A Comparison of America and Europe

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A Comparison of America and Europe  (1909) 
by Leo Tolstoy
Translated and published in the February 7, 1909 New York World
Tolstoy NYW 1909.jpg

If only I had begun to preach love and brotherhood when I first began to write stories, I should have accomplished more. It was Schopenhauer and the Bible that converted me.

I am an individualist and as such believe in free play for the psychological nature of man. For this reason I am claimed by the anarchists. Even George Brandes declares that I am in philosophical harmony with the ideas of Prince Krapotkin.

The idea of communism and what it implies refers to the social conditions and it would be senseless for me to demand that every one should sleep as little as I do, eat the same food, wear the same clothes or have the same feelings which are peculiar to me. A man is not a watch. Each is a world in himself. It is therefore an illusion to believe in materialistic economy as if it were a religion. It is foolish therefore to worship the idea of socialism. I worship the soul of man, which is the only reality.

After all it does seem as if the world likes to be deceived. If we did not have our illusions we could never find the truth. Through error we come to virtue, through ignorance to knowledge, through suffering to joy.

These opinions are naturally not popular with the socialists, who therefore oppose me with bitterness. They love to spread broadcast the rumor that I am, instead a doer of the word, a mere talker.

In my preachments of love and truth I am not a partisan. I condemn both revolutionist and reactionaries. I loath the yoke of party; for I believe that all physical force is brutality.

My opposition to administrative power has been interpreted into opposition to all government. This, however, is not true. I oppose only violence and the view that might makes right.

The only government in which I believe is that which exercise a moral authority. Moses, Buddha, Christ, these are the great law-givers, the real autocrats, who ruled not by force, but by character, whose government was one of love, justice, and brotherhood.

I do not believe in a parliament as the final goal of social leadership, for instead of simplifying it only complicates human society. Parliament becomes an instrument to cheat the people in that it deceives them into thinking it truly represents them. They say, "Vox populi, vox Dei,"[1] but it is never the case; for the greatest illusions is that which supposes that society can be improved by law.

Just as I hate hereditary potentate so do I hate cheap Duma. A government which relies on iron and explosives, which executes a murderer who is so because of insanity or of poverty and which glorifies the butchery of innocent thousands is the greatest instrument for wrong, the worst of oppressors.

Now I will explain why I criticize free America as severely as I do Russia. It is because I am also tending to the rule of force. The methods may differ but the results are the same.

It is true that America does not exile one to Siberia or hang one on the gallows for protesting against the government. But nevertheless it has its lynching and, what is far worse, its judicial murders. It has its great railroad casualties by which thousands are killed by the criminal carelessness of the great corporations, and besides all this it has the exploitation of the poor by the rich.

All this proves that government can not improve the moral nature of man, and that brute force always defeats its object. There can be no coercion of the soul. Every law must have the sanction of the free will.

Where America surpasses Europe is in its personal liberty, which is the heritage of a race of heroes. But this is doomed to be extinguished by the legislatures of a time-serving generation.

The greatest indictment against any country is the presence of capital punishment -- which exists in such a form as if Christ had never been born. The judge who sentences a criminal to death is ten times more guilty himself. Oh that ideas of humanity could end this tyranny, this black hypocrisy of legal procedure under which so many crimes are committed against humanity!

Yet the root of all the evils of civilization lies in the perverted teachings miscalled Christianity. The modern church is the greatest foe of man, and the churchgoer a blind dupe.

Of course my views are extremely unpleasant to the Russian Church, and often it has plotted how to get rid of me. Many suppose that I have so far escaped imprisonment simply because of my prominence, but there may be another reason, which I am unable to explain.

I am not afraid of any punishment, and would be happy if I might share it with the many martyrs who have suffered for the truth and justice. Persecution gives freedom strength, and suffering ennobles and purifies.

Speaking of my past I condemn myself unreservedly, for all my faults and errors were the natural result of my aristocratic birth and training, which is the worst thing that can befall a man, as it stifles every human instinct. Turgeneff wrote to me: "You have tried for many years to become a peasant in conduct as well as in ideas, but you nevertheless are the same aristocrat. You are good hearted and have a charming personality, but I have observed that in all your practical dealings with the peasants you remain the patronizing master who likes to be esteemed for his benefactions and to be considered the bounteous patriarch," in which he was very right.

I am not a lover of sports and athletics, for these I consider a misuse of energy, which might do much to relieve the poor. I am greatly in sympathy with the settlement work in America, but I do not believe in institutionalized charity or in mechanical philanthropy, but only individual effort to relieve suffering.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. "The voice of the people is the voice of God"
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).