A classic study, even with the bad bits


To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History
By Edmund Wilson
Penguin, 1991 (first published 1940). 590 pp. $18.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Amidst the triumphant brayings of conservatives about the collapse of socialism comes the welcome reissue of Edmund Wilson's classic 1940 study of the European revolutionary tradition.

Wilson was a celebrated US literary critic and writer, a left-wing anti-Stalinist, a scholar for whom "commitment" was not a derogatory word. His voracious intellectual appetite and his love of the drama of revolution attracted him to the same qualities in the writers and makers of history who are the subject of his book — from Jules Michelet, the 19th century French historian, to Marx and Lenin.

What is common to them all, says Wilson, is their perception that history is not the work of "great men" nor a "pageant directed by God" but the work of the mass of people. Their virtue is to side with these masses against the wealthy elite.

Michelet's approach to history, for example, was that "the people are usually more important than the leaders". Through Michelet's sympathy for the people, we share their "heroic faiths", doubts, defeats and triumphs. For Michelet, history is "the human spirit fighting its way through the ages" from enslavement to freedom.

Michelet, however, combined his radical sensibilities with class conciliation, believing that the struggle for human freedom would be successful if "the bourgeoisie and the people ... learn to love one another".

This stance was also common to the great Utopians of the 18th century — Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen — all, according to Wilson (and Marx), marked by the "deepest humanitarian sympathies" and whose aim was to "better the lot of 'the poorest and most numerous class'" yet who believed that only the ruling class, once enlightened by the Utopians' arguments and their model communities, would bring improvement to the people. Saint-Simon was "convinced of the importance of the owning classes, and especially of the family of Saint-Simon". Owen was a "despotic" ruler of his own communities.

As Wilson points out, moving on to Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie will not act against their own interests (as the Utopians hoped). Marx latched on to the "economic thread" which winds its way through class society. At one end was the capitalist need for profit (and the resulting exploitation). At the other end was the proletariat's need to combine in self-defence of their interests.

Wilson's admiration for Marx, however, runs up against his middle-class elitism. He does not particularly like the working class "social forces" behind the socialist revolution (he is much more comfortable with the great bourgeois revolutions). When he comes to proletarian revolution, Wilson repeats the numbing mantra of anti-socialists and revolutions don't change anything except the personnel of the new exploiting class — the "dominant class of the proletarian dictatorship" will, he says, continue to "rob the poor in the interests of the well-being of their own group".

One reason for this, according to Wilson, lies in our genes — "the inadequacy of the Marxist conception of human nature" is not to recognise that "man's brutal and selfish impulses" will prevail whatever the social set-up. There is also something wrong with workers' genes in particular — another of Marx's "basic misconceptions" is to suppose that workers "can acquire the science, the self-discipline and the executive skill" of the current "governing class".

This is bad psychology as well as bad politics. Even under capitalism, there is abundant evidence, from charities to unions, that amongst the class that doesn't need to exploit others for profit, organisational ability and cooperation often conquer self-deprecation of ability and selfish regard.

With Lenin and Trotsky, Wilson's liberal fear of socialist revolution (and a certain distaste for the unwashed and unlettered) becomes more insistent. Whilst he approves "the staunchness, the sincerity, the force" of Lenin and Trotsky and their selfless devotion to "building a party" to make revolution, he describes their practice in the Bolshevik party, and "the whole Bolshevik dictatorship", as "fundamentally undemocratic", and its "resort to despotism" as "inevitable".

This is bad history. All the Bolshevik leaders engaged in often vigorous, usually passionate, sometimes acrimonious, and always public, debate amongst themselves and with the rank and file of the party, and abided by the majority outcome. It was not a personal dictatorship of Lenin and Trotsky but democratic centralism which ruled the pre-Stalinist party ("free in its life and thought and freely submitting to discipline", as Victor Serge described it).

This proletarian democracy did give way to the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party, but this was initially to preserve the revolution on behalf of a working class that had been starved, frozen and killed in their millions from years of exhausting and

demoralising civil war, foreign invasion and economic embargo in a backward, impoverished, agrarian country. Even then the Bolshevik party regarded this party dominance as temporary, to be alleviated by European revolution.

Wilson does acknowledge, as right-wing historians never do, that the political and economic hostility of the anti-socialist forces made the "brutal methods of wartime" a "matter of life and death for the Revolution itself". He is not one to delight in cursing the Bolsheviks by abstracting them from their historical context, but he does wind up damning the Russian revolution and, against Marx, blaming the Bolsheviks for being forced to make history in circumstances not of their own choosing.

Nevertheless, like a wormy apple, if we remove the bad bits, Wilson's book is still extremely fruitful, a pleasure to consume, and can help in our job of making socialist history.

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