Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Histomat's guide to the World Cup.

Or, why English socialist football fans should support 'Anyone but England'

With the World Cup almost upon us, many socialist football fans in England are in a quandary about who they should support. Though it is a 'World Cup', things are of course never quite as they should be under capitalism. David Runciman in an article on the African teams in the New Statesman highlights some depressing statistics.

51 = No. of African sides at the start of qualifiers for 2006
5 = No. of places reserved in finals for African teams

51 = No. of European teams at the start of qualifiers
13 = No. places reserved for European teams

6 = No. of teams from the southern hemisphere.

£676,000 = average income of players in English Premiership
£900 = average income in Togo

Mike Marqusee, an American socialist sports lover, has highlighted the essential fact of the World Cup - the corporate takeover of the sport in general:

'Fifa can offer businesses an unrivalled global platform...It's estimated that $1bn will be spent on World Cup-related advertising, boosting annual ad revenues by a full percentage point...Paradoxically, globalisation turns national identity into a prize commodity. Corporate and media interests in this country will seek to channel emotion (and spending) into support for the England team. Great numbers will follow the event not because they love football but because they have been persuaded that England's World Cup run is important to them. Inevitably, political forces will seek to exploit that heavily hyped attachment.'

As if the corporate takeover isn't bad enough (many firms have produced 'I love England' badges for their employees), then the political consequences don't bear worth thinking about. All of the main three capitalist political parties are doubtless gearing up already to associate themselves with supporting England - and it is likely that Blair will try to use a good Cup run and the associating 'feel good factor' to hang onto power - though one suspects the hapless croquet playing fuckwit Prescott will not be used in too many New Labour photoshoots playing football. Indeed, one expects Prescott will soon be shuffled off to become 'Lord Hull', a fitting end to the political career of a one time union militant who decided the needs of British capital were more important than those of the people who elected him.

Given then the huge corporate drive to get people to support England - which millions of people are so alienated by life under capitalism that it is understandable that they will buy into - it is a little surprising to find socialists so happy to be proud of their support for 'Ingerland'.

Over at the Socialist Unity blog, Andy Newman proudly defends the nationalist position. English socialists should support England because 'England play the type of game we want to watch', we know the players and so 'can identify with them', and logically 'it would be great for the sport of football if England were to win the world cup'.

One sees here some of the advantages of giving up on Marxism as a means to explain the world - you can simply embrace spontaneity and go along with the flow of 'common sense' opinion, 'the day to day ideology of the bourgeoisie' as Gramsci (apparently) put it somewhere, wherever it may take you. It is of course easy to simply support England - but isn't there are problem in lining up with our ruling class, even just on a question of sport? Somewhere?

Ed Rooksby is one non-Marxist socialist who thinks so. 'I'd usually support England, you know. I think, however, that I might just find myself able to leave that football nationalism stuff behind this time...I think I shall support France or Spain - somewhere fairly hip and glamorous...Clearly, I'm going to be careful about this - it's probably best not to walk into a pub full of squaddies and shout 'allez la France!' However, a few well placed anti-patriotisms should provide some considerable source of amusement. I'm going to need some steel though. I hope that some of my visitors here will keep checking up on me to ensure that I've not reverted to England-supportery. It might not be easy. I am weak.'

Anti-patriotism is better than patriotism, but the problem with going for France or Spain is that they too are imperialist countries. But then, as Comrade Rooksby admits 'I'm not really doing this out of principle - I've said before that the whole 'anyone but England as a tool of socialist politics' idea is completely laughable.' Therein lies the source of his 'weakness' - while opposed to the English ruling class, he refuses to cut his ties completely with their ideas - of nations and so nationalism.

Here one has to remember the Marxist Benedict Anderson's point that nations are 'imagined communities', full of invented traditions about their past. People want to identify with a collective of some sort, to avoid the alienation from humanity that they feel from being screwed at work. As Chris Bambery, in an article on Marxism and Sport:

'Even the love of being in a crowd reflects the atomisation and lack of community we suffer under capitalism, a pale reflection of what real human solidarity would be like. The buzz, the excitement, comes because people see it as a break from the mundane reality of everyday life. But the buzz goes quickly and it isn't a break from capitalist reality. Trotsky once had occasion to refer to how the creative potential of working class people is caricatured by popular pastimes. Writing on Britain, Trotsky points out, "The revolution will inevitably awaken in the English working class the most unusual passions, which have been hitherto been so artificially held down and turned aside, with the aid of social training, the church, the press, in the artificial channels of boxing, football, racing and other sports". Elsewhere he adds, "In the sphere of philanthropy, amusements and sports, the bourgeoisie and the church are incomparatively stronger than we are. We cannot tear away the working class youth from them except by means of the socialist programme and revolutionary action".'

Taking a position of 'Anyone but England' during the World Cup does not mean being a killjoy or doing this in an overly dogmatic fashion. One has to be creative about this. Here, Dave Renton offers some good pointers:

'For buried in the worst of it are bound to be some moments worth savouring: the 11 June group match between Portugal against Angola, for example, could easily go the way of 2002 and Senegal's humiliation of France. For five centuries, Portugal were the dominant power in that country. They introduced the Angolans to starvation and slavery. Would it really be so wrong for a left-winger to take pleasure if Portugal lost? It will also be interesting to see how team USA goes down in Germany: a country which once had the last two Michael Moore books at 1, 2 and 3 in its bestseller charts (numbers 1 and 3 were the German editions, an English-language edition was at number 2). And ignoring their odds (which are pitiful) I think a modest socialist case could indeed be made for backing Trinidad and Tobago: the team was built from nothing, and managed for most of the post-war period and until as recently as 1971 by none other than Eric James, CLR's brother.'

Personally, I think every English socialist who supports England when they play teams like Trinidad - former colonies of Britain - or say Iran - which we are gearing up to attack - deserves ridicule if not utter contempt. The position of 'Anyone But England' is only 'laughable' if one thinks that the English working class are somehow too 'backward' or 'ill-educated' to make a socialist revolution here. In fact it is the only principled position one can have - the colour of the socialist flag is red - or, for the next month or so, perhaps red and black:

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At 6:49 pm, Blogger AN said...

Thanks for this Snowball, it is a wel argued case, even if i don't agree 9and have heard it all before)

I must take issue with one thing though: when you say, "Andy Newman proudly defends the nationalist position. English socialists should support England " this isn't actually true.

I don't advocate that Socialists SHOULD support England, any more than I advocate that socialists should listen to Wagner or read Kafka.

My point is quite different, that many working class football fans do support England, and it is not an irrational or necessarily reactionary position. Such people as Billy Bragg and Mark Steel for example support England.

I have argued the point before:

At 9:07 pm, Blogger paddington said...

Since the country has a pernicious history of providing a home to Nazi war criminals, perhaps my support of Paraguay is even more indefensible than that of England.

But Paraguayans treated me well while I was there, so it is into their camp I put myself.

By the way, anyone know of anywhere I can get a Paraguay football scarf? Other than Asuncion? Or would it be easier just to get a t-shirt saying "Beat me up"?

At 9:40 pm, Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Naaah, it's only a game.

To support one side because they can stick it to their former opressors is as silly or sensible as supporting your country's side out of patriotism.

Me, I'll be routing for Holland whether or not that is a socialist correct position to take. Sometimes politics can take a backseat to the simple pleasures of sport.

At 8:24 am, Blogger minifig said...

I'm with Martin. Although frankly, I couldn't give a toss who you decide to support.

Although I shall, as punishment to myself, support England, what I am hoping will come out of this world cup is an Iran v USA match - then I'll get excited.

At 7:24 pm, Blogger paddington said...

Panic over. I have found a shop opposite Turnpike Lane tube which sells all manner of Paraguayan paraphernalia.

A couple more comments: firstly, one chooses one's team because it fills an identity gap. I guess that Snowball and I currently feel rather embarrassed at supporting Ipswich Town, but we will continue doing so however badly the team performs (and even if Ipswich invades Norwich, which actually might be one of the few excusable imperialist adventures in history).

Most (though by no means all) people living in England will identify more with England than Trinidad, and thus will choose the former team over the latter. And if sport is merely another commercialised culture-industry, does the argument follow that we should ditch our Beatles records and start listening to nothing but calypso? This may be a very sensible thing to do, but I have never heard it suggested as a weapon in the war of cultural imperialism.

Secondly, during the 1999 cricket world cup, which was held in England, many Asians supported more than one team. I suspect many football fans will do the same. I intend to do just that: Paraguay and Trinidad are my teams. Sweden would have got my vote as well, except that I find them insufferably smug.

At 12:20 am, Blogger syndicalist81 said...

Great read Snowball, even though I am the last person to get excited watching or care about football. It makes baseball exciting.

I have had the same dilemma in the past regarding the Canadian men's hockey team in the Olympics and hockey World Cup. I never have a problem supporting the women's team who always win yet receive no media coverage or any praise. Men's hockey in Canada acts as the same nationalist glue that I'm sure football does in England. So I was quite happy when the predicted gold-medallist Canadian men's team failed to even get bronze.

If you haven't already, you should check out Dave Zirin's sports commentary (even though it is American-centric). He writes an amazing sports column from a far left perspective. He also has a book out too. Check out his site: http://edgeofsports.com - it also has a link to his 40min interview on Democracy Now.

At 3:35 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for the comments and links people - and if you have not seen it check out GOM's defence of supporting England here:


I might well write a rejoinder defending my position at some point...

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