What is a Tankie? and why has the term re-emerged online in recent years?

What is a Tankie? And why is the term increasingly relevant again?

When the Hungarian uprising occurred in 1956, the Soviet Union forcibly crushed the revolution with military force in order to prevent dissent amongst its client states in the Warsaw Pact. The act of crushing a popular revolt with such violence was so catastrophic that it produced a rift amongst the “left” in western countries, who had previously been sympathetic towards the USSR.

Having produced widespread condemnation, those supporting the USSR’s actions became stigmatized by other left-wing leaning groups as “Tankies”, so-called because they supported the Tanks. The name soon became synonymous with those who supported the most hard-line forms of Communism or Stalinism, and thus became distinct from non-Stalinist Marxists and other socialists, who now constitute the mainstream left in western societies.

However, if you are familiar with online political spaces, you will have noticed by the 2020s the term has made a firm comeback across social media, and is frequently used as a pejorative again. Typically, the term may often be used inaccurately to describe people who are critical of the foreign policies of the United States or perceived to be sympathetic of authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China or North Korea. However, this application is misleading as it can be used as a sweeping generalization, and more often than not aims to shut down debates on specific issues.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a proper usage, more specifically, the modern “definition” of Tankie more accurately describes an emerging online Communist subculture which is popular amongst some young people, who openly adhere to and advocate the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, going much further beyond the boundaries of the mainstream left, and indeed having the same sympathy towards regimes which are otherwise deplored in western societies. On platforms such as twitter, those who are deemed “tankies” may typically have hammer & sickle icons in their handles.

If one digs deeper, one may note that many of those who actively with such a Communist subculture are moere likely to be people who are from minority backgrounds, and find an appeal in Communism as a means of empowerment for their own perceived racial or gender based struggles in the faith of perceived alienation, disillusionment or discrimination from mainstream western society at large. For example, there are significant numbers of Asian Americans, or transgender people, present within this newly emerging “Tankie” subculture.

When viewed from this angle, the application of Communism by “Tankies” is not always about “class struggle” and “capitalism” as much as it is a more extreme manifestation of identity politics. Many “tankies”, such as those from Korean or Chinese backgrounds, tend to forge emotional links with Communist states of their ethnic origin, such as China PRC, or North Korea, of which they then vest themselves into the concept of struggle against “Western Imperialism” as a whole through the experience of those particular countries. This is also applicable to Latin Americans, as well as some African Americans too, stemming from the legacy of anti-racial and slavery struggle and figures such as Malcolm X who had ties to the Communist world in the 1960s.

Thus, rather than just being a simple insult, this perspective helps us understand that the phenomenon of “tankies” can also be a commentary on the distribution of power and equality in a given society in terms of race, opportunity and identity. Ideology after all, is not something abstract and detached from the realities of life after all, it can often reflect people’s interests, needs, perspectives and the alignment of “us vs. them”. This is why it may be unthinkable for your average American or British white individual to be attracted to Communism, but it is a real sentiment for an ethnic minority who’s background has never had the same sense of privilege, normality or worldview.

This also should remind us of something else: That the non-west has also suffered significantly at the hands of the west, historically, and while it may be tempting for mainstream liberals owing how they see authoritarian states because of their oppressive politics, it is incorrect to taint every single person who has grievances with the foreign policies of the United States. The term tankie has become a useful stick to hit certain groups with, and while it may find a worthy and accurate implementation among some, its status as an insult does no favours in explaining the sociological realities as to why some may be still attracted to Communism, something which owing to the legacy of the Cold War, the politics of Stalin and Mao, etc is unthinkable for the political mainstream in the west.

Ultimately, what is seen as a misguided utopian leading to great evil by most people in the west, still remains an icon of liberation, equality and anti-colonialism for others who’s heritage stems beyond the comforts of the “first world”.