Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station begins by tracing the intellectual roots of Marxist historiography. But by the time we meet Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) in the last third of this study, Wilson has reduced his frame to narrow psycho-biography. Lenin's revolutionary fervor, then, becomes not an expression of thought and action, but the culmination of "Vladimir's peculiar temperament. . . . His trenchant intellect, his combative nature, his penchant for harsh and caustic criticism, his deep feeling combined with detachment. . . ."(1) This shift in method concurrently expresses a shift in Wilson's sympathies. To the Finland Station initially approaches socialism with hope and enthusiasm but later interprets Marx mechanistically. Ultimately, this reduction culminates in a dystopian conclusion. Since Wilson first published portions of this work in 1934 (in periodicals), but took until 1940 to complete the whole, explanations of these shifts have tended to dwell on Wilson's growing political skepticism during this period. Central to this interpretation has been Wilson's 1935 journey to the Soviet Union and his first-hand experience of the repression of Stalinism. In this view, the work's eventual anti-Marxism logically emerges from Wilson's experiences in the U.S.S.R. Though this explanation makes reasonable sense, it assumes as natural that Wilson should equate Stalinism with Marxism and thus fails to consider how a renowned intellectual comes to this reductive idea of Marx. Such an approach also avoids considering To the Finland Station on its own, rather than as a reflection of an accepted version of this portion of its author's life.(2) In this essay I will show that Wilson's study reveals not simply his growing awareness of the barbarism of Stalin but also the theoretical difficulties of Edmund Wilson and of a class of American intellectuals.
From the first, Wilson's embracing of Marxism was marked by intellectual irresolution. In the penultimate chapter of his The American Jitters (1932), a work of reportage concerned with the contemporary American social malaise, Wilson explicitly declares his political heritage and beliefs in ways that indicate his problems with the explicitly philosophical aspect of Marxism. These difficulties go beyond the text of To the Finland Station. They prefigure it and persist throughout his writings in the thirties. Central to these 1932 assertions is a belief in the teleology of Marx's historical vision and a complementary doubt of the ability or wisdom of the mass of Americans to reassert the direction of social life. Yet, Wilson simultaneously expresses his faith in democratic process. To the Finland Station chronicles its author's inability to reconcile these opposing positions. At the heart of this irresolution lie Wilson's difficulties in assimilating Marx's dialectical method. He eventually dismisses the dialectic and leaves himself with an authoritarian Marx--whose legacy, he asserts, properly culminates in Stalin. Thus, by 1940, Wilson disdains Marxism altogether.
To the Finland Station provides a map of Wilson's political journey. In a later essay, published in 1944, Wilson describes his intention in the thirties "to bring home to the bourgeois intellectual world the most recent developments in Marxism in connection with the Russian Revolution."(3) Like so many of his fellow writers, including his friends John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his acquaintances Josephine Herbst and Theodore Dreiser, Wilson observed the economic and social chaos of the American depression and concluded that only a systemic alteration of American life could rectify such disruption. But by December of 1937, as Eric Homberger notes, he spoke out "against Marx, Marxism and socialism itself."(4) This shift of position, while certainly influenced by his trip in 1935, was a result of Wilson's inability to devise a definition of history that allowed for a radical transformation of American life.
To the Finland Station is a readable work that achieved something of a mass audience in its excerpted form in the thirties; the New Republic published portions of it in 1934, 1937, 1938, as did the Partisan Review, also in 1938. Upon its publication in 1940, it was widely reviewed and frequently acclaimed--though at times with some qualifications. Most enthusiastic was Louis Hacker in the Saturday Review of Literature, who called it "a notable achievement in collective biography and intellectual history." Reinhold Niebuhr in the Nation and Sidney Hook in Books, while more guarded, found much in it to praise.(5) Wilson subtitles the work, "A Study in the Writing and Acting of History." By distinguishing writing from acting, Wilson splits theory and practice in a way that suggests the work's initially ambiguous definition of history. Although the juxtaposition of these terms portends their merging, such a synthesis never occurs. The study does primarily resolve this ambiguity after its introduction of the figure of Marx, but in an unexpected way: by submerging theory and critiquing practice.
This resolution, while surprising, is not completely at odds with the earlier assertions of the book. From the first, Wilson vacillates between two rather distinct conceptions of history: on one hand he sees it as the result of human endeavor within the context of social life; on the other, he seems to define it as the inevitable sum of objective laws. On balance, in these first chapters he seems inclined toward the former. However, he never makes this conception explicit and thereby leaves himself the luxury of allowing his study to meander from left to right and back--before finally locking into its anti-Marxist ideology. Since Wilson does not refine his theoretical disposition, we can see an almost intuitive sympathy for Neo-Hegelian Marxism forming his early vision. He celebrates ideas for their potential to affect on social life, the power of the "world of recreated social history" to "supply us with a record, inaccessible up to now, of the adventures of men like ourselves" (4-5). Indeed, at moments he looks at history as a dialectical process that results from the union of matter and thought, and which speaks of the present and the past while it projects toward the future. At these junctures, Wilson's reflexive narrative of historiography recalls Walter Benjamin's assertion that "the historical materialist . . . remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history."(6)
This impulse to address the material problems of his age idealistically makes Wilson a potentially able explicator and popularizer of Western Marxism. As one of the most visible literary critics of his day, he is practiced in the interpretation of texts. Indeed, it is his role to act as a subjective bridge between the text and its reception: Wilson can see the power of the word to influence thought and action. In To the Finland Station, he represents the vitality of an intellectual tradition and in doing so makes himself its heir. The work begins as an introduction to pre-Marxist thought; for example, in its first section Wilson traces the rise of human-centered historiography. By plotting his study in this way, Wilson seeks to show the tradition of such thinking in order to stimulate similar formulations in his readers. He empowers humans as makers and writers of their own history to show the possibility and tradition of a synthetic praxis.
Wilson makes the French historian Jules Michelet the (qualified) hero of this section. In his first chapter, he evokes with palpable intellectual excitement Michelet discovering Giambattista Vico's writings. Begins Wilson: "One day in the January of 1824, a young French professor named Jules Michelet, who was teaching philosophy and history, found the name of Giovanni Vico in a translator's note to a book he was reading. The reference to Vico interested him so much that he immediately set out to learn Italian" (3). When Wilson discovers Michelet discovering Vico, he apparently locates history in terms of human process--which would include the historian. The center of this tradition, for Wilson and Michelet, lies in Vico's 1725 work Scienza Nuova [A New Science]. Writes Wilson: "And here reading Vico today we can feel some of Michelet's excitement. . . . Human history had hitherto been written as a series of biographies of great men or as a chronicle of remarkable happenings or as a pageant directed by God" (4-5). In these writings, according to Wilson, the idea that "the social world is certainly the work of men" sparks Michelet.
Wilson aligns himself with a historiographical tradition that extends to Vico, and thus places himself within the emerging movement now construed as Western Marxism. The invoking of Vico becomes all the more indicative of an assertion of his text's direction when one considers that Vico himself occurs only once in the many pages of Marx's writings: in a single footnote to Das Kapital in which Marx quotes Vico's distinction that "human history differs from natural history in that humans have made the former and not the latter."(7) Using Vico as a starting point, Wilson echoes other dissenters from the Soviet line and from the "objective" Marxism of the Second International. This shifts the emphasis of communism from autocrats asserting the dogma of Marx to humans assimilating the dialectic as an element of a synthetic praxis. This emphasis would explain Wilson's choosing to focus on historians in his introductory chapters. In the Neo-Hegelian formulation of Marxism that Wilson apparently employs, theory dialectically figures with action; thus, writing history and making history are constituent aspects of a Marxist whole. In such a conception, Marx ceases to be a dogmatist who looks into his crystal ball and melts the clouds of the future with his god-like gaze. Rather, he is a philosopher as well as a sociologist.(8)
The use of Vico as a pivotal figure portends many of Wilson's problems of historical definition. There is no direct line from Vico to Marx. Indeed, as Terence Ball has noted, Marx's major assertions of a Vico-like conception of history occurred in "the Grundrisse of 1857/8--five years before Marx's bookworming led him to Vico's New Science."(9) But Wilson is not interested simply in intellectual cause and effect. He seeks to establish a sequence of ideas that have informed socialist thought in Western culture. As he writes in 1934, "My idea is . . . to present the development of the organic conception and the scientific study of history through a number of key figures, with the background amply filled in."(10) Even if Marx did not employ Vico in this way, the concepts that Wilson has Vico asserting would still empower political change through their existence in an alternative dialectical historiography. If, as Vico says, humans make their own history, then the prospect of moving America from capitalism remains a vital possibility.
But even as he leans toward the humane Marx and apparently rebuts the dogmatic approach of orthodox Marxism, Wilson celebrates Michelet's assertion that "all science is one: language, literature and history, physics, mathematics, and philosophy" (6). This vision of the single science echoes the assertions of Comtean positivism and is the very opposite position to the idea of the humane Marx. Indeed, as the Neo-Hegelians revise Marx to empower the subject, in these assertions Wilson empowers objective laws to diminish human agency and echoes the totalitarian precepts of Stalinism. Wilson's insistence on one "science" also evokes the determinism of the Second International (1889-1914), which defined Marxism dogmatically and valued, above all, fidelity to its objective laws.
This conceptual problem is central to this work, since it finally refers back to the author's representation of himself and the intention of his study. Wilson, by discovering Michelet discovering Vico, makes himself their intellectual heir. But in this case, Wilson's conception of the vitality of human-centered historiography may ultimately alter the matter of history itself: he writes the history of ideas to show their fruition in historical action. Wilson seems ambivalent about his role as catalyst. Though he powerfully puts forth the theoretical re-orientations he locates as central to Vico and Michelet's conception of history, the initial excitement of this first long section of the book fades as Michelet's histories and Michelet the man prove unable to rally and redirect the legacy of the French revolution. Given the activist model of historiography that Wilson forms, we might expect Wilson's lament to be for Michelet's excessive scholasticism, to complain that Michelet's immersion in the past leaves him unable to affect contemporary events. However, Wilson strays from his initial argument in the penultimate chapter on Michelet, titled "Michelet Tries to Live in History." Here he laments the inability of historians to represent the totality of an age: "But one cannot enter human history once it has taken place; nor can a man of the nineteenth century really recover the mentality of the sixteenth" (30). Such a regret apparently contradicts the major theoretical disposition of this first section. History at this point seems impenetrable and rigidified, and therefore beyond the powers of a human to reconsider and alter its definition. And yet this assertion rebuts Wilson's stated method in this work and recapitulates the theoretical confusion of his study. He wrote in 1934 of "his idea not to write a complete account" of this humane tradition of historiography.(11) Rather, he reserves the historian's right to select in a self-aware manner the narrative line that will produce a particular result. As Wilson ties Michelet's ability to achieve a desired social result to the French historian's capacity to reproduce the totality of the past, he significantly alters the narrative line of his history: if we must know all of the facts of history for it to influence action, then we are doomed to inertia. This is the reflexive moment of Wilson's study. But he seems unaware of the implications of this contradiction for his own efforts.
Subsequent to his involved discussion of Michelet, Wilson fills out this first section of To the Finland Station with what he calls in each chapter heading, "The Decline of the Revolutionary Tradition." He describes this decline through the figures of Ernest Renan, Hippolyte Taine, and Anatole France. In 1934, Wilson explained that "the purpose of this first section [of To The Finland Station] is to show the dying out of the bourgeois revolutionary tradition as a prelude to presenting the rise of Marxism."(12) As the chapters focusing on Michelet have ended with some ambiguity, a reader looks to Wilson to reground his study with an explicit definition of history: is history what we make it (both as writers and as actors), or is it the science of recovering the totality of the past? Is it aridly academic or dynamically vital? This portion of the book depends on Wilson explicitly providing a definition of history, but this act of definition never occurs. Without such a conceptual frame, a reader is unable to see precisely the relationship between historiography and social life that Wilson seeks to draw.
Renan, Taine, and France, in Wilson's view, suffer for their lack of dynamism. He describes Renan as excessively intellectual; he is "occupied primarily with ideas, behind which the rest of human history is merely filled in as a background" (52). Taine is found "cocksure and priggish" (54), while "Anatole France is a professed reformer and optimist who is always lapsing into cynicism and gloom, and giving way to the worst suspicions of the mechanistic character of life and the total insignificance of humanity" (74). These three men reveal the limits of intellectuals to address productively the focal issues of social life--if their thought is not materially grounded and directed. Their aridity results from their distance from the world of material problems and solutions, and signifies the situation of socially remote scholars.
In the next section of the book, titled "Origins of Socialism," Wilson begins by elevating Gracchus Babeuf's "realism and sobriety which suggest much later phases of socialism" (88). Babeuf's vision of socialism as a practical exigency parallels, in Wilson's writing, the intellectual power of Michelet. That is, what Michelet is to historiography, Babeuf is to social theory, as he asserts that "every man has an equal right to the enjoyment of every benefit, and that the real purpose of society is to defend that right and to increase the common benefits" (89). Having defined a general theory of socialism, Wilson explores the utopian practices of Comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and Prosper Enfantin--as well as a group he calls "the American Socialists."(13) In opposition to his criticism of the scholasticism of Renan et al., Wilson now finds fault with these figures for their rudiments of theory; to him, all had narrow social visions that they were able to effect in limited terms. This resulted in somewhat authoritarian and idiosyncratic social models. For Fourier and Owen, this involved modifying human behavior to perfect it for factory labor, while for the others it ranged from orthodoxies of messianism to enforced regimes of "Complex Marriage." These complementary critiques--the absence of practice versus the absence of theory--allude to the textual introduction of the figure of Marx, who promises to join theory and practice into a synthetic revolutionary vision. Yet, at the center of this work there lies a hole where there promised to be a resolution.
Wilson, who has prior to this point focally situated Vico in his text and written of Marx the humanist, introduces Marx after these narrow socialists. Whereas the focus of the study was primarily social and theoretical prior to this point, with the introduction of Marx it shifts to biography. It seems as though Wilson has been jarred from his design by the specter of Marx--which is for Wilson the specter of Marxism. Though To the Finland Station has thus far examined social life rather indirectly--through a history of ideas--with this introduction of Marx (in a chapter called "Karl Marx: Prometheus and Lucifer") he asserts in Marx's voice that "we must be on guard against allowing ourselves to fall victim to that most dangerous of all temptations: the fascination of abstract thought" (131). He goes on to discuss Marx's moral vision in deterministic genealogical terms: "There had been concentrated in Karl Marx the blood of several lines of Jewish Rabbis" (132), and concludes that by the end of Marx's law studies in Berlin, "He was already on his way to becoming the great secular Rabbi of his century" (139). In denouncing abstraction and in his biological definition of Marx, Wilson's method veers from a conception of Marxism that evokes Marx's debt to Hegel, to simple reflectionism. To this point, his study has been concerned with the prospect of, in Marx's terms "men making their own history," both as writers and as actors. Now, Wilson ceases explicitly to direct his text. Rather, he becomes a relatively passive chronicler of what was (and is) and assumes his history's ability to reflect the verities of the world. He finds that these truths prefigure his inquiry. Faced with the prospect of the synthesis he proposed, Wilson retreats to the world of positivist thought.
This retreat is confirmed in the chapter, "The Myth of The Dialectic." In this critique, Wilson defines the dialectic as a specious philosophical method because it does not reproduce the actions of the natural world, yet it pretends to the status of science. He finds Marx borrowing this erroneous method from Hegel and applying it not to thought, as Hegel the philosopher had done, but to economic life--and hence reforming it as "dialectical materialism." Wilson's critique of the dialectic is correct as far as it goes. But it rests upon questionable conceptual ground. It assumes that the test of a philosophy is its expression in nature, and therefore subsumes human processes under inherent processes--which is precisely the opposite conception that Marx employed in his quoting of Vico. While an argument for interpreting Marx and Hegel as scientistic philosophers can be supported, it narrows two distinct threads of Marxist and Hegelian thought into one--and indeed, the one that opposes Wilson's intuitive assertions. As Russell Jacoby points out
Two traditions can be identified: the "historical" and the "scientific"
Hegel. Each prized different texts and opposite formulations
from the oeuvre of Hegel. The historical Hegelians gravitated
toward the Hegel of history, subjectivity, and consciousness; their
preferred text was The Phenomenology of Mind. Hegel was the philosopher
of the subject attaining consciousness through history.
The scientific Hegelians valued Hegel as the comprehensive and
scientific philosopher; they elevated the total system, the laws of
development, and the formality of the dialectic. They preferred
The Science of Logic.(14) In To the Finland Station, Wilson at first sketches both the idea of the single system of Marx and a conflicting perspective that seems to develop the idea of the humane Marx. However, when he explicitly discusses Marx and Marxism, he narrows his conception to the single-system approach and critiques the very authoritarian impulses which he previously elevated. In effect, he collapses Marxism into Stalinism.
This authoritarian reading of Marx approaches history not as a social process, but as the result of dominant personalities who act as they must. Wilson virtually removes their actions from social life: their will expresses a variety of embedded traits, formed by narrow training and biology. This explains Wilson's increasing and ultimately morbid fascination with Marx's character. History, then, becomes the result of individual psyches imposing their will on an age--exactly the "great men" concept that Vico and Michelet attempted to rebut with their idea of history as the complex melding of social man and material conditions. As Wilson steers his method of presenting history toward biography, he asserts that great men do not necessarily embody and nudge currents of history, but form and direct them with their extraordinary powers; these individuals express a narrow idea of historical causality. Since theory has been revealed as specious, Marxism becomes largely a device by which these men may manipulate large bodies of people: power for power's sake. Explains Wilson, "Group enthusiasm turns to intrigue, and talent becomes diseased with vanity" (260).
Within this model, historiography loses its vitality. If great men dictate events based on their highly individuated desires, then the distinction between the writing and acting of history has become reified and absolute. Action expresses will, not ideas, and the ruminations of the historian become precious and academic. Wilson treats Marx's writings as lacking the power to direct events toward his ideal vision. Since abstraction is now specious in Wilson's model of social change, the theories of Marx become simply a means of explicating his actions in hopes of elaborating his essential character. Wilson moves easily from discussing Marx's Das Kapital to elaborating his "succession of plagues." He bridges the two topics by explaining the insights of this volume in narrow personal and biological terms--the result of Marx's Jewishness and propensity for "carbuncles and boils" (363). Wilson concludes, "Thus, in attacking the industrial system, he is at the same time declaring his own tribulations, calling the heavens--that is, History--to witness that he is a just man wronged . . ." (365).
Marx's writings now express his particular condition: Wilson in one guise has shifted from historian to biographer. But since this is a work of divergent motifs, he also reverts from historian to literary critic. In the chapters on Marx, Wilson, to confirm the social ineffectuality of ideas, increasingly considers the writings themselves for their aesthetic merit. He praises The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte for its "wit and metaphorical phantasmagoria that transfigures the prosaic developments of politics, and in the pulse of tragic invective--we have heard its echoes in Bernard Shaw--which can turn the collapse of an incompetent parliament . . . into the downfall of a damned soul of Shakespeare" (237). In the chapter, "Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities," he approaches Das Kapital as an imaginative work:
But it is after all the poet in Marx who makes all these things
a whole--that same poet who had already shown his strength in
the verses he had written as a student but whose equipment had
not been appropriate to the art of romantic verse. Marx's subject
is now human history; and that bleak inhuman side of his mind
which disconcerts us in his earlier writings has been filled in with
mathematics and logic. But it is the power of imagination as well
as the cogency of argument which makes Das Kapital so compelling.
(339) To aestheticize Marx's writings tactically removes them from social life. They become objects to note for their balance and beauty, and distant from the material circumstances they address and seek to alter.
Yet, even within this broader dismissal that marks the second half of this work, Wilson recognizes competing currents in Marx's expression, noting of Marx's explicitly historical writings (The Class Struggle in France , The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ),
One of the most striking features of all this commentary of Marx
and Engels . . . is precisely its flexibility, its readiness to take
account of new facts. Though the mainspring of the Dialectic was
conceived as a very simple mechanism, the day to day phenomena
of society were regarded by Marx and Engels as infinitely varied
and complex. (250) This type of insight cries out for a reconsideration of the theoretical underpinnings of Marx, but none occurs. Wilson has failed to comprehend and assimilate the complexities of the dialectical center of Marx's writings and uncritically falls back on received Western cultural truths of the autonomy of the individual and the inevitability of positivist thought. For Wilson, Marx fails because he cannot devise concrete laws of history and because he formulates his critique and affirmation of social life by involving an idealist component. These complaints fail to note that Marx's dialectical method reflects on his writings themselves and reveals an implicit critique of such an absolute reception. Wilson critiques Marx for not being Stalin, and Stalin for being an autocrat.
The last section of To the Finland Station consistently treats its figures in the manner it has treated Marx. Wilson replaces his initial curiosity about the relationship between history and social life with facile biography and essentialist notions of cause and effect. We find that Lenin, who is admired for his ardor, "owed to his German blood that solidity and efficiency and diligence that was so untypical of the Russian intelligentsia" (436). With these powers he "marshaled his troops with the science of a general" (461). Trotsky, on the other hand, suffers from a failure of such will, which is marked by his intellectuality. Though Trotsky may be a notable intellect, his Marxist beliefs taint his thinking. Wilson denigrates him as a teleological Marxist historicist, an heir to the mysticisms of "the Hegelian Idea" (508). Wilson contrasts these two figures to show the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of Marxist theory and practice. Certainly contemporary historical events cause one to question the legacy of the Russian revolution; but to assume that such a legacy is inherent in any movement that derives from Marx strikes me as merely dismissive.
Finally, in the last two chapters, "Lenin Identifies Himself With History" and "Lenin at the Finland Station," Wilson provides the dramatic flourish which caps the narrative line of his study. The events leading up to the revolution of 1917 and the moment of revolution itself occur. The climactic tone that the book's beginning portends does occur. However, the meaning of these events has shifted. Rather than Lenin identifying his will with history, Wilson has "Lenin identifying history with his will" (527). The triumph is only that of a dictator: not in any way is it the fruition of an idea. Thus, the line from Marx to Lenin to Stalin is inevitable. By the end of the decade and the work, Wilson had not only declared his enmity for Stalinism but also for Marx, drawing an unbroken line between Marx's vitriol and the tyranny of Stalin: "The trials of Zinoviev and the rest derive from the practice of |character assassination' inaugurated by Marx for the purpose of discrediting Bakunin and others."(15)
Important in this shift from ambiguity to renunciation was Wilson's 1935 trip to the U.S.S.R. His first-hand impression of Stalinism helped to eradicate any intellectual tendencies he had toward a sympathetic view of communism in general. Yet, as the early chapters of To the Finland Station reveal, this antipathy was enabled by his theoretical difficulties: first by his inability to develop an appropriately dialectical definition of history and then by his extreme simplification of all dialectical thought and his consequent elimination of it from his analysis. Indeed, Wilson himself grasped that this theoretical difficulty was the most problematic element of his work. He explains, "My great handicap, I find, in dealing with all this is my lack of grounding in German philosophy. . . . I have never done anything with German philosophy, and can't bear it, and am having a hard time now propping that part of my story up."(16) In noting the conceptual problems of his study, I do not attempt to lay an ongoing problem of American history at the feet of Edmund Wilson. Rather, we may see Wilson's political journey as typical of that of many of his contemporaries.
In the thirties, a contributing factor to the political frustration of anti-Stalinist leftist intellectuals, such as Sidney Hook and Max Eastman among others, was their method of assessing the dialectal relationship between Marxist theory and practice. Most dismissed the idealist aspect of the Marxist equation and became impatient with the slow pace of social change. This central difficulty also suggests a broader problem for American leftists of assimilating the level of critical awareness necessary to dialectical thought in general. Thus, when faced with the massive historical task of re-forming the ideological dispositions of their compatriots, American leftist intellectuals often ran out of dialectical fervor and concluded that Stalinism was not an aberration; rather, they believed that it fully represented the possibilities and inevitabilities of communism.(17)
This conceptual problem with dialectical thought contrasts sharply with the formulations of their European contemporaries on the anti-Soviet left. Beginning with the publication of Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness in 1921 and followed by the publication of Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy in 1923, there emerged in Europe a body of Marxist thought which sought to restore to prominence the Hegelian legacy of the young Marx. In the thirties this disposition was refined and developed by those associated with the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse. Not all of these figures proposed like political visions, but all eschewed the "scientific" Marx and countered the Soviet subsuming of theory with narrow practice by resituating the dialectic as a primary means of inquiry.(18) These Americans, rather than developing in this direction, desire the concrete, a disposition that may blind one to the necessity of reconceptualizing social life as a requisite to altering it. Certainly that was the case for Hook and Eastman. The former ended his life as a fellow at the Hoover Institute; the latter, an atheist who broke with William Buckley and the National Review over Buckley's insistence that God is an American conservative, remained devoted to the conservative cause and contributed to Reader's Digest until his death. Though Wilson did not veer to the reactionary right in the manner of so many thirties leftists, he did primarily withdraw from social activism and came to profess a kind of eccentric liberalism by the end of his life.(19)
Certainly Stalinism drove American intellectuals from the left to the right. But in the case of Wilson we can see the glimmer of a complex and illuminating Marxism. Central to that system of theory and practice is Wilson's intention of developing a Marxism appropriate to American history.(20) Yet, Wilson, with other intellectual resolutions available, falls back on his own historicism, one that assumes the fundamental incompatibility of American life and socialism. Such conclusions, of course prove self-fulfilling. Wilson ended this chapter of his political life by confirming what he believed near its beginning in 1930: ". . . that all that sort of thing in America seems . . . unrelated to real life."(21) By looking at the conclusions of this study not as a reflection of what must be, but as the lapsing of trenchant analysis into a disposition toward the truisms of American exceptionalism, we may counter such a notion of inevitability and question not why such conclusions must occur, but why they have occurred. (1.) Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1989), 425-26. All further references will be noted parenthetically. (2.) See for example, biographies by Sherman Paul, Edmund Wilson (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1965), 92-140, and Leonard Kriegel, Edmund Wilson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1981), 45-65. (3.) Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials. A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1950), 114-15. (4.) Eric Homberger, American Writers and Radical Politics, 1900-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1986), 160. In addition to Eric Homberger's account, there are various other illuminating treatments of Wilson's political stance in the thirties. See Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left (New York: Avon Books, 1961) and his "Edmund Wilson's Political Decade" in Literature at the Barricades, ed. Ralph Bogardus and Fred Hobson (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1982), 175-86. Wilson's own writings, of course, further elaborate his ideological wanderings. See, in particular, The American Jitters. A Year of the Slump (New York: Scribner's, 1932); The Shores of Light (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1952); The Thirties, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1980); and Travels in Two Democracies (New York: Harcourt, 1936). (5.) Louis Hacker, "Review of To the Finland Station," Saturday Review of Literature, 5 Oct. 1940, 11. Sidney Hook, "Review of To the Finland Station," Books, 29 Sept. 1940, 5, noted its various "shortcomings" including the fact that Wilson "closes with Lenin at the Finland Station" and "overrates Lenin as a practical thinker." But he calls it an "instructive and exciting intellectual experience." Reinhold Niebuhr, "Review of To the Finland Station," Nation, 28 Sept. 1940, 274, praises its "very penetrating character studies of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, but finds that its initial theme, "an analysis of interpretations of the meaning of history," is ultimately "obscured." (6.) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1978), 262. (7.) Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), 406. (8.) The use of Vico as a central figure in Hegelian Marxism extends back to Georg Lukacs, who quotes Marx's citation of Vico in History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), 112, and has continued in the works of various figures of the Frankfurt School including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Jurgen Habermas. Vico was also an important figure for the Italian Hegelian Benedetto Croce, who passed his admiration on to Antonio Gramsci. Later Neo-Hegelians such as Ernest Bloch and the Czech Karel Kosik expressed their admiration for Vico. See Martin Jay, "Vico and Western Marxism," in Fin-De Siecle Socialism (New York: Routledge, 1988), 67-81. Jay explains that this line from Vico to Hegelian Marxism is theoretically problematic. Indeed, notes Jay, Vico's ideas were ultimately rebutted in later writings by members of the Frankfurt School. Jay also cites the authoritarian implications of Vico's idea of man's mastery over nature. Further, he explains, "Vico had . . . compared human knowledge of history with God's knowledge of his creation and designated providence as the ultimate, if mediated, motor of history" (77). Thus, humans may make their own history in the Vico model, but only as agents of God. For further discussion see the collection edited by Giorgio Tagliacozzo, Vico and Marx (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1983) and Hayden White, "The Tropics of History: The Deep Structure of the New Science," in Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978), 197-217. (9.) Terence Ball, "On |Making' History in Vico and Marx," in Vico and Marx, 79-81. (10.) Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, ed. Elena Wilson (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1987), 246. (11.) Letters, 246. (12.) Letters, 249. (13.) Wilson's section on American socialists describes the various permutations of Fourierism and Owenite communities that flourished in mid-nineteenth century (120). He also includes a brief discussion of the "anti-communist community" of Josiah Warren, the Oneida community of Joseph Noyes, and the North American Phalanx version of Fourierism in Red Bank, New Jersey. This last group is of particular interest to Wilson as it resided near his boyhood home. See Paul, 5. (14.) Russell Jacoby, The Dialectic of Defeat (New York: Cambridge UP, 1981), 38. (15.) Letters, 296. (16.) Letters, 293. (17.) For two excellent accounts of the movement of American intellectuals from thirties radicals to fifties and sixties reactionaries, see Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987), and John P. Diggins's Up From Communism (New York: Harper and Row, 1987). Diggins's insights on Max Eastman are trenchant and well developed: Eastman is one of the five figures around whom this study focuses. Wald's discussions of Eastman's Marx, Lenin and the Science of Revolution and Hook's Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx are particularly valuable in their elaboration of their quirky and, I would argue, American methods of reconciling Marx's Hegelian legacy with the positivist tendencies of American intellectual history (114-27). Wald explains, Eastman "argued that Marxism was an unscientific philosophy requiring the purgation of its religious elements, especially the Hegelian dialectic" (114). While Hook, on the other hand, sought to emphasize the dialectic as a method of action, and thus "attempts to present Marxism as being compatible with John Dewey's pragmatic instrumentalism" (121). "The difference between Eastman and Hook was that the former insisted that Marx and Engels were as one in this pseudoscientific approach, while the latter, in contrast, drew a sharp line between the two and claimed to find the seeds of a pragmatic approach in Marx's activism" (125). (18.) These writings rejected the "science" of Marxism and instead offered an antithesis to such certainties. This position privileges the dialectic as an epistemological method and thus empowers the subject as a historical actor. This rebuts the materialist emphases of the Second International. See Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), and Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1976). (19.) Wilson spoke out against McCarthyism in the fifties and concerned himself with various political issues through the rest of his life in a way that can be construed as politically liberal. However, it is important to distinguish the refinements of his beliefs. Wilson gradually moved toward a kind of anti-statist ideology that possesses elements of laissez-faire mixed with moral outrage. His book Apologies to the Iroquois (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1960) laments the treatment of Native Americans and criticizes government policy. Perhaps most revealing is his The Cold War and the Income Tax. A Protest (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1963). Wilson explains: "Between the year 1946 and the year 1955, I did not file any income tax returns" (3). When hounded by the I.R.S., he responded with this book. He at first asserts his innocence, claiming not to know his legal responsibility, but later argues a libertarian position against "State Socialism": "The |state' . . . consists of a kind of mechanical organism of interlocking official departments, with a nominal leader at the nominal top who is taxed one would think almost beyond endurance by the effort to keep his hand on the complicated, ill-coordinated, and often refractory controls" (45). (20.) Wilson had an abiding interest in interpreting Marxism in a way that spoke to Americans. His correspondence with John Dos Passos reflects this (Letters, 257-59), as does a letter to V. F. Calverton in the mid-thirties calling for a "translation of Communist ideology into American terms" (in Homberger, 152). (21.) Letters, 196…