George Orwell once famously said that some ideas are so preposterous that only an intellectual could believe them. This was never truer than with Edmund Wilson, America’s premier man of letters in the 20th Century and 120 years old this year. As a literary critic, Wilson was solidly empirical, examining an author through their biography, and then applying this information to their works. Such an approach would have made him politically incorrect in today’s circles where “isms” are hammered onto an author’s works. A case in point: Jay Gatsby, the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is today deemed black by those peddling racial politics.
But Wilson’s political views would have made him a solid fit today. Although he followed the advice his professors at Princeton taught him–“to seek the truth, no matter where it lay or who it hurt”–he only did so for literature; in politics, he was a Marxist who put truth on hold.
He always claimed that his Marxism was based on its original precepts of science and objectivity, but he was as much in religious thrall to it as the communist faithful he would ridicule. As biographer Lewis Dabney has shown, his portrait of Lenin in his study of the Russian Revolution in To The Finland Station (1940) was starry-eyed. Like any good communist, he buried uncomfortable facts. On a trip to pre-Purge Trial Moscow, he later admitted soft-pedaling the brutality he witnessed when writing about the regime in 1935.
Such instances qualified him as a “second thoughter” about the Soviets but it was mostly with regard to Stalin. Still, he was a dissident at times during the Depression when communism became attractive to scores of intellectual dupes. While others wished the Soviet model would be imported into America, Wilson advised progressives to take Marxism away from the Marxists and Americanize it. Like Orwell, he never bought into the Soviet version of the Purge Trials. But he never abandoned his view that the Russian Revolution might have worked had the right people been in charge.
And the “right people” were Lenin and Trotsky (To Orwell’s credit, he saw little hope in these two and asserted that Russia would have become a dictatorship regardless of which one of them was in charge). In a series of letters with writer Vladimir Nabakov, whose father escaped with his family from Bolshevik Russia, Wilson was reminded by Nabokov that Lenin cold-bloodedly likened Gulag prisoners to “sewage disposal” and praised how the criminal class there preyed on intellectual prisoners. Although Wilson later conceded that the Russian Revolution ushered in “one of the most hideous tyrannies that the world had ever known,” he still soft-pedaled Lenin. Rather than dwell on Lenin reviving the CHEKA, the secret police under the Czar, his brutal put-down of the Kronstadt sailors who saw the Revolution being betrayed, and his hanging of Kulaks, Wilson instead only rebuked Lenin for allowing the Czar and his family to be murdered. Regarding Trotsky, however, he retained his rosy-eyed view, lauding him as “a hero of the faith in Reason.”
But Wilson’s “dream is still alive” view that Marxism could work, and his intellectual defense of pure communism was not the only view he bequeathed to today’s Left. Advertising moral equivalence between the US and its enemies, he actually blamed America more. With regard to World War II, he saw the US as more evil than the Nazis:
“The Nazis smothered people in gas ovens, but we burned them alive with flamethrowers and, bomb for bomb, we did worse than the Nazis.”
This blame America first view extended into the Cold War. For him, the war was not about opposing Soviet imperialism but was instead carried out by an appetite for power by the US that was camouflaged by such “self-aggrandizing slogans such as the “American Dream, the American way of life, and the defense of the Free World.” In his view, the US was as much a police state as the Soviet Union, while actually more evil because it had imported his hated capitalism into Russia.
When adopting and expressing these views, it might be important for today’s Left to realize their basis. Wilson culled his view that the United States devoured smaller nations in much the same way a shark devours its smaller prey from a Walt Disney film showing a sea slug eating smaller ones.
Throughout the 1930s, Wilson critiqued the Left for abandoning logic for faith. But with regard to foreign policy and his lingering belief in the Bolshevik Revolution, he also succumbed to religious faith. Such a view would have made him welcome on the Left today.