed:

All of these preparations, regardless of the name given to the product or the claims made for it, or the testimonials to substantiate these claims, are worthless. There is no drug, or combination of drugs, which when taken by mouth will with certainty produce abortion.

There were some pills that could cause miscarriages, but these pills only worked by causing ‘generalized poisoning’ of the woman who had taken them.

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An illustration accompanying an article warning about ‘abortion by pill’

The journal also lamented that at this time, there was a difficulty, even with doctors, in determining pregnancy and that many women became needlessly worried if their period was late. Because the ‘optimum time’ for an abortion is ‘between three and four weeks after a missed period’, the journal suggested that many women were avoiding getting an accurate diagnosis from a doctor and thus, ‘if the menstrual period is a week late they rush directly to the abortionists who emphatically assure them that they are pregnant and advise an immediate operation.’ The journal noted that it was estimated that around 150,000 abortions were performed annually in the United States and acknowledged that many women attempted to obtain one for a myriad of reasons, ‘whether it be heart disease, kidney disease, disease of the nervous system and so forth’. But the journal did not advocate making abortion legal so it could be properly regulated, instead proposing:

since abortions in the United States are still illegal and must be performed secretly at terrific expense and danger to the patient, the only solution to the problem is the use of scientific methods of birth control.

Eugenics and sterilisation

While many who advocated for birth control in the United States did so on the basis of eugenics, the journal was steadfast in its criticism of eugenics and the sterilization of ‘undesirable’ sections of the population. The journal argued that eugenics was based on faulty science from its very foundations:

The eugenicist starting from the crude notions that like produces like entertain the fallacy that superior children must come from superior parents. They have the notion that if the people with brains stopped breeding the next generation would all be morons… The eugenicist… is convinced that the genius ought and therefore does come from parents of what they call the better class; that morons come from morons, that good people come from good people, that criminals come from criminals, etc. None of these thins are so.

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Believing that ‘heredity is all important and environment negligible’, the journal called those who advocated eugenics as ‘propagandists for the exploiting class’. The reason that eugenicists called for the eradication of certain races, classes or political groups was, the journal suggested, because these were the groups of people that the ruling class and eugenicists feared. The eugenicists pushed for sterilization of these groups under the vague terms of ‘degenerate, feeble-minded, criminal [or] insane’, but the journal argued that this was ‘fake science’. Arguing that sterilization was ‘a fascist attack on workers’, the journal proclaimed:

Eugenicists are attempting to maintain the domination of a decaying class… Behind the hypocritical moral tone and all the mystical hokum about class and race superiority is a typical fascist attempt to obscure, disrupt and divide.

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The journal highlighted that the Nazi regime had, since January 1934, been using sterilization (as well as castration) against undesirable people and that these methods were being used around the world, partially inspired by the Nazis. The journal emphasised that the United States had been sterilizing ‘the so-called unfit’ since 1907 and that 12,000 people had been sterilized by 1932. It reminded readers that eugenicists were ‘irrational’ and talked ‘nonsense with a purpose’, concluding:

We must fight the attempt of the eugenicists to divide us on the basis of color, class, or race.

Stay tuned for the next section on vegetarianism, smoking and cosmetics tomorrow!

Fighting Disease, Fighting Fascism: The Communist Party of the USA and its health journal, Health and Hygiene (pt. 1)

This is a series of blog posts on the CPUSA’s journal Health and Hygiene that I am looking to turn into an article in the near future. I originally planned to write one blog post on this journal, but there was so much material that there will be four posts over the week or so. These are new areas of research for me, so any feedback is most welcome!

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The first issue of ‘Health and Hygiene’

In 1937, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), William Z. Foster, wrote in the party’s monthly journal, The Communist about the threat to the health of the American working class in the mid-1930s:

the health of the people is systematically undermined by low wages, slum housing, unsanitary and dangerous working conditions, lack of social security, adulterated food and drugs, inadequate and costly curative treatments, faulty educational systems, etc., all of which are very profitable to various capitalist interests but fatal to the workers. Capitalism not only robs the producing masses of the wealth they create, but destroys their health and very lives in the process.

From this position, in the mid-to-late 1930s, the Daily Worker Medical Advisory Board, a group of medical practitioners associated with the CPUSA, established a journal titled Health and Hygiene. Beginning in April 1935, the journal was to promote ‘good health at home and on the job’ for the American working class, and provide information on a wide variety of health and medical issues. The journal was published monthly until November 1938, essentially covering the initial Popular Front period. According a November 1935 issue, it had 20,000 readers.

Published at a time when there was a particular concern about the health of the working class in the United States and when public health debates were still dominated by ideas of eugenics and social Darwinism, Health and Hygiene sought to counter these ideas and promote greater socialist measures to combat the medical and material problems facing the working class. The journal campaigned strongly for eliminating poverty and poor living conditions for workers and their families, as well as highlighting the health problems in unsafe workplaces.

A breakdown of the topics covered by the journal over its four-year existence shows it dealt with a wide variety of topics. The journal was especially interested with health concerns for industrial workers and the broader working class, such as health problems in the workplace, as well as diseases that afflicted the lower classes in the United States. It also dedicated significant space to running pieces on health and medical education that was absent in other popular press at the time, including sex education and consumer information about fraudulent medicines and health advice.

Top 20 topics covered in Health and Hygiene journal

Category Number of times featured
Fraudulent medicine/health advice 29
Industrial workers health problems 23
Diet/Vegetarianism 23
Babies and child health 19
Sex/Masturbation 18
Beauty/Make Up/Cosmetics 18
Dentistry 13
Syphilis/Venereal Disease 12
Blood/Anaemia 9
Pregnancy/childbirth 9
USSR health 8
TB/Pleurisy 8
Medicine/vaccines 8
Constipation/diarrhoea 7
Scientist profiles 7
Feet 7
War 6
Poverty/Housing 6
Health insurance 5
Cold/Flu 5
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Advertisement warning false medical advertising

Fraudulent medicine and health advice

The most frequent topic of discussion in the journal was related to exposing fraudulent medicines and health advice. The debut editorial stated that the working class was at risk of being defrauded in this way ‘[b]ecause of their limited income and because of the pressing nature of their health problems’. The editorial added that this meant taking advice from advertisements ‘rather than that of a competent physician or dentist’ and thus, ‘workers fall prey to all sorts of medical fads and faddists’. The journal claimed, ‘We will expose such fakes and frauds wherever we find them’.

This certainly seemed to be the case. In one issue from October 1935, chiropractic was a described as ‘a symptom of the economic and social system under which we live’, claiming ‘Found by a mystic and supernaturalist, it was quickly exploited for the profit it would bring’. In an article from the following month, it wrote:

Osteopathy as an explanation or treatment for human ailments is doomed. Future society will regard it as an understandable outcrop from the roots of an economy where profit could inspire a teaching that had no basis in science and reason.

The editors of Health and Hygiene saw this a service that they could provide to build solidarity between health practitioners and the working class against those who profited from the peddling of fraudulent medicines and treatment. They proposed that there was ‘no essential conflict between the true interest of the doctor and the interest of the patient’, who both benefitted from the exposure of false treatments.

Reflecting the politics of the period, the journal claimed that Nazi Germany was one country ‘where anti-scientific cults and all so-called “natural” methods are flourishing’, criticising the ‘naturopathy’ and ‘racial science’ of the Nazi regime. In contrast, the journal claimed that in the Soviet Union – ‘where the profit system has been abolished’ – all fraudulent treatments ‘that prey on people’s health for profit’ had also disappeared. ‘In the Soviet Union’, the editorial asserted, ‘there is no Chiropractic, Osteopathy, Christian Science, or patient medicine industry’.

As well as fraudulent treatments, the journal also warned about the dangers of taking many over-the-counter medicines, which could contribute to a money-making exercise by drug companies and/or lead to harm through self-medication. Arthur Kallet, co-author of the book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs and Cosmetics, wrote that there were several results from self-medication and relying on over-the-counter medications – that these drugs would not work and were merely placebos, that self-medication could delay diagnoses (and thus proper treatment) of serious illnesses, and that these drugs could lead to injury and death to those who took them, as well as addiction. Kallet warned:

When drugs are taken on the advice of an advertiser, or a neighbour, or simply because they happen to be in the medicine-chest, their usefulness approaches the zero point; and their hazards, present even when drugs are prescribed by physicians, become serious.

Kallet also cautioned readers about the potential addictiveness of certain medications and this was a theme returned to on other occasions by the journal. There were relatively few articles in the journal dedication to the legal addictions of alcohol and smoking, but there was no also little mention of illegal drug consumption, such as heroin or cocaine, or addiction to heavy-duty painkillers, such as morphine, which was commonplace in the inter-war period. One issue in December 1936 raised the issue of addiction to Bromo-Seltzer, a painkiller and tranquiliser that was popularly used for headaches. The journal warned that Bromo-Seltzer was ‘being used as a substitute for morphine, opium, and other drugs by narcotic addicts’ before stating ‘its users become as much a slave to it as narcotic addicts do to cocaine or morphine.’

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From an article in 1937 on industrial poisonings

Health problems in the workplace

One of the primary goals of the journal and of the Daily Worker Medical Advisory Board was to campaign for improvements to workers’ health in the workplace. Despite improvements in the early 1900s, the industrial workplace in the United States was still a very dangerous place. In the debut editorial, the journal announced that it would ‘take the initiative in organizing campaigns for certain public health measures’, including attempting to ‘be a leader in the fight for a change of the conditions which render workers susceptible to illness.’

This was a constant feature throughout the publication run of the journal. The first issue in April 1935 ran a leading article on silicosis and lung disease, campaigning for enforcement of laws pertaining to the removal of silica dust. From there, the journal also highlighted the dangers of benzol poisoning, tuberculosis, lead poisoning in the automobile industry, radium poisoning amongst watchmakers, accidents in the steel industry and poisoning in the rubber mills (amongst others).

The journal put forward two solutions to these problems. Firstly the journal argued for stronger legislation dealing with workplace health and safety, as well as the enforcement of these laws. Capitalists and politicians were seen as a hindrance to this, with the journal stating:

Lobbyists for industrial insurance companies and the employers are paid huge sums to obstruct the introduction of any type of legislation which might save the lives of thousands upon thousands of workers at a small increase in operating expenses.

Even when legislation was in place, it needed to be enforced properly. Discussing safety in the automobile industry, future CPUSA leader Earl Browder (under the pseudonym George Morris) complained that Department of Labor had ‘neither the interest nor the facilities for proper inspection of the plants so as to at least enforce existing inadequate laws.’ In the article on silicosis, the journal demanded:

Only with the enforcement of public health legislation, inspired, administered and controlled by workers, will the disease, silicosis, a pernicious outgrowth of capitalist negligence and exploitation, be liquidated.

Secondly, the journal proposed that stronger unionisation in these workplaces could be used to collectively bargain for better conditions. As a February 1937 issue of the journal declared, ‘It is up to the trade unions and the masses of progressive people to remove this eyesore from the American industrial scene.’

This is the first in a series of posts on this subject. Stay tuned for further blog posts. To keep up to date, press the ‘follow’ button on the sidebar or like the Hatful of History FB page.

Crime, Masculinity and the Post-War Era in Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire

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WARNING: CONTAINS POTENTIAL SPOILERS

 

I have recently finished watching the entire five series of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the era of prohibition, spanning the decade until 1932. Earlier this year, I also watched both series of the UK drama Peaky Blinders, which was set in Birmingham at the end of the First World War. Both series are about the rise of criminal gangs in the post-war era and have many overlapping themes. I think these overlapping themes are worth exploring and here are some preliminary thoughts about them.

The reintegration of ‘damaged’ men at the end of the war

Both series focus heavily on the plight of the returned soldier at the end of the First World War. In Boardwalk Empire, Jimmy Darmody is the protégé of the Treasurer and crime boss of Atlantic City, Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson and has returned from the Western front after dropping out of Princeton University. Rather than resume his studies, Darmody becomes Thompson’s driver and right-hand man, convinced by the brutality of the war that there is no social good and that crime is the only path open for him now. At the end of the first series and at the beginning of the second, Jimmy joins forces with several others to attempt to remove Thompson from power. This is partly driven by Jimmy’s disdain for those older men who encouraged him (and other young men) to fight in the war, but left those who returned with little reward. Darmody also suffers from the guilt of surviving the war, which leads him to befriend another former soldier, Richard Harrow, a sniper with a disfigured face. Both Darmody and Harrow use the skills they learnt in the war to become ruthless criminals in the post-war era.

In Peaky Blinders, brothers Tommy and Arthur Shelby had fought on the Western front and the younger brother, Tommy, had earned commendations for his actions during the war. Back in Birmingham in 1919, the Shelbies, along with many other young men, use their military experience to commit criminal acts, or in the case of Freddie Thorne, to agitate for a communist revolution. It seems that Tommy Shelby had become been the leader of many of the local men in France and they still looked to him as a leader in the peacetime. The Shelbies are able to exploit this as they seek to expand their criminal empire. Both Tommy and Arthur, as well several others, suffer from flashbacks and remain traumatised by their wartime memories. The worst of these is suffered by Danny ‘Whizz-Bang’ Owens, who has repeated hallucinations that he is back in the trenches, leading to him to stab to death a local bystander during one episode.

Both series depict the trauma experienced by soldiers during the First World War is a reason for their inability to reintegrate into society in the post-war era and serves as a partial explanation for their criminal behaviour.

Patriarchal figures and the attempts to build a ‘family’

In both series, the patriarchal figure in the criminal ‘family’, Nucky Thompson and Tommy Shelby, are obsessed with the idea of family and go to extreme lengths to maintain their families. In Boardwalk Empire, we learn that Thompson’s wife and child had died a long time ago, so Thompson lives vicariously through the large family of his brother, Eli, who begins the series as the local sheriff. Thompson eventually marries an Irish woman (whose husband is killed by Eli and other police officers), Margaret Schroeder and adopts her two children as his own. However Thompson’s criminality means that both of these families are driven away, with Margaret separating Thompson and living on her own in New York, while Eli’s family suffers from his exile to Chicago after killing a FBI agent.

In Peaky Blinders, Tommy is obsessed with keeping the family together, but his ambition also provides tensions between family members, particularly as his siblings feel that he puts the idea of ‘family’ above their well-being. Tommy’s younger sister, Ada marries Freddie, the communist activist, and eventually runs away to London to escape Tommy’s grip. On the other hand, Tommy’s younger brother John is convinced to marry the daughter from another crime family to help Tommy’s criminal ambitions.

Both Nucky and Tommy try to argue that their actions were for the good of their family and to provide a legacy. However both series show that this idea of ‘family’ is warped by their criminality and each time they attempt to secure their family’s future, their actions negatively impact on those around them.

Crime as social mobility

At the heart of both series is that the idea that crime can bring some form of social mobility, generating extraordinary wealth, but it cannot bring legitimacy. In the first series of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby’s plan is to takeover the bookmakers’ operations at racetracks across the south and west of England and then transform these into a legitimate bookmaking business. In the second series, it shows that this does not quench Tommy’s ambition and he is keen to seize the business of other bookmakers in London and across the north of England.

In Boardwalk Empire, Thompson and his brother already occupy positions of power within Atlantic City and are economic and political kingmakers, but while extremely wealthy and powerful, Thompson is plagued by feelings of illegitimacy. For Thompson, his continued involvement in the bootlegging business brings him into contact with the criminal elements of society, which he detests. In the final series, he campaigns for an end to prohibition (which had brought him enormous wealth over the previous decade) in the belief that this would bring him legitimacy and confirm his role at the high end of society. However even as he campaigns for this, he finds that many businessmen are unwilling to associate with him because of his criminal associations.

Like many other cinematic and televisual depictions of organised crime, both series become morality tales of how crime can bring people almost to the top, but their criminality (and ambition) will always make them fall in the end – although we are yet to see what happens in the third series of Peaky Blinders.

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The Irish as ‘outsiders’

In the inter-war period, the Irish in Britain and the United States were still viewed by many with suspicion and those of Irish descent were often associated with criminality and deviance. This is explicit in Peaky Blinders where the authorities bring in a Protestant Chief Inspector from Belfast to investigate the criminal and subversive behaviour of the Irish community in Birmingham, specifically looking for a weapon before it falls into the hands of the Irish Republican Army (or the communists). For the Shelbies, this suspicion of the Irish in England convinces them that the only way to move up the social ladder is to become involved criminal enterprises.

For Thompson and his brother, they cynically tap into the divisions between Anglo and Irish American society to gain favour with those in the Irish-American community in Atlantic City. This involves obtaining money and votes from the community when needed. Thompson also makes overtures to the IRA in Ireland to obtain whiskey in exchange for weapons and uses a shared Irish heritage to try to convince the IRA leadership to accept this deal.

The plight of the Irish in America is also portrayed in Boardwalk Empire through the character of Margaret Schroeder (later Thompson), a migrant from Ireland. Margaret occupies a range of professions during her life in America and lives close to the poverty line while married to her first husband in Atlantic City. She escapes this by marrying Nucky Thompson, but once she leaves him and moves to New York, she once again struggles to keep herself and her children housed until she strikes a deal with gangster, Arnold Rothstein.

The changing role of women in Western society

Following from this, we also see the changing role of women in Britain and America after the First World War. The first series of Boardwalk Empire takes place in 1920 when the debate over whether to give women the vote in the US was raging. Thompson is in favour of giving women the vote as he believes that they will vote for him, as he is running for re-election as Treasurer. To ensure this support, Thompson speaks at the local chapter of the Women’s Temperance Movement and uses this as a platform to call for the vote for women and his re-election. For the women of the Temperance Movement, 1920 was a victorious year, gaining the right to vote as well as seeing the prohibition of alcohol.

In Peaky Blinders, the changing role of women is demonstrated through the character of Aunt Polly. While the Shelby boys were away during the war, Polly looked after the family business and raised the remaining Shelby children (including John and Ada). When the war ended, Tommy (and to a lesser extent, Arthur) came back to Birmingham to take over the business from Polly. Polly resents that after running the business for the duration of the war, she is now supposed to go back to her pre-war role – a situation that was commonly experienced by working class women across Britain in the years after the First World War.

Political extremism in the post-war era

Both Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire depict the great political upheaval that occurred at the end of the war and these crime dramas play out against a background of political violence and extremism. In Peaky Blinders, the ‘threat’ of communism and Irish republicanism is ever present and intermingle with each other and the criminal underworld in Birmingham. Tommy Shelby negotiates with both political movements in his plans to take over the bookmaking business of his rival Billy Kimber.

In Boardwalk Empire, the spectre of communism and the ‘red scare’ is conspicuously absent, but Irish republicanism does feature, as mentioned above. The threat of the Ku Klux Klan is depicted in several episodes and is shown as a nuisance to Thompson’s business, who helps Albert ‘Chalky’ White take revenge on the KKK in return to White’s loyalty in the bootlegging business. In the last two series, the Pan-Africanist organisation of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, is featured heavily as Dr. Valentin Narcisse emerges as a rival to ‘Chalky’ White, selling heroin out of an establishment in Harlem.

In both series, the authorities (the Special Branch in Peaky Blinders and the fledgling FBI in Boardwalk Empire) are more concerned with the political threats than the criminal activities of Shelby and Thompson. However individual agents, namely CI Chester Campbell in Peaky Blinders and Agent Jim Tolliver in Boardwalk Empire, press that the focus should be on Tommy Shelby and Nucky Thompson, rather than the IRA or the UNIA. In the end , these become personal vendettas that are blown apart by the changing political situation in both Britain and the USA during the inter-war period.

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These are just some initial thoughts and hopefully I will have time to flesh these out in the near future. As usual, any comments or queries are most welcome. And if you know of any scholarly work looking at these two series, please let me know.

New stuff for those interested in communist history

For those interested in communist history, I just thought I’d flag two new publications.

TCC6-cover

Firstly, there is a new issue (#6) of Twentieth Century Communism journal has just been published by Lawrence & Wishart. Now published twice a year, this journal has some of cutting-edge historical research on communism (particularly communism in the Western world). This issue is dedicated to the topic of anti-communism and there are two free articles – one on the historiography of anti-communism and one on the different types of anti-communism in the twentieth century. For an academic journal, Twentieth Century Communism is refreshingly affordable for non-academic reader, so I would urge you all to subscribe!

Leninist

Secondly, the CPGB have now published 1000 issues of the Weekly Worker (beginning in 1993) and to celebrate have posted two articles on the history of the CPGB and The Leninistone looking at the legacy of The Leninist and one on the first conference of The Leninist group. The CPGB have already published all the back issues of The Leninist in pdf format, which is a great resource for future research into the dying days of the original CPGB.

That is it for now. So get reading!

Left historical resources online: Labour Monthly, Marxism Today, Anglo-Soviet Journal, The Communist (US)

After digging around for some articles from Marxism Today from the late 1950s, I re-discovered a wonderful resource that has fully readable online versions of British and American leftist publications from the mid-1900s. The four main ones that would be of interest to labour and leftist historians would be:

Labour Monthly – a long-running monthly journal edited by CPGB theoretician R. Palme Dutt. Officially it was not a CPGB publication, but unofficially, it carried the Party line set out by Dutt.

Marxism Today – established after the crisis of 1956 to enable ‘discussion’ between CPGB members, the journal was a pretty standard publication under the editorship of James Klugmann. When Martin Jacques took it over in 1977, it marked the beginning of the journal as a lightning rod for the ‘Eurocommunist’ wing of the Party.

Anglo-Soviet Journal – I don’t know much about this journal, but it seems to be a Soviet publication in English. It was advertised in the CPGB press throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The Communist – This journal runs from the late 1920s (when the CPUSA was still officially the Workers Party of America) to the 1940s (before the Cold War begins).

So historians, start digging!

Some new acquisitions

These arrived in the post today:

books

The top two are South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History (volume 1 and volume 2), edited by Allison Drew. The bottom left is Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld and the bottom right is Manchester and the 1945 Pan-African Congress  by Marika Sherwood.

Now I’ve just got to find the time to read them!