[Editor: I remade this article as a video. If you find reading hard you might prefer to watch it instead. See end of article for the video.]
Hello Solar Cross here and in this article we will investigate if the Tau Empire of Warhammer 40k are space communists. The answer, in a word, is no. If that is not enough for you, if the objection “but muh greater good” is right now reflexively exploding from your mouth then what follows is the irrefutable argument as to why the Tau are not communists.
Firstly I would like to look at who it is among the 40k fandom that makes such a clearly spurious claim. I think there are two kinds of people who like to make the specious claim that the Tau are communists.
One type is people who like communism and want to try to soften the ugly image of historical communism by associating it with the one faction in the fictional 40k setting that may be the least Grimdark.
For example some quotes here:
tl;dr, you pretty much nailed it about it being a meme, they’re mostly referred to as communists because of ignorance, but adored by us lefties probably because they’re the most leftists faction in the game since they’re established collectivists.https://www.reddit.com/user/erosharcos/
Communism comes in different flavours. The T’au are a bit of a soviet era communism. We’re all equal except some of us are more equal than others…https://warhammer40k.fandom.com/f/u/31316467
In fairness to those who like communism, there are some among them that recognise that the Tau are not communists. As seen in this thread from r/Sigmarxism, a reddit board for far-left leaning warhammer fans.
The other type is people who dislike the Tau and therefore want to claim they are communists by way of a slander. These people for example will tend to emphasise the brainwashing by Tau ethereals and liken that to the brainwashing by historical communists.
A famous example of the latter type would be youtuber Arch.
So that is where the motivations come for making the claim but what evidence is submitted to justify it? Well there are just three and they are tenuous at best.
The least of this evidence is that the Tau Empire is situated in the eastern fringe of the 40k galaxy. It has to be said that during the cold war the philosophical divide between freedom and communism was often presented using the spatial metaphor of East vs West. So if the Tau location in the galaxy has a metaphorical meaning in it then the artistic choice of putting them in the east could be a reference to the cold war and thus communism… except the vibe of the cold war was that the communist east was large, ominous and equal in power to the west even if inferior in other ways such as human values.
The vibe of the Tau is completely different, however. The Tau are not large and ominous to the Imperium of Mankind, indeed they are a flea in comparison. The Tau are the plucky upstart, the new kid on the block, not the great and terrible adversary that the East represented during the cold war.
Moreover “East” as a broad spatial metaphor for a philosophical strain has also been used in other times in history to reference the Dharmic religions of India and the Confucian traditions of the far east. “East” alone does not narrow the Tau to a cypher for human communists.
I do believe the authors of the Tau faction did indeed place the Tau in the eastern fringe of the galaxy as a reference to something in human history but I will elaborate on that later.
The main evidence presented that the Tau are communists is the philosophy propagated by the Ethereal Caste of the Tau which is summarised by the motto “the Greater Good”. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly the “Greater Good” philosophy is extremely vague in itself but seems to be very much a philosophy of altruism rather than collectivism in the specific way the communists mean it.
Ayn Rand would not like it I guess but philosophies of altruism are actually very numerous. So it is not possible to say that the Greater Good could not be a reference to any of Christianity, Confucianism, Nationalism or even Fascism rather than Communism. Communism might also be classed as a philosophy of altruism but yet it can not be fairly said to be the only one.
Moreover communism purports to be a philosophy of discord, they claim to seek to stoke a war between the classes for the aim of proletariat coming to dominate and even destroy the other classes.
Those who have read the Tau lore know that before the ethereals came to propagate their philosophy the Tau were a practical people very much given to warring among each other. They already had discord but the ethereals persuaded the different Tau clans to work together peacefully.
This approach is the literal opposite of how communists carry out their philosophy. It is the equivalent of the communists pleading for the working classes, bourgeoisie and the landlords to work together symbiotically rather than inciting them to war on each other.
We might also note that the Ethereals, as the propagators of the Greater Good philosophy, aesthetically do not have a very Marxian vibe. Marxists tend to affect an academic or intellectual style, even pretending to be scientific. Whereas the tau Ethereals have a more priestly, monkish or mystical vibe going for them.
The philosophy of the ethereals could in fact be better understood as a religion rather than a philosophy. Thus we would be better to think of them as analogous to the Brahmins of the Dharmic cultures or the Shinto priests of Japan.
Finally there is the claim made by those that dislike the Tau that the Ethereals are like communists because they are into brainwashing. Well again even if we accept that the Ethereals do indeed brainwash the other castes, brainwashing in itself is not unique to communists.
Really any propagated philosophy or religion or education could be viewed rather darkly as brainwashing. The Ethereals’ methods of brainwashing however do not resemble that of communists at all. It does not appear that the Ethereals use torture or terror to propagate their philosophy for example.
Moreover if brainwashing was a communist trait then really almost all factions in the Warhammer 40k universe would be communists. Point of fact, the Imperium of Mankind literally employs political officers called commissars directly lifted from Soviet history. Genestealers do more than steal genes, they also control memes.
To really cement why the Tau Empire are not space commies I will now demonstrate exactly what in the real world they are derived from. And yes of course they are heavily derived from another source, just as most of Games Workshop’s creations are. Likely you will already know the answer if you are aware of the other, and actually correct, Tau meme; that they are the weeabo faction.
What follows now are eleven evidences that I, Solar Cross, present to you that the Tau are inspired by Japan; that they are indeed the weeabo faction.
Probably the most accessible clue to the Tau’s Japanese roots are the Tau’s heavy use of large mecha suits, such as the Broadside, Riptide, Ghostkeel and Stormsurge.
Loosely we may define a mecha suit as a large humanoid warmachine usually piloted by a living person rather than an AI.
Modern Japanese pop culture, at least from the 1980s, is fairly awash with such machines as exemplified by the Gundam series.
The boxy designs of Tau mecha suits clearly resembles that of the Gundams.
Fire Warrior armour and mecha suits are distinguished by monocular eyepieces and rabbit ear like antennae. A look that seems to be lifted from the cybernetic prosthetics of Briareos Hecatonchires in the famous Japanese manga Appleseed.
Besides rabbit ears and monocular eyepieces, regular fire warriors sport slatted thigh armour, square shoulder armour and tight fitting calf hoses. A look that certainly seems lifted from classic Samurai battle fashion.
The Tau have a well defined and seemingly quite rigid caste system. There are five castes and they are each associated with a mystical element; earth, fire, water, air and spirit. Each has a distinct symbiotic role to play in the wider enterprise of the species. Fire Caste are warriors, Earth Caste are workers and artisans, Water Caste are merchants and diplomats, Air Caste are pilots and messengers while the Ethereal are the monks and priests.
The other famous period of Japanese history besides the modern period of manga and high technology is the medieval one of samurai and shinto priests. In this period the emerging class system was becoming really quite entrenched almost to the point of becoming a caste system.
The warrior caste of the Tau, the Fire Caste, then can be seen as a proxy for the Samurai caste just as the ethereals can be seen as proxies for the monks and priests of medieval japan. Of course the remainder of the people were workers, artisans and merchants.
Although it originated in ancient China the notion of the Dao, or Tao, was transmitted over the centuries to Japan along with other cultural imports such as Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and the Chinese writing system. Dao can be roughly translated into English as “The Way”. It is not hard to see that the name of the species and empire “Tau”, or “T’au”, is derived from the name of this ancient mystical concept.
Japan managed to persist in an exquisitely medieval level of technology due to its geographic isolation until well into the 19th century. Then by the early 20th century their industrial, technological and scientific development was comparable to the most advanced powers in the world and many might argue by the latter part of the 20th century Japan had far exceeded them all. This incredibly fast pace of technological development has never been equalled.
A blisteringly fast technological development rate is a hallmark of the Tau story too. It is said the Tau went from crude gunpowder weapons to starships in a matter of a few millennia, a pace of development that astonishes and appalls the scholars of the old and stagnant powers like the Imperium of Mankind.
A distinctive feature of Tau flags and heraldry such as Sept signs are ubiquitous use of circular designs.
It may surprise you to know that this is also a feature of Japanese heraldry.
In the Tau lore their foremost Fire Caste leader Commander Farsight becomes disenchanted with the rule of the Ethereal Caste and goes into rebellion.
A comparable thing happened in Japan’s history with the Boshin War. The Boshin War was a civil war between the followers of the Shogun, the foremost leader of the Samurai class, and the followers of the Emperor. The Japanese Emperor’s role is actually rather less like that of western emperors in that he is less a military leader and more like a spiritual one. The Japanese Emperor is perhaps more like a pope than a military dictator as he symbolises the soul of the nation.
Thus the split between Farsight and the Ethereals has echoes in the split between the Shogun and the Imperial Court which precipitated the Boshin War.
As noted before, the Tau are physically located within the Warhammer 40k universe in a region of space called the Eastern Fringe. The notable characteristic of this region besides being “east” is that it is very remote and isolated from the main sway of the Galaxy populated by the Imperium.
Japan, also known as the land of the rising sun because of its position in the far-east, also had a physical isolation and distance from the West as a characteristic. That is up until advances in naval technology connected the islands with the broader sweep of human civilisation.
Tau vehicles are ubiquitously named after fish: Devilfish, Hammerhead, Barracuda, Piranha, Sky Ray, Manta, Orca, Sun Shark…
It also so happens that fish are a food source of critical importance to Japan as a densely populated island nation. It is not for nothing that Sushi is Japan’s most famous cuisine.
Strategy, tactics and philosophy merge as one for the Samurai, as seen in the code of Bushido and the Hagakure. The two philosophies of war for the Tau Fire Caste, the Mont’ka and Kauyon, may be loose derivations.
It is no secret that Games Workshop’s creators are perpetually lifting styles and stories from both other fiction and history to create their own IP. They have lifted from Tolkein, european history, Starship Troopers, Frank Herbert’s Dune and so much more.
By the early 2000s Japanese pop art, anime and manga had already quite well established fandoms in the west. It really could only be a matter of time before GW’s culture raiders were to discover and exploit the rich treasure of material presented by Japanese history and pop culture.
That it is exists, is cool and appears to be popular is reason enough for GW to exploit it.
If you play Stellaris then you may be interested in this article which shows how to implement Warhammer 40k factions, including the Tau, in Stellaris.