Booze and Socialism

Ralf Hoffrogge
Loren Balhorn

German socialists knew the craze for schnapps was a plague on working-class life. They fought it by building their organizations around beer.

Beer hall in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2007. Jorge Royan / Wikimedia

Fighting for a world where working people can democratically shape their lives also means dealing with the little things. For the nineteenth-century German labor movement, amidst the turmoil of that beer-friendly country’s rapid industrialization, this also meant talking about alcohol. Schnapps, which was distributed even on the factory floor, dulled workers’ senses and led to chronic misery. The mighty German Social Democratic Party (SPD) declared war on the “liquor plague” — and advised workers to crack open a cold one at the bar down the street instead.

One of the most definitive statements on the highly ambivalent role alcohol played in Germany’s socialist movement came in an 1891 article in the esteemed SPD journal Die Neue Zeit. Karl Kautsky, the guru of German socialism, bluntly told readers that “schnapps is the enemy.” This statement may sound straightforward, but the debate in which Kautsky was intervening was more complicated. Kautsky was anything but a supporter of temperance or prohibition — though he vilified schnapps, he defended the labor movement’s bars and taverns as crucial foundations of proletarian self-emancipation.

Over the decade before Kautsky’s article, Germany’s pubs had offered a crucial space for the SPD to build its social base, even as the repressive Sozialistengesetzte, or “anti-socialist laws” sought to curtail its activity. These were, indeed a key social space — collective “proletarian living rooms” for workers whose own apartments were too cramped for them to spend any free time in. In nineteenth-century Germany, beer truly was the lubricant of a new and defiant class movement.


Unsurprisingly, working-class alcohol consumption in Germany was closely linked to developments in the country’s economy. The 1807 emancipation of the serfs in the Kingdom of Prussia — the largest and most powerful state in the German Confederation — was one of the major preconditions facilitating German industrialization in the nineteenth century. Lesser known, however, is that Prussian peasants were actually forced to purchase their freedom from the large estate owners of the nobility for very high sums. The landowners used the infusion of capital from these payments to set up one of the country’s first rural industries: schnapps distilleries. The investment came naturally to landowners, as the grains grown on their land were the famous hard liquor’s main ingredient. For the owners of the means of production, distilling schnapps just meant additional surplus value.

Consequently, schnapps represented an important lubricant of Germany’s nineteenth-century wave of primitive accumulation. The beverage was produced by the noble landowners east of the Elbe River, the so-called “Junkers,” who had transformed from feudal lords into agrarian capitalists. But schnapps was largely consumed by proletarians on the farms and in local workshops. Later on, it would also prove popular in the big factories of major German cities, where unrestricted workdays of up to fifteen hours were common.

Looking back on this period today, it’s almost impossible to imagine how people were able to withstand such incredible physical stress. The answer, to put it bluntly, was schnapps. Drinking alcohol at work was by no means illegal in the early nineteenth century, but in fact represented the norm. Schnapps dulled workers’ senses and awareness of the passage of time and desensitized them to the unbearable heat generated by steel production or the biting cold when working outside in winter.

Employers explicitly supported their workers getting inebriated at work. Alcohol numbed the body’s natural warning signals and allowed bosses to squeeze out every last drop of workers’ labor power. At the same time, the generalized alcoholism had a disastrous effect on proletarian solidarity and proved highly effective in preventing strikes. For employers, alcohol also represented a useful source of additional income — the Junkers were not the only ones earning a cut, as many bosses now sold hard liquor directly at the workplace. Essentially, every branch of industry managed to earn money from the arrangement. Often, employers distributed schnapps directly as part of their workers’ wages.

Fighting Alcoholism with … Beer?

Given this alignment of circumstances, it is hardly surprising that complaints of a veritable “liquor plague” among the working population became common in the early nineteenth century. The first German temperance movement began to emerge in 1830, rooted in the church and middle-class circles. Yet the movement’s demands were always directed towards the consumers of schnapps rather than the producers. Its paternalistic and state-friendly character made most workers suspicious — it had little impact and fell apart after the 1848 revolution, a failed attempt to create a united German republic.

As democracy faltered, capitalism took flight, and the country underwent a major wave of industrialization beginning in 1850. With this transformation of the relations of production, changes to Germany’s alcoholic superstructure also began to occur. The first extensive wave of accumulation based largely on unskilled labor was petering out, and the country’s manufacturing industry increasingly required skilled workers for more complex tasks. These skilled workers’ newfound indispensability not only allowed them to strike more effectively, but also changed their drinking patterns.

Quite simply, the drunken proletariat of the old school was not able to handle the kind of production required to keep pace with the world market, which now involved heavy machinery, locomotive engines, and precision tools. The engineering and metalworking industries in particular could only thrive if employees were at least somewhat sober. The workers themselves also had an interest in a degree of moderation: their own health and maintenance of their ability to work as well as their growing political organizations required a certain level of sobriety.

Before long, an unexpected ally emerged in the struggle against the liquor plague and alcoholism: beer. The introduction of bottom-fermenting beers such as pilsners made the drink much more popular beginning in the 1870s. Pilsner was a beverage that lasted and would not expire within days. It could thus be stored and transported but required a cool location to brew it in — traditionally, the caves of Bohemia. Only the invention of electric cooling systems allowed this specialty beverage to be produced in the urban centers of Berlin, Dortmund, and Hamburg, where the proletariat worked and drank.

Beer in the workplace allowed for a much slower rate of drinking and a more controllable buzz, which unlike schnapps did not completely impede workers’ physical coordination. Drinking beer was thus also welcomed by the bosses and was again sold directly in the big factories, where it was marketed as an alternative to schnapps.

The change in drinking patterns was rewarded with shorter working hours and wage hikes, steps which were needed to ensure that a growing segment of the working class was able to afford getting drunk with the slower but more expensive beer. The cheaper alternative, schnapps, continued to prevail among low-paid workers and wherever particularly miserable working conditions were common. In 1907, for example, a government inspector in Potsdam found that rates of schnapps consumption in brick factories continued to reach up to two liters per day. It was only around 1900 that regulations to curb workplace accidents gradually came into effect, outlawing alcohol at the workplace and banishing both schnapps and beer into the private sphere. Gradually, the beer on the job was replaced with the after-work drink.

Shorter working hours meant that wage labor and physical necessities like sleeping and eating no longer completely filled workers’ days. Something resembling free time — an utterly unknown concept until then — began to emerge. But where were people supposed to spend this time, and how? The cramped apartments of the proletariat, where entire families often lived together in one room, were not a practical option. After all, this living arrangement was based on the assumption that at least the male family members would spend their entire day somewhere else.

Working men found a place to kill this unfamiliar free time as well as an opportunity to invest their newly won higher wages in the corner bar. Bars represented the proletarian living room, missing from their working-class apartments. They were not only spaces for drinking alcohol, but also for getting together and communicating, particularly in the Parteikneipe, or “party bar” where trade unions and the SPD held meetings. Strikes and even revolutions were planned here: some of the meetings orchestrating the November Revolution of 1918 — the workers’ and soldiers’ uprising which put an end to the German monarchy — were held in the smoke-filled back room of a Berlin bar.

Socialist Bars Against the Capitalist State

Germany’s working-class counterculture with its countless political organizations and community associations also developed largely in the country’s taverns. Due to the lack of viable alternatives, even prohibitionist groups were often forced to meet in them. Schnapps, however, had long taken a back seat to beer as the drink of choice, as many felt that it allowed for a more comfortable rate of consumption while permitting drinkers to take part in debates at the same time.

The bar was also a vital refuge for the labor movement during the period of the anti-socialist laws from 1878–1890, when the German state engaged in large-scale repression of the workers’ parties and banned the trade unions. Only individual socialists were allowed to run for parliament — any collective organizing was suppressed. Nevertheless, the movement survived the ban relatively unscathed in the back rooms of their local bars, where unpolitical men stopping in for a drink were regularly pulled into debates and forced to choose a side, while the state’s repression led many of them to radicalize. When the anti-socialist laws were repealed twelve years later, the socialist movement emerged from the pubs back into the public sphere stronger and united: reflecting this growth, the Erfurt Program of 1890 openly professed the party’s adherence to Marxism for the first time.

Attentive readers will have noticed my use of the formulation “working men” in the previous section. Indeed, the working-class bars of industrial Germany were almost entirely a man’s world. The classical division of labor, with the male worker as breadwinner and the working woman as housewife, proved stubbornly persistent. Taverns often represented an escape for working-class men from their families and domestic hardship, as despite the wage hikes and newfound free time, many proletarians in the second half of the nineteenth century continued to hover around the poverty line.

Women also worked, particularly during crises and when the husband’s wage was not enough to provide for the family. But even though “factory girls” also relieved their workplace stress with alcohol and were by no means mere observers of the liquor plague, they remained excluded from the bar’s institutionalization of moderate alcohol consumption. The exclusion of women from the bars was, for generations, one of the factors preventing women’s equality and integration in the German labor movement. Though the Social Democrats and other workers’ parties adopted equal rights into their platforms and demanded voting rights for women, as long as women were excluded from the Parteikneipe — the movement’s central organizational space — they inevitably remained cut out of the most important discussions. The taverns thus exhibited a decidedly ambivalent character: they held the movement together, but at the same time excluded half of the working class.

By the 1880s, widespread dire alcoholism among unskilled and low-paid workers as well as the masses of rural proletarians migrating to the cities triggered a renaissance of the temperance movement. New medical research pushed several prominent Social Democrats to support its demands for the first time, signing on to the anti-alcohol “Zürich Appeal” in 1890. One of the first and most important political debates following Social Democracy’s legalization was thus around the alcohol question, with extremists going so far as to demand that only teetotal workers be allowed to join the party.

These sectarian ideas were opposed by the SPD’s chief theoretician, Karl Kautsky. Though he criticized alcohol’s disastrous effects on proletarian solidarity and reserved particular scorn for the “working class’s enemy,” schnapps, he defended the party bar with gusto: “The only bulwark of the proletariat’s political freedom that cannot be confiscated from it so easily is the tavern. … If the temperance movement were to succeed … in convincing German workers to stay away from the tavern en masse, they would have achieved what the anti-socialist laws never came close to: the destruction of the cohesion of the proletariat.”

Everything in Moderation

Kautsky concurred with the party majority based in the taverns and bars. The teetotaling SPD minority failed to push through their demands and were subsequently forced to organize themselves in a separate “Workers’ Temperance League.” The temperance movement did manage to raise its concerns in the labor movement on many occasions, however, and its political agitation arguably led to a further moderation of drinking patterns.

Nevertheless, the demand for total renunciation of alcohol as a necessary precondition for socialism was widely rejected by an overwhelming majority of the working class. In 1913 the central organ of the temperance movement, Der abstinente Arbeiter, counted only 5,100 subscribers, while the trade publication for Social Democratic bartenders and tavern owners, Der freie Gastwirt, was read by 11,000. Picturing a full bar alongside each one of those bartenders gives a pretty clear picture of the balance of forces in the movement at the time.

When the SPD decided to call for a general boycott of schnapps in 1909, they refrained from attacking beer. They largely targeted the East Elbian Junkers and their political privileges, such as the schnapps monopoly imposed by Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, which turned the state into the country’s primary schnapps dealer and kept prices artificially high.

Here, the lines of conflict were clear: behind schnapps stood the forces of agrarian capital and the state, whereas beer had proven a useful lubricant in the socialist movement’s rapid ascendancy since the 1870s. Though the party exhibited a sense of political acumen in dealing with the alcohol problem, beer was unfortunately not enough to prevent the grave party crisis that emerged in August 1914 when the SPD decided to throw its support behind the capitalist war effort. Many left-wing workers were flabbergasted by the move and may have imagined their leaders to be drunk — alas, more sober contradictions were ultimately at play.

In power from 1933 to 1945, the Nazis would smash the party bars of the SPD and the Communists. Although some contemporaries expected Hitler’s repression in 1933 to be similar to Bismarck’s in 1871, they misjudged the situation entirely; the Nazi repression was the fiercest ever. By the 1950s, West German Social Democrats had reorganized, but worker milieus began to erode in the face of rising consumerism, as postwar Marshall Plan investment fed an economic boom. For the first time in history, workers could achieve tangible material gains as consumers, rather than having to project them onto a distant socialist future. As a result, German working-class culture and socialist politics increasingly drifted apart. The bar-as-proletarian living room soon gave way to a kind of individual privatization, as workers could finally afford to spend time in their own homes.

Today, the so-called Stammtisch, the weekly regulars’ table at a corner bar, is mostly associated with conservatism, and the popular culture of the Left has long since migrated elsewhere. This owed not least to the strong impact of the mostly student-based, left-wing 1960s counterculture that sought to distinguish and distance itself from the norms of their parent’s generation, which had supported or failed to prevent the rise of Nazism. But it also reflected a global historical trend toward the fragmentation of political and class milieus. This need not be an inevitable development, however. Even in the nineteenth century, the active approach adopted by the Social Democrats was crucial to transforming proletarian spaces into political ones. Ultimately, the party bar praised by Kautsky was the result not of passive consumption, but of political organizing.