Barnaby Raine on the new Stalinism

Hungary 1956: the origin of the term “tankie”.

Barnaby Raine has been giving his thoughts on the new Stalinism the online magazine The Breach.

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 Guardiann+1, and Novara, and is an editor with the journal Salvage. He has been associated with the UK organisation RS21 (ex-SWP).

Raine was interviewed by ecosocialist writer and activist David Camfield on the influence and origins of contemporary ‘campism’ (ie Stalinism). The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This interview was originally recorded for an episode of David Camfield’s podcast, Victor’s Children.

As we have not obtained permission from either comrade Raine or The Breach to republish it, we are restricting ourselves to the opening question and Raine’s answer, and then providing a link:

Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?

Barnaby Raine on the resurgence of “tankie” and “campist” politics.

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.

SOME PEOPLE 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.

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. 

No, I think this is a politics that is much more miserable. In some cases, it 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.

  • Read the full interview here.

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