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"Tankyism" and Competing Imperialisms

The entire discourse around "tankyism" is about as scientific as a first year philosophy student making grand proclamations about physics and biology: it's a narrative that possesses no real explanatory power, cannot demystify phenomena, and exists only for rhetorical purposes.  More significantly, those who throw out the charge of "tankyism"––who see this supposed error everywhere––often end up endorsing another form of tankyism that is just as reprehensible, if not more so.

1: the mimetic binary of tanky/anti-tanky

What we end up, particularly in online debates about international politics amongst marxists, is a polarized discussion where one side endorses one type of tankyism (i.e. the right of supposed socialist states to role out the tanks and military suppression to protect their socialism, or the ghost of socialism), and where another side names this "tanky" but might even go so far as to endorse the right of imperialists to do the same in the name of progress––an inverse tankyism, if you will, that is just the same shit only done by the US or Canada or the EU.  Hence, the most rabid anti-tanky marxists end up being pro-tanky but only if the metaphorical "tanks" are imperialist.

You like those tanks?  I'll show you real tanks, imperialist style!

Take, for example, my recent post about the controversy around the film The Interview and the DPRK.  A commentator, clearly of the traditional "anti-tanky" way of thinking, complained about my supposed endorsement of the DPRK and argued that it would be progressive for the imperialists to invade and occupy North Korea.  They were opposed to the supposed "tanky" arguments that have been made about the defense of the DPRK but had no problem arguing for the necessity of imperialist tanks (and planes and sanctions and guns and troops) to serve some sort of progressive role.  That is, they were making the same argument as the tankies they were opposing, but in some sort of bullshit Second Internationalist kind of way.  The tanky narrative, then, overcodes the reality of the DPRK, producing a very unscientific binary: either you're a tanky who supports the DPRK unconditionally as a socialist paradise or you're some sort of "critical" anti-tanky who supports the necessity of imperialist intervention––but since the latter demands a similar material reality as what it is opposing (i.e. military repression) then it makes no sense to argue about the errors of tankyism in the first place.

Let's be clear: I don't think the DPRK is anything more than a revisionist socialism overdetermined by the siege mentality of isolation.  I think any socialist state that determines its leadership through some semi-feudal notion of patrilineal inheritance has serious problems; I agree with the assessment made by the CPC, when it was still a socialist country, that the DPRK was thoroughly revisionist.  I don't think it's a socialist utopia.  At the same time, I have serious problems with the normative first world depiction of the DPRK, especially since defectors have demonstrated that they have been lying, and the very weird assertions about oppression in North Korea that does not have to be proven because it can be made up by whoever and whatever decides to make it up. Good Lord, on a micro level, the controversy around The Interview is a good example of how unproven assertions about the DPRK can be accepted as common sense: we now have security experts claiming that North Korea was not behind the attempted suppression of this movie and nobody even cares––they're sticking to the earlier version of the story, using it for successive sanctions, without any counter-argument beyond some authoritative assertion that the FBI is correct.

Even still, it is also bizarre to me that there are people who will go out of their way to defend the DPRK as a socialist state on par with pre-Deng China or pre-Khrushchev Russia.  It is equally weird that some of these same people justified the rolling out of the tanks in Tiananman Square (as if these tanks were protecting "socialism"), or the rolling out of the tanks in Afghanistan to protect the puppet PDPA government in the 1980s… or even more bizarrely, to demonstrate how far this one side of the tanky discourse has spread, the defense of Russian imperialism as somehow more progressive than US imperialism.  Sorry, Putin is not a socialist; he is very happy that the Soviet Union no longer exists.

And yet the assumption that tankyism is some significant barrier to revolutionary unity, that it is a phenomenon that must be combatted before anything else, has led to equally weird counter-positions.  Invade the DPRK with imperialist tanks (which is somehow not "tanky") because imperialist occupation is somehow progressive!  Support the FSA in Syria because of Assad and Russian imperialism, that is somehow worse than US imperialism!  Endorse sinophobia because China is a capitalist country but also somehow worse than US capitalism so we'll hate it more with orientalist overtones!  While it is true that it is not an authentic anti-imperialist position to support the nascent imperialisms of Russia or China over US imperialism, it is also an unabashed pro-imperialist position to endorse the US/Canada/EU imperialisms as correct.  Again, it's a second internationalist position: it's a belief that some imperialists are better than others, without any reason beyond patriotism.  In the period of the third international, for example, there was the acceptance of a common front against fascism––and a justification for uniting with some aspects of the imperialist camp against other aspects––but you would have to work very hard and deform reality so as to claim that the DPRK, Russia, or China are fascist threats.  Indeed, the opposite is the fact: the world order promised by the US, Canada, and the EU closer resemble worldwide fascism.  And Russia and China are part of this imperialist camp as well; the problem is that, because they are still developing as imperialist powers, they are beginning to represent a pole that might determine the global contradiction between imperialisms in the next decade.

On the one hand I understand this complaint about so-called "tankyism".  Who are these people, and what is their understanding of reality, to claim that the PDPA in Afghanistan was actually a "popular" government (despite the fact that former PDPA hacks support US occupation along with the rightists in the former maoist movement, i.e. the ALO/RAWA) and to continuing making these claims, as ortho-Trots do, despite all arguments made to the contrary by the only revolutionary secular forces in Afghanistan now?  Who are these people to claim that Putin's Russia is primarily a progressive force in Ukraine, simply because the US interests were also severely fucked up––as if Russia is not trying to maneuver for its own imperialist interests?  (Interesting tangental point here: did you know that there are right wing US christians who are asking for political asylum in Russia because of their homophobia?  The most reactionary Americans who hated Russia during the cold war are now praising this nascent and competing imperialist power.)  And what about all the weird shit that is said about state capitalist China, or the very non-imperialist DPRK as a supposed socialist utopia, on the part of people who are just fed up with US business as usual?

On the other hand, though, the extreme variant of this so-called "anti-tankyism" is critically pathetic.  It is cruise missile socialism, as much of a radical charade as what it claims to reject.  It is Pham Binh and Louis Proyect thinking that it is okay to invade Syria and Libya, that imperialism can support a progressive mission.  It is Gilbert Achcar arguing for NATO to intervene in Libya, or Christopher Hitchens raving about how "Islamofascism" and supporting the most repellant uses of torture on brown bodies.  It is a disguised patriotism, the assumption that US and/or Canadian imperialism is somehow better than its would-be competitors because these competitors are not US, Canadian, EU.  (Even in the case of Russia in Ukraine what does this mean?  A weird endorsement of this particular imperialism's backing of outright fascism.)  It's a recognition that "tanky" defenses of revisionist or reactionary regimes hold no water, but assumes that the answer is the inverse tankyism of imperialism.  It's an abdication of thought because it results in the following kinds of judgments: if the DPRK is a terrible place to live then the solution is the US (where I live and I love living because, you know, first world privilege) invading and making things "better".  More importantly, though, it is determined by the same logic as the "tankyism" it is trying to reject: the ruling classes of nation-states can solve the problems of class struggle––not the masses, not revolutionary parties, just the tanks of some state or other.  Hence, as aforementioned, this supposedly "left" critique of tankyism is a kind of reactionary tankyism because the solution requires the tanks of the most powerful and unabashed imperialists.

Finally, the tanky discourse tends to leech the nuance out of debates surrounding socialism and imperialism where everything is reduced to a "tanky" and "anti-tanky" position.  Let us have debates about the analysis of "social imperialism" and whether or not it applies to x or y situation in the past rather than applying it wholesale under the auspices of an "anti-tanky" politics that treats Hungary in 1956, Prague Spring in 1964 [Edit: 1968, don't know why I wrote 1964], and Afghanistan in 1979 as identical… let alone social-historical contexts post-1989.  I'm more than happy to discuss whether or not the analysis of social imperialism is the best analysis (lord knows that, thanks to the poor concept of "three worlds theory", even if it was correct it was applied in a slapdash manner), but once the parameters of the tanky discourse are set it becomes rather impossible to have this debate––particularly since present situations, which often have nothing to do with the past, are decided ahead of time.  What is interesting about this impoverished binary now, however, is that it side-steps the more important question: what does the global contradiction of competing imperialisms mean now, at this historical conjuncture, and are we ignoring this contradiction because of the tanky/anti-tanky discourse.

2: a return to the contradiction between imperialisms

One of the classic global contradictions that marxists of yesteryear used to talk about was the contradiction between imperialist powers.  Lenin discussed this contradiction in Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism when he spoke of areas of influence, zones of control, etc. that partially defined the way in which imperialist power was deployed on a world scale.  This analysis was meant to challenge an aspect of Kautsky's theory of "super imperialism" that claimed that there were no contradictions amongst the imperialist camp, that global capitalism was a single hegemony.  Lenin's point, however, was that, since capitalist imperialism was a projection on a world scale of bourgeois power, then on one level it made no sense to talk of a completely unified imperialist project.  After all, while the capitalist ruling class is unified according to its logic, it is also disunified according to the very same logic: capitalists, though unified in the class struggle against capitalism, are also disunified according to competition, the very thing that results in monopolies (and thus imperialism). The global capitalist system, then, is a projection of the capitalist mode of production: on the one hand the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed masses mirrors the contradiction between capitalists and the proletarian, on the other hand the contradiction between competing imperialist powers mirrors the contradiction between capitalists.  On the one hand it is very unified, because all imperialists seek to export capital and thus promulgate the former global contradiction, and on the other hand the very fact of this unity means a contradiction between various national capitalisms.

After the emergence of the US as the foremost super-power following the end of the cold war, as well as various global institutions (i.e. IMF, WTO, etc.) established by this super-power to safeguard its global hegemony, there was a period where the contradiction between imperialist powers narrowed to such an extent that it appeared to vanish altogether.  Anti-imperialist theorists began to speak of something called "American Empire", in various ways (some far worse than others), as the new stage of imperialism.  Since the US had eclipsed its would-be competitors for a time some critics began to drift back into analyses that resembled Kautsky's conception of imperialism: a single, unified imperialist project––like that of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor––that had superseded all imperialist competition.  The rest of the imperialist camp was seen as being swept into the hurricane of US hegemony, extensions and puppets of American Empire.  Lenin's analysis regarding the competition amongst imperialisms was treated as antiquated; Kautsky's analysis, or at least something that uncritically mimicked it, was asserted as a valid alternative.

While it was correct to recognize that the US was (and still is) the ascendant imperialist power, such an analysis ended up blunting our ability to make sense of imperialism in the way that Lenin's conception of the problematic had allowed.  Not only did it reduce the global history of modern imperialism to a teleological march towards US super-imperialism (as, for example, Panitch and Gindin's analysis of imperialism does), but it also allowed us to treat the US variant of imperialism as the only imperialism that matters.  For those who focus on US imperialist hegemony, the imperialism of others in the very same imperialist camp (i.e. Canada, the European Union) often matters less.  Sometimes critics of US imperialism talk as if these other imperialist powers "aren't as bad" or "would be nicer and less imperialist" if they weren't "bullied" into joining an imperialist coalition of the willing by their US puppet-masters.

Indeed, the very fact that the imperialist camp was unified from 1989 into the 21st century should not be taken as a sign that there was a singular super imperialism but that, rather, the most powerful imperialist nation had temporarily succeeded in doing what all imperialist nations seek to do: achieve hegemony and direct the imperialist camp according to its own interests, which also might intersect with the interests of others who would like to be hegemonic, just as the most powerful capitalists in a given country seek to pull others into their monopoly.  Competition still exists, even if the contradiction is muted, and it is only because the game has been temporarily rigged that such a muting is even possible.  It is not eternal, and we can see that the contradiction is still vital in the ways in which Canadian and European capitalist powers attempt to maneuver with and against US hegemony.  For example, the fact that Canada was more than happy to enter Afghanistan with the US after 2001 but abdicated when it came to the successive invasion of Iraq was not a sign of Canada's humanitarian concerns but that its interests in Iraq, as opposed to Afghanistan, were in contradiction with USAmerica's.  Similarly we find contradictions amongst the French, British, German, and etc. imperialist powers in so many particular moments of imperialisms.  They do not all play the same tune dictated by the US: there is often a harmony, occasionally a dissonance.

The emergence of nascent Russian and Chinese imperialism, though, is demonstrating that the contradiction US hegemony temporarily suppressed is not unique to the imperialist era described by Lenin.  There is now the possibility of another imperialist camp, though also determined by its own contradictions, that challenges the analysis of US super-imperialism.  And it is this analysis of the global state of affairs, more than some simplistic discourse of tankyism/anti-tankyism that should matter for anyone who calls themselves an anti-imperialist.

By recognizing that there is a global contradiction between competing imperialists we should also be forced to recognize that if and when Russia or China counters the currently US-led imperialist camp we are not dealing with moments of anti-imperialism.  Rather, we are observing the maneuvering of another imperialist camp against the rules established by a would-be (but never, by its very nature, fully consolidated) super-imperialism.  These are not anti-imperialist maneuverings, and thus not ultimately progressive: they are intended to permit opposing exports of capital––competing zones of control, areas of influence.

Now it is true that some progressives, having conflated the phenomenon of imperialism with its currently most powerful representation, the US, occasionally make the mistake of treating a competing moment of imperialism as progressive because of the worldwide reaction the US (as the most paradigmatic example of parasitic capitalism) represents.  But it is also true that there are some people who recognize other imperialisms while being blinkered by the patriotic ideology of the imperialist nations in which they themselves function: they correctly note that there are other and competing imperialisms; they uncritically decide that these other imperialisms are somehow worse than their own, thus siding with the most powerful imperialist nations, and these nations' propaganda about their competitors, simply because they live in these nations––it's like a worker in Walmart believing management's narrative about Target.

What the tanky/anti-tanky narrative does now is reduce the contradiction between competing imperialisms to some moralistic judgement on the level of nation states.  It's three worlds theory all over again: one side decides one imperialist "world" is a better moral option, the other responds with hir chosen moral "world", and the discussion happens at the level of capitalist, hegemonic or nascent, nation-states rather than at the level of the oppressed masses.  When the October League, during the days of the New Communist Movement, argued for US intervention in Afghanistan because of their asinine understanding of "social imperialism" they were at least (though wrongly, horribly horribly wrongly) dealing with a contradiction between competing socialist camps––what excuse do we have now when we repeat this charade sans actually existing socialism?  The so-called "tankies" that support a nascent imperialism against a hegemonic imperialism are making one judgment about what imperialism is better; the so-called "anti-tankies" are making another, and probably more repellant judgment based on the fact that happens to coincide with their own imperialist privilege, for the very same reason.  And what would Lenin, who along with revolutionaries such as Luxemburg and Connolly, walked away from the imperialist Second International think about such a judgment?  Not very much: his point was always that the competition amongst imperialists was such that the masses were provided with room to maneuver, and we should embrace this room to maneuver rather than making judgments at the level of imperialist power.

None of this, of course, is to claim that we shouldn't point out the very real atrocities and reactionary forces some imperialists, especially the imperialists of the countries in which we live, produce and support.  The US radical should most probably be more critical about hir own country's imperialist actions then the actions of a competing imperialist––and it is worth recognizing that some who now promote a contemporary "anti-tanky" discourse are not completely critical about their own nation's imperialism in comparison to another's.  At the same time, however, it makes no sense to treat a competing imperialism, as beleaguered and nascent as it might be, as an anti-imperialism––this is a very problematical category mistake.

And as for the DPRK, that often ends up in the centre of these tanky/anti-tanky debates, it shouldn't even count since it is not even close to imperialist in the first place.  Whatever its problems, this fact should be enough to tell us that the anti-tanky who spends all hir time complaining about this regime that s/he is about as anti-imperialist as the average Miami Cuban.  Or, more significantly, that this discourse is so lacking in nuance that it has conflated anti-imperialism with regime criticism and thus demonstrated, as aforementioned, why it shouldn't be accepted as a scientific discourse in the first place.


  1. The Prague Spring was in 1968. Good text otherwise.


    1. Wait, I didn't write 1968? That was definitely a typo.

  2. are you suggesting that RAWA supports the occupation of Afghanistan? pretty serious.

    1. Not really. Their members run for the karma i government and I've mentioned this before. Years ago I attended a talk where one of their members, Malala Joya came to my city and happened to share the panel with a CmPA supporter who demanded what her line was on the occupation and she admitted, after direct questions from both him and the audience that they wanted to work with the occupation. Critical support is the best way to see it. As well as the fact that they're a front group of the ALO that, in the past, had no problem working with the CIA.

    2. I don't know enough about this movement, but Mariam Rawi from RAWA was in Berlin recently and she definitely opposed any continuation of the occupation and argued for an immediate withdrawal. I don't know if that excludes cooperation in some form while the occupation is there.

    3. RAWA has recently changed its position and characterized the occupation as a "failure", but not that saying it was a failure (as they do) means that they thought it could have worked at some point. For them, the main problem was the "warlords" and, very early on, they refused to even refer to the US-led intervention as an "occupation."

      But all of this immaterial for other reasons. First of all, RAWA is no longer present in Afghanistan society (not that it was ever a vibrant mass organization, it was always more popular in the first world than it was at home) since the ALO (which it is a front group for) has now decided to focus on its new front group, the Solidarity Party. Interestingly enough this Solidarity Party, which includes old RAWA members and also argues for "immediate withdrawal", is an electoral party that functions simply to run in these puppet elections; its representatives pose with Hilary Clinton and the like. So I really don't see RAWA [or, more accurately, the ALO] as being a force I trust as "revolutionary"… Especially considering its history of cooperating completely with both the mujahadeen *and* the US in the war against the Soviet occupation.

  3. I agree fully with the points of substance, but I think there is a mistake with the "tanky/anti-tanky" mimetic/symmetry, that actually serves to undermine the point being made.

    Tankies are a much more monolithic position - there are cracks here and there among them, specially when tank loved countries have contradictions (like Russia and China etc). But the opposition is more fragmented.

    In fact, a certain brand of what you call "antitanky" calls the positions you put here (and I share), "tanky" themselves, as you pointed out.

    Those are not anti-tanky. Those are bizarro tanks, an actual mimetism.

    Your position is actual anti-tankyism, and I feel we need to defend that. Yes, trots used to be the anti-tanks but no longer.

    It might seem like a superficial point, but it is not: "anti-tank" left communists and trotskyists should be allowed to exclusive use of the term and pose themselves as the voices of reason in from of wingnut lunacy. We are anti-tanks, they are bizarro tanks, and that is that, the mimetics are there, but the categories are different.

  4. >or Christopher Hitchens raving about how "Islamofascism" and supporting the most repellant uses of torture on brown bodies.

  5. Among the anti-Tanks we call these pro-US Marxists "Drone-ies"

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.


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