August 30th, 2016

Tolstoy on Communism—and a lot of other things

Leo Tolstoy lived from 1828 to 1910, and was probably just as famous for his political and religious/social beliefs as he was for his writing (maybe even more so). Tolstoy was a Titan of energy and creativity who later in life attracted many followers and hangers-on eager to surf the wave of the Great Man.

He also gave his wife quite a roller coaster ride, particularly in later life when he became a fanatic of self-denial but still was part of the landed nobility with a large estate and many dependents, a situation over which he and his wife struggled for decades. You can read about the Tolstoys’ astoundingly complex (and literary; both kept voluminous diaries) marriage—one that produced fourteen children, several novels, and lots of angst—here, here, and here.

Tolstoi began early adulthood as a pleasure-seeking aristocrat, fond of gambling and licentiousness, but still (in his very Russian way) mulling over those deeper questions of life and existence. With his marriage in his late 30s to a lovely young woman of 18, he embarked on a passage through husband- and fatherhood, and later in midlife had a serious spiritual crisis and depression from which he emerged a very changed man. From henceforth on, he considered literature that lacked a didactic spiritual massage to be garbage, and a life without self-abnegation and sacrifice and a simple faith was likewise. This is the extremely famous later-life Tolstoy whom many people revered as a near-saint, the one with whom you may be familiar from the many photos taken of him (at first I thought this one was colorized, but according to Wiki it’s the first color photo portrait ever taken in Russia):
tolstoy

Many people seem to think that Tolstoy was a man of the left, and some even blame him for influencing the Russian Communist Revolution. But he was not a statist; he could better have been described as an anarchist with a Christian bent (he is actually considered the founder of something called Christian anarchism). Is anarchy left or right? That’s an ancient and complex argument and I don’t want to mire myself in it right now. Suffice to say that anarchists are not statists; they want the state obliterated, and so did Tolstoy.

Tolstoy’s own anarchy seems to have been rooted in his personal crisis, which seems in turn to have been activated (at least in part) by his very strong sense of guilt. Here’s an excerpt from the book Married to Tolstoy (Sonya was the name of Tolstoy’s wife):

But how, without government, could civilization survive? wondered Sonya, who had no more hope than Turgenev of what he called “Christian Nihilism.”…Tolstoy must have known that there were appalling slums in Moscow, but because [during his crisis] for the first time he had been to look at them, he was so much shocked by social injustice that all of a sudden he couldn’t even bear to see his family enjoying their meals—the kind of meals at which he himself habitually ate far more than anyone else. And his personality was so strong that in his presence no one could be so little sensitive as to suffer from his disapproval, even if it remained unvoiced. Everyone developed a sense of guilt and became miserable. Why, indignantly asked Sonya, should innocent children suddenly be made to feel in disgrace for living in the way in which their father had himself been brought up? Did Leo assume that people who behaved normally were necessarily indifferent—that no one but himself was capable of compassion?

The ever-mercurial Tolstoy wasn’t always in such a bad mood, even during that period. But the self-denying strain in his personality become more marked as he got older, and disciples came to visit and at times to live with the family at the country estate where they spent most of their time. Tolstoy did not live to see the Revolution, although his wife (who outlived him by nine years) did. But he showed his prescience by writing in 1904 (also from the book Married to Tolstoy):

The greatest enemy to mankind is this Social Democracy [the Bolshevik Party]. It is preparing for new slavery. It teaches a future good without a present betterment. It promises golden streets without the bloody Gethesmane. It will regulate everything. It will destroy the individual. It will enslave him. It will make chaos out of cosmos, breed terrorism and confusion, which only brute force will be able to destroy.

I think you could safely say he was not a fan.

[NOTE: I put this post in the category “literary leftists,” a series of mine. I don’t think it fits, exactly, because I don’t think Tolstoy was a leftist. But I put it there anyway because as an anarchist he occupied a sort-of-leftist sort-of-rightist gray area. He was also a political changer, too, although not of the conventional sort.]

30 Responses to “Tolstoy on Communism—and a lot of other things”

  1. LTEC Says:

    Wanting the state obliterated is no more a political position than is wanting the elimination of earthquakes. It is a childish, impossible fantasy, like wanting to fly.

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    I cannot offer a learned opinion on Tolstoy’s literary genius but I can say that when it came to pondering how human beings govern themselves that he resided somewhere between an idiot and a fool. Anarchism is support for might makes right and the law of the jungle.

  3. Nick Says:

    Not so, GB, if you believe in the perfectibility of man (or at least the mitigation of his worst impulses). Tolstoy believed that religion could accomplish it.

  4. Artfldgr Says:

    An example of dictating salaries and outcome for communism…

    The minimum wage hike in Washington, D.C, is already devastating employment in the region and is linked to the largest loss of restaurant jobs in the last 15 years.

    Officials raised the minimum wage in July of 2015 to $10.50 per hour, up from $8.25 since 2014. The Employment Policies Institute revealed in a May report that 48 percent of District businesses had already reduced staff or cut hours to deal with the increases since 2014. In the first six months of 2016, the restaurant industry in D.C. lost roughly 1,400 jobs, a historic drop for a six-month period, according to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

  5. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Nick,

    OK, anyone who so clearly foresaw the nature of communism couldn’t fairly be labeled an idiot. But where in Christianity’s tenets does it support the idea that, here on earth, mankind is perfectible? And, Tolstoy reviewing the 1900 years since Christ should have put paid to the notion that religion could mitigate mankind’s worst impulses.

  6. Nick Says:

    Tolstoy didn’t worship Christ. He worshiped faith. He believed that simple peasant faith, stripped of all contentious dogmas, could elevate the human soul.

  7. parker Says:

    In Tolstoy’s defense, he did not have trigger warnings and safe places to assuage the slings and arrows of his personal crisis. Did he or his ever go hungry? Was he abused as a child? What real trauma did he personally experience? Cry me a river over Tolstoy’s angst to water my garden that is already saturated.

    Yes, I can be a cold hearted sob.

  8. Nick Says:

    As for his writing, it was interesting until he became a utopian. Then he lost his ability to write characters. They became templates for demonstrating his beliefs.

    It’s said that non-Russians debate “Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?”, and Russians answer “Pushkin”. Pushkin is the one who elevated the language to a work of art, the Shakespeare or Dante of Russia. I don’t know the language; I’ve only ever read English versions of their writings, and not as much of them as I wish. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote thick psychological works, but I prefer Dostoevsky because his characters are all insane. So was he. Tolstoy was a rigid ideologue. Human nature can be more easily understood by a madman than an ideologue.

  9. neo-neocon Says:

    Nick:

    I like both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but not Tolstoy’s later works—except The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which I consider a masterpiece.

    Toltoy was a genius and an eccentric, a mixture of thickness and remarkable insight. A fascinating figure, who greatly influenced (among other people) Gandhi.

  10. chuck Says:

    George Orwell, Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool.

  11. huxley Says:

    After I read Anna K and War & Peace I was in the clouds over Tolstoy. I loved the jewel-like writing and perfectly sliced chapters. I thought I had found the most brilliant writer and most admirable human being of modern times. The writer’s POV wasn’t just third-person omniscient, it was third-person God’s eye the way he cherished all his characters, even the bad ones.

    Then I read a biography of Tolstoy and discovered what a complex SOB he was, how he drove everyone around him crazy, especially his wife, and it just got worse after he became spiritual. He was far from the perfect, wonderful, wise person who I believed wrote those novels.

    Thus I have learned of all teachers since. It’s hard to be a human being. Yet value may still emerge from imperfection.

  12. parker Says:

    huxley,

    I think you have touched the truth, “It’s hard to be a human being.” I would add that being strong in heart, mind, and spirit is especially a hard row to hoe. However, there is something within me, perhaps a flaw, that makes me have no sympathy for Tolstoy’s “crisis”.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    parker:

    Tolstoy was an unusually complex man of unusual strength, both physical strength and force of personality. That’s why I used the word “Titan” in my post.

    He sometimes sounds like a self-indulgent whiner, and often seemed really cruel and fanatical to those around him in his family. He was alternately foolish and wise, but went much further with his convictions than most people would. For example, for decades, although he was of the nobility and owned the estate, he would work in the fields at physical labor on a regular basis, for hours and hours, doing really grungy work. He was an idealist who made Don Quixote look like a realist, but he also showed powerful insight at times (for example, he saw where Communism would lead). His crisis was a very deep philosophical quandary about how to live his life so that when he died he would feel as though he’d lived it right. It was a crisis he never really resolved, but he never stopped trying and he never stopped seeking. There was nothing superficial about it, that’s for sure.

  14. parker Says:

    Well neo, I am not an usually complex man. So I must ask for indulgence. I am best described as a dullard, salt of the earth man. However, I like my forefathers and mothers, to a lesser extent I still till the earth. I come from common people who produced bread for the table by the sweat soaking their backs. I am one generation from the plow. I have zero admiration for Tolstoy’s “work in the fields”. Sounds like hrc spending an hour at a soup kitchen circa 1936.

    BTW, I am not denying the fruits of his labor, such as Anna Karenina.

  15. neo-neocon Says:

    parker:

    Nothing at all like Hillary’s 1-hour soup kitchen. This was decades-long, most days, many hours, very hard labor, often shoveling manure and the like. Manual labor in the fields was pretty manual back in the 1800s in Russia.

  16. parker Says:

    I will cut you several miles of slack neo because you came of age in NYC. Shoveling manure? I have shoveled tons of manure in my youth. Dug potatoes, dug up carrots, turnips, ect. You get the idea. Been there did that, no accolades and expect none. Poor poor pitiful me for dirt under the finger nails. Gimme a break. I am not whining, and find zero empathy for Tolstoy. He was a pampered fool and also a brilliant author. Salt of the earth, no, just a pretender.

  17. IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses" Says:

    }}} anarchy left or right? That’s an ancient and complex argument and I don’t want to mire myself in it right now.

    Neither. The Statist-Anarchist axis is orthogonal to, and wholly independent of, the conventional Left-Right axis. Both operate off an independent variable from one another.

  18. Sergey Says:

    I doubt very much that Tolstoy’s teachings can be called Christian or even compatible with mainstream Christianity. At best, they can be described as ultra-liberal Protestantism, and as a historical fact in Russia they were taken as an alternative to religion as such. As teenager I met several Tolstoy’s admirers, actually leaders of the movement: they were close friends of my grandmother, in her student years devoted “tolstovka”, alike majority of young intelligent women of her generation at Women’s Supreme Courses in Moscow. One of these friends of my Granny devoted her life to publishing complete works of Tolstoy, 90 (!) tomes edition. They all were fine persons, very humble, sincere and compassionate, and terribly naive at that. The popularity of the movement was such that in Moscow in early 20th century there was a big chain of vegetarian restaurants serving Tolstoy’s followers. For all purposes, this ideology was comparable with Reformation in Germany, and Tolstoy deliberately took example from Luther and Avvakum, leader of another failed attempt of Reformation of Orthodox Christianity in 17th century. It is worth to mention that Tolstoy had decisive influence on Gandhi and all “peace movement” and other anarchist movements in the West, which were decisively leftists.

  19. Sergey Says:

    While I completely agree that Tolstoy has no sympathy to Social Democrats (later they called themselves Bolsheviks) and other Russian revolutionaries because of their acceptance of violence and statism, in modern world the main divide between Left and Right is not acceptance of statism and political violence (there are violent and statist movements among Right as well), but belief in perfectibility of humans. And by this criterion, Tolstoy was a Lefty guy.

  20. Sergey Says:

    I also want to add that Tolstoy was a fan and follower of the French philosopher Rousseau, the founding father of all leftist movements in the West.

  21. Sergey Says:

    The only place where Tolstoy’s ideas took root and were implemented in practice was, ironically enough, British Mandate Palestine in early 20th century. They were inspirational for Jewish immigrants from Russian Empire fleeing from pogroms and persecution, and I suspect that Tolstoy and Kropotkin had more influence on this Second Alia than Herzl and Jabotinsky. Another leftist idea of community and full equality by abolition of private property (and in some cases, also of family and state).

  22. Sergey Says:

    Hardly anybody was seeing Tolstoy as a near-saint, but rather as a prophet. And there certainly were something prophetic in him, with literary talent, passion, fanaticism and sincerity of convictions of really Biblical proportion.

  23. Sergey Says:

    Geoffrey Britain: I understand your sentiment, but “state” in Britain and Russia means two very different things, both in Tolstoy’s times and now, and can assert that living in Russia it is not possible for any decent person not to hate state by iron-hot hatred.

  24. Artfldgr Says:

    Tolstoy: The greatest enemy to mankind is this Social Democracy [the Bolshevik Party]. It is preparing for new slavery.

    The Atlantic: Bernie Sanders Is a Social Democrat, Not a Democratic Socialist

    Townhall: Bernie Sanders is Not a Social Democrat; He’s a Marxist

    The Globalist: Bernie Sanders Is No Socialist

    -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

    The Democratic Underground (DU): What if Hillary was a social-democrat supporting the same positions as Bernie

    Bill Moyers: Social Democracy Is 100% American

    Salon: Socialism vs. barbarism: Only social democracy can defeat the right-wing radicalism of Donald Trump

    -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

    USA dictionary: Left Wing: the liberal, socialist, or radical section of a political party or system

    Russian: Left Opposition: Trotskyism: Trotsky identified himself as an orthodox Marxist and Bolshevik-Leninist, and supported founding a vanguard party of the proletariat, proletarian internationalism, and a dictatorship of the proletariat based on working class self-emancipation and mass democracy. French Turn, Permanent revolution, Political revolution, Social revolution
    [american left follow trotsky more than Stalin, but we know stalin, we dont know trotsky, and we have no idea that what we are living under is Permanent revolution]
    note that they updated wiki to cleanse the 46 a bit

    USA dictionary: Right Wing: the conservative or reactionary section of a political party or system [note that the term reactionary has little real meaning in that the social democrats called anyone who didnt want communism, reactionary, as they considered all other systems than communism/social democracy – as reactionary status quo. So the Nazi were reactionary, despite they did not stick up for the status quo, made a new one, and were revolutioanry socialists (but not as extreme, keeping some capitalism, so they were third way/fascists/ etc]

    Russian: Right Opposition: the name given to the tendency made up of Nikolai Bukharin, Alexei Rykov, Mikhail Tomsky and their supporters within the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. It is also the name given to “right-wing” critics within the Communist movement internationally, particularly those who coalesced in the International Communist Opposition, regardless of whether they identified with Bukharin and Rykov. the designation “Right Opposition” refers to the position of this movement relative to the other Communist movements on the traditional spectrum. Relative to contemporary political centrism, the Right Opposition is still very firmly on the Left

    [edited for length by n-n]

  25. Artfldgr Says:

    Geoffrey Britain Says: August 30th, 2016 at 3:32 pm Anarchism is support for might makes right and the law of the jungle.

    i would agree except that, is in theoretical terms.. and in real life, real application, anarchy is what you give the people so they tear up their own homes, and lives and work and society…

    so that you can step in and calm the seas, fix the issue, calm the people, and be the new power.

    and when people side with these things, you believe they side with the actual theory, when they are siding with a means to an end they really side with.

    anarchy means the destruction of a current system
    it does not (in real life) mean that once that is destryed, dysfunctional, and so on… we all go to live in little hamlets and towns without regard..

    becasue through anarchy (generated by permanent revolution) either an internal force will seize power it could not under anarchy (war communism), or an external force, chooses that time to wage full war on a defunct state that cant protect itself (communist)

    the reason this is all communist is that civil war wont happen without their doing the things to each other and setting us all in opposition with a scape goat… (the scape goat has to include jews as a subset as under marx they invented capitalism and that wont end as long as they live – ergo shoa, democide of western male caucasians, etc). this facilitates either internal take over, or external take over. and other than islam, communism is the only thing that has been making wars and blaming others… (even more so if they decide not to wait for war and try to nip things as they start or when small).

    the other reason communist is that this is the point of the daliectical reason of hegel… the thesis and anti-thesis combined to make a new synthesis, which they make sure is communist… so over time, through this process, everything is made communist, and its organizational structure is soviet (council delegated power to act)…

    whee…
    even pol sci courses change this narrative

  26. huxley Says:

    Sergey: Thanks for comments. I hope you post more.

  27. Sharon W Says:

    I’ve only read one book by Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, and thought the writing was brilliant. It has always stood out in my mind that it covered the subject of passion and adultery without any “x-rated” depictions in writing. There is something about things being left to the imagination that, in general, we in our present times no longer can fathom. Also, it was interesting to read of the proscribed obligations of family visitors (long visits demanding hospitality) as well as the time of day an evening started for the aristocrat (late!) The book that resonates in my mind when it comes to the destruction of the political realm one lives in, is Dr. Zhivago. I wish it was required reading for every American. The thin line between the life we are accustomed to and what can happen so quickly because of upheaval is well-represented. The day I can’t go to Home Depot for a defense against pestilence (bugs & rats) is the day life changes immensely. (Dr. Zhivago was down to 1 room; the rats having taken over the house.) All that needs to happen is our electric grid goes down for an extended period of time…and in no time, we’re there.

  28. Sharon W Says:

    Yes, Sergey. Your comments were very insightful!

  29. neo-neocon Says:

    Sergey:

    Gandhi also specifically credited Tolstoy for inspiring his non-violent resistance policy in the fight for Indian independence. See this.

  30. Ymarsakar Says:

    Divine inspiration may have given Tolstoy the ability to see evil for what it was and what it would produce, before the fruits manifested, but Tolstoy was trying to perfect humans using a fundamentally flawed model.

    Humans, in this mortal body, cannot be perfected. That stage is for the soul, and since people still have no ability to manipulate the soul for they cannot detect spirits or those entities on another dimension, it’s rather hard to try to get people to live like the Pilgrims lived, in this Christian socialist paradise.

    Which doesn’t work for mortal humans. It may work if we all die and go to a spirit community as souls… but that hasn’t happened yet.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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