Max Horkheimer: Sport as the “Continuity of Cultural Tradition”


In his study on the importance of sport in modern society, written in the 1960s, Max Horkheimer comes to the conclusion that “sports rules and sports mentality” – “are a modern expression of great cultural traditions of the past, Christianity, as well as the Age of Enlightenment in France and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Without this sports spirit the survival of a fair and peaceful competition between nations could not be imagined”. Claiming that sport is an “expression of freedom”, Horkheimer concludes that “in our modern civilization, which is threatened from all sides and which experiences the disintegration of the family and other sources of culture”, sport has become “a kind of a separate world, society within society, where we can place our hopes”. (2) While in Bloch we can find a positivist determination of sport which becomes an evaluative neutral phenomenon, whose concrete nature is determined by the nature of the political movement which uses it for realizing its own ends, (3) in Horkheimer sport becomes a symbolic incarnation of liberty, imagination, the creative, and thus obtains a place alongside art, philosophy, literature, as well as other “sources of productive imagination”. (4) How could Horkheimer, after all he had written, come to such conclusions? It is precisely Horkheimer, together with Adorno, whose views offered the possibilities of a radical criticism of sport. In the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” we can find the following thought: “Even the fact that hygienic factory premises, Volkswagen and the sports palaces stupidly liquidate metaphysics would be irrelevant; it is not, however, irrelevant that these things themselves in the social whole turn into metaphysics, into an ideological curtain behind which real evil is concentrated.” (5) Speaking of the nature of “Western democracy”, Horkheimer and Adorno say: “No one can officially be responsible for one’s thoughts. But, that is why everybody is from an early age included in the system of churches, clubs, professional associations and other relations which are the most sensitive instruments of social control.” (6)

Horkheimer does not strive to establish the nature of sport as a concrete historical phenomenon, but departs from an ideological picture of sport, created by the bourgeois theory, according to which sport is a phenomenon sui generis and as such an unquestionable pillar of the “humanistic” vault of capitalism. Why did Horkheimer give sport such a dimension? Is it because sport has become a global phenomenon and acquired such popularity? His insisting on sport as a “peaceful competition” between nations would suggest something like that. Horkheimer regards the contests between nations on the sports field as the ideal of a “fair and peaceful cooperation”, without asking why nations should compete on the sports field in ever bloodier fights of modern gladiators which generates a nationalistic fury (pseudo-collectivistic conscious), instead of cooperating by way of spiritual means based on the wealth of national cultures? Here it should be noted that, for Coubertin and Nazi ideologues of sport, the most important feature of sport is that it deals with the pacifist conscious of young people and represents a preparation for colonial exploits and war. Horkheimer can be asked other questions as well. How come that capitalism has such a destructive influence on all social institutions while sport remains outside its scope of influence? By reducing sport to a phenomenon sui generis, Horkheimer rejected the possibility of analyzing the development of sport as the most representative ideology of capitalism which shares its destiny.

Bearing in mind the nature of sport as a concrete social phenomenon, we can conclude that in his relation to sport Horkheimer was not guided by a (critical) mind, but by the strivings to confront the devastation of cultural heritage. Obviously, Horkheimer strives to elevate sport to the level of a symbolic phenomenon by which the emancipatory achievements of modern society that are less and less present in other spheres can be preserved. If Horkheimer’s theory were true, sports stadiums and halls would be cultural temples and sportsmen would be the cultural elite of mankind. In fact, stadiums and sports palaces have become bonfires burning the cultural heritage of mankind, and sportsmen have become gladiators, circus players and stuntmen. To make things even more ironic, the main participants, and thus the bearers of the “cultural heritage of mankind”, are the least educated layers of the poor, primarily the children from black ghettoes in the USA and Africa, who in the “civilized (Western) world” have the status of a “lower race”. Horkheimer does not realize that sport destroys national cultures and creates uniformity in terms of physical “qualities”, while Social Darwinism and the absolutized principle of a quantitatively measurable result (expressed in the maxim citius, altius, fortius) become the basis for man’s “self-assertion” and the establishment of “interpersonal” relations. Likewise, it is hard to understand that Horkheimer does not mind the killing and the infliction of serious injuries in sport being legalized; he does not mind the institutional segregation according to the gender and degradation of women to “lower beings”; the fact that “work with children” is not restricted and that children are exposed to excessive physical strain and humiliations; that specialization starts at an increasingly early age and comes down to physical, mental and social mutilation of children; that in sport, the selling of people is “normal”, etc.

Morgan’s interpretation of Horkheimer (7) suggests that for Horkheimer sport represents a compensation for what man has been deprived of in technicized labour. Hence he rejects Plessner’s and Habermas’s theory, according to which sport is the “duplication of the world of labour”, and regards sport as a separate world with the rules of its own. Horkheimer does not struggle for a new world and, in that context, against the causes leading to the destruction of the cultural heritage of mankind, but tries to use sport, as a condensed expression of the basic principle of capitalism, for saving the cultural heritage of mankind – from capitalism itself.

Interestingly, Horkheimer wrote this text at the time when sport was becoming the chief weapon in the “cold war” confrontation; when Afro-Americans, as the racial group in the USA most deprived of its rights and poorest, were becoming the “drawing power” in the American sport; when the legendary champion for human rights of Afro-Americans, Martin Luther King, called “black” sportsmen “black gladiators of the XX century”, who are the “shame for the black race” as they allowed white racists to use them in order to cover up the humiliating position of Afro-American population in the USA.

About ten years after the publication of the cited text, in an interview with Helmut Guminior, published under the title “Longing for something completely different” (“Die Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen”), Horkheimer says that “the end of serious philosophy is nearing” and that there is a danger of human society being reduced to “a colony of ants”.(8) Bearing in mind the key theses from his “Dialectic of Enlightenment” and “Critical Theory”, it is difficult to understand that Horkheimer does not see the link between the development of mass sport and mass sports spectacles and the destruction of mind, and that he does not realize that from its very beginning sport has been a means for destroying reason, Eros, imagination, which means a creative personality, and for creating a loyal and usable subject.

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