Revolutionary thought, from Michelet to Lenin

Edmund Wilson's TO THE FINLAND STATION: A Study in the Writing and Acting of HistoryTO THE FINLAND STATION: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yesterday I devoted a pair of hours to a review of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, composing directly on the Goodreads review screen as was my habit. But when I was finally satisfied with it and pressed the button to “Publish,” the review vanished! Replaced by the sign-in screen for Goodreads. I won’t do that again. From now on, I’ll compose my reviews in Word, then post them — so if the link fails, I’ll still have my draft.

I won’t try to reconstruct my review. Instead, I refer you to the very good, thorough critique of this book by Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, March 24, 2003, The Historical Romance: Edmund Wilson’s adventure with Communism.

Menand will tell you how Wilson got the idea for the book and his many problems in writing it, including his changing attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Wilson, beginning this huge project in the 1930s, had got himself committed to an overly rosy picture of the Soviet Union, one that no longer convinced even him by the time he published the book in 1940. In his new introduction written in 1971 (a year before his death), Wilson tries to correct that rosy view, at least partially, quoting some very negative reminiscences by contemporaries of Lenin and making very explicit his disgust with Josef Stalin, who was barely mentioned in the original book.

 More important for contemporary readers, as Menand points out, is the success of this wide-ranging history of revolutionary thought in bringing together the ideas and the often tangled lives of those who developed them, from Jules Michelet to Vladimir Lenin. Wilson here is clearly emulating Michelet, whose histories of the French revolution he admires for making the past seem suspenseful and contemporary, viewing events (as much as possible) through the eyes of the people who were living them.

But the book is really historical journalism rather than philosophy, where Wilson was hopelessly incompetent — evident in his chapter on Marx and Engels’ concept of the dialectic. Menand writes,

“The dialectic was just the sort of high-theory concept that Wilson reflexively avoided. At the same time, he was not a man quick to concede his ignorance, and he devoted a chapter of his book to explaining that the dialectic is basically a religious myth (a characteristic exercise in journalistic debunking). Wilson had no idea what he was talking about. ”

Menand however does, and explains it in as good a two-paragraph exposition as you’re likely to find of this subtle and complex way of thinking. I recommend it. Here is Menand's summary:
The two-paragraph explanation [Wilson] gives of the term at the beginning of the chapter on “The Myth of the Dialectic”—the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model—is not the dialectic of Hegel. It is the dialectic of Fichte. And Marx and Engels did not name their method “dialectical materialism.” That was a term assigned to it by Georgi Plekhanov, the man who, after Marx’s death, introduced Marxism to Russia. Engels referred to the method as historical materialism.
Still, Hegel’s dialectic was part of Marx’s way of doing philosophy, and the use of the dialectic as a historical method is the strongest element in Marxist theory. In the broadest terms, it is a way of treating each aspect of a historical moment—its art, its industry, its politics—as being implicated in the whole, and of understanding that every dominant idea depends on, defines itself against, whatever it suppresses or excludes. Dialectical thinking is a brake on the tendency to assume that things will continue to be the way they are, only more so, because it reminds us that every paradigm contains the seed of its own undoing, the limit-case that, as it is approached, begins to unravel the whole construct. You don’t have to be an enemy of bourgeois capitalism, or believe in an iron law of history, to think this way. It’s just a fruitful method for historical criticism.

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