Tankie: The origins of an epithet

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A common term used in online left-wing discourses is ‘tankie’. It has been used to describe those who are self-identified Marxist-Leninists and those who defend ‘actually existing socialism’ in its various guises (such as the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, the Eastern Bloc, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea). As an extension of this, ‘tankie’ has also been used to describe people who defend regimes in alliance with Russia and China in the twenty-first century, primarily concerning the Assad government in Syria nowadays.

The connotation of the term alludes to the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 (as well as martial law Poland in 1980), suggesting that those who supported the Soviet Union in these incursions were endorsing the use of tanks to crush their opposition (supposed counter-revolutionaries, the bourgeoisie, imperialists, etc). Although China opposed both the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979, many contemporary supporters of the Chinese Communist Party are viewed as ‘tankies’.

The term ‘tankie’ harks back to the events of 1956 and 1968, but became prominent in the 1980s, when the press reported upon the internal divisions within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Since the late 1970s, there had been a debate inside the CPGB over the industrial and political strategies of the party. Although the divisions were somewhat fluid, there was a traditionalist wing, who were largely pro-Soviet, and promoted that trade union work should be the primary function of the party, and there was a reformer wing, who were more ambivalent about the USSR, and suggested that the party needed take seriously the new social movements of anti-racism, women’s liberation and gay rights (amongst others). The traditionalists argued that class politics was the predominant framework for the party’s activism, while the reformers argued that class politics overlooked other forms of oppression and that the politics of identity were important for mobilising people. These divisions took place against the backdrop of Thatcherism and the weakening on the trade unions and the left in Britain throughout the 1980s. Because of the inspiration of Eurocommunism on many of the reformers, this wing of the party, largely associated with the journal Marxism Today, were known colloquially as the ‘Euros’. On the other side, the traditionalist wing, largely associated with the newspaper Morning Star, were called ‘tankies’ because of their continued support for the Soviet Union. However it is worth noting that some of the prominent ‘tankies’ in the 1980s had actually criticised the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. There was also another ‘tankie’ faction within the CPGB called Straight Left, who opposed the Eurocommunist tendencies of the party in the 1980s, but also avoided those associated with the Morning Star.

Anecdotally, it seems that term ‘tankie’ emerged in the 1970s as a pejorative term to describe those who supported the Soviet actions in 1968 and was used in internal disputes, especially around the 1977 revamping of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, where Eurocommunist ideas reached the upper echelons of the party. The 1977 programme emphasised new social movements as part of a ‘broad democratic alliance’, which caused a pro-Soviet section of the party to leave to form the pro-Stalin New Communist Party (headed by Sid French). The NCP were the archetypal ‘tankies’ and probably referred to by their opposition within the CPGB, although none of the polemical documents created inside the CPGB use the term nor does any of the coverage of the 1977 split by any of the CPGB’s rivals on the far left that has been uncovered so far. As Willie Thompson wrote in his 1992 history of the CPGB:

‘Sectarians’, ‘traditionalists’ and ‘Stalinists’ were all employed, the first being favoured in formal debate, although in private conversation it was usually ‘tankie’, from the support this faction had given to the Czechoslovak invasion.

Use of the term wasn’t limited to the CPGB. We know this because the first written uses of the term in this context (that I have been able to track down) were in the student press in the late 1970s. The Federation of Conservative Students (FCS), a student Tory group that was moving towards the radical right (combining free market absolutism, anti-communism and libertarianism) at this time, printed a leaflet describing the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) as ‘tankies’. Reported in the student newspaper at Warwick University (The Boar), the FCS distributed this leaflet at the April 1978 conference of the National Union of Students (the same conference which saw the union’s ‘no platform’ policy reintroduced after a five month hiatus). NOLS had suffered a series of internal divisions during the 1970s as the Trotskyist group Militant took control in the mid-1970s and an alliance of the Labour right and the CPGB (as well as fellow travellers on the Labour left) opposed them, within the wider student grouping Broad Left. The FCS leaflet attacked this NOLS/CPGB alliance, calling them both ‘tankies’ and ‘neandert-hal [sic], troglodite [sic], zombies’.

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Warwick University’s The Boar, 99, 10 May 1978

Reporting on the following NUS conference in December 1978, the LSE student paper, The Beaver, also has one of the first uses of the term ‘tankie’, describing one NOLS member as a ‘tankie’ and another as ‘Labour but reputably not a tankie’.

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LSE’s The Beaver, 23 January, 1979

Meanwhile the dispute inside the Communist Party rumbled on.The first reference that I have been able to find to the on-going ructions in the CPGB is from Spartacist, the newspaper of the Spartacist League in the UK, from May 1982. The newspaper article reported on conflict in the party over the Soviet imposition of martial law in Poland on 1980 and the CPGB leadership’s expression of support for Solidarity, with the pro-Soviet side described as ‘tankies’.

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Spartacist, May 1982

By 1983, the schism between the traditionalists and the reformers was hardening, with those associated with the Morning Star and the party’s Industrial Department (responsible for trade union work) becoming increasingly critical of the journal Marxism Today and the party leadership. The party tried to instil discipline at the 1983 National Congress of the CPGB and over the next few years, there were a series of expulsions and resignations from the traditionalist wing. These members (and former members) were referred to as ‘tankies’ in the coverage of the CPGB split in the far left press in Britain.

The Oxford English Dictionary and the New Statesman both cite an article in The Guardian in May 1985 as the first instance of the term being used in the mainstream press. However The Times used the term in September 1984 when reporting on the Morning Star appointing a new Moscow correspondent, although it seems to attribute the editorship of the newspaper erroneously to the Eurocommunist side of the CPGB dispute.

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The Times, 12 September, 1984

By the late 1980s, as the CPGB further imploded before dissolving in 1991, the term ‘tankie’ had become a common place term to describe the pro-Soviet factions inside the CPGB and those who existed outside it, such as the newly formed Communist Party of Britain. As the history of the CPGB began to be written in the 1990s and 2000s, the internal battles of the Communist Party were often depicted as between the ‘Euros’ and the ‘tankies’, although most acknowledged that this was a simplification of the contest within the party.

From its origins within the British left in the 1970s and 1980s, the term has now taken on a new life on the internet, with ‘tankie’ used by the online left across the world. As we move further away from the specific Cold War context in which the term was first used, it has taken on a life of its own, with many not aware of its original background.

For those interested in the pro-Soviet factions inside and outside the Communist Party of Great Britain, I would recommend Lawrence Parker’s The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991, which can be ordered from here

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