Free Life 17, January 1993, Socialism and the Right to Smoke: A Socialist View, by Sean Gabb

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From Free Life, Issue 17, January 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112 

Socialism and the Right to Smoke: A Socialist View
by Stuart Pemberton (Sean Gabb)

What I want here to discuss is how a libertarian socialist should regard the various calls for the shutting down of the tobacco industry.

Now, I fully accept that tobacco is dangerous. Some of the claims made about it are false. Smoking doesn't stunt your growth. It doesn't make you sterile or impotent. There's no such thing as "smoker's face". There's still not a shred of good evidence to show that passive smoking really exists. Even so, tobacco is dangerous. Smoking it is correlated with a high risk of heart and lung disease. My advice, for what it's worth, is to cut down, or give up - or, best of all, never start smoking.

But does it follow from this that it's the business of the State to outlaw tobacco?

For the medical estblishment, the answer is a firm yes. The various Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association, together with such pressure groups as Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and the Health Education Authority, all want action. As one joint publication proclaims,

[t]he ultimate public health objective for cigarette smoking can be seen as the elimination of all but occasional cigarette smoking.[1]

There is to be a ban on all advertising and sponsorship. There are to be bans on smoking in all public places. Prices are to be pushed up by heavier taxation. If these measures don't work, direct compulsion may be justified. On this point, see David Simpson, former Director of ASH:

If cigarettes were invented today, there's no way they'd be allowed to be made, never mind advertised or promoted in any other way.... No decent society would actually allow, willy nilly, the promotion of a product even a tenth as dangerous as cigarettes. So that's why we want to ban them.[2]

For the Labour Party leadership, the answer is an equally firm yes. It was Derek Robinson, a Labour Minister of Health who, in the 1960s, brought in the first restrictions on tobacco advertising. Most recently, the Party has been committed to a total ban on advertising. It's also in favour of higher taxes on cigarettes. Tobacco is bad for people, we hear from the Labour front bench; and is supplied in this country by four multinationals that spend £100 million each year on promoting it. Tobacco, as such, we hear again, is the epitome of capitalism: it's our plain duty as socialists to join in the attack on both it and its suppliers.

I disagree. For me, the socialist answer to the question posed above is an emphatic no. I give two reasons for this. First, the very essence of socialism forbids such interference. Second, the whole obsession with tobacco, regardless of its practical consequences, is a misdirection of concern.

Socialism and Freedom

Socialism is about freedom or it is nothing. It is not, as many try to claim, the antithesis of bourgeois liberalism, but its ultimate perfection. In a truly socialist community, all the rights won in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries - freedom of speech and conduct and association, and equality before the law - will be more strictly upheld than ever. The great difference is that the economic constraints on freedom will have been abolished. No more will boss tyrannise over worker. No more will humanity as a whole be compelled to bow down before that cold, dead thing - money. No more will the chaos of market relationships plunge us continually from boom into slump, to scarcity in the midst of plenty. Like an insect fresh from its cocoon, we shall be able to unfold our wings and soar aloft into the heavens.

This difference, of course, is immense. But we must never let it blind us to the continuity of our other freedoms from the capitalist past. These, I repeat, will still exist. The statue will be socialist; but the base will be liberal. And, if those other freedoms will be preserved then, how much more must we fight for their defence in Tory Britain! To the tobacco banners, I quote in reply a passage from J.S. Mill's On Liberty. He asserts

that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[3]

Of course, Mill has been appropriated by the Tory right; and socialists are often embarrassed nowadays to quote him. But we mustn't forget that he became increasingly socialist as he grew older, eventually believing in communal production and a system of workers' democracy placing him not far from Tony Benn. As for the Tories, we can estimate the sincerity of their appropriation from how strongly they see these words as applying to the rights of gay people, blacks and women.

The Labour Party and Freedom

Anyone who believes the voice of the Labour leadership to be also the voice of socialism is deluded. There is no connection between them. Whatever the views of its rank and file membership, the Party has always been dominated by middle class authoritarians. It was founded by a coalition of Fabians and the better-off trade unionists. Their goal wasn't the cause of working people, but the construction of a paternalist State.

In their Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels assert that

[p]olitical power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.[4]

I'd sooner die than be known as a follower of these two monstrous old wind-bags. But I doubt if a truer sentence was ever written. It's the key to mainstream Labour thinking these past 90 years. That thinking is summed up less by Mill than by Douglas Jay. Writing in 1947, he said that

in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.[5]

Their actions must always be seen in this light. In the 1940s, they kept rationing in force long after it was needed: it made us so much "healthier". They took the biggest industries out of private ownership, and promptly turned them into a bureaucratic power base for their own class. They took up old the socialist aim of eliminating poverty and disease, and created the Welfare State - or "no welfare and all bloody State", as one worker bitterly observed. Today, they're arm in arm with ASH and the BMA, crying out for laws to cut down on our smoking and drinking and our taste for sugary and fatty foods.

But what else ought we to expect? The Labour leadership and the medical establishment are almost identical. Both are filled with middle class professionals. They went to the same schools and universities. They belong to the same clubs and attend the same cocktail parties. If they aren't already related, their children intermarry. They never knew what it is to grow up in a tower block, or be conscripted into dire, comprehensive educational slum. They are above all this. They have exactly the same view of themselves and their place in society: they are the Platonic Guardians, set over us miserable, benighted workers: theirs is to rule us, guiding us to better ways than we're capable of finding for ourselves.

I admit - smoking isn't good for us. But those of us who do smoke know that. It's their business if they want to carry on. Anyone who says otherwise isn't a socialist, but a fascist authoritarian wolf in sheep's clothing.

The Real Human Problems

Humanity is fast approaching its supreme crisis. How this is faced will affect us all, no matter what our income or status. There are nearly six billion people alive today. That compares with less than a billion in 1750, and three billion in 1960. We can be sure that this rate of increase will not much longer be sustained. It will be checked by one of two forces. First, economic growth will put a brake on population growth. This, at least, has been the experience of all the capitalist countries hitherto. Second, the "natural" brakes of famine, disease and war will be applied.

The effects of these latter can be seen already. Two thirds of humanity lives in a grinding poverty that starkly accuses our own wealth. Who will say that the Indian masses live better now than in 1800? Except the land is more crowded, and the oppressing class has been made more secure by Western technology, nothing has changed.

For all the medical boasts, disease is still abroad in the world. Smallpox may only be a memory. Plague may be confined to a few wildernesses. But AIDS is the first of the new killer diseases. While the doctors stand aghast, unable to help, it's wiping out hundreds of thousands in even the richest countries. In the poorest - in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance - it's actually reversing the growth of population.

As for war, we've seen nothing yet. What happened in the Gulf and is happening throughout the former Soviet Empire mustn't blind us to the likelihood of mass destruction. Every country that wants a nuclear capability now has it, or soon will have it. At the same time, biological and chemical weapons are proliferating at a terrifying pace. the time is approaching when the sabre rattling of some petty despot, driven be it by poverty or by greed, will be heard by all humanity - and regretted forever after by those who survive its sound.

True, the answer for a few countries has been economic growth. But this, a known so far, cannot be repeated by all the world. Capitalism is inherently prodigal of resources. It discounts future needs for present gains. Look how the economic development of only Western Europe and North America has affected the planet. Vital and irreplaceable reserves have been depleted. The rain forests have been all but destroyed. The ozone layer has been punctured. The atmosphere is warming by one tenth of one degree every ten years, bringing drought to southern France and floods to Bangladesh. What will happen if China takes the capitalist road? Supposing India joins in? If one sixth of humanity has come close to destroying the environment, what will the other five sixths do?

The one resolution to the coming crisis is for us to work now, with all the passion and ability at our command, for a fundamental change of economic and political policy throughout the world. We must work for the establishment of a socialist commonwealth that embraces the whole of humanity. Only then can we abolish famine, disease and war without eating up the next generation's seed corn. Only by a rational harnessing of what remains of this planet's resources can life continue, let alone with dignity and security for all.


This is the real challenge that faces the British left. To go about whingeing about how much money the tobacco firms make from the sale of cigarettes to consenting adults is a distraction so gross I can hardly see it as less than a conspiracy. If the war against tobacco were a single issue, I might oppose it rather less. It would still represent a diminution of freedom. But if it was followed by an acceptance of the real challenge, I'd stay silent and hope for a speedy resolution. But that isn't the case. When people have finished running round, banning smoking on the busses and arguing about what adverts to allow, they'll simply start over again: but this time on alcohol; and then on sugar and fat; and then - who knows? - on non-procreative sex.

This isn't a war on tobacco, then, but on freedom of choice in general. To fight it, I know, is a distraction on our part. But this can't be helped. If we lose this war, the real challenge will never be faced anyway. For we then shall have nothing to offer humanity but another variety of the statism with which it is already so plentifully endowed.


1. Alweyn Smith and Bobbie Jacobson (eds), The Nation's Health: A Strategy for the 1990s: a Report from an Independent Multidisciplinary Committee Chaired by Professor Alweyn Smith, King Edward's Hospital Fund for London, London, 1988, p. 77. The Sponsors were:

The Health Education Council (to April 1987), The Health Education Authority (from April 1987), King Edward's Hospital Fund for London, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, The Scottish Health Education Group.

2. "Right to Reply", Channel Four, 17th February, 1990. While quoting from statements made on televison, I might as well add the words of Ms Joyce Epstein, the Assistant Director of ASH. Asked on the BBC programme, "Over to You", on the 12th of August, 1989, whether cigarette should be banned completely, she answered that there was "no right to smoke". This is, of course, ambiguous. She might have been saying, that we have no right to do what she considers bad for us. Alternatively, she might have been giving voice to the rather fascist notion, that whatever is not specifically allowed by the law is forbidden.

3. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), published with other essays in the "Everyman" edition, J.M. Dent and Sons, London, 1972, pp. 72-73 (Chapter I, Introductory).

4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1972, p. 58.

5. Douglas Jay, The Socialist Case, Gollancz, London, 1947, p. 258.