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John Hobson argues that sport plays an important part in British imperialism for all classes and that the “spirit of adventure” is now played out in the colonies (1902)

John A. Hobson (1858-1940) was a supporter of the free trade and anti-imperialist ideas of Richard Cobden (1804-1865) and bitterly opposed the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902). He argued that there was a strong connection between sport and empire in England:

This “spirit of adventure,” especially in the Anglo-Saxon, has taken the shape of “sport,” which in its stronger or “more adventurous” forms involves a direct appeal to the lust of slaughter and the crude struggle for life involved in pursuit. The animal lust of struggle, once a necessity, survives in the blood, and just in proportion as a nation or a class has a margin of energy and leisure from the activities of peaceful industry, it craves satisfaction through “sport,” in which hunting and the physical satisfaction of striking a blow are vital ingredients. The leisured classes in Great Britain, having most of their energy liberated from the necessity of work, naturally specialise on “sport,” the hygienic necessity of a substitute for work helping to support or coalescing with the survival of a savage instinct. As the milder expressions of this passion are alone permissible in the sham or artificial encounters of domestic sports, where wild game disappears and human conflicts more mortal than football are prohibited, there is an ever stronger pressure to the frontiers of civilisation in order that the thwarted “spirit of adventure” may have strong, free play.

The controlling and directing agent of the whole process, as we have seen, is the pressure of financial and industrial motives, operated for the direct, short-range, material interests of small, able, and well-organised groups in a nation. These groups secure the active co-operation of statesmen and of political cliques who wield the power of “parties” partly by associating them directly in their business schemes, partly by appealing to the conservative instincts of members of the possessing classes, whose vested interests and class dominance are best preserved by diverting the currents of political energy from domestic on to foreign politics. The acquiescence, even the active and enthusiastic support, of the body of a nation in a course of policy fatal to its own true interests is secured partly by appeals to the mission of civilisation, but chiefly by playing upon the primitive instincts of the race.

The psychology of these instincts is not easy to explore, but certain prime factors easily appear. The passion which a French writer describes as kilometritis, or milo-mania, the instinct for control of land, drives back to the earliest times when a wide range of land was necessary for a food supply for men or cattle, and is linked on to the “trek” habit, which survives more powerfully than is commonly supposed in civilised peoples. The “nomadic” habit bred of necessity survives as a chief ingredient in the love of travel, and merges into “the spirit of adventure” when it meets other equally primitive passions. This “spirit of adventure,” especially in the Anglo-Saxon, has taken the shape of “sport,” which in its stronger or “more adventurous” forms involves a direct appeal to the lust of slaughter and the crude struggle for life involved in pursuit. The animal lust of struggle, once a necessity, survives in the blood, and just in proportion as a nation or a class has a margin of energy and leisure from the activities of peaceful industry, it craves satisfaction through “sport,” in which hunting and the physical satisfaction of striking a blow are vital ingredients. The leisured classes in Great Britain, having most of their energy liberated from the necessity of work, naturally specialise on “sport,” the hygienic necessity of a substitute for work helping to support or coalescing with the survival of a savage instinct. As the milder expressions of this passion are alone permissible in the sham or artificial encounters of domestic sports, where wild game disappears and human conflicts more mortal than football are prohibited, there is an ever stronger pressure to the frontiers of civilisation in order that the thwarted “spirit of adventure” may have strong, free play. These feelings are fed by a flood of the literature of travel and of imaginative writing, the security and monotony of the ordinary civilised routine imparting an ever-growing fascination to the wilder portions of the earth. The milder satisfactions afforded by sport to the upper classes in their ample leisure at home are imitated by the industrial masses, whose time and energy for recreation have been growing, and who, in their passage from rural to town conditions, have never abandoned the humbler sports of feudal country life to which from time immemorial they had been addicted.” Football is a good game, but better than it, better than any other game, is that of man-hunting.”

The sporting and military aspects of Imperialism form, therefore, a very powerful basis of popular appeal. The desire to pursue and kill either big game or other men can only be satisfied by expansion and militarism. It may indeed be safely said that the reason why our army is so inefficient in its officers, as compared with its rank and file, is that at a time when serious scientific preparation and selection are required for an intellectual profession, most British officers choose the army and undertake its work in the spirit of “sport.” While the average “Tommy” is perhaps actuated in the main by similar motives, “science” matters less in his case, and any lack of serious professional purpose is more largely compensated by the discipline imposed on him.

But still more important than these supports of militarism in the army is the part played by “war” as a support of Imperialism in the non-combatant body of the nation. Though the active appeal of “sport” is still strong, even among townsmen, clear signs are visible of a degradation of this active interest of the participant into the idle excitement of the spectator. How far sport has thus degenerated may be measured by the substitution everywhere of a specialised professionalism for a free amateur exercise, and by the growth of the attendant vice of gambling, which everywhere expresses the worst form of sporting excitement, drawing all disinterested sympathy away from the merits of the competition, and concentrating it upon the irrational element of chance in combination with covetousness and low cunning. The equivalent of this degradation of interest in sport is Jingoism in relation to the practice of war. Jingoism is merely the lust of the spectator, unpurged by any personal effort, risk, or sacrifice, gloating in the perils, pains, and slaughter of fellow-men whom he does not know, but whose destruction he desires in a blind and artificially stimulated passion of hatred and revenge. In the Jingo all is concentrated on the hazard and blind fury of the fray. The arduous and weary monotony of the march, the long periods of waiting, the hard privations, the terrible tedium of a prolonged campaign, play no part in his imagination; the redeeming factors of war, the fine sense of comradeship which common personal peril educates, the fruits of discipline and self-restraint, the respect for the personality of enemies whose courage he must admit and whom he comes to realise as fellow-beings—all these moderating elements in actual war are eliminated from the passion of the Jingo. It is precisely for these reasons that some friends of peace maintain that the two most potent checks of militarism and of war are the obligation of the entire body of citizens to undergo military service and the experience of an invasion.

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Like Herbert Spencer, Hobson is very critical of the connections he sees between sport and anti-liberal sentiments; and like Robert Nisbet, he sees violent sport as an outlet for aggressive and martial spirits. The twist he provides is that he sees the “leisured class” in England at first seeking sport at home as an outlet for their hunting instincts and later, transferring this to the outposts of the Empire, such as South Africa. He also sees the role played by the working class in their “jingoistic” support for war as a kind of spectator sport of the empire. He pessimistically concludes his analysis by saying that the only way to wean the people off their love of war is either to introduce conscription or for them to experience directly the horrors of an invasion: “It is precisely for these reasons that some friends of peace maintain that the two most potent checks of militarism and of war are the obligation of the entire body of citizens to undergo military service and the experience of an invasion.

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