Amber A’Lee Frost had an article published on The Baffler yesterday, “Flakes alive! On not attending the Left Forum.” It is, among other things, a hilarious send-up of the weird, wacky, and hopelessly insular world of fringe leftist subcultures. Plus, it’s extremely well written, so I highly recommend that everyone read it.
Not everyone was pleased by Frost’s various jabs at “tankies, truthers, and tofu,” however. Unsurprisingly, her piece managed to ruffle a few feathers. Some of the responses have been a bit more measured. Others, who were the butt of her jokes, were predictably a little less kind. But nowhere has the backlash been worse than on Stalinist Twitter: a peculiar mélange of social justice paraphernalia, Komsomol Manga, and Red Army porn. Edgy conspiracy theories — debunking the misinformation spread by the “mainstream media,” exposing government infiltrators and agents provocateurs, flagging “false flag” operations by imperialist powers — are also common in this milieu.
I know what you’re thinking. “Stalinist Twitter?” you’ll ask yourself, incredulously. “That can’t be real.”
Were that it wasn’t. Yes, it’s a real thing. And to those of you who don’t believe me, I invite you to dip your toe into the tepid kiddie-pool that is the tankie Twitterverse. For most reasonably well-adjusted people, it’s “an absolute shitshow of nerds and social rejects,” as Amber accurately put it. Reader discretion is advised, however. It’s not exactly the most enlightening experience out there, but at the very least it makes for some good entertainment. Welcome to the leper colony that is the contemporary Left.
Briefly, a word on the provenance and history of the term “tankie,” for the uninitiated. Amber’s definition — “slang for Soviet apologist, or actual Stalinist” — is serviceable, but rather imprecise. “Tankie” was an epithet coined on the British left several decades ago to denote anyone who still supported the Kremlin line after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Khrushchev had delivered his so-called “secret speech” on Stalin’s cult of personality and its consequences earlier in the year, but the tanks rolling into Budapest signaled a quite obvious return to form.
So to be clear, the term isn’t necessarily anti-Marxist or anti-communist: it’s anti-Stalinist, and anti-Maoist insofar as Mao continued to defend and draw upon Stalin’s legacy. For Marxists like me, or indeed anyone of a more Trotskyist or left communist persuasion, the term is inoffensive. The same goes for nondenominational socialists like Amber, whose membership in the DSA is openly admitted in her article (though Frost’s critics continue to point this out as if it’s some earth-shattering revelation). Personally, I have my issues with the DSA’s mild-mannered Menshevism and tailing of Bernie Sanders. But compared to the old guard Stalinists in the CP-USA, who’ve backed the Democrats in every major national election since the seventies, DSA cadre end up looking like urban guerrillas. Don’t forget that Lenin, too, was for most of his political career a Social Democrat.
I feel it is necessary to point this out, since some self-proclaimed Stalinists have expressed consternation and confusion over the “tankie” label. One young member of the Stalinist Twitter crowd has even gone so far as to suggest that the term “increasingly [just] means ‘principled anti-imperialist’.” Maybe so, if anti-imperialism means mindlessly boosting Putin, Assad, and the late Colonel Gaddafi against local insurrections of various ideological flavors. But I’ve opposed every U.S. military intervention during my lifetime, without at the same time lending support to tin-pot dictators and their henchmen who proclaim themselves “anti-imperialists.” So what would I know about anti-imperialism?
Anyway, it’s not as if they don’t resort to petty name-calling themselves. The Twitter Stalinists seem to oscillate wildly between Third Period-style accusations of “social fascism” (whereby any socialist or communist who disagrees with them is immediately branded “no better” than fascists) and Dmitrov-era popfront calls for unity and discipline (so as to keep up comradely appearances, or else rationalize coalitions with reactionary religious groups). Moreover, it’s hard not to laugh at all the tankie tears shed about being “purged,” considering their continued outspoken admiration for Stalin, who had more communists killed and imprisoned than any right-wing, red-baiting American politician. And when these Twitter Stalinists worry about being “purged,” what they really mean is they fear their panels won’t pass muster and be accepted. Not purged in the time-tested tankie sense of a show trial in front of Yezhov or Beria, followed by either an NKVD bullet to the back of the head or decades of frostbitten exile in some remote corner of the GULag archipelago.
Queen tankie Molly Klein — a fabulously rich heiress who grew up next to the Toscanini mansion on Wave Hill, daughter of the dude who invented PlayboyTV — routinely smears anyone who crosses her as “racist,” including the young black DSA member, Douglas Williams. Klein, alias RedKahina and numerous other sock-puppet accounts and anonymous online handles, has charged me on multiple occasions with antisemitism and antiziganism, despite my own Jewish and Roma ancestry. Now that Amber dared to make fun of her paranoiac panel from last year, accusing the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek of being a CIA plant and psyop, they’ve begun making borderline misogynist remarks like “Amber Frost has to be a porn name” and “yuk, Frost wanders through the Left Forum like a dog with her tongue out thinking ‘whose leg can I hump?’.” Tarzie, the self-described “rancid honeytrap,” hoped that Amber would be hit by a bus. Charming lot, truly.
Regarding that last point, on pseudo-leftoid paranoia and farfetched explanations of geopolitical events, I’d like to say a few words about the Twitter Stalinists’ impotent outrage at being categorized “conspiracy theorists.” Indeed, there is a great deal of overlap between tankies and truthers, as Amber hints in her piece. Let’s take a look at one spirited defense of conspiratorial explanations:
My favorite so far in the outpouring of Frost-inspired dumbness is this tweet from one of Twitter’s most lovable “Marxists”: Conspiracy theories are a class enemy. Of course we hear variations on this all the time on the Left, among people desperate to align themselves with the serious people for good radical reasons, no matter how blatantly non-analytical it requires them to be. A variation on the above is that conspiracy theories “ignore/obfuscate systemic analysis,” which if you haven’t noticed is a concept that’s all the rage among people who like to tell people to shut up in fancy schmancy ways, not just about conspiracies.
Or, further, the aptly-named “barfo marx” alleging that “…’conspiracy theorist’…has very racist connotations,” to which Molly Klein cheerfully adds: “Yes it literally means you are as likely to be behind nefarious acts as people of color.” Klein has said more or less the same thing many times before: “Literally failing to believe any accusation a powerful white person makes without evidence against uppity [persons of color] is conspiracy theory.” Understandable that they’d want to insulate themselves against accusations of “conspiracy theory.” Her comrade-in-Twitter-combat, Karen McRae, speculated after the Charlie Hebdo massacre that the whole thing had been a false flag operation carried out by Mossad. Go figure.
Figures like Marx and Lenin usually mentioned “conspiracy” [Konspiration or конспирация, respectively] only in denouncing anarchist tactics, occasionally in characterizing the open international collaborations against Bolshevik power. Sometimes they would poetically invoke the conspiration de silence surrounding this or that radical work, like Marx’s Capital. Lenin was aware of Okhrana agents inside the RSDLP, but did not seek to explain historical events with recourse to “conspiracy.” Indeed, he pointed out that this was in fact rhetorical trope of the Right — “a method repeatedly used by counter-revolutionaries: the charge of conspiracy.”
But conspiratorial explanations are easier than searching for the large-scale, anonymous structural dynamics that allow groups and individuals to carry out specific deeds. Twitter tankies like Molly Klein, Karen McRae, and Phil Greaves don’t want 9/11 truthers excluded from leftist events because they themselves believe the WTC collapse was a “controlled demolition,” an “inside job” (maybe carried out by the Zionists). Speaking of which, have any of you misplaced a shoe lately? Asghar Bukhari, the same guy who sent money to the Holocaust denier David Irving and praised him for standing up to “the lies spread by the Jews,” claims Mossad stole his shoe. You might remember his contribution to the Charlie Hebdo debate.
Conspiracy theories are convenient catchalls, above all.