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The other day, a friend and I had a brief exchange (in the gym of all places) about the history of Communism. Basically, I made a comment that insinuated that many current self-designated “communists” lack the humility to admit that 20th century state socialism was an “absolute failure.” At this, my friend was quick to note how “successful” he thought Soviet Russia had been; particularly in light of their rapid growth in industrialization and placing a man on the moon. To which I responded that such “successes” were great for what they were, but that in light of the overall fallout of the death of 50-100 million citizens under communist rule I hardly consider industrialization a gloating fact.

Upon reflection, I’ve begun to wonder by what does History measure “success”? Is it rapid industrial growth? The development of space programs? A few hundred years of relative prosperity for a nation’s citizens? What? The answer that floats around amorphously in my thoughts currently has something to do with the flourishing of persons globally. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I’m ok with that at the moment. I think that if I were able to define what this flourishing might look like then I’d be erecting an idealist totality (particularly if I defined this flourishing in terms of the nation). Instead of the latter, I think we ought to listen to Sartre who, in Search for a Method, rails against idealist Marxist determinism, which is stuck thinking a priori or teleologically. Rather, for Sartre, human praxis is irreducible to material conditions, which means that human intent and the results that come from such are excessive; and as such are never able to be determined except through the process of ongoing totalization or History. Thus, the idea of success itself is something that is perhaps never realizable by any given generation of actants, for the fallout of human praxis has a ripple-effect that only makes sense within History as absolute (which of course is not knowable a priori and only a posteriori).

That said, perhaps in my hastiness to accuse communism of the 20th century as an “absolute failure” I neglected the power of this ripple-effect that is perhaps only beginning to emerge through the cracks of History in figures like Zizek, Badiou, Negri, Hardt, (contemporary readings of) Sartre, etc. who are not thinking of communism per se but rather from communism (more as a platform from which one can emerge and affect the situation in which one is placed) as a concept that still has vitality for today (this is not to even mention places where contemporary appropriations of Marxist thought are manifest). This doesn’t mean that there isn’t still an unwillingness to admit the failures of 20th century state socialism in many contemporary communist thinkers, but that rather than writing off Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc. tout court we need a more nuanced approach to discourse; one that recognizes History as becoming; one sprinkled with a little humility and patience. And who knows, perhaps Sartre was right when he said that Marxism was only in its infancy, only just beginning to emerge…