Militancy and the Beautiful Game: An interview with Gabriel Kuhn

Gabriel Kuhn is an anarchist activist living in Sweden and author of an impressive array of histories, translations, and collections published on anarchism, history of the left, and sports. His energy for writing is matched by a passion for soccer as a longtime fan and once professional athlete. We interviewed him about his experiences playing for a living, radical history, and controversies today. 

You played soccer competitively at one point in your life. How did being in the world of sports as a profession impact your relationship and view of the game?

It had a strong impact on me. I was very disappointed with the social dynamics of it. There was a lot of dishonesty and deceit. I don’t want to paint too negative a picture, but professional sports is full of people with their own interests – club owners, sponsors, managers – who care very little about the athletes themselves. This is particularly problematic in relation to young athletes who are unexperienced, naive, and easily exploitable, but it can also concern older players who, after years of dedication, are nonchalantly dropped if they no longer yield the results required. It is certainly a world where performance weighs much more than friendship or mutual respect. “Camaraderie” is upheld as a value, but it is often reduced to a mere public relations ploy or even a means to force players into submission. There is also competition among athletes, of course, but I felt this was offset by a sense of solidarity that also exists, at least among some.

Again, I don’t want too paint too negative a picture, and there were many moments when I really enjoyed playing and spending time with my teammates, but the overall structure was disheartening; and I would not say this if my experiences hadn’t been confirmed by many other athletes I’ve talked to over the past 25 years. Needless to say, differences between countries and individual sports exist, and if you’re fortunate enough to get to work with people treating you decently your experiences will be different; not all owners and managers are bad. But there exists a pattern. Basically, we are dealing with a microcosm of capitalism at its worst: at the end of the day, competition rules and success is all that matters. To survive in an environment like this, certain qualities are needed: strong egos, self-confidence, high competitiveness, and a personality able to handle critique and even abuse. Professional athletes might range from devout Christians to hard-partying “bad boys”, but they all share certain characteristics; and if you don’t share these characteristics, you will have a hard time finding a place in their world. None of this, of course, says anything about the games they are playing. The games are great. They just need to be liberated from an unhealthy environment.

What made you start thinking about sports as a topic for political study?

To be honest, it’s mainly the attempt to combine two passions, in that case publishing and sports. I love putting books together, everything from conceptualizing them to working with the texts to being involved in the layout. I did plenty of zines over the years, and, in a way, the books are just an extension. When you work with established publishers you have access to more resources. For example, doing a book with over a hundred full-color illustrations, such as Playing as if the World Mattered, would have been impossible to do on my own. So that’s one part. The other part is sports, which I like to play, watch, and discuss. In that sense, it was a natural combination. But there’s more to it. I also think sport is an underrated subject within the radical left. Think about all the books that we have not only on political organizing and economic theory but also on music, visual arts, or even food. Where are the books on sport? And sport is a subject that millions of people, not least working-class people, are very excited about. Dave Zirin has almost a monopoly on radical sports writing, and he does an excellent job, but his work focuses mainly on the US and the big professional leagues. There is still a lack of coverage when it comes to international angles and grassroots initiatives. In other words, I felt that they were voids to be filled. Judging from the mostly positive feedback I’ve received, others felt the same. And there is an increasing number of radical authors coming out with writings on sports. Matt Hern did a book for AK Press, One Game at a Time, and Freedom Through Football is a great history about the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls of Bristol, a pioneering community sports club with a radical edge. It’s all very promising.

The IWW had some intersections with sports through members who were professional athletes for instance Nicolaas Steelink who you write about in Soccer vs. the State, but I’ve also read that the union participated in soccer leagues with socialists and communists in the 30s. Do you know anything more about the history and context of these radical sports leagues in the US?

Workers’ sport wasn’t as big in the US as in Europe, where the headquarters of both the international socialist and communist sports organizations were based, namely the Socialist Workers’ Sport International and the Red Sport International. Nonetheless, there was a workers’ sport movement in the US, too, and wobblies were involved in it, for example in the foundation of the Labor Sports Union of America in 1927, where they worked alongside socialists of other stripes. However, the Labor Sports Union of America was soon in control of communist agitators and became the US chapter of the Red Sport International. As such, it was behind the probably best-known workers’ sport event organized in the US, the so-called Chicago Counter-Olympics of 1932, an alternative to the “bourgeois” Olympics held in Los Angeles that same year.

Unfortunately, the history of socialist sports in the US hasn’t been studied much and plenty remains to be uncovered. In radical circles, we probably wouldn’t know about Nicolaas Steelink today hadn’t Dutch journalists traced his journey from football pitches in Holland to soap boxes in California. I’m sure many other inspiring stories remain to be told; let’s hope we’ll get to hear them soon.

In your books and interviews you’ve referenced briefly debates among anarchists that happened in places like Germany and Argentina in the early days of soccer. What were the positions amongst anarchists towards the game at that time? Clearly the situation has been radically transformed with the consolidation of professional sports as multibillion dollar industry, but are the corollaries of the same debates today?

I think that the critique of sport’s commercialization is particularly pronounced today, since its wheels have been turning frantically over the past thirty years. It was already an issue in the early twentieth century, however, especially with regard to the first corporate sponsorship deals and the betting industry. Yet, the bigger issue for left-wing critics was sport’s alleged role in distracting the masses from political organizing. The Romans would have called it “bread and circuses”, and the Marxists called it “the opium of the people”. Many anarchists shared those sentiments, and even those who didn’t often ignored sports as a supposedly apolitical and unimportant means of leisure. One of the most revealing aspects of the relationship between anarchism and sport is the latter’s almost complete absence from anarchist publications. But there have always been anarchists who criticized the rejection of sports as elitist and who stressed sport’s political potential in terms of uniting people, strengthening communal values, challenging class structures, and so on. Essentially, both leftist anti-sport and pro-sport arguments have remained the same during the past hundred years.

Each era seems to have its political challenges that emerge within the world of athletics that reflects the broader social conflicts of its day: perhaps it was collectivity and the anarchist clubs in South America at the turn of the century, black liberation and anti-colonial struggles in athletes in the 1960s. Where should we be situating things events today like the FIFA corruption scandals, Brazil and South Africa’s anti-world cup protests, and the Missouri college football anti-racism strike (to give a few non exhaustive samples)?

I think what we see today expresses both a growing mistrust of authority and a stronger sense of entitlement among the masses. People are fed up with corrupt and unaccountable rulers and they are not afraid to show it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t automatically translate into sweeping political change, as we are facing very complex power structures, but we live in times of strong social movements and protests, which includes widespread grassroots organizing. Even if common visions and strategies have yet to be developed to be effective on a broad scale, these are very encouraging signs. Luckily, challenging the forms in which sports are administered and played is a part of this process.

Are there any more texts on sports you’re working on now? Things in the sports world we should be paying attention to?

I have completed a small book about how, in the early twentieth century, the workers’ sport movement was tied into the European working class movement’s overall ideas of social transformation. The book focuses on the writings of Julius Deutsch, who was the president of the Socialist Workers’ Sport International. It will be out with PM Press this year under the title Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging a Militant Working-Class Culture. I have also outlined a book about Europe’s grassroots soccer culture, but realizing it would require a lot of traveling, which, in turn, needs both time and money, so I’m not sure when that will happen.

In terms of what we should pay attention to, it certainly entails the above-mentioned protest movements in sports, but also the increasing awareness among athletes regarding the corruption and misconduct of sports authorities. Sport’s international governing bodies are under increasing pressure, whether it’s FIFA, the IOC, or the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). This opens up exciting prospects. Imagine high-profile athletes coming out in support of Soccer World Cup or Olympic Games boycotts. It would raise sports protests to a whole new level with far-reaching consequences for society as a whole. Let’s hope we’ll get there soon.

Gabriel was born in Austria but soon began moving around with his artist parents. He grew up in various countries, including Turkey, Italy, England and the US, but returned to Austria for most of his formal education and a four-year semi-professional soccer career. In 1996 he received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Innsbruck. The following ten years he spent hitchhiking and couchsurfing around five continents. He moved to Sweden in 2006.

Active in radical politics since the late 1980s, publishing projects have always been a focus. In the early 1990s, Gabriel worked with the Austrian autonomist journal TATblatt and anarchist publisher Monte Verita, before turning his attention to DIY zine publishing. Alpine Anarchist Productions was founded in 2000, and distributes pamphlets to this day. Since 2005 Gabriel has been working closely with radical German publisher Unrast. His book “‘Neuer Anarchismus’ in den USA. Seattle und die Folgen” was named “Book of the Year 2008” by Berlin’s Library of the Free. Gabriel also contributes regularly to the Swedish anarchist journal Brand. He has three books on sports and politics published by PM Press including “Soccer vs. the State: tackling football and radical politics”, “Playing as if the World Mattered: An illustrated history of activism in sports” and soon-to-be-released translation of Julius Deutsch’s “Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety: Forging a militant working-class culture”.

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