Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 13, 2018

Edmund Wilson on Marxism


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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.

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