Monday, June 05, 2006


Louis Menand, in his foreward, forewarns us that Edmund Wilson was a bit of an enthusiastic Socialist dupe when he first worked on To the Finland Station, but notes that Wilson subsequently came to see that the Soviet Union was perhaps a bit less Utopian than imagined, and re-tooled his Introductions to later editions to reflect a growing disenchantment:

This book of mine assumes throughout that an important step in progress has been made, that a fundamental "breakthrough" had occurred, that nothing in our human history would ever be the same again. I had no premonition that the Soviet Union was to become one of the most hideous tyrannies that the world had ever known, and Stalin the most cruel and unscrupulous of the merciless Russian tsars. This book should therefore be read as a basically reliable account of what the revolutionists thought they were doing in the interests of a "better world."

Thus Wilson becomes one of the list of disillusioned, demoralized Socialists who make up his book. The utopian idealists, the social engineers, the dreamers who see their hard work dashed, their visions proved wrong, their theories found unworkable, their activities crushed and outlawed. Menand is right in his Foreward to point out the shortcomings of Wilson's book (including his complete ignorance of German philosophy, which marrs his analysis according to Menand in ways I can't hope to understand), but Menand still thinks To The Finland Station an astute and wonderful study of how powerful human figures interact with their times to create history.

The book does plod along through a few dense passages describing (incorrectly) the Dialectic of Hegel and Marx's economic theories. But Wilson recreates his characters with a keen expertise more often associated with excellent novelists than with interesting literary critics: from the French progenitors of Socialism like Michelet, Renan, Taine, Babeuf and up through Engels, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, we get portraits of men who strove (rightly or wrongly) to change the world. Some of the writing in this book is sublime, and those biographical bits about Marx in squalor trying to squeeze funds from Engels to finish his books, or about Lenin in Siberia after his brother's execution, or about Michelet going blind doing research in dusky archives, can be quite heartbreaking. The amount of research necessary for this book would daunt a life-long scholar; I'm amazed Wilson achieved it in only 8 years' time. In setting himself this task, he learned Russian and German to read widely in the necessary materials, and read Michelet's monumental History of France in the original tongue as well.

For a better history of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, read Bertram Wolfe. But for my money this is a great little history of revolutionary movements in Europe from the French up to the mid-20th century. Strangely, Anarchists are ignored, excepting Bakunin, who is given short shrift, and aside from the women in Marx's family, or those in Lenin and Trotsky's circles, female revolutionists are strangely absent--I think Rosa Luxembourg appears once in strong opposition to Vladimir Ulyanov.

NYRB deserves credit for producing these editions--I own several of their titles, and love the feel and design. My favorite magazine is becoming my favorite press.

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