I’m sympathetic to some of the points made by Martin Thomas in “Health-anuary” (Solidarity 494) but I think the article attempts to draw conclusions with little evidence.
I took part in Dry January. I’m pleased I did. But for improving health, a general reduction in drinking is more likely required rather than a month of abstinence. I am not a problem drinker, but like many British people an occasional binge drinker. The facts for problem drinking are stark; 30% of all alcohol is consumed by just 4.4% of the population. Dry January is neither desirable for nor targeted at those people, who are psychologically and/or physically dependent on alcohol.
Ian Hamilton, an expert in the links between mental health and substance abuse at the University of York, argues that Dry January allows a get-out for an industry that profits from addiction. It targets those who are not in general problem drinkers. Those who do not need help with their relationship to alcohol can take part in Dry January, while those who have dependency and related health issues have seen the services they need cut. It is still the most socially deprived who are likely to die from liver disease.
Since its launch in 2013 there has been no evaluation of the success of Dry January. As Ian Hamilton argues: “Millions of participants need a more accurate idea of whether or not they should bother (popularity should not be used as a proxy for effectiveness). Money would be better spent on those who need support the most and on tackling the root causes of excessive drinking.”
Martin Thomas also hints that Dry January is something worthy of support by socialists based on historical influence of the temperance movement. I think that misses the mark. Was Dry January good for socialism? Its primary effect was on my bank balance. It has allowed me to donate £100 to the Workers’ Liberty fundraising drive. But I would probably save even more if I gave up crisps and biscuits!
For an alternative to the support for temperance you only have to look at early British Marxists like Harry Quelch who wrote (in Socialism and Temperance Reform): “Its guiding principle [temperance] is the theory that the social evils of poverty and want, from which the masses of the people suffer, are due, not to unjust social institutions, to economic environment, and to class robbery, but to the innate depravity of the individual.”
Since Quelch’s time alcohol has become much more readily available in the home, and the cheaper prices available in supermarkets have moved the more problematic drinkers away from social gatherings in pubs and towards drinking in isolation, a worse situation. The German socialist movement, which had its own bars, was not against moderate drinking and understood the role of the social and leisure time that those establishments helped to foster. Karl Kautsky himself laid out the policy on alcohol in a series of contributions for Die Neue Zeit with mixed success.
Thomas says that the success of Dry January and Veganuary will likely produce an environment more conducive to convincing people of socialism. We want a world where people are less likely to become problem drinkers. No one should stop anyone who seeks a period of abstinence. But we cannot prove benefits will come from just taking a month away from drinking.