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Leo Tolstoy Against the State

This past May, I posted a shorter essay about Leo Tolstoy and non-resistance. I wrote a longer paper on the topic (using the previous essay as its basis) and now wish to share it with you in full. Tomorrow I’ll post an excerpt from Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You that I find particularly compelling. It may be difficult for us to hear the challenge of Tolstoy to today’s world of violence, but even if we do not take a pure pacifist stance it is a message worth taking to heart. May we never think that a few more people dying will make our living better, may we never believe violence is the answer to the world’s problems.

image Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. War and Peace and Anna Karenina have inspired millions over the last century. Less well-known about Tolstoy, though, is that his interpretation of Christian ethics has had a profound effect upon the world, especially regarding non-resistance and pacifism. In this paper, I will examine the development of these themes in Tolstoy’s philosophy as they appear in The Kingdom of God is Within You.

Leo Tolstoy was born in 1838 into an aristocratic family. He was the son of Count Nicholas Ilich Tolstoy and Princess Marya Nikolayevna Volkonsky, whose marriage was one of negotiation and convenience. Social class meant everything in eighteenth-century Russia, and the Tolstoys were part of the upper echelon of power. Leo’s ancestry included generals, diplomats, and ministers of the Tsarist rulers. Thus, Tolstoy enjoyed the privileges of the high class, such as the ability to attend university. As a young man, he lived a profligate and wild life while attending the University of Kazan, struggling to find a purpose in his life. He decided to join the military and went to war. Seeing the grim reality of war motivated him to write, and he achieved some early success in his publications while on the front. He finally married at age 34 and settled down to begin the major portion of his literary career. He also began to re-explore religion and came to a realization about God, the church, the state, and self. It was during this time that he reflected upon the writings of anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and saw that non-resistance was the only means of lasting change to be found.

In 1884, Tolstoy expounded upon his beliefs in What I Believe, and this work was promptly banned in Russia for its negative imagery of the state and the Russian church. However, it was read widely outside of Russia and garnered much attention, especially by those advocating non-violence in other countries, such as the Quakers in America. Despite the ban, Russian secular and religious intellectuals circulated copies and began attacking Tolstoy’s ideas. In 1894, Tolstoy published The Kingdom of God is Within You, which is a further explanation of his beliefs and a response to his opponents. He writes in Kingdom of the newfound criticism: “These [criticisms of What I Believe] the government tolerated, and even encouraged. So that the refutation of a book which no one was supposed to know anything about was even chosen as the subject for theological dissertations in the academies.” (30) Of course, any work that criticizes the status quo tends to stir such desperate measures.

Tolstoy’s Russia was a country dominated by an elite class of aristocrats, government bureaucrats, military “heroes,” and religious officials. The peasant class was bitterly oppressed through legal maneuvering, taxation, conscription, and a church that legitimized the oppression. An unholy alliance of church and state provided the pretense to keep the peasants from improving their condition. I believe this led Tolstoy away from a traditional creedal Christianity, which to him emphasized conformity, status quo, and doctrines that few people actually believed. Tolstoy viewed the church-state alliance as a complete aberration and perversion of true Christianity for the purpose of keeping the elite in power and the poor supplying their material well-being. He even rejected (though not consistently) the notion of private property, at least as it existed enforced by the state at that time. In contrast, Tolstoy’s conception of Christianity took the words of Jesus with utmost seriousness, elevating the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount as the supreme good.

Tolstoy abhorred violence of any kind. In particular, he viewed the state and its wars as the chief enemies of peace. While normal men interact on a peaceful level the overwhelming majority of the time, war very quickly brings peace and prosperity to ruin:

“Warriors are the scourge of the world. We struggle against nature and ignorance and obstacles of all kinds to make our wretched life less hard. Learned men – benefactors of all – spend their lives in working, in seeking what can aid, what be of use, what can alleviate the lot of their fellows. They devote themselves unsparingly to their task of usefulness, making one discovery after another, enlarging the sphere of human intelligence, extending the bounds of science, adding each day some new store to the sum of knowledge, gaining each day prosperity, ease, strength for their country. War breaks out. In six months the generals have destroyed the work of twenty years of effort, of patience, and of genius. That is what is meant by not falling into the most hideous materialism.” (152)

Tolstoy saw through the veneer of goodness the state wears, with its promises of protection, order, and justice, for what the state really is: organized, institutionalized violence. By its very nature, government cannot reduce violence whatsoever. Tolstoy writes, “Government authority, even if it does suppress private violence, always introduces into the life of men fresh forms of violence, which tend to become greater and greater in proportion to the duration and strength of the government.” (170) Government appears on its face to have some semblance of voluntary nature, but this is a façade since everything a government is capable of doing is only possible because of coercion. “All state obligations, payment of taxes, fulfillment of state duties, and submission to punishments, exiles, fines, etc., to which people appear to submit voluntarily, are always based on bodily violence or the threat of it.” (166)

Yet people accept statism as inevitable, even as right and good, despite the oppression and murder the state perpetrates. In Tolstoy’s words, men know that murder is wrong but are assured by their supposed betters in state offices that what they do is moral, just, and good. They see this inconsistency but believe it is their ignorance that prevents them from understanding the contradiction. “The very grossness and obviousness of the inconsistency confirms them in this conviction.” (304)

Thus, men have become deluded by the state into submission, especially with regards to the use of force. Everyone is under “the condition of the hypnotized,” and like a hypnotized person they will feel and act as they are commanded. The state influences the people such that they lose the power of criticizing state actions, and therefore they follow wherever the state leads them either by example, precept, or suggestion.

How shall mankind overcome the leviathan state? Tolstoy’s answer was Christianity, the absolute dependence upon and practice of the teachings of Christ. Tolstoy derived his ethical principles primarily from the Sermon on the Mount. To him, Christianity was not a mystic religion but a “new theory of life” (hence the subtitle of The Kingdom of God is Within You). Jesus ushered in the new divine theory of life, which “recognizes life not in his own individuality, and not in societies of individualities, but in the eternal undying source of life – in God; and to fulfill the will of God he is ready to sacrifice his individual and family and social welfare.”

The state uses force to push its agenda forward, but must a Christian respond in kind to improve his own situation or bring Christianity to others? Tolstoy appeals to Matthew 5:39, “Resist not an evil person,” as the pinnacle of Jesus’ teachings and as the ultimate means of opposing violence. He treats Jesus’ words not as a theoretical proposition to be pondered and somewhat assented to, but as a realistic, actionable command. Indeed, every person must decide how to respond when he is attacked: “People often think the question of non-resistance to evil by force is a theoretical one, which can be neglected. Yet this question is presented by life itself to all men, and calls for some answer from every thinking man.” (186)

The Christian life, to him, was a progression toward divine perfection, and is characterized by a life of loving others. This love drives us not only to love those that love us, but to love our enemies even to the point of practicing pacifism towards aggression, especially that of the state. He reasons there is no other way of interpreting Jesus and acting otherwise is contrary to the Gospel message. Thus, the Christian cannot use the tools of the state at all. To Tolstoy, the statist theory of life, emphasizing aggression for the purpose of order, was irreconcilable with the Christian life. The state never has been and never could be the Kingdom of God, in fact the Kingdom of God makes government irrelevant. “No honest and serious-minded man of our day can help seeing the incompatibility of true Christianity – the doctrine of meekness, forgiveness of injuries, and love – with government, with its pomp, acts of violence, executions, and wars.” (237)

Tolstoy would say Christianity is the only rational option for peace, and always has been so. In the present age, Jesus’ teaching has become self-evident even in practice, since all efforts of returning violence for violence with the state has progressively made the world worse. The state theory of life requires violence to persist, and only results in the escalation of violence. He even preemptively answers the “mutually assured destruction” strategy to maintain peace in the presence of weapons of mass destruction:

“It is often said that the invention of terrible weapons of destruction will put an end to war. That is an error. As the means of extermination are improved, the means of reducing men who hold the state conception of life to submission can be improved to correspond. They may slaughter them by thousands, by millions, they may tear them to pieces, still they will march to war like senseless cattle. Some will want beating to make them move, others will be proud to go if they are allowed to wear a scrap of ribbon or gold lace.” (206)

But how could someone possibly adopt this teaching, when living in an age of the totalitarian state? Tolstoy would answer simply: give up one’s previous way of life, one’s previous way of thinking, one’s allegiance to all but the source of life, and live free of hypocrisy. “A man need only make this theory of life his own, for the fetters which seemed so indissolubly forged upon him to drop off of themselves, and for him to feel himself absolutely free, just as a bird would feel itself free in a fenced-in place [if] directly it took to its wings.” (210) The understanding Christian is no longer under “the condition of the hypnotized.” But these Christians transcend those who simply want a different government; they will act in freedom right now, despite state oppression, and eventually the state must fall. “Revolutionary enemies attack the government from without. Christianity does not attack it at all, but, from within, it destroys all the foundations on which government rests.” (231)

Why has this remarkable teaching not already spread throughout the world? Actually, it has. There always have been Christians willing to live consistently with the teachings of Jesus, but they are not always visible to us. Moreover, Tolstoy would say the church as an institution has perverted the message of non-resistance, sometimes deliberately hiding this message of Jesus from Christians. Even though he painted the Russian church of his day in an especially negative light, he showed that churches throughout history had suppressed this ethic. Why has the church done this? Because of the love of power. The state church always held a privileged position, and church officials always preferred to keep their status rather than tell the truth. The ramifications of this practice were clear to Tolstoy; he understood the wars and oppression by the state as a direct result of the church’s refusal to practice the message of Jesus as a new way of life. Though perhaps an overly harsh assessment of the church as an institution through millennia, one cannot deny that churches have indeed been complicit in legitimizing aggression against others. The rhetoric of evangelical churches today glorifying the war in Iraq and Afghanistan confirm that this behavior continues (even if there is no “state church”). The only solution is to return to Jesus’ teaching, believe in it wholeheartedly, and practice it consistently with no reservation. Tolstoy may not have accepted traditional creedal Christianity, nor held traditional dogmas, but his faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus is truly admirable.

Tolstoy believed Jesus’ peaceful message would persist through “the foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor. 1:21), but it is remarkable to see the effects Tolstoy’s own words had upon the twentieth century. The Kingdom of God is Within You was immediately banned in Russia upon publication, but had far reaching influence elsewhere. Mahatma Gandhi read the book and was “overwhelmed” by its message, and it greatly influenced his non-violent revolution in India. Martin Green writes, “In Gandhi the book certainly ignited an explosion, and its impact on others around him spread like the bombardment of particles in an atomic pile, so that before the chain reaction was over, the British Empire was blown open and India was a free country, under the aegis of non-violence.” (v) Through Gandhi, Tolstoy influenced Martin Luther King and the non-violent progression of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Contrast these men of non-violence with the history of Russia, where The Kingdom of God is Within You was banned. Seven years following Tolstoy’s death, violent revolutionaries seized control of the Russian government and instituted communism – the Red Revolution. The result was the death of untold millions under one of the most horrible political regimes ever to exist. In fact, the twentieth-century could be described as a century of war. Despite massive advances in science, engineering, medicine, and business, statism is a primary cause of untold millions of deaths from world wars, countless military interventions, and totalitarian regimes. If only Tolstoy had been heeded, such unnecessary death might have been prevented.

Tolstoy writes with clarity and a passion for logic that penetrates deep into the soul. He challenges the contemporary Christian to reconsider the use of force at every turn, to accept Jesus’ teaching as the authority for life, and to reject the state. Far worse than a necessary evil, the state is an unnecessary parasite. Finally, Tolstoy levels a damning charge of complacency and inconsistency against the church today, serving as a reminder to obey God rather than men.

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References:

Leo Tolstoy. The Kingdom of God is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life. Trans: Constance Garnett. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Leo Tolstoy: The Centennial Anniversary. www.tolstoycentennial.com.

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Dr. Norman Horn

Norman founded LibertarianChristians.com and the Libertarian Christian Institute, and currently serves as its President and Editor-in-Chief. He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from the Austin Graduate School of Theology. He currently is a Postdoctoral researcher in Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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