Edmund Wilson's magnum opus, To the Finland Station, is a stirring account of revolutionary politics, people, and ideas from the French Revolution through the Paris Commune to the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. It is a work of history on a grand scale, at once sweeping and detailed, closely reasoned and passionately argued, that succeeds in painting an unforgettable picture--alive with conspirators and philosophers, utopians and nihilists--of the making of the modern world.
His main source for his account of Lenin is the myth-making, hagiographic memoir produced by Krupskaya, which Wilson takes at face value, insisting, like Krupskaya, that Lenin never flew into rages (his rages were nuclear, incandescent, and lasted years), that he always showed human concern for his comrades (she would say that, wouldn't she) and that on his deathbed he asked about Martov (Lenin had had a massive stroke and was practically speechless for the last 10 months of his life). It may be true as Wilson says in his introduction, that at the time of writing there were no other sources available on Lenin's life, but he still should have evaluated this source a bit more thoroughly. Wilson suffers from that most American of conditions: excessive gullibility.
But the most damaging weakness of the second half of the book is his complete omission of any discussion of Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky's book What is to be Done? exercised a huge influence on Lenin's generation -Lenin even borrowed the title for one of his own tracts in tribute. Nechayev's Catechism of a Revolutionary, which did much to influence the character of the Russian Marxists, was also heavily influenced by Chernyshevsky. Any discussion of Russian Marxism without a mention of Chernyshevsky is necessarily fundamentally flawed. He also underestimates and downplays the role played by Plekhanov.
If it is true, as the blurb claims, that Wilson was the pre-eminent American man of letters of the twentieth century, one can only say oh dear, and role ones eyes. This is my first book by Wilson, and on this showing, it will also be my last. Good title, though.
The approach Wilson takes is interesting; the book starts off as a work of literary criticism, looking at nineteenth-century French historians reacting to the French Revolution. As we progress in time, the historians comment less and less on historical events and begin to relate their writings to their actions and the contemporary political scene. By the time we reach Marx and Engels, we are looking at fully-fledged activists. The work is then brought to its conclusion with Trotsky and Lenin, ending with Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd at the eve of the October revolution.
I particularly liked the description of the events of Lenin's return to Petrograd; it had a very vivid sense of someone walking into a situation that they were not expecting (Lenin was half expecting to be arrested) and then running with the situation as they found it, and of events taking their own momentum and running away from people who thought they were in control. How much of that is the Soviet accepted history, how much is fact and how much Wilson's own imagination I cannot say, but it makes quite interesting, even exciting reading!
The strengths of this book are in the pre-history of European socialism, and in the pen portraits of the earlier players. Marx and Engels in particular are sympathetically portrayed, even whilst their faults are not glossed over (at least, as much as you'd expect a non-revisionist work to be). The accounts of Trotsky's and Lenin's early lives are also interesting, though I gather that they were compiled from mainly Soviet sources, so it must be expected that they will reflect the Party line (although, of course, by the time of writing, Trotsky was officially an 'unperson', so the line there would be the one from the early Bolshevik era). The accounts of the political manoeuvering in the years leading up to 1917 is helpful in giving an overview, though it feels a little journalistic and sketchy in places. Certainly, Lenin's years in exile are dealt with in very short order. And the book only mentions Stalin and his purges in passing; I had the feeling that Wilson was treating them as a given, but specifically did not want to talk about them. In a way, this is understandable; Stalin and the direction he took the Soviet Union has very little to do with revolution, but it was the end result of the process that started with Marx and Engels, and no historian today would get away with not mentioning it.
There are omissions: others have commented that the portrait of Lenin is excessively kind, having again been assembled from Soviet sources; and Wilson at one point acknowledges gaps in the record caused by Soviet editing of Marx's correspondence, and but a few paragraphs later excuses this as an act of socialist zeal, enthusiasm and loyalty. And as I hinted above, he spends a chapter trying to explain the concept of the Dialectic and just succeeds in muddying the waters further. (I certainly emerged from that chapter little wiser than when I went in.) He also expounds on the Labour theory of value, and whilst he has more success with that, he does seem to spend more time explaining what other people thought of it than examining it himself.
For a Lenin apologist, he is not uncritical of some of the tenets of socialist thought. He does expose flaws in the concept of the Labour theory of value, and has a very good analysis of why there was no socialist revolution in Britain (the ruling class made concessions and the managerial class negotiated with the trade unions, who were more interested in securing advantages for their members than pursuing revolution) or America (there was no ruling class to revolt against). And his explanation of Lenin's anti-democratic statements - that there is no place for democracy in a revolutionary movement, because once you stop to debate issues and subject them to democratic processes, you lose the ability to plan in secret and to act decisively - makes everything fall into place. That. ultimately, has to lead to the realisation that if you once seize power by force, you can only retain it by force - but Wilson lacked the historical perspective we have nowadays to realise this.
So: a useful book, but it should certainly not be your only source in revolutionary history. And it should serve as a warning. Wilson's analysis of why there was a revolution in Russia and not in Britain or America needs to be heeded; when political leaders start to act as though they possess absolute power, and when the employers and owners of capital are not prepared to negotiate, or consider the opinions of those who work for them, but consider that they have all the rights and the workers have none, then we are seeing the growth of conditions for revolution, the same sort of conditions that there were in Tsarist Russia. All that the situation lacks is a sufficiently dedicated band of revolutionary leaders; and perhaps it is good that we do not have such people, because such people can make dreadful things happen in the name of their revolution.
The best description I can give of the nature of the work is that it is very much a literary overview of socialism rather than a political-historical one. Wilson concentrates in all mini-biographies of early socialists as well as the pieces on Lenin, Marx & Engels on the particulars of their life. Larded with many details and amusing anecdotes revealing the personality of the main socialist leaders, this book is very much at its best when describing the human interactions between various socialists and the world around them, and in portraying how their ideas were formed by their life experiences.
The big downside to this book is, however, Wilson's complete lack of understanding of any theory whatever. He clearly has neither knowledge of nor interest in any of the real tenets of socialism, Marxist, Lassallean or otherwise, and has not taken any trouble to look it up either. The result is that the passages which mean to give quick overviews of the Marxist or Leninist positions on certain issues are almost invariably simplistic, confused and wrong. The worst example of this (as a prior reviewer also mentioned) is the chapter on the dialectic, which immediately reveals to the reader that Wilson didn't have the slightest idea what dialectics is, and the childish simplicity of his view on it makes one think he probably got his information from a dictionary or something equally useless.
For these reasons, it is hard to say whether the overall result is positive or negative. If you are looking for a good insight on the development of the theoretical aspects of socialism or the political issues of those times, absolutely do not rely on this book. If you are however interested in the personalities and life histories of the main socialists until WWII, then Wilson's book will be a high-quality, pleasant and sympathetic guide. If there were a 3.5 star rating, I would give it that; but I will err on the side of a positive review here since I suppose most people reading popular literature about socialism are not going to be interested in the the technical details of the theory, unless they are socialists themselves - in which case they should read Marx & Engels directly anyway.
One final word of warning: the introduction by Louis Menand is terrible, and is best skipped altogether.
The most interesting chapters are those in the very beginning, where Wilson recognizes the importance of the historical cycles of Giambattista Vico, and then traces them through the historians of the French Enlightenment, Michelet, who defined the Renaissance.
After him, we have Renan, who was among the foremost rationalist critics of Christianity and nationalism, then Taine, one of the first 'scientific' analysts of history, then the novelist Anatole France, who poked fun at the Church with a story about the baptism of penguins, and the Revolution with The Gods Are Athirst.
The origins of Socialism itself come from the French Revolutionary Babeuf, a sort of anarcho-communist, and Saint-Simon, a founder of a sort of technocratic sect, and his follower, Enfantin, who was among the first to theorize 'free love', some 130 years before the American counterculture. There are also brief sketches of American experiments, including Robert Owen, and the planned Oneida Community.
The bulk of the book, some two hundred pages, is devoted to the dual biographies of Marx and Engels, and some brief sketches of their theory. The biographical portions are superb, the theoretical analysis devoted to one or two lonely chapters. We see, briefly, 1848, the Paris Commune, the fiery Nechayev, and the Anarchists: Bakunin, Proudhon and Kropotkin. Wilson does recognize the chief tenets of Marxist thought as the Labor Theory of Value and Dialectical Materialism, and does fairly question them both.
The last chapters of the book are the most disappointing. The chapter on Lenin seems to be based almost wholly on early Soviet propaganda, and the Trotsky chapter is charming in its naive praise for him, solely arising from the fact that he is not Stalin. Although Wilson at least recognizes these mistakes in judgment in a tacked-on endnote.
What happens after this? What is the fate of the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat? Trotsky's early judgment of the Soviet Union as a 'deformed bureaucratic state' seems to endure, and what undercurrents seem to best survive (again based on my very limited experience) are democratic socialism, anti-plutocracy, anti-globaliztion, anti-'scientific management', and the offspring of some Maoist 'Third-Worldism' socialism, which (justly) protests the abusive treatment of the Global South by the richer nations.
Although Wilson's overly high estimation of the fate of the revolution is misplaced, his most correct assertion on socialism may be this:
"Socialism by itself can create neither a political discipline nor a culture [...] Only the organic processes of society can make it possible to arrive at either. And it seems today as if only the man who has already enjoyed a good standard of living and become accustomed to a certain security will really fight for security and comfort. But then, it appears, on the other hand, that from the moment he has acquired these things, he is transformed into something quite other than Karl Marx's idea of a proletarian.
Marx could recognize as worthy of survival only those who had been unjustly degraded and those who rose naturally superior through intellect and moral authority. He had no key for appreciating the realities of a society in which men are really to some degree at liberty to make friends with one another indiscriminately or indiscriminately to bawl one another out - in other words, in which there is any actual approximation to that ideal of a classless society which it was the whole aim of his life to preach. And we must remember - unless we are willing to accept it as a simple act of faith in Scripture, as the people of the year 1000 expected the world to come to an end - that Karl Marx's catastrophic prophecy of the upshot of capitalist development, the big short circuit between the classes, is based primarily on psychological assumptions, which may or may not turn out to have been justified: the assumption that there can be no possible limit to the extent to which the people who live on profits will continue to remain unaware of or indifferent to the privations of the people who provide them. The Armageddon that Karl Marx tended to expect presupposed a situation which the employer and the employee were unable to make any contact whatever. [...]
In other words, Marx was incapable of imagining democracy at all."
But once again, we are seeing economic stratification, even in our democracies - or at least in the American education, health care system, living habits, taxation system. Neo-liberalism and financial conservatism have seen to that. Perhaps the Prophet staggers out of his grave once again.
What does this book cover? Mostly the biographies of certain important figures in socialist history ranging from Saint-Simon, to Owen and Fourier, to Lenin.
Who would I recommend this book to? Probably only to those interested in the history of socialist economics. I did not catch a particular bias, so whether you are for, against, or neutral to this system of economics, you should not be turned off in that regard.
Keep in mind however that this book was published in 1953, so this would be written in ignorance to recent events.