The left is off its game

Historically, many on the left have been suspicious of the high level of engagement with sport among workers.  In his 1925 book Where is Britain going?, Leon Trotsky listed sport alongside ‘social training, the Church, and the press’ as things that had ‘artificially held down and turned aside’ class struggle. More recently, Noam Chomsky decried sport as a ‘crucial example of the indoctrination system’ that keeps people ‘from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about’.

Over the course of the past two centuries, sport has become firmly rooted in the everyday life of working-class communities in Australia and around the world – and yet it is rarely deemed a fitting topic for left-wing historians and theorists.

One notable exception is CLR James – the Trinidadian Marxist who, as well as being among the most prolific historians, journalists and social theorists of the twentieth century, was perhaps also history’s most erudite cricket tragic. In Beyond a Boundary, his semi-autobiographical journey through West Indian and world cricket in the first half of the twentieth century, James writes: ‘Trotsky had said that workers were deflected from politics by sports. With my past I simply could not accept that.’

Trotsky’s view, for James, represented a refusal to look reality in the face – something completely incompatible with the spirit of Marxism, the premises of which, as Marx put it in the German Ideology, are not ‘arbitrary dogmas’ but ‘the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live.’ In James’s words ‘we shall know more what men want and what they live by when we begin from what they do.’


Sport is unquestionably something that many men and women do. Based on a 2013–2014 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 60 per cent, or 11.1 million Australians, aged 15 years and over had participated in some form of sport and physical recreation in the 12 months prior. When it came to organised sport (rather than, for example, jogging or going to the gym), the figure was 28 per cent (or 5.2 million people).

Such figures would be much higher if they included those who regularly engage with sport as supporters. For instance, 3.7 million viewers tuned in to the 2014 AFL grand final between Hawthorn and Sydney. The second most popular television program that year, the finale of My Kitchen Rules, came in more than a million viewers behind (at 2.6 million, just ahead of the Rugby League State of Origin at 2.56 million). In Australian workplaces, the results of the last weekend’s games in the AFL, NRL, cricket or, increasingly, soccer are likely to be a hot topic of conversation.

In a society where most people have little control over their daily lives, and are subject to the discipline of an economy that reduces many, as Marx put it, to an ‘appendage of the machine’, sport is one of the few outlets for genuine passion and emotion. Identification with a particular club (whether as player or supporter) can provide a sense of community that neoliberalism has all but erased from other areas of life. In the social wasteland of late-capitalism, sport is clearly (and legitimately) a ‘heart of a heartless world’ for many people.

As James saw it, the important role that sport plays in the lives of workers renders it a potent force in shaping identities and cultures. Sport was, for him, a more powerful influence on society than the ‘high culture’ of the elites. ‘Cricket and football’ he writes, ‘were the greatest cultural influences in nineteenth-century Britain, leaving far behind Tennyson’s poems, Beardsley’s drawings and concerts of the Philharmonic Society. These filled space in print but not in minds.’


Some might agree with James that sport has played and continues to play a significant role in shaping culture, but still ask: whose culture? Isn’t it the case, as Chomsky and others have argued, that sport, particularly today’s highly corporatised elite sport, is above all a purveyor of the ideas and attitudes of the capitalist ruling class?

When we look at an institution like the AFL, it’s hard to deny that the dominant spirit is that of big business. As far as those who own and run the game see it, their role is not so much in administering a sport as in developing and selling a product. The players, the clubs and the spectacle of competition are all commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.

And then there are the fans: the people who weekly fill stadiums and the millions who watch televised sport. We buy the tickets and the merchandise, we consume the AFL product. Indeed, from the perspective of sport as big business, we are a captive audience that is part of contemporary sport’s package deal, offered for sale to advertisers, corporate sponsors and various other big-money interests.

But this is only one side of the story. If the dominant institutions in our society were straightforward conveyers of capitalist ideology into minds of the masses, there would be little possibility of resistance. We would be living in the kind of dystopian nightmare-world depicted in George Orwell’s novel 1984 – a world in which a small ruling elite can all too easily maintain control over a mass of ‘proles’ too preoccupied with ‘films, football and beer’ to be concerned with revolution.

This is not, fortunately, the world in which we live. The big-business interests that dominate elite sports today may well see players and fans alike as a kind of raw material for sale on the market – but in doing so they overlook the fact that what we’re talking about isn’t anything resembling iron ore, timber or cotton. We’re talking about are human beings.

Human beings are conscious. Human beings are inclined to come together with others, working collectively to create meaning and to shape the world around them in accordance with their interests. In the context of capitalism, the collective interest of workers and the poor is in fundamental contradiction to that of the big business and the wealthy elite. The primary sphere in which this conflict plays out is that of production, but it echoes in all other areas of social life.

Sport is no exception. The meaning we take from the action on the field, from the individual and collective triumphs and defeats, is bound up with the broader cultural, social and political dynamics of the society in which we live.

James’s account of the role of cricket in the emerging national consciousness of the West Indian people is one example. Cricket was the most thoroughly colonial of sports – exported across the British empire by white educators and officials as part of their arsenal of supposedly ‘civilising’ influences. But as the enthusiasm for cricket took hold among the mass of colonised peoples, the on-field triumphs of black West Indian and other ‘colonial’ cricketers became a powerful symbol of resistance.

Of the batting exploits of Wilton St Hill, for example, James writes that ‘to the tens of thousands of coloured Trinidadians … it was a demonstration that atoned for a pervading humiliation, and nourished pride and hope’. For him, there was no clear division between the action on the field, and the social and political battles outside. The knowledge that they could beat the British at their own game fed into the consciousness, confidence and militancy of the independence struggle.

The documentary Fire in Babylon captures the same dynamic at work in the later, post-independence period. Tours of England and Australia inevitably brought out the racists. Infamously, in the lead-up to a test series against England in 1976, English captain Tony Greig, who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, promised England would ‘make them grovel’.

As the great West Indian batsman Viv Richards recounted: ‘we took that seriously. Very, very seriously.’ West Indies’ response was to unleash the full might of a pace bowling attack, led by Michael ‘whispering death’ Holding and Andy Roberts, that pummelled the English into submission. This, combined with the batting mastery of Richards, captain Clive Lloyd, and others ensured a resounding West Indian victory, and the beginning of a period of dominance that saw them go undefeated in any test series for a record 15 years.

The significance of the West Indies’ success in this period went well beyond the cricket field. Apart from being a source of pride for the West Indian people themselves, it provided a spur to anti-racist struggles in Britain and around the world.

The recent controversy around crowd booing of Indigenous, and now-retired AFL player Adam Goodes should be seen in the same light. Goodes’ preparedness to call out racism when he sees it, his ‘war dance’, his defiance – all this has turned him into a symbol for Indigenous resistance and the refusal to bow down before the (literal and figurative) attempt to whitewash Aboriginal oppression from Australian history and society.

Sport is not some apolitical distraction from the ‘real issues’ facing those who are oppressed. The centrality of sport to many people’s daily lives, and the passions it evokes, can turn it into a focal point for broader issues and debates, as evidenced by the discourse and debates surrounding the treatment of Adam Goodes. This stuff matters. Far from looking down our noses at it, the left should be engaged with the culture of sport, just as we are engaged with other areas of culture and society.


James Plested

James Plested is a Melbourne writer, graphic designer and long-time leftist sports fan.

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  1. Thanks James. This is an excellent article. I wonder if there a place for more than just ‘a focal point for broader issues and debates, important as that is. Can we on the left use sport as an organising tool. The campaign against South African apartheid era sport is one example; the Goodes’ situation another but more possibility rather than real action.

  2. Meanwhile the Australian women’s football (soccer) team has had to strike to earn a minimal living wage after the best ever performance in this code at the World Cup by any Australian team. There is something of the ‘small ruling elite’ in charge, and any examination of sport needs gender goggles too.

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