Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History

cover of book (photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson)

The journey to the Finland Station in the title of this study by Edmund Wilson is described only at the end of this book, and refers to the train in which exiled socialists Lenin and Trotsky together with other socialists travelled from Sweden to Saint Petersburg in Russia, thus triggering the Russian Revolution of October 1918. But there were predecessors to their Marxist form of socialism, and it is these that Edmund Wilson describes in the first half of his book.

Although the French Revolution of 1789 set off the process of social reform in Europe, Edmund Wilson starts his analysis of the progression towards socialism in 1824, when a young French professor of philosophy, Jules Michelet, came across the writings of the sixteenth century native of Milan, Giovannni Vico, who claimed that the development of human society was an organic man-made process Wilson traces the way ideas about society have developed, giving rise to the emergence of socialist principles over time.

In the eightenth and nineteenth centuries thinkers about the nature of society, such as Lassalle, Saint Simon, Fourier and Anatole France in France, Robert Owen in England and America and Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sydney Webb in England, wrote and acted to advance the principles of a more equitable distribution of resources throughout society. Thus, Robert Owen set up a society based on his idea of utopian socialism (‘New Harmony’ in Indiana, USA), while the Webbs gathered statistics and sought to promote legislation aimed at providing equal educational opportunities to all segments of society.

The second half of this book deals with the personal lives, thinking, writiing and activities first of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and then of Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) and Lev Davydovich Bronstein (Trotsky). Wilson describes the youth, background and peronsal  life of each and every one of these four main protagonists in the evolution of socialism, bringing them to life and enabling the reader to see how the world they experienced, the books they read and the life they led caused them to develop their ideas about society and the distribution of resources.

Thus, through the correspondence between Karl Marx, living in impoverished exile in London, and Friedrich Engels, his friend and collaborator living in Manchester, we gain a better understanding of the nature of their relationship and work. We are able to see the frequent pleas of Marx, a family man, for financial aid. from Engels. The two had met in Germany and the latter had been sent to Manchester by his father to work in his textile company. This constituted the basis of their collaboration in writing ‘Capital,’ the ‘Communist Manifest’ and other seminal works outlining their theories about class conflict, society and the distribution of resources. Engels was able to supply Marx with a large part of the statistical data on the basis of which Marx developed his ideas about the economic basis of society and wealth. Both Marx and Engels were unable to remain in Germany because of their political agitation against the government. After spending some time in various European cities, Marx moved to London, where he remained from 1850 to his death in 1883 aged 64. Engels outlived him by several years in which he managed to complete the writing and publication of their seminal work ‘Capital.’

In describing the life and ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, Wilson shows us their human side and family origins. Both of them had fallen foul of the Russians authorities by virtue of their opposition to the autocratic Tsarist regime and had been imprisoned or sent to Siberia at various times. At a time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) when the revolutionary mvvement was gaining strength in Russia despite being oppressed and attacked by the regime, they managed to gain a growing following among both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, enlisting the support of the working class and large parts of the army, which was dissatisfied with its lack-lustre involvement in the First World War. The dissatisfaction of the growing industrial working class also served as a source of support for the Bolshevik movement.

It is worth noting that both Marx and Trotsky came from assimilated Jewish families, and received a secular education. Nonetheless, it is possible that the ideas they absorbed in their early upbringing may have set them off on the path that led toward social reform, and – eventually — revolution. The later development of what was called socialism in Russia took a course toward an extremism and even despotism that was far removed from the original idea of alleviating the poverty of the toiling masses and eliminating discrepancies of wealth and prosperity. Nonetheless, the central idea of more equitable distribution of resources has taken hold even in non-socialist countries, with greater equality in the availability of health, education, housing to most sections of the population.


About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
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