Tolstoy’s radical Christianity led him to a pacifistic, anarchistic political philosophy that rejected the state as incompatible with Christ’s teachings.
Leo Tolstoy is best known as among history’s greatest novelists, authoring monuments of literary fiction such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina ; yet Tolstoy was also a thoughtful and discerning political thinker, sensitive to the plight of the oppressed and offering deep and essentially libertarian criticisms of government power. From his Christian beliefs, Tolstoy arrived at an anarchist political philosophy centered on the conscience of the individual, on the importance of independent action and moral judgment. For Tolstoy, governments were an instantiation of human fallibility, their powers necessarily based on the human individual’s propensity to abuse, subjugate, and enslave his fellow man. Born into aristocratic privilege, Tolstoy saw firsthand that the landholding nobility were simply glorified freeloaders, living dissolutely, parasites on the labor of those who tilled the soil, made things with their hands, and fed people. Tolstoy’s many largely unremembered nonfiction works are a unique blend of theological, political, and historical arguments. His political theory is inseparable from his spirituality; both embrace an individualistic stance that emphasizes the rational judgment of each person. But Tolstoy’s individualism is not egoistic. On the contrary, in his thought, reason demands a kind of asceticism, his definition of love entailing self-abnegation and renunciation. To force one to exert his talents in the service of others, however, is to void the virtue in service. Each individual must decide for himself whether he will heed “rational consciousness” and dedicate himself to higher values.
Thus is Tolstoy’s Christianity—his adherence to the teachings of Christ—decidedly not a product of faith, but of reason; rational choice, always guided by reason (as opposed to “the bestial personality”), is at the center of his thought. Tolstoy’s Christianity was controversial and explicitly unorthodox. He called “nonsense” traditional Christian tenets such as the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, and the idea of salvation through faith. His beliefs are correspondingly anti-clericalist, based on the idea that “the churches have always been not merely alien but downright hostile to the teaching of Christ.” For Tolstoy, the various Christian sects as institutions are necessarily “anti-Christian,” having “yielded to the world” and its evil essence. Also at the center of Tolstoy’s Christianity is the individual, his spirit, and his conscience, each person enjoying direct access to God and possessing the ability to understand God’s laws. These laws are not foreign and arcane mysteries the proper understanding of which requires the mediation of an exalted few with sacerdotal training. Rather than pursuing spiritual enlightenment and absolution through ritualistic exercises and the search for the miraculous, Tolstoy believed that Christians ought to look within—that “the kingdom of God is within you.”
The consequence of Tolstoy’s radically anti-authoritarian creed (for which he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church) was a unique, though not entirely unprecedented, variety of anarchism. This Christian anarchism is redolent of its American counterpart, the nonresistance philosophy of radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. Indeed, Garrison’s son wrote to Tolstoy to remark on the similarities between Garrisonian nonresistance and Tolstoy’s philosophy of peace, appending to his letter the “Declaration of Non-resistance” (actually “Declaration of Sentiments”) that Garrison had written for his 1838 Peace Convention). In his 1894 tract The Kingdom of God Is Within You , Tolstoy quoted at length from both the Declaration and from the writings of another notable Christian nonresistant, Adin Ballou, to whom Tolstoy had written in admiration. Tolstoy followed Garrison and Ballou in the belief that all human governments were founded on principles contrary to those taught by Jesus, in particular, those expressed in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount—the source of the nonresistance doctrine. For Tolstoy, Jesus’s admonitions to love your enemies and to resist not evil were “incompatible with violence, which forms an indispensable condition of power.” Unlike some professed anarchists, then, Tolstoy vehemently opposed violent forms of propaganda of the deed, denouncing political assassinations and lamenting “the mania for murder” that dominated his native Russia.
In an article for The Advocate of Peace , Tolstoy defended his philosophy of consistent nonviolence and argued that “the murder of kings, emperors, and rulers in general is senseless, since the state organization cannot be altered by such murders.” Tolstoy was, therefore, no spokesman for revolution, seeing the state itself as the enemy of humankind. He observes that while the principle of nonresistance “is most terrible and most dangerous for every despotism,” revolutionaries have throughout history preferred to combat evil with evil, to attempt the overthrow of power with violence. Tolstoy was similarly skeptical of attempts at practical political reform. As the eminent libertarian scholar Robert Higgs notes, “ The Kingdom of God Is Within You contains many anticipations of ideas later developed in economics and public choice.” Tolstoy gives no sanctuary to romanticized or idealized notions of the political process. He writes, “[W]e all know how our laws are made. We have all been behind the scenes, we know that they are the product of covetousness, trickery, and party struggles; that there is not and cannot be any real justice in them.” To these unjust, cruel, artificial laws Tolstoy contrasts the laws of God, which prescribe love and compassion between all members of the human race. For Tolstoy, there can be no obligation to observe an edict that contradicts this most fundamental law. If a law offends one’s conscience or conflicts with Christ’s exhortations, he should simply ignore it, confident in his ability to distinguish right from wrong.
If Tolstoy was influenced by radical thinkers such as Garrison, Ballou, and Henry George, then his distinctive theory of nonresistance went on to inform the thought of the famed American lawyer Clarence Darrow, Gandhi, and countless others. Darrow, for his part, credited Tolstoy as the principal source of the ideas expressed in his remarkable book Resist Not Evil , the preface of which praises Tolstoy for “plac[ing] the doctrine of non-resistance upon a substantial basis.” Like Tolstoy, Darrow confronts the argument that nonresistance is simply impractical, a utopian idea that “can only be held by dreamers and theorists.” And also like Tolstoy, Darrow concludes that in fact it is the state, founded on false principles of war, conquest, and patriotism, that is impractical, that has wrought misery for the many throughout history. Though a lawyer, an officer of the court sworn to uphold the Constitution and defend the judicial system, Darrow nevertheless insists on the impossibility of a just judgment within the existing legal and political order. Tolstoy had likewise charged “learned jurists” and prosecutors with perpetuating a “parody of justice,” with concocting elaborate sophistries to “justify the violence of authority.” Both Tolstoy and Darrow believed that it was the state, the institutionalization of war and violence, that was to blame for most of the crimes and injustices in the world. The question of “how to be without a State” is, Tolstoy argues, directly inverse to the question that ought to drive our thinking about politics and government. Shifting the burden of proof, we might instead consider the practical effects of statism and its concomitants. For Tolstoy, then, the state does not deserve the benefit of the doubt; born of violent conquest, government has remained true to its brutal, iniquitous pedigree. “The champions of government,” Tolstoy observes,
assert that without it the wicked will oppress and outrage the good, and that the power of the government enables the good to resist the wicked. But in this assertion the champions of the existing order of things take for granted the very proposition they want to prove. When they say that except for the government the bad would oppress the good, they take it for granted that the good are those who at the present time are in possession of power, and the bad are those who in subjection to it. But this is just what wants proving.
Nothing is beyond the reach of Tolstoy’s penetrating radicalism, and he reserves especially scathing critiques for the subjects of war and the “savage superstition” of patriotism. In its categorical rejection of force and violence as means of ordering and administrating human society, Tolstoyan nonresistance must be regarded as a form of libertarianism. Outspoken in his opposition to warfare and militarism, however rationalized, the political writings of Tolstoy’s late life have often drawn the attention of the censors, beginning with the Russia of his own day and later in Nazi Germany. Even where they have been freely available, they have reposed in relative obscurity. But Tolstoy’s sagacious nonfiction has much to teach the contemporary libertarian, offering a bold indictment of politics itself and testing the platitudes of conventional wisdom. Tolstoy’s libertarian observations demonstrate that at least as much as it is an ideology or a political philosophy, anarchism is a temperament: a visceral resistance to authority, a heart for the enslaved and oppressed, a hatred of war. And this is the manner in which Tolstoy treats social and economic theory, not as cautious scholar, but as artist, sensitive rather than detached. Such an approach leads, perhaps, to what Higgs rightly calls a “curiously uneven command of different aspects of his subject.” On economics, for example, Tolstoy reveals a regrettable, if pardonable, ignorance, wrongly identifying trade and exchange with exploitation, profit motive with greed. Like other late nineteenth century anarchists, Tolstoy believed that the problems of political authority were fundamentally and inextricably connected to those of widespread poverty and economic exploitation. But he repeatedly confuses coercive economic privilege, which he rightly condemns, with honest commerce. Still, while Tolstoy could have benefitted from a lesson in elementary economics, he nevertheless demonstrates an understanding of the fact that it is state violence against which we must always strive. “Christianity,” he writes, “destroys the state.” Governmental authority, for Tolstoy, compels us to live a lie or a contradiction, to place the mere edicts of the powerful and cunning above the dictates of reason and conscience. Love and mutual respect, once fully understood and acted upon, would replace the criminal governments of the present with proper communities of equals. The lesson is one that has always been important to libertarians: The remedy for the political is not this candidate or that reform, but the simple recognition of the generally applicable moral principle to treat other people as you would want to be treated, respecting their dignity and autonomy.