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How Europe’s Temperance Movement Saved Beer

6 5 3
26.09.2021

Prohibitionism is perhaps the most consistently misunderstood topic in global history. Just the word “temperance” evokes images of puritanical busybodies brow-beating drunkards. Generations of historians have followed the claim of Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Age of Reform, that said temperance was a uniquely American, conservative culture clash “linked not merely to an aversion to drunkenness and to the evils that accompanied it, but to the immigrant drinking masses [that was] carried about America by the rural-evangelical virus.”

But Hofstadter’s cultural politics interpretation makes no sense. There was no “Great Awakening” of conservative Protestantism in early 20th century America. Just the opposite, in fact. And that the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment was ratified in record speed in 1919—not just by rural Midwesterners but by 46 of 48 states, north and south, inland and coastal—blows up the country bumpkin explanation. The United States wasn’t at all exceptional in enacting prohibition but was one of a dozen countries to do so. If you take a global view, the crowning achievement of prohibitionism came at the height of the Progressive Era because it was a radically progressive, rather than reactionary, reform.

As I find in my new book, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, one word is key to truly understanding prohibitionism: traffic. Prohibitionists didn’t oppose the actual liquor in the bottle nor the drunkard; instead, they consistently railed against “liquor traffic”: predatory capitalists who trafficked in highly addictive substances and then drained their customers (and their families) dry, all for immense personal profit. Temperance of yesteryear was the forerunner of opposition to Big Pharma amid the opioid epidemic of today. The prohibition movement played a critical role in shaping the priorities of socialism. Indeed, predatory liquor traffic was an issue of central concern to the socialist movement, both around the world and in the United States, from its very inception.

Prohibitionism is perhaps the most consistently misunderstood topic in global history. Just the word “temperance” evokes images of puritanical busybodies brow-beating drunkards. Generations of historians have followed the claim of Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Age of Reform, that said temperance was a uniquely American, conservative culture clash “linked not merely to an aversion to drunkenness and to the evils that accompanied it, but to the immigrant drinking masses [that was] carried about America by the rural-evangelical virus.”

But Hofstadter’s cultural politics interpretation makes no sense. There was no “Great Awakening” of conservative Protestantism in early 20th century America. Just the opposite, in fact. And that the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment was ratified in record speed in 1919—not just by rural Midwesterners but by 46 of 48 states, north and south, inland and coastal—blows up the country bumpkin explanation. The United States wasn’t at all exceptional in enacting prohibition but was one of a dozen countries to do so. If you take a global view, the crowning achievement of prohibitionism came at the height of the Progressive Era because it was a radically progressive, rather than reactionary, reform.

As I find in my new book, Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, one word is key to truly understanding prohibitionism: traffic. Prohibitionists didn’t oppose the actual liquor in the bottle nor the drunkard; instead, they consistently railed against “liquor traffic”: predatory capitalists who trafficked in highly addictive substances and then drained their customers (and their families) dry, all for immense personal profit. Temperance of yesteryear was the forerunner of opposition to Big Pharma amid the opioid epidemic of today. The prohibition movement played a critical role in shaping the priorities of socialism. Indeed, predatory liquor traffic was an issue of central concern to the socialist movement, both around the world and in the United States, from its very inception.

In The Condition of the Working Class in England, socialist Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, Friedrich Engels, vividly depicted the disease-ridden urban slums of Industrial Revolution Manchester and Liverpool, England. Drunks face down in the muddy gutter, addicts stepping over them to pawn their last........

© Foreign Policy


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