Why are ‘anti-imperialists’ defending dictators?

By echoing the narratives of repressive regimes, left-wing 'tankies' are forcing targeted activists to spend energy combating smears and disinformation.

Protestors during anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, July 1, 2018.
Protestors during anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, July 1, 2018. (doctorho/Flickr)

Over the past few years, anti-authoritarians on the left have been paying increasing attention to “tankies.”

A derogatory term, “tankies” was originally applied to members of the Communist Party of Great Britain who supported Moscow’s crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which was infamously carried out with the heavy deployment of Soviet tanks.

Today the word refers to leftists, primarily Western, who resort to all kinds of justifications for authoritarian regimes in the so-called “global south,” such as in Syria, Hong Kong, and Nicaragua, and/or in countries with an ambiguous status within “the West,” like Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. These countries can be referred to collectively as countries of “the periphery,” to use Istanbul-based Mangal Media’s terminology, so as to emphasize the centrality of “the West” in tankie ideology.

On domestic issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, tankies tend to take progressive positions. This makes their politics on peripheral countries all the more confusing, especially for those of us on the receiving end of our governments’ brutalities. Tankies would thus condemn American cops yet praise Hong Kong cops, or condemn the Israeli military while praising the Russian army.

This contradiction at the heart of tankie logic derives from a simplistic interpretation of imperialism, and with it, of anti-imperialism. This “alt-imperialist” logic divides the world into two camps : those who are “pro-West” and those who are “anti-west.” In the words of the late theorist Moishe Postone, this is essentially a manifestation of the “dualistic political imaginary of the Cold War.” The Syrian writer Leila Al-Shami, meanwhile, called it “the anti-imperialism of idiots.”

Activists who are otherwise progressive and even revolutionary can therefore end up, at best, reproducing the narratives propagated by authoritarian governments in peripheral countries; at worst, they could be actively supporting brutal repression.

Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, north of Aleppo in Syria, following a battle between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government. (Christiaan Triebert/Wikimedia Commons)
Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, north of Aleppo in Syria, following a battle between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian government. (Christiaan Triebert/Wikimedia Commons)

The broad scope of this brand of “anti-imperialism” has also allowed right-wing types to make their way into various left-wing circles in the West, as part of a broader phenomenon in which fascist movements co-opt left-wing talking points in support of illiberal regimes or ideologies. This is amply illustrated by programs on the Russian state-affiliated outlet RT or Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” both of which regularly feature far-right and left-wing “anti-imperialist” personalities.

In these news and social media circles, “anti-imperialist” rhetoric is often accompanied by a disregard for facts that has been increasingly visible in the aftermaths of the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential victory in 2016.

Yet this phenomenon was already apparent in the conversations on Syria and Ukraine years before, as Russian military interventions in both countries were coupled with substantial online dis/misinformation campaigns. Such tactics have become the calling cards of authoritarian leaders around the globe, including Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, China’s Xi Jinping, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, India’s Narendra Modi, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

Having followed these trends for years, I anticipated a similar reaction from tankies during and after Lebanon’s October 2019 uprising; the government we have been opposing and charging with corruption is dominated by the vocally “anti-imperialist” Hezbollah and its allies, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement. This dynamic has been worsened by the fact that the traditional sectarian parties that consider themselves to be Lebanon’s “opposition” are pro-West and pro-Gulf Arab states, and thus according to alt-imperialist logic, are inherently “pro-imperialist.”

This talking point has been further buttressed by both the Israeli and U.S. governments’ singling out of Hezbollah as the sole source of Lebanon’s evils. According to tankie logic, Lebanese anti-government protesters are in fact on the side of U.S. imperialism, despite the protestors’ vocal opposition to all the major political parties. Many Lebanese activists have also been puzzled by the online reactions of various prominent figures on the left, particularly Americans, who repeatedly ignored the activists’ lived experiences in service of their own “alt-imperialism.”

Protests in the evening of Lebanon's 76th Independence Day celebration in Martyr's Square, Beirut, November 22, 2019. (Nadim Kobeissi/Wikimedia Commons)
Protests in the evening of Lebanon’s 76th Independence Day celebration in Martyr’s Square, Beirut, November 22, 2019. (Nadim Kobeissi/Wikimedia Commons)

This distorted anti-imperialism exposed Lebanon’s protest movement to the usual accusations that they were being paid by foreign governments and were part of a global conspiracy against Hezbollah and the “Resistance” against Israel. Lebanese Shi’a protesters were particularly targeted by Hezbollah supporters, who smeared them as “embassy” Shi’as (i.e. paid by foreign embassies). This has since taken on dangerous dimensions such as death threats and physical assaults, with some activists opting for online anonymity or withdrawing from public life; many others are planning to leave Lebanon entirely.  

Emotional and mental cost

The fact that some progressive activists are having to take such drastic steps highlights an understudied angle of the tankie phenomenon: the emotional and mental price that these self-described anti-imperialists exact on activists from peripheral countries.

The real damage of the tankie approach comes from the way it forces dissident anti-authoritarians, already facing difficult circumstances, to spend much of their time combating online smears and debunking fake news and dis/misinformation. It drains the energy of those already in vulnerable positions, as it fundamentally dehumanizes them and delegitimizes their lived experiences. This in turn can undermine their ability to push for change in their home countries.

This phenomenon has been particularly prevalent among Syrian activists and journalists, many of whom have become demoralized and cynical after seeking solace online from unspeakable hardships, only to find widespread conspiracy theorizing on social media in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Commenting on this state of affairs, the Syrian writer Yassin Haj Saleh argued that “the world is sick, and its sickness is aggravating our sicknesses, both inherited and acquired.”

Druze residents of the Golan Heights hold Syrian flags and portraits of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, to mark the Syrian Independence Day. April 17, 2012. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)
Druze residents of the Golan Heights hold Syrian flags and portraits of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, during a rally in the Druze village of Majdal Shams, to mark the Syrian Independence Day. April 17, 2012. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

In other words, instead of finding consolation, these Syrians were finding a world complicit in their suffering. For those on the receiving end of state brutality, it is profoundly heartbreaking to see supposed leftists share the authoritarian justifications used to crack down on protesters.

I have seen people argue that we shouldn’t pay attention to these tankies because they are a minority. While it is true that their numbers seem to be low, they still manage to have a disproportionate impact on the broader discourse via social media. This is especially true when tankies boost or are boosted by state-linked outlets such as Russia’s RT or Sputnik. Such airtime further disperses tankie logic, making it accessible even to those who are not active in tankie circles yet may find its simplistic worldview appealing.

This minority of leftist reactionaries therefore exposes a wider tendency that remains largely unchallenged: the concealing of authoritarian politics under the banner of anti-imperialism. As long as anti-imperialist politics is not coupled with anti-authoritarian politics, there is little moral difference between those on the left and right.

Many left-wingers seem to be either unaware or in denial about the fact that fascist anti-imperialists exist as well. As a result, authoritarians are effectively given permission to accuse anti-authoritarians of being pro-West imperialists. Combined with the fact that activists in peripheral countries usually have more to risk and more to lose than Western tankies, this process ends up taking a heavy emotional and mental toll on the activists.

The solution to this state of affairs is both straightforward and complex. It is straightforward because opposing Russian or Chinese imperialism can be done in the same vein as opposing U.S. imperialism. Yet pressing this argument also requires tankies to decenter “the West” — where they are overwhelmingly located — from their analysis, and in doing so also requires them to decenter themselves.

Only then would these “anti-imperialists” truly oppose that which they claim to oppose: destruction and injustice, regardless of who is committing them. Abandoning such binary camps in favor of truly transnational and anti-authoritarian principles would benefit these activists and their causes.