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To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  1,188 ratings  ·  111 reviews
The Russian Revolution, whose consequences have dominated the modern world, brought to a climax the many political and intellectual movements whcih are the subject of this book. It is with the background to this event that Mr. Wilson concerns himself in the present book, the history of Vico's idea that "the social world is the work of man." He traces the influence of this ...more
Paperback, 502 pages
Published 1972 by Anchor (first published 1940)
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... the historian, who, taking history as something more than a game, makes the effort in good faith to enter into the life of the past ... For where is the life here? Who can say, here, which are the living and which are the dead?

Jules Michelet, quoted by Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson; his book; his later view of the book

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was an American writer and critic. Some of his many books included Axel’s Castle (1931), Memoirs of Hecate County (1946), The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (
Oct 13, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, peteredout
I’m leaving this unfinished for now, breaking off (or merely just pausing) before the portrait of Lenin that concludes this varicolored chronicle of European socialisms. Wilson concedes, in the 1971 preface, that those final chapters are full of starry-eyed bullshit. Wilson’s radiant image of Lenin as the Second Coming, after a slumberous century under the snows of bourgeois reaction, of 1789’s spirit of Liberty (and surely not 1793’s spirit of Terror!), was the major bone of contention in his e ...more
May 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Communism was the last great religious movement to gain a mass following around the world. We tend to associate it with Russia or perhaps the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America where it existed most recently, but in its deepest origins the communist idea was French. This book charts the birth of communism from its earliest origins in the intellectual and moral ferment surrounding the French Revolution. That revolution radically broke with the past and transmuted the old Christian ideals ...more
Ian "Marvin" Graye
Revolution as Political Means

This 1940 book isn’t just about Karl Marx, but it makes some arguments (both pro and con) about a hypothesis I’ve long had that Marx’s greatest achievement from a political point of view was to legitimate violence or revolution as a political means (at least in extreme circumstances of social and political oppression or suppression).

Marx, at various times regarded himself as a philosopher, an historian, and a political economist. It's not clear which viewpoint preva
History could be told this way, if we really wanted it to... an interplay of ideas and circumstances, beginning with Michelet's reading of Vico and ending with Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station, ready to start his revolution. Suddenly all these ideas, all these people are rendered as fully fleshed characters with as much personality and subjectivity as the protagonists of a 19th Century psychological novel. And a finer explication of the socialist ideal-- what it is, what it was, what it co ...more
Jun 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned, philosophy, history
This and Russian Thinkers would make a perfect introduction to leftist revolutionary thought of the 19th century. Not finished with it yet, but so far it's good, though I have some quibbles. [ETA: finished; loved it.] It corrects the common perception that Communism was an invention of mostly Marx and partly Engels by detailing the movement's antecedents in Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owens, and others, most of whom were inspired in turn by the French revolution. I hadn't realized that in the case of ...more
Erik Graff
Nov 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: Arthur Kazar
Shelves: history
Edmund Wilson was a polymathic literary critic. While his books on historical subjects--such as this one and those on the Dead Sea Scrolls--are not expert, they do serve as excellent, albeit opinionated, introductions and they are beautifully written.

To the Finland Station begins with the Enlightenment and ends with Lenin and the Russian Revolution. It is basically a chronological survey of the development of socialist ideas. The portrait of Lenin is a bit idealized, but is representative of muc
Formidable scholarship. The history of European socialist thought (1600-1900) surveyed by any competent author would be a worthwhile read; but in the hands of Edmund Wilson? Its just out there. A book to test anyone's mettle. This is academia of a caliber you simply don't see anymore. For this famously difficult and vexatious kind of subject matter--one which has long resisted assimilation--Wilson is just the man for the job. Thank heaven for his interest in these topics.

His deployment of formal

Badass. Encyclopedic in the right way. Every few pages tells the story of another character in the drama of European Socialism. The stories are well worth knowing, and reading.

Got to lose a star on account of Wilson's having been sucked into taking Lenin to be a better man than he actually was. And for the Russian Revolution to have been better than it actually was.

But. It doesn't really matter. Wilson is mostly a careful scholar and an amazing teller of this gigantic moment in modern history. Y
Nov 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is one of history’s great questions: How did it all go so wrong? How did Communism, which was founded on the principles of equality, fraternity, justice, and human dignity become the antithesis of all of them? So many brilliant thinkers laid the groundwork, and it attracted the best and the brightest followers, the smartest, most dedicated, most talented. If any ideology ever seriously had a chance to change the world, this was it, and yet everywhere it was tried it quickly become brutal, rep ...more
Jul 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was really far more engaging than you might think. But then again, I like books in which writers write about other books with clear and almost palpable relish. A very good time for an overview of revolutionary literature.
Jonathan Hinckley
Poor Theoretically and as a work of Historiography, decent biographically.

Edmund Wilson is clearly not a Marxist, and this work very much does not employ Historical Materialism as its structure. Advertised as a history of the development of Socialism from the French Revolution, it's really a series of loosely connected micro-biographies, with very little emphasis on the surrounding context. Generally, Wilson can only really deal with the particulars of personalities or events rather than their
A compelling exploration of the hope for a more equal world as imagined by white men. The sections on Michelet and Bakunin are especially fun. Learning about Marx’s life and personality and what Engels did for him also seems very worthwhile. However, since the section on Lenin and Trotsky is based on what is now known to be propaganda, it’s hard to know what to make of it.

A hefty knowledge of French history would have helped with the first section. I’m sure I’ll reread this a few years from now
Fábio Shecaira
Oct 25, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is not easy to summarize this book. I worry that describing it as a history of revolutionary politics would give a misleading impression of cohesiveness. The book provides a combination of political theory, biography and literary analysis (the focus changing from chapter to chapter). This is not a flaw of the book — indeed, the variety of topics helps to keep it interesting. The book does have, however, a couple of noteworthy flaws. First, some of Wilson’s choices of historical figures are my ...more
Jul 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The idea of a literary critic writing a work that incorporates intellectual histories and biographies, as well as philosophical and literary criticism of those ideas and lives, isn't going to seem new to most contemporary readers. But Edmund Wilson manages to tackle each of those things in such a way that they reinforce each other instead of just blending together into a thick, self-important intellectual mush. Wilson spends the course of this wonderful book showing the various personal and inte ...more
Mar 20, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who think they are historical actors
Recommended to Tim by: my father
Shelves: history, favorites
I can't recommend this book enough. It follows the thread of a belief in history. Each generation seems to build on the last in formulating the theory that eventually leads to the Russian Revolution. The title refers to Lenin's being shipped through Europe in a sealed train car back to Russia and let out at the "Finland Station" where the strange religion of the self as an actor in history changed the world.

Bakunin, Marx, Engels, Vito, Hegel and others are painted as vivid characters.

Nick Black
Mar 23, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Edmund Wilson -- he's not just for "Axel's Castle" and postmodern criticism anymore! Opened my eyes to entire subplots of the early twentieth century's Left of which I'd previously been ignorant, with all the style, panache and wordsmithing you'd accept from the West's greatest modern critic. ...more
Mar 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a well-written book. Wilson, who was a novelist and literary critic, writes better history than most historians. The book is not belabored with footnotes and a scholarly apparatus, which can be frustrating but which also makes for easy reading.
The book is essentially a history of socialism viewed through mini-biographies of key players from the French Revolution to Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in 1917. At times Wilson reviews books such as Das Kapital and when he does, he does i
As I write this, Venezuela is following the well worn path from socialism to social and economic collapse. Already, we are being offered excuses for why Venezuela, which was a poster child for socialism just a couple of years ago, was, it turns out, never actually socialist at all. These excuses are drearily familiar by now, having trotted out when the butcher's bill was presented for Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot...

One of the great things about Edmund Wilson's idiosyncratic To the Finland Station, is th
Nick Van Brunt
Apr 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Edmund Wilson takes us through an enjoyable history of the development of Marxist thought with a critical eye and the interweaving of the personal with the intellectual. As someone in my book club said earlier, I'd much rather hang out with Engels than Marx. The book is way too forgiving of Lenin, as Wilson admits in his addendum three decades later. But I feel like learned something, so I'll file under Time Well Spent. #informativereviews ...more
Mar 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Awesome book. Wilson shows he really knows his stuff in this narrative history of ideas and major figures involved in the development of socialist thought. But he insists on a moral Marxism that he believes exists inherently in the texts, but this point is debatable. Whatever moral philosophy people get out of Marxism they typically have put into Marxism.
Oct 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: russia
A college friend claimed this as his favorite book, but I was still surprised by how much fun it was to read. Wilson applies the methods of literary criticsm (at least as it was practiced in the mid-twentieth century) to historic documents and the memoirs of revolutionaries to trace the history of European socialist thought between the French and the Bolshevik revolutions. Though analyzing texts, the treatment makes events and personalities startlingly vivid. Here he is speaking of Stalin:
Jul 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I absolutely loved it! Would recommend to anyone with an interest in history, thought, and/or socialism/communism/marxism/etc. Edmund Wilson writes well and creates a compelling narrative of the intellectual foundation of modern (at least in his time) Soviet Russia by taking us through historico-revolutionary thought from the 17th to the 20th century. It is obviously a cursory look, but a good starting place. His passages on Vico, Marx, and Lenin show a particular personal attachment, but he non ...more
Feb 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I actually read the original 1940 version, not this one. It starts slowly - the first part discusses (I think, it took me a while to get through) the petering out of the original ideals of the French Revolution before the story finally picks up with the development of socialism from the early 19th century onward. The discussions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky are very interesting but clearly from the framework of a 1940 liberal. WIlson understood that communism was a pipe dream and that Stal ...more
Feb 19, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The year 1916, the Tsarist regime is shaky. Bread riots erupt in major cities. Kerensky is arguing for a parlaimentry system and to remain in the war. The Germans hustle Lenin from Switzerland and ship him across Europe in a sealed train like some highly contagious disease and have him debark at the Finland Station near St. Petersburg. It has its intended effect. Written in clear, acerbic prose by that curmudgeon Edmund Wilson who knows all about the bolsheviks, the mensheviks, the anachists. Th ...more
Larry-bob Roberts
Dec 16, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: leftists
Literary critic Edmund Wilson delves into a history of Socialist thought before the Russian revolution. The title refers to the moment when the book ends, when Lenin returned to Russia by train through Finland. Wilson's writing style is incredible - no simple journalistic phrases -- instead great complex sentences, illustrating a lost art of language. ...more
Dec 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Takes a little effort but very worth it. I very much like the way Wilson writes.
Keith W
Apr 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinated by the title, I bought a paperback copy of this book when I was in college in the 1970’s but did not get around to reading it until now. I cannot say I was disappointed but the book was not as grand as I thought it would be.

Wilson, who was not an historian nor a political scientist or political philosopher (he was primarily a literary critic), chronicles the rise of the ideas of first socialism and then Marxism from Jules Michelet, who was born in 1798, through Lenin and Trotsky, wit
I have no idea why I bought this book, or when. I assume that I thought it was mostly about Lenin, and how he got to the point in April 1917 that he arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd and revved up the Bolsheviks to commit further revolution.

It does have that. But a lot of the book is about the development of revolutionary sentiment more broadly in Europe in the 19th century... or the consequences of revolution... actually, thinking back, it's a bit confused. And apparently it's a grea
Highly recommended, a classic. This should be read by every intelligent reader. This book has special resonance today (in late 2017); economic considerations are the fundament of socialism, an attempt to imagine and institute a political system which could lessen the plight of the poor, of low-wage workers and those in unnecessarily onerous or dangerous jobs, as against economies operating in effect to satisfy the greed of the wealthy who benefit from those people and circumstances and enjoy pol ...more
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NYRB Classics: To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson 1 12 Oct 01, 2015 11:05AM  

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Edmund Wilson was an American writer and literary and social critic. He is considered by many to have been the 20th century's preeminent American man of letters.

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