Edmond Wilson was a prolific 20th century writer who variously edited or contributed to publications including Vanity Fair, New Republic, and New Yorker. No joke- it looks like he wrote about SOMETHING ABOUT EVERYTHING contemporary event and theme from 1920 and 1970*. (I lied, or I’m exaggerating- but) He certainly wrote about every major American and European event and theme during that time. Two of those themes seem especially relevant given political events in months: (i) the fight for and against socialism in the States, and (ii) the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, in the 1930s.
Without getting into it (or, without planning on getting into), I’ll mention these themes strike me as particularly resonant now, in the current political climate, particularly in the States. Currently, the president and legislature (i) plan to eliminate many programs ratified during the 1930s (New Deal), and (ii) seem unusually eager to declare “enemies of the state.” (E.g. Steve Bannon declaring the media “the opposition party.”) In fascist of Europe, such pronouncements presaged persecution. Lastly, (iii) the apparent connections between the president and Russian oligarchs, at a time of outright Russian territorial aggression, color these themes germane.
Anywho, From The Uncollected Edmond Wilson is collection of, maybe, 50 short essays (from 2 to 20 pages) spanning from 1911 to 1955. My copy is hardcover- an awkward size*, from 1995.
* Small, for a hardcover.
Wilson was born in 1895, 100 years before this book was published. Had my great grandparents been literary-folk- not busy, first generation immigrants, trying to set up a liquor business- his book reviews would have figured into their reading choices. Instead- because my great grandparents were busy, first generation immigrants, who did manage some success- 100 years later I’m in the relatively comfortable position where I can read Wilson’s reviews from the 1930s.
WHY?, I can imagine someone asking. Why not read something contemporary? WHO CAN YOU TALK TO ABOUT THAT?
I’ll ignore the second question, but I’ll offer this quick take on the first question: All texts are historical documents. Who better to learn history from than well-read, independent-thinking contemporary historical figures? I much prefer that approach to picking up whichever secondary sources happens to grace New York Times Best Seller any given week.
Now without further ado, I’ll tell you about some of his nearly hundred-year-old essays.
(Or, just one more delay- I need to share what I’m listening to: The Joy of Motion by Animals as Leaders. It sounds incredible in my audio-technica ATH-M50s. Listen to the song “Crescent” some time- AT 1:15- MY GOD, SO COOL!)
Detroit Paradoxes makes for a nice first foray into the first of the two unpleasant topics I mentioned in the first paragraph of this essay: the fight for and against socialism in the States. I especially enjoyed this essay because it combines a couple of my past and present interests: (i) 19th and 20th century “robber-barons,” and (ii) “artists as activists.”
The essay begins with a long quotation from Henry Ford in 1922 which ends like so: “It is utterly foolish for Capital and Labor to think of themselves as groups. They are partners” (pg 163). All sounds so very harmonious at Ford Company! But one decade later, in 1932, the same could certainly not be said (unless with extraordinary tone-deafness)*:
* Ivanka Trump [url].
Here’s what happened in 1932: three thousand unemployed workers from Detroit and its suburbs marched on Dearborn (Ford Company headquarters); the Dearborn Police Department tossed tear-gas at the crowd; the crowd retaliated (some threw stones); then police retaliated- THEY TURNED A MACHINE GUN ON THE CROWD!
Thus went the so-called “Ford Hunger March.”
These were not simple times- there never are simple times. Yet some aspects of those times, and current times, seem very simple, no? For some examples, consider inequality and injustice. Without discussing solutions, can we acknowledge those things are “bad”? Problems?
In the 1930s, families in Detroit suffered from hunger, while Henry Ford (I presume) continued to eat like a king in his castle- literally, castle, look it up. Maybe (probably) Ford helped the community in various ways, but if you were starving, wouldn’t it be very easy to blame the man who lives in a castle for not helping enough?
I’m not suggest that’s “fair,” but it’s reasonable, right? It’s easy to reason how someone may feel that way, right?
While reading, I thought about the auto industry then (early 20th century) versus the auto industry now, I wondered about this question: When’s it “OK” to socialize something in the United States?
In the 2000s, when the auto-industry (and banks) needed a bailout, taxpayers provided it. Does it make sense that, among the thousands of jobs “saved” in the course of bailing out those industries were hundred-million dollar executive jobs? Tax payers can feel good about “saving” industries, and “saving” thousands of jobs, can they feel good about stuffing the pockets of the executives who, more than anyone else, were responsible for running the industry aground?? As my old friend Chris would say: Aw hell na!
Why do the some of the same people who disagree with not even the implementation, but the premise of socialized healthcare, laud the socialization of business costs (“corporate welfare”)? For instance, consider the recent Carrier deal: the president basically brokered a deal for Indiana taxpayers to subsidize 700 jobs for 10 years. That deal was lauded, if only for optics, by many of the same taxation-crazed politicians who part which would move to de-socialize healthcare for 50 million people months later (ostensibly, in order to fund tax cuts).
The free market rejected the Carrier jobs, so Indiana decided to fund the difference between market- and above-market value. Ultimately, tax payers foot the bill- whether they pay additional taxes, or the state cuts some other item from its budget in exchange. Were it not for that deal, Carrier would have moved these jobs to Mexico, where labor is less expensive.
Meanwhile, CEO Greg Hayes received more than 10 million dollars compensation last year. (Not all cash- much in stock.)
Forget whether or not the deal was “the best,” as the president alleged, or even “good”- apparently this instance of socialization was “OK,” at least it was OK with many individuals who in many other cases criticized such moves.
Why is it “OK” to socialize costs (labor), privatize profits?
That’s not a question I’ll answer here. I recently watched a PBS documentary called Philip Roth Unmasked, wherein Roth, paraphrasing someone else (maybe Chekhov), said something like “It’s not the writer’s objective to solve the problem; it’s to present it in its proper context.” I believe I have done that, to the extent I desire. Now, more Detroit paradoxes to discuss.
Enter: Diego Rivera.
One month prior to the Hunger March, Rivera had an iffy reputation with the Communist leadership. The New Masses, a Communist literary magazine, published a “scathing expose” of him. Although he was once a member of the Communist Party of Mexico, he was expelled for political opportunism. He accepted various positions within the bourgeois Mexican government (first, Minister of Fine Arts, then Director of the National School of Fine Arts). The party also alleged he compromised his art- not only specific elements in planned works or art, but more generally (and importantly!) because his art no longer seemed to “advance” communism. (The latter was especially debatable, and in fact was debated by various factions of the party.)
That same year, the Detroit/Ford and Rivera storylines merged when Edsel Ford donated money to the Institute of Arts in Detroit for a set of murals. The director of the institute then enlisted Rivera to complete the murals. The result was, controversial. (Google “Detroit Industry Murals” and take a look.)
I think Rivera’s message is apparent: men in images the look less like masters of Detroit manufacturing machines than servants of Detroit manufacturing machines. One member of Detroit City Council described the murals as a “travesty on the spirit of Detroit.” Edsel Ford said, very diplomatically, “I admire Mr. Rivera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit” (pg 167).
Thus, while Rivera beefed with both communists and capitalists at the time, this quotation applied as much to Rivera as to Detroit: “So both from above and below the disintegrating rays of Marxist thought prick the numb and flabby tissue of Detroit” (or Rivera) (pg 167).
Hopefully the preceding paragraphs reasonably colored the political environment of the 1930s- specifically, turmoil between capital and labor. If not, sorry, I proceed taking some things for granted.
One thing I’ll emphasize is Marxism’s assumption- almost like a religious prophecy- Capitalism was destined to fail. This may seem hard to imagine at first, but is it really?? Consider the bailouts we discussed. In a sense, capitalism has failed, and has been rescued by socialistic policy.
But let’s stick to the 1930s- a time before we knew war could (would) impel the States through the Great Depression, and long before we knew corporate welfare could (would) bailed us out of the 2008 financial crisis. Before then, only immense private wealth had bailed out the States (Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan), and this situation was immeasurably worse (i.e. more expensive) by any attempted measure.
Imagine the extraordinary hopelessness and desperation of the people who seemed to face prolonged economic depression. Then, imagine the appeal of- on the one hand- socialism or- on the other- a charismatic leader who claimed he or she could fix everything- make everything great again!
If you don’t understand the 1930s, you don’t understand the antecedents of contemporary attitudes toward socialism, demagoguery and fascism.
In the essay Stalin, Trotsky, and Willi Schlamm, experience the perversion of socialism by Stalin- begin with political assassinations throughout the decade. In Trotsky’s Stalin, learn about the significance of autocratic leaders like Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, and Stalin to modern Russian politics. Wilson, paraphrasing Trotsky, says:
[T]he pettiest position in American involves a sphere, however narrow, in which the individual must make decisions for himself. The bank teller must decide himself whether or not he will cash your check, but in Russia he cannot decide; he has to appeal to the officials above him, and these appeal to higher officials. Everybody passes the buck, and it finally lands with Comrade Stalin[.] (pg 236)
It’s an exaggeration, but it characterizes- without parodying- the attitude of deference paid to leadership, one inculcated by a pedigree of fascistic national and local mafia leaders.
The essay Comrade Prince illustrates the completeness of the inculcation; it is a sketch of the Russian literary critic and historian D. S. Mirsky. He spent years in the UK, then returned to Russian in 1932 despite the precarious political climate. Undeniably, he was proud of his Russian heritage. At the request of authorities, he consented to renounce many of writings, and even ideas he espoused, during his time in the UK. He endured humiliation under the Stalin regime, including positions in remote outposts teaching Russian culture- he, a premier Russian intellect! Despite his renunciations, authorities did not trust Mirsky, who negotiated the oppressive Stalin regime (or tried to) until his death in a Siberian camp in 1939.
Wilson’s sketch of Mirsky is a sad one, but I believe it must brilliantly capture Mirsky’s essence- a fascinating and complex one. It reminds me of John Steinbeck’s essay about his friend Ed Rickett’s (for which this blog is named*), one of my favorites so-called “character studies.”
* Captain’s Log: A Steinbeck/Ricketts thing.
If you read nothing else of Wilson’s, I recommend reading Comrade Prince.