First, let’s be clear about which edition we are looking at; I was reading the British Penguin edition, published in 1991. This was a UK edition of the 1972 US edition, for which Wilson wrote a new introduction; much of the text was written in 1940, and the later chapters make this quite clear – especially where Trotsky is referred to in the present tense. This would almost certainly confuse the less careful reader (if they made it past the chapter on the Dialectic…)
The approach Wilson takes is interesting; the book starts off as a work of literary criticism, looking at nineteenth-century French historians reacting to the French Revolution. As we progress in time, the historians comment less and less on historical events and begin to relate their writings to their actions and the contemporary political scene. By the time we reach Marx and Engels, we are looking at fully-fledged activists. The work is then brought to its conclusion with Trotsky and Lenin, ending with Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd at the eve of the October revolution.
I particularly liked the description of the events of Lenin’s return to Petrograd; it had a very vivid sense of someone walking into a situation that they were not expecting (Lenin was half expecting to be arrested) and then running with the situation as they found it, and of events taking their own momentum and running away from people who thought they were in control. How much of that is the Soviet accepted history, how much is fact and how much Wilson’s own imagination I cannot say, but it makes quite interesting, even exciting reading!
The strengths of this book are in the pre-history of European socialism, and in the pen portraits of the earlier players. Marx and Engels in particular are sympathetically portrayed, even whilst their faults are not glossed over (at least, as much as you’d expect a non-revisionist work to be). The accounts of Trotsky’s and Lenin’s early lives are also interesting, though I gather that they were compiled from mainly Soviet sources, so it must be expected that they will reflect the Party line (although, of course, by the time of writing, Trotsky was officially an ‘unperson’, so the line there would be the one from the early Bolshevik era). The accounts of the political manoeuvering in the years leading up to 1917 is helpful in giving an overview, though it feels a little journalistic and sketchy in places. Certainly, Lenin’s years in exile are dealt with in very short order. And the book only mentions Stalin and his purges in passing; I had the feeling that Wilson was treating them as a given, but specifically did not want to talk about them. In a way, this is understandable; Stalin and the direction he took the Soviet Union has very little to do with revolution, but it was the end result of the process that started with Marx and Engels, and no historian today would get away with not mentioning it.
There are omissions: others have commented that the portrait of Lenin is excessively kind, having again been assembled from Soviet sources; and Wilson at one point acknowledges gaps in the record caused by Soviet editing of Marx’s correspondence, and but a few paragraphs later excuses this as an act of socialist zeal, enthusiasm and loyalty. And as I hinted above, he spends a chapter trying to explain the concept of the Dialectic and just succeeds in muddying the waters further. (I certainly emerged from that chapter little wiser than when I went in.) He also expounds on the Labour theory of value, and whilst he has more success with that, he does seem to spend more time explaining what other people thought of it than examining it himself.
For a Lenin apologist, he is not uncritical of some of the tenets of socialist thought. He does expose flaws in the concept of the Labour theory of value, and has a very good analysis of why there was no socialist revolution in Britain (the ruling class made concessions and the managerial class negotiated with the trade unions, who were more interested in securing advantages for their members than pursuing revolution) or America (there was no ruling class to revolt against). And his explanation of Lenin’s anti-democratic statements – that there is no place for democracy in a revolutionary movement, because once you stop to debate issues and subject them to democratic processes, you lose the ability to plan in secret and to act decisively – makes everything fall into place. That, ultimately, has to lead to the realisation that if you once seize power by force, you can only retain it by force – but Wilson lacked the historical perspective we have nowadays to realise this.
So: a useful book, but it should certainly not be your only source in revolutionary history. And it should serve as a warning. Wilson’s analysis of why there was a revolution in Russia and not in Britain or America needs to be heeded; when political leaders start to act as though they possess absolute power, and when the employers and owners of capital are not prepared to negotiate, or consider the opinions of those who work for them, but consider that they have all the rights and the workers have none, then we are seeing the growth of conditions for revolution, the same sort of conditions that there were in Tsarist Russia. All that the situation lacks is a sufficiently dedicated band of revolutionary leaders; and perhaps it is good that we do not have such people, because such people can make dreadful things happen in the name of their revolution.