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 Ken Burns' "Prohibition", a Marxist view
Posted: Oct 5 2011, 04:01 AM


Group: Members
Posts: 143
Member No.: 71
Joined: 9-October 08

The idea that prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages could end the alienation, atomization, violence, and crime endemic to capitalism was a petty bourgeois nostrum. Groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League [founded in Oberlin, Ohio: once a ground-zero for such ideas], made up of professional do-gooders and progressives (today's NGOs) bent on reforming the lower orders, succeeded when the 18th Amendment became law.

Capital must move or die; fortunes once made from legal booze were transformed into fortunes made trimming around the edges of the law. A vast underground economy in booze arose, creating among its many consequences an undying cynicism about law and government among middle classes. (Workers, always at the sharp end of law and order, never had the illusions in it entertained by professionals and independent commodity producers.)

Anti-immigrant political forces like the Klan were big supporters of Prohibition. Ideological illusions about "poor people" and Blacks being susceptible to drunken violence and rapine rationalized this; but the material basis for such support was an attempt to block big shifts in bourgeois politics toward the urban North.

Communists at the time opposed Prohibition, and rightly so. In his seminal book Toward Soviet America (1932), William Z. Foster wrote:

....The Party makes special demands for women workers, including equal pay with men, special protection in industry, maternity insurance, etc., and it incorporates them in its immediate program in given struggles. For the ex-service men it demands the full payment of the bonus; for those now in the army and navy service better wages, food, housing, etc. It demands the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

In short, in every phase of life where capitalist exploitation and persecution bear down upon the masses, the Communist party comes forward with partial demands corresponding to the most immediate needs of these masses. But in so doing, it does not fail to point out that the final solution of their intolerable situation can be achieved only by the overthrow of the capitalist system and the establishment of a Workers’ and Farmers’ government.

In 1930 The Militant analyzed the the political forces involved:

Sept. 15, 1930
Enough has occurred in the last few weeks to show on what basis the twin capitalist parties intend to conduct the election campaign: Prohibition—for and against!

The so-called prohibition issue is the best one that could be chosen—for the capitalist class. It conveniently cuts across party lines so that neither singly nor together can they be made responsible for anything. It is an expedient gas gun for shooting clouds around fundamental and really burning issues.

Is there mass unemployment, misery, starvation, suicide in the country? Booze will solve that! Are wages being cut to the very marrow? Booze will make the workers forget that! Is a form of social insurance needed by the workers? No, it’s beer and light wines they need!

The dislike and total incapacity of the capitalist parties to face the real problems the masses are confronted with, are quite understandable. Republican or Democrat—they are the ramparts of the system that produces wars, unemployment, crises, and oppression with an ever-increasing frequency and permanency.

Ken Burns' new PBS documentary "Prohibition" [sponsored by our friends at Bank of America] makes several useful points. In the 1920s, illegal government surveillance of bootleggers began with unwarranted wiretaps. Cops then as now got paid under the table by the kingpins: yesterday booze, today illegal drugs.

The self-importance, pomposity, and bowing and scraping before accomplished facts among experts Burns features in "Prohibition" allows for few insights into class relations that gave birth to the 18th Amendment. Instead, it is described as "legislating morality, and we all know now that doesn't work."

"Noble, but failed" is the verdict. Along the way, Burns allows viewers a peek at a few Crusoes and entrepreneurial Robin Hoods to flatter middle class vanities. The real vanity is, as always, his own.
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