“Socialist sport”


One of the greatest illusions created and systematically encouraged by Stalinist ideologues is that of the so-called “socialist (communist) sport”. Bourgeois ideologues enthusiastically accepted this fraud. It did not occur to them, although they persistently maintained that all that came from the East was “propaganda”, to question the “socialist” and “communist” attributes, overlooking the fact that a number of Marxist theoreticians from the West strongly opposed the theory and practice of Soviet “socialism” and that in the USSR, itself, a number of Marxist critics of Stalinism were liquidated or forced to leave the country. The most important goal of the “free world” ideologues was obviously to intimidate the workers in their countries with the “specter of communism”, reducing Marx’s vision of socialist (communist) society to the practice of Stalinism. It is in that context that the official attitude of the West towards Soviet sport should be viewed. The West sought to present the overwhelming domination of Soviet and East-European athletes on the world scene as the result of “manipulation” and “abuse” of these competitors by “communist totalitarianism”, while, at the same time, unofficially of course, doing everything, including mimicking Eastern sports training, to overcome the painfully inferior position in which it found itself. Even after the disintegration of the “Eastern bloc” and the Soviet Union, “socialist sport”, considering its results, remained the unattainable ideal for the “Western world”.

Great doubts about the endeavors to develop free physical culture were caused by the so-called “Marxist-Leninist” project of physical education (sport) in the USSR. The very term “Leninist” suggests an adaptation of Marx’s critique of capitalist society – whose realization presupposes a bourgeois society, its contradiction developed to the utmost, which in its “bosom” created possibilities for the “leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom“ (Engels) – to the conditions of the post-revolutionary Soviet society (by turning it into a positivist “theory of socialism”, i.e., a means for obtaining the “scientific” legitimacy for the practice of “real socialism”), built on the ruins of an order which hardly stepped into capitalism and which contained not one essential element for stepping out of it, let alone for overcoming the capitalist world. The “new socialist physical culture” was built on the conception, which became dominant in the USSR after the collapse of the revolutionary workers’ movement in the West, that it was possible to “build socialism” on the foundations of an underdeveloped bourgeois society by relying on “indigenous forces” and by “taking from capitalism whatever was useful for the development of socialism” (Lenin). By using this mechanistic logic, the chief ideologues of the USSR “overlooked” the fact that “taking” the institutions of capitalist society simultaneously necessitated the establishment of the very social relations that the Revolution sought to abolish. The principles inherited from the “legacy” of capitalist society became the unquestionable guiding principles in the development of theory and practice in the USSR. The true socialist ideas, arising from Marx’s libertarian humanism, were to be discarded immediately after the Revolution as “leftist radicalism”. What appears in Marx, with respect to a developed capitalist society, as a (concrete) utopian project, was proclaimed, in the post-revolutionary (especially Stalinist) period, a utopistic fantasy. Instead of overcoming sport and establishing a libertarian physical culture, which was particularly supported by “proletarian-cultists” (opposed to the “mania” of setting records), a “socialist sport” and a “socialist physical culture” were established, hopelessly remaining within the boundaries of the capitalist ideological horizon.

The uncritical attitude to sport involved an uncritical relation to quantitative measurement as a basis for determining human “value” and as an intermediary in human relationships; to a technologized and functionalized mind and relating that to industrial “aesthetics” (body mechanization); to inhuman combat between people in “blood sports” such as boxing (which was particularly supported by Anatoly Lunacharsky, one of the leading figures in post-revolutionary sport), which retained the attribute of a “noble art”; to breaking links with national cultures with the establishment of “uravnilovka” (equal compensation regardless of contribution) based on physical “qualities”; to institutional degradation of women, e.g., the use of military drills reduced unto eliminated the erotic, the sensuous, the spiritual, spontaneity, imagination, in effect, disregarded man’s playing nature, without which there is no genuine humanism.

It is only in this context that those consequences of Lenin’s view, fatal to the overall development of human beings and genuine human relations, that athletics, gymnastics and other forms of physical exercise, are more important for young people than issues pertaining to their sexual life, become clear. By appealing to one of the most reactionary principles of bourgeois thought, “a healthy body is a healthy soul” (1), Lenin significantly contributed to the oppression of the body, which peaked in “Stakhanovchina” – “a bureaucratic death of the body” according to Jean-Marie Brohm. It is about a systematic suppression of authentic human needs and the creation of a masochistic-productivistic character, which is ideally suited to the character of a model citizen from the period of the original accumulation of capital.

In spite of attaching great importance to the achievement of better results (records), the utmost goal of post-revolutionary Soviet sports pedagogy was not the creation of an athlete-record holder, but above all of a loyal (“conceptually conscious”) and usable (“useful”) “Soviet citizen”. In the 1925 “Resolution on Physical Culture”, it is pointed out that physical culture is not only a means for improving health, for physical education, for the development of cultural and labor values, and the enhancement of military training, but also a means for “educating the masses”, which, above all, means for the creation of a model citizen suited to the “needs of the time”, i.e., the demands on society made by the Party leaders. At the same time, physical culture has the task of instructing workers and peasants to take part, through the Party, in the activities of the trade union and the Soviets, of social and political life. It becomes the chief political means for integrating people into the established order. As for competition, according to Nikolai Semashko, President of the High State Council for Physical Culture in the post-revolutionary period, “It should ultimately serve as an instrument for including people in the building of socialism”. (2) In his speech to the Komsomol in Dniepropetrovsk in 1934, M.I. Kalinin, one of the leading Soviet pedagogues at that time, says the following: “Here, however, we should pay attention to this very important area of activity of the Komsomol, physical culture. Sport is a good thing; it builds you. However, in spite of that, it is but an ancillary activity, and it is not good if it becomes its own end, a matter of merely setting records. We want people to develop in all ways, we want them to run and swim well, to walk briskly and elegantly and every part of their body to be healthy – to put it concisely: we want them to be normal and healthy, able to work and defend themselves; we want proper development of all their physical qualities with a corresponding development of their mental qualities. – During our numerous visits to military schools, comrade Voroshilov paid special attention to these issues. He said that we should avoid the mere setting of records; that we should not engage in sport for sport’s sake; and that sport should be secondary to the general issues of communist education. Because all we do is not only toward the creation and development of athletes, but of citizens participating in the development of the Soviet state, people who must not only have strong arms and good digestion, but, above all, possess a broad political perspective and organizational skills. Hence, simultaneously with winning over millions of new young workers for the physical culture movement and raising sport in our country to the highest level, the Komsomol must see that our sports people have clearly shaped views of political matters and matters of general importance. I would like the members of the Komsomol to understand me properly. I do not want them to think that I wish to curb their enthusiasm. I want them to realize how important it is that things in all areas of our life and work are organized properly and in the Bolshevik manner.“ (3)

On the eve of the Second World War, physical culture and sport were developed under the motto: “Everything for the defense of the Soviet country!”. In December 1938, in his speech to school teachers, Kalinin emphasized the importance of physical culture for the development of a “collective comrade spirit”, starting from school days, which should enable the construction of a “steel wall” protecting the USSR from the West, which “waits for the right moment to destroy the Soviet Union”. (4)

After the Second World War, during the period of the “cold war“ and the appearance on the international scene of Soviet athletes (as well as athletes from the “socialist lager”), the (proclaimed) pre-war pedagogical doctrine was definitely abandoned, first in practice and then in theory. Sports victories and records became one of the most important means of order in the struggle for international prestige and the strengthening national power, and athletes consequently became the frontline warriors. To set a record (“For the country!”) became the chief, unquestioned goal of any sports competition. By including science, sport became an industry engaged in the production of record holders, with physical culture as the “broadest basis for the development of world-class competition”. Instead of criticizing the one-sided physical activism and a complete subjugation to sport, which turns people into anti-social beings and physical and mental invalids, the record holders are being praised and granted the status of “heroes of socialism”.

Professionalism is an inevitable step in the current development of sport: athletes acquire the peculiar status of state hirelings. Certainly, a proper “socialist” justification was found for that. After the international athletics became part of the global entertainment industry (show-business), “socialist sport” became commercialized and after the disintegration of the “Eastern bloc” and the Soviet Union, Western capital bought “socialist sport” at a low price and without any resistance in order to turn it into its advertising billboard.

The most important point in this context is that the entire process of the “transformation” of sport in the USSR developed under the guise of “progressive changes in socialist sport”. Never were the (Marxist) humanist ideals of socialism (communism) confronted with the reality of established “socialism”. Under the ideological mask of a “struggle for communism”, a ruthless struggle with critical thought developed, with thinking that might have demonstrated the true nature of “socialist sport” and, coincidentally, the true nature of “real socialism”. And while Marxist thinkers in the West were criticizing the inhuman nature of sport and revealing its political background, in the USSR and other “socialist” countries the undisputed authorities in sports pedagogy and the “amateur sport” movement were personalities like Pierre de Coubertin, who devoted the entirety of his “Olympic” life to the struggle against the libertarian workers’ movement and the ideals of socialism and bequeathed all of his written legacy to the Nazis, entrusting them with the task of preventing his Olympic ideal from being “distorted”. Under different ideological guises, Coubertin and Soviet bureaucracy were united in one thing: sport is an institution that serves to preserve the ruling order. Their common enemy was the working class as a possible agent of social changes. This orientation led to Juan Antonio Samaranch, for forty years one of the leading figures in the Spanish fascist movement and who never renounced his fascist past, being elected (with the decisive support of the Soviet bureaucracy) President of the International Olympic Committee in Moscow, capital of the country where fascism caused terrible sufferings, killing over twenty five million people.

The ideologues of “real socialism” were of one voice when it came to emphasizing the “emancipatory” character of “socialist sport”, which included most importantly its “mass character”, the active participation of women, the achievement of heightened results (records) as an expression of its “progressive strivings”, and so on. As for “mass character”, it should be said that Nazis maniacally insisted on the value of “mass physical culture and sport” (“Kraft durch Freude“). It was also the practice in the USA (“Recreation Program”, etc.), particularly today when “physical culture” has become one of the main forms of consumerism in the struggle for survival in the increasingly cruel everyday life of capitalist society. Thus, it is not the mass character, itself, that differentiates “capitalist physical culture” from “socialist physical culture”; it is rather its nature: is it a libertarian activity or is it about integrating man into an order where he is ruled by capital or the state? It should be added that so-called “mass physical culture” has officially become the “broadest rationale for the reproduction of world-class sport”, with millions of children involved in “sports programs” (above all, in the former-Eastern Germany), whose norms and working methods are dictated by the so called “world-class sport” that has led to the ultimate physical and mental destruction of man. Abuse of children, for the sake of “progress”, has taken on a monstrous dimension. The “emancipation of women” through sport should be viewed in the same context. It means that sport, in practice, has become a space for the (increasingly brutal) exploitation of women. To make matters worse, due to biological constraints (and in spite of the increasing use of “stimulants”) that are ever more dramatically effecting so-called “men’s sports”, woman has become the principal “engine” for setting records and the means for proving the “progressive” character of the ruling order. The true position of “women’s emancipation” in Soviet sport (society) can be seen in the fact that, before 1972, in spite of the domination on the international scene of female Soviet athletes and a growing number of women coaches, only one woman, and for only about three months, ever held a leading position in Soviet sport. (5)

Where the “Marxist” legitimacy of “socialist sport” is concerned, it should be noted that for Marx socialism is not a socio-economic end-stage, but a transitional period to the establishment of communism, the stage in which both the basic capitalist (economic and proprietary) relations and institutional spheres of bourgeois society will be abolished. It is about the “dying out” (Engels) of the institutions of bourgeois society, including sport, and not about “building socialism” by “strengthening” them (Stalin). Marx insists on workers as an “association of agents” participating directly in governing the overall social reproduction (social ownership), while Stalinism insists on the strengthening of State institutions, on the state’s power over man (state ownership). Society as a community of free creative people, namely, a communal life which is neither mediated nor subjugated by the repressive institutions of bourgeois society (the so called “public sphere”), but is always a novel, more developed, wealthier product of creative human activity in terms of its forms and contents – this is one of the main challenges of Marx’s humanism, totally opposed to Stalinism, which reduces society to a peculiar labor camp.

The Soviet conception of physical culture (sport) is not only a deviation from the fundamental postulates of Marx’s critique of capitalist society and its institutions, but also from Marx’s “Instructions” to workers from 1866 regarding the use of physical exercise as a means for strengthening the body and educating young workers. (6) Marx emphasizes the importance of physical education primarily as a means for developing class-consciousness and class integration of workers – for fighting against the bourgeoisie, which in Marx means against exploitation and subjugation. Workers, united as a class, are a revolutionary agent of changes and, thus, are free from the tutorial guidance of the bourgeoisie, the state and the Party. Physical, just like spiritual and poly-technical, education does not serve to turn man (worker) into a loyal and usable “citizen”, but, rather, is an authentic activity for a libertarian-oriented man who seeks to “destroy all relations in which man is a humiliated and oppressed being” (Marx) and create his own (genuinely human) world.

In the Soviet doctrine of physical culture (sport) there is no class integration since workers have already “seized power” (through Revolution) and thereby abolished class society, which means abolishing themselves as a class. In the “new” society, they are, as individuals, reduced to being “citizens” who are in a subordinate position with relation to the government (state, Party), and in terms of collectivity, they are the amorphous and unconscious “working masses” or “working people”. The ideologues of Stalinism reduce man, as does the church, to a “sheep” that is to be led to “paradise” (“communism”) by its “shepherds” (Party leaders), and be shorn and milked along the way. Man is by his nature “good”, but not sufficiently grown-up to account for his actions and assume responsibility for social development. So-called “historical materialism” becomes the fatal force that, through the Party leaders’ holding the key to the “holy secret”, governs human lives and determines the course of the development of society. What is left to man is to unquestioningly believe in the “infallibility of leaders” and obediently execute what is required of him. It is not the consciousness of an emancipated citizen, but the consciousness of a subject. The worker is no longer a revolutionary agent in the struggle against capitalism for a communist society; he has become part of the “working masses”, which have been reduced to a tool of the Party leaders for the “building of socialism”. Instead of encouraging man to overcome the institutions of bourgeois society, his main task is the “struggle for their strengthening”. Physical culture is no longer a form of workers’ self-organization and the means for heightening their class-libertarian consciousness; it is rather an instrument for subjugating man and bending his behavior to the will of the ruling “elite”. Hence the ideologues of Soviet physical culture (sport) understand it primarily as organization, norms, “common goals” dictated by party decrees, i.e., a mechanism for keeping the “masses” under control. “Personal initiative” is welcome, but only when it follows the ruling spirit. Like “bourgeois physical culture” and “bourgeois sport”, “socialist physical culture” and “socialist sport” have become one of the chief political means for destroying the critical-changing (class-libertarian) consciousness of workers and for integrating them into the established order – which is the opposite of Marx’s idea of libertarian physical activism.

Marx’s thought is multi-layered. When he speaks to young workers advising them how to fight against capitalists, Marx’s thought on physical culture remains within the framework of the bourgeois order. To young workers he recommends “physical education similar to that provided in schools for gymnastics and through military drills” /emphs. K.M./ (7), the sort produced in bourgeois society that is the privilege of aristocratic and bourgeois youth, so they can become physically stronger and develop a belligerent class spirit, which will, ultimately, enable them to take power. Unlike bourgeois pedagogues who give precedence to physical education over spiritual growth, Marx gives priority to “spiritual education”, i.e., he views physical education in the context of an overall human development. Physical exercises are not the means by which the character of a “model citizen” is created, but the means for the development of a free man. The education of young workers involves the impulse of human emancipation, which derives from Marx’s view that the proletariat is not struggling for their special class interests, which is typical of the bourgeoisie and previous classes, but for the realization of common human interests. By “entrusting” the proletariat with the “mission” of liberating mankind from plundering and tyranny, the physical education of young workers acquires a libertarian dimension. Indeed, the worker has not yet freed himself from the dominant forms of physical education, but he treats them as the means that will (along with paid productive labor, spiritual and poly-technical education) “elevate the working class considerably above the upper and middle classes” (aristocracy and bourgeoisie). (8) The superiority of young workers is based on the overall development of their personalities, which opens up the possibility of their immediate management of overall social reproduction. It is about the pragmatic logic, which, “in the given circumstances”, departs from the “general laws, the observation of which is enforced by the state power”, while the working class by “adapting them to life” “makes a tool of the power which is now used against it”. /emphs. K.M/ (9) Obviously, it is about strivings to use legal possibilities by the legal means offered by the capitalist order for the purpose of achieving the working class (universally human) goals. Civil institutions should become the instrument of the working class in its struggle against the capitalist order.

If it is not the true goal of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to take power and, especially, to keep it by using the institutions of bourgeois society (Engels’ view on the “dying out” of the institutions of bourgeois society in socialism), but to abolish the power relations (subjugation), it should be consider just how it is possible to take a significant step forward by using the means that, per se, prevent man from developing his genuine human powers, and without which there are no new horizons? Let us take for example the physical exercises recommended to the proletariat youth by Marx. These are, in essence, military drills intended to “discipline” the child, and do little more than suppress sexuality, sensuality, spontaneity, imagination… Instead of respecting their personalities, children are turned into impersonal executors of exercises that do nothing more than mimic the functions of machines and are, by their nature, contrary to everything offered by the possibility of developing a spiritually rich individual – the main reason why bourgeois pedagogy used this rote training for the creation of the “model citizen”. It is precisely by departing from Marx’s epochal notion that by changing the world man changes himself, that we can ask how much the world has actually changed if man, as an individual, remained within the spiritual confines of capitalist society?

The struggle for human emancipation by means of bourgeois physical culture (sport) is conducted on the field of the bourgeois society. It becomes the means for integrating workers into the order dominated by the values of the bourgeois society. Coubertin saw that clearly. Despite being a fanatical anti-socialist, he supported, at the time of the crisis of European capitalism, the idea of organizing “Workers’ Olympic games” in order to keep the future horizon for workers within the framework of a society dominated by mutual struggle for victory – through the achievement of a greater result (record). He realized that a (possible) political victory by the workers does not mean the end of capitalist society if the fundamental principles of that society continue to prevail. The possibility offered to everyone freely to engage in sport does not mean that man realizes his true freedom through sport. Let us take for example boxing, where the spirit of sport is most clearly expressed. Can the true freedom of man be asserted by inflicting physical injuries on another man, who is reduced to an “opponent”, while killing is the essential part of the risk involved in a “sports competition”? Or by endeavors to create, through the increasingly ruthless destruction of the organism, ever “greater results” (records)? “To rule the heads”, through physical culture and sport – this is the basic aim of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”, which he earned him the respect of the Olympic gods of modern times.

Interestingly, the bourgeois ideologues, who until recently maintained that there was no “capitalism” in the West, that it is rather “industrial society”, now triumphantly state that “capitalism has won the battle with communism”. What does this victory consist of when it comes to sport? If it is about Western capital having become the master of the former “socialist sport” without any resistance whatsoever, it only means that it changed owners without changing its nature. The position of athletes is the best indicator of how much relations have changed. In “real-socialist” sport, athletes were engaged by the state, and the entire “sports engine” was a “billboard” for the ruling system. Since the victory of “democracy”, athletes have been hired by capitalist companies, and sport has become their advertising campaign and a banal kind of show-business. Moreover, considering the fact that, even in our country (Serbia), the leaders of the “new sport” are the same people who for decades held the leading positions in “socialist sport”, it is clear that “capitalism has won the battle” leaving behind a specter that, in collaboration with the ideologues of Stalinism, was created by the ideologues of the “free world”.



1) In: James Riordan, “Marx, Lenin and Physical Culture”, Journal of Sport History, vol.3 (1976) no. 2,158p.

2) N. A. Semashko, Puti sovetskoi fizkultury, 22p, in James Riordan, Sport in Soviet Society, 97p, Cambridge University Press, London,1977/

3) M. I. Kalinjin, On Communist Education, Literature in Foreign Languages, Moscow, 1953.

4) Ibid.

5) Compare: Riordan, Sport in Soviet Society, 406p.

6) Compare: K. Marx, “Instructions to Delegates of the Provisional Central Council”, in K. Marx – F. Engels, Opus, vol. 27, pp 157-158. Prosveta, Beograd, 1979. In “Capital”, Marx refers to Robert Owen and his “factory system”, which generated the “germ of future education that will, for all children above a certain age, unite the labor of production with education and gymnastics, not only as a method for increasing social production, but also as the only method for the production of versatile people” /Opus, vol. I, book 21, p 428/ For the formation of human character and plans for training children, including the attainment of a healthy body as the basic precondition for a happy life, see: Robert Owen, A New View of Society, p 27, Macmillan, London, 1972.

7) Marx, Instructions for the Delegates …, p 157.

8) Ibid, p 158.

9) Ibid, p 157.


Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović/Petrović

English translation supervisor, Mick Collins


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