George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, 1962, Postscript 1975.
8 The Prophet
Stefan Zweig once described Tolstoy as 'the most passionate anarchist and anti-collectivist of our times'. One may dispute the extremity of this statement, but a consideration of Tolstoy's thought and teaching during the last thirty years of his life, and of the tendencies lightly concealed in the great novels written before the period of his conversion, leaves little doubt of its general truth. Tolstoy did not call himself an anarchist, because he applied the name to those who wished to change society by violent means; he preferred to think of himself as a literal Christian. Nevertheless, he was not entirely unpleased when, in 1900, the German scholar Paul Eltzbacher wrote a pioneer survey of the various trends of anarchist thought and included Tolstoy's ideas among them, demonstrating that, while he repudiated violence, his basic doctrine -- and particularly his categorical rejection of the state and of property -- fitted clearly into the general anarchist pattern.
Tolstoy's links with anarchists of other types were few but important. In 1857 he read some unspecified work of Proudhon (probably What Is Property?), and the notes he was stimulated to write at this time suggest that the French anarchist had already influenced him profoundly. 'Nationalism is the one single bar to the growth of freedom,' he commented. And even more significantly he added: 'All governments are in equal measure good and evil. The best ideal is anarchy.' Early in 1862, on a trip to western Europe, he went out of his way to visit Proudhon in Brussels. They talked of education -- much on Tolstoy's mind at this period -- and Tolstoy later recollected that Proudhon was 'the only man who understood in our time the significance of public education and of the printing press'. They also talked of Proudhon's book, La guerre et la paix, which was on the point of completion when Tolstoy called; there is little doubt that Tolstoy took much more than the title of his greatest novel from this treatise on the roots and
evolution of war in the social psyche rather than in the decisions of political and military leaders.
Bakunin's pan-destructionism clearly did not appeal to Tolstoy, yet these two rebellious but autocratic barins had more in common than either of them might have cared to admit. For Tolstoy was an iconoclast and a destroyer in his own way longing to see an end -- even if it must be achieved by moral and pacific means -- to the whole artificial world of high society and high politics. But for Kropotkin, whom he never met, Tolstoy had the greatest personal respect. Romain Rolland has even suggested that, in this prince who had given up his wealth and his social position for the cause of the people, Tolstoy saw a living example of the renunciations he had achieved only in his thought and his writings. Certainly Tolstoy admired Kropotkin's Memoirs of a Revolutionist, and, like Lewis Mumford in our own day, he recognized the great originality and practicality of Fields, Factories and Workshops, which he thought might become a manual for the reform of Russian agriculture. His disciple Vladimir Chertkov, exiled in England, served as an intermediary through whom Tolstoy and Kropotkin established contact, and one exchange of messages is particularly interesting. Tolstoy rather shrewdly came to the conclusion that Kropotkin's defence of violence was reluctant and contrary to his real nature.
His arguments in favour of violence [he remarked to Chertkov] do not seem to me the expression of his opinions, but only of his fidelity to the banner under which he has served so honestly all his life.
Kropotkin, who in turn had the greatest respect for Tolstoy and described him as 'the most touchingly loved man in the world', was evidently troubled by this opinion, and he remarked to Chertkov:
In order to understand how much I sympathize with the ideas of Tolstoy, it is sufficient to say that I have written a whole volume to demonstrate that life is created, not by the struggle for existence. but by mutual aid.
What Kropotkin meant by 'mutual aid' was not very far from what Tolstoy meant by 'love', and when we examine the
development of Tolstoy's social thought and compare it with that of the other anarchists we realize how firmly his doctrine fits into the libertarian tradition.
Tolstoy's anarchism, like his rational Christianity, was developed by a series of climactic experiences. His years as an officer in the Caucasus, in contact with mountain tribesmen and Cossacks living in their traditional manner, taught him the virtues of simple societies close to nature and far from urban corruption; the lessons he drew from his experience were very close to those which Kropotkin drew from similar encounters in Siberia. His presence at the siege of Sebastopol, during the Crimean War, prepared him for his later pacifism. But perhaps the decisive experience in Tolstoy's life was a public execution by guillotine which he witnessed in Paris during 1857. The cold, inhuman efficiency of the operation aroused in him a horror far greater than any of the 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 :
The modern state [he wrote to his friend Botkin] is nothing but a conspiracy to exploit, but most of all to demoralize its citizens. ... I understand moral and religious laws, not compulsory for everyone, but leading forward and promising a more harmonious future; I feel the laws of art, which always bring happiness. But political laws seem to me such prodigious lies, that I fail to see how one among them can be better or worse than any of the others. ... Henceforth I shall never serve any government anywhere.
During the rest of his life Tolstoy elaborated this doctrine in many forms and at much greater length, but the core of it remained the same, and one can draw from the writings of his last decade statements that resemble closely what he had said forty years before when the memory of the guillotine haunted his dreams and outraged his humanity.
I regard all governments [he said at the very end of his life], not only the Russian government, as intricate institutions, sanctified by tradition and custom, for the purpose of committing by force and with impunity the most revolting crimes. And I think that the efforts of those who wish to improve our social life should be directed towards the liberation of themselves from national
governments, whose evil, and above all, whose futility, is in our time becoming more and more apparent.
To recognize the continuity of the anarchistic strain in Tolstoy from his early manhood down to his death is important, since there is a persistent view of Tolstoy which sees him as two different and even mutually antagonistic beings. The period of terrible doubts and spiritual agonies which accompanied the completion of Anna Karenina and which was largely recorded in its final chapters, the period which Tolstoy regarded as his time of conversion, is seen as a great watershed dividing his life. On one side lies the land of vibrant sunlight and dew-drenched forests that belongs to the great novels. On the other side lies the desert of spiritual effort in which Tolstoy, like a latter-day John the Baptist, seeks the locusts of moralism and the wild honey of spiritual joy. On one side stands the artist and on the other side the combined saint and anarchist, and one picks one's own particular Tolstoy according to one's taste.
It seems to me that this view, which I once held and defended, is a false one; that it ignores the many threads which unite the later and the earlier Tolstoy. The features we see change, as a man's features change with age, but the face is always the same, played over by longings for justice and love, and held always by the lure of the natural world in all its beauty. The artist and the anarchist both live in that face, as they lived together throughout Tolstoy's life.
For there was, to begin, no time when Tolstoy really abandoned the art of literature. Even at his most propagandist moments he was never free of the desire to seek artistic expression, and to the end of his life his mind was full of plans and ideas for novels and stories and plays, as his diaries for the 1880s and 1890s attest; many were started and abandoned, but some at least came to fruition. As late as 1904 Tolstoy finished one of his finest novellas, Hadji Murad, in an acute state of mingled delight at his achievement and guilt at his self-indulgence. The best of his later works -- stories like Master and Man and The Death of Ivan llyich -- show no real falling off in his peculiar power to render life into art and yet retain its freshness untarnished. What does happen is a failure of the power to carry through longer works on a consistently high artistic
level, for the one novel Tolstoy wrote during this period, Resurrection, though it is superb in parts, does not succeed as a whole. It has often been suggested that the failure of Resurrection is due to the preponderance of Tolstoy's moralism at this time; I would suggest that, though the moralism does preponderate, the primary failure is an artistic one, a failure of form and feeling due to emotional catastrophes. I have analysed that failure elsewhere; here I wish to emphasize the fact that until the very end Tolstoy never lost interest in literature as such, and that until within a decade of his death he was writing works that would be a credit to any writer in his seventies.
Tolstoy's conversion did not, then, destroy him as an artist. Nor did it bring him into being as a Christian anarchist reformer of the world, for it was no new thing for Tolstoy to turn away from literary work to other absorbing activities. Most of his mature life he distrusted any suggestion that literature was an end in itself. He disagreed strongly with Turgenev on this point, and a good twenty years before his conversion, in the 1850s, he was arguing that a man's main activities in life should be outside literature. At times, even in this earlier period, he talked of giving up writing altogether. He did not do so, any more than he did in later life, but for long periods his efforts to become a good farmer, or to improve the conditions of his peasants, or to relieve the victims of famine, or to evolve a progressive system of education, seemed to him more urgent than writing. In such efforts he displayed a concern for action and a practical ability that mirrored the extreme concreteness of his literary vision. Even in the midst of his work on Anna Karenina during the mid 1870s he became so involved in his educational experiments that he temporarily abandoned the novel, and impatiently remarked to one of his relatives: 'I cannot tear myself away from living creatures to bother about imaginary ones.' His teaching, incidentally, was highly libertarian in character, and the kind of free collaboration between teachers and pupils which he tried to attain in practice resembled closely the methods advocated by William Godwin in that pioneer work of anarchistic educational theory, The Enquirer.
It must be remembered that Tolstoy's consistent reluctance to
accept an all-consuming literary discipline and his inclination to regard the actual profession of man of letters as a kind of prostitution, did not spring entirely from moral scruples. It originated largely from an aristocratic view of literature as one of the accomplishments of a gentleman. The sense of noblesse oblige was strong in Tolstoy. Even his radicalism, like that of the two other great Russian anarchists, Bakunin and Kropotkin, was based on a traditional relationship between aristocrat and peasant. All three of them wished to invert the relationship, but it remained none the less an important element in their thought and action.
What I have been seeking to show is that in Tolstoy the tension between the writer and the reformer was always present and usually stimulated both sides of his life; it only became destructive at the very end, when his artistic impulses were in decay. In his most fertile years as a novelist, his literary talents and his sense of moral purpose supported each other instead of falling into conflict. His earlier novels -- War and Peace, Anna Karenina, even The Cossacks -- have the effortless didacticism which so often characterizes great literature, and they present his views on the subjects that concern him passionately with as little violation of artistic proportion as one finds in Milton's justification of the ways of God to man in Paradise Lost. None of these works is deliberately propagandist in the same way as Resurrection, and it would be stretching too many points to call them anarchist novels in any full sense. Yet they reveal, as powerfully as any of Tolstoy's tractarian writings, a whole series of attitudes which we have seen to be characteristically anarchistic.
There is, to begin, the naturalism -- moral as well as literary -- which pervades all these works, with a sense that man is best, or at least better, if he rejects the more artificial manifestations of civilization and lives in an organic relationship with the world of nature, himself a natural being. Such an existence is related to the concept of 'real life' of which Tolstoy makes so much in War and Peace.
Life meanwhile -- real life, with its essential interests of health and sickness, toil and rest, and its intellectual interests in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, hatred, and passions -- went
on as usual, independently of and apart from political friendship or enmity with Napoleon Bonaparte and from all schemes of reconstruction.
Tolstoy, in all his early novels, sees life as being more 'real' the closer it is lived to nature. Olenin, the hero of The Cossacks, dwells as an officer in a village of half-savage peasants in the wilds of the Caucasus, and his life seems to him at this point infinitely more meaningful than that of his former friends in St Petersburg.
O, how paltry and pitiable you all seem to me [he writes to one of them in a letter which he does not send off because he fears it will not be understood]. You do not know what happiness is, you do not know what life is. One must taste life in all its natural beauty; must see and understand what I have every day before my eyes -- the eternal, inaccessible snow on the mountain-peaks and a woman endowed with all the dignity and pristine beauty in which the first woman must have come from the hand of the Creator -- and then it will be quite clear which of us, you or I, is ruining himself, which of us is living truly, which falsely. ... Happiness is being with Nature, seeing Nature, and discoursing with her.
What is expressed almost naively in The Cossacks is elaborated with far more artistry and depth in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. A life closer to nature, Tolstoy suggests time and again, brings us nearer to truth than a life bound by elaborate bonds of law and fashion. This is indicated with a deliberate social emphasis in Anna Karenina. There the division is maintained throughout the novel between town and country, between artificial urban civilization, which always tends toward evil, and natural rural life, which always tends toward good if it is left to follow its own courses. Anna Karenina, dominated by the city and corrupted by its unnatural standards, is morally and at last physically destroyed. Levin, a man of the country, goes through many trials of love and faith, but finally succeeds in his marriage and at the end of a long process of spiritual travail gains enlightenment.
But, as Levin realizes, it is the peasant -- the man of the people -- who is nearest to nature and, by the simplicity of his life, nearest to truth. Already in War and Peace this theme of
the natural man is introduced in the character of Platon Karataev, the peasant soldier whom Pierre meets among his fellow prisoners when he is arrested by the French in Moscow. Karataev is for Pierre 'an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth', and he is so because he lives naturally and without conscious intellectualism. 'His words and actions flow from him as evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a flower.' Similarly, Levin's conversion in Anna Karenina is precipitated when he hears of a peasant, also named Platon, who lives 'for his soul, rightly, in God's way'.
Linked with this search for the natural life is the urge toward universal brotherhood which runs through all the novels and which projects a dream Tolstoy had shared with his brothers early in childhood, when they believed that their own close circle could be extended indefinitely into the fraternity of all mankind. In The Cossacks Olenin longs for comradeship with the primitive inhabitants of the Caucasus; the same vision haunts Pierre in War and Peace, and is linked with Tolstoy's Chritianity in Anna Karenina when Levin tells himself: 'I do not so much unite myself as am united, whether I will or no, with other men in one body of believers.'
If so many of the general attitudes of Tolstoy's novels -- the naturalism, the populism, the dream of universal brotherhood, the distrust of the myth of progress -- parallel those of the anarchist tradition, one finds also many specific libertarian ideas suggested in them. The rough egalitarianism of the Cossacks is contrasted, to the hierarchical structure of the Russian army; the cult of leadership is deliberately attacked in War and Peace; the moral flaws of a centralized political system and the fallacies of patriotism are exposed in Anna Karenina.
When we turn from the suggestions in Tolstoy's novels to the explicit statements in his tractarian works, we find that his anarchism is the external aspect, expressed in behaviour, of his Christianity. The lack of any real conflict between the two is due to the fact that his is a religion without mysticism, a religion without even faith, for, like Winstanley, he bases his beliefs on reason and submits them to the test of truth. Christ is for him the teacher, not God incarnate; his doctrine is
'reason itself', and what distinguishes man in the animal world is his power to live by that reason.
Here is a humanized religion; we seek the Kingdom of God not without, but within ourselves. And for this reason Tolstoy presents an attitude that belongs clearly in the realm of anarchist thought; his idea of the immanent Kingdom of God is related to Proudhon's idea of an immanent justice, and his conception of religion as dependent on reason draws him into close relationship with both Godwin and Winstanley. And even in his religious phase he does not reject the natural world; he envisages life after death, if it exists, as taking place in a realm that is little else than nature transfigured. This he made clear in the moving letter he wrote to his wife during the 1890s when he happened to ride one evening through the woods that had once belonged to his friend Turgenev, now long dead.
In Tolstoy's world of reason and nature, time slows down, as it does in the long summer afternoon of freedom dreamed of by William Morris. Progress is rejected as an ideal; freedom, brotherhood, and the cultivation of man's moral nature are more important, and to these progress must be subordinated. It is true that Tolstoy, like Morris, protests against an interpretation of his doctrines which presents him as the opponent of all progress; in The Slavery of Our Time he claims only to oppose progress that is achieved at the expense of human liberty and human lives.
Truly enlightened people [he says] will always agree to go back to riding on horses and using pack-horses, or even to tilling the earth with sticks and with their own hands, rather than to travel on railways which regularly crush a number of people, as is done in Chicago, merely because the proprietors of the railway find it more profitable to compensate the families of those killed, than to build the line so that it will not kill people. The motto for truly enlightened people is not fiat cultura, pereat justicia, but fiat justicia, pereat cultura.
But culture, useful culture, will not be destroyed. ... It is not for nothing that mankind, in their slavery, have achieved such great Progress in technical matters. If only it is understood that we must not sacrifice the lives of our brother-men for our own pleasure, it
will be possible to apply technical improvements without destroying men's lives.
Despite such protests, however, Tolstoy did not look toward a more abundant life in physical terms. For him, as for the peasant anarchists of Andalusia, the moral ideal was the simple and ascetic life, where a man would rely as little as possible on the labour of others. The resemblance to Proudhon is significant; Tolstoy must have read with approval that philosopher's lyrical praises of the glories of dignified poverty. It is the hatred of luxury, the desire that culture should serve men rather than be served by them, that explains his apparently eccentric rejection of the works of art that appeal to 'the Happy Few'; for him true art became that which communicated its message to all men and gave them hope.
Central to Tolstoy's social doctrine is his rejection of the state, but equally important is his denial of property. Indeed, he sees the two as interdependent. Property is a domination by some men over others, and the state exists to guarantee the perpetuation of property relationships. Therefore both must be abolished, so that men may live freely and without domination, in the state of community and mutual peace which is the true Kingdom of God on Earth. To the objections that the positive functions of society cannot exist without government, Tolstoy replies in terms reminiscent of Kropotkin's arguments in Mutual Aid and The Conquest of Bread:
Why think that non-official people could not arrange their life for themselves, as well as government people can arrange it not for themselves but for others?
We see, on the contrary, that in the most diverse matters people in our times arrange their own lives incomparably better than those who govern them arrange things for them. Without the least help from government, and often in spite of the interference of government, people organize all sorts of social undertakings -- workmens unions, cooperative societies, railway companies, artels, and syndicates. If collections for public works are needed, why should we suppose that free people could not, without violence, voluntarily collect the necessary means and carry out anything that is now carried out by means of taxes, if only the undertakings in question are really useful for everybody? Why suppose that there cannot be
tribunals without violence? Trial, by people, trusted by the disputans, has always existed and will exist, and needs no violence. ... And in the same way there is no reason to suppose that people could not, by common agreement, decide how the land is to be apportioned for use.
Tolstoy is as reluctant as other anarchists to create Utopias, to sketch out the plan of the society that might exist if men were no longer subject to governments.
The details of a new order of life cannot be known to us. We must shape them ourselves. Life consists solely in the search for the unknown and in our work of harmonizing our actions with the new
Yet he does envisage a society where the state and law and property will all be abolished, and where cooperative production will take their place; the distribution of the product of work in such a society will follow a communistic principle, so that men will receive all they need, but -- for their own sakes as well as the sakes of others -- no superfluity.
To attain this society Tolstoy -- like Godwin and to a great extent like Proudhon -- advocates a moral rather than a political revolution. A political revolution, he suggests, fights the state and property from without; a moral revolution works within the evil society and wears at its very foundations. Tolstoy does make a distinction between the violence of a government, which is wholly evil because it is deliberate and works by the perversion of reason, and the violence of an angry people, which is only partly evil because it arises from ignorance. Yet the only effective way he sees of changing society is by reason, and, ultimately, by persuasion and example. The man who wishes to abolish the state must cease to cooperate with it, refuse military service, police service, jury service, the payment of taxes. The refusal to obey, in other words, is Tolstoy's great weapon.
I think I have said enough to show that in its essentials Tolstoy's social teaching is a true anarchism, condemning the authoritarian order of existing society, proposing a new libertarian order, and suggesting the means by which it may be
attained. Since his religion is a natural and rational one, and
seeks its Kingdom in the reign of justice and love on this earth, it does not transcend his anarchist doctrine but is complementary to it.
Tolstoy's influence has been vast and many-sided. Thousands of Russians and non-Russians became his passionate disciples, and founded Tolstoyan colonies, based on communal economies and ascetic living, both in Russia and abroad. I have neve encountered a comprehensive record of these communities, but all I have been able to trace failed in a relatively short period, either from the personal incompatibility of the participants or from the lack of practical agricultural experience. Nevertheless, an active Tolstoyan movement continued to exist in Russia until the early 1920s, when it was suppressed by the Bolsheviks. Outside Russia, Tolstoy certainly influenced the anarchist pacifists in Holland, Britain, and the United States. Many British pacifists during the Second World War participated in neo-Tolstoyan communities, few of which survived the end of hostilities. Perhaps the most impressive example of Tolstoyan influence in the contemporary Western world is -- ironically in view of Tolstoy's distrust of organized churches -- the Roman Catholic group associated in the United States with the Catholic Worker and particularly with that saintly representative of Christian anarchism in our time, Dorothy Day.
But the most important single Tolstoyan convert was undoubtedly Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's achievement of awakening the Indian people and leading them through an almost bloodless national revolution against foreign rule lies only on the periphery of our subject, but at this point it is worth remembering that Gandhi was influenced by several of the great libertarian thinkers. His non-violent technique was developed largely under the influence of Thoreau as well as of Tolstoy, and he was encouraged in his idea of a country of village communes by an assiduous reading of Kropotkin.
In Russia itself Tolstoy's influence went far beyond the narrower circles of his disciples, who often embarrassed him by the odd extremity of their behaviour. It was rather as the passionately unofficial and unorthodox conscience of Russia than as the leader of a movement that Tolstoy stood out during the last two decades of his life. Taking advantage of the world-wide
prestige that made him, almost alone among Russians,
exempt from persecution of a direct kind, he time and again
denounced the Tsarist government for its offences against
rational morality and Christian teachings. He spoke without
fear and he never let himself be silenced. Rebels of every kind
felt that they were not alone in the great police state of Russia
while Tolstoy was there to speak as his sense of justice moved
him, and his relentless criticism undoubtedly played its part in
undermining the foundations of the Romanov empire during
the fateful years from 1905 to 1917. Here again he was teaching a lesson dear to anarchists: that the moral strength of a
single man who insists on being free is greater than that of a
multitude of silent slaves.