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Tolstoy and Anarchism
by Cardinal Cox


Write Dope on Pnuk part 81

(Originally written for film notes for a screening of The Last Station)

Count Leo Tolstoy was a product of unusual circumstances, his childhood, though marked by him becoming an orphan at an early age, included an education that taught him to be polite to the servants. After the dissolute experiences of being a student and the pleasures of Moscow before, in 1851, joining an artillery regiment on the Caucasus. Here he was stationed in a Cossack village and he was impressed by the way the peasant community regulated its own affairs. During the Crimean War Tolstoy was given command of a battery in the defence of Sevastopol.

Leaving the Army in 1856 he travelled, including to Western Europe and in Paris saw the public execution by guillotine of a murderer. Returning home his aim became the improvement of the estate and the lives of the serfs. He opened a school for the estate’s children in 1859 and embraced the same radical ideas about education that had also influenced Robert Owen in Britain. The children did not have a set syllabus, instead the staff were to help the pupils discover whatever the pupils wanted to learn.

On a second tour of Western Europe in 1860 Tolstoy met Charles Dickens and, in Brussels, the French Anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon had, at that time, just finished his work on armed conflict between nations, titled War and Peace.

Back in Russia on his estate Tolstoy was appointed an Arbiter of the Peace, a post intended to settle disputes by the now-liberated serfs and their former masters. This experience left Tolstoy with distaste for litigation and the law.

After his books War and Peace (1869, the title deliberately borrowed from Proudhon) and Anna Karenina (1882) Tolstoy suffered a crisis that could only be overcome by a highly individual interpretation of the Gospels. This he spread by a series of pamphlets published through the 1880s and 1890s. In his reading of the Gospels he came to believe that Jesus was not the divine Son of God but a moral teacher, that there was no afterlife, but that we should strive to make Heaven on Earth. Tolstoy now delivered five commandments.

  1. Don’t get angry but live at peace.
  2. Don’t indulge sexual desires (Tolstoy found this particularly difficult).
  3. Don’t give oaths to anyone.
  4. Don’t resist evil, don’t judge, and don’t go to law.
  5. Make no distinction of nationality, but love foreigners as your own countrymen.

The fourth commandment led Tolstoy to develop the tactic of non-resistance. Necessary as Tolstoy now regarded Governments and all their institutions (army, police, laws, etc.) as immoral. This all became consolidated in his book of 1894; The Kingdom of God Is Within You. The money he earned from the next novel, Resurrection (1899) was given to help a persecuted sect, the Dukhobors, migrate to Canada. In 1901 the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him.

It was around this time that Tolstoy could see his own relationship to other Anarchists but he could also see that his anti-Government and Pacifist stance had differences to those of his fellow Russians Kropotkin and Bakunin. It is his stance that has led to some calling Tolstoy the Conscience of Anarchism. One of the last things that Tolstoy did before he died (in 1910) was to write to Gandhi, who had been profoundly influenced by reading The Kingdom of God Is Within You, and was later to make non-violent resistance a major part of his own philosophy.

During his life he had inspired communities across Russia to follow his teachings, after his death they also started to spring up in Western Europe, including Britain. In America the Catholic Worker (founded 1933) also combined Christian Pacifism with Anarchism. Some of the attitudes of the nineteen-sixties counter-culture could also be said to have inherited something of Tolstoy’s views.


© All work copyright of Cardinal Cox.

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