My reading habits seem to become more labyrinthine each year. I'm usually reading about half a dozen books at a time, going with my whims and interests as they strike. I've finally finished reading To the Finland Station (1940) by Edmund Wilson, which I first began last spring. I found it to be amazing, partly because Wilson is so deeply engaged with his subjects, as he writes a history of socialism and revolution throughout the XIX and early XX centuries.
The book really becomes a work of genius in its middle chapters on Marx and Engels, which read like an ambitious novel on a grand scale, with their intrigue, biographical episodes and a humanization of both figures. Wilson offers an insightful introduction to the fruitful collaboration between these two philosophers, analyzing how their ideas reflect an era and its circumstances. They're presented to us not as prophets but as intellectuals, and their personal failures and flaws are never glossed over. Wilson portrays them as humans immersed in their contradictions while devoted to their philosophical and political project. He helps explain why the XX century was so influenced by Marx and why his ideas remain a crucial component of intellectual thought today. At one point, he describes Das Kapital as a work of genius that transcends its philosophical and economic subject matter to become a text unlike any other:
The book is a welding-together of several quite diverse points of view, of several quite distinct techniques of thought. It contains a treatise on economics, a history of industrial development and an inspired tract for the times; and the morality, which is part of the time suspended in the interests of scientific objectivity, is no more self-consistent than the economics is consistently scientific or the history undistracted by the exaltation of apocalyptic vision. And outside the whole immense structure, dark and strong like the old Trier basilica, built by the Romans with brick walls and granite columns, swim the mists and septentrional lights of German metaphysics and mysticism, always ready to leak in through the crevices. (285)
This excerpt is taken from a chapter entitled "Karl Marx: Poet of Commodities and Dictator of the Proletariat." The book pays meticulous attention to the contradictory nature of Marx's thought, its thrust towards liberation and its simultaneous lunge into authoritarianism and dictatorship. The recent edition published by the New York Review of Books includes Wilson's introduction to the 1971 edition, where he acknowledges that while he was writing the book in the late 1930s he had not fully realized the dictatorial nature of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. But there are still plenty of moments in the text where Wilson notes the tension within socialist and Marxist thought regarding liberation and human rights:
There is in Marx an irreducible discrepancy between the good which he proposes for humanity and the ruthlessness and hatred he inculcates as a means of arriving at this – a discrepancy which, in the history of Marxism, has given rise to much moral confusion. (303)
The third and final section of the book looks at this moral confusion as it plays out in the vivid drama of the Russian Revolution, with figures such as Lenin, his wife Krúpskaya, and Trotsky. These final chapters also humanize figures that are usually invoked only as historical monoliths. Wilson tries to understand them within their own political and intellectual odysseys.
I find this book invaluable as a map of both socialism and revolution, two concepts that were at the center of the XX century and which continue to be controversial and relevant in our world. Inevitably, my mind moves from the pages of this book to events taking place in Venezuela today. I am more convinced than ever of the danger and delusion that Chavismo has unleashed, not just in Venezuela but on a global scale. While the Venezuelan government continues to peddle its vague, undefined "XXI century socialism," what this book reminds us is that socialism has yet to be completely defined as a viable political project in the actual world.
How much of Chavismo is an earnest attempt to liberate the masses? How much of it is simply a continuation of a long and ignominious tradition of military dictatorship in Latin America? What are the limits of personal and intellectual freedom under socialism and within a revolution? When and how do revolutions degenerate into militaristic dictatorships? Is socialism doomed to always fall into the trap of militarism and dictatorship? These are questions Wilson's brilliant book raises for me.