With opening ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics a couple nights ago in Sochi, Russia — and all the pomp, pageantry, and slapstick that went with it — it’s perhaps appropriate to reflect on the oft-forgotten Soviet alternative to the Olympics: the proletarian Spartakiade, set up in 1924 as a challenge to the hegemony of the bourgeois Olympiad. It’s important to remember that the modern Olympic games were a fairly recent phenomenon. The idea of holding an international sporting event along these lines was only revived in 1894, and the inaugural Games held just two years later. “Physical culture,” Fiskultur in German and Физкультура in Russian, was an ideology embraced across the political spectrum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, part of a popular cult of the body that emphasized fitness as part of a well-rounded education (along with literacy and basic math skills). From mainstream European Social-Democracy during the 1890s to North American “muscular Christianity” around the same time, the idea enjoyed a great deal of support.
After conflicts broke out between the major European powers in 1914, the early days of what would eventually become known as the Great War, the Olympic games were put on hold. Though the Second International (founded 1889) capitulated to the spirit of patriotic belligerence that same year, upheaval in Russia resulted in the collapse of tsarism in February 1917 and the revolutionary seizure of power by the Bolsheviks a few months later. Its leaders thereupon declared the foundation of a Third, Communist International — the Comintern. One might view the stance taken by the Comintern during the early 1920s toward international sporting competitions like the Olympics as paralleling its own relationship to international bourgeois legal and political institutions around the same time. By establishing the Spartakiade as a rival to the Olympiad, the Bolsheviks hoped to set up a proletarian alternative to bourgeois internationalism.
Similarly, the Comintern itself would be viewed as a proletarian version of the bourgeois League of Nations, from which the USSR had been excluded, though here the socialists had a head start over their capitalist competitors (the First International Workingmen’s Association was organized in 1863, while the League of Nations would only take shape in June 1919). The Spartakiade existed as an international sporting event from 1924-1937, ending around the same time as the as the Comintern became defunct. Again, this mirrored the Soviets’ shifting attitude toward internationalism in general. Under Stalin’s doctrine of “socialism in one country” [социализм в одной стране], Spartakiads were instead repurposed as national events between the various semi-autonomous Soviet Republics. Likewise, just as the Soviet Union was made a participant in the United Nations after 1947, Soviet sportsmen began participating in the Olympics in 1952. This marked the effective integration of the USSR in the postwar status quo, less of an imminent threat to the bourgeois social order than its cynical cooperant.
Below is reproduced the Comintern’s November 1924 Manifesto of the Red Sport International. You can read the original May 1925 English translation of the document in Young Worker. Also included are some outstanding posters, photos, and promotional art for the games, which can be enlarged by clicking on the thumbnails.
Manifesto of the Red Sport International
Executive Committee, Comintern
November 21, 1924
To the Working-class Sportsmen of all Countries!
To all Working Men and Working Women In Town and Countryside!
The Third World Congress of the Red Sports International addresses this manifesto on behalf of the delegates who represent twenty-one countries at the Congress, to all workers belonging to gymnastics and sports organizations, and invites them to join the international association of proletarian and peasant gymnastics and sports organizations — the Red Sports International.
The bourgeoisie does its utmost to keep the oppressed classes under its domination. In the hands of the bourgeoisie, gymnastics and sports organizations are converted into tools of bourgeois militarism and fascism, and thereby into fighting cadets of the reactionaries against the proletariat of the home country, as well as the proletariat of foreign countries.
The bourgeoisie is fully aware of the important role of gymnastic and-sport organizations and it is using them as a means to corrupt the proletariat and to permeate it with bourgeois ideology, providing thereby active defenders of bourgeois capitalist interests in the everyday economic struggles (factory sports, clubs under capitalist control, strikebreaking, technical aid, etc.), as well as in the present and future political struggles (Chauvinist national organizations, military training of the young, national militia, etc.).
From being a means of the class struggle of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, proletarian gymnastic and sports organizations must become an important factor — for the proletariat — in the world struggle of the workers and poor peasants for the establishment of a proletarian social order.
In the atmosphere of class struggle there can be no “neutrality” and no “non-political attitude” for the workers also with respect to gymnastics and sports. Collaboration or class truce with and within bourgeois organizations, especially with the bourgeoisie, is tantamount to a betrayal of proletarian interests.
Difficult economic and political conflicts lie in wait for the proletariat. The Third World Congress of the Red Sports International therefore issue the fighting slogan:
Proletarians must organize the class struggle also on the field of gymnastics and sports, and must sever all connection with bourgeois organizations and bourgeois ideology.
A united front in the gymnastic and sports movement brought about by the entire proletariat will strengthen the entire front of the workers and peasants will enable it to achieve a victory over the capitalist world.
The leaders of the reformist Lucerne sport international are sabotaging the united front and the workers’ struggles against the bourgeoisie, by their attempts to destroy the unity of proletarian gymnastics and sports organizations.
The Lucerne Workers’ Sports International is not an international class struggle organization in the true sense of the word.
The leaders of the Lucerne Sports International objected to the invitation being sent to the Red Sports International to the First Workers’ Olympiad in Frankfurt-am-Main. They have rejected the invitation of revolutionary workers’ gymnastic sports organizations although large sections of the membership of the Lucerne International were in favor of accepting the invitation. As in 1920, in Lucerne, they have again refused to enter into relations with the proletarian sports organizations of Soviet Russia. The Lucerne leaders have broken off negotiations concerning preparatory work for the proletarian world Olympiad.
They have refused to enter into negotiations concerning the amalgamation of the two internationals by insisting on an amalgamation based ENTIRELY on the already-discredited Lucerne program, without any previous negotiations and without consulting the rank and file.
They are determined to prevent a truly proletarian world Olympiad for the latter would militate against their efforts to collaborate with the bourgeoisie.
Working men and women throughout the world, do not play into the hands of these agents provocateurs. PREVENT ALL SPLITS IN YOUR ORGANIZATIONS; the Lucerne leaders are aiming at bringing them about to be rid of the good proletarian revolutionary members.
The machinations of the treacherous leaders must be brought to naught through the determination of all working class gymnasts and sportsmen to maintain a united front.
Working class gymnasts and sportsmen! The Red Sport International and its Third Congress tells you:
Raise your voices in energetic protest against the sabotage of the united front!
There shall be no real Olympiad without the Red Sport International!
The Third World Congress of the Red Sport International was attended by representatives from all parts of the world. Conspicuous by their absence at our World Congress were only the representatives of Eastern and colonial peoples whose presence would have considerably extended our fighting front. Many millions of the colonial and Eastern peoples are already in the midst of a fight for emancipation and for them the organization of a sports and gymnastic movement, which would support them in their fight is of the greatest importance.
The Red Sports International welcomes the colonial and Eastern peoples’ fight for emancipation against imperialism, and its Third Congress urges the organization and consolidation of the revolutionary sports and gymnastic movement in these countries.
The Red Sports International is the only real world organization of proletarian gymnasts and sportsmen.
The Red Sportintern draws the attention of the masses to the deception practiced by the Lucerne bureaucrats and urges all proletarians to be more energetic in their fight for united action.
The Vienna decision of the six Lucerne leaders must be overridden. This will clear the way for a real international proletarian organization.
Working men and women, proletarian gymnasts and sportsmen: In the event of the Lucerne leaders rejecting your demands and refusing to organize a real Workers’ World Olympiad, you must do your utmost yourselves to organize a powerful Red World Olympiad. This Red proletarian World Olympiad will proclaim the unity of proletarian gymnasts and sportsmen in their opposition to the bourgeoisie.
The Red Sport International herewith invites all proletarian gymnastic and sports organizations throughout the world, as well as all other proletarian organizations to take part. In the Red World Olympiad — the Red World Spartakiade.
The Red Spartakiade will proclaim the solidarity of the international proletariat in its opposition to the bourgeoisie.
It will constitute a new phase in the great epoch of the mighty proletarian movement on the field of physical culture, not only in Europe and America, but also among the enslaved and oppressed colonial and Eastern peoples.
LONG LIVE THE FIGHT AGAINST BOURGEOIS GYMNASTIC AND SPORTS… ORGANIZATIONS! AGAINST BOURGEOIS MILITARISM AND FASCISM!
LONG LIVE PHYSICAL CULTURE AS A MEANS OF CLASS STRUGGLE!
LONG LIVE HEALTHY PROLETARIAN SPORT!
THREE CHEERS FOR THE UNITY OF THE INTERNATIONAL PROLETARIAN GYMNASTIC AND SPORT MOVEMENT!
THREE CHEERS FOR INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY AND UNITED ACTION WITH THE REVOLUTIONARY LABOR MOVEMENT FOR THE EMANCIPATION OF THE WORKING CLASS FROM THE CAPITALIST YOKE!
THREE CHEERS FOR THE RED SPORT INTERNATIONAL!
On behalf of the Third World Congress of the Red
Sportintern, the presidium of the E.C. of the Y.C.T.,