Our fascination with the native, the oppressed, the savage, all such figures masks a desire to hold onto an unchanging certainty somewhere outside our own ‘fake’ experience. It is a desire for being ‘non-duped,’ which is a not-too-innocent desire to seize control. — Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora
- So what is a tankie?
Tankism: the uncritical, unwavering support for any state aligned against the US, typically imperialist, anti-worker, authoritarian (former) socialist states.
What more can be said about the tankie that hasn’t already been said? Darya Rustamova’s recent essay dismantles tankism thoroughly enough to be the final word on the recent resurgence of this disturbing, ahistorical school of thought. You’ll also want to read Mike Harman’s incredibly thorough explainer on the origins of modern tankism too. Yet, if there is a shortcoming in Rustamova’s essay, it would be that she aims squarely at that dude we all know, the white, mansplaining, cishet socialist bro. I don’t doubt these men make up a large part of the tankie left in London, or anywhere else in the West for that matter, since men are by and large the worst misogynists and purveyors of heteropatriarchal power in socialist circles. This takes place under the guise of a focus on “class struggle” over what is derisively called the distraction of idpol, or identity politics. But, as many of us online know, there’s a significant population of tankies who also identify as queer, trans, nonbinary, and so on. Many of them are also people of color.
2. Post-9/11, queer liberalism as forerunner
This is not altogether unprecedented. As Jasbir Puar argues in developing her concept of “homonationalism,” the synchronicity between the racism of “well-meaning” Western gays and lesbians and the racism of nation-state imperialist militarism was thrown into full relief in post-9/11 America, as the LGBT contingent that fixated on the supposed homophobia of the Iranian regime were also the same people that opposed the possible US invasion of Iran. Yet it was exactly the separate uptake of Islamophobic ideology by these LGBT activists and government war hawks that allowed the two purposes to dovetail.
The late 90s saw the general shift of the “homosexual” from association with death (the AIDS epidemic) toward reproductive futurity (marriage and families). This folding into life, Puar notes, signals the use of queerness as a lens for the “production, disciplining, and maintenance” of racialized populations, particularly against “Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian sexualities.” While Puar’s critique is an accurate indictment of mainstream LGBT liberalism in the early aughts, something has changed since then as America’s so-called “Forever Wars” have dragged on into the 2010s, the obvious object of criticism, the queer liberal, has given way in the last decade to something quite new: the radical queer tankie.
3. Something new
“To attribute difference to the other… even to adore or idealize that difference, is not at all the same as to respect the other subject as an equal, as an equivalent center of being.” — Jessica Benjamin, Like Subjects, Love Objects
Queer tankie profiles online usually feature the same characteristics: they highlight not just their gender pronouns and radical queer/trans identities online but combine it with fluency in ML/MLM (Marxist-Leninist/Maoist) dicta (distilled into a hammer and sickle emoji). Often times quite open about their academic training, these queer tankies spout the right talking points about the globe-spanning, inescapable tentacles of US imperialism. While it should be clear that the dismissal of “idpol” is simply a retrenchment of patriarchy under a revolutionary guise, it seems it is less clear to tankies (especially in an Anglo-US context) that the subsumption of global revolutions under the political mapping of US politics is simply a retrenchment of imperialism under the guise of left internationalism.
Thus, at its core, the logic of the contemporary tankie (as with the logic of empire) must be understood through the question of “the Other.” Uncritical defenders of “socialist states,” by idealizing them so thoroughly as a desired and perfect object, in fact, detach the people, the country, and its material conditions (the context of real people’s lives) and reinsert it into their own fantasies, a psychic frame of reference.
“Identification is neither a historically universal concept nor a politically innocent one. Identification is an imperial process, a form of violent appropriation in which the Other is deposed and assimilated into the lordly domain of Self.” — Diana Fuss, Interior Colonies: Frantz Fanon and the Politics of Identification
As many theorists of Orientalism and psychoanalysis argue, the imperial “I” must construct the other in order to construct the self. This is the basis of the liberal Individual as well as the psychic foundation for other acts of border creation, be it on a national, community, or group scale. So how could this have happened? How could people with such great access to academic training that also embody marginalized identity categories come to the point where they idealize the subjection of the Other? The answer lies in the academy itself.
4. The Imperial Academy
“[U]nderstanding the relation of the intimacy of the possessive individual to the intimacies of four continents requires… [a different temporality] in order to reckon with the violence of affirmation and forgetting, in order to recognize that this particular violence continues to be reproduced in liberal humanist institutions, discourses and practices today.” — Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents
Much ink has been spilled on the US academy’s origins as both the “arts and sciences” arm of the American anti-Communist effort in Cold War knowledge production and technological advancement. The core of this project was the formation of a fundamentally American epistemology that carved the world into bi-polar ideological empires, everything from culture, society, and politics, fell into these two separate camps. Thus, tankies, many of whom are graduate students or have undergone post-graduate training, remain intent on understanding post-1991 geopolitics as US EMPIRE vs. EVERYONE ELSE. This was not true then and it is not true now. These critics, ensconced as they are in the liberal academy, turn their critique into a weapon of the imperialism that they so putatively decry. The message may be different but the form is the same.
Despite their fervent use of (dank) Soviet symbology, these unrelenting critics of the ahistorical agent called “Empire,” thus take as foundational the imperialist knowledge production of the academy, which (irony of ironies) operated, if not as a literal arm of US Cold War military production, then certainly as an institution in sync with the aims and demands of the US Information Service (the US cultural propaganda arm) and the CIA. For tankies that love to scream “psy-op” when they see a Hong Kong protestor waving a US flag or constructing a barricade, it turns out that the academy that trained them, perhaps, has been the greatest psy-op of them all.
5. About Socialist People
It is impossible for me to go any further in such a psychological hypothesis without projecting onto it the Western vision — Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women
Julia Kristeva’s well-known Orientalist tract on “Chinese women” has been thoroughly criticized for its cavalier, Eurocentric, and almost complete misunderstanding of modern Chinese society and women’s place within it. And though Kristeva is wonderfully ignorant in many ways of her positionality as a European woman drawing anthropological conclusions about complex societies absent any real ethnographic method, to her credit, her text often erupts with moments of anxiety, in which she recognizes the Orientalist analysis that she cannot help but perpetuate.
Critically, in one infamous passage, Kristeva looks at a group of Chinese women and tries to see herself in them, thinking wistfully that she “recognized [her] own pioneer komsomol childhood in the little red guards, and [that she owes her] cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” As a Bulgarian, she was a foreigner in France. This identification with the position of outsider in a French context, Jane Gallop argues, allows Kristeva to attempt to see herself as the same as a “Chinese woman,” for her the absolute Other. Gallop concludes, that this attempt at identification shows that Kristeva believes “she alone might be able to bridge the abyss of otherness, to contact and report the heterogeneous,” and that About Chinese Women is “a book precisely about the dangers of using oneself as a measure for the other.”
So while tankies either impose an ahistorical homogeneity on China in order to idealize it (or idealistically take CCP policy documents as a representation of reality), they similarly impose homogeneity on Hong Kong in order to demonize it. Unlike Kristeva, who articulates the futility of representing the other (despite still going ahead and doing so), this presents a unique situation wherein the US-centrism and unconscious identificatory impulse is so strong as to have deluded itself into thinking it has refused this imperial subject constitution. The tankie psychology has carved up and constituted fantasy identifications for both China and HK, disconnected almost entirely from material reality — effectively playing a game of Risk with sites and populations that are filled with material and historical contradiction.
An astute comrade (@kinanta) recently observed to me that American tankies project US race relations as if that itself is a form of geopolitical analysis. This is classical discursive colonialism. So intent are these critics on mapping US political concerns, histories, and actors onto non-US sites of struggle, that it becomes exceedingly clear — almost blindingly obvious à la Orientalism — that the projection diagnoses the subject themselves (tankie), not the object (China/HK).
Borrowing from Saidiya Hartman’s incisive argument against white abolitionist empathy in Scenes of Subjection, we can see that the tankie, in fact, by “empathizing” so strongly with the “Socialist Other,” recenters the self and with their good intention actually renders the other fungible, that is abstract. Like the white abolitionist who reinstantiates the relations of chattel slavery through his empathic identification with the enslaved African, the tankie reinstantiates the relations of US imperialism (the desire to map, to see, to describe) rather than engaging in truthful grappling or honest representation of the other as complex, flawed, contradictory or otherwise.
The illusion is so complete because tankies often correctly cite historical instances of US imperialist destabilization but the anticipatory, paranoid reading of “AMERICA” into every instance of struggle and resistance abroad shows how oftentimes the academic critique, disconnected from material struggle, or even more simply, the lived experience of non-US people, reduces everything outside to something possessable and understandable on the inside. This subjugation of the world under the rubric of American analysis is hegemonic, colonial behavior.
6. But why queer? Why POC?
“Often, in an attempt to show ‘the ways things really are’ in the non-West, our discourses produce a non-West that is deprived of fantasy, desires, and contradictory emotions. When it is not the site of warfare and bloodshed, when it is not what compels humanistic sympathies and charities, the non-West commands solemn, humorless reverence as the Other that we cannot hope to know.” — Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity
The seemingly obvious answer to the problem of tankism — whiteness — no longer holds water. The idealistic notion of solidarity amongst all oppressed peoples has also proven to be harder than a simple identity politics. Certainly, the core problem of tankism is a colonial-racial one: the uncritical romanticization, the noble savagery, of foreign sites of authoritarian repression as a means to gain moral superiority in a narrowly defined notion of anti-imperialism is by definition one that ignores the complexity of localized racial and ethnic division and conflict, among many other things. It also plays a cavalier game with the violent repression of the (unidealized) Other. The so-called dissident Other that the “socialist state” requires “protection” from — these are the real people identified for justified extermination by queer, people of color in America. Fascism in red clothes.
This is the painful reality, one that I have personally felt the most betrayed by: not only that many leftist intellectuals that I must deal with in real life, senior scholars who wield some power over me, follow and support these tankies online but that many of them are queers, many POC, all hopping on the tankie bandwagon to condemn those outside the US in their struggles against imperialism and for the right to self-determination.
What could it be then? Despite the radical gender and sexuality vanguardism of these tankies, the imperial act of rendering non-US sites as both totally knowable (an analysis by the capable “I” of a site and its people without the first clue about its material conditions) and paradoxically completely unknowable (a homogeneous phantasm that has no connection to reality) reinstantiates classic patriarchal dominance that is tied to the active subject in the liberal, Enlightenment tradition, likewise in theories of Orientalism, in which a masculine West feminizes the Eastern objects of study. The assumption that the people-led movement, however contradictory and complicated they are in internal composition, is in fact a CIA psy-op led by the US (For how could non-US people self organize otherwise? Unthinkable…) is not just laughable but adheres to this classical masculine-active/feminine-passive framework. As Rey Chow argues in Woman and Chinese Modernity, “Kristeva’s book about Chinese women shows us how the alluring tactic of ‘feminizing’ another culture in the attempt to criticize Western discourse actually repeats the mechanisms of the discourse and hence cannot be an alternative to it.”
What we see in the implicit conjunction of UScentric radical gender/sexuality vanguardism and the abstraction and idealization of the other in online discourse is the latent masculine chauvinism of US imperialism as an ideology rearing its head. Puar’s “homonationalism” revealed Islamophobia as underwriting both the paternal LGBT bleeding-heart “concern” for oppressed gay brown people over there and the warmongering of the US state. In queer tankism, the two flip and become seamlessly melded together: the “anti-imperialism” of queer tankies, and the “Western queer/trans critic” identity category through which it is refracted, while seemingly “liberatory” in fact becomes the mirror image of the roving, imperial “America, World Police.” So intent on finding and fighting instances of US imperialism all over the globe, even where it doesn’t exist, these queer tankies use liberatory rhetoric to argue for oppressed people’s very subjection in “socialist states.”
Thus, this radicalism surrounding gender, sexuality, or race is not necessarily inconsonant with imperial behavior. Subsuming everything under the rubric of AMERICA, including the very critique of America, reifies America as the geopolitical actor par excellence — it is the mechanism of discourse repeating itself. These tankie takes, in essence, are being underwritten by a general US chauvinism, in which American conceptions of race, gender, sexuality, culture, and politics, however subconsciously, come to take precedence over the real material contradictions and complex personhood of the actors in any given global uprising.
Let me be clear: US marginalized people’s intense identification with the movements of the oppressed elsewhere is understandable and, in fact, laudable. It is a project that I myself partake in. It is when this identification and “empathy” (with all its Hartmanian overtones) run roughshod over the voices and actual conditions of the “oppressed elsewhere” that the reality of living and speaking and acting from the US as still holding a certain epistemological and material power is made clear.
The Western critique of the West must be able to grapple with the reality of contradiction (as Mao reminds us) rather than trying to smooth everything into something con/subsumable under and within the American “critique” of America. This requires an “ethics after idealism,” the end to the idealization of the Other as the intellectual and moral force of our analyses and our activism.
Other than what I linked throughout the piece, I owe a great deal of the readings and analysis in this piece to this sensitive, nuanced critique of Kristeva by Su-lin Yu of National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan.