It’s hard to miss the signs these days—the hammer and sickle emoji on Twitter profiles, the kitschy Soviet art populating online memes, and left-wing analysis sympathizing with authoritarian states like China or Syria.
It’s all part of a seeming comeback of “tankie” or “campist” politics—a tendency that, once upon a time, uncritically aligned with the Soviet Union and other enemies of the United States, in the name of the struggle against imperialism.
Its revival today, according to intellectual historian Barnaby Raine, is animated by new cultural and emotional features: pessimism about a liberatory future and nostalgia for a rose-coloured past, fantasies about long-sought-after power for the left, and defiance of the taboos of a liberal capitalist order that has pitched us into ecological and economic crises.
Raine is a lecturer at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a PhD student at Columbia University whose doctoral research focuses on the decline of thinking about the end of capitalism. He has written for The Guardian, n+1, and Novara, and is an editor with the journal Salvage.
Raine was interviewed by ecosocialist writer and activist David Camfield on the influence and origins of contemporary campism. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I think we should start by defining some of the terms that we’re going to be focusing on since they’re not familiar to everybody. The first one is “campism”. And then the other one would be “tankie.” Could you give us some working definitions?
Campist politics makes a certain kind of claim about deflection: it reads class struggles, the bread and butter of Marxist politics, as overwhelmingly deflected into struggles between states.
So if you want to understand the world of class struggle in the 20th century, the older style campists basically said, “the real class struggles are actually deflected away from being worker vs boss in New York or London, and into the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Geopolitics is the real terrain of struggle.” The United States led the “imperialist camp”; the Soviet Union led the “anti-imperalist camp.”
Born in the communist parties, you can already begin to imagine how this develops—where the interests of socialism are identified with the interest of the Soviet Union—because this is the kind of worker’s paradise that enthralls you if you’re a socialist in 1917 or 1920 who watches the birth of the first workers’ state. And so the interests of the Soviet Union come to be synonymous with the interests of socialism, and the defense of the Soviet Union comes to be synonymous with the defense of socialism.
I think the ground zero is not actually 1956—when the term “tankie” is first thrown around, to describe supporters of the Soviet tanks that rolled into Hungary—but earlier. It’s Molotov Ribbentrop, when the Soviet Union signs a pact with Hitler and the Nazi state, the opposition to which has been the premise of socialist politics in the 1930s. Suddenly, the Nazi state is allied with the state to which you as a Communist Party member are loyal. The state which has imprisoned the Communist Party leadership in concentration camps now has its foreign minister shaking hands and smiling with the foreign minister of the Soviet Union. And at that moment, some communists break away and are horrified, while others say that the interests of the Soviet Union are the interests of world socialism. And so you begin to see their ability even to endorse a pact with fascism.
That kind of logic whereby we need to defend the Soviet Union, even if it’s a bit ugly to defend them, explains how you get to a position like 1956 in Hungary. You have what Hannah Arendt called the only freely operating Soviets in the world—workers in a revolution in Hungary taking the kind of power that Lenin once smiled so fondly on—and then you have Soviet tanks rolling in to crush that experiment. And then in Prague in 1968, a Czechoslovak socialism with a human face is crushed by Soviet tanks—even more shocking in a sense, because the Czechs didn’t even want to leave the Warsaw Pact.
That’s an old fashioned 20th century campism. Today, of course, the Soviet Union is gone, and the term tankie is now sometimes used to describe a kind of nostalgic, sentimental politics that looks upon the Soviet Union as a gorgeous, wonderful thing. It often has a kitsch aesthetic of, you know, wanting to decorate our rooms with old Soviet art.
But sometimes it’s also used to describe support for today’s tanks, which claim to be the vanguard against global capitalism. And they might be the tanks of the Assad regime, or the re-education camps of the Chinese state in Xinjiang against Uyghur people. Support for these other massive bureaucratic behemoths—autocratic dictatorships to which some ascribe this kind of anti-imperialist virtue—is still a campism in the sense that it thinks that class struggle is deflected onto struggles between different camps of states. But it’s much more pessimistic. It’s not a form of starry-eyed faith in a distant paradise. It’s not like the people joining the Communist Party in the ‘30s, who really believed that the Soviet Union was the only power that had weathered the Great Depression.
I think this is a politics that in some cases, says, Bashar Al Assad is marvellous and he’s creating a gorgeous society in Syria, or that Gaddafi did the same in Libya until the West got rid of him. Or it says: look, the Chinese state has lifted more people out of poverty, which is to repeat a line from apologists for capitalism.
But the more dominant thread is that lots of people, I think, on the western left are inclined to sympathy with these kinds of states not because they think these states are building a majestic New Paradise, but because they think there’s nothing else. Because in a world in which American imperialism seemed—in the language of the New World Order of the 1990s—to run hegemonic rampant across the earth with no antagonist, they look to these states for some small crumbs of opportunity in the possibility of resisting the global tide of American dominance.
So I think of this as a kind of left Fukuyamaism. Francis Fukuyama famously talked about the end of history, and Slavoj Žižek has this mocking term about a left Fukuyamaism to describe the third way of political figures like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who accepted that end of history—and their socialism wasn’t really about trying to end or transform capitalism at all.
Well, I don’t think people like Blair and Clinton deserve any kind of left label. The people who understand themselves as being on the left, who are actively part of left campaigns, and who’ve really accepted an End of History narrative, are I think those people who don’t believe we can do any better than the defense of states like China, Syria, Cuba, and sometimes even North Korea, as building blocks in a feeble global antagonism against the overwhelming dominance of American power.
So this is a pessimistic campism, not an optimistic campism. There were certainly pessimists among the members of the Communist Party who didn’t think the Soviet Union was a glorious place, but who thought it was necessary to defend it. But broadly, there’s been a shift from a form of optimism to a form of pessimism in campist politics.
While there are some people who would be happy with the term “tankie,” and they use it to describe themselves, I think that’s not really the case with campism, right? I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered anyone who was prepared to self describe that way. Could you say something about how people today tend to self-identify?
Oh, I don’t know. I mean, the term campism is certainly often used critically by those who come from the left tradition of the Trotskyist third camp, which, in one slogan said it was “Neither Washington nor Moscow.” Whether they were trade unionists in America striking against their bosses, or whether they were trade union Solidarity in Poland striking against the Stalinist state, it was very much an aspirational politics and an attempt to forge a third camp that claimed a unity of the oppressed and exploited all over the world, which in practice was often hard to forge. I think there are people who wouldn’t object to the term “campist” being applied to them—they really think there are two camps in world politics.
But along the lines of this kind of pessimistic reading I’m ascribing to them, I think they would claim to be the more pragmatic and realistic socialists. This is the kind of label that Zizek’s left Fukuyamaists—the third way of the Blairites and Clintonites—adopted for themselves: ‘We’re the pragmatic realists who accept the truth of global market dominance and don’t really believe anymore in this starry eyed stuff about socialist transformation.’
Well, here are the people who really claim to still be part of the left, who really do want to enact a wave of mass nationalizations in western countries, and who really do want to jack up taxes against the wealthy. But they get to claim that they’re the pragmatic realists because they are aligned not to some distant hope of revolution that’s never succeeded. “Can you name a country where socialism has succeeded?” says the right-wing with a sneer. Well, they can name lots of nations that they regard as at least worthy of support, if not ideal. So I think they would tend to use the language of sober-eyed realism, having claimed it from the right and from liberals.
Do you want to say more about how this kind of political critique is situated in a broader political perspective? And how do you think one best responds to campist politics?
I think the critique for me requires a critique of social democracy, too. Because it is a question of recovering a 19th century tradition that had its apex with the Paris Commune. This is a world in which most states have quite small bureaucratic apparatuses. When Lenin says, “Any cook can govern,” he’s thinking about a bureaucratic apparatus that’s quite simple and small, and run by a tiny number of people. When Marx says the state is the “executive committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie,” it might seem strange to us today. But in 1848, this is not a world of universal suffrage, or of states that provide massive health care programs and education programs. In the 19th century, states are small forces that arrive to break up strikes.
Of course, in the early 20th century, things are quite different. It’s a world of universal suffrage in many parts of Europe, which is the firmament for this redefinition of the left. And so the national state increasingly becomes the instrument to use in the management and supersession of capitalism, which is identified now with something called the economy. And that whole language of the economy isn’t a language that exists in the 19th century. So the economy becomes the staging ground for the split between left and right.
The question of state intervention in the economy becomes the key test for the left. Whether you’re a social democrat, or a Stalinist supporter of the Soviet Union, you’ve got a coherent language for thinking about socialism as a kind of statism and a management of economic difference, and as an attempt to guide yourself toward economic equality.
All of that is quite far from the idea of capital as a form of domination by the boss over the worker. It’s a different kind of politics than a socialist politics premised on freedom and power and the abolition of status hierarchies. For Marx, the development of a genuine individuality is held back by our conscription into different parts of the division of labor.
This is very different from a socialism of state management, which doesn’t have such lofty aspirations as the flourishing of our free individuality—or, if it keeps those aspirations, reserves them for a very distant future. But in the immediate future, it wants to give us bread, and give us schools and hospitals. Especially during the Great Depression, this seems like an urgent promise that socialists claim to deliver, and that capitalists can’t.
So I think that my criticism and my skepticism about this kind of politics is how firmly it follows that redefinition of socialism into the space of the economy. It gives up the promise of popular power, which of course is not a promise you can ever realistically claim is realized by either the big bureaucracies of social democratic welfare state societies or the dictatorial bureaucracies of Stalinist societies.
I think contemporary campism makes another move and redefines the left-right split, but not in the space of the economy—because the Chinese state isn’t really delivering economic equality, and certainly neither is the neoliberal state in Syria, for example. Instead, geopolitics becomes the staging ground for the left-right split. Where do you stand on the question of American interests in the world and America’s ability to wage war to get cheap oil? Where do you stand on the ability of the Israeli state to harass and abuse the Palestinian people?
These become the definitive questions, rather than questions of freedom and power, which should of course incorporate firm opposition to imperialism of the American or Israeli kind in the name of universal freedom.
So that means that we need two different kinds of critique: one for the optimistic campist, and one for the pessimistic campist. For the optimistic campist who thinks that the Soviet Union is a marvelous place, for instance, we point out that Soviet society maintained alienation and domination by abstract labor—which is core to capitalist modernity—and that it was a Fordist mode of production premised on industrial accumulation. Not a society in which the free development of each was the condition for the free development of all, but the central kind of brutal domination that capital ensures.
But I think it’s actually harder to approach the critique of pessimistic campists because there’s a grain of truth that is indeed true: we don’t live in a world with some emancipatory possibility immediately before us. If we did, it would be easy to dismiss their defenses of states around the world by saying, “look, here’s this alternative, we have a global revolution.” We should acknowledge the grain of truth that they’re seizing on; their pessimism is grounded in the reality that it’s difficult to conceive of bigger historical transformations.
But of course, it’s a circular kind of paranoia that says there is no politics possible but the defense of my state. Any politics that does develop, like when revolution breaks out in Syria, can only be read through the categories of either the defense of my state or the imperialist opposition to my state. So when young people in Syria scrawled graffiti on a wall demanding the downfall of the regime, and then they are tortured in prisons, campists say that they’re just imperialist agents. When workers in Cuba are concerned about a year of economic brutality caused by both the imperialist American blockade and the collapse of tourism revenues—because of COVID and by mismanagement by a bureaucratic elite that lives a more luxurious life than ordinary Cubans—they can only be imperialist agents. It’s a circular argument that insists on the truth of a lack of emancipatory alternatives. It therefore crushes any ability to see emancipatory alternatives—even in the tiny embryonic form they develop—because it reads all politics as a conflict between imperialism and anti-imperialist states. Just like the original Soviet-apologist campism did, it utterly gives up on the possibility of trying to hone a socialism of popular power and freedom to which I think we should be loyal.
That kind of politics is as firm as campism in opposing imperialist domination, but we oppose imperialist domination because it’s a form of power and subjugation that violates the promise of freedom to which socialists are loyal. So we oppose, for example, the American blockade on Cuba, but we don’t oppose it in the name of defending the state that these imperialists oppose. Instead, we oppose it in the name of supporting a politics of human freedom against imperialist power, above all, but also against those perverted and deflected forms of supposedly socialist politics that are bureaucratic states.
I want to talk a little bit about the growth of campist politics on the left. I think these politics were very strong in a certain form until the fall of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR at the end of the 1980s, early 1990s. Those events really dealt a serious blow to Stalinism and campism, after which they generally declined. But I think we’ve seen a growth of their influence on the left, at least in relative terms. I’ve heard some in the US argue that these politics are not relatively stronger—they’re only stronger in absolute terms, because the entire left has grown. But I’m not persuaded by that. Certainly within Canada, I think this kind of politics has become relatively stronger. So what’s your assessment in terms of the relative strength of these politics on the left?
I think you’re absolutely right that they are relatively stronger, but it is hard to measure. Both of our senses are anecdotal. I recently had an article about this that I sent to various people who responded by asking if I could provide evidence that this kind of politics is rising. And I said, well, I can give you a list of podcasts that reflect this kind of politics, that are clearly getting lots of listens at the moment. I can give you a list of influential people on social media. It’s hard to have much more of a sense than that. But you know, if you go and hang out on the left and talk to people, I think the kinds of politics you hear are different now than they were 10 years ago.
That’s my sense of things in Canada. Can you say some more about the growth of this politics and people’s attraction to it?
I think it’s about emotion, it’s about style, not just all about the content of its claims. The centrality of affect is something which is often missed by critics on the left, who just want to have old fashioned arguments about how bad Stalin really was.
I think there is a parallel to something like Trumpism here. One of the things that liberals like to be terrified about in the years of Trump in America was the emergence of a “Serious Trump.” People focused on the congressman Josh Hawley: “Oh, dear, what if there was a Trump who emerged who wasn’t such a joke figure but who was really serious about his fascism?” I always found this strange because I thought that part of Trump’s appeal was that he was a joke figure. That is to say, he broke taboos.
And I think that breaking taboos amid an experience of the failure of the social order that constructed those taboos is the appeal of the alt-right, and of that contemporary new campism. The two unspeakable, unmentionable demons of liberal democratic society are Nazism and Stalinism. So to embrace either of those—where you stand at the front of a meeting hall and shout “hail Trump” as Richard Spencer did, or say “I love Marshal Zhukov and the parades in Red Square,” as lots of meme pages do on Facebook—is to deliberately shock.
Because you feel that the order that tells you these things are unacceptable is an order that has left you with rising rents, fewer job prospects, and a future that is vanishingly difficult to grasp—unlike the world of the baby boomers, who could believe in a kind of future.
So it’s a turn back to idealize the most provocative possible past in the face of the increasing inaccessibility of faith in the future, which liberal democracy claims to be giving you. I think that’s a key condition for understanding it. And if you don’t understand that its affect is central to it, I think you won’t understand some of the rise of this kind of politics on the left, where it takes a more deliberately provocative form.
More basically, I think it’s an escape from a kind of twin condition on the left: the hegemony’s certainty that nothing else is possible, which people are trying to run away from while still believing it. I don’t blame them. It’s very difficult not to believe that we’ve reached the end of history.
So it’s an attempt to find other forms of society that were possible after all, and which no one can dispute. Someone might dispute the possibility for some radical 1990s leftist to idealize the Zapatistas; someone might come along and say, well, “is that kind of politics that’s likely to run huge societies of millions of people?” No one can dispute that the Soviet Union once ran a huge society of millions of people, or that China does today.
So it’s an attempt to escape a kind of pessimistic hegemony that says absolutely nothing is possible but liberal democratic capitalism.
Crucially, it’s also an attempt to escape what Mark Fisher famously called the “vampire castle,” a form of radical politics amid capitalist hegemony that would retreat into safe spaces in an unsafe world and would come with a suffocating moralism and masochism. It sees radical politics as a matter of tiny groups of people checking the privilege of their friends and neighbours. This is the scathing way of talking about that politics that I think contemporary campism would adopt.
They say, actually, we want to feel powerful again. Campism says: “we don’t want to feel like we’re the people in a room, endlessly checking our own privilege, endlessly trying to purify our own souls. We want to feel like we’re the people at the front of a huge parade of tanks, we want to feel that we can have a left that is powerful.” You’ll see how this is, again, affective.
I think it’s a desire for power, a desire to feel important, a desire to feel that something might be possible beyond the stultifying, tiny worlds of pessimistic identity politics. It is a desire for a left that seems to frighten and to scare the real powers of the world. Whatever you think of him, Stalin certainly did that. And the vampire castle doesn’t do that very much.
Given this affective dimension of politics, can we also situate the appeal of campism more broadly in terms of the moment in history that we’re living in? And what this tells us about our times?
One of the first important things is that this form of politics resurges in a moment where politics is heavily about the past, not the future.
Campism is not just about support for present dictatorial and bureaucratic and autocratic states, but about the attempt to rescue and claim for ourselves the legacy and the image of those past places like the Soviet Union above all. This tells us that we’re in a moment unlike the 1980s and the 1990s when liberals and the right had a politics of the future and the left wanted to as well. Instead, we’re in a moment when politics is overwhelmingly about nostalgia, amid a feeling of decline in the west.
We’ve gone from “Morning in America” under Ronald Reagan, to “Make America great again,” under Trump; we’ve gone from “things can only get better” under Tony Blair, to “take back control” under the Brexiteers—a sense that politics is about the recovery of something glorious which has been lost.
That sense is felt on the right—that “we used to rule the world, and now we’re taking orders from someone else.” It’s felt on the left, too. On the social democratic left you see a huge outpouring of excitement in Britain about Ken Loach’s “The Spirit of ’45,” which imagines a post-war world now lost to us that was supposedly glorious.
And so I think that contemporary campism with its nostalgia for Soviet societies is one form of left politics that emerges in a moment where politics is overwhelmingly geared towards the past, in the absence of a kind of hope about the future. And I also think it’s important to name—alongside Mark Fisher’s famous diagnosis of capitalist realism—an inability to think well beyond capitalism. I think it’s important to name a problem of imperialist realism, an inability to think well beyond imperialism so that all you can do if you’re opposed to American imperialism is take a different side in the inter-imperialist conflicts.
You look at Syria, for example, and see not a revolution which offers some hope of a future democratic society. If you’re in thrall to imperialist realism, all you can ever see is conflict of imperialism—which, of course, is absolutely there in Syria but is not the totality of what’s going on.
So you see a conflict between, on the one hand, Israel, America, Turkey and the Gulf states, and on the other hand, Russia, Iran—above all, Hezbollah as Iran’s agent—and China. So you can only take a side in that conflict.
It’s trying to claim the mantle of a hardheaded realism from liberals and the right. It’s refusing to be the stargazing kids. It says: “You know, you think you’re the real cynics. I’m the one who will defend millions of deaths. I’m the real cynic. I understand millions of deaths.” It’s trying to find an outlet for those undead desires scorned as infantile, to break all the rules, and to believe that everything could be different.
And so I think, contemporary campism reflects this tension between an extreme kind of pessimism, and a desperation to feel a certain kind of optimism, to just allow yourself to believe in something and to give doubt a rest for a moment, and to believe that there might be a better world out there somewhere. It’s in the inhabiting of this space of tension—between a pessimism that I think is pretty well grounded, and a desperation for faith with which I have a great deal of sympathy—that I think of campism not just as something I disagree with, and against which I want to wag my finger, but as a set of impulses that I have quite a lot of sympathy for.
This interview was originally recorded for an episode of David Camfield’s podcast, Victor’s Children.