L. N. Tolstoy and the Modern Labour Movement

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The Russian workers in practically all the large cities of Russia have already made their response in connection with the death of L. N. Tolstoy and, in one way or another, expressed their attitude to the writer who produced a number of most remarkable works of art that put him in the ranks of the great writers of the world, and to the thinker who with immense power, self-confidence and sincerity raised a number of questions concerning the basic features of the modern political and social system. All in all, this attitude was expressed in the telegram, printed in the newspapers, which was sent by the labour deputies in the Third Duma.[1]

L. Tolstoy began his literary career when serfdom still existed but at a time when it had already obviously come to the end of its days. Tolstoy’s main activity falls in that period of Russian history which lies between two of its turning points, 1861 and 1905. Throughout this period traces of serfdom, direct survivals of it, permeated the whole economic (particularly in the countryside) and political life of the country. And at the same time this was a period of the accelerated growth of capitalism from below and its implantation from above.

In what were the survivals of serfdom expressed? Most of all and clearest of all in the fact that in Russia, mainly an agricultural country, agriculture at that time was in the hands of a ruined, impoverished peasantry who were working with antiquated, primitive methods on the old feudal allotments which had been cut in 1861 for the benefit of the landlords. And, on the other hand, agriculture was in the hands of the landlords who in Central Russia cultivated the land by the labour, the wooden ploughs, and the horses of the peasants in return for the “cut-off lands”, meadows, access to watering-places, etc. To all intents and purposes this was the old feudal system of economy. Throughout this period the political system of Russia was also permeated with feudalism. This is evident from the constitution of the state prior to the first moves to change it in 1905, from the predominant influence of the landed nobility on state affairs and from the unlimited power of the officials, who also for the most part—especially the higher ranks—came from the landed nobility.

After 1861 this old patriarchal Russia began rapidly to disintegrate under the influence of world capitalism. The peasants were starving, dying off, being ruined as never before, fleeing to the towns and abandoning the soil. There was a boom in the construction of railways, mills and factories, thanks to the “cheap labour” of the ruined peasants. Big finance capital was developing in Russia together with large-scale commerce and industry,

It was this rapid, painful, drastic demolition of all the old “pillars” of old Russia that was reflected in the works of Tolstoy the artist, and in the views of Tolstoy the thinker.

Tolstoy had a surpassing knowledge of rural Russia, the mode of life of the landlords and peasants. In his artistic productions he gave descriptions of this life that are numbered among the best productions of world literature. The drastic demolition of all the “old pillars” of rural Russia sharpened his attention, deepened his interest in what was going on around him, and led to a radical change in his whole world outlook. By birth and education Tolstoy belonged to the highest landed nobility in Russia—he broke with all the customary views of this environment and in his later works attacked with fierce criticism all the contemporary state, church, social and economic institutions which were based on enslavement of the masses, on their poverty, on the ruin of the peasants and the petty proprietors in general, on the coercion and hypocrisy which permeated all contemporary life from top to bottom.

Tolstoy’s criticism was not new. He said nothing that had not been said long before him both in European and in Russian literature by friends of the Working people. But the uniqueness of Tolstoy’s criticism and its historical significance lie in the fact that it expressed, with a power such as is possessed only by artists of genius, the radical change in the views of the broadest masses of the people in the Russia of this period, namely, rural, peasant Russia. For Tolstoy’s criticism of contemporary institutions differs from the criticism of the same institutions by representatives of the modern labour movement in the fact that Tolstoy’s point of view was that of the patriarchal, naïve peasant, whose psychology Tolstoy introduced into his criticism and his doctrine. Tolstoy’s criticism is marked by such emotional power, such passion, convincingness, freshness, sincerity and fearlessness in striving to “go to the roots”, to find the real cause of the afflictions of the masses, just because this criticism really expresses a sharp change in the ideas of millions of peasants, who had only just emerged from feudalism into freedom, and saw that this freedom meant new horrors of ruin, death by starvation, a homeless life among the lower strata of the city population, and so on and so forth. Tolstoy mirrored their, sentiments so faithfully that he imported their naïveté into his own doctrine, their alienation from political life, their mysticism, their desire to keep aloof from the world, “non-resistance to evil”, their impotent imprecations against capitalism and the “power of money”. The protest of millions of peasants and their desperation—these were combined, in Tolstoy’s doctrine.

The representatives of the modern labour movement find that they have plenty to protest against but nothing to despair about. Despair is typical of the classes which are perishing, but the class of wage-workers is growing inevitably, developing and becoming strong in every capitalist society, Russia included. Despair is typical of those who do not understand the causes of evil, see no way out, and are incapable of struggle. The modern industrial proletariat does not belong to the category of such classes.


  1. This refers to the telegram sent to Astapovo by the Social-Democratic deputies of the Third Duma to V. G. Chertkov, a close friend and disciple of L. N. Tolstoy: “The Social-Democratic grout in the Duma, expressing the feelings of the Russian and the whole international proletariat, deeply mourns the loss of the brilliant artist, the irreconcilable and unconquered fighter against official clericalism, the enemy of tyranny and enslavement, who loudly raised his voice against the death penalty, the friend of the persecuted.”