Edmund Wilson on Marxism


I have just re-read, for the first time in decades, Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station — which, it appears, NYRB Classics has allowed to go out of print, which is nearly a tragedy. It is a truly remarkable book — it is difficult to imagine anyone of our own time (least of all a journalist) handling ideas with such assurance and such verve, seeing in them the kind of drama that we typically associate with action heroes. The structure, the pacing, the style — all are superb. Perhaps the best thing about the book is how it centers itself on Karl Marx himself, bookended by predecessors (Proudhon, Robert Owen) and successors (Lenin, Trotsky). As a portrait of Marx it has not, to my knowledge, been equalled.

Wilson’s Freudianism, though essentially wrong, is actually quite helpful to him in understanding the Marxists, because, as he rightly points out, the great deficiency of most Marxist analyses of society is their oversimplified picture of human motivation. There’s even a passage where Wilson seems to be anticipating the rise of modern behavioral psychology and especially the role it plays in understanding of economic behavior. ”Prices are the results of situations much more complex than any of these formulas, and complicated by psychological factors which economists seldom take into account.… Let us note the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the worldview of Marx. It is the shortcoming of economists in general that each one understands as a rule only one or two human motivations; psychology and economics have never yet got together in such a way as really to supplement one another” (294, 295).

On the psychology of Marx himself Wilson is especially acute. After tracing Marx’s lifelong near-poverty, and his struggles to provide for his family, and his embarrassment when one of his daughters had to hire herself out as a governess, and his constant dependence on his friend Engels to keep the Marxes out of the poor house — Engels, who worked as a manager in a factory owned by his arch-capitalist father — Wilson writes:

Such is the trauma of which the anguish and the defiance reverberate through Das Kapital. To point it out is not to detract from the authority of Marx’s work. On the contrary, in history as in other fields of writing, the importance of a book depends, not merely on the breadth of the view and the amount of information that has gone into it, but on the depths from which it has been drawn. The great crucial books of human thought – outside what are called the exact sciences, and perhaps something of the sort is true even here – always render articulate the results of fundamental new experiences to which human beings have had to adjust to themselves. Das Kapital is such a book. Marx has found in his personal experience the key to the larger experience of society, and identifies himself with that society. His trauma reflects itself in Das Kapital as the trauma of mankind under industrialism; and only so sore and angry a spirit, so ill at ease in the world, could have recognized and seen into the causes of the wholesale mutilation of humanity, the grand collisions, the uncomprehended convulsions, to which that age of great profits was doomed. (311-312) 

That is an extraordinarily rich and provocative reflection.

One final point, only tangential to Wilson’s narrative: he is also very good on the ways in which a conviction that one is on “the right side of history” compromises one’s ethics:

History, then, is a being with a definite point of view in any given period. It has a morality which admits of no appeal and which decrees that the exterminators of the Commune shall be regarded as wrong forever. Knowing best – knowing, that is, that we are right – we may allow ourselves to exaggerate and simplify. At such a moment the Marxism of Marx himself — and how much more often and more widely in the case of his less scrupulous disciples — departs from the rigorous method proposed by “scientific socialism.” (283)

Yep. I see it every day.

Transhumanism and the Escape from the Everyday

I don’t often turn to French Marxists for wisdom about the world, but a passage in Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece called my attention to something Henri Lefebvre wrote about everydayness that is relevant to a theme introduced in an earlier post by Ari. In his 1947 book Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre argues passionately that modern philosophy, art, and politics alike are alienated (a key concept for him) from the everyday. Only Marxism, he thought, provides the proper perspective from which to appreciate the profound significance of everyday life, and how it has deteriorated under the rule of the bourgeoisie. His view of the crisis of everyday life is not the same as Ari’s or Yuval Levin’s, but I think at least one of his observations does not stand or fall on the truth of Lefebvre’s Marxist foundations:

Escape from life or rejection of life, recourse to outmoded or exhausted ways of life, nostalgia for the past or dreams of a superhuman future, these positions are basically identical…. Make the rejection of everyday life — of work, of happiness — a mass phenomenon … and you end up with the Hitlerian ‘mystique.’

The Palace of SovietsTranshumanism is of course not (yet) “a mass phenomenon,” nor by its own lights does it reject happiness (even if it does reject mere human happiness). But it quite possibly rejects work and, as Ari pointed out, it certainly rejects everyday life. On the other hand, transhumanists in effect accuse their critics of adherence to, or nostalgia for, outmoded ways of life.
Were Lefebvre alive today, he might be content with viewing these charges and countercharges as simply more proof of the decay that defines what he would probably call neoliberalism. I don’t think that point of view is correct, and in any case, my point here is not exactly to make his argumentum ad Hitlerum. But looked at more broadly, I think Lefebvre’s warning about rejecting the everyday has merit, in two respects.
First, even if it would be wrong to say that transhumanism has a Hitlerian mystique, it most certainly has a mystique. Its mystique forms at the intersection of the modern academy and the Web, which is to say, a good deal of transhumanist advocacy is sufficiently long, jargon-ridden, and impenetrable to ensure that only the initiates will follow it. These high barriers to entry mean that it is easy to hold the comforting belief that anyone who disagrees does not actually understand. And when concepts are not in fact all that hard to understand — “the singularity” being a noteworthy instance — there is a fetishistic attention to details that only those on the inside are likely to care much about. Like sectarian movements generally (see Wildavsky and Douglas’s classic, Risk and Culture), transhumanism’s first concern is its internal cohesion; the mystique both encourages and enforces unity. Mystique as such also turns sectarians away from the everyday, in the sense of things that can be experienced in common between those inside and outside the sect. On the outside, “everybody poops,” and that’s that. On the inside, “we” have the more sophisticated understanding that allows us to ask why we should have to poop if we don’t want to.
Second, as Lefebvre suggests, rejecting the everyday is playing with dynamite. Most of the time we make our way decently in the world because of the power of the everyday, not out of high principle, rational decision-making, noble characters, perfect faith, creative brilliance, or any of the other high-toned qualities to which we might aspire. If we had to depend on the best in us, we would be lost. To paraphrase a thought in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, to reject the everyday is to sail without ballast on a stormy sea. It is not guilt by association to remind ourselves that the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, sailing without ballast, self-consciously set out to create a new kind of man, with terrible results.
Of course, for all too many human beings, terrible things are very much part of the everyday. We can certainly be grateful, even if not slavishly grateful, that we live in a time and place so different from the norm, the millennia in which the everyday was literally every day. Nothing about taking the everyday seriously requires us to accept every aspect of the everyday that characterizes a given time and place. But if we want to be serious about progress, we have to start from where we are, and why we are here. A clear eyed view of the everyday, however prosaic, is a better guide to what progress might mean than a starry-eyed view of fantastic futures.