An interview with Gabriel Kuhn
July 23rd, 2021
Today, corporate control over sports is rampant — and is extending its grip on public space in general. Recent Olympic Games and soccer World Cups have seen host countries suspend constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights in order to suppress criticism of these showpiece events and the brands that use them as a platform. Faced with mockery of aggressive advertising by brands like Coca Cola at the Euro 2020 championships, England manager Gareth Southgate insisted that such firms are crucial to investing in grassroots sport facilities.
But sports don’t have to be like this. In the interwar decades, a vibrant workers’ sports movement closely connected sports to working-class self-organization and a keen rejection of corporate promoters and professional clubs. In the 1920s, the organizations attached to the Socialist Workers’ Sport International (SASI) counted over one million members, while the Soviet-centered Red Sport International (RSI) had some two million. SASI’s Workers’ Olympiads were a particular high point of this movement: the 1931 games in Vienna had both more spectators and participants than the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
In Austria, the workers’ sports movement was closely connected to workers’ defense from the rising fascist threat. One of its most important figures was Julius Deutsch, who also founded the anti-fascist Schutzbund militia and became a military adviser in the Spanish Civil War. A valuable introduction to his life’s work appears in Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture, a selection of his writings published by PM Press. Gabriel Kuhn, who translated and edited the volume, spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the cultural life of interwar socialism, workers’ sports, and Deutsch’s anti-fascism.
In your introduction, you tell us that the socialists of Red Vienna didn’t just organize in workplaces or seek to enlighten the masses, but also to build a broad class culture. Beyond the actual provision of leisure facilities, Deutsch’s ideas of workers’ sports often focused on training a militant base with a certain discipline and “ethic.” What experiences shaped his thinking? Was this a reorientation of a pre-existing culture of workers’ sports? GK
I would say that the cultural aspects of the workers’ movement of the early twentieth century are its most striking feature. They defy any suggestions that working-class politics must focus on workplace and union organizing alone. These aspects are, of course, highly important, but the ambitions of the working-class movement at the time were much broader. The goal was nothing less than a new society, in which “proletarian” values such as community, solidarity, and mutual aid would replace “bourgeois” values such as individualism, competition, and profit-making.
“Red Vienna” stood for a fundamental social transformation during the city’s governance by the so-called Austromarxists, who were organized in the Austrian Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP). The SDAP was the most radical of Europe’s social-democratic parties of the era, trying to carve out a way between reformism and Bolshevism. There were workers’ sport clubs, workers’ theater groups, workers’ study circles, the whole lot.
The militant base was needed to defend these ambitions. Austria was politically very polarized. The old aristocracy, the new bourgeoisie, the Catholic church, peasants who perceived the working-class movement as a threat (especially with regard to land ownership), and an emerging fascist movement influenced by Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirts — there were plenty of enemies. Eventually, a coalition of them ended Red Vienna in 1934.
Did Red Vienna mean a reorientation of the workers’ sports movement? It certainly made the ties between workers’ sports and working-class militias stronger. “Wehrsport” (literally, “defense sports,” although “paramilitary sports” might be a better translation), with a focus on cross-country running, shooting sports, and martial arts, would not have been as central under other circumstances. But the origins of organized sports overall are closely tied to the discipline of boarding schools and the military. This was reflected in workers’ sports, too. DB
Today, many socialists would criticize the effects of corporate sponsorship, unaccountable governing bodies, and states’ megalomania in shaping big sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics. But Deutsch also has a critique of the spectacle of professional sports as such. Could you explain what this was? GK
For Deutsch, sports were about common experience, health, recreation, and building self-confidence. Anything commercial was deemed a result of bourgeois influence and corruption.
It is quite fascinating to read Deutsch’s critique of events such as the 1927 “Long Count Fight” in Chicago, where Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey fought for the world heavyweight boxing title. In a few paragraphs, Deutsch lists just about anything that we still recognize as negative aspects of big sporting events: the sensationalism, the “advertisement machines,” the money involved, the focus on records. It goes to show how relevant this critique still is, and also how far back the commercialization of sports reaches.
Deutsch’s critique certainly contains an element of the “opium for the masses” take that is still pretty common among the Left. The difference is that Deutsch doesn’t see this as a problem of sports as such but of capitalist exploitation. Instead of condemning sports, he was looking for alternative ways of playing and organizing them. DB
In the early decades of the century there was an international workers’ sports movement which organized its own international Olympiads. Why was this created — and did it gain a genuinely mass following? What international analogs were there with the Austrian case? GK
Deutsch understood sports’ appeal to the working class very early. As legend has it, he walked into the office of Victor Adler, the founder of the SDAP, at the tender age of fourteen, demanding the formation of a football team at the workers’ club he attended. Deutsch explained that physical training was as important for the working class as educational pursuits. Adler was impressed and took the young Deutsch under his wing. Some twenty years later, Deutsch would become president of the Austrian Workers’ League for Sport and Body Culture (ASKÖ) and the Socialist Workers’ Sport International (SASI). Deutsch was convinced that the workers’ sports movement was essential in strengthening the working class and building working-class consciousness.
The workers’ sports movement certainly had a mass following. At its peak, the SASI organized over a million worker athletes through its national affiliates. Almost eighty thousand participated in the 1931 Workers’ Olympics in Vienna. There were also about two million organized in the Red Sport International (RSI), the communist counterpart to the SASI. Most RSI members hailed from the Soviet Union.
Austria was a center of the workers’ sports movement, but the movement was strong in other countries, too. Germany had a national workers’ soccer league that rivaled the professional league. The only advantage of the professional clubs was the money: they recruited top players from the working-class teams by offering them salaries and a relief from factory work. Players who accepted these offers were often seen as “traitors” by their working-class peers. It was a highly politicized climate. DB
You cite an article by Ralf Hoffrogge on the relationship between German social democracy and alcohol, which notes how while that country’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) fought alcoholism, during the anti-socialist laws of the late nineteenth century it also became heavily rooted in bars and taverns. Was this the case in Austria, too? And what kind of reactions did the call for sobriety have among the party membership, or its broader social base? GK
In the literature of the Austrian working-class movement of the 1920s, you read a lot about how workers have to be brought out of the “inns and taverns.” So, yes, gathering there certainly was a big part of working-class culture. The Austromarxists wanted workers to gather, but in a healthier environment.
I believe the difference between Germany and Austria had to do with the respective working-class leaders. In Austria, it just so happened that most of them had a particularly negative view of alcohol. Victor Adler left an entire book full of speeches and articles addressing the negative impact of drink on the class. Julius Deutsch grew up as the son of a tavern owner in the Austrian countryside and was heavily impacted by the effects of alcohol consumption on the rural poor. The Workers’ Temperance League was an important organization during the Austromarxist era.
How big was its impact on the base? It certainly had some effect, not least on worker athletes who often propagated sobriety, but the effect should not be overrated. There wasn’t a mass movement of sober workers that would compare to the workers’ sports movement. The German social democrats would have argued that their more moderate approach (in short, beer is fine, but no hard liquor) was more realistic. In the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks soon abandoned their anti-alcohol campaigns, too. Alcohol consumption is a complex issue, and purely moral and motivational approaches don’t necessarily get you very far. DB
Deutsch’s articles in this collection often convey the idea that the workers’ movement needed to combat militarism while also training itself in a military-style discipline. Can you tell us a bit about his role in organizing the Schutzbund, and the importance of this preparation in defending the movement? How far was this inspired by — and in rivalry with — the rise of European fascism? GK
There were certainly some contradictions. Ideologically, the notion of proletarian self-defense played an important part in explaining them. Militarism was bad, but it was a reality, and you had to respond to it by adequate means. Deutsch spoke of “voluntary discipline” as opposed to “coercive discipline.”
The Schutzbund was founded as a network of workers’ militias for self-defense in 1923. Deutsch, who had military experience from World War I, became its chairman. Essentially, it was a response to the threat posed by the emerging bourgeois-fascist alliance, which had its own militias and strong ties to the military.
Deutsch was criticized by other SDAP members for giving the Schutzbund too much of a traditional military character. The critique was based less on ideological than tactical grounds. It was argued that more independence of the units would prove more effective in a combat situation. The Schutzbund’s defeat in the 1934 Austrian Civil War, which brought the Austrofascists to power, seems to confirm those views. But there will probably never be a final verdict on what exactly happened during those fateful days and how the outcome could have been prevented.
These ideas of workers’ sports seem not to have revived in the postwar years. Could you tell us a bit about Deutsch’s life after the fascist takeover, and how far he advanced similar ideas in the post-1945 social democracy? GK
Julius Deutsch was forced into exile after the Austrofascist takeover in 1934. He was involved in socialist organizations in various countries and served as a military adviser for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. While the Nazis ruled Austria, from 1938 to 1945, he couldn’t set foot in the country, both as a socialist and as a Jew.
He was one of the very first people in his position to return to Austria after the war. While many hesitated, it seemed the obvious choice to him. However, the social democratic party had changed its name and wanted to cut all ties to the Austromarxist era. Deutsch was sidelined, which caused him much grief until his death in 1968.
The ASKÖ, the workers’ sports federation, followed the party’s lead. It was revived, but the social ambitions were gone. There was no more railing against bourgeois sports or talk about a socialist future. Workers’ sport clubs still catered to a certain demographic, but toned down the political and ideological legacy almost completely.
The institutions of the workers’ sports movement exist to this day — even SASI has a successor organization. But instead of organizing alternatives to the official Olympics, it is now part of the International Olympic Committee — a 180-degree turnaround.
All of this reflects how profound the social changes after World War II were and proves the disastrous impact of fascism and the war on the working-class movement. DB
I was interested by your comments on the moral edge and militant seriousness of Deutsch’s texts, and how it is too simple to say this is merely a matter of the time in which he was writing. Which invites the question: Even if we don’t imitate the same forms, like collective gymnastic training, what would a modern equivalent look like, in terms of using the realm of sports and leisure to build a distinct class culture? GK
Everything has to be understood in the context of its time, but the Austromarxist era implied questions of a very general character. Morality and discipline are notions you can’t escape during heightened social tensions with the need for self-defense and possible confrontations with armed reactionary forces.
It’s an uncomfortable issue to tackle, not least when libertarian forms of socialism have gained a lot of traction since the demise of so-called actually existing socialism. I myself have been politicized in that environment, and I don’t see the development as only negative. But we have to acknowledge that there are limits to a politics based on individual desire, spontaneity, and the magical unification of diverse struggles. Morality and discipline might have a bad reputation in radical circles, but I don’t think it’ll help us if we dodge all related questions. It’s a discussion we need to have.
Sports will feature in it, but I don’t know if discipline is the most important aspect of workers’ sports for building a distinct class culture. Morality might be. I’m very impressed by how principled worker athletes were during the height of the workers’ sports movement. At the risk of being accused of voluntarism, I think we would come a long way if some of this could be revived.
About the Author
Gabriel Kuhn is an Austrian-born writer, translator, and union organizer living in Sweden. His latest book is Liberating Sápmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North. He blogs at lefttwothree.org.
About the Interviewer
David Broder is Jacobin’s Europe editor and a historian of French and Italian communism.