Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station

by Mark Wallace

Edmund Wilson was maybe the last great humanist literary critic. He’s now “astoundingly irrelevant”, but “The loss is not Edmund Wilson’s. It’s ours.” He was also very interested in Marxism, less in the theory than in its manifestation in post-1917 Russia. Wilson’s To The Finland Station (1940) is still as good an introduction to Marxist theory and history as one can get. It is perhaps all the better for being obviously partisan – and partisan in a particularly problematic and even discredited way, in that Wilson wrote with a great and uncritical admiration for Lenin. This makes the book flawed but none the less interesting for that.

The book is divided into three sections: pre-Marxism (Michelet, Renan, etc.); Marx and Engels; Lenin and Trotsky. It is a book of theory, history and biography. Wilson is not like a modern academic theorist of Marxism in that he never reads theory in isolation from either history or the biography of its author. I am far more sympathetic to the Wilson approach than to the modern-academic: theory without history is pointless, I insist. So, for that alone, I am well disposed to this book.

To The Finland Station does not have to be read in sequence, cover to cover. Indeed, I didn’t read it like that. The one really unmissable section is that on Marx and Engels, which takes up most of Book II. This would constitute a great introduction to Marxism, better even than any of Marx or Engels’ own works. I have said that Wilson has an undue admiration for Lenin, which makes that section rather unconvincing, but he is intelligently critical of Marx. The section follows the lives of its two main actors, stopping for detailed critiques of their works and theories. I knew only vague details of Marx’s life, but  known in detail they provide a context in which his theory becomes more meaningful. The description of Marx and his family’s life in London in the 1850s (the chapter entitled “Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History”) while he was engaged on research that resulted in Das Kapital, Vol 1 (1867) is harrowing. Marx, wife, and four children moved into two rooms in London in 1850. Another child was born to Jenny Marx just after the move, but died a few months later, and Wilson gives a long excerpt from a moving letter Jenny wrote:

[T]he poor little angel drank in from me so much secret sorrow and grief with the milk that he was constantly unwell[…] [.] He has not slept a single night since he came into the world – two or three hours at most. Now lately he has been having violent cramps, so that the poor child is always hovering between life and death. (204-205)

Further extracts from a police agent’s report and from Marx’s letter about the death of his young son a few years later underline the difficulties the Marxes faced, living in squalor and penury.

Interspersed with such material are Wilson’s reflections on Marx and Engels writings and theories. Wilson is sympathetic, but sharply critical, too. Most interesting, I found, was his chapter on Das Kapital (the chapter entitled “Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities and Dictator of the Proletariat”). The argument of Das Kapital is based on the Labour Theory of Value – a theory which Wilson debunks pretty trenchantly: “The Labor Theory is thus simply, like the dialectic [which Wilson has earlier refuted at length], a creation of the metaphysician who never abdicated before the economist in Marx – an effort to show that the moral values which he wished to impress on people were, independently of our ideas about them, somehow involved in the nature of things.” (293) The thing about Marx’s Labour Theory is that it’s not justified in Das Kapital, but was to be fully elucidated and theorized in a later volume – but no follow-up to the first ever appeared. Marx simply left some notes at his death. Wilson suspects Marx deliberately omitted that element from the book because he simply had no argument to sustain it, and that he deliberately refrained from writing a defense of Labour Theory, leaving it for Engels to do after his death. Labour Theory, then, is “the central fallacy of Marxism” (295). Wilson’s argument is, to me, compelling, and I tend to think Labour Theory is a consequence of Marx’s increasing tendency to isolate himself among books when preparing to write, rather than engaging with history as he did up to the Revolutions of 1848. Thus, I would add to Wilson’s argument, he ends up committing the very same fallacy he ridiculed in his early work. That great early letter to Ruge comes to mind:

Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. (September 1843)

Sadly (in my opinion) Marx’s own involvement in the struggle gave way to a “roast pigeon of absolute knowledge” in the form of the Labour Theory of Value. He constructed a wondrous edifice from this foundation, but the foundation itself just wasn’t present. Thus, Marx becomes, in To The Finland Station, a tragic figure in more than one sense.

Finally, one must emphasize that good as Wilson is on Marx, he lets the book down by his section on Lenin. Here Wilson’s critical faculties desert him, and he fawns over his subject throughout. As Louis Menand’s Foreward makes clear, Wilson was clear that Soviet Russia had turned into a totalitarian state, but he blamed Stalin (hardly mentioned in Station, which ends at 1917, at the moment of Lenin’s great triumph), and refused to countenance the possibility that the development could have any roots in Lenin’s rule. Menand notes that Wilson’s portrait of Lenin is based entirely on Party-controlled publications. Even though more critical sources were available, Wilson ignored them. This is bad, very bad, and maybe it explains why the book has become semi-forgotten. But it still has plenty to offer, and was half way towards being a great book before Wilson let his Leninophilia take over.

 

Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station, foreward by Louis Menand (Phoenix, 2004)

Interesting piece by Louis Menand on Wilson from The New Yorker here

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