Tankies, Trots, Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, Anarcho-Communists…
If you are a social media user, you will almost certainly have come across some of the far-left subcultures which flourish there, perhaps watching their theatrics with a mixture of bewilderment, morbid fascination, and bemused contempt.
If you ever wondered what the differences between these various factions are, and how they relate to each other, you have come to the right place. I have become a bit of a commie-connoisseur over the years, and in this article, I will try to offer a simplified taxonomy of online Marxists. It does not aim to be comprehensive or in-depth, but it should be as good a starting point as any.
(subcategories: Stalinists, Maoists, North Korea fans, Hoxhaists, Gonzaloites)
Tankies are, in a sense, the opposite of the people I described in my book, Socialism, The Failed Idea That Never Dies. The book was mainly about people who claim that “real” socialism has never been tried, and that none of the regimes that called themselves socialist actually were socialist, in the way Marx had intended.
Tankies believe the opposite. They believe that “real” socialism has been tried many times, and that it has been a terrific success every time. They believe that virtually all of the regimes that called themselves “socialist” really were socialist, and that Marx would have approved of all of them.
Insofar as they acknowledge any downsides of those regimes (such as famines and other minor inconveniences), Tankies would say that these had nothing to do with the economic system, but were the result of sabotage from within and without. Tankies would also say that the socialist states which no longer exist have not “failed” or “collapsed”, but were overthrown by fascist counterrevolutionaries.
What about the millions who were murdered under various socialist regimes? Tankies would say that the numbers have been exaggerated by capitalist propagandists, but that, to the extent that it did happen, it was justified. The people killed under Stalin, Mao et al were counterrevolutionaries, and therefore, murdering them was “based.”
Tankies can be further subdivided into a number of (overlapping) subgroups, the largest ones being Stalinists, Maoists and North Korea fans. Somewhat unusual for the far-left, these different subgroups do not hate each other. They differ more in emphasis and aesthetics than in substance. Stalinist Tankies are also fond of Maoist China, and Maoist Tankies are also fond of Stalinist Russia. It is just that the former have a particular fascination with Stalinist Russia, and the latter with Maoist China.
The word “Tankie” was originally a reference to the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by Soviet tanks in 1956. This intervention was hugely damaging to the Soviet Union’s international reputation and killed off most of the lingering pro-Soviet sympathies among Western intellectuals. But a few hardliners kept the faith: the original “Tankies”.
The rise of a Tankie online subculture is a response to what we could call the “Teenvoguification” of Marxism, that is, the extent to which Marxist ideology has become a fashion accessory that people adopt because it is considered “cool” and “hip”.
People on the far-left have long thought of themselves as a radical, anti-mainstream counterculture. But at a time when literal fashion magazines regularly run articles in praise of Marxism, it becomes harder to sustain that self-image. How “countercultural” are you really if everything you say could also be published in Teen Vogue?
So it’s the age-old problem of the counterculture that becomes too popular for its own good: what do the protagonists of a “counterculture” do when millions join them, thus turning them into the mainstream culture?
I once saw an MTV interview with an ageing rock musician who spoke with some sadness about the fact that it had become almost impossible for the likes of him to shock. All the things that were considered “edgy” and “countercultural” when he started his career had become completely mainstream in the meantime.
That is precisely the situation that Marxists find themselves in today, and nowhere more so than on social media. If you are a conservative or a libertarian, it is extremely easy to provoke an adverse reaction, even if you don’t particularly want to, but if you are a leftist who wants to do that – what could you possibly say? Praising mass-murdering dictators is pretty much the only thing left.
That said: in some corners of social media, even Stalinism, Maoism and North Korea fandom have now become too mainstream, which is why some Tankies are seeking out more eccentric versions of their ideology, such as “Hoxhaism” and “Gonzalo Thought”.
Hoxhaists are fans of the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who fell out with the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies, because they were no longer purist enough for him. Gonzaloites are fans of the Shining path, a Maoist terrorist group operating in Peru.
The UK’s “Tankie party” is the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) (CPGB-ML), an offshoot of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP).
Tankie-adjacent Marxists (TAMs) are people who stop just short of glorifying Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung et al. They accept that there have been “excesses” and “miscarriages of justice” under socialist regimes. But they would maintain that those have been exaggerated, that we need to look at the positive side as well, and that, in any case, the “excesses” were the result of unfortunate circumstances.
Rather than overtly defending communist mass murderers, TAMs prefer to engage in “Whataboutery”. You think Gulags were bad? OK, but what about the atrocities in the Belgian Congo? Funny how you didn’t mention that! Are you a King Leopold II apologist?
The most well-known TAMs in the UK are Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, the former gurus of Corbynism, as well as Prof Susan Michie from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Murray and Michie are members of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB).
“Pure” Tankies consider TAMs too soft and unreliable. The latter, meanwhile, prefer to simply ignore the former. ?
Trotskyites believe that the Russian Revolution was a noble project, and that in its early days, the Soviet Union really was a proper “workers’ state”, run by the working class, for the working class. But at some point, the workers lost control over their state, and the Soviet bureaucracy became a new ruling elite. (Basically the story of Orwell’s Animal Farm.)
That argument was first made by Leon Trotsky, one of the key players in the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet Union, who later became a dissident in exile. The title of his most famous book is Trotskyism in a nutshell:?“The Revolution Betrayed”.
Thus, we could say that Trotskyites are somewhere in between Tankies, and the real-socialism-has-never-been-tried people of my book. Unlike the former, Trots would not endorse socialist regimes wholesale. But unlike the latter, they would not completely disavow them either. It is more of an “I like their early work, but…” philosophy. “Real” socialism has been tried, but it never stayed real for long.
Today, Trotskyites try to apply that same template to more recent events. Paul Mason, for example, offers what is essentially?a Trotskyite account of the Corbyn years. In his version of events, Corbynism was initially a grassroots-led revolution from below. But at some point, the grassroots activists lost control of their project, as the Corbynite bureaucracy took over. Other Trotskyites have made similar arguments about the Syriza government in Greece, or the Chavistas in Venezuela, or the Occupy Movement.
Trotskyites are essentially novelty-seekers who are attracted to the aesthetics of protest and rebellion. They are especially drawn to young movements that are not yet that well defined, and thus amenable to ideological projection. But as soon as the thrill of novelty wears off, and a movement becomes a bit more professionalised, Trots quickly lose interest in it. They will then claim that the movement has been “betrayed” or “corrupted”, and move on to the next cause.
Britain’s most well-known Trotskyite party is the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). There’s also the Socialist Party (SP), better known by their former name “Militant” or “the Militant tendency”, who used to be a Trotskyite group within the Labour Party until Neil Kinnock cut them loose. More recently, another Trotskyite group within Labour, Socialist Appeal, got the Kinnock treatment from Keir Starmer.
Tankies, TAMs and Trots would all claim the label “Marxist-Leninist” for themselves, seeing themselves, respectively, as the true heirs of that tradition.
While Trots and Tankies hate each other with a passion, Trots can get along quite well with TAMs. The Stop the War Coalition (StWC) was set up as essentially a joint venture of the SWP and the CPB (among others).