Ernest Belfort Bax


(May 1905)

Belfort Bax, Anti-Alcohol, Social Democrat, Vol.9 no.5, May 1905, pp.461-467.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I am sorry that Askew has joined the ranks of the fanatical Anti-Alcoholists. This is one of these questions of the detail of social life in which fanaticism seems to me eminently out of place, and its presence to indicate the degeneration of legitimate opinion or conviction into a fad, and its votaries into a crank. By a “fad” (or a “crank”), as I think I have elsewhere explained, I do not mean an opinion (or the champion of an opinion), which I hold to be erroneous in itself, but rather an opinion, whether true or false, championed in a manner showing the lack of all sense of proportion as to its relative importance. Now the recent articles of Askew on this subject seem to me – I say it with all due respect – to tend in this direction. However, this is not the point that I particularly wish to press on this occasion.

The position I occupy, in this question, is precisely that which Askew blames Quelch for adopting, to wit: I defend the use, and condemn the abuse, of alcohol. Tame and unheroic as it may look, I hold this to be the true and sane attitude in the matter. Alcohol may be a poison, but somehow or other, mankind, as a whole, has got along well with it from prehistoric times up to the rise of modern capitalism, before which time distilled, as distinguished from naturally fermented liquors, were almost unknown. The rise of the later phases of capitalism and the spread of dram-drinking are practically synchronous. Not that I am prepared unconditionally to condemn the use of distilled forms of alcohol, under favourable circumstances and with due moderation. It is necessary to point out, however, that there is a considerable difference between the physical effects of these two classes of alcoholic liquors, and therefore it is essential to distinguish rather more carefully than do some of our teetotal friends between them in different cases. Again, no teetotal advocate that I have ever heard of has taken the trouble to discriminate to any extent worth speaking of between the action of Pure alcoholic drinks of all classes and that of the adulterated products of latter-day unscrupulous capitalism. A rich man with his well-stocked cellar may indulge with impunity in a three or more times greater amount of alcohol than his poor neighbour, who is ruining his constitution with the vile decoctions available at public bars. Even so, the alcohol and its adulterations are by no means the only, or perhaps not even the worst, poisons, eatable or drinkable, which the proletarian is forced to consume under present conditions. To my thinking the teetotal argument is completely vitiated by the undiscriminating and utterly unproven attribution to alcohol of all the bodily ills that modern flesh is heir to, through the almost complete ignoring of the considerations just referred to.

My own “lay” observation leads me to the conclusions that (1) there is a limit for every man beyond which he cannot continue imbibing alcohol without deleterious effects, (2) that this limit is subject to such wide individual variation that no hard-and-fast rule can be usefully formulated concerning it. Each man must find this out for himself by personal experience of the effects of alcohol on his own constitution. His duty is, of course, to see to it that he does not habitually exceed this limit, it being a social duty not only to avoid making a nuisance of himself to others, as regular “boozers” do, but in addition to maintain himself in his normal standard of efficiency. In my own case, I am commonly in the company of men, who can take, without doing themselves any noticeable harm, three or four times the quantity of alcohol that I can. These men, I consider, have a right, therefore, to indulge in this larger quantity, whereas, it might well be deemed a reprehensible habit on my part to follow their example.

Now, as to the theory of the absolutely poisonous nature of alcohol on which depends the present anti-alcoholic mania among doctors and others. We must not forget that the present is the day of the discovery of “death in the pot” everywhere. Time was when tea, as “the cup that cheers but not inebriates,” was held to be the most harmless of beverages, and, indeed, was often enough played off against alcohol as the sober poor man’s drink. Now, as Askew himself admits, tea is alleged by some of the self-same eminent authorities who condemn alcohol, to be almost, if not quite as deadly, while, in its very nature, more insidious. Some time ago a journal was published called Natural Food, the chief function of which was to demonstrate the fatal effects on the health of bread and potatoes! Many of us will recollect some three or four years ago Sir Frederick Treves’ list of foods productive of appendicitis, which included, if I remember rightly, almost every article of diet with the exception of toast and water. We all know that to the vegetarian every form of flesh food is a highly baneful toxic in its physiological effect, and unsuited to the human constitution. If we combine the teachings of all the eminent authorities on the subject of meats and drinks, we shall find ourselves reduced in time to the nutriment afforded by the dead bodies of microbes contained in well-cooked London water, with, say, an occasional bite of charcoal biscuit to add solidity.

The allegation that alcohol, as such, and in however small quantities, is a poison, is usually supported by two sets of argument – Firstly, the chemico-physiological argument, and, secondly, the statistical. As regards the former, a careful reading of the evidence fails to disclose to me any proof of toxic effects, save when alcohol is taken to excess. This excess, I readily admit, may obtain in some constitutions with an exceedingly small quantity of alcohol. On the other hand, there are plenty of constitutions where the evidences of toxic effect, and hence of excess, only appear after the consumption of a relatively large amount. Of course, we know that there are universally-admitted poisons (e.g., arsenic) which may be taken without ill-effects in small or graduated doses. This, therefore, does not prove that alcohol is not a poison. But all I can say is that if alcohol is to be reckoned a poison, the range within which it may be taken with impunity is so immensely greater than in the case of the more undoubted poisons as, for all practical purposes, to take it out of the category of true poisons altogether.

The argument from statistics, in most questions an unreliable one, is especially so in the present. As an illustration of this I may quote some of the most recent figures on the subject. About three months back some elaborate statistics furnished, if I mistake not, by Sir Albert Rollit, on the subject of drink and longevity, were given in the daily press. Now mark the way in which the report was put together so as to produce the effect desired. The accuracy of the figures themselves I am not in a position either to impugn or to corroborate. But the arrangement of the report is truly significant of the manner in which figures, let them be the most accurate in themselves, can, by a stroke of the pen, be made to prove just what is wanted.

Now, as we all know, the “business end” of the present agitation is directed, not against drunkenness, but against moderate drinking. Accordingly we find that the author of the report referred to divides the population into three classes – total abstainers, moderate drinkers and publicans. On the basis of this division he readily succeeds in proving that “publicans” have the shortest lives, “moderate drinkers” the next, and “total abstainers” the longest. Now, it is obvious that publicans, as being a class specially liable to temptation, will be likely to contain a large percentage of excessive drinkers to the extent of ruining their health. We are not surprised, therefore, to find that publicans show up unfavourably in this respect as against total abstainers. It is in the second category that the tricky nature of the arrangement comes out. We need only note that men are not to be exhaustively divided in potatorial matters into publicans, moderate drinkers, and total abstainers. There are, on the contrary, a number of extremely immoderate drinkers who are not publicans by trade, any more than they are total abstainers by practice. Now on this division, where do they come in? Obviously, they are included under the second, vague and elastic, heading of “moderate drinkers.” In this way the second division, that of the “moderate drinkers,” swelled by all the non-publican drunkards and semi-drunkards, can, of course, easily be shown to present a higher death-rate, and a shorter average life, than that of the “total abstainers.” “That’s the way it’s done,” and moderate drinking sought to be brought into disrepute.

On the other hand, was it not Sir Walter Foster who showed some time ago that the really moderate drinker, who carefully kept within the drinking capacities of his constitution, had a longer average life, not merely than the drunkard, but also than the total abstainer. Once more, Sir Wilfrid Lawson is a man for whose integrity in public affairs I have a considerable respect, but even Sir Wilfrid, when on the anti-drink lay, is not always exempt from trickiness in argument. For instance, replying recently to the allegation I have myself often heard medical men make to the effect that more persons kill themselves through over-eating than through over-drinking, Sir Wilfrid Lawson confines himself to making fun of the paucity of cases in which death is certifiable as being directly due to over eating, omitting, of course, the thousands of cases in which the constitution is weakened and life is shortened by the habitual practice of guzzling two or three heavy meals a day. What would Sir Wilfrid think of a champion, say, of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association who confined his argument to showing that the number of deaths directly certifiable as due to delirium tremens were comparatively few? Yet this is precisely the line he himself takes in endeavouring to minimise the evils of over-eating in order to maximise those of over-drinking.

There is one more point on which I must tackle our friend Askew before I have done. Askew professes to admit Quelch’s contention that “Socialism does not mean asceticism any more than debauchery.” But then follows an ominous sentence – indicative of the cloven hoof – “Is the power of self-denial of no value to the movement?” asks Askew. I answer unhesitatingly, this sort, of none whatever, but quite the contrary. We all know this thin end of the ascetic wedge. The introspective morality, having survived its theological sanctions, seeks to buttress itself up with appeals to self-sacrifice for its own sake. There is plenty of opportunity for the exercise of a self-denial that issues in real good to the cause and to humanity, or in real immediate services to one’s fellows, without our seeking out occasions for objectless moral gymnastics like the Anchorite and the Puritan. No, friend Askew, either prove your case against alcohol or leave it, but do not, in default of better arguments, appeal to the motives of Simon Stylites! As regards strengthening and disciplining the will-power, surely to practise the requisite moderation in drinking is more conducive to this end, than weakly yielding to the fear of excess, by total abstention; surely the man who can stop at the right moment shows more character than the man who from fear of not being able to do so gives drinking up altogether. Of course, I am aware that the ascetic element is really behind all these abstinence movements, and for this reason I distrust them. If for nothing else than as a protest against the aforesaid attempt to graft an essentially alien morality into the Socialist Party I would enjoin our comrades: “Drink, but drink wisely!”

E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 29.2.2004