Yes, yes, we know, we’ve all seen the memes. But- and I know this is going to shock and amaze you- sometimes memes aren’t true.
I really shouldn’t be surprised by this misunderstanding- not with the way things are. In the world in general, and in America in particular, people are taught such an utterly warped version of what “communism” means as a legacy of the Cold War and Red Scare that it should hardly be surprising in the least. Even so, it can be frustrating to see these kinds of absurd misstatements, so let’s go ahead and clear things up a little bit.
(Also, to forestall any arguments: none of this is to defend communism, or to project any kind of political philosophy. It’s purely a matter of labeling, because if we can’t even agree on what the words we use mean, how are we supposed to have a discussion?)
What Is Communism
Well, this is something of a doozy of a question to start out with, because it’s not something you can get an easy, clear answer to even if you talk to an actual communist or political professor, because as with most political and economic philosophies there’s a lot of disagreement about where exactly to draw the lines and what is “real” communism and what is just authoritarianism wearing a little hat. However, we can set aside most of these quibbles and talk about things in broad strokes, taking the most common features of what thoughts on communism are that the educated on both sides are, and work from that.
Speaking in the context of the political and economic realms, communism is a system that proposes a classless society where all citizens are equal under the law and in power, and that all capital is owned publicly by the workers that service it. By capital, we mean anything that produces goods or services- a factory, a truck used to deliver parts to that factory, a store where the factory’s goods are sold, etc, etc.
There are, of course, innumerable variations on this that deal with the specifics. For example, who decides what goods the factories produce, and how much? What sort of structure of law and order exists to regulate citizens’ behavior, if any? Are goods sold on an open market, or are prices set by some authority? All of these and more are questions that give rise to different “flavors” of communism and communist thought- Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, anarchocommunism, and so on. There are even varieties that deviate from the basic principles in some way or another, although for our purposes we won’t worry about that. Many varieties of communism also propose a stateless society where all national borders are erased, though this is typically with the understanding that doing so is a laborious process and one that likely won’t happen instantly.
What Is the Tau Empire?
With that out of the way, let’s look at the Tau and their society and see how they compare and contrast with the above outline. Tau are first and foremost an expansionist race, one that wishes to extend their own borders, whether that be at the expense of competing civilizations or not. They are thus strongly nationalist and imperialist in character, viewing Tau society as fundamentally (even dogmatically) superior to all other societies in the galaxy by virtue of the wisdom of the Etherals.
Tau society is also caste-based, with all Tau citizens being a member of one of the five castes and with a distinct role and hierarchy for each and every person in the empire. This hierarchy also extends to the subject species of the Tau Empire- although members of those species are allowed to participate in the running of the Empire in various ways and may be given some degree of governing power over their own planets, as individuals outside of the five castes they lack any rank or inherent status and thus can never be “true” citizens of the Empire- all citizens are equal, but some are more equal than others.
This last point also holds true for the Tau themselves, as two of the castes are significantly more dominant than the other two and seem to have an outsize sway on decision-making within the government. The Fire Caste are, of course, a major part of this- since they control all matters related to the military and Warhammer 40K is a game dominated by wartime narratives, it is unsurprising that the Fire Caste has a disproportionate ability to sway policy and choices, since all of the other castes roles feed into their own.
Of course, the more obvious example is the Ethereal Caste, whose explicit job is to make decisions for the other castes; this role places them innately above the other four, and they are treated with religious levels of devotion and submission thanks to a combination of societal programming and some kind of actual mind-altering effect (although the fluff is unclear on whether this is chemical, aural, or psychic in nature.) The Ethereal Caste is the de facto rulers of Tau society in all cases where they are present.
I think anyone with even the most cursory understanding of politics and sociology can see that it is thus impossible for the Tau Empire to practice communism in any kind of meaningful way- their entire race’s history and culture stand in opposition with the fundamental tenets of communist belief. Communism is classless, but the Tau divide their race into separate social classes that are told never to intermix; communism strives for a world without borders, but the Tau are intensely concerned with their Empire’s borders- it’s even right in the name, as they are first and foremost an Empire.
Just as importantly, the Tau practice “soft” imperialism by controlling other races and planets via commerce- they flood their markets with goods that their technology allows them to produce at lower costs and with superior craftsmanship, swallowing up local economies and forcing them to capitulate to Tau rulership or face complete economic devastation. Moreover, nations taken into the Tau sphere of influence are seen by the Tau themselves not as parts of the Empire that share in its benefits, but as client states that have only two purposes: to serve as new homes for the Tau race, or to supply the Empire with resources for other conquests.
We cannot even blame the Tau’s practices on any sort of “transitional” state, as is sometimes done with communist nations in the real world (where the presumption is that once a fully-communist world is achieved, the class divisions will be removed and equality achieved.) The divisions of Tau society are intentional, even fundamental, to their system of government- without them, the Empire would devolve back into the chaos of the Mon’tau and its senseless killing and individualistic greed,
What we can say instead is that the Tau are collectivist, which is not the same as communist (although it shares some similar roots.) Collectivism is a line of thinking that says society should be organized around what is the most good for the most people- even if this is detrimental to some smaller portion of the population, because each person has a duty to the collective good. This contrasts with individualist thought, which says that society should be organized so that each individual person is free to pursue their own goals and happiness, whatever that may be. Communism does spring from collectivism, but collectivism (in varying degrees) is present in many, many societies across the world and has held many economic, social, and political schools of thought under its umbrella at various points- many forms of democracy are collectivist in nature, for example.
Whether you believe communism is a good or a bad thing, it benefits one to understand what it represents-a nd the Tau Empire does not, in any way, represent communism (or even a failed version of communism, for that matter.) The Tau are much closer to a parody of various empires of the past, such as the British or Roman Empires that relied on a combination of trade, diplomacy, and military force to exert their will over their neighbors and preached about their own superiority while neglecting internal problems that eventually caused them to collapse under their own weight. Like many of the other factions in 40K, it is meant to be both a parody and a warning, and one that we could do well to heed.
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