For January 2019, 4.2 million people said they would join “Dry January”, a pledge to drop alcohol for the month. The Alcohol Change UK group, which organised “Dry January”, says that (even if some of those 4.2 million had lapses) this year’s response was the biggest ever, and hugely up on January 2013, when the project started with just 4,000 signing up.
“Veganuary” had 250,000 people adopting a vegan diet for the month, more than its total for all its previous Januarys combined, 2014 to 2018. 84% of January-vegans and maybe 70% of all vegans are female (2018 stats), although vegetarians are nearly 50% male. “Dry January” also seems to draw many more women than men.
In the Observer of 3 February, the writer Linda Grant ranted against “Dry January” that it was “boring” and “what I missed was a sense of variety, that days could be different from one another”. If your way of avoiding sameness is to booze more or differently one day than another, then you certainly should go “dry”.
Temperance was a big strand in the early British labour movement. A temperance group, the Socialist Prohibition Party, was one of those which came together to form the thenrevolutionary Communist Party in 1920, and it contributed one of the CP’s early leaders, Bob Stewart. The Marxist Social Democratic Federation and British Socialist Party scorned temperance more than the moralistic and religiously-influenced Independent Labour Party; yet Trotsky, too, in the 1920s, would make open “propaganda against alcohol”.
In the era when working-class homes were often too bleak to be a comfortable refuge after work, and the pubs were the chief alternative, alcohol incapacitated, pauperised, and destroyed the health of, many working-class activists. It still does.
Even today, the statistics show hard-up students spending an average of £60 a month on “entertainment”, mostly alcohol. It is a good thing that spending is decreasing. Between 2005 and 2015, non-drinkers among 16-24s rose from 18% to 29%. The number who, in a snapshot, hadn’t drunk alcohol over the previous week rose from 35% to 50%. Binge-drinkers fell from 27% to 18%. If socialist dry-January people contribute the money they’ve saved from alcohol to our Workers’ Liberty fund drive, that’s good too.
I wasn’t aware of “Dry January” or “Veganuary” until they ended, but by coincidence I’d decided in mid-January to go vegan. I went vegetarian after the mass slaughter of cattle in the BSE crisis of 1996. Then I became aware that the dairy industry delivers as much cruelty to animals, if not quite as much environmental harm, as the meat industry. I was pushed into going vegan by the advice of a vegan comrade on how it can practically be done; and more fundamentally by the influence of a former school student of mine, a quiet and undemonstrative vegan in defiance of pressures from her family. She’s also a brilliant mathematician and an admirably determined character.
There’s a lesson here for socialists: our ability to convince workmates depends not just on our speeches about socialist politics, but also on us showing in other areas that we are thoughtful, honest, reliable people, so that they’ll think it worthwhile listening to us on issues where they start with a blur.
Socialist organisations need to unite the activists willing to promote socialism, without being distracted or divided by lifestyle arguments. But we’re more likely to have an environment conducive to that if the successes of “dry January” and “Veganuary” continue.
"But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is another important step in the process of transition from ape to man. A meat diet contained in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. By shortening the time required for digestion, it also shortened the other vegetative bodily processes that correspond to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material and desire for the active manifestation of animal life proper. And the farther man in the making moved from the vegetable kingdom the higher he rose above the animal. Just as becoming accustomed to a vegetable diet side by side with meat converted wild cats and dogs into the servants of man, so also adaptation to a meat diet, side by side with a vegetable diet, greatly contributed towards giving bodily strength and independence to man in the making. The meat diet, however, had its greatest effect on the brain, which now received a far richer flow of the materials necessary for its nourishment and development, and which, therefore, could develop more rapidly and perfectly from generation to generation."
Friedrich Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, 1876
I don't think that Engels quote can be the final word. Engels' writings on pre-history were based on the best available literature of the late 19th century, but those writings have been superseded. I don't think it's convincing that there was a clear transition from being an animal in to being a meat eater and so in to being a human. Hunter gatherer diets were mixed and a lot of meat would come from foraging kills made by other animals. Isn't fire a much bigger deal in terms of unlocking 'a far richer flow of the materials necessary for its nourishment and development?'
Add to this that farming led to a narrowing of our diets and a reduction in the amount of meat people ate. What sustained our humanity when we started eating less meat? I don't think it's possible to attribute humanity to meat-eating as Engels does here. He didn't have access to modern-day archaeological methods, but if he had I think he would have revised his argument.