Olympism and Science


Coubertin’s methodological starting point is based on Le Play’s principle: “We are concerned with social facts, with exact observations and not with a priori theories”. (24) Speaking of Le Play, his intellectual idol, Coubertin emphasizes that his chief merit was his being a “great friend of facts” and a “great enemy of theories”. (25) This principle acquires its real meaning in the context of Le Play’s view, stated after the July Revolution in 1830: “I dedicated my life to the reestablishment of social peace in my country.” (26) Not a theory, but the interests of the ruling class and a corresponding political practice – that is the basis of Le Play’s, as well as Comte’s, positivistic apriorism. In that context, (positive) science becomes a political tool for a study of social reality and an efficient and prompt action to preserve the established order. That is the true meaning of the maxim savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour agir, which is meant to guide the scientists, who are reduced to “social engineers”, in their studies of society. It should be said that Coubertin does not follow Le Play’s “sociographie microscopique”, which, according to Emile Durkheim, represents a “mindless compilation of undigested facts, unconducive to generalization to broader social structure”. (27) Coubertin is guided by Le Play’s fanatic determination to devote his whole life to defending the established order. Marcuse says on that: “The independence of matters of fact was to be preserved, and reasoning was to be directed to an acceptance of the given. In this way positive philosophy aimed to counteract the critical process involved in the philosophical “negating” of the given, and to restore to facts the dignity of the positive.” (28) And he continues: “The positivistic opposition to the principle that the matters of fact of experience have to be justified before the court of reason, however, prevented the interpretation of these “data” in terms of a comprehensive critique of the given itself. Such a critique no longer had a place in science. In the end, positive philosophy facilitated the surrender of thought to everything that existed and manifested the power to persist in experience.” (29)

The problem is that the world of the “factual” contains culture, critical consciousness, political movements that strive for a new world, as well as the emancipatory heritage offering a possibility of stepping out of the existing world. In other words, the world of the “factual” is filled with the things that represent the negation of the present order – the negative. Coubertin ceases to “respect the facts” the moment he is faced with the facts that question the established order and he becomes their radical critic – precisely from the point of view of the aristocratic and bourgeois evaluative horizon. He does not advocate the established world, which contains the possibilities of its transformation, but the ruling order. Hence Coubertin and his Olympic fellow soldiers primarily attack the emancipatory heritage of the Enlightenment, the guiding principles of the French Revolution, as well as the democratic rights and institutions established in the second half of the 19th century. Those are not the “facts” from which we should depart, but the facts which, departing from the interests of the ruling class should be dealt with. “The unity” of positive reason with the existing world is but an illusion. In the creation of his Olympic doctrine Coubertin himself does not depart from the existing world as a positive, but as a negative basis upon which he develops his theory – starting from an idealized Hellenic world. “The immortal spirit of antiquity” appears as a “herald of the past centuries” that should bring light in the gloom of everyday life, which is reined by a “futile effort” and which has forgotten the meaning of happiness. Underlying the positivistic relation to the world is not a conflict with the critical thought as such, but only with the critical thought that questions the existing order. Olympism is guided by a rigid evaluative scheme that is critical of everything that leads to a change (overcoming) of the existing world and which is a landmark for determining its concrete action and a criterion for the assessment of its efficiency. Coubertin’s positivism presupposes the existence of a spiritual (elitist) centre of power that determines and directs Olympism to the accomplishment of the strategic interests of capitalism, which means a normative horizon that cannot be questioned. The basic role of the International Olympic Committee, which is a self-appointed, authoritarian and anti-democratic institution, and as such the meeting point of the most devoted and militant representatives of the ruling class, is to maintain and broaden that horizon. “We are self-recruiting and our mandates are not limited” points out Coubertin and proclaims the members of IOC the holy guardians of the original source of Olympism. (30) The authoritarian structure of IOC is a symbolic expression of the untouchability and unchangebility of the basic principles on which capitalism is based. Coubertin’s “originality” lies in his endeavour to “eliminate” the “excess of the factual”, which contains the germ of transformation, by controlling people’s mind, and not by transforming social relations. Hence the credo of his “utilitarian pedagogy”, which he recommended to the Nazis with great enthusiasm, is the “control in heads”. In order to achieve that, Coubertin, unlike the Nazis, does not burn books, but seeks to destroy, by way of sport, everything that offers a possibility of man’s critical confrontation with the existing world. In this context, we can understand in the right way the assertion that sport is the modern “opium for the people” with which a mental control over people is established. Advocating sport as a means for establishing a direct domination of order over man, through the establishment of “control in heads”, ensures, for Coubertin, respect for the masters of the world and gives such importance to sport. Metaphorically speaking, sport is a police baton in man’s head with which the ruling order deals with his critical and changing thought. Coubertin’s universal methodological concept is: to cripple the emanicipatory possibilities of progress and use them to deal with people’s libertarian struggle. The “practical” Coubertin seeks to utilize everything at his disposal in order to prevent the “advance of masses” and preserve the domination of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.

Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine radically deals with the emancipatory heritage of modern science. If we compare Coubertin’s doctrine with the philosophy of Francis Bacon, a predecessor of modern science and positivism, we shall see that they both are in favour of “facts” and reject the spiritual authority as a criterion for determining the correctness of thought and action. In that sense, Bacon, unlike Coubertin, negatively views both the appeals to the antiquity and the appeals to future. According to him: “…truth is to be sought for not in the felicity of any age, which is an unstable thing, but in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal”. (31) The aim of science is not to create the spiritual but the material wealth, i.e. not spirituality, but technique, since control over nature becomes the chief indicator of human powers and the basis of “mankind’s perfectioning”. Instead of a pursuit of truth and wisdom, prevails the pursuit of knowledge that will increase productivistic (technical) powers of man which are used to control nature. In Bacon, we already find the idea of a world civilization as well as the idea of using science (reduced to a skill by which man could gain most) so that man can “use its right over nature”. Bacon strives to a “Great Instauration”, while technique is reduced to a modernized magic by which all that is “in the nature of things” is used to develop human powers. Bacon’s “new science” should not only broaden man’s knowledge of nature, but should offer him a possibility of controlling it and thus create a better life. Mihailo Marković says on that: “The way in which human life can be enriched by new inventions and powers consists in broadening human knowledge of this world. People should cease to fight between themselves and should unite their efforts against their common enemy – the disobedient nature. They should join hands in searching for the knowledge of causes and secret movements of things.” And he continues: “The road to knowledge is primarily to liberate the spirit of all the prejudices and fixed preconceptions (Bacon calls them Idols), followed by a humble observation of nature, always with a deep respect for everything it can teach us.” We can come to love nature only if we listen to it first”. (…) Nature should be discovered through inductive observation. Man should become its ‘servant and interpreter’, but only to eventually conquer it for its own ends.” (32) The true value of human knowledge consists in its usability: usability becomes the chief attribute of science. In his “Novum Organum” Bacon argues for the knowledge of the causes of phenomena and occurrences in order for man to adequately act so as to increase his power – and this principle was to become one of the corner stones of Comte’s positive philosophy. In Coubertin, Bacon’s scientific principle “to know in order to predict, to predict in order to act” becomes the supreme political principle: the cognitive-productivistic power of man becomes the oppressive power of the ruling class concentrated in the hands of the capitalistic monopolies. In his doctrine, science and technique, as the ways of controlling natural laws, become the means of the bourgeoisie for dealing with the emancipatory heritage of mankind and human powers, and for subordinating society to the structures and laws that rule the animal world. Unlike the animals, a bourgeois is not subordinated to natural laws, but uses them to establish such an order in society that corresponds to the relations established in the animal world. Instead of striving, like Hobbes, for a “domination of modern natural science over the natural law”, (33) Coubertin seeks to establish, through natural science, a domination of the natural law in society, which, however, does not acquire the status of “reason” in relation to the “common law”, as is the case in Bacon, but is an embodiment of the abosolutized (self)willedness of the “master race”.

Bacon insists on people using science to control nature and create a better life; Coubertin insists that science and technique become the exclusive means of the ruling class for holding man in submission and creating a new order of privileges. In Bacon, science appears as a way of developing human powers relative to the dominant authority whose power is founded on a dogma; in Coubertin, the development of science and technique becomes the development of a progressistic and expansionist power of the order and a means for dominating the world. In order to understand the true nature of Bacon’s thought, we should take into consideration the time in which it appeared – in which man’s active-changing powers that offer him the possibility of creating the world at his own measure developed. This is also the basis of Coubertin’s conception, but Coubertin seeks to use man’s active powers to stop social progress. Coubertin entirely follows the expansionist spirit of monopolistic capitalism: it is a monopolization of science and technique in the hands of the new “master race” and a globalization of its power. To control the laws of nature becomes the means for man’s complete submission to the interests of the bourgeoisie and for stopping history. From being the subject, man becomes the tool and the object of a dehumanized science. Olympism becomes a peculiar utilitarian science, while sport becomes a specific technique for controlling people. Much more important than the scientific methodology is Coubertin’s endeavour to make the principle savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour agir an exclusive means in the hands of the ruling class which, ultimately, serves to predict the future by way of its creation. The activation of the bourgeoisie in the struggle for creating a positive society and the social marginalization of the working “masses”, “lower races” and women represent one of the most important tasks of the Olympic doctrine and practice.

Bacon seeks to create a new world (in that context he writes “New Atlantis”) with a corresponding “new philosophy”, while Coubertin seeks to create a new philosophy that should preserve the existing world. Bacon defines the “new philosophy” as the “Active Science” (34) whose “true and lawful goal is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers”. (35) Unlike Bacon, Coubertin seeks to create a new dogma as the tacit foundation of his positive relation to the world – which is the embodiment of the expansionist and totalitarian spirit of monopolistic capitalism. In that sense, he seeks to use science and technique as a means for mystifying the world and transforming the human powers into an antihuman force. In Bacon, reason appears as the symbol of the arousal of man’s productivistic forces that are capable of overcoming the existing and creating a new world. Coubertin deals with reason bearing in mind the “fact” that an appeal to reason was, as a rule, also an appeal to release man from the bonds of the existing world and to create a world according to the principles of humanity.

In Coubertin, there is a conflict between progress based on the development of science and the endeavour to set up a social order at all costs – by eliminating the emancipatory possibilities of science. For the development of science involves the development of human powers that search for new realms. It is precisely science that should question the existing “facts” in order to come to new questions and answers, which means that there is no progress without questioning the existing and seeking to create (discover) a novum. In addition, the results of scientific reason are boundless and represent the heritage of mankind. The conflict between the strivings to reduce science to a political instrument for stopping the social development and its emancipatory potentials appears as a conflict between an operationalized (dehumanized) and a critical reason. It is a dynamic process that Coubertin seeks to stop by destroying, through sport and physical drill, man’s creative potentials and libertarian dignity. At the same time, the development of industry and science involves the development of interdependence, affinity, solidarity – on a global scale. The elimination of the emancipatory possibilities opened by the collectivistic character of the industrial production and science is one of the chief tasks of Olympism.

Coubertin’s doctrine is based on the development of productivistic powers of modern man, as well as on the development of his conscious as the creator of history – resulting in his dealing with the Christian dogma and the world to which that dogma gives a divine legitimacy. However, Coubertin does not deal with the divine authority in order to liberate man, but in order to submit him to the “state of nature” and thus enclose him in a new cage which he will never be able to leave. That is why Coubertin devalues the productivistic activism of the working “masses”, which involves the creation of the material and spiritual wealth, and turns its results into the basis of the development of the conquering and oppressive activism of the ruling parasitic class. The “victory” of the worker over nature becomes the victory of the bourgeoisie over the working “masses”. Underlying this conception is an order based on the distinction between the creation and acquisition of wealth, the acquisition of wealth (through conquering and oppression) becoming the basic way of gaining social power and of dealing with its creators. Coubertin seeks to turn Olympism into a mechanism which will prevent the development of man’s productivistic powers as well as the development of men self-consciousness as the creator of social wealth, the bearer of progress and the creator of his own history. It is no accident that Coubertin never mentions the “sports achievements” at the Olympic Games, nor does he name its actors, which is characteristic of the antiquity. The true winner at the modern Olympic Games is the “progressive” spirit of capitalism which is incarnated in the combative character and muscular bodies of sportsmen.

The contradiction in Coubertin’s conception consists in that it reduces man to a “lazy animal” while at the same time instrumentalizes science and technique in the hands of the ruling class, which represent man’s victory over the natural forces and their subjection to unnatural ends. Coubertin, in fact, makes the existential logic which dominates the animal world independent and seeks to insure its continuation in society, while man’s domination over natural forces appears only as a means for realizing natural selection. More precisely, the development of science and technique represents man’s domination over natural forces which, in the hands of the ruling “elite”, become a way of submitting man to the laws that dominate the animal world and a way of devaluing progress. Instead  of a relation between man and nature based on man’s domination over natural forces through the development of man’s productivistic forces that should liberate him from his submission to nature, the relations of class domination, embodied in the “animal order”, come to the forefront. The liberating forces and man’s practice become an anti-libertarian power – man becomes the victim of the development of his own productivistic (creative) powers. Instead of religion, which was the exclusive means of the nobility for submitting the serfs, science becomes the exclusive means of the bourgeois class for submitting the working people: a positive consciousness becomes the image of a dehumanized science in people’s heads. In antiquity, man was “Gods’ toy” (Plato); in modern society, he becomes the toy of capital in the form of “natural laws” which apply “social engineering” – and which are but one of the tools of the ruling “elite” for holding the working “masses” in submission. “Social physics” becomes a natural science applied to society, which means that society (man) becomes the object of natural science. Olympism is one of the forms in which man’s alienated creative power turns into the means of his submission. It is a “pure” ideological product based on the results of (capitalistically instrumentalized) science and a dehumanized reason. Coubertin is not interested in the development of man’s creative powers (since it is a tacit “fact” on which the survival and the development of capitalism is based), but in their control and direction towards fulfilling the interests of the ruling class. That is why Coubertin insists on a “utilitarian pedagogy” which should create a “positive” character and a “positive” conscious, i.e., a “positive” man.

Guided by the principle of efficiency (in insuring the stability of the established order), Coubertin strives to use all he can to plan the “future” and carry it out. “The prediction of future” – based on the maxim savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour agir – becomes its “creation” through the destruction of the emancipatory heritage of mankind which opens a possibility of stepping out of the capitalist world. It represents an active relation of the ruling class to future and an endeavour to increase the certainty of survival of the ruling order. As the working movement that opens the possibility of abolishing (overcoming) the established order of injustice becomes more developed, the strivings of the ruling “elite” to use science for preserving the order become more and more aggressive. If Coubertin’s Social Darwinist conception were true, everything he strove to realize with his Olympic doctrine and practice would be pointless. Coubertin’s endeavour to control people’s mind by (ab)using the results of science and technique tells us how much he really believed in the conception he so fanatically advocated.

Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine also deals with the emancipatory heritage of sophism. Above all, it deals with its endeavour to establish the “principle of subject” as a “source of philosophical consideration”. (36) Furthermore, it renounces its “critical and investigating spirit”. The sophistic emphases on the “authority of facts” does not have a positivistic and objectivistic character, but refers to an “ethico-political problematic” and “has lost none of its relevance”. Thirdly, the sophists not only “measure all things with rational standards”, but they teach of the “duplicity of all things and confutability of each assertion”, so they, “arise and develop an antithetic spirit”. At the same time, sophistry “strives for clarity, distinction and consistency in thought”. Consequently, it helped, through Euripides’ tragic art, to liberate Hellenic society from “mythical romanticism” and to subordinate the mythical world to a “religio-moral and ethico-political problematic of sophistry”. In addition, “the sophists strove not only to educate the young people from the master class but also to influence broad masses of people, the whole community, and demanded that what was good for social community also be realized”  – and it is, as we have seen, in opposition to Coubertin’s elitist conception. (37) Here we should say that, in Coubertin, the dominant conscious is not primitive but an instrumentalized scientific conscious with which the emancipatory results and possibilities of modern (scientific and philosophical) reason are to be eliminated. For Coubertin, the logic of “circumstances”, which means “the state of nature”, is the basis of people’s behavior, the normative conscious being replaced by a fanatical faith in the existing world resulting in an idolatrous relation to it.

According to Coubertin, politics is a technique for dominating the “masses” without any humanistic content and is primarily guided by the interests of the ruling class. It has nothing to do with the ancient art (techne) of ruling that involves virtue (arete), which means a normative (religious) framework providing the criterion for assessing the right conduct. In Coubertin, there is no right action, more precisely: only such action is right which is guided by the principle of efficiency. Politics, as a dehumanized technique of ruling, becomes the form in which positive science, which conditions the nature of sport as a tool of politics, is realized: it symbolizes the triumph of a dehumanized science – transformed into a technique for manipulation and destruction – over people.

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