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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

From The Vegetarian (London), November 11, 1897:

Count Tolstoi's Socialism

There is a freshness about modern Russian literature that acts like a bracing tonic on the minds of readers who have hitherto relied for their mental pabulum chiefly on the weak present-day fiction of England or the grosser productions of contemporary France. With what strength and purity, with what fearlessness does Count Tolstoi go to the heart of social questions, in his work, "What must we do then?" He is no respecter of persons or of things. There is an almost boyish audacity in his critical survey of modern thought, which in all its phases he weighs in the balance and finds wanting; Malthus with his sham "Law of Population," and even Darwin he dismisses with haughty contempt.

Tolstoi's Socialism is part and parcel of his religion, and his religion he ac-quired after a long and painful series of struggles. He has veritably been a seeker after God. In a series of works entitled "My Religion," "Life," and "My Confession," he records the process by which, after throwing away, in common with the majority of the educated youth of Russia, the Prevalent form of Christianity, and after passing through that stage of sceptic-ism (more or less approaching Atheism) in which most of his Countrymen of the upper classes remain all their lives, he at last worked .out for himself a kind of religion which many may deny to be Christianity, but which approaches nearly to the spirit of Jesus than a great deal which goes by that name.

In his work, "What must we do then ?" Count Tolstoi takes for his text the words of John the Baptist, when the people who came to be baptised, asked him, "What shall we do then ? " He answered unto them, "He that bath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none and he that bath meat, let him do likewise." He holds literally that no man ought to have two coats or more food than he requires, as long as there are nay who want these things.

He relates that in 1881, after having passed the greater part of his life in the country, he came to reside in Moscow, where he was immediately struck with the extreme state of pauperism existing in that city. In order to come into contact with the poor and find out how they might be relieved, he got himself appointed on of the officers for the census, which was about to be taken in Moscow, and took care that the most poverty stricken district should be assigned to him. He tried to interest his friends in his project, but met with very indifferent success. Everyone to whom he mentioned it pretended to be greatly interested and to sympathise very much personally, but only regretted that other people were so indifferent that it was to be feared that little could be done. He says, "When we talked the matter over I noticed that they were shy of looking me straight in the face, as one often hesitates to look into the face of a good-natured man who is talking nonsense."

Count Tolstoi, however, was forced to acknowledge in the end that his friends were right and that he was wrong. His friends knew beforehand that no permanent good could come of sprinkling a little money among the Moscow poor. They knew that as long as the rich live as they do there must and will be poor. The Count wished if possible to continue his luxurious mode of life, but his conscience stung him at the contrast between his own mode and that of the poor. He hoped that he and his rich friends might, by giving money, permanently relieve the sordid poverty of the Russian capital, and that then, with easy consciences they might continue their idle life. But he found that the existence of the rich is really the cause of poverty, and that, as he expresses it, all that is really required by the poor is that the rich should get off their backs. If the rich will not do this, all other attempts at relieving the poverty they cause are idle. He found too that it is really the rich who corrupt the poor. The poor are worst in large towns, where they are in contact with the rich, and acquire their vices of idleness and improvidence. They come from the country into towns, because they hear that in the towns money is plentiful and it is easey to live by all sorts of shifts without working. Although the rich are accustomed to blame the improvidence of the poor and to regard themselves as possessed of all the virtues, it is evident that at the bottom they are ashamed of themselves. One of the reasons why so many rich people gather together in towns is that they are ashamed to display their luxurious mode of life to the peasants in the country.

"Luxury in the country," says Count Tolstoi, "is disageeable to a man who has a conscience and is an anxiety to a timid person. One feels uneasy or ashamed at taking a milk bath when there are children close by needing it ; one feels the same in building pavillions and gardens among a people who live in cottages covered with stable litter and who have no wood to burn. There is no one in the village to prevent the stupid, uneducated peasant from spoiling our comfort." Therefore the timid or conscience-troubled rich man goes to the town, where he is encouraged by the example of numerous other rich men, who live as luxuriously as he, and where his relations with the poor being less direct and personal than in the country, he is less troubled by the contrast between his mode of life and theirs. The poor are practically the slaves of the rich, and the rod by which the slaves are driven is the rouble. Tolstoi remarks that "our peasants have long known that you can hurt more with a rouble than with a stick," and it is only the political economists who will not see this. To them money is simply the inoffensive "medium of exchange." To Tolstoi it is the instrument by which the masses are kept enslaved, in spite of all Acts of Emancipation, which seem indeed to have been passed in mockery.

In many respects the peasants of Russia are worse off now than they were before their so-called emancipation in 1861. Formerly they were flogged by their masters, who were however, responsible for their treatment, could not work them to death without being called to account. Now that they have risen to the proud dignity of freemen, nobody is responsible for them ; only if they are unable to pay their taxes, as they generally are unable, they are flogged by the tax-collectors. Stepniak gives an instance of as many as five hundred being flogged in one batch, while there were a thousand waiting to be flogged later on. That is enough to show the farce of the pretended emancipation of the serfs, for which the Czar Alexander II obtained som much undeserved credit.

In all the ages the poor have practically been the slaves of the rich, and it is only a matter of detail whether the condition of the masses is legally recognised as slavery or not. Aristotle was of opinion that society could not exist without slavery, and we can hardly be said to have proved the contrary even yet.

Often the condition of the slaves is preferable when they are legally recognised as such. Henry George relates that in the time of the anti-slavery agitation in America, one of the abolitionist lecturers, who was on a lecturing tour in Great Britain, went to Glasgow, and there after giving a moving account of the condition of the slaves in America, finished up as usual by quoting the rations on which a slave was expected to subsist. He soon found, says Henry George, that this had all the effect of an ant-climax on his audience.

The rod by which the monied classes drive their nominally free slaves is hunger, and the agency by which it is applied is money. As a striking instance of the way in which men have been enslaved in recent times, by the introduction of money among them, Count Tolstoi cites the case of the Fiji islanders. In 1859 the United States Government, under pretence of injuries inflicted upon some of their citizens by Fijians, demanded a large sum of money as compensation. If the Americans had adopted the old plan of violently seizing the inhabitants ad selling them as slaves, all the world would have been shocked. But they simply asked for money and the Fijians had to pay ti somehow. Of course that is not violence, it is the freedom of contract, but the effect is the same. To procure money the unfortunate natives had to sell their land and their labour and were practically reduced to the condition of slaves of the European, Australian and American settlers. The use of money is a cloak for the perpetration of violence. By demanding money without the use of actual force one man can oblige another to work for him, or one nation can enslave another.

Count Tolstoi's remedy is that each man should work for himself, and should cease to be a parasite upon others. Carlyle seems to have meant the same thing, but Tolstoi says plainly what Carlyle expressed in vaguer and more grandiloquent language. No one can misunderstand Tolsoi. He has no notion of the possibility of doing good with wealth ; the idea of making a good use of wealth is to him much like the notion entertained by many defenders of slavery, that if you were a humane slave holder you could do a great deal of good to the slaves. Great wealth in private hands is simply a power to make people work the possessor, to the extent that wealth, and no possible good he can do them can compensate them for the loss of their freedom. Besides, even supposing that millionaires could do any good with their wealth, which could not be much better done by the community as a whole, there is no security under the present system of competition that wealth will fall into the hands of those who are likely to make the best use of it. Indeed the chances are that it will not. Benevolent and philanthropic people (notwithstanding some notable exceptions) are not generally the people who make large fortunes.

There is a complete absence of any suggestion of violence in Count Tolstoi's writings, wherein he differs from many socialists. As an example of the power of non-resistance combined with fearlessness, he quotes the case of the famous Maclay, "who lived among the most bloodthirsty of savages. They did not kill him, they reverenced him and followed his teachings, simply because he did not fear them and treated them always with kindness." The true church he considers to consist of those who follow the commands of Jesus as regards non-resistance to the full extreme ; and he believes that in the end they will prevail, according to the words of Jesus, "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kngdom."