L. N. Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy is dead. His universal significance as an Artist and his universal fame as a thinker and preacher reflect, each in its own way, the universal significance of the Russian revolution.

L. N. Tolstoy emerged as a great artist when serfdom still held sway in the land. In a series of great works, which he produced during the more than half a century of his literary activity, he depicted mainly the old, pre-revolutionary Russia which remained in a state of semi-serfdom even after 1861—rural Russia of the landlord and the peasant. In depicting this period in Russia’s history, Tolstoy succeeded in raising so many great problems and succeeded in rising to such heights of artistic power that his works rank among the greatest in world literature. The epoch of preparation for revolution in one of the countries under the heel of the serf-owners became, thanks to its brilliant illumination by Tolstoy, a step forward in the artistic development of humanity as a whole.

Tolstoy the artist is known to an infinitesimal minority even in Russia. If his great works are really to be made the possession of all, a struggle must be waged against the system of society which condemns millions and scores, of mil lions to ignorance, benightedness, drudgery and poverty—a socialist revolution must be accomplished.

Tolstoy not only produced artistic works which will always be appreciated and read by the masses, once they have created human conditions of life for themselves after over throwing the yoke of the landlords and capitalists; he succeeded in conveying with remarkable force the moods of the large masses that are oppressed by the present system, in depicting their condition and expressing their spontaneous feelings of protest and anger. Belonging, as he did, primarily to the era of 1861–1904, Tolstoy in his works—both as an artist and as a thinker and preacher—embodied in amazingly bold relief the specific historical features of the entire first Russian revolution, its strength and its weakness.

One of the principal distinguishing features of our revolution is that it was a peasant bourgeois revolution in the era of the very advanced development of capitalism throughout the world and of its comparatively advanced development in Russia. It was a bourgeois revolution because its immediate aim was to overthrow the tsarist autocracy, the tsarist monarchy, and to abolish landlordism, but not to overthrow the domination of the bourgeoisie. The peasantry in particular was not aware of the latter aim, it was not aware of the distinction between this aim and the closer and more immediate aims of the struggle. It was a peasant bourgeois revolution because the objective conditions put in the forefront the problem of changing the basic conditions of life for the peasantry, of breaking up the old, medieval system of land ownership, of “clearing the ground” for capitalism; the objective conditions were responsible for the appearance of the peasant masses on the arena of more or less independent historic action.

Tolstoy’s works express both the strength and the weakness, the might and the limitations, precisely of the peasant mass movement. His heated, passionate, and often ruthlessly sharp protest against the state and the official church that was in alliance with the police conveys the sentiments of the primitive peasant democratic masses, among whom centuries of serfdom, of official tyranny and robbery, and of church Jesuitism, deception and chicanery had piled up mountains of anger and hatred. His unbending opposition to private property in land conveys the psychology of the peasant masses during that historical period in which the old, medieval landownership, both in the form of landed estates and in the form of state “allotments”, definitely became an intolerable obstacle to the further development of the country, and when this old landownership was inevitably bound to be destroyed most summarily and ruthlessly. His unremitting accusations against capitalism—accusations permeated with most profound emotion and most ardent indignation—convey all the horror felt by the patriarchal peasant at the advent of the new, invisible, incomprehensible enemy coming from somewhere in the cities, or from somewhere abroad, destroying all the “pillars” of rural life, bringing in its train unprecedented ruin, poverty, starvation,, savagery, prostitution, syphilis—all the calamities attending the, “epoch of primitive accumulation”, aggravated a hundredfold by the transplantation into Russian soil of the most modern methods of plunder elaborated by the all powerful Monsieur Coupon.[1]

But the vehement protestant, the passionate accuser, the great critic at the same time manifested in his works a failure to understand the causes of the crisis threatening Russia, and the means of escape from it, that was characteristic only of a patriarchal, naive peasant, but not of a writer with a European education. His struggle against the feudal police state, against the monarchy turned into a repudiation of politics, led to the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil”, and to complete aloofness from the revolutionary struggle of the masses in 1905–07. The fight against the official church was combined with the preaching of a new, purified religion, that is to say, of a new, refined, subtle poison for the oppressed masses. The opposition to private property in land did not lead to concentrating the struggle against the real enemy—landlordism and its political instrument of power, i.e., the monarchy—but led to dreamy, diffuse and impotent lamentations. The exposure of capitalism and of the calamities it inflicts on the masses was combined with a wholly apathetic attitude to the world-wide struggle for emancipation waged by the international socialist proletariat.

The contradictions in Tolstoy’s views are not contradictions inherent in his personal views alone, but are a reflection of the extremely complex, contradictory conditions, social influences and historical traditions which determined the psychology of various classes and various sections of Russian society in the post-Reform, but pre-revolutionary era.

That is why a correct appraisal of Tolstoy can be made only from the viewpoint of the class Which has proved, by its political role and its struggle during the first denouement of these contradictions, at a time of revolution, that it is destined to be the leader in the struggle for the people’s liberty and for the emancipation of the masses from exploitation—the class which has proved its selfless devotion to the cause of democracy and its ability to fight against the limitations and inconsistency of bourgeois (including peasant) democracy; such an appraisal is possible only from the viewpoint of the Social-Democratic proletariat.

Look at the estimate of Tolstoy in the government newspapers. They shed crocodile tears, professing their respect for “the great writer” and at the same time defending the “Holy” Synod. As for the holy fathers, they have just perpetrated a particularly vile iniquity; they sent priests to the dying man in order to hoodwink the people and say that Tolstoy had “repented”. The Holy Synod excommunicated Tolstoy. So much the better. It will be reminded of this exploit when the hour comes for the people to settle accounts with the officials in cassocks, the gendarmes in Christ, the sinister inquisitors who supported anti-Jewish pogroms and other exploits of the Black-Hundred tsarist gang.

Look at the estimate of Tolstoy in the liberal newspapers. They confine themselves to those hollow, official-liberal, hackneyed professorial phrases about the “voice of civilised mankind”, “the unanimous response of the world”, the “ideas of truth, good”, etc., for which Tolstoy so castigated—and justly castigated—bourgeois science. They cannot voice plainly and clearly their opinion of Tolstoy’s views on the state, the church, private property in land, capitalism—not because they are prevented by the censorship: on the contrary, the censorship is helping them out of an embarrassing position!—but because each proposition in Tolstoy’s criticism is a slap in the face of bourgeois liberalism; because the very way in which Tolstoy fearlessly, frankly and ruthlessly poses the sorest and most vexatious problems of our day is a rebuff to the commonplace phrases, trite quirks and evasive, “civilised” falsehoods of our liberal (and liberal-Narodnik) publicists. The liberals are all for Tolstoy, they are all against the Synod—and, at the same time, they are for ... the Vekhists, with whom “it is possible to disagree”, but with whom it is “necessary” to live in harmony in one party, with whom it is “necessary” to work together in literature and politics. And yet the Vekhists are greeted with kisses by Anthony, Bishop of Volhynia.

The liberals put in the forefront that Tolstoy is “the great conscience”. Is not this a hollow phrase which is repeated in a thousand variations both by Novoye Vremya and by all such newspapers? Is this not an evasion of the concrete problems of democracy and socialism which Tolstoy posed? Is this not to put in the forefront the feature that expresses Tolstoy’s prejudice, not his intellect, the part of him that belongs to the past and not to the future, his repudiation of politics and his preaching of moral self-perfection, but not his vehement protest against all class domination?

Tolstoy is dead, and the pre-revolutionary Russia whose weakness and impotence found their expression in the philosophy and are depicted in the works of the great artist, has become a thing of the past. But the heritage which he has left includes that which has not become a thing of the past, but belongs to the future. This heritage is accepted and is being worked upon by the Russian proletariat. The Russian proletariat will explain to the masses of the toilers and the exploited the meaning of Tolstoy’s criticism of the state, the church, private property in land—not in order that the masses should confine themselves to self-perfection and yearning for a godly life, but in order that they should rise to strike a new blow at the tsarist monarchy and landlordism, which were but slightly damaged in 1905, and which must be destroyed. The Russian proletariat will explain to the masses Tolstoy’s criticism of capitalism—not in order that the masses should confine themselves to hurling imprecations at capital and the rule of money, but in order that they should learn to utilise at every step in their life and in their struggle the technical and social achievements of capitalism, that they should learn to weld themselves into a united army of millions of socialist fighters who will over throw capitalism and create a new society in which the, people will not be doomed to poverty, in which there will be no exploitation of man by man.

  1. ↑ M Coupon”—a metaphorical name of capital or capitalists in the literature of the eighties and nineties of the last century. It was first used by Gleb Uspensky in his sketches “Grievous Sins” (Russkaya Mysl, 1888, Book XII).