Wednesday, 30 January 2008

On Alcoholism – A Look at a Trotsky’s Problems of Life

For this piece I shall be commenting on Trotsky’s attitude towards alcohol in his book Problems of Life, most of this will draw on the chapter Vodka, The Church, and The Cinema – page references are from Problems of Everyday Life published by Pathfinder Press

The media has been full of stories about ‘binge drinking’ over the last few years. In particular, Britain is thought of as being the ‘binge’ capital of the world. The health consequences of binge drinking are numerous including things such as liver damage etc. People tend to get to do things they usually regret the following day as well as waking up with hangovers. The question we find ourselves asking is why do people put themselves through this?
Trotsky argues that alcohol is used by working class people to distract themselves from the dreariness and boredom of their lives – he says it is “a small flask containing a whole world of images.” (pg.52)
The Russian Revolution inherited what Trotsy terms “the liquidation of the vodka monopoly”(pg.36). I believe this to mean that the sale of vodka had been prohibited at some point during the Great War (please correct me if I’m wrong). In context of this, I think Trotsky is right to say “the fundamental fact that the abolition of the system by which the country encouraged people to drink is one of the iron assets of the revolution”(pg. 37). That doesn’t mean however that socialists support the prohibition of alcohol altogether. As Trotsky explains the reason why this was useful in the situation in Russia was that other entertainments would be partaken instead of this, which would improve the capabilities of the Russian working class, rather than stupefy them like alcohol does.
For present day Marxists I think we would only support alcohol prohibition in a workers state under conditions similar to those of the Russian Revolution. That means as I have said in general we don’t support it. Rather we would seek to supplant the role of alcohol by other alternative entertainments, but fundamentally by removing the alienation caused by the capitalist system that causes the dreariness and boredom Trotsky speaks of that makes people seek and escape such as alcohol or drugs. Only with these measures can the problem of binge drinking be solved.


Renegade Eye said...

I don't see prohibition in the future.

If you read Deutscher's bio of Trotsky, the whole country of Russia, would be on a binge.

Mezhrayontsi said...

Big subject

Binge drinking is a real issue in the UK. There's an argument that this is largely due to the licensing laws, which I tend to support, but there is no doubt it is ingrained in British culture in a way it is not elsewhere.

Russia has its own alcohol issues which share some parallels with Britain but are also very Russian.

I'm glad you reject prohibition, but the truth is that this is only scratching the surface of the issue.

If you mull over for even a moment a question such as - is drinking, or other drug use a product of alienation or an expression of life - then I think you will very quickly be overwhelmed by how hard it is to arrive at an answer to such a question. And if not, simply ask a number of socialists you know and see the range of answers you will get.

Remember also that socialism has a reputation for being pretty piss poor in the fun department. This is not entirely undeserved.

I am a big fan of Trotsky's 'Problems of Everyday Life', mostly because it chose to 'boldly go where no one has ever gone before', but that is not to say I would agree with his actual attitudes to anything much in the same way as I would to, say, 'The Permanent Revolution' or some such.

So to sum up, I would respond to your post by saying, glad you brought the matter up, it deserves serious attention, but hey, you're on to a big, big topic here.

Finally, I would refer you to the pamphlet the Australian SP put out a few years ago on the heroin issue, which they ran a big campaign on. I don't know if you are familiar with it but if not I think you would be very interested in it. Like your's, it was a brave attempt to enter tricky waters. I don't think they quite pulled it off, but still am happy to give them credit for the effort

adam said...

very interesting post. the question is, for me anyway, is drinking a problem caused by capitalism or a problem because of capitalism. the issues of alcoholism and binge -drinking have come about not because of drink itself but because of the alienation caused by capitalism.

would alcohol still be a crutch for people in a socialist society with decent public services, workers control of industry etc or would it simply be a (relatively) harmless way to let off steam...working will still be stressful and sweat-worthy under socialism and drinking will be a much safer way to have fun than it is now.

mines a tequila and lime

James Lemoyne said...

The vodka monopoly to which you refer was the monopoly the czarist state held on vodka production. Far from restricting production, the sale of vodka to the people was a huge source of revenue. After the revoulyion, the monopoly went and just about anyone could make vodka at home, with predictable consequences. At some stage controls were reintroduced.