Everything you didn't want to know about the people who think communist empires are awesome
“The workers were really in the saddle then...during the revolution. Communists killed it long before Franco got there.”
— Old Anarchist from Slacker
In 1956, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in order to crush a revolution against the Soviet-supported regime. Some members of the Communist Party of Great Britain supported the invasion. These pro-Soviet leftists were derisively labeled “tankies” by other British leftists, for the tanks that were used against the Hungarians. Twelve years later, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring, and this time a smaller faction of hardline British communists supported it. The term “tankie” was again applied. “Stalinism” and “red fascism” are generally synonymous terms.
But these British communists were hardly the first pro-Soviet leftists with an authoritarian bent. In the Spanish Civil War, the Republican (left) side was eventually taken over by the communist faction, which took its orders from Moscow. It ruthlessly purged and persecuted many other groups of leftists, implemented authoritarian policies, and then proceeded to lose the war to the Nationalist right. These events are well chronicled in Antony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain, and George Orwell gives an up-close and personal account in Homage to Catalonia.
So as long as communism has existed, there have always been a few leftists who sympathized with brutal violence by authoritarian great powers as long as those empires had communist flags.
The Soviet Union is long gone, of course. But now, with Chinese power on the rise and lots of entrepreneurial Twitter shouters looking to capitalize on leftist energy among the youth, social media has been seeing a rebirth of tankism. It’s sad that we have to trot out (heh) this ancient pejorative term to describe a modern social movement, but this is the age of Twitter. So, as an amateur anthropologist of Twitter Tankies, let me share a few of my observations.
What tankies are and aren’t
Some people casually apply the word “tankie” to any extreme leftist, and/or anyone who defends the People’s Republic of China. But this is sloppy. There are other kinds of extreme leftists, including:
Anarchists, who have no use for authoritarian regimes
Very fired-up “Berniebro”-type socialists
Non-tankie Marxists or Marxist-Leninists, sometimes called Trotskyists or Trots
Various other very small factions that may or may not still really exist
Furthermore, though most tankies defend China, not everyone who defends China is a tankie. Some PRC defenders are rightists. Some just happen to like China a lot. Some are just worried that criticism of China will increase racism in America. And so on.
So in my opinion, “tankie” should be limited to people who:
Are communist (usually calling themselves “Marxist-Leninist”)
Tend to support authoritarian, repressive, and/or militaristic actions of the People’s Republic of China and/or Joseph Stalin
(To complicate the matter, there are apparently some highly esoteric disagreements among tankies over the PRC, with a few holding the position that it has abandoned the pure and noble legacy of Mao, blah blah blah. But I think it’s fair to call both PRC-supporting and PRC-rejecting tankies by the same word, unless otherwise necessary.)
On Twitter, tankies often use the hammer-and-sickle emoji ☭, the red pennant emoji 🚩, and/or the flags of the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. They often call themselves “Marxist-Leninist” in their bio, though as mentioned above they are not the only ones to use this term. Since “tankie” is a pejorative word, you will only occasionally see tankies using it to describe themselves; it’s more of a “you know them when you see them” sort of situation.
Some examples of tankies being tankies
At this point you might be saying “OK, so show me some examples of what you’re talking about.” To which I respond: “Nothing could give me more pleasure, except possibly dripping habanero juice into my eye.” But anyway, here are some tankie tweets, starting with the all-time greatest.
This tweet really embodies the essence of tankism. It styles China as “anti-imperialist”. A Chinese flag represents “decolonization”. The irony was not lost on the internet, who attacked Rainer Shea so badly that he eventually deleted the tweet.
But he remained one of Twitter’s quintessential tankies.
Here are a few more examples.
Anyway, if you managed to read all of those, you’re starting to get the idea of what tankies are all about. And you can see that some of these tweets, such as the last one, have somewhat high levels of engagement!
You can already see the basic outlines here. Stalin did nothing wrong. Gulags and concentration camps are actually education and jobs provision programs. China is a virtuous pro-worker state, and its repressive acts are Western lies. Etc.
For many many many more of these tweets, check out the Twitter account @HotTankie.
Tankies are a trendy youth movement
Some people think that the tankies are astroturfed by Russian trolls or China’s famous “wumao”. Others blame the rise of The Grayzone, a publication with strong tankie leanings that has been vigorous in denying the existence of concentration camps in Xinjiang. But while there are probably a few Russian and Chinese trolls skulking about, and while Grayzone does have a decent Twitter presence, tankism is more likely simply a faddish edgelord youth movement feeding off of the general leftist energy released by the politics of the last few years.
Since I’ve only interacted with tankies on Twitter, I’ll defer to the perspectives of non-tankie leftists who have encountered the movement in real life.
In one thread, socialist @QueenSorviaV recounts her time in tankie culture.
She depicts tankism as an ideology defined fundamentally by anti-Americanism. She describes a process by which people with some justifiable anger against America — due to its treatment of minorities or overseas military actions — slip into a deep and monomaniacal hatred in which America defines evil and anything that opposes America is defined as good. As she describes it, these people then cluster into a close-knit, highly paranoid, almost cult-like subculture:
Meanwhile, anarchist @rechelon describes some of the same social dynamics among tankies, but attributes their emergence less to burning rage than to a kind of social media entrepreneurialism. Here are a few excerpts from his thread:
Sadie Farrell 🏴 ↙️↙️↙️ @Marusya_1312Google's having trouble answering my question https://t.co/Wio3MMZmsO
If Gillis is right, then the emergence of tankies is one result of the failure of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Bernie’s whole sales pitch was “political revolution”, and when it became clear on Tuesday, March 3 that a political revolution wasn’t happening anytime soon, some of the young people in the movement either moved toward the idea of actual physical revolution (anarchists, tankies, Trotskyists) or away from the idea of revolution and towards the hope of political evolution (social democrats).
But like their long-ago predecessors in the Spanish Civil War, today’s tankies are specialized not in actually bringing about revolution, but in infighting against other types of leftists.
Tankies don’t get along with other leftists
Tankies fight a lot with some other leftist factions. Though they view Bernie supporters as a pool of potential recruits, they rail against Bernie himself, constantly calling him an imperialist and a false standard-bearer for the left. They fight incessantly with social democrats, and reserve their utmost disdain and fury for anarchists (who don’t much care for them either).
And anyone who would be tempted to call Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “tankie” — please don’t. The tankies despise her.
And when AOC spoke up for Tibet, the tankies launched a massive Twitter assault against her. Ditto the activists in Hong Kong:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez @AOCOrganized, civil, & massive nonviolent pro-democracy direct actions have been happening in Hong Kong, too - in this instance, to expand civil liberties & demonstrate against an extradition bill. Pay attention. These are hundreds of thousands of people organizing & showing up ⬇️ https://t.co/UxELVqhJam
Remember, tankies are optimized for infighting. Anarchists are their chief rival for the mantle of revolutionary vanguard (and a far more credible bearer of that mantle, since anarchists actually fight in the streets while tankies’ idea of revolution is to plant a Chinese flag in front of a courthouse). Bernie and AOC are popular, which makes them appealing targets; tankies can get attention by attacking them. And social democrats, to tankies, are merely capitalist pigs who happen to wander into their mentions.
Naturally this makes the tankies plenty of enemies, but that’s what they thrive on.
Oh, and tankies HATE George Orwell. Burning, seething hate.
Why do we care about tankies?
Tankies are not a danger to the Republic. Although anti-American sentiment has grown in the U.S., it’s nowhere near the point where an ideology that paints America as Great Satan will have broad appeal. Nor are social justice-minded American activists likely to embrace the memory of Joseph Stalin. No politician in the U.S. federal government has ideas that could be even remotely described as tankie. Even when Stalin himself was going around looking for tankies to promote, he found only a few outside of situations of desperate civil war.
Believe it or not, most can easily recognize that empires with red flags are still empires.
In fact, in the U.S., tankies are primarily a threat to the newly emergent American left. Not only do they take up the left’s time and energy with constant infighting, but they give the entire left a bad image in the eyes of the general public. The average normie Twitter user probably only very dimly understands the difference between tankies and other leftists, and conservatives are happy to conflate the two. Just as center-left liberals often spend our time getting pincer-attacked by socialists and conservatives, now socialists must spend their time getting pincer-attacked by tankies and conservatives. Whee!
Tankies do illustrate some of the ways that Twitter hurts political discourse, however. The fact that a couple thousand people can terrorize large segments of left Twitter demonstrates that the discussion platform is a huge force multiplier for loud extremists with lots of free time. A couple thousand people is absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of electoral politics, but when they’re all screaming at you in your mentions, it feels like a vast army. Twitter’s political function is to gather bands of like-minded crazies from all over the world and concentrate them directly into the mindspace of journalists and politicians. We should really have a deep and long conversation about whether this is a healthy thing for any society.
By the way, remember that if you like this blog, you can subscribe here! There’s a free email list and a paid subscription too!