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. Continue reading