Alcohol and the Working Class



Work is the curse of the drinking classes - Joseph Gusfield


The labor class was divided in its view of alcohol. Many shared the elite perspective, where the rise in crime and such were attributed to alcohol. The dominant position however, was more favorable. Alcohol was a temporary escape from the whirlpool of poverty and the suffering that came with it. It was a means of entertainment and unification, particularly in the form of taverns, which would later go on to be centers of historic importance.

The tavern was one of the only available sources of entertainment for the lower classes. They provided food, drink and lodging. Some taverns even included reading rooms and meeting halls. They were a place where the common worker could while away his free time. They were also places where day laborers could come in search of work. But most importantly, it was the only place where a working class individual could have a social life beyond the domestic sphere. Here, they could freely share their thoughts and opinions with social peers. It was in taverns that the Socialist Democratic Party was created, and they were the points of dissemination for socialist ideas. The tavern was also the birthplace of the labor movement. All this was possible because of the complete abandonment of any hierarchical form, as in the case of factories where different jobs had varying status. All the patrons were peers, from the same social background working more or less in the same field, and viewed each other as equals.

The large gatherings at taverns were also places where ideas could be spread rapidly. This was cleverly utilized by political organizations, particularly the socialists. By the 1880s, the tavern had become the foundation of the labor movement, particularly in Germany. As socialist George Käferstein wrote, "Without alcohol, without customary drinking practices, the labor movement in those years would have to find another way to achieve its political and economic goals."10

Labor unions were a means of empowering workers, giving them back a certain level of control over key factors like work conditions, wages and the length of the work week. As mentioned, they arose as an indirect outcome of working class alcohol consumption.

Labor unions were a means of empowering workers, giving them back a certain level of control over key factors like work conditions, wages and the length of the work week. As mentioned, they arose as an indirect outcome of working class alcohol consumption.