Marxist Theories of Sport

Bero Rigauer. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

In 1977, the City Council of Frankfurt am Main and the University of Frankfurt awarded the first ‘Theodor W. Adorno Prize’ to Norbert Elias, who outlined in his acceptance speech the close links that exist between his own sociological research and theory and the work of Adorno and Marx. Elias particularly emphasized their ‘critical humanism’ in his lecture, repeatedly referring to Marx as a key influence on his own thinking.

Marx was undoubtedly the first person who succeeded in creating a comprehensive and coherent theoretical model of human society and its development based on the perspective of the less powerful and poorer groups of people. One cannot understand the extraordinary and far-reaching impact of his work in the present age of diminishing, even though in some respects not completely disappearing power imbalances, unless one comprehends this characteristic of Marx’s social synthesis. (Elias, 1977: 45)

According to Elias, although he based his intellectual work on a ‘critique of political economy,’ Marx must be understood as a sociologist, The development of Marx’s theory by himself and others-often labelled under the heading ‘Marxism’-is complex. First, this theory takes a multidisciplinary approach and integrates philosophical, anthropological, historical and economic studies. Secondly, there is Marx’s own theoretical writing which I will refer to as ‘Marxian.’ Thirdly, we have to distinguish between several directions and stages of theoretical and practical development: the Marxian theory itself and its orthodox interpretations; the ongoing discussions of and enquiries into the Marxian theory by scholars adhering to various Marxist paradigms (see Bottomore, 1979); Marxism as a political ideology applied to the interpretation of different societal configurations and social processes, for example, political parties, cultural institutions, state formation, the development of sports; attempts at synthesising Marxian and Marxist ideas with other scientific theories and political ideologies (see Bottomore, 1979). These short introductory comments already clearly show the need to distinguish between Marxian and Marxist theories, between orthodox and advanced concepts, between aspects of the Marxian and Marxist theories integrated into other academic theories and subjects, and the theory and practice of Marxism as a distinctive political ideology.

In relation to the historical and sociological development from Marxian to Marxist theory and Marxism, the following four aspects have to be taken into consideration.

1) The focus of Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) intellectual and analytical work on socio-economic developments in capitalist societies clearly reflects the subjective experiences of his own biography: political and economic conflicts and revolutions interwoven with the increasingly capitalist industrialization of Western societies (especially England, France and Germany-but also the USA), in conjunction with emerging and intensifying class conflicts interrelated with dramatic political changes and subsequent power imbalances between the aristocracy, the newly emerging bourgeoisie and the working class. Marx himself was directly affected by some of these societal struggles, for example, he experienced persecution, exile, antisemitism and financial difficulties. As Marx obviously became a victim of some of these processes, it is understandable that he took a stand for the poor and oppressed. Despite some critical detachment as an academic, it was impossible for Marx to remain unaffected by and uninvolved as a citizen in the political and economic crisis of industrial capitalism during the nineteenth century which was the central subject of his research. According to Blumenberg, Marx’s theoretical and practical efforts were deeply affected by his biographical and social experiences and sufferings (1962: 105-18).

2) During his lifespan Marx worked as journalist, editor (for example, of the Rheinische Zeitung), political activist (for example, member and associated founder of the ‘Kommuni-stenbund’ [Communist Association]), author (for example, of the Communist Manifesto) and as an independent scholar. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that his ideas initially received appreciation from a wider public, particularly those contemporaries who were interested in politics, before his writings were appreciated for their analytical and academic qualities. Eventually, his theory became what he ‘intended, in some sense … the pre-eminent theory or doctrine of the working-class movement. It established itself most strongly in this form in the German Social Democratic Party, whose leaders, as a result of the rapid growth of the socialist movement, and also through their close association with Engels, became the principal intellectual and political heirs of Marx and largely dominated the international labour movement up until 1914’ (Bottomore, 1979: 126).

After Marx’s death in 1883, Marxism as a political ideology developed into many competing paradigms. They were heavily influenced and modified by various groups, political parties and working-class movements in Europe and all over the world. An endless number of debates emerged focusing on traditional and modern concepts of Marxist theory, driven by the activities and interests of socialist and communist groups, associations or parties in Europe, particularly during the 1880s and 1890s and the first three decades of the twentieth century. Labels such as ‘orthodox,’ ‘revisionist,’ ‘Austro-Marxist’ emerged during that period (cf. Bottomore, 1979: 126-30). The Russian Revolution in 1917 led to the foundation of the USSR. Lenin, Trotsky and other revolutionaries developed a new model of Marxism, referred to as ‘Marxism-Leninism’ which subsequently competed with ‘Trotskyism.’ Both ideologies and their institutional implementation during the formation process of the Soviet state were rejected and radically reformed by Stalin who introduced a dictatorial Soviet system in the late 1920s based on his own dogma, ‘Stalinism’ (cf. Bottomore, 1979: 130-2). After the Second World War this form of totalitarian Marxism was widely adopted in Eastern Europe (the ‘Eastern bloc’ or ‘Warsaw Pact’ countries) and by the political elite of the USSR. Despite this harmonization, there were also a number of variations, for example, that of Mao Zedong in China (1949; Maoism) or of Castro in Cuba (1959; Fidelism). The ideological influence of Marxism rapidly decreased with the disintegration and subsequent democratization process of the former communist Eastern bloc (including Russia) during the 1990s. Only a few communist states using Marxism as their ideological basis still exist, for example, China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. These examples clearly show the political instrumentalization of Marxism through communist power elites who contributed significantly to the gradual destruction of Marx’s idea of critical humanism. Two further examples will demonstrate this point:

Lenin did not set out to re-examine in any systematic way the Marxist theoretical system, but instead adopted a conception of Marxism as ‘the theory of the proletarian revolution’ and devoted his efforts to working out, and embodying in an effective organization, its implications for political strategy. (Bottomore, 1979: 130)

Furthermore Stalin ‘put an end to … theoretical debates and the possibility of any serious advances in Marxist social science. Thereafter, Soviet Marxism became an increasingly rigid and dogmatic ideology,’ functionalized as an instrument of a state-centralized and rigorous process of industrialization and collectivization (Bottomore, 1979: 131). This development is responsible for a number of major problems Marxism has encountered, including the academic treatment of the sociological theory.

3) Academic discussions of Marxist theory began in the late 1880s after Marx’s death, particularly in philosophy, sociology and economics (for example, by Toennies, Grünberg, Labriola, Durkheim, Böhm-Bawerk, Hilferding and Masaryk). During the twentieth century these debates were widely influenced by a number of different contextual factors: political (the two World Wars; socialist/communist revolutions and associated processes of state formation; fascisticization, etc.), economic (for example, capitalist/socialist industrialization; the ‘world economic crisis’ of 1929/30), cultural (concerning the arts, literature, the mass media of communication, etc.), and the development of the social sciences (societal impact of the humanities, the social and natural sciences). Some of the academic controversies (for example, Seligman, Simmel, M. Weber) about Marxism show parallels with the debates about Marxism and political and social practice-as outlined before. The social-scientific elaboration of Marxist theory and research in the past has almost always been dogmatic and is even nowadays often very orthodox. This can only be explained adequately if we separate out the development of a Marxist theory which on the one hand became increasingly an ideologized general theory used by socialist/communist states and their educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities)-the so-called ‘scientific socialism’ grounded in ‘Marxism-Leninism’ and its variations (for example, Maoism)-while on the other hand, a number of critical and progressive scholars and schools of Marxist theory developed advanced theories and linked these with non-Marxist paradigms and methods, for example, ‘structuralist Marxism,’ ‘critical theory,’ ‘hegemony theory,’ ‘critical philosophy,’ feminist criticisms of Marxist theory, Marxist theories of ‘underdeveloped’ societies (cf. Bottomore, 1979: 125-43). In a nutshell, the academic development of Marxist theory has always been overshadowed by controversies about Marxism as an ideology.

4) This conflict between ideology and academia emerged from a fundamental objective of Marxism, namely the utopian idea of a future communist society. All historical attempts to put socialism and communism into practice had to face the dilemma that Marx did not develop any practical models of communist society. In addition, the socio-economic conditions under which communist revolutions occurred never fulfilled the fundamental conditions Marx had identified. Some of the revolutionary movements did not have widespread support from the people, others took place before the predicted self-destructing crisis of industrial capitalism had set in. Consequently, the leaders of communist revolutions remained elitist minorities introducing and establishing totalitarian forms of state socialism (see point 3 above) which they justified with a modified ideology of Marxism, such as ‘democratic centralism’ (Lenin). They believed that they had created social realities according to Marxist ideas. However, they simply reversed ideology and reality. A corresponding transposition became more and more a central epistemological problem of academic Marxist theory and research: the results and interpretations of Marxist sociological enquiries were often determined by a theory referring either to the development of capitalism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries or to paradigms that ideologized capitalist societies as regressive and destructive, and socialist/communist societies as progressive and constructive. In this connection, academic Marxist theories came increasingly to involve a contradiction between dogmatic and open thinking about social development and research into this field.

The main political and scientific problem of Marxism is based on the dogmatic treatment of historical and societal processes. Epistemological difficulties emerge from an attitude of abstract realism, which is methodologically connected with the suggestion of Marxism being ‘the only valid theory.’ Nevertheless-and there are other theories which lay claim to sole validity-as mentioned above, Marxist theory contains ideas of substance, together with theoretical and empirical characteristics which are sufficiently methodologically important to be applied and advanced in sociological research into sport.

Marxist Theory and Sociology

Marx’s Theory of Society

Marx developed a theory of social development which is based on research into socio-economic and political relations, interdependencies and power imbalances. ‘Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of relations and conditions in which these individuals stand by one another.’ Marx also suggests that ‘being a slave and [or: B.R.] a citizen, is grounded on social relations, relations of human beings A and B. The human being A is as such not a slave. He is slave within and through society’ (Marx, 1939/41: 176). Subsequently, Marx also argues that all historical societies-especially the ‘bourgeois system’ (capitalism)-are characterized by increasing efforts to establish totalitarian forms (‘totalities’) of social differentiation and integration (see Marx, 1939/41: 189).

The Base-Superstructure Distinction

The advanced Marxian theory focuses upon economic activities and relations, the ‘base,’ and their impact on other social institutions, such as politics and culture, the ‘superstructure.’ Marxist theorists assume and stress that societal developments are initiated through economic processes, in particular by any change in the mode of production, that is, the structured relationship between the means of production and the way humans are involved in this process. The economic conditions of capitalism automatically generate a socio-economic conflict between the ‘masters of production’ (capitalists; owners of the means of production) and the ‘direct producers’ (workers; owners of labour power). Both societal groups are best understood in terms of classes competing for power (‘class struggle’) as the owners of the means of production exploit the direct producers financially (wages less than the economic values produced) and suppress them politically (socio-political dependencies). This power imbalance is also characterized by the increasing impoverishment and alienation of the workers and phases of high unemployment (caused by overproduction, the declining rate of profit, etc.). As an inevitable result, class struggles turn into revolutions driven by the working class with the aim of establishing socialist or communist societies. In a nutshell, the history of humankind is a history of class conflict. Marx and Marxist theorists claim that such class conflict is leading to the emergence of communist societies and that these must be seen as the highest level of human cultural development.

Equally important in the range of Marxist concepts is that of the superstructure, a term which refers to all social and cultural forms other than the economy. That is because the superstructure is of fundamental significance for societal developments. From a Marxist perspective, it is the economy which has determining effects on the superstructure. One key function of the superstructure is to act as a framework for ideologies that justify and stabilize the modes of production and consumption under capitalism. Due to the dependence of the superstructure on the base there will, eventually, be a relationship of total correspondence between them. Consequently, the superstructure reproduces the key ideologies of the capitalist system and reinforces the social realization of the latter. As part of this arrangement, cultural practices, processes and relations are fully integrated and merged in the superstructure and yet are distinguishable from each other, for example, education, leisure time, mass media, the arts, religion, sciences, politics, state, the legal system, etc. Participation in these practices and processes requires structured forms of socialization whose aims and objectives are based on the key ideologies of the capitalist economy. Although the Marxist concept of the relationship between the base and the superstructure is perceived as highly deterministic, it also recognizes the relative autonomy of cultural processes. However, this autonomy occurs relatively rarely, for example, during historical periods of economic development which take place without social and political conflicts.

Marxist Methodology

According to Marx, Marxist theorists refuse any epistemologically founded idealist methodology (such as Hegel’s philosophical method). For Marx, historical developments and social processes emerge from concrete realities (realism), which can only be investigated with the help of a materialist approach. Materialism, for Marx, relates methodologically to empirical phenomena. Furthermore, he suggests that ‘materialism’ should be conceptualized as the attempt to develop a theory of society which focuses upon the interdependencies between the economic relations of the base and the cultural processes and practices of the superstructure. Based on these premises about the nature of research, Marx and Marxist theorists integrate two distinctive methodological concepts.

Historical Materialism

Historical changes in societal processes and arrangements are always caused by concrete and organized human activities. Although human beings are actively involved in creating their social environment, they also enter already existing forms of production and interdependency which determine their social life. The need for research into those social relations which are determined by economic activities (modes of production, including distribution, consumption and reproduction), whilst using abstract categories and concepts (for example, philosophical, economic and political terms) arises from applying the method of historical materialism. This is what Marxists consider to be the scientific method of descending from an abstract totality (such as the class structure) to the concrete realities of social life (for example, the social relations that are determined by class structures; see Marx, 1939/41: 21-9).

Dialectical Materialism

The concept of dialectical materialism is methodologically interwoven with the concept of historical materialism and forms the basis of a ‘scientific philosophy.’ It was Engels who developed this dialectical method. It draws on the results of his research into the history of nature (evolution) and of human society and thought (revolution). He discovered three fundamental ‘laws’ of development which all involve dialectical relationships: ‘the law of change from quantity into quality and vice versa; … the penetration of contradictions; … the negation of negations’ (Engels, 1973: 51). In this epistemological context, Marx also referred to Hegel’s formalized model of dialectical developments: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. These three cornerstones symbolize concrete stages of developing societal configurations. The historical subjects (classes) produce changes (revolutions) due to increasing conflicts (class struggles). The outcome also contains social innovations through advanced modes of economic production and cultural reproduction.

Marx, Engels and some of their successors combined and used both methodological concepts, historical and dialectical materialism, as a central method for their multidisciplinary research into societal development and change.

It is important to recognize when summarizing the Marxist theory of society that its ‘distinctiveness … consists of … emphasizing the importance of labour in the economic sense (the developing interchange between man and nature) as the foundation of all social life’ and progress (Bottomore, 1979: 119). In this respect, the main problem of capitalism is caused by the ‘alienation of labour’ (see Marx, 1970: 149-66). Alienated labour is based upon the established socio-economic relation between the ‘masters of production’ and the ‘direct producers.’ Individual members of the working class are increasingly dependent on their employers, that is, the industrialist class within a capitalist society which exploits the workers’ production by appropriating its economic results. Estranged labour power also becomes a commodity on the labour market and denies workers the chance of developing their human potential and creativity. Therefore, a class structure based on economic and political power imbalances dehumanizes social relations. As long as production affects societal developments functionally, however, the future of social progress will depend on a non-alienating organization and practice of human labour. Marx’s and the Marxist conception of ‘alienated labour’ is epistemologically and methodologically a constitutive element of Marxist sociology.

Marxist Sociology

Marxist Sociology – A Contradiction in Terms?

Marxist and non-Marxist scholars agree that there are scientific and ideological problems which make it difficult (and perhaps impossible) to establish Marxism as a sociological approach. If ‘one believes Marxists like

Karl Korsch

Sociology was never anything but a bourgeois invention to counteract the critical impact of Marxism on the dominant self-descriptions of capitalist societies. The influence of Marx’s thought in sociology should therefore be ubiquitous’ (Ganssmann, 1994: 81). Korsch, Lukács and other Marxists rejected ‘the idea of Marxism as a positive science of society-as sociology …; instead, it was conceived as a “critical philosophy” which expressed the world view of the revolutionary proletariat just as, according to Korsch, German idealist philosophy had been the theoretical expression of the revolutionary bourgeoisie’ (Bottomore, 1979: 132). In addition, there are other reasons that question attempts to conceptualize Marxism as sociology: Marxist theory is based upon political preferences, interdisciplinary research, a philosophical methodology (dialectical materialism) and the paradigm of economic determinism. With regard to these epistemological positions, Marxist theory cannot be reduced to an academic subject such as sociology. However, the so-called bourgeois scholars also rejected the idea and possibility of establishing a Marxist sociology as they believed it would be politically and ideologically connected with the revolutionary interests of the working class and the deterministic concept of Marxism (see, for example, Popper, 1968: 336-46). Despite all these arguments and points of resistance, Marxist sociology has become firmly based within the general framework of sociological theories and methods.

Western Marxist Sociology

The academic development of Marxist sociology was initiated and occurred predominantly in Western Europe. During the 1920s and 1930s members of the ‘Frankfurt School of Critical Theory’ founded a neo-Marxist social-philosophical and sociological theory based on the assumption that an analysis of long-term societal and capitalistic processes makes it necessary to conceptualize distinct theoretical and methodological preconditions: (1) to do interdisciplinary research; (2) to connect social philosophical and empirical research; and (3) to undertake materialistically founded social research. In 1931, Horkheimer proclaimed in a public lecture that: ‘The present stage of scientific knowledge makes a continuous synthesis between philosophy and the sciences necessary. There is a central philosophical and sociological question that has to be investigated. What are the relations between social life, the psychological development of individuals, and cultural changes?’ (Rigauer, 1995: 2; see also Bottomore, 1979: 132-3). Until the 1970s the Frankfurt School continued to develop a concept of Marxist sociology and to integrate it into the social-philosophical framework of ‘critical theory’ (for example, Habermas, 1967, 1973). This penetration of Marxist sociology with epistememological concerns characterized its foundation. All ‘Western’ theorists who have suggested the outline designs of a Marxist sociology, such as structuralist (Althusser et al.), cultural (Gramsci et al.), historical (Croce et al.), developmental (Frank et al.), were deeply interwoven with Marxism-a critical philosophy of society (see Bottomore, 1979: 136-42). As a result, a coherent sociological concept of a ‘Marxist sociology’ focusing on the previously outlined key methodological positions was never established. This epistemological stage can be described as involving a tentative progress towards sociological standards of research: ‘The development of Marxism as a theory is now accorded a greater independence from direct political concerns and is more clearly located in the context of a general development of sociological theory’ (Bottomore, 1979: 142).

Marxist-Leninist Sociology 

Another interesting development of Marxist sociology that has to be taken into consideration took place in the Eastern bloc whilst it was dominated and heavily influenced by the communist regime of the Soviet Union. In that part of the world, due to the ideological pressure of communist governments after the Second World War, sociological thinking and methods only emerged reluctantly. Establishing sociology formally as an academic subject in the postwar era was a very difficult enterprise as sociology struggled to distance itself from the official ‘Marxist-Leninist’ sociology of the communist states. Theoretically and methodologically, it remained as a dogmatic, ideological academic subject justifying and stabilizing existing political structures without any critical sensitivity (see Bottomore, 1979: 130-5). However, there were some groups of scholars who developed and conceptualized advanced and critical paradigms (theories, methods) of Marxist sociology (see Kiss, 1971). Comparing ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Marxist sociology, the already mentioned epistemological problem of philosophical involvement is certainly substantial and hampered the necessary elaboration of sociological theory and methods. During the past ten years or so, the traditional Marxist-Leninist sociology has been undergoing a gradual process of transformation. The result will certainly be closer to mainstream ‘Western’ concepts of sociology. In particular, in Germany since the ‘reunification,’ the critical concepts of Marxist sociology are neither recognized nor appreciated; mostly they are rejected and certainly not employed for sociological analyses (cf. Kreckel, 1994: 240-51).

Epistemological Basis of Marxist Sociology 

Despite the obvious variations within Marxist sociology mentioned above, the following summary will focus on key theoretical and methodological aspects and neglect the previously mentioned differences. The epistemological basis of Marxist sociology is the materialist method, which combines historical and dialectical materialism. In terms of the methods used this means: observing, documenting, reconstructing and analysing short-or long-term societal processes with particular reference to unilinear developments and conflict, whilst focusing upon economic relations and interdependencies with particular reference to the politics of power. Proceeding in this manner means that empirical sociological research is theory-led. In addition, a constant exchange between theory and empirical methods is happening within a particular framework of paradigms, subjects and aims:

  • Applying Marxist paradigms linked with sociological methods to investigate the relationship between base and superstructure, emerging and developing economic and cultural interdependencies (assuming the predominance of economic influences); theory-practice relations being implicated in a unification of sociological research and politically transformed sociological knowledge (science as a force of societal reproduction, innovation and change); developing and applying general laws of societal progress from lower to higher stages of social, economic, political and cultural organization (towards socialist/communist forms of society).
  • Sociological enquiry into processes which are emerging from (i) economic and political relations; (ii) cultural differentiations evolving between autonomy and economic/political functionalization; (iii) class structures and their inherent societal functions and revolutionary potential; (iv) the ideological manipulation of human thinking, knowledge and socialization processes against the background of the economic, political and cultural functions of social development.
  • The main purpose of Marxist sociology is guided by sociological criticism of societal and scientific processes, including ideological ones. The methodological term ‘criticism’ refers to the tradition of political and philosophical enlightenment (central interest of sociological knowledge).

The flow diagram opposite summarizes and highlights the conceptualizing process of Marxist sociology.

Marxist Sociology of Sport


The Emerging Interest in Sociological Research into Sport 

Like sociology itself, modern sport emerged in the context of the civilizing processes that occurred within European societies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The development of modern sport is closely linked with processes of increasing democratization, industrialization, rationalization, rising standards of social control, emancipation and freedom. The emergence of modern sport involved formal and informal forms of participation of athletes and supporters in social activities emphasizing special motor skills, competition and leisure. When sport became a widespread and visible cultural phenomenon, it started socially to differentiate, expand and create nexuses with other areas of society. Currently, sport is a global phenomenon whose development is interwoven with the cultural, political and economic phases of societal development being experienced worldwide. Therefore, it is no surprise that sport has attracted the interest of sociological investigators. Already at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, sociologists started to observe, describe and analyse the social functions, structures and innovations of the ongoing sportization process. However, it took until the 1960s for sociological research to focus systematically on the social aspects of sport. Despite this progress, one has to take note of the fact that the study of sport continues to be a low-status activity within the profession of sociology more generally (see Elias and Dunning, 1993: 1-6). There is no doubt that sport is an interesting sociological subject that provides an exciting challenge for sociological enquiries. It can also help to advance debates about the relationship between empirical and theoretical enquiries. This also applies to Marxist sociology in general and Marxist research into sport in particular.

The Development of Marxist Analyses of Sport

Prior to the emergence of interest in sport among Marxist scholars, members of the socialist and communist movements in continental Europe had developed a keen interest in sport as early as the second half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. They considered sport to be a social practice of great political significance. In addition, they were critical of the ideological content of sport.

A Marxist theory of ‘physical culture’ and sport (combined with sociological research) was founded during the second half of the twentieth century by Marxist scholars who were in various ways supported by socialist and communist organizations and governments (for example, the Soviet Union; and after the Second World War, the ‘Eastern bloc’). Their research is based on the assumption that sport is a social and historical phenomenon. The increasing influence of science on ‘physical culture’ and sport happened after the first steps had been taken to realize these activities in practice. This more or less intended process, or one may say method, is part of a functionally conceptualized relation and interdependency between theory and practice, allocating priority to the latter within socialist/communist policy and Marxist science.

What were these early processes of socialist/communist physical culture including sport which increasingly acquired an empirical foundation in Marxist theory, and later on, in the Marxist sociology of sport?

The following four examples will demonstrate more clearly what this means. All four case studies focus on the development of working-class sport between 1850 and 1930 and must be seen against the background of a fairly coherent set of dominant ideologies:

1) There is general agreement that the interest and participation in (informal and organized) sport of members of the working class grew during this period in Britain. On the one hand, workers’ sports participation was seen as a type of amusement and uncritical consumption, but at the same time also as a valuable form of physical recreation connected with the increasing importance of competitive team sports (football, for example). Therefore what people perceived to be ‘working-class sport’ became more and more part of the so-called middle class or bourgeois sport culture. On the other hand, this development was criticized by a small group of educated middle-class socialists who had their own dreams of creating a more elevated ‘high’ culture of the masses, including sport (Holt, 1992: 145). They ‘refused to accept commercial sport as an authentic element in working-class culture,’ because it would create political passivity. They suggested that sport was ‘demoralised and damned by capitalism’ (Holt 1992: 146; see also Hargreaves, 1995: 80-2). Consequently, ambivalent attitudes towards sport in general and differing interpretations of its social and political qualities and functions emerged. ‘The absence of a socialist alternative, the lack of imagination, was due at least in part to the low priority that leaders of the working-class movement gave to cultural matters in the broad sense’ (Hargreaves, 1995: 81). Therefore sport in Britain never became an ideological tool of the socialist movement and remained marginal in the field of socialist activities. The organization of sports participation was considered to be fairly apolitical, occurring within people’s leisure time and involving the simultaneous rejection of and adaptation to capitalist civilization and culture (see Holt, 1992: 146-8). The working-class movement did ‘not seem to have taken … sports as a whole very seriously. In fact, … the British working-class movement and the Left as a whole continued to ignore the growing significance of sport in working-class people’s lives, tacitly allowing this terrain to be hegemonized by forces unsympathetic to the Left,’ that is, by middle-class and bourgeois aims, purposes, and organizations (Hargreaves, 1995: 92-3).

2) From the 1850s onwards in Germany, the working-class movement organized what one might call ‘proto-sports clubs’ (Turnvereine), for example, in Leipzig. This movement resisted all political counter-currents (by the monarchy and the aristocracy, for example) and was responsible for the foundation of the Arbeiter Turner Bund (ATB)-the Workers’ Gymnastics Association-in 1893 which, in 1919, was changed into Arbeiter Turn- und Sportbund (ATSB)-the Workers’ Gymnastics and Sports Association. This change of name clearly reflects the open and fundamental ideological conflict between Turnen and ‘English Sports.’ Until the turn of the century, the politically and ideologically orientated working-class gymnastics and sports movement was strongly influenced by the SPD (the Socialist Party of Germany) and its socialist programme. From the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, especially during the Weimar Republic (1919-33), communist influence had an increasing impact on the movement and caused the division of the working-class sports movement (Arbeiter Sportbewegung) into Socialist Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD) sections. This ideological conflict endured until the elimination of the working-class sports movement and its organizations by the National Socialists in 1933. Between 1850 and 1933, the following features of the working-class gymnastics and sports movement are worth being singled out for sociological mention:

  • The existence of a close political, ideological and organizational connection with the SPD and the KPD and their aims;
  • A critical approach to the bourgeois ideal that was said to be part of capitalistic sport (a critique of sport meant a critique of capitalism);
  • Attempts to justify and develop socialist/communist aims and forms of sportsprac-tice (integration of sports-political and socio-political agitation [cf. Wagner, 1973/1931]);
  • Growing ideological conflicts between proponents of the socialist (SPD) and the communist (KPD) concepts of sport;
  • Growing ideological adaptation to the bourgeois concept of competitive sport (such as the Olympic movement, high performance and competitive sports). In this context, the bourgeois-orientated German tradition of Kultur (Turnen) was more and more taken over as the guiding ideology of sport whereas the modern conception of civilization (democratic industrial society) was rather neglected (see Dwertmann, 1997).

To sum up: the German working-class sports movement was politically, ideologically and organizationally integrated into the socialist/communist working-class movement which also formed the basis for its revolutionary programme (working-class sport as class struggle).

3) In the USSR, the first socialist/communist sports movement organized by the state emerged immediately after the revolution in 1917. Sport was primarily organized and practised to improve the nation’s fitness during the period of ‘war communism’ which refers to the Civil War between 1917 and 1920. During the ‘Decade of Physical Culture,’ three different strands of sport emerged. These were influenced by the ‘new economic policies’ and favoured by three different communist groups, that is, by teachers, scientists and politicians. These strands were:

  • The ‘Concept of Proletarian Culture’ (prioritized by the Proletkultists): in addition to the contribution of sport to important political events, the ‘Concept of Production-Gymnastics’ was introduced into the world of work to raise the productivity of the workforce.
  • The ‘Concept of Hygiene’ (favoured by the Hygienists): sport was regarded as a vital part of health education and particular sports, like boxing, Association football, gymnastics and weight-lifting, were rejected as being conducive to injuries, disadvantageous to health and too competitive.
  • The ‘Concept of Spartacism’ (‘Spartak’; reference to Spartacus who led a slave rebellion in the Roman Empire 74-71 BC): unspecialized and unprofessional practising of high performance and competitive sport.

These three different approaches to physical culture and sport had a number of factors in common. First, they were critical of and rejected the bourgeois-capitalist concept of competitive sport, especially high performance sport. Secondly, they preferred the area of physical culture to be developed and organized by communist intellectuals rather than by the members of Russian society as a whole (given the then-contemporary level of development of the USSR). Thirdly, they considered sport to be a means to an end and intended to use it in order to solve social problems, for example, alcoholism and illness. Fourthly, sport was expected to support women’s emancipation. Fifthly, all three approaches supported the development, practice and renewal of the concept of ‘physical culture’ (including physical education, games, leisure activities and sport) and the political and ideological functionalization of sport by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) were influenced by its aims and ideas. Finally, there was also a consensus that Soviet sport should be centrally organized by the Communist Party in conjunction with the government and the state. This represents the first attempt to apply and institutionalize Marxist ideas and concepts to and in the world of sport (see Riordan, 1980a, 1980b, 21-5; Ruffmann, 1980: 37-55, 134ff).

4) After the First World War, European working-class sportsmen and women started to organize themselves nationally and internationally: in 1920 they founded the ‘Lucerne Social Democratic Sports International’ (LSDSI). One year later the Communist ‘Red Sports International’ (RSI) came into existence. In Frankfurt am Main (1925), Vienna (1931) and Antwerp (1937) ‘Workers’ Olympics’ were organized by the International Socialist Working Class Movement in an attempt to stress their political resistance. Due to the different Democratic-Socialist and Marxist-Leninist concepts of sport, ideological conflicts between the LSDSI and the RSI arose.

The following aspects drawn from the four above-mentioned examples will highlight the historical and empirical base of the Marxist theory of sport which will be dealt with subsequently. This theoretical approach can be understood adequately only against this social and political background. The following developmental aspects of socialist/communist sport in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth century are of crucial importance for understanding the Marxist sociology of sport.

  • The working class (proletariat) is of central significance.
  • Whilst on the one hand, sport has a marginal role for the working-class movement, on the other hand sport also provides the possibility to develop an autonomous, antibourgeois concept of sport as part of proletarian culture.
  • The working-class sports movement runs the risk of going through a bourgeoisification process and thus of adapting itself to bourgeois norms and values.
  • As an integral part of the revolutionary class struggle, the working-class sports movement will become politically emancipated.
  • Proletarian sport is partial and biased. It is associated with socialist/communist politics.
  • The working-class sports movement has an international orientation. Therefore it exerts international solidarity and participates in the international class struggle.
  • The Soviet model of sport performs the following socialist/communist functions: physical and cultural education; health care; increase of human working and productive power; paramilitary training; emphasis on top-level competitive sport; recreational activities; solving social problems; emancipation of women; political and ideological socialization.
  • The (inter)national working-class sports movement reflects the different political programmes of Democratic Socialism and Marxist-Leninist centralism.

Most of these social and political elements can be observed in the developing Marxist theories of sport in the 1920s and 1930s. References to: the proletarian masses; the marginality as well as the centrality of sport’s functions; problems of bourgeoisification; concepts based on ideologies and class struggle; internationalism; use of the organizational structuring of Soviet sport as a role model; controversies between dogmatic and undogmatic programmes of socialism/communism. Almost all the above-mentioned dimensions of socialist/communist sport form the historical and empirical base for Marxist theories of sport. Due to the increasing differentiation of sport in both capitalist and communist societies, especially after the Second World War, academics started to investigate sport systematically. This development commenced primarily in the USSR and other societies with well-developed Marxist academic traditions, for example, in Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany.

Marxist-Leninist Theories of the Relationship between Sport and Society

The Institutional Monopolization of Science 

In the USSR, the institutional foundations for the development of a Marxist-Leninist ‘theory of physical culture’ were laid in the 1920s and 1930s. During this period a number of academic institutions were founded which were operated by the state and/or the Communist Party (CPSU): for example, the ‘State Institute for Physical Culture’ (1920, Moscow) and the ‘Central Institute for Research into Physical Culture’ (1933, Moscow; see Riordan, 1980b). After the Second World War, the entire structure of institutions became more and more differentiated. This pattern of organizational structuring was copied by European ‘People’s Republics,’ such as Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Romania (see Riordan, 1981) as well as by non-European states under the influence of the Soviet Union such as China and Cuba (see Riordan, 1981). All these states have in common the fact that their academic research into sport was based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In them, Marxism-Leninism was defined as the only acceptable political paradigm and this led to a dogmatic influence on academic research and theoretical debates.

The Marxist-Leninist ‘Theory of Physical Culture and Sport’

The Marxist (and also Maoist) ‘Theory of Physical Culture and Sport’ emerged on the basis of the above-mentioned socio-historical and ideological developments. The term ‘Socialist Physical Culture’ was at the centre of each concept (see Ruffmann, 1980). The forms and contents of human movement were divided into different physical and cultural aspects and primarily linked with political functions (see discussion of Marxist analyses of sport above, especially point 4 and summary). All aims, tasks and contents (aspects of theory and research) were integrated into the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and led to the following conceptualization:

  • The paradigm and methodology of the ‘Theory of Physical Culture and Sport’ were integrated into historical and dialectical materialism (see discussion of Marx’s theory of society above).
  • Research issues were linked to specific functions of the socialist/communist practice of physical culture and sports: human productivity (industrial, agricultural and other work); health (in particular prevention, improvement and rehabilitation); education into the ‘socialist personality’ (collectivism); games, sport and leisure time; high performance and competitive sport; paramilitary training.
  • With reference to the academic treatment of sport and physical culture, the following aspects were taken into consideration: the foundations of Marxism-Leninism, the history of physical culture and sport, the foundations of pedagogy, medicine, psychology, sociology and the theory of training and coaching (see Schafrik, 1972).

Looking back to that earlier discussion of Marx’s theory of society, the dilemma of all theories relating to physical culture and sport becomes obvious: The historical and contemporary developments of physical culture and sport depend on the social and material conditions of human life as reflected in the base-superstructure distinction. Founded on science, they can be politically planned and realized through ‘scientific socialism and central planning.’ Not the individual but the collectivity, whose social function consists of the differentiation of socialist/communist forms of society and the integration of physical culture and sports practice, stands at the centre of all revolutionary tasks. To achieve this objective, the following preconditions have to be fulfilled:

  • Marxist-Leninist research into physical culture and sport must be conducted on the basis of interdisciplinary cooperation.
  • Marxist-Leninist ideology of physical culture and sport must have a rationale.
  • A critique of the bourgeois-capitalist development of international sport (ideological criticism) must be undertaken.

Overall, the Marxist-Leninist ‘Theory of Physical Culture and Sport’ was characterized by scientism, economic determinism and dogmatism. How can we evaluate the academic achievements of the people who worked within this framework? Against the background of the ideological influences they were subject to we can distinguish two academic strands.

On the one hand, there were the less ideologically biased natural and technical sciences, such as sports medicine, biomechanics, the theory of training and coaching as well as the manufacture of sports equipment which achieved an outstanding international reputation for their quality research. On the other hand, there were the ideologically biased humanities and social sciences, such as philosophy, pedagogy, psychology, sociology and history which, due to their dogmatism, never managed to achieve high international standards. In general, whilst the social-scientific treatment of sport by dogmatic Marxists bolstered the status quo, in the natural-scientific and technological spheres analysis and application developed very well. Nevertheless, the academic openness of Marx’s social theory was partly discontinued.

Marxist-Leninist Contributions to the Sociology of Sport

The Marxist-Leninist theory of physical culture claimed meta-theoretical leadership in the scientific analysis of sport. All the other sport sciences were expected to accept a subordinate role. A differentiation into specific subdisciplines was only allowed in a very restricted range of subjects such as history, pedagogy, medicine and the theory of training but entirely rejected for psychology and, in particular, for sociology since the latter was perceived as a ‘bourgeois academic discipline.’ Sociological research as part of the sport sciences only emerged in the 1960s. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), for example, sociology did not gain the status of an independent academic subject and was defined as an integral part of the Marxist-Leninist theory of society until the 1960s. The same applies to the sociology of sport in the GDR. Sociology in general and the sociology of sport in particular, were only introduced because of the international competition of scientists in which the GDR wanted to participate. Therefore, in 1961 the first research centre for the sociology of sport was established at the ‘Deutsche Hochschule für Körperkultur’ (DHfK-German University for Physical Culture) in Leipzig which initiated and influenced the further development of the Marxist-Leninist sociology of sport theoretically (see Erbach, 1966; Gras and Reinhardt, 1987) and empirically (see Gras, 1982; Hinsching, 1981). However, the empirical project could not be continued in terms of the established standards of sociological methodology. Subsequently, a kind of sociological empiricism based on Marxism-Leninism and what they called bourgeois forms of empirical research was created (see Friedrich, 1970). However, in the area of sociological theory, the Marxist-Leninist paradigm continued to be the most significant influence and due to its dogmatism hampered the development of sociology. As a result, only those theoretical and empirical results of sociological research into sport were officially accepted and published that fitted the dominant socialist/communist doctrine of the state and the party. Nearly all sociological theories based on empirical studies were expected to conform to the ‘socialist reality’ of sport and society (see Voigt, 1975). Nevertheless, despite rigorous censorship by the state not all sociological research could be manipulated ideologically.

According to Gras and Reinhardt (1987: 42-6), the foci of empirical research and theory construction in the sociology of sport in the former Eastern bloc can be put into the following areas:

  • The objects, objectives and functions of the Marxist-Leninist sociology of sport.
  • Sociological research into societal living conditions and their influences on active sports participation within organized and unorganized areas (everyday physical culture and sport for all).
  • Sociological research to improve the development of high performance sport.
  • Sociological research to differentiate sports organizations, management and planning.
  • Sociological insights into sport as a basis for a differentiated sports information system.
  • Sociological research into other relevant areas that have an impact on sport (for example, sociological enquiries into youth cultures, investigation of socialization processes).
  • Critical evaluation of selected concepts and theories of the ‘bourgeois’ sociology of sport.
  • In addition, other relevant areas, such as, group dynamics in sport, voluntary work in sport, sports development connected with social, ideological, economic and cultural factors in general.

In a nutshell, sociological research and theories of sport in the former German Democratic Republic focused on the following key issues:

  • The development of a Marxist-Leninist sociology of sport, including a critical ideological analysis of the so-called bourgeois sociology of sport (with particular reference to West Germany).
  • Empirical research into sports development in the GDR, with particular emphasis on both general sociological issues such as social activities, motivation, socialization, ideology, achievement, health, professionalization, age, gender and very specific questions, such as the organizational structuring of sport, management and planning (see Gras and Reinhardt, 1987).
  • Interdisciplinary research exploring pedagogical, biological, medical, anthropological, psychological and sociological issues (see Erbach, 1966; Gras and Reinhardt, 1987).

The development of the sociology of sport in the former GDR between 1945 and 1989 can be regarded as typical and representative of the influence on the development of the sciences in the Eastern bloc of the USSR. The following aspects constituted three key foci in this connection:

  • Focusing on societal developments, sports and their social functions were integrated conceptually into a model of base-superstructure relations as part of socialist physical culture.
  • As an element of base-superstructure relations, sports were said to contribute to the social, that is, the physical and psychological, reproduction of society.
  • On the assumption that, in socialist societies, class conflicts had ceased to occur, sport was expected to contribute to the political socialization of people into socialist values and norms and, thus, to the development of a socialist personality. This function was centrally organized and supported by the state and the Communist Party and involved scientific planning.

In this context, the scientific and political function of the sociology of sport was to establish and promote the development of sport through a theoretical underpinning (socialist physical culture) and empirical research (sports development under socialism). Accordingly, it appears logical to argue that the Marxist-Leninist sociology of sport introduced and differentiated structural-functionalist and empiricist elements within the epistemological framework of a dogmatic paradigm (Marxism-Leninism; see as an example Pietsch and Gras, 1986). As a consequence, a paradoxical admixture between Marxism and ‘bourgeois’ functionalism emerged.


The Marxist-Leninist sociology of sport is an integral part of the Marxist academic tradition. Its theoretical and empirical reference to historical and societal developments provides a number of interesting areas for research. Through an interdisciplinary approach these areas can be expanded and integrated into the theory of physical culture (see above). However, due to the dogmatic nature of Marxism-Leninism and its claim to be an exclusive meta-theory within the socialist development of the sciences from 1917 until 1990, all epistemological aspects were politically functionalized and censored by the state (see Lutz, 1988; Voigt, 1975). As a result, the sociological potential of Marxian theory and Marxism more generally could not be fully exploited and developed.

The Neo-Marxist Sociology of Sport

The development of Marxist sociology in Western capitalist-industrial societies was orientated towards a Marxian and Marxist (-Leninist) sociology. However, its protagonists also developed the Marxist paradigm in conjunction with other academic traditions, such as structuralism, functionalism, systems theory, existentialism and psychoanalysis. A complex and contested set of concepts with various differentiations emerged. So-called ‘neo-Marxism’ was applied both to sociology and to its subdisciplines, for example, the sociology of sport. The following strands of the neo-Marxist sociology of sport will now be discussed: reproduction theory, critical theory and hegemony theory.

Reproduction Theory 

Reproduction theory is based on a Marxist theory of labour in which societal functions are integrated: the simple and the complex reproduction of labour power. In the case of simple reproduction, sport as a social form ensures the physical preservation and reproduction of labour power (the recreation function). In the case of complex reproduction, sport has additional functions. Labour power with its purely economic function of reproduction increasingly involves qualifications and knowledge as bases for sports activities (the qualification function). As we can see, the relationship between sport, work and reproduction has two levels. The following Marxist assumptions underlie these relations:

  • Work and reproduction are mutually involved in a historical, dynamic interdependence.
  • Sport in this connection has to be considered as an element of the extended reproduction functions of labour power.
  • Of central significance in democratic societies are those functions that contribute to the acquisition of qualifications (Güldenpfennig, 1974: 15).

Consequently, the sociology of sport, its empirical research and theoretical underpinning, have to focus on societal correlations between sport and the development of work within historical, economic, political and social processes. Seen from the point of view of reproduction theory, the relationship between sport and work within capitalist and socialist industrial societies needs to be conceptualized as follows:

  • Under capitalism, sport, like other societal fields, reproduces the capitalist system under economic and political conditions of class conflict but without revolution (simple reproduction).
  • Under socialism, sport, like other societal fields, reproduces the socialist system with the aim of improving the individual and social aspects of human behaviour.

The ideological underpinning of these two statements makes them empirically unacceptable as they do not comply with standards of sociological research and theory construction. Therefore this paradigm employed by neo-Marxist sociologists of sport is of interest only as a theoretical framework. However, sociological research into sport does need to be orientated towards the sport-work relationship (reproduction, socialization, ideology).

Critical Theory 

A confluence of academic and scientific interests, biographical and personal concerns, and societal developments in the Weimar Republic (1918-33), particularly the emergence of fascist totalitarianism in the context of three interwoven social, political and economic processes-nationalism, racism and capitalism-created a distinctive social reality and Zeitgeist, within which the members of the ‘Institute for Social Research’ (IFSR) founded in 1922 in Frankfurt am Main (some of its outstanding members were Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm, Benjamin and, after 1950, Habermas and Friedeburg) created their theoretical and methodological concept of the ‘Critical Theory (of Society),’ often also referred to as the ‘Frankfurt School (of Sociology).’ Members of the Frankfurt School founded and developed an expanded dialectical model of ‘base and superstructure.’ They rejected any form of economic determinism and assumed dynamic relations and interdependencies between the economy and the culture of a society. Due to a lack of Marxist research into cultural and ideological superstructures, they placed special emphasis on research into this field. The growth of fascism reinforced their theoretical assumptions. For these reasons, they grounded their research programme in social philosophical, sociological, historical and social psychological (based on Freud’s psychoanalysis) research into superstructural fields, but they also undertook research into economic issues and tried to connect ‘base and superstructure’ in their studies. Basically, the scientific approach of ‘critical theory’ can be described as an attempt to integrate Marxist and Freudian methodology.Members of the IFSR did not explicitly elaborate and conceptualize empirical methods, but they did implicitly develop techniques during the research process itself. The focus of their work was ‘a debate over an appropriate non-positivistic epistemology for the social sciences’ (Jary and Jary, 1995: 243). The application of empirical methods should always be related to a theoretical framework of social research. Not the quantitative, but the qualitative properties of empirical data are the most relevant. This methodological approach implied the need to find ways to connect data, and how to interpret their social relations, meanings and process characteristics (see Rigauer, 1995).

Unlike many members of the Frankfurt School such as Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas, who only marginally touched on social developments in sport, some of their successors critically engaged with its social and political aspects. While doing so, they were influenced by the 1960s students’ rebellion in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). In that context they developed the sociological foundations for a ‘critical theory of sport.’

Rigauer (1969, English translation 1981; 1979) investigated the relationship between sport and work with particular reference to the organizational structuring, practices and functions of work and their effects on socio-cultural, socio-political and socio-economic developments in sport in capitalist societies. According to his central sociological thesis, 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 one hand, the central ideological function of sport consists of transposing its base-related (economic) superstructural relation and interdependence into societal practice. On the other hand, it also has to blur this very structural correspondence ideologically in a way that allows the idea of sport as a socially autonomous area to be maintained. The main purpose of a Marxist sociological theory of sport should be to explain the real societal functions of sport with the help of critical analyses focused on culture and ideology. In addition, a Marxist sociology has to generate concepts that relate sport to the aim of political emancipation, thus contributing to the defeat of capitalism.

Vinnai (1970) researched the system of social correspondences between capitalist forms of production, consumption and forms of social behaviour in sport. He takes the example of soccer and identifies individual and social patterns of adaptation using the Marxist model of ‘commodity structure’: the reduction of human behaviour in sport to market exchanges. As an element of capitalist mass culture, sport takes over socialization functions that lead to the adaptation of human behaviour to authoritarian patterns (connected with narcissistic, masochistic and aggressive personality characteristics). In this process the personal and social autonomy of individuals becomes increasingly restricted and can lead to complete alienation. Integrated with these sociological and socio-psychological concepts, Vinnai (1970: esp. 9-104) allocates ideological functions to sport: ‘Sport, like other manifestations of the culture industry that have been structured and planned, brings out the identification of people with already established norms. The system of sport is one in which conformism is hammered into everybody’s emotions and prohibits behaviour that is not adapted to social norms’ (Vinnai, 1970: 104). Consequently, sport develops cultural-industrial forms of behaviour concerned with creating an ideological consciousness within capitalism which fosters economic growth, profits and exploitation materially, socially and psychologically.

An investigation conducted by Prokop in 1971 concludes the sociological contributions to a ‘critical theory of sport’ of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research. Prokop’s sociological analysis of sport concentrates on the historical and societal genesis of the modern Olympic movement, starting from its founder, Coubertin, who initiated the first Olympic Games of modern times in Athens in 1896. She investigated technocratic system structures and structures of behaviour within the stage of social differentiation reached in industrial capitalism at the turn of the century. She shows how ideological relations under capitalism are conducive to positivist scientific developments and uses this framework in order to analyse typical forms of consciousness and behaviour. Sport, she suggests, stabilizes the power structures of capitalist societies whilst reproducing technocratic practices: it produces technical and disciplined behaviour and a corresponding positivist ideology which leads to patterns of objectification, quantification and reductionism. Furthermore, sport legitimates these technocratic capitalist practices and uses them as a repressive method of general socialization: ‘Sport is a capitalistically modified form of game!’ (Prokop, 1971: 21).

The main difference between reproduction theory (see above) and critical theory is that the latter integrates and critically evaluates the development of sport in both capitalist and socialist societies. Critical theorists uncovered the ways in which sportspersons in the former Soviet bloc were subjected to a repressive instrumentalization of their consciousness and behaviour through the socialist ideology of the state (see Prokop, 1971: 121-3). The critical theory of sport was influential in the development of sociological theories in the former German Federal Republic and internationally until the 1980s. Rütten (1988) applied the cultural and ideological processes emphasized sociologically by Adorno (including their aesthetic basis) to the internal world of sport. He also stressed the potential of sport for social emancipation. Rütten (1988) was able to conceptualize a sociological approach to the social dialectics of sport that, on the one hand, supports the development of social behaviour and on the other hand restricts the same. Morgan (1994) reconstructs neo-Marxist approaches to the sociology of sport in an international comparison drawing on critical theory. He develops a convincing concept in order to pursue the sociological establishment of a critical theory of sport. His ‘intent in doing so is to break the impasse that has thus far stymied the Left’s efforts to come to grips adequately with contemporary sport. The revamped critical theory of sport I offer to accomplish this aim, to get the critical process going again, takes its point of departure from sport conceived as a social practice, and from a critically extended use of the liberal device of walling off social spheres to protect them from unsavoury outside influences’ (Morgan, 1994: 179).

Hegemony theory is based on the thinking and writing of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). He rejected the deterministic character of the traditional ‘base-superstructure’ distinction and integrated philosophical and sociological aspects into his analysis in order to develop it further. He also rejected the straightforward matter-consciousness relationship and the corresponding ideological processes, and replaced it on the theoretical level with a group- and class-related model of power and conflict. According to Gramsci, neither the economic base of capitalism nor the material circumstances of human existence determine people’s social, political and cultural forms of behaviour and the underlying ideologies. On the contrary, there are dominant social groups whose intellectual members-both in the ruling and subject classes-develop, define and negotiate values, norms and class fractions. They build social hegemonies on the basis of language, knowledge, common thinking and everyday practice in religion, art, literature, etc. that concur with each other. However, people are also exposed to permanent innovation, the results of which are handed down from one generation to the next. Hegemonic, class-bound groups differentiate, transform and convey material (base) and imaginary (superstructure) values, norms and functions within these processes. Within the scope of such ideological and political interchanging and enforced processes, open class struggles for power between competing groups emerge. The upper and middle classes have material, cultural and political advantages (for example, wealth, knowledge and the capacity to define values, norms, rules, etc.) over the working class in the course of social production and reproduction processes. However, the lower classes are able to translate their material and ideological aims and values into action with the help of their own organizations (for example, parties, trade unions). In capitalist societies, hegemonic processes of differentiation and development take the course of ideological and institutional mediation between base and superstructure. The superstructure influences the material base just as the base influences the ideological superstructure (see Gramsci, 1987: 56-103).

Employing hegemony theory, Gruneau (1983, 1993) and Hargreaves (1995) investigate social developments in sport under capitalism and make useful contributions to a critical sociology of sport (see Morgan, 1994: 60-127). They see social classes as defining, delivering, improving and enforcing sport-related norms, values and functions within hegemonic processes on the basis of their ideological and political power positions, including the economically, culturally and socially reproduced base-superstructure/superstructure-base relations of capitalist societies. Yet, it is not determinism that results from this process but the contrary: ‘Hegemony is never guaranteed: it must be worked for continually and renewed by the hegemonic class or class fraction’ (Hargreaves, 1995: 220). One can find this phenomenon repeated in every era of the capitalist development of sport. All groups involved in sport, that is, dominant as well as subordinate groups, compete with each other and struggle for the sports-practical realization of their aims, cultural values, social functions, organizational and material framework. Gruneau (1983, 1993) and Hargreaves (1995) show how these class-specific cultural and political struggles within sport emerged and how they continue to occur. These processes can be revealed as hegemonial social conflicts in which base and superstructure ideologies that are economically, politically and culturally founded take over central functions. They refer to ‘residual’ (ideologically lasting) and current sports processes. Key themes in these hegemonic discourses are the following:

  • Amateurism, fair play, rational recreation.
  • Athletics, competition; leisure (sport for all).
  • Professionalization, commercialization, mass mediatization.
  • Sports consumption.
  • Physical education (socialization).
  • Gender relations, politicization of the body and racism; within social contexts of alienation, emancipation, relative autonomy.
  • Organization, bureaucratization, institutionalization.
  • National identifications, nationalism, racism.
  • Globalization.

This list demonstrates the research interests of Gruneau (1983, 1993) and Hargreaves (1995). The empirical foci of sociological theory are the cultural, economic and political developments of sport as they have been initiated and pushed ahead on the basis of hegemonic conflicts and struggles. Similar to Hargreaves (1995), Gruneau (1983, 1993) supports the thesis ‘that certain class, gender, and Western cultural and bodily practices continue to be represented in modern sport as if they were universal and natural, thereby marginalizing many alternative conceptions of sport and the body.’ But none ‘of this should be taken to suggest that sport today is any more stable or less contradictory than in the past. No hegemonic settlement of forces and interests is forever …. Indeed, there is a notable tension between all totalizing visions of’ ‘modern’ life and the sweeping forces of social and cultural differentiation characteristic of contemporary … consumer societies’ (Gruneau, 1993: 98). With these assertions the author provides additional support for a Marxist-orientated sociological analysis of sport in the same way as Hargreaves (1995) does when he objects that ‘Policy cannot automatically be deduced from analysis: its formation is a creative process requiring imaginative leaps, and above all, a genuine interaction between policy-makers and subjects’ (Hargreaves, 1995: 223).


At the heart of the neo-Marxian sociology of sport are investigations into the social processes of reproduction that take place as part of capitalist base-superstructure relations. They assume that the developments of sport that take place within capitalist societies are structurally determined by the principle of simple reproduction. Therefore, sports are held to perform social functions of adaptation. Supporters of critical theory, however, investigate the social structures and functions of the reproduction of sport within the context of capitalist labour, marketing and rationalization processes, and examine the political, cultural and ideological effects of these processes on various modern sport developments. The authors of hegemony theory emphasize the effects of the social reproduction processes of sport within capitalism on the intermediate, social, political and cultural levels of hegemonic class conflicts. Their main thesis claims that the agents of politically competing power elites generate and institutionalize socially differentiated values, norms and functions in the world of sport against the background of interdependent material and ideological base-superstructure relations.All these constructs have in common the fact that their authors attempt to separate the sociological paradigm of reproduction from the Marxist base-superstructure dogma and its inherent economic determinism in order to research capitalistically influenced social processes of sports development on a more open, scientific basis. It has to be concluded that this approach is used most consistently by the advocates of the hegemony theory.

Summary: The Marxist Sociology of Sport

Based on the key concepts outlined in the second and third sections of this chapter, I suggest the following thesis: the development of a Marxist sociology of sport is founded on both the theory and practice of Marxism. The real political and societal manifestations of the Marxist dogma (political parties, trade unions and people’s republics) can be found in the organizations of working-class sport. Using the experience of working-class sport, Marxist theories of physical culture and sport argue that the nature of sport is closely linked to societal and state institutions (capitalism; socialism/communism). As a consequence of the academic analysis of the bourgeois development of sport under capitalism, Marxist concepts of the sociology of sport emerged. The flow diagram opposite summarizes and highlights the conceptualizing process of the Marxist sociology of sport.

Towards an Advanced Neo-Marxist Sociology of Sport: Conceptual Perspectives

Currently, the majority of social developments at a national and international level are ideologically influenced by production, reproduction and consumption processes based on the principles of capitalism. Social agents link the ‘Homo socialis’ with the ‘Homo oeconomicus.’ This observation also applies to the national and international spheres of sport. Sport operates in a global market and is a global industry (see Maguire, 1993; Rigauer, 1992). Consequently, sociological research into the relationships between sport and capitalism is becoming more urgently needed than ever as the findings will certainly contribute to a better understanding and explanation of current and future social developments of sport within the context of specific economic frameworks. Therefore, it is necessary to continue further sociological enquiries on the basis of a Marxist paradigm which has to integrate the historical and dialectical materialist theory of society and at the same time avoid deterministic concepts (see Morgan, 1994: 179-203). The intellectual problem of the Marxist sociology of sport is well known and was the main topic of this chapter. Here and now, it is worth summing up the problem from a figurational sociological point of view: Marxist sociology involves socio-economic determinism, a nomothetic direct relations/interdependencies indirect relations/interdependencies model of social development and what one might call ‘utopian determinism’ (see Dunning, 1992: 226-35). Such epistemological fixations hinder and prevent the development of a sophisticated Marxist sociology of sport. The key question now is, what theoretical and methodological conditions have to be fulfilled to open and widen the Marxist sociology of sport paradigm? The following list contains a set of preliminary and incomplete suggestions:

  • Emphasis should be on an open and critical ‘sociological realism.’
  • The individual-society dualism or structure-agency dilemma needs to be overcome.
  • Constructive debates are needed with other sociological paradigms and other methodological approaches.
  • The different forms of empirical (including historical) research consistent with a Marxist framework need to be specified.
  • Sociological fragmentation needs to be combated.

With such a programme, the Marxist sociology of sport will not have to abandon its specific scientific concepts. On the contrary, it might develop them further within the permanent stream of sociological debates and critical evaluations (see Morgan, 1994: 204-51). The same applies to all other sociological theories used for the analysis of sport. The further development of these theories depends on how far academics are able to elaborate competing sociological theories (preserving sociological differences) whilst at the same time recognizing paradigmatic commonalities. Such a process of communication and cooperation will prevent unnecessary tensions and provide the basis for a productive future for the entire field of sociology. The claim for dominance of one theory would necessarily lead to a dogmatic reductionism of the sociology of sport and all scientific development would come to a standstill.