PM Press Blog

Playing as if the World Matters: A Review

May Day Books
May 11th, 2021

Some socialists distain sports, but you cannot separate sports from the working class or human life.  Gabriel Kuhn is someone who has spent time on the issue, writing an excellent book on the sport and anti-fascist organizing of the Austrian Social Democrats in “Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety – Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture.”  This book starts with the revolutionary period prior to the victories of fascism in the 1920s-1940s.  After that it takes up sports organizing and activism in less political, modern versions– all with great color posters, vintage historic images, drawings and memories.  If you thought Colin Kaepernick or protests against the Washington Redskins’ name were something new, you’d be wrong.

By now nearly anyone paying attention is aware of the commercialism, hero glorification, nationalism, competitiveness and corporatization of capitalist sports. At this point the typical U.S. sports fan is someone who participates from their couch.  Readers would be surprised to know that for more than 50 years socialists in countries like Germany and Austria organized sports events based on anti-nationalism, opposition to professionalism, anti-fascism and working-class fitness.  Three workers’ ‘Olympics’ were held with thousands of athletes from many different countries participating, sponsored by the Socialist International.  Red Olympiads were held sponsored by the Communist parties and the USSR.  Sports like cycling, football (soccer in the U.S.), hiking, track and field, swimming, skiing and even chess were pursued by millions in federations and clubs outside the bourgeois orbit.

Fascism, in the service of capital, crushed all this in western Europe.  After WWII, the profile of activism changed. Kuhn paints pictures of U.S. sports figures like Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente who broke the color line, supported by CP sports writer Lester Rodney.  Trotskyist C.L.R. James focus was on democratizing cricket.  Kuhn looks at the Communist role in creating the Tour de France; union reps like U.S. baseball’s Marvin Miller; protests in 1968 at the Olympics and in Paris; Muhammad Ali’s refusal to kill Vietnamese; the leading role of ‘state socialist’ countries in promoting women in sports; leftist and anti-fascist sports clubs in countries like Brazil and England; the campaign against apartheid South Africa’s sport matches. 

Boycotts of reactionary Olympics were organized in 1936 and 1968.  The Olympics’ is run by a collection of bribed bureaucrats, the IOC, that has been described as a gang of thieves who exploit the public purse to line the pockets of private entities.  Which is why there have been consistent attempts to prevent the Olympics from being held in various cities. Global football’s World Cup is not far behind, as we saw in the milking of Brazil.  The recent stopping of a FIFA football ‘super league’ in Europe says something about football fans’ power.

In response to the bourgeois approach to sport, Kuhn describes groups that have formed community sports clubs in various cities across the world.  Events have been organized by feminists, GLBTQ and disabled athletes.  Parallel People’s Olympics have been staged.  Football (soccer) ultras have injected politics into matches, along with a surge in activist athletes in the U.S. like Kaepernick.  Sport nurtures health, physical fitness, collaboration and physical/social intelligence.  But right now U.S. ‘professional’ sports is rife with profiteering, billionaire browbeaters, stadium blackmail, head injuries, winner-take-all competition, sex abuse, denigration of women’s sports, sweatshops, exploited cheer-leaders, racist team names, gentrification inside stadiums, nationalism in global events and endless advertising even on athletes clothes.

May Day carries other left books on sports.  This includes Dave Zirin’s books and Kuhn’s own book on the Austrian approach to sports mentioned above and his book “Soccer vs. the State.”

Prior blog reviews on this subject, use blog search box in the upper left to search our 14-year archive:  “Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety – Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture”(Kuhn); “Hey, How ‘Bout that NFL?” “Reflections on the Olympics 2012,”  “The English Game,” “The Queen’s Gambit,”  “Concussion,” “Missoula – Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” “Super Weed Bowl.”  Also by Kuhn “All Power to the Councils!”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

The Cultural Marxist 

Playing as if the World Mattered: An Illustrated History of Activism in Sports

Back to Gabriel Kuhn’s Author Page