Classical Left Theories of Sport

By | January 7, 2015

Alienation is a pivotal notion in the writings of the young Marx, and one which is perhaps most accessible via an understanding of his views on human nature. Unlike other species, humans are endowed with consciousness and a facility to link consciousness to action. Human action has always and necessarily incorporated acting on nature to appropriate from it what is required for survival, like water, food and shelter. Humans have thus always needed to work or labour, and labour for Marx is a positive process. However, if humans are to realize their potential there must be a ‘natural interconnection’ between people and (a) their productive activities, (b) the products of their labour, (c) their companion workers, and (d) what they have the potential to become. Alienation has arisen with the breakdown of these natural interconnections through all the phases of capitalism.

Under capitalism, work or labour is transmuted into wage-labour:

within the capitalist labour process the means of production, teams, cartels, leisure organizations, are purchased in the market by the capitalist. So too is labour power. The athletes, the teams, the music star, and the box-office film hero-heroine perform the work under the supervision of the capitalist with the product of that labour remaining the property of the owner of the means of production. The purpose of the capitalist labour process is to produce profit, or at least produce commodities whose value exceeds the sum of the values of labour power and the means of production in the process of production (Jarvie & Maguire, 1994).

Capitalism, in other words, automatically generates a conflict between the ‘masters of production’ (the capitalists or owners of the means of production) and the ‘direct producers’ (the workers or owners of labour power). These two groups can be understood as classes competing for power even as the capitalists exploit the wage-labourers economically, paying them wages less than the economic values produced, and suppress them.

For Marx, the base refers to economic activities and relations, and the superstructure to all extra-economic social and cultural forms. As these terms imply, the base has a determining effect on the superstructure, one of the key functions of the latter being to act as ‘a framework for ideologies that justify and stabilize the modes of production and consumption under capitalism’ (Rigauer, 2000). Marx recognized the relative autonomy of cultural processes but nevertheless insisted that their de facto realization is rare.

Marx’s materialism posits a distinctive methodological approach to empirical phenomena. It is materialism that underpins his theory of societal development focused on the interdependencies between the economic relations that constitute the base and the cultural processes that constitute the superstructure. Humans may exercise agency, but they do so within the compass of the prevailing forms of production and interdependency – that is, structures – that shape their biographies. The scientific method is required to study ‘abstract’ structures, like those of class (emergent from the economy) and command (emergent from the state), in order to explain the concrete realities of the lifeworld.

There is no single overriding Marxist sociology of sport, but rather innumerable versions. The confines of a blog require only a précis or two by way of illustration. Brohm’s (1978) Sport: A Prison of Measured Time is often cast as an early, ‘vulgar’ contribution. Sport for Brohm, writing on the cusp of the transition from postwar welfare to financial capitalism, is an expression of the class interests of imperial capital (witness, he suggests, the modern Olympiad). He regards sport as the ‘Taylorization of the body’: sport affords the scientific means for producing maximum output from the human body. According to Horne and colleagues (1999), ‘this gives him a means of applying the principle of labour power and surplus value to athletic perf0rmance’. Brohm is especially scathing of the reconstructed Olympic Games: ‘the primary aim of the organizers of sport or Olympic competitions is not sport for its own sake but sport for capitalist profit; or rather, their aim is capitalist profit through sport. In other words, contrary to the naïve reformist view, it is impossible to separate sporting activity proper – pure sport as it were (the coming together of athletes from different countries sharing the same Olympic ideal (‘citius, altius, fortius’) – from its capitalist , or at the international level, imperialist material base.’

In another early, influential piece, Rigauer (1981) is at one with Brohm in allying sport to work. His later précis warrants an extended quotation:

under conditions of industrial capitalism sport as an integral part of the superstructure (culture, ideology) reproduces features of social behaviour that are functionally and normatively ingrained in capitalistically organized processes of working, marketing, rationalization, scientification, communication and socialization. All these social processes are reduced in sport to the quantitative principle of ‘ideal’ and ‘material surplus value’ (reification, alienation). On the other hand, it also has to blur this very structural correspondence ideologically in a way that allows the idea of sport as an autonomous area to be maintained.

Hargreaves (1986) moved the debate forward by calling on Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. Distancing himself from the implicit determinism of the base/superstructure binary, Gramsci argued that hegemonies can be built by more than one class: the superstructure can impact on the base as well as the base on the superstructure. Hargreaves contends that the relation between capital and sport can take different forms, and he identified five. The first involves straightforward profit-maximizing, most commonly associated with professional boxing and horse racing. Not all sports lend themselves to the making of profit however, and Hargreaves’ second relation refers to the maintenance of financial viability through strategies like local fund raising. Third, sports can stimulate the accumulation of capital indirectly, for example when they create markets for goods and services like equipment, clothing and gambling. Another way in which sport can indirectly assist capital accumulation is, fourth, through affording opportunities for advertising and sponsorship. Finally, sport can suck in investment for non-economic reasons, as when directors of football clubs pursue local credibility, prestige or facilities for corporate entertainment. Often, of course, economic and non-economic motives overlap and two or more of Hargreaves’ five relations between sport and capital obtain simultaneously.

The emergence of what Elias called ‘sportization’ in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England, culminating in a bourgeois hegemony and ideology of the gentleman amateur that reflected and nurtured a masculine ruling-class unity, has been well documented (Scambler, 2005). Horne and colleagues draw on Hargreaves:

the growth of spectator sport and a demand for sport as entertainment, fuelled by the greater disposable income and free time of workers had in the latter part of the nineteenth century, provided an impetus for the development of professionalism, and a threat to the amateur-gentlemen hegemony. Gentlemanly amateurism saved itself by conceding fresh ground, restricting the effects of commercialism and retaining control.

In fact, resistance to ‘rational recreation’ varied and some working men’s sports such as football broke these ‘shackles’ more rapidly and decisively than others.

How, according to Hargreaves, did commercial or capital-oriented sports insinuate themselves into the national culture?  His argument has four components or building blocks. Without the ‘cult of athleticism’, he contends, there would have been no organized sport. Second, without rational recreation and missionary endeavours on behalf of athletic activity, organized sport would not have penetrated working-class culture. Third, without the popularity of sport and the ready transference of this popularity to some amateur-gentlemen controlled sports, the commercial flowering of sport could not have occurred. And finally, without the emergence of ‘mass sport’, the political elite would not have had this ‘field’ for articulating the ‘national interest’.


Brohm,J (1978) Sport: A Prison of Measured Time. London; Ink Links.

Hargreaves,J (1986) Sport, Power and Culture: A Social and Historical Analysis of Popular Sports in Britain. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Horne,J, Tomlinson,A & Whannel.G (1999) Understanding Sport: An Introduction to the Sociological Aspects of Sport. London; E & F N Spon.

Jarvie,G & Maguire,J (1994) Sport and Leisure in Social Thought. London; Routledge.

Rigauer,B (1981) Sport and Work. New York; Columbia University Press.

Rigauer,B (2000) Marxist theories. In Eds Coakley,J & Dunning,E: Handbook of Sports Studies/ London; Sage.

Scambler,G (2005) Sport and Society: History, Power and Culture. Buckingham; Open University Press.

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