2000s >> 2005 >> no-1214-october-2005

Book Reviews

Dave Zirin: What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.
Haymarket Books, US$15.00.

What a refreshing change to read a book about sport that isn’t a vapid (auto)biography of some ‘star’ or a jingoistic celebration of the triumph of some national team! Zirin accepts that sport can be used to stop workers from worrying about things that really matter, but also sees how the passion invested in sport can turn it into a site of resistance, an arena where some of the dominant ideas of society can be challenged. While this is something of an exaggeration, his book is still well worth a read.

Zirin traces various kinds of resistance within American sports, concentrating to begin with on opposition to racism. Professional baseball was segregated for decades; not until 1946, when Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, did a black American play in a Major League team. Robinson was subjected to horrendous barracking and threats from opposing players and fans, but his ability eventually got him accepted. His criticism of Paul Robeson and his support for the Republican Party show him as a complex individual who was seen by many later black radicals as a ‘white man’s Negro’, but Zirin argues that Robinson’s contribution to opposing racism should be respected.

Of course, integrating baseball did not put an end to racism. While still known as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali went into a Kentucky restaurant with his 1960 Olympic boxing gold medal around his neck and was refused service. Zirin examines Ali’s career, from reviled and persecuted athlete to his current status as ‘a harmless, helpful icon’. The book’s title comes from what Ali yelled at ex-champion Floyd Patterson, who fought him as a ‘patriotic duty’ (Patterson was a Catholic in contrast to Ali as a Black Muslim). He was drafted into the army, and his response was ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong’, at a time when there was little opposition to the US war in Vietnam. As with Robinson, Ali became a ‘safe’, almost establishment figure, but his earlier legacy is the one that many remember.

If Ali’s remark about the Vietcong is famous, probably the best-known image of this period is from the 1968 Olympics, when medal-winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists on the rostrum when the US anthem was played. As Zirin notes, they also wore no shoes (to protest against black poverty) and wore beads (to protest against lynching). They were stripped of their medals and sent home. Zirin interviews Carlos, who for some years had problems earning a living (his wife committed suicide in 1977).

Clearly it took some courage for these individuals (and many others less well known) to stand up for their beliefs, especially in the face of the general conformity of American society. The same goes for those who support better treatment for gay and female athletes. Zirin reminds us that people can be bigoted in one way but not another: American footballer Reggie White spoke up against white supremacist groups and worked to help drug addicts and ex-convicts, yet he was appallingly homophobic, equating gays with child molesters.

And what of class? This gets relatively little look-in. Unsurprisingly, most owners of professional clubs are extremely wealthy, including George W Bush, former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. Professional sport is the tenth largest industry in the US. Aside from a few megabuck-earners, most athletes earn relatively little, and have a shorter life expectancy than average. Baseball players have a strong union, which helped to increase wages and has a reputation for not backing down.

Zirin ends with the reflection that sport could be more cooperative, without the cash incentive and the will to win at all costs, with far less distance between an average person and a star. But, as he says, ‘This would require a completely different world.’ While his book doesn’t elaborate on this alternative, it should at least make you think a bit more about the role of sport under capitalism.


Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States. Harper Collins. $18.95

Originally published in 1980 and recently updated, this is the history you don’t learn in schools. Zinn, a historian, playwright and social activist, set out to write this book after teaching history and ‘political science’ for 20 years, half of which time he was involved in the civil rights movement in the South.

Zinn chronicles the passage of time from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 up to and including the election of 2000, cramming each of the 25 chapters with indisputable evidence of man’s inhumanity to man under capitalism and empire building. He spells out clearly how cleverly and craftily the ruling elite managed and manipulated their way to accumulating vast fortunes at the expense of the masses, be they indigenous Caribbean or North American Indians, black slaves or the mélange of European immigrants who became today’s mostly white populace.

He exposes the lies and spin and self-interest from the time of the first president right through to the current incumbent. He shows how fear, suspicion and discrimination were deliberately harnessed as tools by those with power to set sections of the population against each other in order to pre-empt them joining forces against the real tyrants. The steady march of capitalism and the two-party system, whilst promoting democracy and wealth for all, have their eyes set only on the twin goals of control at home and control of the world, i.e. democracy for none and wealth for a few.

This book is in no way pessimistic; it is factual and points out numerous examples of individuals and groups who have refused to be denied. Zinn cites heartening stories of resistance, protest and refusal to accept the status quo; so many instances where people have demonstrated their opposition to the politics of empire and their support of “people power”. In fact there is much useful ‘ammunition’ for proactive socialists here.

His final sentence of the final chapter, post-9/11. attacks, regarding the Declaration of Independence says, “Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world.”

The signs are growing all over the world, the people are sick and tired of all forms of empire, the world is ripening for socialism. Let’s be ready.

Janet Surman

Marx on Globalisation. Edited by David Renton. Lawrence and Wishart. £13.99.

This is a selection from the writings of Marx and Engels relevant to the global capitalism we are experiencing today, edited and selected by Dave Renton, who provides a short introduction to the whole work and one-page introductions to each of the sections. Renton doesn’t really put any of his own (Leninist) politics in his contributions to the book, which are kept to a minimum. The vast bulk is taken up with selections from works by Marx and Engels. There are extracts from the Communist Manifesto, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, The Poverty of Philosophy and Capital, as well as a few letters, unpublished drafts and pieces of journalism.

For the first section, on the world economy, Renton uses the ‘Bourgeois and Proletarians’ chapter of the Communist Manifesto. That Marx understood the long-term trends within capitalism to be global in nature can be illustrated by this well known excerpt: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned . . . the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere”. Marx and Engels were the first writers to understand that the capitalist society would spread and expand.

Marx and Engels didn’t use the word ‘globalisation’, as the term is a recent invention. Though many globalisation theorists argue that the world has now entered into a new economic era, Renton points out that “most commentators would agree that many of the processes being analysed today go back to the old international economy, which has been with us for some time. Such processes as world capitalism, market trade between regions, the growth of finance and new patterns of work, have been part of our life since 1840s, when Marx and Engels began to write”. Despite changes and developments, from the nineteenth century to the 21st century, capitalism is still capitalism. In the introduction Renton uses the following quote from Eric Hobsbawm: “Marx and Engels did not describe the world as it had already been transformed by capitalism in 1848; they predicted how it was logically destined to be transformed by it”.

The second section, on progress, includes a passage from Marx’s Capital that describes the origins of the industrial capitalist. This is a good selection, as this is the part of this work that is the most accessible and in many ways the best starting point for anyone reading Capital (it has been said that it is best not to read Capital starting from the first chapter). This section also includes a speech by Marx from 1848 in which he expresses contempt for both backward-looking protectionism and supposedly progressive free trade (even though in the end he favours free trade but only because he sees it as hastening the contradictions of capital and so the social revolution). Pro-globalisation folk praise free trade and unfortunately many so-called anti-capitalists make the error of advocating some form of protectionism.

In the third section Renton asks whether Marx and Engels did actually believe in the inevitability of one pattern of economic development. In the 1840s they took their examples from Britain and it is often said that they believed the whole world would have follow that lead. But in a letter to Russian socialists Marx wrote that he did not believe that Russia had to follow the English model in forcing the peasants off the land as the first step towards industrialisation, as long as the social revolution had taken place in Europe. In that case, Marx mentioned the possibility of Russia bypassing capitalism and passing to socialism on the basis of the communistic peasant mir.

The section on Imperialism counters the argument of some modern globalisation theorists who argue that world capitalism will bring the third world up to the same level of development as the richest western countries.

Renton’s book is a good selection of Marx and Engels work relating to the global capitalism of today and it serves well as an introduction to their thought. It would make a good read for someone new to Marx.


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