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To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (original 1940; edition 1972)

by Edmund Wilson

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8331610,829 (3.99)45
Member:wildbill
Title:To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History
Authors:Edmund Wilson
Info:Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1972), Hardcover
Collections:Your library, read, insightful books
Rating:*****
Tags:history of ideas, modern socialism

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To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson (Author) (1940)

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An interesting but flawed history of the intellectual and historical origins of socialism. Wilson makes the interesting decision to frame the ideas through the lives and biographies of their earliest practitioners.

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. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
O livro que te ensina que metade do que você aprendeu no colégio sobre socialismo e comunismo estava errado. Especialmente o principal: Marx não disse que a economia era a infraestrutura, enquanto outros aspectos da sociedade eram a superestrutura.
Uma viagem do início do socialismo utópico à chegada de Lenin à Estação Finlândia. ( )
  JuliaBoechat | Mar 30, 2013 |
First, let's be clear about which edition we are looking at; I was reading the British Penguin edition, published in 1991. This was a UK edition of the 1972 US edition, for which Wilson wrote a new introduction; much of the text was written in 1940, and the later chapters make this quite clear - especially where Trotsky is referred to in the present tense. This would almost certainly confuse the less careful reader (if they made it past the chapter on the Dialectic...)

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. ( )
2 vote RobertDay | Nov 21, 2012 |
Dated and overrated. The most interesting sections are those on Michelet, Babeuf and Robert Owen. Wilson's discussion of Das Kapital is also perceptive, but the book is ultimately marred by his sycophantic attitude towards Lenin.

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. ( )
9 vote tomcatMurr | Sep 16, 2012 |
This fascinating study, both broad and detailed, of the ideas and actions that led to the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, is almost as interesting for its flaws at its successes. At once intellectual history and biography, literary criticism and economics, it examines the lives and thoughts not only of people who are famous, if not notorious, such as Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but also of those who are lesser known (at least to me), such as Michelet, Babeuf, and Lasalle. In essence, Wilson traces the revolutionary tradition from the ashes of the French revolution through the Paris Commune to the dawn of the Russian revolution.

Subtitled "a study in the writing and acting of history," the book starts in 1824 when Michelet, a young French historian, discovers the work of Vico, an Italian who wrote a century earlier, and was inspired by his vision of examining history through the lives and social culture of ordinary people and the interplay between people and their society. Michelet is most famous for writing a comprehensive history of France in which all the important people through the ages come to life, and also for being so caught up in his work, especially when he came to the sections on the French revolution, that he became engaged in contemporary issues including the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune. Wilson goes on to discuss the decline of the revolutionary tradition in France and the beginnings of socialism, ranging from France to Britain to the US.

But the heart of the book is the material on Marx and Engels, especially on Karl Marx who seems to both fascinate and repel Wilson. He provides a detailed personal and intellectual biography over the course of many chapters; we see Marx developing his ideas as a young man, collaborating with Engels, forcing his wife and children to live in squalor while he begs for enough money from Engels to keep writing, excoriating his political enemies, struggling in his life as an exile, and thinking and writing, always thinking and writing. A chapter, in the middle of all this, on Hegel and "the myth of the dialectic" is as complex and confusing as the dialectic itself.

The weakest part of the book is the third and last section, on Lenin and Trotsky. The biographical information about their early lives is fascinating (although, as noted below, it comes from Soviet-supplied material), but the discussion of their ideas and especially of their actions is not nearly as clear, detailed, or compelling as the earlier sections. Perhaps they were too close to Wilson, both in time and in the political issues of the day.

And so I come to the flaws. Some were noted by Wilson himself in an introduction to a later edition of the book (the original was published in 1940 just after, as noted in a foreword to my NYRB edition, the assassination of Trotsky and the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact). Wilson concedes that his portrait of Lenin is "too amiable" and is based on Soviet-censored family memoirs and other materials (and that he should have written more about the ongoing development of socialism in France). As the foreword author also notes, if this book were written today, the arc of history would end not, in hope, at the Finland Station, but instead in the gulag of Siberia. The other flaws, words and passages that took me aback, are probably due to the time Wilson wrote: the use, twice, of the word "nigger," and the occasional discussions of ideas or actions that are "typical" of Jews. I recognize standards were not the same in 1940 as they are today, but I thought they would be more advanced than that for one of the leading critics of the day and a leading publisher; I found them shocking and disturbing.

All in all, I was swept along by this book: by its scope, by its depth, by the new people and new ideas it introduced me to, by the breadth of Wilson's research and interpretation, and even by the complexity of his writing. History -- how we look at it and how that determines how we look at the possibilities of the future -- is the real subject of To the Finland Station; it is indeed "a study in the writing and acting of history."
11 vote rebeccanyc | Jan 22, 2012 |
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Wilson, EdmundAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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One day in the January of 1824, a young French professor named Jules Michelet, who was teaching philosophy and history, found the name of Giovanni Vico in a translator's note to a book he was reading.
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autograph: Graham Greene
index at back of text annotated by Graham Greene
many notes made by Graham Greene
notes in Greene’s hand at back of text dated from Antibes, May ’69 concerning "Travels with My Aunt" and "A play Marx."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374510458, Paperback)

The author's account of the aspirations towards revolution from the dreamers of the romantic period via Marx and Engels to Lenin's arrival at the Finland station in Petrograd in 1917. The author also wrote "Axel's Castle", "The Wound and the Bow", "The Shores of Light' and "Patriotic Light".

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:23 -0400)

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