The Running Commentary column from the September 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
This month there will be a vast sigh of relief throughout the land. It will affect thousands of small boys ruining their shoes kicking a ball about school playgrounds. It will come to thousands of people whose working week has stretched like a desert before them with no oasis at the end of it. It will be heard by not a few journalists who will be searching their dictionary for cliches to describe goals, fouls, deficient referees . . .
The sigh of relief will mean that the football season has come round again.
In remoter places it may still be possible to find people who think that professional football is a game and who therefore expect it to be conducted on the basis of something called “sportsmanship”. Sportsmanship entails not throwing the ball away from your opponent after you have put it into touch, it means refusing to kick members of the other team when they approach (whether they have the ball or not), it means suppressing the urge to fist away a certain goal if you are on the goal line in the hope that the other side may miss the inevitable penalty . . .
But professional football can have little time for such niceties for there is a lot of money in the . . . we were going to say game but perhaps business is more accurate. Not that many clubs make a profit on the books — it is more often a matter of wealthy capitalists disbursing some of the proceeds of workers' exploitation in prestige ventures and so helping their other enterprises to be more profitable.
The keen competition in football has led to the enormous transfer fees, now commonly at the £1 million mark, and to the unimaginable pressures which this exerts on the footballer who carries the tag of the price they paid for him onto the field before the expectant thousands, each Saturday.
Little wonder that football stadia are now places of such tension, where it is fairly easy to get involved in a fight, where opposing tribes gather to match their chants and their physical prowess and where myths about all these things abound. There is now, as we all know, a thing called football hooliganism — an offence against popular order which has a special flavour, its own presumptions and battlefields, its own vocabulary of combat. It is also an opportunity for frustrated youth to give vent, by adopting certain uniforms like a shaven head and seeking consolation and security as part of the hooligan tribe.
It is all a part of this, that the National Front should find fertile ground on the terraces. For some years now this odious bunch have confessedly carried their propaganda to the young football “fans”, so that racist abuse against coloured players is now a commonplace and racist slogans share walls in some football-devoted areas with those which support the local team.
This is not a pleasant picture but it is real. Capitalism's priority is the making of profit and in that cause, directly and indirectly, all other things are repressed and distorted. Beside the needs of the balance sheet, what we are encouraged to regard as the better elements of human behaviour must take a back seat. “Sportsmanship” (if there is such a thing and if it is anyway valid or desirable) implies a readiness to concede to an opponent, to play by agreed rules even when it would be easy to break them, above all to keep things in perspective. It would be laughable, to suggest to any top soccer club that they treat such things as their first concern.
Capitalism is a competitive system which distorts all it comes into contact with. The noble aspirations of “sport” have no chance in this situation. A society based on majority interests, in which competition will be unknown and even not understood, will take a very different view of such things; what we call sport may not exist in a co-operating humane system.
Meanwhile, the cruel reality of September 1984 sighs its welcome to the new football season and the distractions it offers, like an opiate, to the suffering, frustrated, aimless people.
His unrelenting left-wingery has been responsible for Dennis Skinner’s reputation as the Beast of. rather than the Honourable Member of Parliament for, Bolsover in the County of Derbyshire. Skinner is an undiscriminating enthusiast for almost every protest movement to cross his path; he is quite capable of attending a rally, on some issue or other, uninvited and then to steal the show with a hyperbolically rousing speech. He views Parliament as a place remotely populated by beings unaware of the reality culture of working class poverty (in which he may have a point). No wonder he entertains, or outrages, regular listeners to the broadcast proceedings of Parliament with his ceaseless barrage of quips and jeers. No wonder he managed recently to get himself suspended from the Commons for suggesting that Margaret Thatcher would try to bribe judges into doing as she wants. This was of course a slur on the judges who, when it suits them, insist that they can operate without any interference or protection from MPs. But even worse it was an attack on the integrity of another Member, and while the Commons will stomach all sorts of things — declarations of war, laws to intensify working class exploitation, archaic rituals to celebrate the dominance of the ruling class — they will not endure any suggestion that they are not all unwaveringly honest and dependable.
Skinner's suspension was quickly followed by that of Martin Flannery, another left winger, for making a similar comment. Any excitement at these outrages was muted by the expectation that left wing MPs are bound to get impatient with the established niceties of Parliament — after all they are there to hustle in the revolution — and so will sometimes get themselves thrown out of the place for a while. There are many precedents for this, for example the much-feared Clydesiders who came roaring down to Parliament in the twenties promising to tear capitalism down with their bare order papers: “When we come back," one of them assured the ecstatic crowd seeing them off at St. Enoch's Station, “this station, this railway, will belong to the people".
That kind of verbal excess was all very well; it was another thing entirely when another of the Clydesiders, James Maxton, accused the Conservatives of being murderers. Maxton complained, in a debate in June 1923, that cutting grants to child welfare centres in Scotland would lead to an increase in the death rates among children: "I call it murder ... a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money . . .” As a notably crusty Tory defended the cuts, Maxton and three other Clydesiders were suspended. There was prolonged uproar in the House; Honourable Members, after all, did not expect their complacency to be disturbed so abruptly. Macdonald, the Labour leader, sat pale with anger at the outrage — not at the suspensions nor the protest nor even the cuts which were depriving the needy children but at the misbehaviour of the Clydesiders who were his supporters and who needed to learn how to behave among their betters.
Well, that was over 60 years ago and almost all the Clydesiders are dead now, with little to remember them by apart from their protests. Capitalism has weathered their disruptions, their impatience, their demands. The railways and the stations, like the rest of the means of wealth production and distribution, do not belong to the people.
None of this may impress Skinner or Flannery but it should have an effect on the workers who give them support. There is no point in going to Parliament with a mandate to administer capitalism and then using the place to protest about the effects of the system. Throughout the modern world parliament is the seat of power, where the coercive state machine is controlled. If workers are to bring about the revolution for socialism they must organise democratically for the capture of such places, to change them from agents of their suppression to those of their emancipation.