Sport, War & Aggression [Letter, 1966]

It is suggested by Michael Woolliscroft (Freedom 16.4.66) that sport is wrong because it helps ‘maintain aggression, aggression competitiveness and ultimately war’. He relies on the (findings of psychologists to show that sport maintains aggression, but where is the proof that aggression leads to war? I suspect that psychology may today be as much an opiate of the people as was evangelical religion. Is it boxers and footballers who declare war? Is it even the despised sport-watchers who declare war? Or is it meek, mild, elderly men in striped pants, carrying umbrellas? Most military leaders of the Hitler type like to think of themselves in the same class as Olympic champions, but the truth is Hitler was much more like Chaplin’s caricature than he was like the 666 of popular imagination (that is why he hated Chaplin so much). Hannah Arendt was struck with the banality of evil when she saw Eichmann in Jerusalem. He was no Cassius Clay.[1]

The psychologists, or at least their popularisers, have too long identified national and abstract trends with individual characteristics. You cannot psycho-analyse ‘Britannia’ or ‘John Bull’; the nation is made up of vastly differing individuals. The causes that lead to war have nothing whatever to do with individual aggressiveness. Indeed, the contrary applies: it is precisely the aggressive individual who does not make a good soldier. For years the old-fashioned liberal-pacifist sought to convince that by training children in farm-toys and not playing with forts, we would bring up non-aggressive types who would never become soldiers. The majority of these, together with the majority of all others, did not resist conscription. They did not jump into uniform screaming ‘On to Berlin!’; they did not resist army discipline either. It was easy in England for someone with that ‘non-aggressive’ Quakerish background to have his conscientious objection legalised; some did. But let us face it, the majority who resisted conscription, either by objection or indiscipline, desertion or struggle within the forces, were the aggressive types, or, as the psychologists might have it, the ‘delinquents’.

We do not know how people will grow up in a free society; we do know that those who will achieve it will be those who are rebels in this one. It is not the aggressive individual who causes wars (to talk of ‘aggressive nations’ has nothing to do with individual psychology and is bound up with economics); it is, however, the aggressive individuals who do not take part in them. The tragedy of the present day is not the determination of people to throw atomic bombs all over the place; it is the conformistic, obedient, unthinking movement of indifference to the abstract and nameless organisation that can ultimately drop the bomb. And in this light we can see what troubles another correspondent, Keith Nathan, in criticising the West Ham Anarchists.[2] They have committed the unforgivable sin of treating politics like sport; of enjoying their opposition to the State; of aggressive disobedience. (He uses other words such as ‘arrogance’ and ‘neurotic megalomania’, by which he means exactly the same thing.) In ‘expressing his disgust’, he joins the ranks of the liberal-minded pacifist who might be a ‘critical supporter of the ideals of freedom’ but feels that freedom degenerates into a farce if you do too much about it.

I wonder if Michael Woolliscroft knows how boxing, as we know it today, was introduced into England? It arose almost entirely out of Jewish immigration in the Regency period. Previously, the image of the Jews in England had been of rich merchants and bankers, some of aristocratic origin. Suddenly, a large lower-working-class and impoverished class of peddlers came in. All over London, Jewish peddlers were kicked and bullied (as they were in Germany). A number of Dutch Jews introduced the art of self-defence, which had two effects: the anti-semitic agitation died down when Jews hit back (not out of fear but plainly out of respect); and the old English arts of self-defence were revolutionised. In Vienna, any number of middle-class Jews with goldrimmed spectacles proved the folly of anti-semitism, analysed its causes carefully, and revolutionised the world of psychoanalysis. Anti-semitism as it was known on the Continent disappeared in London. It flourished in Vienna as a popular movement (Hitler merely imitated Karl Lueger).

I am afraid it is true that in this competitive society people do not like the poor and unfortunate, and the poorer and more unfortunate they are the less they like them.

It is also well known that in the process of brain-washing, to surrender is to die. The State demands obedience, but the reward is often death. Keith Nathan thinks those West Ham Anarchists were grown in a bottle by the Home Office to ‘discredit’ the Anarchists; I have often thought of some carefully disciplined youngsters how they might have been grown in a bottle by the War Office to serve the State; I think I would settle for the former any day even if it were not West Ham Anarchists but West Ham United.

A. Meltzer. Freedom 23 April 1966


1, Muhammad Ali, Muslim Black American boxer and draft resister.

2 ‘More in sorrow’ [Letter] Keith Nathan, Freedom, 16.4.66.