Edmund Wilson and the Problem of Marx: History, Biography, and 'To the Finland Station.'

Article excerpt

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. …