Thanks to fellow USIH blogger Pete Kuryla, I spent the last two days in Nashville talking about Marx in America. Pete organizes an annual seminar on U.S. intellectual history. He invites one outside scholar to spend two days at Belmont University talking books and ideas with him and his engaging colleagues from the history, English, and philosophy departments. One day is dedicated to discussing the visitor’s work—we discussed my preliminary work on “Karl Marx in America,” which was so incredibly helpful not to mention fun. Another day is dedicated to discussing a classic text in the same orbit, and for this Pete wisely chose for us to read Edmund Wilson’s remarkable 1940 book, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about To the Finland Station here.
To the Finland Station is beautifully written, imaginatively constructed, sweeping in scope, and smart in many of its judgments—though it gets some important things wildly wrong. I put it in the category of other Marx-inspired masterpieces of that era when Marx came to be seen as a prophet for capitalism’s demise, including W.E.B. Du Dubois’s Black Reconstruction and C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins, which I have written about here. Like the Du Bois and James books, To the Finland Station did not achieve a large readership immediately upon publication. By 1947 it had sold only 4,527 copies, a disappointing number for a book written by a well-known critic and published by a trade press (Harcourt, Brace & Co) at a time when people still bought and read books. But whereas the Du Bois and James books needed the later civil rights movement to bring readers into being, Wilson’s bad timing was the result of different political levers.
To the Finland Station is a sympathetic history of revolutionary socialist thought from the French Revolution to the moment in 1917 when Lenin arrived at the Finlyandsky Rail Terminal in St. Petersburg. In other words, it’s about the road to the Bolshevik Revolution, and it’s not a declension narrative—in fact quite the opposite. Lenin is depicted as a harsh but necessary advancer of human freedom and the grand arc of socialism is the equivalent of modern human freedom. Had it been published in 1935 or even 1938, To the Finland Station might have generated a more robust and even favorable reception, at the very least among those in the Popular Front circles that Wilson inhabited. But 1940 proved poor timing. The 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, followed by the Soviet invasion of eastern Europe in 1939 and Finland in 1940, soured Wilson’s likely readers on the entire Soviet project. Lenin was persona non grata. So too was Marx, Wilson’s flawed hero.
To the Finland Station slowly but surely gained readers in the years after 1947, perhaps due to Wilson’s growing reputation as a left critic of the Soviet Union—Wilson wrote a new introduction to the 1972 edition of the book published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in which he argued that the path from Lenin to Stalin was fated. But more important, by 1972—also the year Wilson died—a new generation of leftists had emerged unencumbered by the obsession with the Soviet Union that hampered Wilson’s generation of sectarian leftists. Communism no longer had the same purchase, but neither did anticommunism. To the Finland Station was a much different read without the weight of all that baggage.
On the occasion of Wilson’s death, the Marxist philosopher Marshall Berman took to the pages of The New York Times to declare To the Finland Station “the last great 19th-century novel”—“a legitimate child of War and Peace.” Although Berman’s praise for the book was a touch hyperbolic, he did capture the captivating qualities of the book. To the Finland Station, Berman wrote, “interweaves philosophy, sociology, psychobiography, literary criticism, economic analysis, political history and theory, always in complex and sophisticated ways—and yet, for all this, the human narrative hardly ever flags, but sweeps us breathlessly along.”
Certifying yet again that we are to consider To the Finland Station a classic work of intellectual history, The New York Review of Books published a new edition of the book in 2003 with an introduction by Louis Menand. Echoing Berman, and rendering a beautiful explanation of the historical imagination required to write good history, Menand writes:
The test for a successful history is the same as the test for a successful novel: integrity in motion. It’s not the facts, snapshots of the past, that make a history; it’s the story, the facts run by the eye at the correct speed. Novelists sometimes explain their work by saying that they invent a character, put the character in a situation, and then wait to see what the character will do. History is not different. The historian’s character has to do what the real person has done, of course, but there is an uncanny way in which this can seem to happen almost spontaneously. The “Marx” that the historian has imagined keeps behaving, in every new set of conditions, like Marx. This gives the description of the conditions a plausibility, too: the person fits the time. The world turns beneath the character’s marching feet. The figures and the landscape come to life together, and the chart of their movements makes a continuous motion, a narrative. The past reveals itself to have a plot.
The plot of To the Finland Station is as follows. In the wake of the French Revolution a growing number of intrepid historians and intellectuals began articulating a vision of the world in which the parts added up to a whole, the parts being human actors and the whole being capitalism as a system. Capitalism, in the arc of this narrative, came to be something to critique—something to imagine going beyond—which leads Wilson’s story to early utopian socialist thinkers and onwards to Marx and Engels before culminating with Lenin’s triumph.
A large chunk of the book—the entire middle section—is dedicated to a series of mostly brilliant snapshots of Marx’s life and work. Marx is for Wilson a tragic and flawed man but ultimately the hero of the book. We see this tension between tragedy and triumph in the way in which Wilson treats the Marx and Engels friendship. Marx is the cold, calculating, abstract, brilliant rhetorician who endows the world with metaphors that capture the sweep of history. Engels, the more sympathetic figure in his humanistic compassion for working people—compassion born of his first-hand account of the miseries suffered by Manchester factory workers—adds human texture to Marx’s Hegelian structure. Engels is Robin; Marx is Batman.
One of the things that I love about To the Finland Station is the ease with which Wilson renders historical judgment. Such ease is a throwback to intellectual history of another era, when writers were less specialized and had read more widely on a larger range of topics. Broad knowledge led to writerly confidence. Of course, writing with authority was also a product of the hyper-masculine milieu of the New York Intellectual world that Wilson inhabited. But in any case, many of Wilson’s authoritative judgments ring true to me.
Take for example Wilson’s judgment about Marx’s vicious polemics, which occupied Marx’s attention for months or even years at a time—especially in the charged period leading up to the revolutions of 1848. Wilson argues that such polemics, which included tracts that took Marx months to write and that spanned hundreds of pages, however nasty they were, and however pointless or inane they seem to us in retrospect, were necessary. Marx was doing something new—creating new and revolutionary knowledge—and as such he had to figure out his ideas in the heat of battle. Creation born of negation. This seems exactly so. It rings truer than the arguments made by Marx’s more recent biographers, who despite having a decided advantage over Wilson, in the form of fuller access to archival documentation and accumulated historiographical knowledge, miss the point by contending that only a petty and vindictive person could waste so much time with such polemics.
Even as I heap praise on Wilson’s historical vision, I should also note that some of his judgments were very wrong. This is particularly true in his weird little chapter, “The Myth of the Dialectic” (which, although wrong, is a fun read). Wilson introduces the chapter by quickly paraphrasing the way in which most people got the Marxist dialectic wrong: capitalism (thesis) –> proletariat (antithesis) –> socialist revolution (synthesis). But then Wilson proceeds to criticize Marx for his use of the dialect on similarly faulty grounds.
Central to Wilson’s critique of the Marxist dialectic—what Soviet theorists like Trotsky called “dialectical materialism”—is a contradiction that Wilson seems to have thought Marx never solved. How could Marx square his materialist conception of history with a theory of human agency? That is, how did people living in a system of capitalist social relations become communist revolutionaries? How did Marx rationalize his own thought—his having seemingly discovered the path to communist revolution—with his materialist conception that humans were constrained by the force of history?
Wilson argued that Marx’s apparent failure to solve this contradiction is a failure of the Hegelian dialectic—a failure of German idealism writ large—and that Marx would have been much better off had he discarded with the dialectic and instead embraced an epistemologically softer form of socialist humanism. Marx leavened with Emerson. This is an interesting notion and not uncommonly made especially after the horrors of Stalinism became more widely known. But it misunderstands the dialectic as understood first by Hegel and then by Marx.
There are many different interpretation of the Hegelian dialectic and I don’t pretend to be an expert. Luckily, one of the Belmont seminar participants was a Hegelian philosopher, and his presence proved extremely helpful to our conversation of Wilson’s chapter on “The Myth of the Dialectic.” For Hegel (as I have come to understand his thinking), history is immanent and thus unfolds in purposive ways. Thought—and human agency as such—does not stand above this unfolding, as a sort of superstructure. Rather, human thought—which is intersubjective and, at its philosophical best, collective—is history unfolding.
In the Hegelian dialectic, it is silly to think about structure and agency as separate. And so it was with Marx. Social relations and modes of production were to be understood as history unfolding in purposive ways. Marx theorized that history was unfolding from capitalism to socialism and that his thinking on the matter was part and parcel of such an unfolding. But ultimately there was nothing inevitable about Marx’s reading of history unfolding, and the best Marx could do was read a moment in a larger process of unfolding. Such a notion of the dialectic is not teleological as Wilson assumed. Nothing is predetermined, at least insofar as humans can know, which means that humans have freedom and responsibility—in a word, agency—because we cannot know how history is unfolding from one moment to the next. Our actions matter—our actions are purposive—because we are the unfolding of history.
Wilson’s misunderstanding of the Hegelian and Marxist dialectic led him to a pretty wild judgment that Marx’s inability to escape his German-ness is what doomed his thought and the world:
Karl Marx, with his rigorous morality and his international point of view, had tried to harness the primitive German Will to a movement which should lead all humanity to prosperity, happiness and freedom. But insofar as this movement involves, under the disguise of the Dialectic, a semi-divine principle of History, to which it is possible to shift the human responsibility for thinking, for deciding, for acting—and we are living at the present time in a period of decadence for Marxism—it lends itself to the repressions of the tyrant. The parent stream of the old German Will, which stayed at home and remained patriotic, became canalized as the philosophy of German imperialism and ultimately of the Nazi movement.
Wilson’s critique of the dialectic was like that made by James Burnham when Burnham quit Marxism and the Trotskyist movement. Writing at the same moment as Wilson wrote To the Finland Station, Burnham argued that the dialectic, as a rigid form of thought, led to Stalinism, and that Stalin, Hitler, and even FDR were all branches of the same collectivist tree. By the early Cold War such thought was widespread. Nazism and Stalinism were conflated—this was the birth of terms like “red fascism” and “totalitarianism.”
Wilson, unlike Burnham, never embraced conservatism. He remained on the left and was a stern critic of U.S. Cold War policies and even refused to pay taxes as a form of protesting such policies. Which makes his argument that the Marxist dialectic led to totalitarianism—in the middle of a 1940 book that concludes with Lenin’s triumph—that much weirder, and one of many compelling reasons to read To the Finland Station.