V. I.   Lenin

Lev Tolstoi and His Epoch

Published: Zvezda, No. 6, January 22, 1911. Signed: V. Ilyin. Published according to the Zvezda text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, [1974], Moscow, Volume 17, pages 49-53.
Translated: Dora Cox
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
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The epoch to which Lev Tolstoi belongs and which is reflected in such bold relief both in his brilliant literary works and in his teachings began after 1861 and lasted until 1905. True, Tolstoi commenced his literary career earlier and it ended later, but it was during this period, whose transitional nature gave rise to all the distinguishing features of Tolstoi’s works and of Tolstoi-ism, that he fully matured both as an artist and as a thinker.

Through Levin, a character in Anna Karenina, Tolstoi very vividly expressed the nature of the turn in Russia’s history that took place during this half-century.

Talk about the harvest, hiring labourers, and so forth, which, as Levin knew, it was the custom to regard as something very low, ... now seemed to Levin to be the only important thing. ‘This, perhaps, was unimportant under serfdom, or is unimportant in England. In both cases the conditions are definite; but here today, when everything has been turned upside down and is only just taking shape again, the question of how these conditions will shape is the only important question in Russia,’ mused Levin.” (Collected Works, Vol. X, p. 137.)

Here in Russia everything has now been turned upside down and is only just taking shape”,—it is difficult to imagine a more apt characterisation of the period 1861–1905. What “was turned upside down” is familiar, or at least well known, to every Russian. It was serfdom, and the whole of the “old order” that went with it. What “is just taking shape” is totally unknown, alien and incomprehensible to the broad masses of the population. Tolstoi conceived this bourgeois order which was “only just taking shape” vaguely, in the form of a bogey—England. Truly, a bogey, because Tolstoi rejects, on principle, so to speak, any at tempt to investigate the features of the social system in   this “England”, the connection between this system and the domination of capital, the role played by money, the rise and development of exchange. Like the Narodniks,[1] he refuses to see, he shuts his eyes to, and dismisses the thought that what is “taking shape” in Russia is none other than the bourgeois system.

It is true that, if not the “only important” question, then certainly one of the most important from the stand point of the immediate tasks of all social and political activities in Russia in the period of 1861–1905 (and in our times, too), was that of “what shape” this system would take, this bourgeois system that had assumed extremely varied forms in “England”, Germany, America, France, and so forth. But such a definite, concretely historical presentation of the question was something absolutely foreign to Tolstoi. He reasons in the abstract, he recognises only the stand point of the “eternal” principles of morality, the eternal truths of religion, failing to realise that this standpoint is merely the ideological reflection of the old (“turned upside down”) order, the feudal order, the way of the life of the Oriental peoples.

In Lucerne (written in 1857), Tolstoi declares that to regard “civilisation” as a boon is an “imaginary concept” which “destroys in human nature the instinctive, most blissful primitive need for good”. “We have only one infallible guide,” exclaims Tolstoi, “the Universal Spirit that permeates us.” (Collected Works, II, p. 125.)

In The Slavery of Our Times (written in 1900), Tolstoi, repeating still more zealously these appeals to the Universal Spirit, declares that political economy is a “pseudo science” because it takes as the “pattern” “little England, where conditions are most exceptional”, instead of taking as a pattern “the conditions of men in the whole world throughout the whole of history”. What this “whole world” is like is revealed to us in the article “Progress and the Definition of Education” (1802). Tolstoi counters the opinion of the “historians” that progress is “a general law for man kind” by referring to “the whole of what is known as the Orient” (IV, 162). “There is no general law of human progress,” says Tolstoi, “and this is proved by the quiescence of the Oriental peoples.”

Tolstoi-ism, in its real historical content, is an ideology of an Oriental, an Asiatic order. Hence the asceticism, the non-resistance to evil, the profound notes of pessimism, the conviction that “everything is nothing, everything is a material nothing” (“The Meaning of Life”, p. 52), and faith in the “Spirit”, in “the beginning of everything”, and that man, in his relation to this beginning, is merely a “labourer ... allotted the task of saving his own soul”, etc. Tolstoi is true to this ideology in his Kreutzer Sonata too when he says: “the emancipation of woman lies not in colleges and not in parliaments, but in the bedroom”, and in the article written in 1862, in which he says that universities train only “irritable, debilitated liberals” for whom “the people have no use at all”, who are “uselessly torn from their former environment”, “find no place in life”, and so forth (IV, 136-37).

Pessimism, non-resistance, appeals to the “Spirit” constitute an ideology inevitable in an epoch when the whole of the old order “has been turned upside down”, and when the masses, who have been brought up under this old order, who imbibed with their mother’s milk the principles, the habits, the traditions and beliefs of this order, do not and cannot see what kind of a new order is “taking shape”, what social forces are “shaping” it and how, what social forces are capable of bringing release from the incalculable and exceptionally acute distress that is characteristic of epochs of

The period of 1862–1904 was just such a period of upheaval in Russia, a period in which, before everyone’s eyes the old order collapsed, never to be restored, in which the new system was only just taking shape; the social forces shaping the new system first manifested themselves on a broad, nation-wide scale, in mass public action in the most varied fields only in 1905. And the 1905 events in Russia were followed by analogous events in a number of countries in that very “Orient” to the “quiescence” of which Tolstoi referred in 1862. The year 1905 marked the beginning of the end of “Oriental” quiescence. Precisely for this reason that year marked the historical end of Tolstoi-ism, the end of an epoch that could give rise to Tolstoi’s teachings and in which they were inevitable, not as something individual,   not as a caprice or a fad, but as the ideology of the conditions of life under which millions and millions actually found themselves for a certain period of time.

Tolstoi’s doctrine is certainly utopian and in content is reactionary in the most precise and most profound sense of the word. But that certainly does nob mean that the doctrine was not socialistic or that it did not contain critical elements capable of providing valuable material for the enlightenment of the advanced classes.

There are various kinds of socialism. In all countries where the capitalist mode of production prevails there is the socialism which expresses the ideology of the class that is going to take the place of the bourgeoisie; and there is the socialism that expresses the ideology of the classes that are going to be replaced by the bourgeoisie. Feudal socialism, for example, is socialism of the latter type, and the nature of this socialism was appraised long ago, over sixty years ago, by Marx, simultaneously with his appraisal of other types of socialism.[2]

Furthermore, critical elements are inherent in Tolstoi’s utopian doctrine, just as they are inherent in many utopian systems. But we must not forget Marx’s profound observation to the effect that the value of critical elements In utopian socialism “bears an inverse relation to historical development”. The more the activities of the social forces which are “shaping” the new Russia and bringing release from present-day social evils develop and assume a definite character, the more rapidly is critical-utopian socialism “losing all practical value and all theoretical justification”.

A quarter of a century ago, the critical elements in Tolstoi’s doctrine might at times have been of practical value for some sections of the population in spite of its reactionary and utopian features. This could not have been the case during, say, the last decade, because historical development bad made considerable progress between the eighties and the end of the last century. In our days, since the series of events mentioned above has put an end to “Oriental” quiescence, in our days, when the consciously reactionary ideas of Vekhi (reactionary in the narrow-class, selfishly-class sense) have become so enormously widespread among the liberal bourgeoisie and when these ideas have infected even a section of   those who were almost Marxists and have created a liquidationist trend—in our days, the most direct and most profound harm is caused by every attempt to idealise Tolstoi’s doctrine, to justify or to mitigate his “non-resistance”, his appeals to the “Spirit”, his exhortations for “moral self-perfection”, his doctrine of “conscience” and universal “love”, his preaching of asceticism and quietism, and so forth.


[1] Narodniks—followers of a petty-bourgeois trend, Narodism, in the Russian revolutionary movement, which arose in the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century. The Narodniks stood for the abolition of the autocracy and the transfer of the landlords’ lands to the peasantry. At the same time, they believed capitalism in Russia to be a temporary phenomenon with no prospect of development and they therefore considered the peasantry, not the proletariat, to be the main revolutionary force in Russia. They regarded the village commune as the embryo of socialism. With the object of rousing the peasantry to struggle against the autocracy, the Narodniks “went among the people”, to the village, but found no support there.

In the eighties and nineties the Narodniks adopted a policy of conciliation to tsarism, expressed the interests of the kulak class, and waged a bitter fight against Marxism.

[2] Here and elsewhere, in this article, Lenin refers to The Communist Manifesto (see Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1958, pp. 21–64).

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