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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 3, 2022

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I'm curious what folks here think about tankies.

I remember seeing a twitter thread during the onset of the Ukraine war explaining why Russia and China growing powerful even to the point of imperialism is vital to combat western imperialism, "someone has to do it". Whether one agrees that Russia has been constantly provoked by NATO or not, its difficult to spin Russian actions as "anti-imperialist". Similarly, China's land and water disputes with its neighbours. It appears both these countries have become a sort of canvas to project their ideologies. They often call western conservatives "far right" and often attack their criticisms of feminism. But how do they explain China's own censorship of feminist activism, the fact that independent labour unions are illegal, the push for pro-natalism, the push for masculinity training, etc.? I've seen many articles countering the stories about Uyghurs, but not much on the above. What really makes the "tankie ideology" attractive? I can fully understand and even sympathise with their gripes over western imperialism and even Israel to an extent, but I don't get the narratives that its all the neoliberals and the "far right" against China, essentially projecting the whole issue as a new cold war of ideologies between neoliberalism and communism.

I just yesterday saw this blog post on the curious little "MAGA Communist" groupings on... well, Twitter, mostly. These guys are often called tankies, but they seem different from "traditional tankies", who would usually be orthodox Marxist-Leninists, in that they combine Soviet-style trappings to agendas that aren't all that radical when you look at them - China-style state-oriented capitalist economics, anti-interventionism, and anti-liberalism of the sort that leads to appeals to the right wingers (who, of course, are usually flabbergasted why someone claiming to be a communist would see a common cause with them).

I think that it's important to try to figure out what the Soviet trappings - and sympathy for countries like China, Russia etc. - specifically represent here. This requires an intra-left perspective since, like it usually is when someone adopts a melange of views that looks like odd or contradictory, it's about various ways to create your own niche and self-representation within a certain ideological movement. What I think that the Soviet imagery often represents, within a left-wing context, is:

MASCULINITY: It's not exactly a particularly new observation that, whereas traditional socialist imagery was highly masculine, representing buff workers hitting anvils, aggressive strike action, guerrillas fighting imperialism with a rifle in hand etc., modern left-wing imagery is likewise rather more feminine. Indeed, up until 1970s, men were more likely to vote for socialist parties than women, and women preferred conservative parties. People who wish to return to a more manly left find Soviet imagery a good point of reference.

GROWTHISM: Yes, it might seem odd to associate Soviet Union with economic growth, considering the stall in growth before the fall of Soviet Union, but one thing that attracted people powerfully to communism in the 50s was the idea and promise that it would create more growth than capitalism. References to Soviet Union (or modern China) as engines of growth aren't meant to convey as much a belief to goodness of state economies in themselves but a rebuke to "degrowth" mentalities among the modern left, and an ideation of a return to an industrial, material-goods-oriented model; this is also why the MAGA Communist types seem to be enchanted with LaRouche Movement, which likewise talks a lot about reindustrialization and vast, Promethean projects.

ANTI-ANARCHISM: Modern leftist movements often refer implicitly or explicitly to anarchist goals and ideas (ie. Occupy was replete with anarchist symbology, the whole police abolitionist agenda is straight out of anarchism etc.) This reference to anarchism originated in the 90s as an explicit rebuke of Soviet times. People who don't like anarchism and anarchist for ideological or aesthetic reasons, or because they just see it as utopian and unworkable, then refer back to the Soviet imagery to try to "banish" this anarchist influence.

ANTI-LIBERALISM: There are people who explicitly gravitate to radical left because they find one or more aspects of liberalism to be wrongheaded. Maybe it's the technocratic, there-is-no-alternative rhetoric often associated with modern liberalism, maybe it's because they have social conservative impulses they do't even recognize themselves, maybe it's just contrarianism against the current hegemonic ideology. Soviet Union, of course, represented anti-liberal leftism.

ISOLATIONISM MASKING AS ANTI-IMPERIALISM: For people my age (ie. 30s to 40s), particularly Americans, political understanding was often formed in the crucible of the Iraq War era, which has left many left-wing people with a strong isolationist strain, as a reaction to the lies and bloodshed associated with the Iraq War and an automatic rejection of all American interventionism everywhere. If one ends up on the socialist far left, this can then often be represented as a principled anti-imperialist strand of thought.

In many ways, these sort of "tankies" are another representation of what I've called "ossified progressivism"in reference to TERFs; a progressive movement of a previous era is taken as a lodestone in a quest to bring clarity to spats and differences within a current left-wing movement. While it's not conservatism in itself, there's a certain conservative impulse in this attempt to preserve "the wisdom of the earlier movement", and thus it's not a wonder there's also an unstated belief there is a connection to actual conservatives here.

To continue to riff on this a little bit, it strikes me there is already a more established Western intra-left movement that offers "traditional" left-wing causes like welfare state, trade unions, managed capitalism etc. while being more masculine than the current progressive left, patriotic, pro-economic-growth, sort of appealing to social conservative tendencies (less in the sense of religious conservatism and more in the sense of "why are we talking about gays and stuff when we could we talking about actually important things like economy and foreign policy?"), willing to "get hands dirty to get things done" etc, willing to work with the right when needed.

People supporting such things could be found in the Social Democratic parties of Europe, generally on the right wing of such parties. For instance, in Finland, such right-wing social democrats were the bulwark of Cold War era municipal governance in major industrial cities, forming "brothers-in-arms" coalitions (referring to the idea of class cooperation arising from the conditions of WW2 era fronts) with the Finnish right-wing on the shared cause of car-friendly, "YIMBY" urban policies designed to house the newly urbanizing workers and give them the comforts of modern life while also ensuring that businesses got their piece of the pie.

Of course, one thing that makes it unappealing or impossible for the tankies who might actually find it otherwise more to their liking is that the traditional right-wing social democracy was strongly pro-Western, pro-NATO and anti-Soviet, serving an important role in the Cold War coalition. In the US, these ideas were found in the part of SPUSA that eventually became Social Democrats, USA, which, as far as I've understood was then basically killed by Vietnam War making it toxic among American left. Many right-wing social democrats eventually became neoconservatives.

However, this "traditional right" social democracy was one of the victims of the Third Way, which subsumed it to general technocratic neoliberalism which, while sharing many similarities, was still different enough, particularly in class composition, to eventually lead to the development where the conservative parts of the working class that had found traditional social democracy much to their liking started shifting to right-wing populism, which has often recast itself as the new defenders of the welfare state and the working man (gendered term very much intended).