Zack's Reviews > To the Finland Station

To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson
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Oct 03, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: read-in-2010
Read from October 03 to November 03, 2010

Am I right to judge a book not on its limitations but on my own? Is the review I'm writing based on how good I thought the book was, or on how much I liked it? Am I disappointed because I didn't read the blurb on the back of the book closely enough, wasn't prepared for what I was getting myself into? Rhetorical questions all. Just keep them in mind as I write this review.

First of all, Wilson provides a thorough, dynamic history of the evolution of mainline Socialist thought, from before the French Revolution up until the Bolshevik one. Karl Marx and his friend, benefactor and collaborator Friedrich Engels are undoubtedly the stars of the book, and there is a lot of fascinating biographical material on both to help the reader place their theories in some kind of context. Bravo, Wilson, for taking these men off their pedestals and portraying them as living, breathing humans (also for featuring a number of important women in your account, who usually seem to be invisible in books of this length and scope).

Unfortunately, if your interest lies in the Russian Revolution, this book is not for you. Or at least, it shouldn't be your go-to for an introduction. There is an awful lot that is assumed to be understood by the reader, or even remembered from personal experience (at one point Wilson perfunctorily mentions the patriotic fervor that swept the industrialized Western nations during the First World War, explaining his omission by saying that most of his readers should be able to remember what that time was like). Also, despite how exhaustive and authoritative this book claims to be, there is quite a bit that the reader should already understand before picking it up. Like what an "International" (noun) is. Or that Mark and Engels didn't really invent Communism. In fact, if you're interested in the history of the Russian Revolution at all it's probably better to read something else first, since the whole upheaval and drama happens off-stage, as it were, behind the lines of the Eastern Front, while Wilson focuses more on Lenin's life in exile elsewhere.

All this focus on Lenin while the great events of the Revolution seem to be happening elsewhere highlights Wilson's approach to historiography, which seems outdated and limiting by modern standards. As you read the book, you get this impression that Socialism is some kind of relay race, a torch being passed along from one Great Mind to the next, from Babeuf all the way through the tumult of the 19th century up to Vladimir Lenin. Sure, the Springtime of Nations in '48 is discussed; sure, the Paris Commune gets a few paragraphs; sure, there are Proudhons and Bakunins and Trotskys that crop up, and their biographies are fleshed out and interesting to read, as well: but most all of this appears as window-dressing, as the necessary context for what is happening inside the head of whoever's got the Flaming Red Torch at the moment. These other great thinkers of the 19th century serve as nothing more than elaborate foils for Marx, Engels, or Lenin. It's almost as if Wilson has ingested too much of the Historical and Dialectical Materialism that he critiques excellently about 3/4ths of the way in.

So yes, if you're interested in the development of Socialist philosophy and of 19th century politics in general, this book is probably required reading for you. And had I started reading this book knowing what I was getting myself into, I'd probably given it a higher rating. Since, however, I was expecting something else, I might not have picked this up in the first place.
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