Lev Tolstoy’s Anarchism: The Marriage of Pacifism & Anarchism

Lev Tolstoy
Lev Tolstoy

Like Bakunin and Kropotkin, Tolstoy was from an aristocratic background and also an extensive traveller. Tolstoy remained an aristocrat and lived on his family estate until he reached the “third period[1]” of his life,  rejected his former mode of life and renounced all claims to his hereditary property and estates to live a simple life of the peasantry (Eltzbacher, 150). He travelled extensively in Europe and its centers of intellectual culture before returning to home at the wake of a vast intellectual upheaval in Russia in 1861. His first exposure to German philosophy began with the contacts he made with the Molokan sect and studied the philosophy of Schopenhauer (Eltzbacher, 150). His subsequent travels would bring him to Proudhon in Belgium and other French anarchist intellectuals of the time, whose influences on Tolstoy are evident from his central ideas of the state, of property and law.

First of all, somewhat unique and distinctive to Tolstoy’s anarchism is his notion of human nature which acts as the foundation of his thought. Tolstoy held that love is the supreme law of human behavior and it is from this law we are to derive our non-resistance to evil. Such love is guided by reason and the knowledge of the truth, and this is Christ’s true teaching that Tolstoy accepts (Eltzbacher, 152). Tolstoy condemns the churches and religious institutions for their arrogance, violence, usurpation, rigidity and above all, their corruption of Christ’s true teachings (Woodcock, 232). Therefore, ‘resist to evil’ which means never do violence to another, became the foundation of Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism. As Woodcock notes, Tolstoy’s fundamental notion of love is not that distant from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (Woodcock, 186). In the correspondence between Kropotkin and Tolstoy, when Tolstoy concludes that Kropotkin’s endorsement of violence is simply due to his fidelity to the banner of anarchism, Kropotkin expresses his reluctance to approve violence, yet he seems to think violence is sometimes inevitable in realizing the anarchist dream (Woodcock, 186).

Bukunin’s urge for utter destruction of the state and the existing social order for the creation of an anarchistic society doesn’t seem appealing to Tolstoy, but there are more commonalities between these rebellious but aristocratic thinkers than one could see from what they are mostly known for. It is not that they are complete opposites. Tolstoy wanted to transcend everything in his own way, a non-violent Christian way, to achieve the dream of anarchism, while Bakunin held violence, as a means of destruction for it is the prelude to creation of an anarchistic society. Though Tolstoy never called himself an anarchist, his categorical rejection of the state and of property –fits him perfectly into the general anarchist framework of socio-political thought (Woodcock, 185). His reluctance to be associated with the anarchists is, clearly, the violent nature of anarchistic thoughts that he repudiates passionately. Tolstoy posits that there might have been a time when the existence of the state was justified on grounds of its protection and power of limiting violence among the individuals, a similar scenario to the Hobbesian state of nature. But with time, there was the moral evolution of the masses on the one hand and the degeneration of the governments on the other (Eltzbacher, 160). To his Christian justification for destruction of the state, Tolstoy argues that, “To every honest, earnest man in our time it must be clear that true Christianity –the doctrine of humility, forgiveness, love –is incompatible with the state and its haughtiness, its deeds of violence, its capital punishments and wars (Eltzbacher, 160).” His personal experience of witnessing an act of capital punishment in Paris had a haunting effect on Tolstoy (Woodcock, 191). Tolstoy argues that the state is the rule of the bad, raised to the highest pitch, because government in the state is ‘an association of men who do violence to the rest,’ all states are necessarily violent and all men in power are wicked and selfish (Eltzbacher, 161). Though all major anarchist thinkers from Proudhon to Kropotkin realized the state’s monopoly of violence and the army as a means of perpetuating that power, quite strikingly, Tolstoy repudiates that the army is nothing else a collectivity of “disciplined murderers” and their training is “instruction in murdering” (Eltzbacher, 162).

As argued in his “The Meaning of the Russian Revolution,” Tolstoy rejects the representative government as much as any other form of government or authority. He maintains that in a representative democracy, where participation in the decision-making process is artificially increased, the centers of infection of depravity are increased and thus every voter is reduced to an object of flattery and bribery (330). Therefore, the right course for Russia is not to tread the path of Western nations, but given the conditions unique to Russian people, Russia people should alter its attitude toward power instead of submitting to it (335). In this sense, Tolstoy seems to suggest a more radical change than just a political change in the form of authority. Like Bakunin’s notion of primacy of social revolution as a necessary condition for creating an anarchistic society, Tolstoy’s argument for ‘altering attitude toward power’ seems indicate an utter revolution in the consciousness of the masses as to their view of the state. Thus, no less, Tolstoy’s complete distrust of the state is resonant with his earlier anarchist thinkers.

Another central idea of Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism is his doctrine of property. Tolstoy maintained that the state and property (private property) are interdependent (Woodcock, 193); hence, with the rejection of the state, one has to necessarily reject property. Similar to most of his predecessors, Tolstoy posits that property means the dominion of the possessors over the non-possessors (Eltzbacher, 169). In his “What Is To Be Done?” Tolstoy categorically rejects property as the root of evil. He argues that the states and governments make war for the sake of property (Horowitz, 243). In his speculation on the division of labor, Tolstoy detests the stark inequalities of value the existing social order has imposed on different kinds of labor. He rejects the injustice imposed on physical laborers by the idle and fruitless mental laborers who produce nothing useful to the society as a whole (Horowitz, 232-235). His objection against the division of labor in Western industrial countries and private property appealed to many later thinkers like Gandhi and Lenin. Gandhi, who famously made his own clothes on a khadi as an expression of his rejection of the Western industrialization, elaborated on the ills of division of labor by refuting the Western industrial capitalism, Lenin praised Tolstoy for his passionate critique of the state, the state and the private property.

Reference

Woodcock, George, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2009.

Horowitz, Irving Louis, The Anarchists, Dell Publishing Co., New Jersey, 1964. Eltzbacher, Anarchism


[1] It refers to from roughly 1880 on. He produced majority of his ideological and philosophical writings in his “third period.” His famous works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, were written while living on his hereditary family estate.

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