Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station is a 20th-century classic by a great American critic about the origins of the Soviet Union. First published in 1940, the book only gained proper recognition in the 1960s, when a new generation began to ask why the Russian Revolution had failed. Its power became legendary, though it was always more admired than understood.
Initially, it looks like a series of vignettes dramatising the lives of leading revolutionary players in France, Germany and Russia in the period between 1789 and 1917. But then the few pages about French historians are followed by what is in effect a small book about Marx and Engels. Their lives act as a stage on which Lenin and Trotsky suddenly appear. Marxism became a script for life, spawning Bolshevism in Russia and dividing politics in new ways.
Because Wilson's book is not straight history but rather a writer's impression of figures from history, it continues to resonate today. It is, says one of Wilson's biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, the "biography of an idea". The writing is typically restrained, shapely and individualistic in spirit - for Wilson's subject is moral passion rather than politics. In Edmund Wilson: a Life in Literature (2005), Lewis M Dabney declares the result to be the greatest imaginative work of American literature of the 1940s, rivalled only by the early novels of William Faulkner.
Wilson's story begins with the great French 19th-century historian Jules Michelet. After reading Giambattista Vico's New Science (1725), Michelet realised that, following centuries of subordination to the church, humanity was now free to design society according to its own needs and wishes. Michelet had a stroke in 1871 when he heard how, in the last echo of the revolution, the Paris Commune had plunged France into civil war. And it is the successive defeats of the "human spirit" (but the persistence of hope) that unify Wilson's project.
Marxist commentators used to criticise Wilson for starting with Michelet and for neglecting Hegel. After all, they pointed out, it was from Hegel that Marx had borrowed the dialectical and materialist theory of history. Wilson's critics were unsettled by his simultaneous sympathy for and deviation from the orthodox story. However, his writerly independence made him much more likely to be right in the long term.
Michelet, who rose from humble beginnings to become France's greatest historian, expressed in his very being what Hegel struggled to put into theory about the possibility of living a fulfilled life in modern times. "Life" and "work" are highly charged values in Hegel, but few readers will be willing to wade through pages of abstraction by the philosopher to discover that. In Michelet, however, the masters and the slaves are real people, finding new freedoms in a changing society.
The theme running through the stories that Wilson tells - of Michelet and his academic successor Ernest Renan, the "utopian socialists" Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen, and ultimately Marx - concerns the uncertain role of the individual as an instrument of social and political change. The utopians believed in noblesse oblige and the public good. But which individuals should lead? What are their qualifications to set standards? How are they to motivate others to live charitably?
To these philosophical questions, Wilson brings not answers, but tales of experience. The alternative moral communities founded by the followers of Fourier, Owen and Saint-Simon were bickering dystopias that destroyed the spirit of the participants and bankrupted their founders. Wilson offers wonderful portraits of "persons unworldly and persistent" who were already committing many of the dictatorial sins that communism would later practise. "Intransigents" of the kind that succumb to their own neo-religious zeal occur in every generation - Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin were two such in Marx's day.
For Wilson, Marx's insight was to see that the utopian socialists were wasting their lives. To be effective, change had to come from within society itself, and not be driven by outsiders. But how? Who teaches the teachers? "Where to begin and who [is] to be trusted to do the beginning?" These were problems that Marxist theoreticians tried to solve. In the end, as Lenin understood, there would have to be a party to lay down the law.
Though a revolutionary industry seized his name, Marx was much more cautious than his followers. At the heart of To the Finland Station is an unprecedented portrait of Marx the man. He was the outsider who thought he had spotted the mechanism by means of which, sooner or later, capitalist society would undo itself. However, according to Wilson, Marx was wrong to believe in dialectical materialism.
His celebrated claim to have set Hegel the right way up was a matter of hope, not "science". And his belief that the proletariat can "become self-aware" was itself utopian. The blow to that submerged idealism was what hurt most when the faith of his last ideological followers finally collapsed, along with the Berlin Wall, in 1989. They experienced a disillusionment that their founding hero had avoided.
The entire Marxist revolution, for Wilson, was built on faith. This did not mean that the vision of a fairer and more equal society was misplaced; only that the way of getting there was no more scientifically grounded than any other. Nonetheless, the author admires the antagonistic, oppositional power of Marxism: "Marx brought into play . . . dialectical materialism to blight the shimmering mirages of the utopians and to make the blood of the bourgeois run cold."
In what must be the most idiosyncratic claim in the book, Wilson asserts that Marx was misled by his own outsider status as a Jew. Because Jews had been deprived of an equal place in society, Marx was able to sympathise with the deprivations suffered by workers in a capitalist state. But he failed to recognise how differently these two exclusions related to the individual. The excluded but revolutionary-minded Jew could become self-aware and end his unfair oppression, but the proletarian could not - or, at least, not easily, because he had no suppressed cultural tradition to draw on. Marx, therefore, lacked any credible notion of what the triumph of the proletariat might mean.
The Russian chapters in To the Finland Station are not the best; they must be read against the background of the sudden and intense disillusionment with Trotsky that his followers suffered in the United States in the late 1930s. Trotsky had appealed to New York intellectuals as the protector of Lenin's legacy against the evils of Stalinism - but as the ink dried on his masterpiece, Wilson conceded that "sympathisers with Trotsky may have invested him with qualities he didn't possess".
He put more into his portrait of Lenin, who simplified Marxism to suit his needs (his aim was to get people to act). He learned Russian and travelled down the Volga to Ulyanovsk - the town of Simbirsk, renamed in Soviet times after its best-known son. Wilson wanted to experience for himself the project to build a fairer world. And he understood that the fate of Russia and that of the west were entwined. Later he apologised, when To the Finland Station was reissued in 1971, for continuing to harbour illusions about the Soviet Union.
Wilson's work has recently begun to appear in the prestigious Library of America series, so it is likely that, in the next few years, To the Finland Station will receive a more wide-ranging assessment. But what is already clear is the resonance, at a time when most critical or oppositional activity is so rapidly absorbed into the mainstream, of its account of the struggle to find the right vehicles and mechanisms for social change.
“To the Finland Station" is published by Phoenix (£8.99)
Lesley Chamberlain is the author of "The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia" (Atlantic Books, £9.99)