Leo Tolstoy remembered against the pandemic

But actually history is not the soil of happiness. The periods of happiness are blank pages in it. […] In world history only those peoples that form states can come to our notice.

G.W.F. Hegel, General Introduction to the Philosophy of History

What causes historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the collective will of the people transferred to one person. Under what condition is the will of the people delegated to one person? On condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power: in other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

In a recent text (La guerra e la pace), Giorgio Agamben reminds us that the state, war and history form an unbreakable trinity. There is no state without the violence of sovereignty, the non-legal decision on what lies beyond the law, the permanent state of exception-war that underlies government. And history is the chronicle of state war, “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed.” (G.W.F. Hegel, General Introduction to the Philosophy of History). Without the state, there would be no history.

History combines in our language the objective as well as the subjective side. It means both the historiam rerum gestarum and the res gestas themselves, both the events and the narration of the events. (It means both Geschehen and Geschichte.) This connection of the two meanings must be regarded as highly significant and not merely accidental. We must hold that the narration of history and historical deeds and events appear at the same time; a common inner principle brings them forth together. Family memories, patriarchal traditions have an interest confined to the family and the tribe. The uniform course of events under such conditions is not an object for memory. But distinctive events or turns of fortune may rouse Mnemosyne to form images of them, just as love and religious sentiments stimulate the imagination to give shape to an originally formless impulse. But it is the State which first presents subject matter that is not only appropriate for the prose of history but creates it together with itself. A community which acquires a stable existence and elevates itself into a state requires more than merely subjective mandates of government, sufficient only for the needs of the moment. It requires rules, laws, universal and universally valid norms. It thus produces a record of, and interest in, intelligent, definite, and in their effects lasting actions and events. To these, Mnemosyne, in order to perpetuate the formation and constitution of the State, is impelled to add duration by remembrance.

G.W.F. Hegel, General Introduction to the Philosophy of History

Following Agamben, the current and much repeated declaration of war on the Covid-19 virus thus extends war into an explicitly permanent state of affairs, an enduring state of crisis and exception which opens onto a new history of non-freedom.

Agamben also reminds us of Leo Tolstoy’s distinction between peace and war. “In his novel Tolstoy contrasts peace, in which men follow their desires, their feelings and their thoughts more or less freely and which appears to him as the only reality, with the abstraction and the lie of war in which everything seems to be dragged along by an inexorable necessity.” (Agamben, War and Peace, ill will editions translation)

Peace is thus to be found beyond or outside of history, beyond the reach of the state. Tolstoy will call this beyond anarchy and will describe it in religious terms as the kingdom of God, that is, the ethical reign of love freed of the law.

In Agamben’s words: “It is possible, however, that the war on the virus, which seemed to be an ideal apparatus, which governments can measure and direct according to their needs far more easily than a real war, ends up, like any war, getting out of hand. And, perhaps, at that point, if it is not too late, men will once again seek that ungovernable peace which they have so unwisely abandoned.” (Agamben, War and Peace)

In memory of a much neglected “anarchist” in these our pandemic times, a selection of Leo Tolstoy’s “political” writings.


In the Arabian nights there is a story of a traveller who, being cast upon an uninhabited island, found a little old man with withered legs sitting on the ground by the side of a stream. The old man asked the traveller to take him on his shoulders and to carry him over the stream. The traveller consented; but no sooner was the old man settled on the traveller’s shoulders than the former twined his legs round the latter’s neck and would not get off again. Having control of the traveller, the old man drove him about as he liked, plucked fruit from the trees and ate it himself, not giving any to his bearer, and abused him in every way.

This is just what happens with the people who give soldiers and money to the Governments. With the money the Governments buy guns, and hire, or train by education, subservient, brutalized military commanders. And these commanders, by means of an artful system of stupefaction, perfected in the course of ages and called discipline, make those who have been taken as soldiers into a disciplined army. Discipline consists in this, that people who are subjected to this training, and remain under it for some time, are completely deprived of all that is valuable in human life, and of man’s chief attribute — rational freedom — and become submissive machine-like instruments of murder in the hands of their organised, hierarchical stratocracy. And it is in this disciplined army that the essence of the fraud dwells, which gives to modern Governments dominion over the peoples. When the governments have in their power this instrument of violence and murder, that possesses no will of its own, the whole people are in their hands, and they do not let them go again, and not only prey upon them, but also abuse them, instilling into the people, by means of a pseudo-religious and patriotic education, loyalty to and even adoration of, themselves, i.e. of the very men who torment the whole people by keeping them in slavery.

It is not for nothing that all the kings, emperors, and presidents esteem discipline so highly, are so afraid of any breach of discipline, and attach the highest importance to reviews, manoeuvres, parades, ceremonial marches and other such nonsense. They know that it all maintains discipline, and that not only their power, but their very existence depends on discipline.

Discipline armies are the means by which they, without using their own hands, accomplish the greatest atrocities, the possibility of perpetrating which give them power over the people.

And, therefore, the only means to destroy Governments is not force, but it is the exposure of this fraud. It is necessary people should understand: First, that in Christendom there is no need to protect the peoples one from another; that all the enmity of the peoples, one to another, are produced by the Governments themselves, and that armies are only needed by the small number of those who rule for the people it is not only unnecessary, but it is in the highest degree harmful, serving as the instrument to enslave them. Secondly, it is necessary that people should understand that the discipline which is so highly esteemed by all the governments is the greatest of crimes that man can commit, and is a clear indication of the criminality of the aims of governments. Discipline is the suppression of reason and of freedom in man, and can have no other aim than preparation for the performance of crimes such as no man can commit while in a normal condition. It is not even needed for war, when the war is defensive and national, as the Boers have recently shown. It is wanted and wanted only for the purpose indicated by William II.: for the committal of the greatest crimes, fratricide and parricide.

The terrible old man who sat on the traveller’s shoulders behaved as the Governments do. He mocked him and insulted him, knowing that as long as he sat on the traveller’s neck the latter was in his power.

And it is just this fraud, by means of which a small number of unworthy people, called the Government, have power over the people, and not only impoverish them, but do what is the most harmful of all actions — pervert whole generations from childhood upwards; just this terrible fraud which should be exposed, in order that the abolition of Government and of the slavery that results from it may become possible.

Leo Tolstoy, The Slavery Of Our Times (1900)


Eighteen hundred years ago there appeared in the pagan Roman world a strange, new teaching, which resembled nothing which preceded it, and which was ascribed to the man Christ.

This new teaching was absolutely new, both in form and in contents, for the European world, in the midst of which it arose, and especially in the Roman world, where it was preached and became diffused.

Amidst the elaborateness of the religious rules of Judaism, where, according to Isaiah, there was rule upon rule, and amidst the Roman legislation, which was worked out to a great degree of perfection, there appeared a teaching which not only denied all the divinities — every fear of them, every divination and faith in them — but also all human institutions and every necessity for them. In the place of all the rules of former faiths, this teaching advanced only the model of an inner perfection of truth and of love in the person of Christ, and the consequences of this inner perfection, attainable by men — the external perfection, as predicted by the prophets — the kingdom of God, in which all men will stop warring, and all will be taught by God and united in love, and the lion will lie with the lamb. In place of the threats of punishments for the non-compliance with the rules, which were made by the former laws, both religious and political, in place of the enticement of rewards for fulfilling them, this teaching called men to itself only by its being the truth. John vii. 17: “If any man wants to know of this doctrine, whether it be of God, let him fulfil it.” John viii 46: “If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” Why do you seek to kill a man who has told you the truth? The truth alone will free you. God must be professed in truth only. The whole teaching will be revealed and will be made clear by the spirit of truth. Do what I say, and you will know whether what I say is true.

No proofs were given of the teaching, except the truth, except the correspondence of the teaching with the truth. The whole teaching consisted in the knowledge of the truth and in following it, in a greater and ever greater approximation to it, in matters of life. According to this teaching, there are no acts which can justify a man, make him righteous; there is only the model of truth which attracts all hearts, for the inner perfection — in the person of Christ, and for the outer — in the realization of the kingdom of God. The fulfilment of the teaching is only in the motion along a given path, in the approximation to perfection — the inner — the imitation of Christ, and the outer — the establishment of the kingdom of God. A man’s greater or lesser good, according to this teaching, depends, not on the degree of perfection which he attains, but on the greater or lesser acceleration of motion.

The motion toward perfection of the publican, of Zacchæus, of the harlot, of the robber on the cross, is, according to this teaching, a greater good than the immovable righteousness of the Pharisee. A sheep gone astray is more precious than ninety-nine who have not. The prodigal son, the lost coin which is found again, is more precious, more loved by God than those who were not lost.

Every condition is, according to this teaching, only a certain step on the road toward the unattainable inner and outer perfection, and so has no meaning. The good is only in the motion toward perfection; but the stopping at any stage whatsoever is only a cessation of the good.

“Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” and “No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” “Rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.”

“Be ye perfect as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” “Seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”

The fulfilment of the teaching is only in unceasing motion — in the attainment of a higher and ever higher truth, and in an ever greater realization of the same in oneself by means of an ever increasing love, and outside of oneself by an ever greater realization of the kingdom of God.

The governments in our time — all governments, the most despotic and the most liberal — have become what Herzen so aptly called Genghis-Khans with telegraphs, that is, organizations of violence, which have nothing at their base but the coarsest arbitrary will, and yet use all those means which science has worked out for the aggregate social peaceful activity of free and equal men, and which they now employ for the enslavement and oppression of men.

The governments and the ruling classes do not now lean on the right, not even on the semblance of justice, but on an artificial organization which, with the aid of the perfections of science, encloses all men in the circle of violence, from which there is no possibility of tearing themselves away. This circle is now composed of four means of influencing men. All those means are connected and sustain one another, as the links in the ring of a united chain.

The first, the oldest, means is the means of intimidation. This means consists in representing the existing state structure (no matter what it may be — whether a free republic or the wildest despotism) as something sacred and invariable, and so in inflicting the severest penalties for any attempt at changing it. This means, having been used before, is even now used in an unchanged form wherever there are governments: in Russia — against the so-called nihilists; in America — against the anarchists; in France — against the imperialists, monarchists, communists, and anarchists. The railways, telegraphs, photographs, and the perfected method of removing people, without killing them, into eternal solitary confinement, where, hidden from men, they perish and are forgotten, and many other modern inventions, which governments employ more freely than any one else, give them such strength that as soon as the power has fallen into certain hands, and the visible and the secret police, and the administration, and all kinds of prosecutors, and jailers, and executioners are earnestly at work, there is no possibility of overthrowing the government, no matter how senseless or cruel it may be.

The second means is that of bribery. It consists in taking the wealth away from the laboring classes in the shape of monetary taxes, and distributing this wealth among the officials, who for this remuneration are obliged to maintain and strengthen the enslavement of the masses.

These bribed officials, from the highest ministers to the lowest scribes, who, forming one continuous chain of men, are united by the same interest of supporting themselves by the labors of the masses, and grow wealthier in proportion as they more humbly do the will of their governments, always and everywhere, stopping short before no means, in all branches of activity, in word and deed, defend the governmental violence, upon which their very well-being is based.

The third means is what I cannot call by any other name than the hypnotization of the people. This means consists in retarding the spiritual development of men and maintaining them with all kinds of suggestions in a concept of life which humanity has already outlived, and on which the power of the governments is based. This hypnotization is at the present time organized in the most complex manner, and, beginning its action in childhood, continues over men to their death. This hypnotization begins at early youth in compulsory schools which are established for the purpose, and in which the children are instilled with world-conceptions which were peculiar to their ancestors and are directly opposed to the modern consciousness of humanity. In countries in which there is a state religion, the children are taught the senseless blasphemies of ecclesiastical catechisms, in which the necessity of obeying the powers is pointed out; in republican governments they are taught the savage superstition of patriotism, and the same imaginary obligation of obeying the authorities. At a more advanced age, this hypnotization is continued by encouraging the religious and the patriotic superstitions.

The religious superstition is encouraged by means of the institution of churches, processions, monuments, festivities, from the money collected from the masses, and these, with the aid of painting, architecture, music, incense, but chiefly by the maintenance of the so-called clergy, stupefy the masses: their duty consists in this, that with their representations, the pathos of the services, their sermons, their interference in the private lives of the people — at births, marriages, deaths — they bedim the people and keep them in an eternal condition of stupefaction. The patriotic superstition is encouraged by means of public celebrations, spectacles, monuments, festivities, which are arranged by the governments and the ruling classes on the money collected from the masses, and which make people prone to recognize the exclusive importance of their own nation and the grandeur of their own state and rulers, and to be ill inclined toward all other nations and even hate them. In connection with this, the despotic governments directly prohibit the printing and dissemination of books and the utterance of speeches which enlighten the masses, and deport or incarcerate all men who are likely to rouse the masses from their lethargy; besides, all governments without exception conceal from the masses everything which could free them, and encourage everything which could corrupt them, such as the authorship of books which maintain the masses in the savagery of their religious and patriotic superstitions, all kinds of sensuous amusements, spectacles, circuses, theatres, and even all kinds of physical intoxications, such as tobacco, and brandy, which furnish the chief income of states; they even encourage prostitution, which is not only acknowledged, but even organized by the majority of governments. Such is the third means.

The fourth means consists in this, that with the aid of the three preceding means there is segregated, from the men so fettered and stupefied, a certain small number of men, who are subjected to intensified methods of stupefaction and brutalization, and are turned into involuntary tools of all those cruelties and bestialities which the governments may need. This stupefaction and brutalization is accomplished by taking the men at that youthful age when they have not yet had time to form any firm convictions in regard to morality, and, having removed them from all natural conditions of human life, from home, family, native district, rational labor, locking them all up together in narrow barracks, dressing them up in peculiar garments, and making them, under the influence of shouts, drums, music, glittering objects, perform daily exercises specially invented for the purpose, and thus inducing such a state of hypnosis in them that they cease to be men, and become unthinking machines, which are obedient to the command of the hypnotizer. These hypnotized, physically strong young men (all young men, on account of the present universal military service), who are provided with instruments of murder, and who are always obedient to the power of the governments and are prepared to commit any act of violence at their command, form the fourth and chief means for the enslavement of men.

With this means the circle of violence is closed.

Intimidation, bribery, hypnotization, make men desirous to become soldiers; but it is the soldiers who give the power and the possibility for punishing people, and picking them clean (and bribing the officials with the money thus obtained), and for hypnotizing and enlisting them again as soldiers, who in turn afford the possibility for doing all this.

The circle is closed, and there is no way of tearing oneself away from it by means of force.

If some men affirm that the liberation from violence, or even its weakening, may be effected, should the oppressed people overthrow the oppressing government by force and substitute a new one for it, a government in which such violence and enslavement would not be necessary, and if some men actually try to do so, they only deceive themselves and others by it, and thus fail to improve men’s condition, and even make it worse. The activity of these men only intensifies the despotism of the governments. The attempts of these men at freeing themselves only give the governments a convenient excuse for strengthening their power, and actually provoke its strengthening.

Even if we admit that, in consequence of an unfortunate concurrence of events in the government, as, for example, in France in the year 1870, some governments may be overthrown by force and the power pass into other hands, this power would in no case be less oppressive than the former one, and, defending itself against the infuriated deposed enemies, would always be more despotic and cruel than the former, as indeed has been the case in every revolution.

If the socialists and communists consider the individualistic, capitalistic structure of society to be an evil, and the anarchists consider the government itself to be an evil, there are also monarchists, conservatives, capitalists, who consider the socialistic, communistic, and anarchistic order to be evil; and all these parties have no other means than force for the purpose of uniting men. No matter which of these parties may triumph, it will be compelled, for the materialization of its tenets, as well as for the maintenance of its power, not only to make use of all the existing means of violence, but also to invent new ones. Other men will be enslaved, and men will be compelled to do something else; but there will be, not only the same, but even a more cruel form of violence and enslavement, because, in consequence of the struggle, the hatred of men toward one another will be intensified, and at the same time new means of enslavement will be worked out and confirmed.

Thus it has always been after every revolution, every attempt at a revolution, every plot, every violent change of government. Every struggle only strengthens the means of the enslavement of those who at a given time are in power.

Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You; Or, Christianity Not as a Mystical Teaching but as a New Concept of Life, (1893)


Now the doctrine of Jesus, as I understood it, had an entirely different meaning. The establishment of the kingdom of God depended upon our personal efforts in the practice of Jesus’ doctrine as propounded in the five commandments, which instituted the kingdom of God upon earth. The kingdom of God upon earth consists in this, that all men should be at peace with one another. It was thus that the Hebrew prophets conceived of the rule of God. Peace among men is the greatest blessing that can exist upon this earth, and it is within reach of all men. This ideal is in every human heart. The prophets all brought to men the promise of peace. The whole doctrine of Jesus has but one object, to establish peace—the kingdom of God—among men.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in the interview with Nicodemus, in the instructions given to his disciples, in all his teachings, Jesus spoke only of this, of the things that divided men, that kept them from peace, that prevented them from entering into the kingdom of heaven. The parables make clear to us what the kingdom of heaven is, and show us the only way of entering therein, which is to love our brethren, and to be at peace with all. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, proclaimed the approach of the kingdom of God, and declared that Jesus was to bring it upon earth. Jesus himself said that his mission was to bring peace:—

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John xiv. 27).

And the observance of his five commandments will bring peace upon the earth. They all have but one object,—the establishment of peace among men. If men will only believe in the doctrine of Jesus and practise it, the reign of peace will come upon earth,—not that peace which is the work of man, partial, precarious, and at the mercy of chance; but the peace that is all-pervading, inviolable, and eternal.

The first commandment tells us to be at peace with every one and to consider none as foolish or unworthy. If peace is violated, we are to seek to re-establish it. The true religion is in the extinction of enmity among men. We are to be reconciled without delay, that we may not lose that inner peace which is the true life (Matt. v. 22–24). Everything is comprised in this commandment; but Jesus knew the worldly temptations that prevent peace among men. The first temptation perilous to peace is that of the sexual relation. We are not to consider the body as an instrument of lust; each man is to have one wife, and each woman one husband, and one is never to forsake the other under any pretext (Matt. v. 28–32). The second temptation is that of the oath, which draws men into sin; this is wrong, and we are not to be bound by any such promise (Matt. v. 34–37). The third temptation is that of vengeance, which we call human justice; this we are not to resort to under any pretext; we are to endure offences and never to return evil for evil (Matt. v. 38–42). The fourth temptation is that arising from difference in nationalities, from hostility between peoples and States; but we are to remember that all men are brothers, and children of the same Father, and thus take care that difference in nationality leads not to the destruction of peace (Matt. v. 43–48).

If men abstain from practising any one of these commandments, peace will be violated. Let men practise all these commandments, which exclude evil from the lives of men, and peace will be established upon earth. The practice of these five commandments would realize the ideal of human life existing in every human heart. All men would be brothers, each would be at peace with others, enjoying all the blessings of earth to the limit of years accorded by the Creator. Men would beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and then would come the kingdom of God,—that reign of peace foretold by all the prophets, which was foretold by John the Baptist as near at hand, and which Jesus proclaimed in the words of Isaiah:—

“’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’[10]… And he began to say unto them, To-day hath this Scripture been fulfilled in your ears” (Luke iv. 18, 19, 21).

The commandments for peace given by Jesus,—those simple and clear commandments, foreseeing all possibilities of discussion, and anticipating all objections,—these commandments proclaimed the kingdom of God upon earth. Jesus, then, was, in truth, the Messiah. He fulfilled what had been promised. But we have not fulfilled the commands we must fulfil if the kingdom of God is to be established upon earth,—that kingdom which men in all ages have earnestly desired, and have sought for continually, all their days.

One generation after another strives to find the security of its existence in violence, and by violence to protect its privileges. We believe that the happiness of our life is in power, and domination, and abundance of worldly goods. We are so habituated to this idea that we are alarmed at the sacrifices exacted by the doctrine of Jesus, which teaches that man’s happiness does not depend upon fortune and power, and that the rich cannot enter into the kingdom of God. But this is a false idea of the doctrine of Jesus, which teaches us, not to do what is the worst, but to do what is the best for ourselves here in this present life. Inspired by his love for men, Jesus taught them not to depend upon security based upon violence, and not to seek after riches, just as we teach the common people to abstain, for their own interest, from quarrels and intemperance. He said that if men lived without defending themselves against violence, and without possessing riches, they would be more happy; and he confirms his words by the example of his life. He said that a man who lives according to his doctrine must be ready at any moment to endure violence from others, and, possibly, to die of hunger and cold. But this warning, which seems to exact such great and unbearable sacrifices, is simply a statement of the conditions under which men always have existed, and always will continue to exist.

A disciple of Jesus should be prepared for everything, and especially for suffering and death. But is the disciple of the world in a more desirable situation? We are so accustomed to believe in all we do for the so-called security of life (the organization of armies, the building of fortresses, the provisioning of troops), that our wardrobes, our systems of medical treatment, our furniture, and our money, all seem like real and stable pledges of our existence. We forget the fate of him who resolved to build greater storehouses to provide an abundance for many years: he died in a night. Everything that we do to make our existence secure is like the act of the ostrich, when she hides her head in the sand, and does not see that her destruction is near. But we are even more foolish than the ostrich. To establish the doubtful security of an uncertain life in an uncertain future, we sacrifice a life of certainty in a present that we might really possess.

The illusion is in the firm conviction that our existence can be made secure by a struggle with others. We are so accustomed to this illusory so-called security of our existence and our property, that we do not realize what we lose by striving after it. We lose everything,—we lose life itself. Our whole life is taken up with anxiety for personal security, with preparations for living, so that we really never live at all.

If we take a general survey of our lives, we shall see that all our efforts in behalf of the so-called security of existence are not made at all for the assurance of security, but simply to help us to forget that existence never has been, and never can be, secure. But it is not enough to say that we are the dupes of our own illusions, and that we forfeit the true life for an imaginary life; our efforts for security often result in the destruction of what we most wish to preserve. The French took up arms in 1870 to make their national existence secure, and the attempt resulted in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen. All people who take up arms undergo the same experience. The rich man believes that his existence is secure because he possesses money, and his money attracts a thief who kills him. The invalid thinks to make his life secure by the use of medicines, and the medicines slowly poison him; if they do not bring about his death, they at least deprive him of life, till he is like the impotent man who waited thirty-five years at the pool for an angel to come down and trouble the waters. The doctrine of Jesus, which teaches us that we cannot possibly make life secure, but that we must be ready to die at any moment, is unquestionably preferable to the doctrine of the world, which obliges us to struggle for the security of existence. It is preferable because the impossibility of escaping death, and the impossibility of making life secure, is the same for the disciples of Jesus as it is for the disciples of the world; but, according to the doctrine of Jesus, life itself is not absorbed in the idle attempt to make existence secure. To the follower of Jesus life is free, and can be devoted to the end for which it is worthy,—its own welfare and the welfare of others. The disciple of Jesus will be poor, but that is only saying that he will always enjoy the gifts that God has lavished upon men. He will not ruin his own existence. We make the word poverty a synonym for calamity, but it is in truth a source of happiness, and however much we may regard it as a calamity, it remains a source of happiness still. To be poor means not to live in cities, but in the country, not to be shut up in close rooms, but to labor out of doors, in the woods and fields, to have the delights of sunshine, of the open heavens, of the earth, of observing the habits of dumb animals; not to rack our brains with inventing dishes to stimulate an appetite, and not to endure the pangs of indigestion. To be poor is to be hungry three times a day, to sleep without passing hours tossing upon the pillow a victim of insomnia, to have children, and have them always with us, to do nothing that we do not wish to do (this is essential), and to have no fear for anything that may happen. The poor person will be ill and will suffer; he will die like the rest of the world; but his sufferings and his death will probably be less painful than those of the rich; and he will certainly live more happily. Poverty is one of the conditions of following the doctrine of Jesus, a condition indispensable to those who would enter into the kingdom of God and be happy.

Leo Tolstoy, My Religion (1884)


To people living in States founded upon violence, it seems that the abolition of the power of Government will necessarily involve the greatest of disasters.

But the assertion that the degree of safety and welfare which men enjoy is ensured by State power is altogether an arbitrary one. We know those disasters and such welfare as exist among people living under State organization, but we do not know the position in which people would be were they to get clear of the State. If one takes into consideration the life of those small communities which happen to have lived and are living outside great States, such communities, whilst profiting from all the advantages of social organization, yet being free from State coercion, do not experience one-hundredth part of the disasters which are undergone by people who obey State authority.

The people of the ruling classes for whom the State organization is advantageous speak most about the impossibility of living without State organization. But ask those who bear only the weight of State power, ask the agricultural labourers, the one hundred million peasants in Russia, and you will find they feel only its burden, and, far from regarding themselves as safer because of State power, they could altogether dispense with it. In many of my writings I have repeatedly endeavoured to show that what intimidates men – the fear that without governmental power the worst men would triumph while the best would be oppressed – is precisely what has long ago happened, and is still happening, in all States, since everywhere the power is in the hands of the worst men; as, indeed, cannot be otherwise, because only the worst men could do all these crafty, dastardly and cruel acts which are necessary for participation in power. Many times I have endeavoured to explain that all the chief calamities from which men suffer, such as the accumulation of enormous wealth in the hands of some people and the deep poverty of the majority, the seizure of the land by those who do not work on it, the unceasing armaments and wars, and the deprivation of men, flow only from the recognition of the lawfulness of governmental coercion. I have endeavoured to show that before answering the question whether the position of men would be the worse or the better without Governments, one should solve the problem as to who makes up the Government. Are those who constitute it better or worse than the average level of men? If they are better than the average run, then the Government will be beneficent; but if they are worse it will be pernicious. And that these men – Ivan IV, Henry VIII, Marat, Napoleon, Arakcheyef, Metternich, Tallyrand, and Nicholas – are worse than the general run is proved by history.

In every human society there are always ambitious, unscrupulous, cruel men, who, I have already endeavoured to show, are ever ready to perpetrate any kind of violence, robbery or murder for their own advantage; and that in a society without Government these men would be robbers, restrained in their actions partly by strife with those injured by them (self-instituted justice, lynching), but partly and chiefly by the most powerful weapon of influence upon men – public opinion. Whereas in a society ruled by coercive authority, these same men are those who will seize authority and will make use of it, not only without the restraint of public opinion, but, on the contrary, supported, praised and extolled by a bribed and artificially maintained public opinion.

It is said: ‘How can people live without Governments and coercion?’. On the contrary, one should say: ‘How can people, if they are rational beings, live recognizing violence and not rational agreement as the inner connecting link of their life?’.

Either one or the other: men are either rational or irrational beings. If they are not rational beings, then all matters between them can and should be decided by violence, and there is no reason for some to have and others not to have this right to violence. But if men are rational beings, then their relations should be founded, not on violence, but on reason.

One would think that this consideration would be conclusive to men recognizing themselves as rational beings. But those who defend State power do not think of man, of his qualities, of his rational nature; they speak of a certain combination of men to which they apply a kind of supernatural or mystical signification.

What will happen to Russia, France, Britain, Germany, say they, if people cease to obey Governments? What will happen to Russia? – Russia? What is Russia? Where is its beginning or its end? Poland? The Baltic Provinces? The Caucasus with all its nationalities? The Kazan Tartars? Ferghana Province? All these are not only not Russia, but all these are foreign nationalities desirous of being freed from the combination which is called Russia. The circumstance that these nationalities are regarded as parts of Russia is an accidental and temporary one, conditioned in the past by a whole series of historical events, principally acts of violence, injustice and cruelty, whilst in the present this combination is maintained only by the power which spreads over these nationalities. During our memory, Nice was Italy and suddenly became France; Alsace was France and became Prussia. The Trans-Amur Province was China and became Russia, Sakhalin was Russia and became Japan. At present the power of Austria spreads over Hungary, Bohemia and Galicia, and that of the British Government over Ireland, Canada, Australia, Egypt and India, that of the Russian Government over Poland and Guria. But tomorrow this power may cease. The only force uniting all these Russias, Austrias, Britains and Frances is coercive power, which is the creation of men who, contrary to their rational nature and the law of freedom as revealed by Jesus, obey those who demand of them evil works of violence. Men need only become conscious of their freedom, natural to rational beings, and cease to commit acts contrary to their conscience and the Law, and then these artificial combinations of Russia, Britain, Germany, France, which appear so splendid, will no longer exist, and that cause, in the name of which people sacrifice not only their life but the liberty proper to rational beings will disappear.

It is usual to say that the formation of great States out of small ones continually struggling with each other, by substituting a great external frontier for small boundaries, diminishes strife and bloodshed and their attendant evils. But this assertion also is quite arbitrary, as no-one has weighed the quantities of evil in the one and the other positions. It is difficult to believe that all the wars of the confederate period in Russia, or of Burgundy, Flanders and Normandy in France, cost as many victims as the wars of Alexander or of Napoleon or as the Japanese war lately ended. The only justification for the expansion of the State is the formation of a universal monarchy, the existence of which would remove all possibility of war. But all attempts at forming such a monarchy by Alexander of Macedon, by the Roman Empire, or by Napoleon, never attained this objective of pacification. On the contrary, they were the cause of the greatest calamities for the nations. So that the pacification of men cannot possibly be attained except only by the opposite means: the abolition of States with their coercive power.

There have existed cruel and pernicious superstitions, human sacrifices, burnings for witchcraft, ‘religious’ wars, tortures … but men have freed themselves from these; whereas the superstition of the State as something sacred continues its hold upon men, and to this superstition are offered perhaps more cruel and ruinous sacrifices than to all the others. The essence of this superstition is this: that men of different localities, habits and interests are persuaded that they all compose one whole because one and the same violence is applied to all of them, and these men believe this, and are proud of belonging to this combination. This superstition has existed for so long and is so strenuously maintained that not only those who profit by it – kings, ministers, generals, the military and officials – are certain that the existence, confirmation and expansion of these artificial combinations is good, but even the groups within the combinations become so accustomed to this superstition that they are proud of belonging to Russia, France, Britain or Germany, although this is not at all necessary to them, and brings them nothing but evil. Therefore if these artificial combinations into great States were to be abolished by people, meekly and peacefully submitting to every kind of violence, while ceasing to obey the Government, then such an abolition would only lead to there being among such men less coercion, less suffering, less evil, and to its becoming easier for such men to live according to the higher law of mutual service, which was revealed to men two thousand five hundred years ago, and which gradually enters more and more into the consciousness of mankind.

In general for the Russian people, both the town and the country population it is, in such a critical time as the present, important above all not to live by the experience of others, not by others’ thoughts, ideas, words, not by various social democracies, constitutions, expropriations, bureaux, delegates, candidatures and mandates, but to think with their own mind, to live their own life, constructing out of their own past, out of their own spiritual foundations new forms of life proper to this past and these foundations.

Leo Tolstoy, The State (1905)


The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order and in the assertion that, without Authority there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions. They are mistaken only in thinking that anarchy can be instituted by a violent revolution. But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power and by there being more and more people who will be ashamed of applying this power.

“The capitalistic organization will pass into the hands of workers, and then there will be no more oppression of these workers, and no unequal distribution of earnings.” [Marxist]

“But who will establish the works; who will administer them?” [Anarchist]

“It will go on of its own accord; the workmen themselves will arrange everything.” [Marxist]

“But the capitalistic organization was established just because, for every practical affair, there is need for administrators furnished with power. If there be work, there will be leadership, administrators with power. And when there is power, there will be abuse of it — the very thing against which you are now striving.” [Anarchist]

* * *

To the question, how to be without a State, without courts, armies, and so on, an answer cannot be given, because the question is badly formulated. The problem is not how to arrange a State after the pattern of today, or after a new pattern. Neither I, nor any of us, is appointed to settle that question.

But, though voluntarily, yet inevitably must we answer the question, how shall I act faced with the problem which ever arises before me? Am I to submit my conscience to the acts taking place around me, am I to proclaim myself in agreement with the Government, which hangs erring men, sends soldiers to murder, demoralizes nations with opium and spirits, and so on, or am I to submit my actions to conscience, i.e., not participate in Government, the actions of which are contrary to reason?

What will be the outcome of this, what kind of a Government there will be — of all this I know nothing; not that I don’t wish to know; but that I cannot. I only know that nothing evil can result from my following the higher guidance of wisdom and love, or wise love, which is implanted in me, just as nothing evil comes of the bee following the instinct implanted in her, and flying out of the hive with the swarm, we should say, to ruin.[1] But, I repeat, I do not wish to and cannot judge about this.

In this precisely consists the power of Christ’s teaching and that not because Christ is God or a great man, but because His teaching is irrefutable. The merit of His teaching consists in the fact that it transferred the matter from the domain of eternal doubt and conjecture on to the ground of certainty. You are a man, a being rational and kind, and you know that today or tomorrow you will die, disappear. If there be a God then you will go to Him and He will ask of you an account of your actions, whether you have acted in accordance with His law, or, at least, with the higher qualities implanted in you. If there be no God, you regard reason and love as the highest qualities, and must submit to them your other inclinations, and not let them submit to your animal nature — to the cares about the commodities of life, to the fear of annoyance and material calamities.

The question is not, I repeat, which community will be the more secure, the better — the one which is defended by arms, cannons, gallows or the one that is not so safeguarded. But there is only one question for a man, and on it is impossible to evade: “Will you, a rational and good being, having for a moment appeared in this world, and at any moment liable to disappear — will you take part in the murder of erring men or men of a different race, will you participate in the extermination of whole nations of so-called savages, will you participate in the artificial deterioration of generations of men by means of opium and spirits for the sake of profit, will you participate in all these actions, or even be in agreement with those who permit them, or will you not?”

And there can be but one answer to this question for those to whom it has presented itself. As to what the outcome will be of it, I don’t know, because it is not given to me to know. But what should be done, I do unmistakably know. And if you ask: “What will happen?”, then I reply that good will certainly happen; because, acting in the way indicated by reason and love, I am acting in accordance with the highest law known to me. The situation of the majority of men, enlightened by true brotherly enlightenment, at present crushed by the deceit and cunning of usurpers, who are forcing them to ruin their own lives — this situation is terrible and appears hopeless.

Only two issues present themselves, and both are closed. One is to destroy violence by violence, by terrorism, dynamite bombs and daggers as our Nihilists and Anarchists have attempted to do, to destroy this conspiracy of Governments against nations, from without; the other is to come to an agreement with the Government, making concessions to it, participating in it, in order gradually to disentangle the net which is binding the people, and to set them free. Both these issues are closed. Dynamite and the dagger, as experience has already shown, only cause reaction, and destroy the most valuable power, the only one at our command, that of public opinion.

The other issue is closed, because Governments have already learnt how far they may allow the participation of men wishing to reform them. They admit only that which does not infringe, which is non-essential; and they are very sensitive concerning things harmful to them — sensitive because the matter concerns their own existence. They admit men who do not share their views, and who desire reform, not only in order to satisfy the demands of these men, but also in their own interest, in that of the Government. These men are dangerous to the Governments if they remain outside them and revolt against them — opposing to the Governments the only effective instrument the Governments possess — public opinion; they must therefore render these men harmless, attracting them by means of concessions, in order to render them innocuous (like cultivated microbes), and then make them serve the aims of the Governments, i.e., oppress and exploit the masses.

Both these issues being firmly closed and impregnable, what remains to be done?

To use violence is impossible; it would only cause reaction. To join the ranks of the Government is also impossible — one would only become its instrument. One course therefore remains — to fight the Government by means of thought, speech, actions, life, neither yielding to Government nor joining its ranks and thereby increasing its power.

This alone is needed, will certainly be successful.

And this is the will of God, the teaching of Christ. There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man.

How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.

Leo Tolstoy, On Anarchy (1900)


(All selections were made from the collection of Leo Tolstoy’s writings from the Anarchist Library)

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