Drinking, eating and smoking the socialist way: The CPUSA’s advice on diet in the 1930s

This is the third installment in a series of blog posts on the Communist Party of the USA’s inter-war health journal, Health and Hygiene. You can find the other posts here and here.

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Diet and vegetarianism

The journal was also very concerned about the diet of workers, with numerous articles on what was considered healthy eating in the 1930s. Coming out of the Great Depression, there was a major anxiety about working class people being under-nourished and underweight, with the editors of Health and Hygiene rallying against the ‘crushing semi-starvation relief and low-wage diets that have been forced upon the unemployed and a large part of the labouring population’. The focus of many of the articles featured in the journal thus was on how to moderately gain weight through diet, warning against many of the popular remedies offered at the time:

Left to the kind advice of their friends or the direction of their parents, our too-slim friends are told take this tonic or that tonic, a tonic with cod liver oil or another with malt or one with iron, seaweed, iodine or whatnot. Unseen ‘friends’ over the radio bellow yeast, tasty or ironized. Even whiskey before meals is suggested; in fact, many patented tonics are nothing but wine or flavoured alcohol.

Instead the journal recommended a recognisably healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, cereals, dairy products, soups, meat and fish, but also recommended ‘miscellaneous’ foods, such as ‘ice cream, cake, pie, mayonnaise, olive oil, gelatin [sic], custards, puddings, jam, marmalade, nuts, candy in moderation and so forth.’ Alongside these dietary suggestions, the same article recommended ‘a certain amount of exercise’ and a ‘sufficient amount of sleep’.

The journal was primarily concerned with workers and their families (including the large number of unemployed workers) who were under-nourished in the 1930s. It recognised that it was ‘obviously impossible to hope to attain anything resembling a well-balanced diet for people on present relief allowances’, but encouraged its readers to ‘spend as much for milk, cream and cheese as for meats, poultry and fish; and as much for fruits and vegetables as for meats, poultry and fish.’ Unlike contemporary health concerns for the working class, the journal believed there was more of a danger from under-eating than over-eating:

Life insurance statistics indicate that over-weight individuals die younger than those of correct weight. It is felt, however, that this constitutes no great danger to the mass of American workers and farmers.

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The journal focused on certain types of food and drink that they promoted as healthy and helpful in gaining weight for the ‘too-slim’ individual. Milk was endorsed as a ‘near-perfect food’ and was championed for its relative cheapness, its help in building muscles and developing bones and teeth, its importance for babies and children, and its vitamin count, as well as being ‘an excellent source of fat’. Milk was described as ‘the most digestible of all foods’, with the journal suggesting that a pint of milk could ‘make up, to a certain extent, for deficiencies due to lack of fresh meat and vegetables.’ As well as promoting the consumption of milk, the journal also warned against the rumours published in the widely-read magazine Coronet that milk and dairy products increased the risk of cancer. Calling these rumours ‘gibberish, bombast, claptrap, moonshine and self-delusion’, the journal countered by saying that there was ‘no reason why shouldn’t continue to urge those who can enjoy milk to drink it’. ‘Not enough people’, the journal continued, ‘are drinking milk, rather than that too much is being consumed’, and encouraged ‘Negroes and poor whites’ to consume more.

Meat was another food that was highly celebrated by the journal. It was seen as a valuable source of protein that could not be wholly substituted by milk and eggs, and particularly important for workers and the unemployed as they were susceptible to developing pellagra, a disease caused by malnutrition. The journal claimed that it was ‘the absence of meat and liver in the diets of Southern workers that is responsible for an incidence of about 250,000 cases of pellagra.’ The journal warned against a ‘fear of meat’, declaring:

Meat does not cause high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, diseases of the kidneys, or gout. We do not know the cause of these ailments.

It further stated that it was ‘astonishing how the fear of meat affects a considerable number of otherwise intelligent people’ and criticised those vegetarians who practised this particular diet ‘because of certain fears and scruples about meat.’ But it conceded that for the most part, vegetarianism was safe and suitable dietary choice, if it included eggs and dairy:

Such a vegetarian diet… has much to commend it. It will furnish every vitamin, mineral, and food necessary to good health. It will enable one to work and play as efficiently as the person who includes meat in his diet. Anyone who is fond of such a vegetarian diet can continue to enjoy it without fearing loss of efficiency.

Two years earlier, the journal had rallied against vegetarianism as a fad, but its definition of a vegetarian was closer to that of what would be considered nowadays to be a vegan:

The strict vegetarian diet does not eat milk, butter, cheese, eggs and sometimes honey, because these foods are of animal origin.

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The journal stated that it would be ‘difficult’ for a person to ‘maintain good health on a strict vegetarian diet’ and warned against it for infants and children. It further claimed, ‘Some healthy adults can keep healthy on a strict vegetarian diet, but they have a hard job before them.’ It suggested that vegetarians have attempted to ‘place a pseudo-scientific mask over their cult’, but ‘for all that masking, vegetarianism remains mystic and ideal in the worst sense.’ Workers, the journal argued, needed strength to overthrow the capitalist system and from this point of view:

Engaging in a cult like vegetarianism does not only rob the bodies of these workers of whatever strength they might get immediately from the healthier foods that they fight for. It also takes their minds off the more important problems of the day.

Addictive substances

While addictive substances, such as alcohol and smoking, are now considered public health issues, the journal dedicated little space to these topics. This is even though the journal’s editors clearly viewed alcohol abuse as a significant problem, with an article from August 1936 declaring:

Morphine, cocaine, marihuana are all gross offenders, but alcohol is probably more destructive, from a medical and social standpoint, than all other drugs together…

Written three years after the end of Prohibition in the United States, the journal acknowledged the ‘universal popularity’ of alcohol, but reminded its readers that drinking beyond moderation, both in the short term and the long term, had a number of detrimental effects upon one’s health. It noted that ‘drinking in moderation will not injure the general health’, but cautioned that there were times when alcohol was to be ‘entirely avoided’, such as when conducting work needing precision or physical efficiency. In the end, the journal advised, ‘A wise rule is never to take a drink during working hours.’

Although it saw alcoholism as a public health problem, the journal warned against returning to Prohibition and state-enforced temperance. In 1932, towards the end of Prohibition, William Z. Foster criticised the illegality of alcohol in a pamphlet Towards Soviet America:

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.

Foster pointed to the anti-alcohol campaigns undertaken in the Soviet Union as evidence that the Stalin regime were winning the war against ‘the evils of alcoholism’ (even though drinking increased under Stalin’s first Five Year Plan).

This attitude towards Prohibition remained in late 1936, declaring it was ‘tried and proved itself a failure’. On the other hand, it stated that temperance campaigns were ‘equally futile’. The journal argued that essentially alcoholism was a psychological issue, often triggered by people’s socio-economic position. The journal concluded:

As the difficulties in the outer world increase, causing greater inner stress, more and more people turn to drink… Any effective attack on alcoholism must have its basis in the creation of a reasonable society, where people can have the opportunity for work and self-expression. In such a society even potentially weak persons would be able to get along without cracking under the strain. More important still, such a society would develop far fewer potentially weak persons.

This reinforced Foster’s argument from 1932, where he claimed that socialism in the USSR was ‘rapidly wiping out alcoholism and the mass of misery and degradation that accompanies it.’

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 On the other hand, the journal, like many other medical practitioners at the time, refused to condemn smoking as harmful to one’s health. Those who warned people with ‘highly colored and lurid versions of the evil effects of smoking in health and in illness’ were, in the eyes of the journal, ‘[p]seudo-scientific writers, physical culture faddists, fake medical advisors and columnists’. The claim that the journal emphasised was that ‘it is not possible to say with scientific accuracy whether or not smoking in moderation is harmful to the healthy individual’. While not giving an exact meaning of what could be considered ‘in moderation’, this was the point that the journal sought to reiterate, stating, Smoking to excess is harmful, of course, just as is over-eating, over-exercising, [or] over-working.’ This point was followed soon after by this claim, ‘So far as we know, also, smoking does not shorten life’, adding that ‘[m]any smokers live to a ripe old age.’

The journal suggested that certain people shouldn’t smoke, such as those with problems with their veins, heart or stomach, and also noted that some individuals could not smoke ‘without developing symptoms of poisoning’. But did not advocate for people to quit smoking. It concluded:

if you wish to smoke, and you have no disease which makes smoking undesirable for you, there is no good reason known at present why you should not go ahead and enjoy the habit, provided you are moderate.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s installment on syphilis!


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




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.


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.


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.

CPUSA on Prohibition

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?