What exactly are “Trots” and “Tankies”?

Unpicking the latest resurgence in political name-calling on the British left.

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Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, has hit out at “Trotsky entryists” who he claims are “twisting the arms” of young Labour supporters in a bid to bolster support for Jeremy Corbyn. But why do Labour people keep referring to Trotsky and “Trots”?

Trots and Tankies (n,a)

“Trot” is a colloquial label for a socialist who is believed to follow and adhere to the political ideas of the Marxist revolutionary and Soviet politician Leon Trotsky. “Tankie” is a colloquial label for a communist who is believed to defend the policies of the Soviet Union, particularly under Stalin. Both are examples of British political slang, are generally pejorative, and are mainly used as nouns (though can also work as adjectives).

Origin

“Trot” is an abbreviation of Trotsky, and “Tankie” refers to the fondness of the Soviet regime for sending tanks into any dissenting communist countries/enemy states. The first known written use of the term “Trot” was in 1962, in British novelist Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a novel that explores themes of communism, Stalinism, the Cold War, and women’s liberation. The line is: “I was a hundred per cent party member, and there was Harry, a dirty Trot, so there were high words and we parted for ever.” The first time “Tankie” was written down was in the Guardian in May 1985, in an article describing the Morning Star crowd: “The minority who are grouped around the Morning Star (and are variously referred to as traditionalists, hardliners, fundamentalists, Stalinists, or ‘tankies’—this last a reference to the uncritical support that some of them gave to the Soviet ‘intervention’ in Afghanistan).”

Ironically, given how the terms of abuse are sometimes used in the same breath, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin were deadly rivals. Stalin banished Trotsky, and a Stalinist assassin eventually murdered him with an ice-pick in Mexico.

Usage

These are used almost exclusively in the context of name-calling the more hardline members of the British left. For example, right-wingers and Labour moderates alike might dismiss someone with harder lefty ideals as a “Trot” (though the description “Tankie” is rarely used these days). The term “Trot” has seen a resurgence in recent times due to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. He and his political allies and supporters are often accused of being “Trots” by their less socialist detractors.