No tears for tankies

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.

29 thoughts on “No tears for tankies

  1. I have 0 interest in arguing with you, but I am going to clarify your mischaracterization.

    First of all, I didn’t mention Amber Frost’s DSA membership like it was a deep dark secret. I mentioned it because that organization’s longtime commitment to a perennially unworkable strategy and the tendency of its members to both make common cause with riff raff like Bernie Sanders and to misapprehend power so completely they think purging Truthers and vegans from Left Forum matters strategically is easily as unhinged as anything Mark Crispin Miller has to say about Building 7.

    I also have no particular interest in defending Molly Klein and my post had almost nothing to do with her other than that Frost’s mention of her provoked all the boilerplate sneering on Twitter. It was to that my post was responding. Molly Klein does not feature in my imagination to the same great extent she clearly features in yours, because she doesn’t feature at all. I don’t follow her. She doesn’t follow me. Same with Phil Greaves.

    Consider the possibility that I could dislike Amber Frost and her young fogey, purge-happy hippie-punching; feel mostly indifferent to Molly Klein; *and* embrace Michael Parenti’s matter-of-fact view of conspiracy; all without being a tanky or seeing Mossad behind 9/11. I’m not even a Marxist, dude.

    It’s complicated, I know. But I’m sure there’s a template around here somewhere you can plug me into and sneer at. Trust that my giving a shit ends here.

    — Tarzie

  2. I certainly bow to your superior knowledge of such matters, but could it be that “tankie” merely means someone who’s “in the tank” for Stalin, the far left, etc.? In that case it would be a purposely offensive term rather than just insufficiently precise. Still, as a quarter-Hungarian married to a full Hungarian-American, my heartstrings pull for your definition. I had never even heard of the term “tankie,” let alone considered its range of possible definitions, until reading your delightful essay.

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  4. “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.

    To the best of my knowledge, it was first used for the minority in the CPGB who supported the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslavakia in 1968. I first heard it used around 1976-77, when the CPGB was having a big internal dispute about the new edition of The British Road to Socialism.

  5. I suppose tankies are technically “the far left” but in my mind the far left is the ANTI-STALINIST far left — people who take their cues from Trotsky, Victor Serge (my favorite), Hal Draper, Anton Pannekoek, Amadeo Bordiga, whomever. And tankies are Not That.

      • Yeah, and you use that. Since ‘dagger’ is in lower case, I don’t know if it’s anything in particular. What is it and why is it banal? Like Arendt’s thing? Is it one of those ‘whiteness’ things? In which case, you tend to claim to be that, I had thought you made it up. I saw some photos of Stalin young yesterday, he had been handsome.

        I think some people are so knew to these people they don’t know that Ms. Klein was once ‘in good odour’. She was in a group blog at least as far back as 2005 called ‘Long Sunday’, which included Jodi Dean, Michael Sayeau, Adam Kotsko (the Zizek ‘protege’ who is half-theologian, I guess), Nina Power (she gets around and always has, rather likable), and the lovingly known ‘Mlle. Arpege’ lasted about a year (long for her to be civil) while keeping her blog Alphonse Van Worden and then Le Colonel Chabert. She interviewed China Miéville while there, and then left because all the academics didn’t want this redneck named ‘lustmolch’ to be allowed to comment. Ms. Klein continued to troll the blog after leaving and ‘adopting’ lustmolch, who constantly made filthy remarks to her, calling her a ‘putain’, and exploded everybody’s asses at one time once, claiming she was a ‘capitalist’ and describing how she made her money on ForEx, and how she ‘bought their eyeballs’ (she worked in TV in NYC herself before the inheritance allowed her to move from UK to Paris to Greece). She and ‘the Wayner’ (you know the one) trolled everybody, and even Ms. Klein was finally dismissed from that lofty Valhalla of ‘Lenin’s Tomb’. So she’s CHOSEN to be at the bottom of the barrel, where she imagines it’s ‘honest’. But she always did the truther number, and once told me that I shouldn’t dislike her for it, because she ‘hadn’t said anything about it for a few months…”

        But Mr. Jarreau is wrong to think these people are purely ‘powerless”; they try to do as much harm as they can, screaming their heads off at everybody, endlessly trolling the more high-profile younger journalists, not only Seymour, but always Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny (I’m not the interested either, but still..), and once Mlle. lectured actress Martha Plimpton about her Ideological incorrectness. Now they’re moaning that Chomsky’s deserted them, that the Gates Foundation is only stealing land, etc. Once Arpege told me she was having in physicists to stay at their luxurious Paris apartment that weekend, and that she would ask them personally if the ‘pancaking’ of the Towers’ collapse was, in fact, possible…But they do nothing but polemicize, and Ms. Klein defends her and her ilk against criticism of THEMSELVES by saying ‘we are a small, harmless group’.

        They are NOT harmless.

  6. BTW, I doubt many leftists outside DSA have any idea what DSA’s strategy even is. Michael Harrington died a very long time ago and no one in DSA is required to agree with every jot and tittle of his writings. Furthermore our members are allowed to publicly disagree with each other and even with our elected leadership. I realize this may blow the minds of “Marxist-Leninists,” but it’s the truth, Ruth.

  7. As a gay Leftist, I would rather be trapped on a desert island with the entire Tea Party than have to spend a bus ride with Stalinist Twitter. Those people are insane.

  8. Of course it’s extremely ironic they should whine about being purged. This are thr same people who deny outright there was any genocide of muslim PoC under Stalins regime. Over a third of the Vainakh population were wiped out in a few years after ww2, but talkies still regurgitate “collaboration” as scapegoat for their extermination

  9. This is a great takedown of 4 powerless people on twitter that no one outside of a tiny circle has heard of.

    To recap, Amber writes a piece making fun of “the crazies” at left forum. Said crazies get mad. This blog makes fun of crazies’ reaction.

    Picking on people with low-social status to define yourself as belonging to a higher-status group is fairly common stuff; interacting on the internet and twitter often feels like a non-stop high school cafeteria. But please don’t pretend what you and Amber are doing has any political value

    • You’re probably right. I just thought their comments about her (she looks “like a foetus,” “I wish she would get hit by a bus,” etc.) were beyond the pale and decided to go after them. But its value outside of that is zilch.

  10. This ought to weaken their idiotic asses still further, although they don’t ever stop (I had recently thought they had just finally stopped bringing it up, primarily after OBL’s killing–warszawa in particular got all ‘scared’, and ‘protects her tweets’). I spent absurd amounts of time fighting this ‘warszawa’ at lenin’s tomb and also Arpege Klein (the same) at her old places (always named after men). Direct quotes from Lawrence Wright’s fine ‘The Looming Tower’ made them screech and yell weird things about ‘the National Security Council’, which made no sense–they said Wright was in it, of course, so I was accused of being ‘Dick Cheney’s green turd’ in much more elaborate form than that, till even Seymour threw her off (despite everything else, he wasn’t THIS stupid , and pointed out, among other things, Rumsfeld’s presence in the Pentagon. I had a friend who died in the plane crash into the Pentagon, his wedding ring was eventually found in the rubble). WAS interesting that OBL’s death shut them up for awhile, or Arpege Klein just talked about the ‘illegality’ of the ‘assassination’.

    I think I went down in 2007, when just the first smaller new building was up (nothing else was finished but the moving re-assembly of the broken pieces of the old globe from the Plaza, now it’s in Battery Park), forget the number, it’s the least distinguished, and I saw a cordoned-off bunch of truthers with their pickets and determined indolence. I’d been surprised they were allowed, after all this is supposed to be an opaque totalitarian police state, unlike the USSR in the heady days of Stalin.

    Miss Klein always threatens to sue, you know. Aren’t you ‘libelling her’ by calling her a ‘fabulously wealthy’ heiress? She used to talk down to the other bloggers of the mid-00’s about her fine wines and her love of foie gras (which is all right if she then didn’t claim to be a ‘kind of prole’ herself.)

    Great work. And the reactions were great entertainment.

  11. Here’s a perfect example of Phil not only trying to legitimise the genocide of the Chechen/Ingush people in Operation Lentil but also scapegoating the victims themselves for their own destruction (Notice how also carefully refuses to call it genocide, massacre or ethnic cleansing through narrow rationalising rheotic like “exceptional circumstances” “deportations” “reactionary” in “Hindsight” ). To Phil, the Aardakh was at its worst a “Mistake”, at best a justified precaution against a traitorous nation

    Of course Phil and his tankie apologists always try to discredit me, but it isn’t about me and more people need to challange them on this, would we ever let fascists get away with this?

  12. while some of your criticisms are on target, the schema of this critique is marred by an unfortunate trotskyism. the conceptual form you present as ‘conspiracy theory’ in no way follows from ‘stalinism’ (itself an epithet only ever used by trotskyites and reactionaries), even if both traits are present in some vocal individuals; to importune otherwise is base idealism. there is no line of logic that leads from a grudging support for the soviet interventions against counter-revolutionary movements in warsaw pact states to the idea that bush knocked down the towers.

    more to the point, i think characterising the cluster of affectations you’re presenting here as ‘conspiracy theory’ is not necessarily helpful. it is, of course, true, in the most banal sense – but, as these types correctly point out, charges of conspiracy theory tend to allow ideas to be dismissed without any consideration of their content. (after all, conspiracies do in fact happen, and a similarly exclusive focus on ‘structural dynamics’ can end up mystifying away not only class dynamics but individual outrages.) this line of analysis (one i’ve deployed myself, but ultimately rejected) generally fails because it relies on the assumption that we can know precisely how another person thinks, and that thought is even taking place.

    i’d suggest that the tendency you describe is in fact marked by three concrete traits: firstly, the replacement of a discourse centred on exploitation (which is marxist) by one centred on domination (which is not); secondly a near-exclusive focus on media spectacle and distortion and the attempt to transcendentally ‘read through’ the false image to arrive at the truth; thirdly a wilful inability to do basic reading comprehension. (see phil greaves insisting that a leaked document proved that the us is attempting to undermine iraqi national integrity when it states the direct opposite; karen mcrae reading an essay of mine as an attack on palestinian resistance when it was in clear support of it, molly klein in general, etc, etc.)

    of course, as has been pointed out, these people very fundamentally do not matter. while i too would love to see a proletarian revolution guided by the principles of marxism-leninism-mao tse-tung thought, i recognise that this is not a realistic prospect and that new ideological weapons must be developed; there’s something very touching about those that still maintain this dream. the left is always characterised by its enemies as being ‘loony’ or insane; revolutionaries have always drawn their force from the deep reservoirs of madness. kicking out the nutters won’t help us; it will result in a movement that is dessicated and worthless. long live the flakes, and long live the legacy of comrade stalin!

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  16. Sam Kriss is right. It is my understanding that Platypus types are not Trotskyist, per se (being mostly concerned with defending bourgeois ideals from the international Left), but they sure have pitched their tent on one of the least convincing aspects of the Trotskyist worldview – namely a moralistic rejection of Stalin as some uniquely evil being who ruined the basically ”good” Revolution that Lenin made.

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  18. The terrible irony of suggesting that the charge of “conspiracy theorist” is a dogwhistle for “minority” is that conspiracy theories so frequently target an actual minority (Jews). Not surprised to learn these are people who believe Zionists did 9/11 and Mossad did Charlie Hebdo.

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