James Higgins

Dead Scrolls?

(Spring 1961)

James Higgins, Dead Scrolls?, International Socialism (1st series), No.4, Spring 1961.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

To the Finland Station
Edmund Wilson. Fontana. 1960. 7s6d

Mr Wilson is a man of many parts who has in the course of his literary career written plain journalism, literary criticism, a memorable volume of short stories and a commentary on the dead sea scrolls for which last task he is reported to have learned Hebrew. This at least shows a consistent effort of scholarship even if most authorities on the scrolls disagree with him.

In 1940 Mr Wilson published his essay into the territory of socialist history, To the Finland Station, which Fontana Books have now republished as a paper-back at the not too modest price of seven and sixpence.

He approaches his task in a slightly oblique literary manner by way of Vico and Michelet and their attempts to systematize the study of human history, and proceeds through the decay of French Socio-literary criticism by way of Renan, Taine and Anatole France at each stage explaining the economic and political climate giving rise to them. Then back to Babeuf with a fine chapter on the Conspiracy of Equals and the degeneration of the French Revolution.

From here it is only a short trip to the meat of the book: a discussion of their work and theories of Engels and Marx. The criticism in this section has frequently been done more thoroughly and capably but never, I am sure, more entertainingly. Mr Wilson Considers the Dialectic to be a myth and that Marx in his adherence to the principles of thesis, antithesis and synthesis was looking for a substitute for the mystical trinity discarded in his youth. That this criticism can be made of many of the latter day saints of Stalinism is clearly true, but to suggest as Wilson does, that Marx’s theory of economic motivation is sound without giving due regard to the method by which he explained this theory is not playing the game.

There are further examples of this form of reasoning and despite the cogency of his argument no prizes will be given to readers of IS who conclusively answer Mr Wilson to their own satisfaction.

Lenin and Trotsky are also discussed as the title implies, the former as the Great Headmaster and the Latter as the Young Eagle. The headmaster rather more sympathetically than the eagle, presumably on the principle that its better to have a dead headmaster embalmed in the Kremlin than a live eagle close by in Mexico.

Despite this Mr Wilson is obviously a ‘good’ intellectual whose sympathies are on the side of the angels and his book, written in a style unlike most of its kind, does not read as if translated direct from the Russian. It should be read by all those interested in social and historical criticism.


Last updated on 19.10.2006