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.