I have been reading the correspondence of the American polymath Edmund Wilson. Wilson was the most influential literary critic of his day, whose essays and reviews could make or break a writer’s career. He was steeped in American and European literature, and taught himself Russian and Hebrew. His range was enormous; he read and wrote about novels, poems, and plays, about history and politics, and about linguistics and philosophy as well. He was a hard-working as well as a hard-drinking man, with an ample waistline to match his well-stocked mind.
Literary historians have written about Wilson’s friendship with such great modern writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Vladimir Nabokov, all of whom liked and at times feared him. However, this column deals not with his views on language and literature, but with his political beliefs.
Like other writers of his generation, Wilson placed much hope on the Russian Revolution. He began by admiring Marx and Lenin, and was even prepared to be sympathetic to Stalin. For example, writing to the novelist John Dos Passos in January 1935, Wilson rejected the latter’s comparison of Napoleon to Stalin. While Napoleon ‘cared nothing for the principles of the French Revolution’,
Stalin, ‘whatever his limitations, is still working for socialism in Russia’. Besides, Napoleon had ‘megalomaniac imperialist ambitions which one can hardly imagine Stalin entertaining’. Later in the same letter, Wilson complained about the people he met in America who were ‘filled with indecent delight’ at finding any evidence of the ‘iniquities and bankruptcy of Russia’. When confronted with these Soviet-baiters, Wilson ‘found that I was almost driven into talking like a loyal Stalinist’. For ‘one doesn’t want to give aid and comfort to people who have hopped on the shootings in Russia as a means of discrediting socialism’.
In a letter to Dos Passos written in May 1935, Wilson argued that unaffiliated writers (such as the two of them) should give those who ran the Soviet regime the benefit of doubt. Building socialism was always going to be hard work. Wilson said that ‘I don’t think…that it is right for the politically non-active to do very much public railing at the political errors of the Communists—as soon as you begin to discuss these matters in print, you find that you are being pushed into some political group’. (In other words, keep quiet, else you will only give comfort to the enemies on the right.)
In 1936 Wilson visited the Soviet Union, and what he saw there led to the beginnings of what was to become a serious disillusionment with the Bolshevik regime. On the last day of 1937, he wrote to the pacifist A. J. Muste that ‘I think that the inefficiency and unreliability of the Russians is a good deal to blame for what happened in Russia; but certainly Marxism itself is partly to blame. The trials of Zinoviev and the rest derive partly from the practice of “character assassination” inaugurated by Marx for the purpose of discrediting Bakunin and others; and the Marxists have been—and are still being—sadly misled through believing in the dialectic as a supernatural power which will bring them to salvation if they trust in it, without the necessity of thought or virtue on their part’.
The disillusionment proceeded apace. Sometime in 1938, Wilson coined the aphorism: ‘Marxism is the opium of the intellectuals’. Then, in November 1938, he wrote a letter to his friend Muriel Draper which made manifest his complete disenchantment with Stalin and Stalinism. Ever since he came back from Russia, he told her, he had ‘read most of the books that have come out on the subject and to some extent the Russian press, and I can’t see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that the Stalin regime in its present phase is pretty hopelessly reactionary and corrupt’. He said that while pre-revolutionary Russia was scarcely democratic, ‘certainly the barbarism of Stalin and the administrative ineptitude of the Russians have produced an even worse state of things in the Soviet Union’. The Russians, he continued, ‘haven’t even the beginnings of democratic institutions; but they are actually worse off in this respect [under Stalin] than when they started’.
It took two years for Wilson to move from being an admirer to becoming a sharp critic. Other (and even greater) Western writers took longer. Albert Camus supported Stalin until 1940; his friend and compatriot Jean Paul Sartre remained a Stalinist until the dictator’s death in 1953. He disregarded the growing evidence of the purges, the mass killings, the Gulags—these, he said, were a figment of the bourgeois imagination. Many other writers followed Sartre in his uncritical and almost pathetic loyalty to one of the most brutal regimes in human history.
One is reminded of what George Orwell once said: ‘A writer must never be a loyal member of a political party’. This injunction applies to all kinds of writers—whether novelists, poets, academics, or journalists. Those who deal with words and ideas have a duty only to the truth.