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A One Dimensional Sports Reporter

September 22, 2010

“I absolutely cringed when I read that sports page. It reflected a lot of sectarianism. They commented mostly negatively on everything. It was quite patronizing, calling sports “the opium of the masses” and all that.”

That was Lester Rodney about his first impression about reading the Daily Worker, the then paper of the Communist Party of the United States. It’s hard not to have the same feeling reading the article ‘Ben Cousins and the spectre of freedom‘ in the Communist Party of Australia’s newspaper, the Guardian.

While the Communist Party are a shadow of what they once were, the “bread and circuses” argument put forth by the article is still alive. Essentially they see sport as being a distraction from people focusing on their own conditions of being oppressed, and they therefore blame sport for helping to perpetuate the capitalist social order.

Amongst the Left there is frustration about the lack of interest taken in politics by the majority of people, and sports and television have long been the main culprits blamed for dumbing down the masses. Karl Marx wrote a brilliant description of “ruling class and ruling ideas” when he wrote, “The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.”

In other words all aspects of life under capitalism are dominated by the ideas of the ruling class. That is true of sport but also true of literature, music, theatre, politics etc. Ruling class ideas spread through all these fields help to maintain the social order.

But it is never a complete domination; every aspect of capitalist society is a battleground between ruling class ideas and non-ruling class ideas. Sport is a haven of commercialism, it is obvious that corporations use sport as a way to sell their products and sport stars speaking about political issues threatens that, but even thought they try to make sport as conformist as possible, they have never been quite able to achieve it. Cracks appear within it, sometimes wide and sometimes brazen, where sport becomes a place for athletes to express political and human solidarity with causes opposed by the ruling class.

When the World Champion Boxer Muhammad Ali protested against going to fight in the Vietnam War he said, “No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.” This was no distraction; his standing electrified and solidified African American opposition to the war. There are numerous other examples in sport, just as there is in all human activities, of radical and revolutionary ideas finding their way through the surface. The dominant class wants people and athletes to think that sport is just about entertainment, but no one on the left should concede to this idea.
The author of the Guardian article quotes from the book One Dimensional Man by Marcuse and applies it to sport, saying “To take an (unfortunately fantastic) example: the mere absence of all advertising and of all indoctrination media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think, to know himself (or rather the negation of himself) and his society.”

This argument lends itself to a call to abstain from popular culture and all aspects of bourgeois culture, so that we can think, know our society and ourself and presumably create a better one. The problem is that it has been tried and hasn’t worked. Serfs under feudalism were free from all forms of advertising and media and nearly all forms of entertainment, yet despite that, the social system of feudalism lasted for over 1000 years. Modern day communes free from bourgeois culture don’t lead anyone to know themselves better, their isolation from all “advertising and indoctrinating media” leads to having a distorted understanding of society, because that advertising is part of the world we live in. You can’t hope to have an understanding of a society unless you are immersed within that society.

Fidel Castro said in his autobiography “….quality of life lies in knowledge, in culture. Values are what constitute true quality of life, the supreme quality of life, even above food, shelter and clothing.”

I agree. Culture influenced by bourgeois values is better than no culture at all. It is possible to go and see a football game after going on a political demonstration.

Impotent calls for workers to give up sport or their possessions will get us nowhere. What we should be arguing for is that sport should be used from the public good, not for private profit.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Stuart Munckton permalink
    September 22, 2010 7:14 am

    One point to emphasis from this piece, which I agree with, is, as great as the examples of Ali etc are in using platforms provided by sport to push struggle against the crimes of the sustem, even without this sport has intrinsic value and appeal to masses of people that justifies itself.

    This is true of culture in general and the reason why it is madness to try and imprison things such as popular music or other cultural fields in cell of “protest”. Cultural forms connect for a wide variety of reasons that arise within society and cannot be done away with because it is a “distraction”.

    The point “culture influenced by bourgeois values is better than no culture at all” is right. On this point, it is worth raising Leon Trotsky’s brilliant 1923 book applying Marxism to art “Literature and Revolution”.

    Arguing against the crude approach to art growing around him in the Soviet Union, which he saw bound up with the growing bureaucracy, he insisted that it made no more sense to throw out all proceeding art simply because it was a reflected the values of former ruling classes than it did to try and build socialism by throwing out the economic and other advances of capitalism.

    Trotsky argued art had its own rules that cant be reduced to class and class struggle, while occuring in that context. Any art of a future socialist (and classless society) would be on an infinitely higher level but would base itself on the sum total of preceeding human achievement in art. And he emphasised strongly that the Soviet Union was a long long way from such a society and the last thing it could afford to do was throw out all artistic achievements to that point.

    Sport, as part of culture, is obviously strongly influenced by the society it occurs in but it also has its own laws and dynamics.

    Too often, on the left the phenoma of mass sports as entertainment is viewed as a purely negative thing *because* it has developed under captialism and is marked by capitalist values, used and abused by capitalist intersts etc.

    But that is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. People are not sheep and sport as entertainment has its own appeal that has developed in modern history.

    This appeal, this attaction to it and its particular thrill and aesetic, is not going to disappear. I would be intersted in a single example where mass radicalisaiton was accompnied by a mass *rejection* of sport.

    Often, the role of competition in sport is used to link it to capitalism, but, while there is some truth, it is not the full story.

    The role of competition in sport is part of sports’ inherent dynamic – it tests and pushes the participant to a higher level. It is one thing to stand alone and perfect a few tricks with a soccer ball, it is another to put those skills to use getting around a defender to try and score.

    That competition drives the skills and the higher the skill the greater joy for both the participant and the audience.

    Of course, under capitalism, the dynamic is one sided and the great mass of people are reduced to spectators. (As with other aspects of culture such as music, literature, films etc, where most people have no participation but merely enjoy the works of others – which is very one-sided and, without personal experience in the field, reduced the ability to enjoy the work of others).

    But with much greater participation in sport from the grass roots, the desire to watch the elite will not lessen but deepen. The more people particiapte themselves, the more their skills increase, the deeper will be their appreciation of watching the highest skill levels.

    It wont be one or the other, but both heightening each other.

    I watched an Essendon-Hawthorn AFL game earlier this year as an Essendon fan whose team made a great comeback only to lose in a hard-fought last quarter.

    And the decisive difference in this close game proved Hawthorn key forward, indigenous super star Lance Franklin, who kicked one of the goals of the year running from the wing, outpacing and dodging opponents to kick a remarkable goal from the boundary just inside 50 metres.

    Even more remarkable was, two minutes later, he did the exact same thing again. I was both infuriated as an Essendon supporter and enthralled as a football fan to watch such a stunning display of skill.

    But after the game, Franklin was interviewed by recently retired Riochmand key forward Matthew Richardson – who had pioneered the previously unheard of “running key forward” – before Richo did it, it was almost unheard of for a big forward to bound down a wing.

    Richardson was standing watching just behind Franklin on the boundary when he kicked those two match winning goals and, talking to Franklin, his appreciation of the feat as one who played a simlar game was clear.

    His appreciation, from the position of a participant who knew how hard it was, was greater than those of us who have never tried it. I imagine it would be something like an acomplished guitarist watching Hendirx play.

    The aesetic beauty in Franklin’s feat was intrinsic – it wasn’t lessened by his failure in the post match interview to demand the closure of detention centres or whatever else. Of course, had he done so, that would have been great, but what he acheived had value regardless.

    Anyone who expects enjoyment of watching sport, which is quite deeply ingrained in modern popular culture, is going to just disappear in the building of a new society will likely be disappointed.

    People have a right to culture, which takes many forms – access to culture is a collective need. And sport is part of that culture.

  2. Stuart Munckton permalink
    September 22, 2010 7:27 am

    On the CPA Cousins piece, it also combines the “opium of the masses” line with moral puratinism in rgard to drugs – it jumps from one to the other. It makes a strange mixture, feels like it is stuck to togehter with sticky tape.

    On the drugs aspect, I wrote this for Green Left Weekly recently

    Also, I hear the author of the Guardian piece is a Fremantle Dockers supporter – which may go some way to explaining his strident dislike of Cousins and the Eagles. Though why a Freo supporter wants to see the end of the AFL is beyond me, as they did quite well this season.

    I could easier understand the attitude in some recent seasons…

    • September 23, 2010 12:56 am

      I think Stuart’s analysis is brilliant and I would agree with it 100%. Although, Trotsky seems to have a bit of a similar line to the CPA when it comes to football, at least.

      But the “duping of the masses” argument isn’t just theoretical, it’s practical. I remember being in Adelaide for a climate camp and it was schedluced for Grand Final day for the AFL and one activist said that wouldn’t be a problem, because only “meatheads” would be watching it, when in reality, you are talking about millions of people. I think it was in Barry Sheppard’s book The Party, he talked about how the put on an anti-vietnam war demo after a big American football game and activists went and did mass leafleting of the game, so 15,000 people from the game ended up going to the demo. That is a much healthier approach but that can only come about by having a better analysis of the role of sport.

  3. Stuart Munckton permalink
    September 23, 2010 6:13 am

    Well, Trotsky could be a bit unbalanced on some things. I think elements of popular culture, especially when outside his own field or experience, he could maybe be a bit hostile to. God only knows what he would have made of the rise of popular music and its mass market.

    But this comment depends a bit on context and exactly what he meant by it — and I doubt he would have thought T-shirts with that quote would be a good idea.

    There *is* the other side of the coin to this discussion, which is focused on countering dogmatic and sectarian attitude to culture on the left. There is an *grain* of truth in the “opium of the masses” argument – as there is an pretty much any argument that gets a following.

    As well as the way sport is used under capitalism to promote nationalism and other forms of “us-against-them” divisions, “win-at-all costs” aggressive masculinity, homophobia etc etc (none of which condemn sport *itself)*, the emotional investment in sport *can* be, not a diversion but a *reflection* of dis-empowerment and alienation from other spheres.

    The “opium of the masses” argument has a certain point *if* we base it on what Marx *actually* meant by it in relation to religion.

    It is often misunderstood as an attack on religion and seeing religion as a block, where as what he said was it was the “sigh” of the oppressed, the “soul of a soulless world”. He meant the oppressed, alienated from and oppressed b, their world sought solace in religion.

    It was an explanation of religion’s appeal not an attack on it as a force that holds the masses back. He saw it as a symptom rather than a cause of oppression.

    In a certain way, (though only in a certain way, as sport and mysticism are not the same thing) this can be applied to the mass response to sport — the investing of passion and hopes into national or club teams as a response to the lack of anywhere else to put those passions in a world people are powerless in.

    But this argument can be applied to any pastime under capitalism. People invest time, energy and passion into things such as gardening or cooking. I can only assume no one would advocate their disappearance of such pastimes under socialism. But, in a context of powerlessness and alienation, they can be a focus for passions and energy with nowhere else to go — without that fact condemning putting passion into those fields.

    In a context of revolutionary upheavel, such passions may be redirected into and find expression in the turmoil of mass struggle – without that meaning such activities have no value or will disappear or no one will be passionate about them still.

    This can be true without it meaning that sport is nothing but a distraction, that is has no intrinsic value or that it is not a perfectly legitimate (and inevitable) part of popular culture. (People watch films to escape their lives, without that meaning films have no value or are a “distraction” from fighting for socialism.)

    Then again, despite all that, Trotsky may have just been wrong in relation to football, I don’t know what else he said about sport as it existed in his time — he makes some very general comments in the context of a discussion of the potential for socialism to transfer culture in Literature and Revolution (and they are certainly not that sport would disappear).

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