Doing it better than our enemy

Many on the left see sport as nothing else than another way for the bosses to dupe the workers. Ben Lewis disagrees, and argues for a workers’ sport movement

’Tis right as England beat the rest

Of Europe and the world at all things

That so her sports should be the best

And England first in great and small things

No German, Frenchman or Fijee can ever master cricket, sir

Because they haven’t got the pluck to stand before the wicket, sir1


Living as we do, in this strange time known as ‘London 2012’, this popular rhyme from late 19th century Britain might sound all too familiar to many Weekly Worker readers currently up to their necks in state-sponsored Olympic fever. Of course, the BBC and other media outlets will now speak of ‘Britain’, not ‘England’, and the ‘Britain first’ agenda no longer deploys terms like ‘Fijee’. But nonetheless, the media offensive has an all-too-obvious focus: British medals, British pluckiness and British pride. In these times of depression and austerity, the nation - black, white, rich, poor - should ‘unite as one’ against the others.

Stirring the emotions and captivating hearts and minds, international competitive sport can certainly be exploited for such nefarious, chauvinistic purposes - and enormous profits and revenue along the way. Historically, this had led to conscious decisions and organisational manoeuvres on the part of the capitalist class to fashion sport in their own interest. Today, behind the deft flicks of German footballer Mesut Özil, the sumptuous timing of Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar or the astounding stamina and pace of Kenyan marathon runner Patrick Mackau lurks a Byzantine empire of lucrative television contracts, ubiquitous advertising and farcical sponsorship stipulations.2 This is just another manifestation of capitalism’s unique ability to reduce everything to commodities.

But is there something intrinsic to sport that makes it uniquely reactionary and irredeemably prone to nationalistic narrow-mindedness? Is sport something immutable that stands above the balance of class forces and social relations more generally? And what, if anything, does Marxism have to say about the world of sport and recreation?

Sporting philistinism

Many on the left - far too many unfortunately - dismiss sport altogether. After all, why should the working class be wasting its time lifting weights or watching football when there are so many other things to be getting on with?

In his 1996 article, ‘Marxism and sport’, Chris Bambery, the former editor of Socialist Worker who now fronts the (Scottish) International Socialist Group, argued that sport simply distracts the working class from what it should really be doing: ie, trade unionism, low-level ‘united front’ work and reading dull-as-ditchwater left publications that pretend to speak to the ‘masses’. For him, sport is just a kind of modern-day “opium of the masses”, where those like Özil, Tendulkar and Mackau are the new gods: “Naturally,” he remarks, in a distinctly elitist fashion, “socialists understand why people take part in or watch sport. It is an escape from the harsh world in which we live. That is why we do not ignore sport. Rather socialists campaign, for instance, against racism on the terraces and seek the support of sportsmen and women for such campaigns. Neither would socialists dream of banning or prohibiting participation in sports.”3 Well, that’s a relief.

This is perhaps a textbook definition of philistinism. That is not to say that comrade Bambery’s observations about the current nature of sport as an alienated form of self-expression and entertainment are off the mark. There is no doubt that sport does provide solace for millions of people. It certainly can divert and divide our class, forcing us to passively consume what are essentially tightly-marketed products (clubs, players and competitions, as well as individual events) rather than actively engage in and exercise control over them.

The problem, however, is that Bambery essentially outlines a bourgeois conception of sport. The status quo is more or less the best that we proles can hope to achieve under capitalism: ie, a form of entertainment that tames and pacifies the population, all the while serving as a means of rallying people to the nationalist banner and providing fit and healthy soldiers for imperialist wars.

He fails to even entertain the notion that sport, like so many other things in society, is reflective of social forces more generally and a site of struggle. And he certainly does not think that sport could provide soldiers for the class war.

A different approach

We must turn to Fritz Wildung, a German social democratic pioneer of worker sport, for a rather bolder vision: “Sport in the interests of the working class means sport that liberates the worker”.4 These were the founding ideas behind the phenomenon of mass worker sport.

Lorenz Peiffer argues that worker sport has been “persecuted, banned, repressed and forgotten”5 - perhaps explaining why many on the left do not take this important aspect of our history very seriously. Worker sport does not even seem to register with comrade Bambery. Following decades of defeat it has been washed from our memory. Most people express genuine disbelief when they hear that our movement once successfully ran its own sporting clubs, associations, cooperatives and even international festivals to rival the Olympic Games. As such it is to be welcomed that Simon Basketter, writing in a post-Bambery Socialist Worker, considers that the “attempts to organise workers’ sport are worth remembering”.6 Ditto his argument that sport became a “battleground” in the class struggle.

Struggle is indeed key. In the face of bourgeois attempts to seize control of late 19th century sport through crowd control, ticket sales, nationalist propaganda and so on, our class fought back and organised. Thus the struggle for independent working class sport was born - seen as an essential component of the struggle to refashion society and an integral part of the worker’s full and rounded development: a healthy body and a healthy mind. It is thus no surprise that the continental roots of worker sport can be traced back to the formation of worker educational associations there.

With the rise of national trade union federations, cooperatives and mass socialist parties during the period of the Second International (1889-1916), worker sport started to assume organisational form. As with so many other aspects of working class culture, the German working class movement served as a model - its enormously popular gymnastics, cycling and hiking associations were replicated all across Europe. Worker sport encompassed a wide-range of activities ranging from chess to jiu-jitsu.

The emphasis was always on participation - another way of patiently building the organisational capacity of our side, opposing the dominance of capital and breaking through the fetters it imposes on the self-expression of the worker. These clubs and associations often produced and distributed their own agitational materials and even specialist publications.

Reflecting the post-World War I division in the workers’ movement, two worker sport internationals came into existence in the early 1920s. The Lucerne Sport International (LSI), founded in 1920, built on the remnants of official social democracy. Nevertheless, its membership totalled nearly two million people, with more than half of these coming from Germany. The German movement had the honour of running the largest cycling club in the world, served by a cooperatively-run bicycle factory. While much smaller, the Austrian and French sections were also influential.

The Communist International helped found the International Union of Red Sports and Gymnastics Associations - more commonly known as the Red Sport International - in 1921. Its explicit aim was “the creation and amalgamation of revolutionary proletarian sports and gymnastics organisations in all countries of the world and their transformation into support centres for the proletariat in its class struggle”.7 The fate of both organisations was bound up with the twists and turns of the relationship between the two wings of the international workers’ movement. At a grassroots level, however, the relationship between the two organisations was often close and led to some interesting outcomes.8

Worker Olympics

Following a series of large regional and local events, the first Worker Olympics took place in Frankfurt am Main in July 1925, organised by the LSI. Despite the fact that the festival banned communist sporting organisations from taking part, these games were a big success. Over 100,000 athletes competed, making them the biggest Olympic event ever. Frankfurt 1925 highlighted the schism between the (class-prejudiced) ‘amateurism’ of the official Olympic Games and the working class response to them. A line had been drawn - there were no common events or competitions between the two Olympics. (In other sports, however, there were examples of competition - on one occasion the Austrian worker football team actually beat the official Austrian national side. Forget Liverpool v Everton: that’s a real derby!)

In welcome distinction to the usual capitalist crap, the official motto of Frankfurt 1925 was “no more war” - sticking two fingers up to the official Paris games of 1924: the warped and jingoistic values informing the latter ensured that athletes from the ‘loser’ countries in World War I were banned from taking part, not to mention athletes from the young USSR. The LSI charged Paris 1924 with “using sport to promote war”. While the Second International’s record in fighting World War I was anything but exemplary, the message of the LSI games was clear: “For sure, competition easily awakens animal instincts. But only if the spirit of humanity is absent. Nationalists know no humanity. We all have the same enemy: capitalism.”9 Over 150,000 spectators attended the worker games, which eschewed national flags and anthems. Memorable events included a “living chess game” and an anti-war demonstration on the “day of the masses.” The games finished with the (hugely popular) football final and an aquatic exhibition in the Main river! Later on that year the first worker winter games took place - also in Germany.

Calisthenics were an important part - all competing athletes were expected to participate in these mass exercises. In this way the worker Olympics strove to break down the artificial division between the athlete and the spectator - and to counter national chauvinism by bringing together so many athletes from around the world in a conscious display of international solidarity. The aim was to proclaim the “new great power” on the global scene: the international working class.

Social democratic ‘Red Vienna’, renowned for its daring, avant-garde experiments in architecture and the design of working class accommodation, was the venue for the second LSI worker Olympics. The Prater Stadium had been built especially for the occasion. Over 250,000 people watched the “festive march”. All this was a bit of a coup for the Second International too, with its 1931 Vienna congress taking place at the same time. The event’s official programme even contained “welcome greetings” from such Second International luminaries as the Austro-Marxist, Victor Adler, and the execrable Belgian social chauvinist, Emile Vandervelde.

Once again, the festival’s opening ceremony was remarkable, featuring a live depiction of the history of the workers’ movement from the Middle Ages. At its close, a large model of a capitalist’s head placed in the middle of the Prater stadium collapsed into itself (imagine that, Seb Coe!).

All the while, the communist RSI and its affiliates, such as the wonderfully titled Combat Association for Red Sport Unity (Germany), were organising their own events as an alternative to both the official games and those of the LSI. The first Worker Spartakiad took place in Moscow in 1928, followed by a Winter Games in Oslo. Moscow 1928 could not compete with the LSI event in terms of numbers (600 athletes representing 14 countries), but it was nonetheless a crucial event for communist worker sport and its attraction internationally.

In 1932 the RSI attempted to take the second Spartakiad to Germany, but in the heightened political atmosphere of the time the games were banned. Then came fascist reaction in Germany and Austria. It is worth noting that Hitler crushed the worker sport organisations in Germany in 1934.

Fascism struck another blow against the worker Olympics in 1936. With Comintern’s embrace of popular frontism, there were successful attempts to organise a joint RSI-LSI Olympics in Spain. However, these games had to be cancelled immediately after the opening ceremony following Franco’s uprising. With much of Europe now coming under the influence of fascist reaction, brave attempts were made at organising another event in the following year, this time in Antwerp, but in spite of the unity of the two organisations the numbers were markedly down. The repression in the core country of worker sport had taken its toll. Nevertheless 50,000 spectators at the opening ceremony was no mean achievement. And once again the games had tremendous symbolic value, especially for the many courageous working class militants engaged in the struggle against fascism. There was even a Spanish delegation present despite the civil war. Their armoured car and ‘No pasaran’ banners were met with cheers from the crowd.

This was the last time that a worker Olympics was organised on an international scale. In line with post-war ‘peaceful co-existence’, ‘official’ communism soon fell in behind the mainstream games - as did official social democracy, by then fully integrated into the US-led global order. The split between the bourgeois Olympics and worker Olympics was resolved in favour of the former. And this situation looks set to continue until we see a revival of mass working class organisation.

Do it better

Seventy-five years on, we ought to look back on these events with great pride. With organisation, our class can achieve so much. Yet it has to be said that worker sport was not without its problems: after all, both the RSI and LSI ultimately failed. As we might expect, the worker sport movement has not been the subject of great study, but the research that has been undertaken has highlighted some significant shortcomings in the communist RSI - even before Stalinisation and Soviet sport’s degeneration into the cult of steroids, Stakhanovite biceps and the worship of targets.

André Guenot’s essay on communist sport makes some interesting observations10. The RSI was hastily set up to counter the influence of the dominant LSI amongst the masses, but its role was not entirely clear: at first it was subordinate to the Young Communist International: ie, treated as youth work. This led to a dispute, with Comintern ultimately siding with the YCI over the RSI. Only in 1924, at Comintern’s fifth congress was the RSI officially recognised as a constituent part of the communist movement.

Gunot notes an ensuing tension in the RSI’s identity. On the one hand, RSI congresses were filled with Communist Party members and promoted communist policy on sport. On the other, it wanted to be a ‘broad’ organisation seeking to win over non-communist elements. Indeed, most of its followers were not CP members. However, especially with increasing bureaucratisation, this led to a growing gulf between the party and the (overwhelmingly non-communist) rank and file, who were increasingly excluded from decision-making and the actual politics of the RSI. This often ensured that many worker sport activists often chose their particular sporting international not on the basis of the difference between reform and revolution, however understood, but on the basis of how it would impact on the organisation of their sporting competitions, leagues etc. There is a sense in which both the LSI and the RSI simply provided a space for well-organised and rewarding sport on the periphery of capitalist society, rather than challenging bourgeois conceptions of sport or society more generally.

In a certain sense, the German expression Sport und Körperkultur (‘Sport and physical culture’) nicely captures what I think should be the aim: the promotion of sport as part of our culture, whether that takes the form of competitive sports (up to and including with ‘mainstream’ athletes) or simply as a way of our class getting together and enjoying a hike/bicycle ride/cricket match. There can be no doubt about sport’s socialising - and politicising - role if it is rooted in a culture of democracy, self-activity and self-organisation. A class that spends its ‘free time’ in front of the television as isolated, passive consumers of activity that is totally alienated from their control or direction does not make for a political, thinking movement. This is why the emphasis on rounded development and self-improvement in worker sport is so important - an integral part of the revolutionary project of human self-emancipation.

Clearly, much more thinking needs to be done on this question, and studying our rich past in more detail ought to be an essential part of this. I would stress that, while a communist programme should advance demands on the state (sport as part of a polytechnic education, the provision of quality sports facilities, etc), we should primarily look to building our own organisations: trade unions, cooperatives, sports associations and so on. These organisations should try to encompass the class as a whole, with democratic, self-activating structures within which communists can organise and have an influence.

Even today there are some examples of worker sport: trade union five-a-side tournaments, cooperatively run sports clubs, the well organised leftwing ‘ultra’ fans in clubs like Sankt Pauli in Hamburg, etc. But in truth these are small, often isolated examples. We are a long way from the kind of international coordination required to follow in the footsteps of the worker sport activists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet even in its current emaciated state, the workers’ movement internationally certainly presides over the resources to organise sporting clubs, festivals and even counter-Olympic festivals that could rival and - within time - even outdo the ‘official’ games. Obviously one huge obstacle to making that a reality is posed by the fact that our movement, rather like the official Olympics festivities themselves, is presently ideologically and organisationally tied to the organic hierarchy of nation-states that is the imperialist world order.

Two positive lessons we can certainly draw on are that the movement was founded on mass class organisation at base - upon a vision, however distorted, of the working class not as a slave class at the point of production, but as a potential future ruling class that needed to develop its own stance on all social questions. In this sense, many on today’s far left have a political vision that is more conservative than that of Adler or even Vandervelde.

Organising our class and equipping it for struggle is a task to be conducted both at and beyond the workplace. Our movement must be bold and daring in advancing solutions for all areas of society: in sport, leisure and culture more generally, we should aspire to emulate the words introducing the official programme of Frankfurt 1925: “We want to show our enemies that we can do it better”.11

The bourgeoisie and its hirelings have, for now, got the upper hand. But, as London 2012 kicks off this week, it is worth bearing in mind that our side has everything to play for.



1. Quoted in M Hoskisson, ‘Capitalism and sport’ Permanent Revolution summer 2010. Comrade Hoskisson provides a useful summary of capitalist designs on sport in the late 19th century.

2. For example, Olympic spectators will not be able to eat chips at the Olympics - unless they buy them from McDonalds, of course! Worse, perhaps, was the ban on German beer (!) at the special ‘spectator zones’ during the 2006 football World Cup in Germany. Budweiser should be thanked for that particular stroke of genius.

3. C Bambery, ‘Marxism and sport’ Socialist Review December 1996. Comrade Bambery must also take the gold medal for philistinism on the nature of competitive sport too. In true Eugen Dühring fashion, he states: “Under socialism there will be physical recreation - but not sport … Socialism will not be a society where 22 men still play football (far less where another 30,000 people will pay to watch them) or men and women crash up and down a swimming pool competing against each other and the clock. Physical recreation and play are about the enjoyment of one’s body, human company and the environment.” Bambery’s take on competition is comprehensively critiqued in L Parker ‘Balls to worker sport?’ Weekly Worker June 12 2008.

4. Quoted in the ‘Weblexikon der Wiener Sozialdemokratie’: www.dasrotewien.at/arbeiterolympiade.html. This emphasis on the link between mental/physical health and revolution was a common one in Second International Marxism. Although dealing with the ‘woman question’ specifically, August Bebel’s ‘Woman under socialism’ (1879) is a good example of such an approach.

5. L Peiffer, ‘Review of The story of worker sport’, Journal of Sport History summer 1997, p218.

6. S Basketter, ‘A league of our own: the story of the workers’ sports movement’ Socialist Worker July 10.

7. A Gounot, ‘Sport or political organization? Structures and characteristics of the Red Sport International,1921-1937’ Journal of Sport History spring 2001, p23.

8. One example cited by Gounot is that following the split in the French worker sports movement almost all the clubs in and around Paris joined the Red Sport International, regardless of whether they were made up of Socialist or Communist Party sympathisers. They wanted to keep their sporting events and league tables intact.

9. ‘Vorwort’ in the ‘Internationales Arbeiterolympia Festbuch’, Frankfurt am Main 1925.

10. A Gounot, ‘Sport or political organization? Structures and characteristics of the Red Sport International,1921-1937’ Journal of Sport History spring 2001, pp23-39.

11. ‘Internationales Arbeiterolympia Festbuch’, Frankfurt am Main 1925, p5.