Leo Tolstoy: Author and Anarchist
Leo Tolstoy is famous not only for his novels but for his moral and political beliefs which have inspired, and continue to inspire, both anarchists and pacifists.
He was born on 9th September, 1828 into a family of rural aristocrats at their estate at Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula in Russia. His mother, a princess, died when he was barely eighteen months old and his father, a count, died when he was nine. A distant relative, Tatyana Yergolskava, brought up Tolstoy, his sister Maria and his three brothers.
From 1844 to 1847 Tolstoy studied oriental languages and law at the university of Kazan but failed to take a degree. He returned to his estate, his health in decline because of dissipation, where he stayed until 1851 when he went to live with a brother in the Caucasus who persuaded him to join the army.
In 1852 Tolstoy’s first story, Childhood, met with considerable success and was followed by Boyhood in 1854 and Youth in 1857. His account of the fighting at Sebastopol made him a national celebrity and on the orders of the Czar he was sent back from the front to St Petersburg where his literary fame enabled him to meet the most distinguished writers and poets of that period.
From 1857 to 1861 Tolstoy travelled abroad, visiting Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and England. During his travels he met the anarchist Proudhon, the author Auerbach (known for his stories of peasant life) and the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen.
His return home in February 1861 saw the emancipation of the serfs and, encouraged by the reforms of the times, he attempted to carry out educational experiments on his estate which ended in failure after two years.
On September 23rd in 1862 Tolstoy married Sophia Andreyevna Behrs and for nearly twenty years he lived a settled life on his estate, raising thirteen children and writing some of his best known novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, until the end of his life, Tolstoy became preoccupied with moral and ethical questions and much of his later works such as My Confession (1879); The Gospel in Brief (1880); What I Believe (1884) What Shall We Do Then? (1885); On Life (1887); The Kingdom of God is Within You (1889); What is Religion? (1902) increasingly concentrated on putting across his idiosyncratic theological views.
His last long novel, Resurrection (1899), written on behalf of the religious sect, the Doukhobres, was instrumental in ending their persecution and gaining permission for them to emigrate to Canada, but its hostile and outspoken criticisms of Church and State led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. But even during this period of his life when Tolstoy the propagandist had largely taken over from Tolstoy the novelist, he was still able to produce such masterpieces as The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1886); The Power of Darkness (1886); Master and Man (1895); Father Sergius (1898); Nedji Murat (1904); The False Coupon (1905.
Finally, on 28th October 1910, in a dramatic flight from his home, Tolstoy went to the convent of Shamardino near Kaluga, where his sister Maria was a nun. He then travelled towards Novo-Cherkask but developed pneumonia and died at Ostapovo railway station on 7th November, 1910.
Tolstoy’s political and ethical views developed partly as a result of his experiences in the Crimean war, his later pacifism resulting from his participation in the siege of Sebastopol. But it was the witnessing of a public execution in Paris in 1857 that led to his opposition to organised state rule. Woodcock states:
“The cold, inhuman efficiency of the operation aroused in him a horror far greater than any scenes of war had done, and the guillotine became for him a frightful symbol of the state that used it. From that day he began to speak politically – or anti-politically – in the voice of an anarchist.”(Woodcock, G. Anarchism, 1963, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.)
Tolstoy was influenced by the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his ideal of the free peasant life; on a trip to Western Europe he made a detour to visit him in Brussels. They talked mainly about education, a subject which had interested Tolstoy from an assiduous reading of his childhood hero, Rousseau. He was also impressed by Proudhon’s book ‘La Guerre et la Paix’ which was nearing completion, the title of which he was to borrow for his longest and best known novel.
The years of Tolstoy’s youth coincided with the economic and political changes arising from the ending of serfdom and the development of capitalism in Russia, which threatened to change the way of life for the landed gentry who found themselves dependent on hired labour in competition with industry.
Besides the economic threat to the landed gentry Tolstoy saw encroaching industrialisation as a threat to the simple life, close to nature, which he loved and which is described in The Cossacks, written in 1852 but not published until ten years later:
“Oleninm had entered into the life of the Cossack village so fully that his past seemed quite foreign to him. As to the future, especially a future outside the world in which he was now living, it did not interest him at all. When he received letters from home, from re1atives and friends, he was offended by the evident distress with which they regarded him as a lost man, while he in his village considered those as did not live as he was living.”
But even though the simple life is eulogised in ‘The Cossacks’, Tolstoy’s natural exuberance breaks through the narrative:
“It’s all nonsense what I have been thinking about – love and self-sacrifice and Lukaska. Happiness is the one thing. He who is happy is right”, flashed through Olenin’s mind, and with a strength unexpected to himself he seized and kissed. the beautiful Maryanka on her temple and her cheek.”
These two opposing tendencies were to plague Tolstoy for the greater part of his adult life. On he one hand was the sensualist; the lover of life; the dissipated youth who failed to obtain a degree at university; the father of thirteen children, with a strong sexual appetite. On other hand was the brooding moralist; the relentless critic of organised religion; the puritanical advocate of celibacy; the anarchist, castigating the rule of law, privilege and power.
Tolstoy put his own moral doubts into his characters in ‘Anna Karenina’ which was completed in 1877. The country-loving, goodhearted Levin, after a Titanic struggle to find meaning and purpose to life, eventually finds happiness and contentment with Kitty, whilst the lovers Anna Karenina and Vronsky are crushed by their adulterous relationship, which ends in despair and disaster with Anna’s suicide.
In ‘Anna Karenina’ Tolstoy put political opinions into the mouths of his characters in addition to his moral views, in the character of Levin:
“You know that capitalism oppresses the workers. Our workmen the peasants bear the whole burden of labour, but are so placed that, work as they may, they cannot escape from their degrading condition. All the profits on their labour, by which they might better their condition, give themselves some leisure, and consequently gain some education, all this surplus value is taken away by the capitalists. And our society has so shaped itself that the more the people work the richer the merchants and landowners will become, while the people will remain beasts of burden for ever. And this system must be changed.”
His views on education are also voiced by Levin:
“Schools are no remedy, but the remedy would be an economic organisation under which the people would be better off and have more leisure. Then schools would come.”
But although ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘The Cossacks’ and also ‘War and Peace’ portray Tolstoy’s love of the countryside. a life’ close to nature, his distrust of industrialisation and an occasional attack on capitalism they are not anarchist novels or propagandist novels in the same way that most of his later books were.
In ‘What Shall We Do Then?’ published in 1885, he attacked money:
“Money is the new form of slavery, distinguished from the old solely by its impersonality, by the lack of any human relation between the master and the slave.
..the essence of all slavery consists in drawing the benefit of another’s labour force by compulsion, and it is founded upon property in the slave or upon property in money which is indispensable to the other man.”
In his last long novel Tolstoy enlarged upon moral attacks under capitalism:
“People usually imagine a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, knowing their occupation to be evil, must be ashamed of it. But the very opposite is true. Men who have been placed by fate and their own sins in a certain position, however irregular that position may be, adopt a view of life as a whole which makes their position appear to them good and respectable. In order to back up their view of life they instinctively mix only with those who accept their ideas of life and their place in it. This surprises us when it is a case of thieves bragging of their skill, prostitutes flaunting their depravity or murderers boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because their numbers are limited and – this is the point – we live in a different atmosphere. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth, i.e. of robbery; when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories, i.e. on murder; and when those in high places vaunt their power – their brute force? We do not see that their ideas of life and of good and evil are corrupt and inspired by a necessity to justify their position, only because the circle of people with such corrupt ideas is a larger one and we belong to it ourselves.”
In ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ Tolstoy’s anarchist ideas and his opposition to organised religion is clearly stated:
“Christianity in its true significance abolishes the state, annihilates all governments.
Revolutionary enemies fight the government from outside; Christianity does not fight at all, but wrecks its foundation from within.”
He attacked power in the same book:
“All men find themselves in power assert that their power is necessary in order that the wicked may not do violence to the good, and regard it as self-evident that they are the good and are giving the rest of the good protection against the bad. But in reality those who grasp and hold the power cannot possibly do the better.
In order to obtain and retain power, one must love it. But the effort after power is not apt to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities, pride, craft and cruelty. Without exalting self and abasing others, without hypocrisy, lying, prisons, fortresses, penalties, killing, no power can arise or hold its own.”
In response to the inequalities of wealth and the injustices of the capitalist system Tolstoy proposed that the remedy should be:
“If you are a landlord, to give your land at once to the poor, and, if you are a capitalist, to give your money and your factory to the working-man; if you are a prince, a cabinet minister, an official, a judge or a general, you ought at once to resign your position, and, if you are a soldier, you ought to refuse obedience without regard to any danger.” (‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’)
Three years earlier, in 1890, Tolstoy had tried to put his principles into practice by renouncing his property, although he continued to live in comfort on his estate, the management of which passed to his wife. In the following year he gave up the posthumous rights on his books written after 1881.
To the end of his life Tolstoy continued to propagate his views regardless of his personal safety, for it must be remembered that the Czarist government frequently imprisoned political opponents without trial for periods of twenty years more. The reason why Tolstoy remained unscathed is unclear but it is possible that the police did not wish to make a martyr of a writer of such international fame. Whatever the reason, Tolstoy took advantage of the situation to attack the government at every opportunity.
In ‘Christianity and Patriotism'(1894) he stated:
“Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable meaning is nothing but an instrument for the attainment of the government’s ambitious and mercenary, aims, and a renunciation of. human dignity. common sense. and conscience by the governed, and a slavish submission to those who hold-power, That is what is really preached wherever patriotism is championed. Patriotism is slavery.”
And in his ‘Address to the Swedish Peace Congress’ in 1909 when he was turned eighty, he was still able (despite the emotional turmoil of his domestic life) to write eloquently in support of his views:
“…the military profession and calling, not withstanding all the efforts to hide its real meaning, is as shameful a business as an executioner’s and even more so. For the executioner only holds himself in readiness to kill those who have been adjudged harmful and criminal, while a soldier promises to kill all whom he is told to kill, even though they be dearest to him or the best of men.”
Tolstoy’s influence is difficult to sum up: he advocated giving up one’s personal wealth to help the poor in spite of having realised that it is the exploitation of workers’ labour power which is the cause of poverty; he was a pacifist, but in practising non-violence his supporters were slaughtered and imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in the years following the Russian revolution; he wrote of “Christian love” but had a chauvinistic attitude to women and advocated celibacy which would lead to the extinction of the human race instead of its advancement; his simple, rural existence may be to the taste of some people but it avoids the problems of capitalism instead of solving them.
The most enduring Tolstoyan community has been the Catholic Worker group which was established in the USA in the 1930s. And in Britain the Christian anarchists who held meetings at St. Paul’s Church, Bow, in East London in 1967 all belonged to established churches. And though this may seem surprising in view of Tolstoy’s hostility towards organised religion, his own rationalist religious beliefs were so individualistic that they have been accepted less readily than his other teachings.
Socialists wish to end capitalism, only it will not be done by individuals withdrawing from society, but by the mass of workers understanding, wanting, and working for socialism.
Socialists reject religious beliefs because they postpone the struggle to achieve a better life in the hope of finding rewards in a mythical after-life. Such practices stop workers from questioning their exploitation, hence their enthusiastic endorsement by the state.
The literary gifts of Tolstoy have assured him of a place in history. His work is rightfully admired by all who appreciate good literature, and will continue to do so for generations to come. But Tolstoy, the pamphleteer. is rapidly being forgotten and already many of his religious and political tracts are unobtainable.
Towards the end of his life Tolstoy said to Gorky:
“I write a lot and that’s not right because I do it from senile vanity, from the desire to make everyone think as I do.”
Perhaps that is why his pamphlets are being forgotten, because the imperious aristocrat in Tolstoy’s personality dominated how he would have wished to be, and people do not like being bullied.
Nearly eighty years after his death we can admire the moral courage of Tolstoy and his literary genius, and continue to do so long after Tolstoy the prophet has been forgotten.