EDMUND WILSON and his FABULOUS BOOK "To the Finland Station"
Edmund Wilson's "To The Finland Station" is the Plutarch's Lives of Liberals, also the history of Socialist economic theory that ended up being GB SHAW's Dream, FDR's contribution. He covers Communism from Hobbes to Michelet to Lenin. Well that's not exactly correct- -- this book is many books rolled into one. First it is a history of the idea of a Marxist interpretation of history. Second it is a first-hand account of the efforts by Marx and Engels to start a communist revolution. Third it is a literary criticism of "Das Kapital", the books of Hobbes, Michelet and other writers. Wilson is the man who said "Marxism is the opiate of intellectuals." A wit, a man who came up against the IRS' death grip on him and wrote a book pillorizing them, the first half chronicling HIS war with them, the second half the wars that the IRS did with his money and how many they killed and in how many places and for how little reason! That book flattens you with a shock wave of acrid dislike for taxes. Funny how the foundation of FDR socialism requires heavy taxes, which as it's done today,d rains the middle class but does so much good for the disenfranchised, poor, crippled laggards whom oligarchs and the wealthy would like to see fall between cracks.
Edmund Wilson was the book reviewer for "The New Yorker" magazine for many years best friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I picked up this book wanting to read something, anything from the literary critic who many consider the finest since, say, Samuel Johnson. Wilson is famous for, among other things, writing about the literature of the Civil War, "Patriotic Gore", and learning Hebrew so that he could research & write "The Dead Sea Scrolls". (He must have understood French and German too since he seems to have read Michelet and Marx in the originals and he did a book on RUSSIA and speaks that too!) Wilson was also notorious for panning "The Maltese Falcon" and all mystery writing in general. (Ouch, my faves.) Perhaps his greatest contribution was to revive from obscurity and make famous the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of "The Great Gatsby", who books had gone out of print. (They were great chums.)
"To the Finland Station" is a meaty book that is not at all hard to read. (He makes everything as 'today' as a Gladwell tome. Some consider it the Plutarch's Lives of a string of the great, Messianic activists.) The long discussion of Hegel and Dialectical Materialism-while no doubt important to the idea of a Marxist interpretation of history-had me rereading the same paragraphs over and over. Still I don't understand any of it. But the terse nature of this prose and the theories they contain render one of the most startling ideas in the book. Marx says that most shallow readers-I guess he had me in mind-have missed the idea of communism completely. It is not simply the progression from capitalism to a struggle between the proletarian and bourgeois.
Wilson writes that Marx says "To many simple minded persons who have just heard about Marxism, it means something extremely simple: it means that people always act from motives of economic interest and the everything that everything mankind has thought or done is susceptible of being explained in those terms". Yes, that is my precise understanding of Marxism and I learned it in high school.
Until I read this book I did not know that Marx and Engels were not just pointy headed intellectuals working away in the safety of a university. No, they were front-line politicians and revolutionaries who risked their necks and their money to foment revolution. As Wilson points out, Marx used his inherited money to buy weapons for revolutionaries in Belgium. Both were expelled from Belgium, Prussia, France, and Marx finally settled in London. He and Engels spent much of their efforts trying re-ignite the Paris Commune (a French civil war in the 1870's where the communists actually took Paris for a few days) in revolutions in Austria and elsewhere.
It is interesting to note that capitalism and the lack of money caused Marx and his family great suffering. Marx was broke during most of his life in London. He and his family were evicted from their homes even while Mrs. Engles was suckling her child. The child later died. Marx made a little money writing articles for newspapers such as Horace Greeley's New York City newspaper "The World". But he mainly lived off charity from Engles and financial bailouts from Lasalle. Lasalle was another revolutionary. Marx was jealous of any rival to his position as leader of the movement. Engels was jealous of any rival to the affections of Marx.
For me the most interesting character in the book is Jules Michelet. Wilson takes you into his study as he labors away at his great "History of the French Revolution". Michelet was lucky to have been the first historian granted access to the French version of the national archives. (I think he founded the Academie Française?) Michelet today might be best known for popularizing the feats of the young French maiden, Jean D'Arc.
Other extremely interesting sections of the book were descriptions of early efforts to build idealistic communistic communes in the young country, The United States. All of these efforts failed. The most famous were the Brook Farm and others based on the writing of Fourier. (You can read Susan Sontag's "In America" for a description of one such commune.) I did not know that early efforts at communism were launched right here in the USA. Fancy that!
To his credit Edmund Wilson went back into his book years after it's publication and wrote a new introduction. There he derides the evils of Stalinism.(Yeah, well, after Joe offs millions of kulaks, how not?) While it's conception might have been pure and elegant like some subtle mathematical proof-to the writer Saint Simon communism was even a new religion--it's implementation was bloody and ridiculous. Today most people would agree that it has been totally discredited. But we should all read "To the Finland Station" to understand what all the fuss was about.
Edmund Wilson QUOTES"“No two persons ever read the same book.”
“Marxism is the opiate of intellectuals”
“No matter how thoroughly and searchingly we may have scrutinized works of literature from the historical and biographical point of view, we must be able to tell good from bad, the first-rate from the second-rate. We shall otherwise not write literary criticism at all, but merely social or political history as reflected in literary texts, or psychological case histories from past eras.”
“At 60 the sexual preoccupation, when it hits you, seems sometimes sharper, as if it were an elderly malady, like gout.”
“The cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth was to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
“There is nothing more demoralizing than a small but adequate income.”
“Real genius of moral insight is a motor which will start any engine.”
“The human imagination has already come to conceive the possibility of recreating human society.”
For More on Wilson from New Yorker, prime stuff: go to:
<------ BACK TO THE WRITERS INDEX
<----- BACK TO THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY WEBPAGE
<-------BACK TO ACTIVISM AS A DELIGHT