Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To the Finland Station

To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson
1940, 509 pp.

When life has become particularly difficult, when you flounder amid indecision and uncertainty, when you feel you have lost your way, you can do no better than to read a good book about communists. We, all of us, move through life assailed by information, much of it contradictory or irrelevant or fraudulent, with no governing principle for its assimilation and evaluation, and marooned in our solitude as the communicability of experience diminishes. How, then, are we to organize our experience of the world, especially in a manner effective enough to allow us to take meaningful action in it? A long and healthy dose of Marx, with his unparalleled ability to marshal and organize vast amounts of information into an argument which is both cogent and forceful, will immediately set you aright, and make whatever difficult tasks lie ahead appear to be small, simple things. All that had appeared solid will melt into air, and the way ahead will be revealed. Only ask yourself: What Would Marx Do?

I have therefore arrived at To the Finland Station after a long Marxist bath which began with the hundred-page introduction to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, then proceeded through a volume of Hobsbawm and a short piece by Tony Cliff. My appraisal might be affected by this prolonged exposure, but I found this book to be extremely enjoyable. Wilson, a gifted literary critic and close friend of Vladimir Nabokov, is a splendid writer. His Axel’s Castle is an intelligent, accessible approach to most of the important artists of the Modernist period, and is a good place to start for an accurate, logical description of what exactly happens in Ulysses. Here he is a sort of curious sidekick to Leszek Kolakowski. To the Finland Station mirrors much of Kolakowski’s monumental Main Currents of Marxism quite closely: there are the various pre-Marx socialists, then Marx himself as the centerpiece, then Lenin and Trotsky emerge in the third act. But in many ways Wilson is the exact opposite, and perhaps perfect companion piece. Kolakowski is an intellectual and scholarly juggernaut, an immense whirling combine of knowledge and analysis, with sentences like mechanical threshers, shredding all that stands before him. He knows everything that has ever happened or ever will happen, and has compressed it all into his work. He is the Alpha and the Omega, and he can flatten the life’s work of a poseur like Althusser in one withering sentence. His work is less a book and more like an entymologist’s catalogue, with innumerable obscure Marxists preserved, impaled, in careful boxes. Wilson, on the other hand, has no scholarly apparatus. There are no footnotes, no bibliography. Naturally, I found this a bit annoying. Much of his material is biographical and conversational, to the point where he seems often to be writing a novel. The book is easy and quick to read because of this: I may read Kolakowski before bed, but I bet you don’t. This is much more manageable.
In fact, if I am ever absurd enough to have a child, it is highly likely that this will indeed be her bedtime reading: “Now, next door to the Marxes in Trier there lived a family named von Westphalen…”

Like Kolakowski, though, the stuff before Marx turns up is often desperate. The book opens well, with an enthralling account of Michelet, the great (and often utterly forgotten) French historian, who was the first (and in many senses the only) writer to use the actual documents and archives to write a multi-volume history of the French Revolution. Within two chapters Wilson had me on Amazon, pricing full sets. The chapter on Gracchus Babeuf is excellent, and a more efficient introduction to that essential character than Robert Rose’s full-length biography.

The chapter headings are a good summary of Wilson's approach: Karl Marx Decides to Change the World, Marx and Engels Take a Hand at Making History, Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History, Trotsky Identifies History With Himself, Lenin Identifies Himself With History.

Wilson’s avuncular conversationalism does have its drawbacks. Particularly when describing the misery of Marx’s life in London, Wilson’s sense of humor works against him. He seems to be laughing at Marx and his three dead children, adopting a position of superiority which is hardly warranted. That said, the chapters on Marx are mostly very good, and though they are lighter on detail than David McClellan’s excellent biography, they are quicker, smoother, and probably better written. Anyone interested in the great man’s life, but pressed for time and without access to a university library could do no better than to seek out To the Finland Station and read pp. 112-345. Wilson has clearly read Marx widely and deeply, even to the extent of translating some of Marx and Engels’ odd polyglot correspondence and sending copies of Marx’s mathematical manuscripts to a distinguished professor for commentary. He is great fun and displays contagious enthusiasm when he talks about the good bits of Marx’s work, and has a sharp eye for the problems which are now so familiar.

In particular, he has an entire chapter called “The Myth of the Dialectic,” which, while he annoyingly fails to trace the origin of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis vulgarism to Fichte rather than Hegel, does make an important point. Hegel was an idealist and a mystic, and the concepts of the dialectic and the Absolute Idea are holdovers from the great age of German mysticism. Marx never was able to get away from metaphysics, and they are often his undoing. His love for abstraction and grounding in classical German philosophy led him down dark alleys which he plunged into so heedlessly that he never found his way back out. Hence we have the inescapable problem of the Labour Theory of Value, which in Volume III of Das Kapital turns out to be separate from actual prices and demand functions and turns out to have been mysticism all along. This may explain why the best of Marx’s work are the most materialist, the most immediate responses to actual political events rather than the products of long years of abstract rumination.

Wilson is also sharp on Marx’s other weaknesses: his enormous hatreds, his domineering nature, the misery he inflicted on his family, his tendency to factionalism. All manner of contradictions are revealed: Marx’s ambivalence towards science while espousing scientific socialism, his inability to reconcile his great hatred of capitalism with his sober economic analysis of its necessity. And so on. Wilson’s Marx is a fascinating character memorably presented, but an altogether smaller figure than you expect. His Engels, however, emerges as quite a sympathetic character. There is none of the rage of some Marxists who accuse Engels of simplifying and distorting the subtle gradations of Marx’s thought into the sort of vulgarity which has been used to justify violence and repression. Wilson’s picture of Engels is of a loyal, amiable guy who likes to have a good time and when he is away from Marx’s drive and cynicism, likes to go horseback riding and eat grapes. Weighed against this sympathetic portrayal of Engels, Wilson’s Marx seems all the more limited. There is a touching passage about their only real falling-out, occasioned by the sudden death of Engels’ lover Mary Burns. Marx started out to write a sympathetic letter, but didn’t quite know how, so he ended up complaining for several pages about his own life. Engels, understandably, replied coldly. Marx tried to apologize, and apparently cast about for something to cheer Engels up. He seems to have concluded that the best thing would be to get Engels talking about something he knows well but that Marx doesn’t, apparently on the grounds that what Marx himself enjoys is expounding at length on topics that others are ignorant of. So Marx writes to Engels about factory machinery, and only succeeds in alienating Engels more. Two more of Marx’s letters go unanswered, and we begin to see just how much Marx needs his friend and how limited he was in the world of personal relations. Marx’s daughter later wrote of how her father would get immensely excited when Engels was coming to visit London, but be all to business when Engels actually arrived. These letters are an angle on Marx we don’t often see: the lonely exile, the great intellectual whose passionate hatred and pedantic insistence on subtle distinctions drove away all his comrades, the old man afraid that he has driven away his only friend. Here, and later during his account of the death of Marx’s wife, Wilson is quite moving.

Instead it is Lenin who is the hero of To the Finland Station. Wilson has quite a glowing assessment of Lenin, who he sees as above petty politics, as a charming, charismatic statesman of the future. Most of the violence of the Revolution and the Red Terror Wilson ascribes to Trotsky, who he sees as a bit of an egotist, a dilettante, and a man prone to violence and cruelty. Wilson later recanted a bit and published as Appendix E to a later edition of To the Finland Station a correction in which he acknowledged that virtually all of the institutions of Stalin’s repression were set up by Lenin himself. But for the main narrative, Lenin seems almost a messiah, and Wilson faithfully reports all of the best stories from Trotsky’s biography of Lenin, but leaves out the carping, contemptuous tone of Lenin’s polemics and the gleeful cruelty of Lenin’s telegrams.

Wilson, of course, has his problems. While he is an effective and engaging popularizer of history and ideas, he is less convincing when he expresses his own ideas. He is given to some unconvincing psychologizing, and he has some peculiar ideas about Jews. The book suffers from the absence of the 1844 manuscripts, but it is not Wilson’s fault he could not have access to them during his writing. We probably could have done with less of Fourier and Owen and a bit more of Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Plekhanov. If read as an interesting, thoughtful, and enthusiastic account of a great and fascinating drama, the book is a rousing success, it just must not be taken as a critical, scholarly opus, or as the last word on any point of controversy.

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