or, why one must never give up hope, lest one becomes an iconoclastic little Twitter gremlin
Studying imperialism is the process of relearning everything you’ve been taught. It is a struggle filled with anger and sadness, but also love and liberation. (Zhong Xiangyu, "Anti-Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Class Struggle", July 2019)
The following is my attempt to understand some of what drives "tankies"—broadly, Western apologists of authoritarian violence done in the name of anti-imperialism, decolonialism, socialism, and/or communism. (The term originates as a pejorative for those leftists in the West who continued to defend the USSR after it crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.) I do this through examination of a number of outspoken tankies, because America still has not gotten its act together fighting COVID-19, and thus I have a lot more time to engage in the pseudo-intellectual frivolity you're about to read. Go USA!
Also, for the purpose of this post, I am going to call tankies SLAMs: Stalin-Loving Authoritarian-Marxists, mainly because “tankieism” looks awkward in writing.
I want to be clear here that while I detest SLAMism, through my Internet stalking, which we shall call "research", I have found myself modestly sympathetic to many SLAMs. I am convinced that SLAMism is often a last-ditch effort to escape utter nihilism. It is incredibly sad to see genuine compassion for others, personal trauma and disappointment, and activist spirit twisted for the defense of any regime besides the one they live under. It is also extremely concerning for anyone else on the left; there can be no progress in our own polities nor elsewhere unless we all are able to agree on basic, universal principles of human dignity, lest we fall into the frequently genocidal logic that plagues the ranks of Marxist-Leninists. (But not all Marxists, for sure, which is why the question of tankies/SLAMs is so pressing. While I disagree with them about many things as a non-Marxist, it is undeniable that unlike those at, say, Qiao Collective, the people of Chuang are quite brilliant and willing to grapple with the ideological problems raised for them by today’s China.)
All of the information presented on the four individuals I reference in this piece is freely available online. I also messaged back and forth with some of them on Twitter, but since I did not at the time think I was about to write anything, I did not ask for permission to publish their words; those conversations also inform my judgments here, but are not quoted directly, and no specific information I gleaned from them is presented here. I deliberately chose only those who have availed themselves for public interviews, columns, or otherwise occupy public spaces in the Tankiesphere with their full names/faces, etc.; my goal is not to out or dox anyone, obviously. So, without further ado, here are your contestants today:
- Carlos Martinez is a Latino British man living in London. He is a musician and activist. I draw upon his Twitter, old Tumblr, website/blog, and to a lesser extent, SoundCloud and recent book about the fall of the USSR.
- Shea Rainer is an early-20s white college student in California. I've been reading through his Twitter, current website, former blog, and a handful of miscellaneous articles and interviews.
- Zhong Xiangyu is a Han-Taiwanese man in his late 20s born in the United States (he rejects the term Taiwanese-American) who became a Marxist rapper "Xiangyu". He is based in Taiwan. I relied on interviews on two separate podcasts (Carl Zha's Silk and Steel and Escape from Plan A), his music videos, Weibo, and this article.
- Sera Jade is a trans woman from New Zealand, now based in the US, involved heavily in pro-North Korea social media. I relied primarily on her Twitter.
prologue: things can suck here, too
if you are already a jaded leftist, feel free skip down a few paragraphs to part one, this will be redundant. if you are not a jaded leftist, enjoy these few paragraphs on why you should be (:
Among many, many other things, one of the more irritating tropes deployed by the Western right in response to legitimate, pressing concerns about the condition of the poor and downtrodden, etc., is a flippant "well, they're much better off now than they would be a hundred years ago." This is not just a strawman. The Kochs, via the Cato Institute, for example, literally fund an entire spinoff project called Human Progress, which is specifically dedicated to telling everyone that things are great okay stop being so dramatic! It's like anti-politics: don't worry about it, it's fine, and getting better, just chill out, and don't you dare vote to raise taxes.
From the perspective of a young American, the political system often appears entirely incapable of instituting reform or change. I personally remember my worldview being radically altered by the 2013 New York Times graphic showing just how little some people's votes matter (yes, I was partially "radicalized" by NYT. bite me). Now, I live in DC, where it quite literally does not matter at all. "Go vote!" often rings very hollow, unless you're one of the lucky few who lives in a handful of swing states, or Iowa.
The rationalization of the patently absurd reality represented by the graphic above is eloquently defended on the grounds of, and I quote, "muhh federalism," or sometimes, "muhh we're a republic not a democracy." Whatever. Call me a bad citizen, but I'm pissed that we exist in a system where a single Joe Lieberman can derail the public option and where I have to be grateful that I can even afford the insane healthcare premium I pay for a low-deductible plan. (I remember struggling to explain the concept of a deductible to a friend in Taiwan one time. It was a not a language barrier issue with my Mandarin. It was that the concept itself: that a working class family in the US could pay its expensive premiums and still be bankrupted by thousands of dollars expenses before insurance kicks in was utterly insane to him.) I live in arguably one of the most powerful empires in human history and people still die because they can't afford insulin, partially because said empire prioritizes things like underwriting Saudi mass murder in Yemen. That, my friends, is absolute bullshit. Full stop.
And don't even get me started on how we imprison as many, if not more, people than most authoritarian regimes on the planet, in real and relative terms, and often based on massively racist laws; or how we allow obscene sums of money to flow through our political system unchecked; or how I regularly get texts from well meaning Taiwanese friends asking if I'm holding up alright after the latest mass shooting (which have thankfully abated somewhat due to the plague, yay, progress 🙃); or how my rights as a gay man often seem to hinge entirely on a five-foot, one-inch woman thrice my age who makes a hobby of scaring the shit out of me by going to the hospital every six weeks (and whom I am still irritates at for not retiring under Obama). (SEPTEMBER 2020 UPDATE: Well, shit.) Ok, I'm done now. You get the point.
Enter nihilism. I argue that this nihilism and despair, for some, drives them to edify states perceived to be enemies of the United States. That is the only escape.
Update, January 2021
After having interacted with SLAMs much, much more over the last few months, I am increasingly uncertain about my assessment below, at least for some people. Xiangyu, for instance, has been described by Brian Hioe (see linked essay in following section) as a "blood-and-soil nationalist" disguising himself in the language of the left, whick increasingly strikes me as accurate. For example, Xiangyu—born and raised in the US—takes a frivolous delight in using racial slurs against Japanese people, maintaining it is an acceptable practice as a Chinese man because of Imperial Japan's war crimes.
(That slur is widely considered hate speech by Japanese American civil rights groups. The idea that the slur—one inherently tied to the history of American racism against Japanese in the 20th century—can somehow be reclaimed in the above manner is absurd. Imagine a Palestinian diaspora member using the k-slur to refer to all Israelis or Jews, arguing it is acceptable because of the Occupation; that would be beyond ridiculous.)
Back to your regularly scheduled programming.
part I: the making of a Marxist-Leninist (pre-SLAM, if you will)
Almost nobody, I would wager, is raised explicitly Marxist-Leninist in the Anglosphere today. (On the contrary, if you're Mayor Pete or Kamala Harris, your parent(s) might be Marxist and you'll still turn out as a McKinsey consultant and prosecutor, respectively. Go figure.) SLAMs almost invariably come from, at some point, the circles of the progressive or socialist Western left. As such, they are fluent in its political language of race, gender, sexuality, and class, while often wielding these concepts in ways that would utterly baffle officials in any of the regimes they idolize.
But how do we get from a center-left, or perhaps even initially apolitical, politics to full-blown Marxism-Leninism? Why are there so few Marxist-Leninists? (yes yes I have read Gramsci)
One interesting factor sometimes appears to be personal tragedy and alienation within the society into which one was born, not unlike how many might be driven to the far right, except less racist and dangerous. Many SLAMs draw direct links between experiences of injustice, racism, and marginalization in their home countries and the subsequent development of their political thought. Xiangyu, for instance, says his development as a Marxist began with a desire to understand his own history and identity as an Asian man (for more insight into this phenomenon, see Brian Hioe's excellent essay in New Bloom, "The Qiao Collective and Left Diasporic Chinese Nationalism"). Xiangyu states:
When I was growing up, my parents always told me that you can be as whitewashed as you want, but you'll never be seen as a real American. And, I mean, some people might think that that's harsh, or might think that's bad, but I mean, it's just true, America is a settler colony. Think about this: Black people have been in this country for what, like 400 years? And let's be perfectly honest: Are they seen as real Americans? [They're seen as...] a different tier. ... What makes us think that we're gonna be seen as real Americans when we've been here only a fraction of the time? (Escape from Plan A ep. 118, starting circa 35:00)
Not only did he appear to feel detached from mainstream US culture (he explicitly rejects the notion that he is an American); Xiangyu does not find solidarity in Asian American communities, either. In fact, the idea of a cohesive Asian American identity for him "is kind of like cultural genocide," and he is exasperated seeing others buy into it (Ibid., c. 16:30). "The Boba Liberals," in his telling, see themselves as connected "because the White man says we are all the Asian, and that we're all seen as them same in America," which he rejects: he argues that they are instead linked by imperialism and the resistance to it, "interconnected because we have common struggles, and we have common history." (Ibid., c. 26:00) SLAMism is a way to connect with his identity and family's past and establish a truly worthwhile community of Asians that does not "pander" to White American dominance. It is a rejection of "a white cultural directive for you to disavow your own ability to interpret your own history. To me, [this directive] is really just like, the worst form of propaganda and mind control." (Ibid., c. 30:30)
(While he does not speak much of it, the pursuit of his history—i.e. the revisionism required to lead him to an understanding of the PRC and DPRK as progressive—does not seem to have been immediate, unsurprisingly. Xiangyu does mention that his transformation began in particular in college, and that around that time, Chomsky—an anticommunist—was a major influence. (Silk and Steel ep. 31, c. 13:00))
Sera Jade also ties severe abuse and discrimination she has faced as a sex worker and trans woman in the United States with her enthusiastic support of North Korea, which she details in a thread from December 2019. She focuses not on "how badly I was treated by misogynists, johns, cops, government, etc" but rather "how my friends treated me, my supposed allies and protectors-not my enemies-and how that effected the others around me." She goes on to describe devastating loss of her advocacy work, company, and family, and excoriates a group of liberal women who made her life even more difficult by trying to "save" her from sex work against her wishes, a process that involved the criminal justice system. She concludes:
We’ve all heard stories of sex workers being sexually assaulted. If it was just that, maybe (big MAYBE) I could move on. But it wasn’t just me that was hurt. The attacks on my wife and child, fellow workers, the kids I worked with, my company, everything. Absolutely horrendous. I cannot forgive it; I cannot move on. But then I look to the DPRK where ostracism, homelessness, employment discrimination are all illegalised. They don’t have these problems I experienced in the US. And these comfort women Japan stole from Korea, when they returned home, they were treated with the utmost respect. Even when ROK still ran it's own brothels, the DPRK fought for these women against Japan. Never jailed them, took their children, or called them sluts. They gave them homes and retirement packages for life. How can I not respect that?
Sera adds in a separate reply in the thread: "I’d rather side with the state that protects us rather than the one that abuses us." What Sera describes is absolutely deplorable, but her ultimate conclusion is not based in reality. The DPRK is decidedly not a beacon of tolerance and light (the Wikipedia article on human rights in North Korea is actually a very good overview). The opacity of the Kim regime allows for the thinnest veneer of plausible deniability, one that also requires wholesale rejection of inconvenient counter-narratives originating from Western sources. The only source of truth is the worker's state, which for all the problems it may or may not have, has no conflict of interest, because it is, after all, a worker's state. It says so in the constitution.
On a less tragic note, interestingly, Xiangyu and Martinez, both musicians, are upfront about their grudges against the capitalist system that they maintain stifles true creative development. (There's certainly truth to this.) Xiangyu has an entire music video parodying the ruthlessness of the record industry and how it will never accept anything that challenges the capitalist narrative. Martinez, meanwhile, laments:
Even the music that was created by oppressed people isn’t immune to the supremacist ideology. Look at hip-hop: yeah, it’s a wonderful vehicle for commenting on the state of the world and putting forward positive alternatives, but if you want any level of commercial success, you have to portray people of African origin as violent, sex-mad, materialistic clowns. That’s what’s going to get you a record deal. (Martinez, "Democracy, Human Rights, and the White Man's Burden," January 2012)
(Martinez does this a lot; and while issues of representation and stereotypes in hip-hop are certainly important, it becomes pretty clear his gripe is with the system in general, which will not make his Cuban revolution-inspired beats go viral.)
It is not necessarily true, of course, that someone must feel staggering personal loss or alienation to begin down the road of SLAMism. I give the SLAMs I am citing here the benefit of the doubt; I do believe many are also motivated by genuine concern, however warped, for those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. It would be unfair, for instance, to say Xiangyu's politics are solely the result of his own struggles with his identity; he also cites seeing the blatant inequalities he saw in high school between poor and rich students as transformative (Silk and Steel ep. 31, starting c. 18:00).
Another common trait shared by all four, and indeed by orthodox Marxists in general, of course, is the rejection of bourgeoisie politics: a complete rejection of liberal democracy as a meaningful mechanism of political change. The liberal democracy is a façade propagated by a corporate, hegemonic media environment and naïvely, or even maliciously, propagated by the likes of pushover social democrats. It appears, though, that this rejection does not solely stem from theory; rather, it often the painful lesson learned by a SLAM from their own experience.
Martinez, for instance, is clearly still outraged at the failure of the United Kingdom to listen to the powerful, peaceful mass movement against the War on Terror spearheaded by the United States under Bush and Cheney with the enthusiastic support of the supposedly left-wing Labor government under Blair. Democracy in the UK is a laughable concept for Martinez; through his experience as an activist it has been proven hollow:
What about in Britain. Two million marched against war in Iraq - did the government listen? Where was democracy then? What about in the summer just gone, when masses of youth made it very clear what they think about racist policing, unemployment and cuts? Did the government start an immediate and wide-ranging dialogue? Where was the reform process? Or were teenagers sent to prison for the tiniest of crimes? So it is totally clear that the idea of 'democracy’ is being used as a fig leaf to justify the continued plunder of the world by the same old white western power structure that has ruled the roost for the last half millennium. (Martinez, "Democracy, Human Rights, and the White Man's Burden," January 2012)
More illustrative is the case of Shea, who was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 elections. Shea's prolific blogging evinces a tangible pain and anger at the loss of Sanders to Clinton, paired with a conviction that the primaries were rigged. Once Bernie dropped out, Shea placed his hope in the Green Party:
Can you imagine what it would be like to turn this thing around, to defy every discouraging affirmation that Hillary and friends have tried to have you believe and take control for yourselves? Of course you can imagine that. Such a future is right in front of us, and all we need to do is go after it like we're serious. (Shea, "100 Days in the Political Wilderness," July 2016)
This hope, of course, was unceremoniously shattered later in 2016. Shea would turn to socialism in 2018 and Marxism-Leninism the following year, inspired partly, he says, by Orwell, although he would come to view Animal Farm's portrayal of Stalinism as "childish." (China Rising Radio Sinoland interview, c. 4:00 December 2019)
part II: hope, really really weird hope
SLAMs are not the only ones who understand the hypocrisy and numerous flaws of liberal democracy, though. They are also certainly not the only ones to point out the massive double standards the United States and its allies have deployed in the pursuit of their foreign policy goals. But how do we get from this disillusionment to a Marxist to a total SLAM? Why not become an anarchist? Or a Chuang member, mentioned above? Why valorize the PRC, North Korea, Vietnam, the USSR, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, or Zimbabwe (which I'll refer to as the Savior States) uncritically? (Oh, and, uh... Hezbollah.)
Recall that SLAMs regularly turn their eyes to domestic politics with rhetoric and political positions often entirely indistinguishable from more run-of-the-mill anticapitalists or other leftwing organizers. They largely support Black Lives Matter, and are often very queer-friendly, if not queer themselves, for instance. These goals, again, are generally antithetical to the actual politics and governance of the countries they so vigorously support.
This contradiction is very revealing. SLAMs are not trying to achieve communism, I'm convinced. What they seem to be after is much more moderate, or at least, it was at one point. The structural obstacles placed in the way of the left in the Anglosphere in particular cause some to come to utterly resent and reject the system itself (and there is indeed much that is resent-able about it). The Savior States thus become a fantastical talisman that will serve as the basis for the solution of the ugly political realities of Western liberal democracies. Without them, there is no hope; the flame of communism, and with it, the chance to change their own countries, will extinguish.
Unsurprisingly, the Savior States are rarely real places for the SLAMs (although they may be invited on shiny tours). Rather, they are repositories, blank slates on which one can draw the world they desire without having to do the hard work of making anything happen. They are the best chance at halting US imperialism, the key problem facing the left today. Once that is gone, everyone will go smoothly; in fact, excellent progress already happening elsewhere, all we need to do is listen. In doing so, we will be given the model and method for fixing our otherwise unfixable country. For all the lip service to organizing on the ground, SLAMs believe the only way to change things for the better at home is to attach to these successful models of socialism and communism abroad. (Today, moreover, they seem to be mere shadows of the pro-Soviet communist organizers in the 60s and 70s.) This is because, whether explicitly or not, they know the odds are so stacked against them and the anemic Anglophone left that outside support, spiritual or literal, is a necessary condition for change. Consider this Tumblr post by Martinez, "An imagined conversation about the chemtrails conspiracy theory":
“Hmmm, what’s making us so damn apathetic? Why don’t we organise and do something about the state of the world? Is it the fact that we smoke weed all day? Is it that the previous generation didn’t give us the skills we need to organise? Is it that all this ‘social networking’ gets in the way of really connecting and building with people? Is it that we haven’t devoted much effort to studying the history of social change and how it applies to our situation? Is it that we’re too addicted to a relatively comfortable existence? Is it that the media is extremely effective at limiting our understanding of the problems and our vision for the future? Is it that we’re divided along lines of race, gender, religion? Is it that we’ve become so used to public bodies and corporations running our lives, we just don’t have much initiative?” “Nah, I don’t buy any of that… it must be CHEMTRAILS."
There’s an argument to be made that the same conspiratorial thinking that drives QAnon bullshit or your more standard tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist lies at the core SLAMism. There is a vast corporate oligarchy dedicated to beating you and your kind down, which is why you have failed up until now. It is why the Soviet Union failed, and why China is so threatening to the United States: unlike any other communist state, they have cracked the code and shown themselves to be a genuine threat to US hegemony. At one point, Xiangyu seems to imply it doesn't even matter if you view China as genuinely socialist; all that should matter is it is standing up to the US:
The biggest crime you can commit in this world is to stand up against US hegemony, and whether you consider China to be truly socialist or revisionist, you cannot deny the fact that China is a formidable opponent to US hegemony. The US has enjoyed this status since the fall of the Soviet Union. (Escape from Plan A ep. 118, c. 40:30)
Martinez echoes the sentiment, in this case in the context of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is not our place to criticize, only to support:
It really isn’t for us to make all these gut-feeling blanket condemnations of people and movements who have made incredible sacrifices for the cause. It only ends up feeding into the divide-and-rule strategy that imperialist states are always using against the rest of the world. Our focus should always be on opposing the main enemy, including these very sophisticated divide-and-rule tactics. (Martinez, "Why I Defend Syria," March 2012)
The support of the Savior States is inextricably linked with the prospect of progress at home. The Savior States are so transparently Righteous and Good if you just do a little research. That so-called leftists think otherwise, the SLAMs argue, is proof of the pervasive apparatus of corporate-state control that has a stranglehold on the population. If only you saw what I can see, then we could begin to defeat these sophisticated divide-and-rule tactics.
All of this is certainly very depressing in its own right. I'll close with Shea, who notes in his July 2020 post "Late-stage capitalism is making us feel worthless":
... when I see an injustice, or experience a negative emotion as a result of the way that society is ordered, I apply dialectical materialism’s view that history’s problems result from a set of contradictions. Marxism-Leninism helps remind me that every obstacle the system throws at me has an explainable source, that the events around me have cause and effect.
I often joke about packing it all up and moving somewhere with at least the most basic characteristics of functioning social democracy; the US can be absolutely exhausting. Canada is too cliché, and I love Taiwan, but it's hot as hell, so I'm left with, like, the Nordics. (If any hot Danish man wants a very tired American husband who can learn your language quickly, hit me up.) But I also try not to succumb to complete hopelessness; if anything, as meager as the gains of the left have been in the United States in recent years, they are still something—we have a socialist woman in Congress now, what the hell. That's so cool. Think about how cool that is, or you'll get depressed too, and possibly get SLAMmed.
This rambling piece is obviously only a very small part of what might be able to explain SLAMism. The desire for community and pride over holding esoteric, secret knowledge are other psychological factors that may drive it. I would also assume the greater the injustice and the starker the failures of a liberal democracy to mend them would correspond substantially with SLAMism.
Oh, and also grift. Some of those bastards are just in it for their weird fame and patreons, like basically everyone at Grayzone "news".