Think of prohibition and you’re reminded of gangsters, speakeasies and massacres on Valentine’s Day.
But the truth about prohibition of alcohol in the US—which was ratified 100 years ago this week—is about much more than that.
At the heart of the story are ruling class factions who fought over how best to keep workers under the bosses’ thumb.
It’s a tale of how the policy opened up space for the racist Klu Klux Klan to organise.
And above all else it’s about the short-sightedness of the people at the top of society.
In 1919 US Congress ratified the Volstead Act. It brought into force the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution, which outlawed the sale of alcohol.
Except it didn’t, really. The act prohibited the sale of alcohol over 0.5 percent in volume.
This meant that brewers could make a batch of beer, dilute some to appease the censor, then sell the rest on the black market.
And many other flaws peppered the law.
A prohibition movement had been growing through the 19th century. It is often presented as a bunch of joyless, middle class Protestants stopping everyone’s fun. That’s partly true.
“We are the whole better class,” wrote one prohibitionist.
“We represent teachers and professional men, clerks, skilled mechanics, and railroad men”.
Historian Joseph Gusfield has suggested that the Volstead Act was not really intended to stop people drinking. He describes it as “a dramatic event of deviant designation”.
But prohibition did have an effect on people’s drinking habits—the prevalence of alcohol-related diseases decreased dramatically.
A big reason for this was the astronomical rise in the price of alcohol once it became illegal.
The prohibition movement was also in response to real problems in US society.
The alcohol industry bosses were real-life pantomime villains who flooded working class areas with alcohol.
They relentlessly pressured saloon-keepers to increase their sales through offering cheap loans and other measures.
At a booze barons’ convention in 1874 one boss said, “The open field for the creation of appetite is among the boys.
“And I make the suggestion that nickels expended in treats to the boys now will return dollars to your tills after the appetite has been formed.”
The prohibition movement was organising against such naked rapaciousness. But at the heart of the movement there was a fight between people who wanted a moral response the alcohol “crisis” and those who wanted a social response.
The labour movement saw prohibition as a workers’ rights issue. Bosses would often pay workers in company bars to make back the wages, and elections were bought and sold in the same establishments.
Yet the moralists won out and by 1905 the movement had explicitly linked itself to Protestantism, although the tension remained.
Counties and states introduced various laws throughout the 19th century targeting the consumption of alcohol.
Real crooks could be found in the forces prohibiting the sale of alcohol as well as those opposed to it.
In 1855 the state of Connecticut passed a prohibition law. It failed because, according to the governor, law officers and state officials “made use of the law for the purpose of making money”.
A prohibition law in South Carolina from 1893 shut over 600 saloons and set up state-run alcohol dispensaries.
By 1906 an investigation found that “officials at the dispensaries have become shameless in their use of power, insatiate in their greed, and perfidious in the discharge of their duties.”
Prohibitionists seized on the failure of these examples to argue for a complete ban.
Once federal prohibition began, its supporters encouraged the government to employ prohibitionists to enforce the law. Voluntary service and low pay meant enforcers were open to bribes.
Historian Lisa McGirr argues that the origins of the “penal state” can be found in this period.
Prosecutions were pursued zealously, and new prisons had to be built to deal with the influx of convicts.
The victims of the crackdown were overwhelmingly working class—particularly migrants, black people and Catholics.
Drinking among these groups was viewed as a problem.
The romanticised image of the rich defiantly dancing and drinking in New York was true, but it was not the common experience.
“It would never do for the profit to be taken out of liquor and have the state control it, for if the profit could be taken out of liquor it could also be taken out of beef and sugar and lumber.”Eugene Debs
Prohibition was enforced most zealously in working class areas. And at the same time, workers were priced out of drinking.
The price of beer rose by six times once it became illegal—largely putting it out of reach of workers.
But it was still comfortably within the means of the middle classes who drank in private.
The US socialist Eugene Debs wrote, “I am opposed to the working people being divided upon this question, as they have been divided upon the humbug tariff and now upon preparedness, while all the time, whichever side prevails, they are exploited, impoverished, thousands of them live in huts and hovels, under conditions which make for drunkenness and other vices”.
Prohibition was popularised among the ruling class as a guard against ordinary people rising up.
But there were big contradictions in the debate going on at the top of society.
Just as temperance campaigners had argued for banning the bottle to ward off the spectre of revolution, booze barons argued for repeal for the same reason.
Trade union leader and bosses’ stooge Samuel Gompers argued, “Harmful as vodka was, it enabled the Russian peasant to find surcease from dull monotony.
“Without it, he found only trouble and torment and the desire to tear down what he could not rebuild.”
But the forces on each side of the debate were not arrayed evenly—there was not universal agreement.
Prohibitionist campaigner Frances Willard was national president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU).
She later became a “Christian Socialist” after coming to the conclusion that the problems associated with alcohol consumption were social.
But prohibition unleashed the forces of reaction, the Klan among them.
The first leader of the women’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan was also a former regional president of the WCTU.
A sense of national crisis was created. “The war on alcohol in the 1920s and the war on drugs of the ’70s and ’80s are symbiotic campaigns,” said McGirr.
Increases in funding for police forces were often not as rapid as the needs of local areas in enforcing prohibition. The Klan could step in and perform this function—selectively.
The repression involved in banning alcohol was consistent with the Klan’s racist terror campaign to “cleanse” the US, especially given the racialised policing of prohibition.
In many cases Klansmen were deputised by law enforcement and carried out maimings and massacres. In Illinois the state prohibition commissioner worked in tandem with the Klan.
Italian Catholic migrants were targeted.
They were framed and their houses burned down.
McGirr shows that the Klan grew to a high point in membership of 2 to 5 million between 1920 and 1923.
The end of prohibition came as the US economy ground to a halt.
The pro-booze bosses’ Association against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) had some 800 journalists producing statistics and news stories in the propaganda war.
As the economy tanked the AAPA released statistics claiming that revenues from alcohol sales could have staved off the economic crisis.
Among the political class prohibition remained popular until at least 1928. But among ordinary people it remained unpopular, and politicians such as Franklin D Roosevelt used the promise of repeal to attract support to the Democrats.
The decision to repeal the 18th Amendment was taken, in the absence of pressure from below, to meet the needs of capital.
“It would never do for the profit to be taken out of liquor and have the state control it,” wrote Debs.
“For if the profit could be taken out of liquor it could also be taken out of beef and sugar and lumber.”