On Tolstoy's Death

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Author(s) Leon Trotsky
Written 20 November 1910

[Leon Trotsky on Literature and Art, New York ²1972, p. 143-147]
Keywords : Leo Tolstoy, Obituary

For several weeks now the thoughts and feelings of literate and thinking people throughout the world have been concentrated, first, on the name and image of Tolstoy and, afterwards, on his grave and ashes. His decision — in the face of imminent death — to break with his family and the conditions into which he had been born and in which he had matured and grown old; his flight from his ancient home — to disappear among the people, among the gray, anonymous millions; his death in the view of the whole world — all this gave rise not only to a powerful surge of sympathy, love, and respect for the great old man in every unreconciled heart; it also aroused an intangible anxiety in the ironclad consciousness of those who are the maintainers of today's social structure. Something is wrong, it seems, with their sacrosanct property, their state authority, their church, and their family structure if the eighty-three-year-old Tolstoy could stand it no longer and, in his final days, became a fugitive from all this illustrious "culture."

More than thirty years ago, when he was already a man of fifty, Tolstoy, in the torments of conscience, broke with the faith and traditions of his fathers and created his own, Tolstoyan, faith. He then propagated it in moral-philosophical works, in his voluminous correspondence, and in the literary works of his last period (e.g., Resurrection).

Tolstoy's teaching is not our teaching. He proclaimed nonresistance to evil. He saw the chief motive power not in social conditions but in the soul of man. He believed that it was possible to eradicate evil by moral example, to disarm despotism by arguments of love. He wrote remonstrative letters to Alexander III and Nicholas II — as though the root of violence lay in the conscience of the oppressor, and not in the social conditions that give rise to it and nurture it. Organically, the proletariat cannot accept this teaching. For with every surge toward the ideal of moral rebirth — toward knowledge, toward the light, toward "resurrection" — the worker feels the cast-iron shackles of social slavery on his hands and feet, and he cannot be delivered from these shackles by inner striving; he must smash them and cast them off. In contrast to Tolstoy, we say and teach: the organized violence of the minority can be destroyed only through the organized revolt and insurrection of the majority.

Tolstoy's faith is not our faith.

After he had discarded the ritualistic side of Orthodoxy — baptism, anointing with oil, the swallowing of bread and wine, prayerful incantations, all this crude sorcery of churchly worship — Tolstoy stayed the knife of his criticism before the idea of God as the inspirer of love, father of all people, and creator and master of the world. We go further than Tolstoy. As the basis of the universe and of life we know and acknowledge only primeval matter, obedient to its own internal laws; in human society, as well as in the individual human being, we see only a particle of the universe, subject to general laws. And just as we do not want any kind of crowned sovereign over our bodies, we do not recognize any kind of divine master over our souls.

Nevertheless — despite this profound distinction — there is a deep moral affinity between the beliefs of Tolstoy and the teachings of socialism: in the honesty and fearlessness of their renunciation of oppression and slavery and in their indomitable striving for the brotherhood of man.

Tolstoy did not consider himself a revolutionary and was not one. But he passionately sought the truth and, having found it, was not afraid to proclaim it Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary conclusions in the consciousness of the masses. Everything that Tolstoy stated publicly: about the senselessness of rule by the czar, about the criminality of military service, about the dishonesty of landed property, about the lies of the church — in thousands of ways all this seeped into the minds of the laboring masses, agitated millions in the populist sects. And the word became deed. Although not a revolutionary, Tolstoy nurtured the revolutionary element with his words of genius. In the book about the great storm of 1905 an honorable chapter will be dedicated to Tolstoy.

Tolstoy did not consider himself a socialist and was not one. But in the search for truth in the relations between man and man, he did not hesitate to reject the idols of autocracy and orthodoxy — he went further and, to the great perturbation of the propertied classes, he pronounced an anathema on those social relations which doom one man to carry off the dung of another.

Those of property, especially the liberals, slavishly flocked around him, praised him to the skies, hushed up what was said against him — tried to flatter his spirit, to drown his thought in glory. But he did not yield. And no matter how sincere are the tears that liberal society sheds on the grave of Tolstoy, we have the indisputable right to say: liberalism does not answer Tolstoy's questions; liberalism cannot absorb Tolstoy; it is helpless before him, "Culture? Progress? Industry?" says Tolstoy to the liberals. "The devil take your progress and your industry if my sisters must sell their bodies on the sidewalks of your cities!"

Tolstoy did not know or show the way out of the hell of bourgeois culture. But with irresistible force he posed the' question that only scientific socialism can answer. And in this vein one might say that everything in Tolstoy's teaching that is lasting and permanent flows into socialism as naturally as a river into the ocean.

Because Tolstoy served the cause of human emancipation with his life, his death resounded throughout the country like a reminder of the revolutionary legacy — a reminder and a summons. And this summons met with an unexpectedly rousing response.

In Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov, and Tomsk, student funeral observances for Tolstoy took on the character of political rallies, and the rallies spilled out onto the streets as stormy demonstrations under the slogans "Down with capital punishment!" and "Down with the priests!" And as in the good old days, the doleful figures of liberal professors and deputies emerged from the gateways before the aroused student body, and they timidly waved their hands at the students and summoned them to "tranquility" And as in the good old days, the sensible-conciliatory liberal was shoved aside; the newly revolutionary student began to disturb the peace of the Stolypin cemetery; the constitutional Cossacks displayed their prowess on the heads and backs of students; and scenes in the spirit of 1901 were played out on the streets of both capitals.

But on the horizon the shape of another, incomparably more menacing figure appeared. The workers' ranks in the plants, factories, and print shops of Petersburg, Moscow, and other cities immediately sent telegrams of sympathy, initiated a "Tolstoy Fund," passed resolutions, went out on strike in memory of Tolstoy, demanded initiation by the Social-Democratic fraction in the Duma of legislation abolishing capital punishment, and even took to the streets with this slogan. In the workers' districts there was an air of tension and alarm that was not to be smoothed over quickly.

Such is the interconnection of ideas and events, which Tolstoy, evidently, did not foresee on his deathbed. Hardly had the man who had cast the unforgettable "I cannot be silent!" in the teeth of triumphant counterrevolution closed his eyes forever than revolutionary democracy awoke from slumber: the student light cavalry has already had its baptism of fire — and the heavy reserves of the proletariat, which goes into action more slowly, is getting ready, on the morrow, to dissolve the protest against capital punishment in the midst of banners with the glorious slogans of the revolution, invincible, like truth.