Notes on To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson

This book surveys the development of Socialism by summarizing and analyzing various thinkers, starting with Michelet and ending with Lenin. I became interested in the book after reading about it on NPR’s You Must Read This series, which has provided me several good recommendations over the years. This book, so far, looks like it will be added to that list.

As other threads like this one, I’m going to use it to jot down rough thoughts and impressions.

One more thing, for what it’s worth: Wilson is a good writer, both in terms of his prose and insights.

2 thoughts on “Notes on To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson

  1. The book is broken up into three sections: Part I focuses on three French writers and their work on the French Revolution. Part II focuses on the development of socialism, focusing on different thinkers including two that tried to create utopian communities (i.e., Fourier and Owens). Finally, Part III focuses on Lenin and Trotsky.

    By the way, I forgot to mention that the book’s subtitle is “A Study in the Writing and Acting of History.” The thinkers and their works that Wilson focuses on are mostly historical writing. I’m guessing he’s doing that to not only explain the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that lead to socialism, but also the important link between historical analysis the concept of socialism itself.

    However, at this point (I’m starting the section on Marx), I’m not entirely clear about the way the individuals profiled and analyzed so far connect to socialism, except in a vague way. I want to write about each thinker and see if that makes the linkage clearer.

    Jules Michelet
    I’ve never read anything by Michelet, but Wilson’s description makes me want to. According to Wilson, Michelet wants to focuses on the ways economic and social forces shape history, utilizing historical records and as much reliable information as a basis for this. The idea is to use a more scientific approach, versus a more romantic, literary one that focuses on heroic individuals. At the same time, Wilson points out that Michelet’s writing is not bloodless and mechanical. Michelet really attempts to get into the minds of the people of the period he’s writing about, and bring that to life.

    My guess is that Michelet’s emphasis on economic and social forces is a precursor to Marxist analysis of history–one that utlimately results in socialism. Additionally, Michelet focuses on the French Revolution, as well as the Post-Revolution period. My guess: This is important because the history suggests that democracy in a capitalist system will never lead to a society that is free, equal, and just. This sets the stage for a system that will achieve these things–namely, socialism.

    (By the way, to be clear, the book so far reaffirms my skepticism towards a completely socialist society, which would exclude European countries like France or the UK.)

    More later.


    (Will try to add notes on the individuals profiled after Michelet and before Marx-Engels.)

    Ernest Renan
    Hippolyte Taine
    Anatole France
    Robert Owen
    Enfantin and American Socialists

  2. Chap. 11: The Myth of the Dialectic

    Marx-Engels (M-E) adopted the Hegelian (versus Socratic) notion of the dialectic—namely, a law about the way societies and nations (and everything else?) develops. In essence, progress occurs from the reconciliation of two contradictory forces. The nature of the process, as manifested in history, featured three phases:

    Thesis: a position of stability

    Antithesis: forces arise in opposition to the status quo creating instability;

    Synthesis: A new, superior state arises from the conflict and ultimately the resolution of thesis and antithesis. (I’m not sure why the new state must be superior. That is, why couldn’t the third stage be inferior to the first?)

    Wilson says that Hegel saw past events this way, but M-E applied this process towards the future with the following specific phases:

    Thesis: Bourgeoisie controlled society (came out of failure of Feudalism)

    Antithesis: Rise of the Proletariat, in opposition to Bourgeoisie;

    Synthesis: Implementation of Communist society

    Wilson’s description of the Dialectic discussed by M-E makes taking it seriously difficult. For one thing, M-E don’t seem to have a clear idea of the concept. On some occasions, they speak as if the Dialectic or History is a force like Fate or Providence. On other occasions, they speak as if history depends on the actions of freely acting individuals. Additionally, if they believe the Dialectic is a force like Fate, they don’t have any basis for this. This would undermine the claim that their conclusions are scientific or objective.

    I want to speculate on how they viewed History/Dialectic.

    First of all, semantics might be the main problem here. As an example, consider the way American politicians sometimes speak about history—e.g., “History will judge this generation harshly.” This makes history sound like a force with a specific design or outcome in mind. But the politician may not think of history this way. Instead, history used in this way indicates a high confidence about the future state (of the U.S.)—specifically, the liberal-democratic values, a rules-based system, etc. would be a strong feature of any U.S. future state. Perhaps, M-E viewed history in a similar fashion. If the Dialectic process has repeated itself over and over again in the past, M-E could reasonably assume this would continue in the future.

    However, they make other assumptions that are not as sound. For one thing, they assume that eventually the Dialectic will arrive at a social utopia. Even though the Dialectic process may have occurred and societies have gradually improved in the past, this doesn’t necessarily mean the improvements will continue. Perhaps progress occurred partly because conditions in early human societies were deplorable. In other words, conditions were so poor, societies could only get better. (Technology like paper and movable type allowed humans to get smarter which lead to knowledge and tools/technology that improved society?) However, once human societies reached a certain level, human societies might plateau.

    But let me stop here and backtrack a bit. Even if some of M-E’s assumptions were unsound, the description I offer seems like a plausible alternative to Dialectic as a kind of demiurge.

    …To be continued.

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