Posts Tagged ‘War and Peace’

Tolstoy’s The Law of Violence and the Law of Love

January 24, 2016

Tolstoy Law Love

(Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, no date)

As well as being one of the great titans of world literature, Leo Tolstoy was a convinced anarchist and pacifist. The British philosopher and writer, Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his book, Russian Thinkers, states that Tolstoy’s anarchist beliefs even informed his great work, War and Peace. Instead of portraying world history as being shaped by the ideas and actions of great men, Tolstoy’s epic of the Napoleonic Wars shows instead how it is formed by the actions of millions of individuals.

The writer himself attempted to put his own ideas into practise. He was horrified by the poverty and squalor, both physical and moral, of the new, urban Russia which was arising as the country industrialised, and the degradation of its working and peasant peoples. After serving in the army he retreated to his estate, where he concentrated on writing. He also tried to live out his beliefs, dressing in peasant clothes and teaching himself their skills and crafts, like boot-making, in order to identify with them as the oppressed against the oppressive upper classes.

Tolstoy took his pacifism from a Chechen Sufi nationalist leader, who was finally captured and exiled from his native land by the Russians after a career resisting the Russian invasion. This Islamic mystic realised that military resistance was useless against the greater Russian armed forces. So instead, he preached a message of non-violent resistance and peaceful protest against the Russian imperial regime. Tolstoy had been an officer during the invasion of Chechnya, and had been impressed by its people and their leader’s doctrine of peaceful resistance. Tolstoy turned it into one of the central doctrines of his own evolving anarchist ideology. And he, in turn, influenced Gandhi in his stance of ahimsa – Hindu non-violence – and peaceful campaign against the British occupation of India. Among the book’s appendices is 1910 letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi. I also believe Tolstoy’s doctrine of peaceful resistance also influence Martin Luther King in his confrontation with the American authorities for civil rights for Black Americans.

Tolstoy considered himself a Christian, though his views are extremely heretical and were officially condemned as such by the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote a number of books expounding his religious views, of which The Law of Violence and the Law of Love is one. One other is The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstoy’s Christianity was basically the rationalised Christianity, formed during the 19th century by writers like David Strauss in Germany and Ernest Renan in France. In their view, Christ was a moral preacher, teaching devotion to a transcendent but non-interfering God, but did not perform any miracles or claim He was divine. It’s similar to the Deist forms of Christianity that appeared in the 18th century in works such as Christianity Not Mysterious. While there are still many Biblical scholars, who believe that Christ Himself did not claim to be divine, such as Geza Vermes, this view has come under increasing attack. Not least because it presents an ahistorical view of Jesus. The Deist conception of Christ was influenced by the classicising rationalism of the 18th century. It’s essentially Jesus recast as a Greek philosopher, like Plato or Socrates. More recent scholarship by Sandmel and Sanders from the 1970’s onwards, in works like the latter’s Jesus the Jew, have shown how much Christ’s life and teaching reflected the Judaism of the First Century, in which miracles and the supernatural were a fundamental part.

In The Law of Violence and the Law of Love, Tolstoy sets out his anarchist, pacifist Christian views. He sees the law of love as very core of Christianity, in much the same way the French Utopian Socialist Saint-Simon saw universal brotherhood as the fundamental teaching of Christianity. Tolstoy attacks the established church for what he sees as their distortion of this original, rational, non-miraculous Christianity, stating that it’s the reason so many working people are losing their faith. Like other religious reformers, he recommends his theological views, arguing that it will lead to a revival of genuine Christianity. At the same time, this renewed, reformed Christianity and the universal love it promotes, will overturn the corrupt and oppressive rule of governments, which are built on violence and the use of force.

Among the other arguments against state violence, Tolstoy discusses those, who have refused or condemned military service. These not only include modern conscientious objectors, such as 19th century radicals and Socialists, but also the Early Church itself. He quotes Christian saints and the Church Fathers, including Tertullian and Origen, who firmly condemned war and military service. For example, Tertullian wrote

It is not fitting to serve the emblem of Christ and the emblem of the devil, the fortress of light and the fortress of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters. And besides, how can one fight without the sword, which the Lord himself has taken away? Is it possible to do sword exercises, when the Lord says that everyone who takes the sword shall perish by the sword? And how can a son of peace take part in a battle.

Some scholars of the Early Church have argued that its opposition to military service was based on opposition to the pagan ceremonies the soldiers would have to attend and perform as part of their duties. As believers in the only God, these were forbidden to Christians. Nevertheless, despite his condemnation, Tertullian admits elsewhere that there were Christians serving in the Roman army.

Other quotations from the Church Fathers make it clear that it was opposition to the bloodshed in war, which caused them to reject military service. Tolstoy cites Cyprian, who stated that

The world goes mad with the mutual shedding of blood, and murder, considered a crime when committed singly, is called a virtue when it is done in the mas. The multiplication of violence secures impunity for the criminals.

Tolstoy also cites a decree of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 proscribing a penance to Christians returning to the Roman army, after they had left it. He states that those, who remained in the army, had to vow never to kill an enemy. If they violated this, then Basil the Great declared that they could not receive communion for three years.

This pacifism was viable when the Church was a small, persecuted minority in the pagan Roman Empire. After Constantine’s conversion, Christians and the Christian church entered government as Christianity became the official religion. The Church’s pacifist stance was rejected as Christians became responsible for the defence of the empire and its peoples, as well as their spiritual wellbeing and secular administration. And as the centuries progressed, Christians became all too used to using force and violence against their enemies, as shown in the countless religious wars fought down through history. It’s a legacy which still understandably colours many people’s views of Christianity, and religion as a whole.

This edition of Tolstoy’s book is published by the Institute of World Culture, whose symbol appears on the front of the book. This appears from the list of other books they publish in the back to be devoted to promoting mysticism. This is mostly Hindu, but also contains some Zoroastrian and Gnostic Christian works, as well as the Zohar, one of the main texts of the Jewish Qabbala.

Pacifism is very much an issue for your personal conscience, though it is, of course, very much a part of the Quaker spirituality. Against this pacifist tradition there’s the ‘Just War’ doctrine articulated and developed over the centuries by St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and other theologians and Christian philosophers. This examines and defines under which circumstances and for which reasons a war can be fought, and what moral restrictions should be imposed on the way it is fought. For example, combatants should not attack women, children and non-combatants. Despite this, the book is an interesting response to the muscular Christianity preached during the days of the British Empire, and which still survives in the American Right. Many Republicans, particularly the Tea Party, really do see Christianity as not only entirely compatible with gun rights, but as a vital part of it. Bill O’Reilly, one of the anchors on Fox News, has stated that Christ would fully approve of the shooting of violent criminals, even in circumstances others find highly dubious. These include some of the incidents where teh police have shot unarmed Blacks, or where such resistance from the suspect may have been the result of mental illness and the cops themselves were in no danger. In the Law of Violence and the Law of Love, you can read Tolstoy’s opinion of the official use of lethal force, and his condemnation of the capitalist statism O’Reilly and Fox stand for.

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Tolstoy’s Prediction of the First World War

April 27, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already the BBC has put on a season of programmes commemorating the conflict. I’ve blogged on Michael Gove’s criticism of the negative view of the First World War, which he feels denigrates the courage and patriotism of the soldiers. He attacked the Beeb’s comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth, as an example of this, and compounded his argument with knee-jerk Tory anti-intellectualism by claiming that the view was promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’. A number of bloggers have attacked this diatribe, including Mike over at Vox Political. It has also provoked a response from the creators of graphic novels, who are putting together several albums presenting the horrific reality of the conflict as a response to Gove’s Right-wing patriotic view of the War.

Many people in Europe in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th centuries were very much aware of the looming threat of world conflict. One of those who foresaw it and its mass carnage was the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As well as a writer, Tolstoy was a pacifist Anarchist. He hated the horrors of modern, industrial society and the state that oppressed the Russian poor. He saw the solution in the abolition of the state and traditional peasant society, to the point where he gave up much of his life style as a Russian aristocrat to live, dress and work like a peasant. As a young man, he had, like many other noblemen, been a soldier and had fought in the wars to conquer Chechnya and the Caucasus. He had been highly impressed by ideas of a Chechen Sufi leader, who, when his nations’ attempts to resist the Russians through armed force were repeatedly suppressed, rejected violence and advocated instead a policy of non-violent civil disobedience. Tolstoy himself rejected violence, and took up the Sufi leader’s ideas. In turn, Tolstoy’s advocacy of the policy influenced Gandhi in his own campaign against British rule in India.

Tolstoy also campaigned on behalf of the Doukhobors, a heretical Russian Christian sect, that also rejected violence. It was due to Tolstoy’s support and that of British Quakers that the sect emigrated from Russia to settle in Canada.

He promoted his Anarchist and pacifist ideals in a series of books, What Then Must We Do?, The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Restoration of Hell. They also influenced his magnum opus, War and Peace. This was written to show that history was not made by a few great men, but by the actions of millions of ordinary people. Lionel Kochan discusses Tolstoy’s ideas, his criticisms of contemporary society, and prediction of the coming War in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970). Tolstoy attacked just about every aspect of contemporary society, including science, the press, religion, state education, and the state as a system of organised crime itself. Kochan writes:

Tolstoy, no doubt, showed little, if any, awareness of the deep-rooted complexity of the evils he stigmatized; no doubt, also, his positive doctrine was thin enough – the gospel of universal love, undogmatic Christianity, sexual abstinence, non-resistance to evil, the renunciation of tobacco and alcohol – for all that his later work constitutes an anarchist programme of profound strength. His unbridled criticism of society and its values, his corrosive and derisive scepticism, made him an anarchist more anarchic, a nihilist more nihilistic and a revolutionary more destructive than any whom Russia had yet brought forth – far more consistent and humanistic than Bakunin, far more hard-headed than Kropotkin.

What is science? He asked. Had it done anything of value to human life in determining the weight of Saturn’s satellites? What was universal suffrage? A means whereby the prisoners elected their own gaolers. Had industrialism raised the standard of living? Then look at the slums and doss-houses of Moscow. Tolstoy derided division of labour as a device for turning men into machines, book-printing as a medium for communicating ‘all the nasty and stupid things that are done and written in the world’, and reform for teaching people ‘that though themselves bad they can reform bad people’. What did the church do but maintain idolatry ‘in the most literal sense of the word – worshipping holy relics and icons, offering sacrifices to them and expecting from them the fulfilment of the worshippers’ wishes’? What did compulsory education do but ‘teach the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pseudo-obligation to obey the state’? What was the press but a means for ‘exciting feelings of mutual hostility between the nations’? What were the governments of the time, despotic and liberal alike, but – and her Tolstoy quotes Herzen’s phrase – ‘Genghis Khans with telegraphs’? The modern state was a mechanism so interlocked and interdependent that it became impossible to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent: ‘Some people demand the perpetration of a crime, others decide that it shall be done, a third set confirm that decision, a fourth propose its execution, a fifth report on it, a sixth finally decree it, and a seventh carry out the decree.’ Tolstoy’s apocalyptic vision of a state given over to destruction culminates in an anticipation of the imminent First World War:

‘The bells will peal and long-haired men will dress themselves in gold-embroidered socks and begin to pray on behalf of murder … The editors of newspapers will set to work to arouse hatred and murder under the guise of patriotism and will be delighted to double their sales. Manufacturers, merchants, and contractors for army stores will hurry about joyfully in expectation of doubled profits … Army commanders will bustle here and there, drawing double pay and rations and hoping to receive trinkets and crosses, stripes and stars, for murdering people. Idle ladies and gentlemen will fuss about, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross and getting ready to bandage those whom their husbands and brothers are setting out to kill – imagining they will be doing a most Christian work thereby.’

Kochan criticises Tolstoy for not understanding how enthusiastic and patriotic Russian servicemen initially were for the War. However, he then goes on to quote the great writer’s prediction of the condition of the soldiers in the War’s later stages, men who

‘will trudge where they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by songs, debauchery and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they too, without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could do them any wrong.’

For Tolstoy, the coming world war would ‘devour in a year more victims than all the revolutions of a century’. (pp. 157-8).
I strongly disagree with most of Tolstoy’s criticisms of contemporary society. He was, for example, wrong about science not benefitting humanity. it clearly has and had, most obviously in the improvements in medicine, that appeared in the 19th century. And printing and the press have increased knowledge and much good around the globe, despite the fact that they can often be used for evil. Having said that, he does have a point with the Sun, Daily Mail, and Express.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the BBC or anyone else, in their programmes on the Great War, mention Tolstoy’s prediction.

As a pacifist Anarchist, Tolstoy’s political views were strongly disapproved by Paul Johnson in the Spectator. In one of his articles in that journal he described the great novelists as somehow – I’ve forgotten quite what he wrote – being responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s tyranny. He never described how this was so. He simply asserted it, and went on. The only thing Tolstoy had in common with Stalin is that they were both radicals, who revolted against the Tsarist state. And possibly that they both had military careers. Apart from that, Tolstoy hated everything that Stalin stood for – militarism, an oppressive, coercive state, brutality and murder. And Tolstoy himself was far from unique in wishing to see a radical reform or overthrow of contemporary society. By 1905 the Tsar’s reluctance to establish any kind of constitutional reforms had pushed most sections of the Russian society in opposition. Even the Union of Unions, made up members of the liberal profession – doctors, lawyers, vets, scientists, engineers, teachers, university professors – not the usual bomb-throwing nutters – were advocating the use of violence if all else failed. There was another writer called, Tolstoy, Alexey, who survived into the Stalin era to write pieces praising the dictator. It looks like Johnson confused the two due to the same surname. But Leo Tolstoy would have been utterly opposed to the old thug.