History and Hope
ON NATIVE GROUND Edmund Wilson, who died early this summer (TIME, June 26), was America's most distinguished critic. But he was also an international Man of Letters who fluently pursued learning in seven alien tongues, bringing it back alive for cultivated U.S. readers in serviceably patrician English prose. Wilson's aim, or one of them, was to create "a history of man's ideas and imagining" set against the conditions that shaped both the ideas and the men. Of all his literary forays with that end in view, the broadest and most passionately humane is his study of the theorists and practitioners of revolution called To the Finland Station. Revolutionary rhetoric is once again very much in the air, and the book has now been reissued more than 30 years after its original publication.
Wilson begins with a flashback to the year 1725, when a little-known scholar named Giambattista Vico brought out a book based on a rather dazzling notion. Social history, he saw, was not, as man had long conceived it, a mysterious pageant presided over by God. It was, instead, a work of man. Society has laws and patterns that can be descried, like the laws of science, and used to improve the human lot. To the Finland Station ends after the fall of the czar in 1917 with the exiled Lenin's return to Russia (via the Finland Station in Petrograd) and his harsh speech calling upon the soldiers and workers of the revolution to reject the reforms of the revolutionary Provisional Government and seize all power for the people.
Novelist's Skill. In between, with a series of interlocking biographical sketches, Wilson introduces a handful of men and ideas that helps link Vico's original insight about the possibilities of historic progress first with Utopian socialism, then with Marxism, and finally with Lenin's fateful arrival at power. With a biographical novelist's skill, Wilson also manages to suggest much of the political and philosophical history of 19th century Europe. A series of clashes (1830, 1848 and, in France, 1870) only slowly confirmed—and often simply denied—the rights of man briefly proclaimed by the French Revolution. Meanwhile, the poor suffered as the industrial revolution spread. A debate arose—with echoes today in the U.S. —between those who defended individual liberty, ignoring the fact that only the middle class, or above, could take advantage of it, and those who urged the need for state control for the good of society.
One of Wilson's heroes is Jules Michelet, a poor printer's son who discovered Vico's ideas in 1824 and used them to create a new kind of history, written as if from the viewpoint of the past, dedicated to human progress and infected with the notion that the common people are more important than their leaders. "To know how to be poor," Michelet once said, "is to know everything."
The rigid indifference, not to say ferocious hostility, with which the middle classes reacted to claims made upon it by and for the poor after the French Revolution largely explain the later harshness of Marx's view of history and Lenin's remorseless approach to politics. In France, Gracchus Babeuf's seven-year-old daughter died of hunger when he was imprisoned for demanding universal suffrage. Eventually Babeuf himself was put to death for establishing the Society of Equals and asserting that only in a planned society could such various human needs as free education and milk for deprived children be met. The Comte de Saint-Simon beggared himself and spent 20 years urging a society administered by the unsalaried rich for the good of the poor, according to rules to be worked out by high-minded men of learning.
To lead the way to a new society, assorted Utopians, like the Welsh mill-owner Robert Owen, established experiments in communal living—many of them shipped off for trial in America. Few had the strong religious faith and leadership that seem necessary for a commune to survive. Most soon foundered, sad victims of human nature, surrounding hostility and the kind of heart breaking paranoic crackpottery that often afflicts selfless, impractical people when they are too long confronted by the practical selfishness of the world.
Wilson sorrows for the Utopians, who were, after all, only bit players fondly counting on human kindness or Christian ethics to bring the world drama to a happy ending. He has profound admiration for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who brushed the dreamers aside and forged the conception of history and class warfare that eventually gave a murderous edge to the so often dashed hopes of the poor. Wilson, however, is evenhandedly aware of the weakness in Marxist theory. To the Finland Station offers a fascinating and lucid refresher course in such things as the labor theory of value (monetarily shaky but morally sound, Wilson feels) and dialectical materialism (history and Hegel unscientifically invoked to replace God as the inevitable scourge of the unjust). His portrait of the gloomy, rabbinical Marx as a boy in Germany and later during the London exile and of Engels, naturally urbane and cheerful, yet devoting his life to Marx and revolution, extends one's hopes for the possibilities of human nature, whatever view may be taken of the possibilities of Communism. Compared to Marx and Engels, Trotsky and Lenin, who take up the last quarter of the book, seem a bit like mere mechanics of history.
When the book first appeared in 1940, the Moscow purges and the Hitler-Stalin pact were very much in everyone's mind. It then seemed to some critics either odd or disingenuous of Wilson to close his chronicle just at the moment when the great Communist experiment was about to be put into dreadful practice. For this new edition, Wilson has added a short preface, corrected some errors. (He had been, he admits, too kind about Lenin's character.) But he shows no regret for not having carried the story further. How right he was. The book does not emphasize, but is dramatically explicit about the horrors of Stalinism. It is also perceptive about those aspects of Marxian theory and practice that bode ill for revolution: the assumption that unlike other classes, the working classes once in power will act justly; the double standard of moral behavior that justifies any cruelty for those working with history's revolutionary blessing. But further speculations about whether a Stalinist tyranny could have been avoided are beyond Wilson's province. So, too, are more recent developments in the Kremlin and Peking, though they suggest that there will always be revolutionary movements, if only because revolutionary ideals will always be betrayed.
To the Finland Station is illuminated by a contagious awe at mankind's need to believe that the course of history and steady human progress are inevitably linked. History has not yet made clear whether such a belief is a narcotic, a noble inspiration, a necessary myth or a tragic delusion. But the author shows where any reader's sympathies must lie. Like Michelet's histories, as Edmund Wilson describes them, this book "makes us feel that we ourselves are the last chapter of the story and that the next chapter is for us to Create."