Tau Aren’t Communists

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.

Drawing Conclusions

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.

As always, remember that you can get your wargaming supplies at great discounts every day at the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking to start a new army or expand an existing one.


About abusepuppy

AbusePuppy is the one who has been ruining 40K for everyone this whole time. He is also searching for the six-fingered man and is one of the three people who know the secret recipe for coke (not the soda, the illegal drug.)

12 Responses to “Tau Aren’t Communists”

  1. Avatar
    kaixaukyr February 24, 2021 7:00 am #

    gotta disagree with you here

    – the Ethereals are a nomenklatura and the Ethereal Council are something of a politburo but that comports perfectly with the Tau being communist. Historical communists varied strongly in the amount of attention they paid to Moscow and historical Moscow varied strongly in how much it cared about deviations from the party line
    – extreme social specialization into certain tasks to the point of sociobiological engineering aligns well with the idea of long term economic planning; it’s more of a social-insect type of being but it doesn’t preclude the castes and other aliens working together in communist solidarity
    – questions of ideological expansionism are central to historical questions of Communist doctrine, viz. permanent revolution vs socialism in one country and the centrality of the Sino-Soviet split
    – Tau imperialist themes are highly relevant to early Soviet expansion in Central Asia and Eastern Europe

    • Avatar
      abusepuppy February 24, 2021 7:24 am #

      You can draw some parallels between Soviet Communist organization and the organization of the Tau empire, yes- but the Tau Empire is explicitly mercantile and explicitly divided into castes, which (in theory) there is never to be any overlap between. The Soviet ideal said that anyone of sufficient loyalty to ascend to the Politburo, because party loyalty (and ability, of course) was all that mattered. Although that was obviously a lie, it was a lie in line with the beliefs in a socialist state that aimed to become communist.

      The Tau Empire has no such belief. No member of another caste can aim to become an Ethereal- such a thing is not just impossible, but unthinkable and biologically impossible. Similarly, no Tau would treat a member of the Water or Earth castes with the deference in decision-making that they give to an Ethereal. It’s completely alien to the Tau perspective on how the world should work.

      There is no equality of castes, which _the most central and important feature of communism_. It is the goal that communism aims for, and the end to which all of its other features are theoretically derived- because it is the disparity and theft of capital that, in communist thought, causes inequality that must be corrected. Return capital to the people, and all people are equal.

      But that concept would make no sense to a Tau, because a Tau would tell you that even if you made all property- whether private or even personal- publicly owned, that would still not result in equality. Equality isn’t even a goal for the Tau! They value harmony, not equality. I think you’re right to compare the Tau to social insects, because social insects are communalist in the extreme- they feature separate castes of workers that each have distinct and inalterable roles defined by their biology, including a “ruling” caste that functionally is in command of the whole organism in many ways. I don’t think that parallel is accidental, but I also don’t think it would make any sense to call ants “communist,” because they aren’t, and neither are Tau.

      (Tau imperialism is another matter, but I would link it less to Soviet ideological imperialism and more to western mercantile imperialism.)

  2. Avatar
    kaixaukyr February 24, 2021 8:51 am #

    Practical mercantile considerations played a very important role in Soviet imperialism! They were down in Baku for the oil, they were out in Siberia for the mining, they made temporary concessions with the Far Eastern Republic during the Revolution, etc.

    I personally think 40K Tau lore has a Fire Caste and Ethereal Caste focused because those are the two major castes represented in the ground wargame of 40K. Aeronautica and Battlefleet Gothic have much more of an Air Caste focus. (GW if you read this I will buy your Water Caste focused diplomacy game.) So I think that’s just the realm of Tau society that we’re peering into with our games. If we were playing some kind of Grimdark Ticket To Ride the Tau lore would be all about Fio’o this and Fio’o that and doctrinal conflicts about emacs vs vim.

    Finally, communism doesn’t really require total equality. The lower stage of communism only prescribes that all contribute according to their ability and that society cares for everyone’s needs as best it can. More prosaically, ideological efforts to maintain full social equality have foundered rapidly in our communist societies. The Soviets discovered that technical specialists and bureaucrats were required to keep the state intact, and of course Deng took his path down the capitalist road. People certainly do have their differences about whether that still counts as communism! But if there are some big brained people walking around who have an ability to fairly and efficiently allocate market resources in their heads, there’s a case to be made for huffing the pheromones if it results in reallocation of everyone’s resources for the greatest social good.

    You raise some great points about the incompatibility of Tau society with the “higher stage of communism” of total equality and the full abolition of class relations. But I think the Tau go along very well with the “lower stage of communism”. If we’re drawing a line between socialism and communism, then sure, the Tau are better described as advanced socialists.

    • Avatar
      abusepuppy February 24, 2021 10:36 pm #

      Oh, I’m not saying that economic factors weren’t relevant to Soviet expansionism- especially when it came to their border states. But it generally wasn’t a _driving_ factor in their overall philosophy; the Soviet state, in theory, was above such things because those were the concerns of capitalist dogs, not the pure communist revolutionaries. The Tau (and the British and American empires, as well as many others) use mercantilism as not only a justification of much of what they do, but also as a major lever in controlling their client states in a way that the Soviets mostly didn’t have an interest in.

      There is definitely a bias in terms of the lens through which the game is seen, but the novels and other media that focus less on the Fire Caste still tend to show them as preeminent among the “lower” four castes, being given the most deference and respect as well as the most decision-making power. This shouldn’t be surprising in an expansionist nation that uses propaganda about the military to unite its people, but I think it does tell you a lot about the Tau culture and psyche.

      There is a difference between communism-in-theory and communism-in-practice, obviously, and in practice none of them have ever come anywhere _near_ equality. But I think it is a worthwhile fact to remember that their goal was, in fact, still equality- a goal not shared by the Tau. Equality doesn’t mean everyone has the same abilities and does the same work, of course, and it doesn’t even necessarily imply that everyone is of equal importance- but it does preclude certain proscribed groups from being explicitly higher in rank than others, which is the case with the Tau.

  3. Avatar
    NinetyNineNo February 24, 2021 5:51 pm #

    Doctrinal conflicts about emacs vs vim sound like something the AdMech would start a millenium-long holy war over.

    • Avatar
      abusepuppy February 24, 2021 10:27 pm #

      “C++ is the only way, it holds the Truth and the Power! C# is an abomination and must be purged before it infects any more systems!”

  4. Avatar
    BC February 24, 2021 8:35 pm #

    The TL;DR version of this article: “I am a frustrated and self-regarding sociology/poli-sci major who is Extremely Mad Online that people are glibly characterizing a faction of imaginary space aliens as commies. Please take me seriously.”

  5. Avatar
    Dakkath February 24, 2021 9:40 pm #

    It’s amazing to me how many people don’t understand the difference between Communism and Russian “Communism”.

    • Avatar
      abusepuppy February 24, 2021 10:24 pm #

      The USSR never even claimed to be communist, it explicitly was supposed to be a transitional state from local socialism (that’s what the ‘S’ was) until the worldwide communist revolution happened and overturned the course of history.

      But we all know how well that turned out.

    • Avatar
      Ohlmann February 25, 2021 3:08 am #

      That being said, any and all of the transitional to communism states have been in practice authoritarian states. Seem that highly centralized communist transition have a weakness to dictatorship.

      (for reference : khmer rouges, Cuba, China didn’t implement communism terribly better than USSR, both in term of not being a dictatorship and in term of going toward the vision of Marx)

  6. Avatar
    Fagerlund February 24, 2021 11:53 pm #

    I always saw Tau more like India than anything else. Which aligns well with the fact that every faction in 40K is just a parody aspect of the British Empire.

  7. Avatar
    Ohlmann February 25, 2021 3:10 am #

    TBH the Tau alway looked like the USA to me. A bunch of highly technologically advanced people, who think they can integrate everyone but don’t actually do that, have a savior complex, and actually try to be the good guys even if they fail at that.

    Also, americans have absolutely 0 idea of what communism or socialism is outside of being “not conservative”.

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