“We are spiritually connected on all sides – not only with people but with all living creatures”
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was an enormously influential thinker and writer who called for people to live in a simple way, close to nature and free of the violence imposed by the state.
He did not term himself an anarchist, because he did not approve of the bomb-throwing approach favoured by much of the movement at the time, but his thinking belonged very much to that tradition.
His greatest novel, War and Peace, was influenced in title and content by a visit he made in Brussels to the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was just finishing his own book La guerre et la paix.
Tolstoy was also influenced by John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau, with whom he shared a distrust of the myth of progress.
He condemned the factory system and, as Peter Marshall notes, repeatedly warned that “the Russian people should stay on the land, and avoid the industrial civilization of the West”. (1)
This vision had a powerful influence on Mohandas Gandhi, who applied it to his native India.
Explaining the roots of Tolstoy’s back-to-nature philosophy, George Woodcock writes: “His years as an officer in the Caucasus, in contact with mountain tribesmen and Cossacks living in their traditional manner, taught him the virtues of simple societies close to nature and far from urban corruption; the lessons he drew from his experience were very close to those which Kropotkin drew from similar encounters in Siberia”. (2)
This influence shines through in Tolstoy’s works. For instance, in the 1863 novel The Cossacks, he has the character Olenin declare: “Happiness is being with Nature, seeing Nature, and discoursing with her”. (3)
He did his best to live as a humble peasant himself, despite being born into the Russian aristocracy. He dressed simply, took up boot repairing and worked diligently in the fields of his own estate.
A life close to the land, with few needs, represented a moral ideal for Tolstoy. He wrote: “Every great thing is done in a quiet, humble, simple way – ploughing the land, building a house, breeding cattle, even thinking… Really great and true things are always simple and humble”. (4)
He added: “We should be satisfied with the small things in life. And the less we need, the fewer troubles we have”. (5)
Tolstoy advised people never to build, but rather to plant. The first approach was going against the grain of nature and thus risked being destroyed by her: “In the second, nature will help you, nurturing everything you have planted. The same applies to your spiritual life: things that are in harmony with eternal laws of human nature will grow”. (6)
He therefore believed that a person would thrive best if, as Woodcock puts it, “he rejects the more artificial manifestations of civilization and lives in an organic relationship with the world of nature”. (7)
The theme pervades his literature as well as his essays. War and Peace introduces peasant soldier Platon Karataev, a son of nature whose “words and actions flow from him evenly, inevitably, and spontaneously as fragrance exhales from a flower”. (8)
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy makes a clear distinction, says Woodcock, “between town and country, between artificial urban civilization, which always tends towards evil, and natural rural life, which always tends towards good if it is left to follow its own courses. Anna Karenina, dominated by the city and corrupted by its unnatural standards, is morally and at last physically destroyed”. (9)
The artificial world is, of course, the world of money, in thrall to the mercantile “cosmovision” described by Georges Lapierre, and for Tolstoy this made it inherently corrupt.
He wrote: “In money, in the money itself, in acquiring money, in possessing money, there is something immoral… (10) If the rich person were truly virtuous, they would quickly stop being rich”. (11)
Tolstoy identified a fundamental injustice in a world where wealth and power were so entwined and so dominant: “There cannot exist any virtue in a society which is divided into two: the rich who rule and the poor who obey”. (12)
The earth was the general and equal possession of all humanity and therefore could not be the property of individuals, he argued: “The possession of land is as unjust as slavery when people own other people as their property”. (13)
Tolstoy’s reading of Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin helped him understand that this profound social injustice was only possible because of the existence of the state. He wrote: “The truth is that the state is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens”. (14)
A powerful opponent of all forms of violence, Tolstoy saw clearly that the state, with all its laws and punishments, was inseparable from violence. It was nothing other than violence, disguised as legality.
He wrote in ‘The Slavery of Our Times’ in 1900: “Laws are rules, made by people who govern by means of organized violence, for non-compliance with which the non-complier is subjected to blows, to loss of liberty, or even to being murdered”. (15)
War was an extension of the inherent violence of the state, from which it, and the interests it defended, hoped to profit at the expense of human life.
Opponents of war therefore had to tackle the root cause: the state. He warned: “Until people reject the power of government to govern, to tax, to legislate and to punish, war will never stop. War is the consequence of the power of the government”. (16)
Like all authentic anarchists, Tolstoy was able to reject the lie that the state was necessary for social cohesion because he identified a deeper, underlying organic unity.
He wrote: “It only seems to us that we are different from each other. So a flower on a tree may think that it is a separate being, but all the flowers are parts of the blossoming of one apple tree, and they all come from the one seed”. (17)
As with his position on the immorality of money-based society, Tolstoy’s anarchism here merges with his spiritual beliefs.
“Whether they know this or not, all creatures are inseparably connected”, (18) he wrote. “We are spiritually connected on all sides – not only with people but with all living creatures”. (19)
Tolstoy was a Christian, although he promoted, as Marshall points out, such a “highly unorthodox version of Christianity” (20) that he was eventually excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
His religion was based not on official Christian dogma but on the principle of “reason” – it was close, says Marshall, to the spirituality of “the mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages” (21) and of the 17th century English revolutionary Gerrard Winstanley.
For Woodcock, Tolstoy’s concept of a binding force of “love” was in fact close to Kropotkin’s notion of “mutual aid”, (22) amounting to an awareness that, in Tolstoy’s words, “we are all members of one great body”. (23)
Tolstoy insisted that people had to overcome the separation from the natural world which was promoted by artificial society. He urged readers of his Calendar of Wisdom: “Distance yourself from everything that interferes with your perception of a special connection between you and all living creatures”. (24)
According to the perennial wisdom of what Theodore Roszak calls the Old Gnosis, the grasping of our unity with the natural world and the cosmos beyond also involves the discovery of our true inner selves.
It was crucially important for Tolstoy that people could access this inner authenticity and derive their thinking from the light within rather than from secondhand sources.
“Some people live and act according to their own thoughts, and some according to the thoughts of other people. This is one of the major distinctions among people”, (25) he stressed.
“A thought can propel your life in the right direction only when it answers questions asked by your soul. A thought which is borrowed from someone else and then accepted by your mind and memory does not influence your life much and may lead you in the wrong direction”. (26)
Delving deeper than the surface of our so-called “personality” to understand the purpose of our own life was both enlightenment and freedom, said Tolstoy.
To achieve this, he explained, we needed to make proper use of our intellect and ignore the commonplace belief that “mankind lives like a herd of cattle, that man is guided by economic considerations alone, and that his intellect is given to him merely for amusement”. (27)
It was only this way, by using our intellect to guide us on a moral path through life, that we could challenge the tyranny of state, violence, money and exploitation.
Tolstoy did not believe that the corruption of artificial modern society could be overcome by purely political or physical means.
But a spiritual renewal, in which humanity cast off all the lies with which it had been chained and refused to obey its slavemasters, could sweep the world and change everything.
He wrote: “As a fire lit on a prairie or in a forest will not die out until it has burned all that is dry and dead, and therefore combustible, so the truth, once articulated in human utterance, will not cease its work until all falsehood, appointed for destruction, surrounding and hiding the truth on all sides as it does, is destroyed. The fire smolders long; but as soon as it flashes into flame, all that can burn burns quickly”. (28)
Video link: Leo Tolstoy (44 mins)
1. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: Fontana Press, 1993) p. 380.
2. George Woodcock, Anarchism (London: Penguin, 1979) p. 209.
3. Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks, cit. Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 213.
4. Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom: Wise Thoughts for Every Day, trans. Peter Sekirin (London: Hodder and Stoughton), 1998, p. 114.
5. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 144.
6. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 327.
7. Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 212.
8. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, cit. Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 214.
9. Woodcock, Anarchism, p. 213.
10. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 58.
11. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 193.
12. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 105.
13. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 261.
14. Leo Tolstoy, letter to V.P. Botkin, 1857, cit. Marshall, p. 364.
15. Leo Tolstoy, ‘The Slavery of Our Times’, 1900, The Anarchist Reader, ed. by George Woodcock, (Glasgow: Fontana, 1986) p. 118.
16. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 330.
17. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 28.
18. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 155.
19. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 229.
20. Marshall, p. 362.
21. Marshall, p. 382.
22. Woodcock, p. 208.
23. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 70.
25. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 219.
26. Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, p. 9.
27. Leo Tolstoy, ‘Two Wars’, Tolstoy’s Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence (New York: Mentor, 1968), p. 22.
28. Leo Tolstoy, ‘The Beginning of the End’, Tolstoy’s Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, p. 14.