C.L.R. James

To and From the Finland Station

(June 1941)

Source: New International, Vol. VII No. 5, June 1941, pp. 126–127, C.L.R. James under the name of J.R. Johnson.
Transcribed and Marked up: by Damon Maxwell.
Proofread: by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

To the Finland Station
by Edmund Wilson
508 pp. Harcourt, Brace and Company

Edmund Wilson found his way to the Finland Station in the wake of the proletarian revolution, but the revolution is now in eclipse and Wilson has lost his way. But Wilson is to be taken seriously for he has studied history and grappled with the Marxist material. Wilson rejects the dialectic. The Marxist movement is in a dilemma here. Engels said that the test of dialectic is Nature. Lenin, too, knew that Engels’ illustrations about seeds were merely popularizations, that the demonstration of the dialectic lay in the study and analysis of science. Nobody has done any of the necessary work. It is as if Marx had written nothing about capitalist production except the Communist Manifesto. Wilson rejects, which proves as little as if Wilson accepts. Wilson rejects also the labor theory of value, which is another story. Marx dealt beautifully with a Wilson of his day. In his letter to Kugelmann, July 1868, Marx showed himself rather short-tempered with the objection.

“The nonsense about the necessity of proving the concept of value arises from complete ignorance, both of the subjects dealt with and of the method of science. Every child knows that a country which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but for a few weeks, would die. Every child knows, too, that the mass of products corresponding to the different needs require different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labor of society. That this necessity of distributing social labor in definite proportions cannot be done away with by the particular form of social production, but can only change the form it assumes, is self-evident ...

“The science consists precisely in working out how the law of value operates. So that if one wanted at the very beginning to ‘explain’ all the phenomena which apparently contradict that law, one would have to give the science before the science. It is precisely Ricardo’s mistake ...,” etc.

Now compare Wilson. “Nor was it necessary to accept the metaphysics of the Labor Theory of Value and to argue from it a priori ...”

Metaphysics! Marx thinks every child can see it. And starting from that he solves, as Wilson admits, the future of capitalism. Most of Wilson’s other objections are answered already by Marx himself.

Wilson believes Marx to have demonstrated that capitalism must have an end and demonstrated also “the necessity for socialism.” Marx demonstrated not necessity but inevitability. But let that pass for the moment. Where does Wilson stand, for after all that is what matters? The capitalist world is as we see it – it couldn’t be worse. What is his attitude? And here Wilson breaks down. The British workers, through long subordination to machines and meager lives, have become “unfitted for class politics and class action”. The British ruling class knows by bitter experience that this is nonsense. On America he is worse. Marx, he says, did not foresee that the absence of feudalism made possible in America a “genuine social democratization”.

American people more nearly share “the same criteria than anywhere else in the civilized world”. In America “money is always changing hands so rapidly that the class lines cannot get out very deep ... we have the class quarrel out as we go along.” What blindness is this! Even Roosevelt, the grand panjandrum of boloney, talks about a “third of the nation” and “economic royalists”. The National Indus-trial Resources Board reported to Roosevelt in 1939: “The opportunity for a higher standard of living is so great, the social frustration from the failure to obtain it is so real, that other means will undoubtedly be sought if a democratic solution is not worked out. The time for finding such a solution is not unlimited.” And while Rome burns, Wilson sings fiddle-diddle-dee. Why is this intelligent and scholary man so foolish on this issue of all issues? His book tells why.

It is a long study of the decline of the revolutionary tradition in French literature and the origins and development of revolutionary socialism in Europe and America, told chiefly through personal studies of key figures. Wilson plays about with psychoanalysis in an unpardonably light-minded manner, but his biographical work is interesting, his historical studies are valuable, and his essays on Michelet are splendid. He sees how, after the revolution of 1848 and the Commune of 1871, the French bourgeoisie could not write robust history any longer. Renan’s portrait of Marcus Aurelius he sees as a projection of the personality of the French bourgeois after the Franco-German war and the Commune.

The book is full of many such judgements, large and small; not blatant, but acute and sensitive, never superficial and sometimes profound. I think Wilson underestimates how savagely Taine, after the Commune, turned on himself and raged at the French Revolution like a maniac. But all this is a badly needed contribution to the historical materialist elucidation of history. In all history writing, all, the influence of the class struggle stands out like a big nose in a small face. Thiers, for instance, in his history of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period, was democrat in those parts written before 1848, Bonapartist in the parts written during the Second Republic, and when Bonaparte’s nephew nearly put him in jail, ended the history with attacks upon Bonapartism; while Mitford, the English historian, published an innocuous first volume of a history of Greece in 1784, but the French Revolution taking place in 1789, Mitford devoted the rest of his work to a fanatical attack on Greek democracy. Some day when a materialist history of history is written, it will be a marvelous verification of the Marxist approach and one of the most comic books ever published.

Wilson is a beautiful example of the same process he analyses so well. Despite his disagreements he was swept along by Marx and the proletariat, and at the Finland station he is as excited as any of those who traveled in the sealed train. He writes a brilliant and, for him, enthusiastic essay on Lenin’s revolutionary personality. But the proletariat since then, knows only defeats. Hence Wilson’s continued fascination by Marxism, his abstract belief in the necessity for socialism, but his opium dreams about American democracy.

The intellectual loves to show the class struggle acting on other people. He hates like hell for it to be applied to himself. There is only one way to overcome this and that is to accept it. Identify yourself with a fundamental class and go where it goes, mount with it when it mounts and fall with it when it falls. On this basis you will commit some blunders. But you are always in a position to judge and intellectually command the contending forces of society. You can do this as a person identified with the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, or the struggle for preservation of the bourgeoisie. But once you stand in the middle looking from one side to the other, all the knowledge and intellectual honesty in the world will not save you from futility and folly. And even worse may befall. For Wilson in this book constantly lays stress on Marx’s Jewish “blood”, and he shows a truly Olympian calm in his remarks on Nazi Germany. Both are bad signs, especially in a man who nourishes such illusions about American bourgeois democracy.

Last updated on: 31.12.2012