Tolstoy on War and State

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Considered one of the greatest novelists of all time, Lev Tolstoy authored such celebrated works as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

But even though he is mostly known for his novels and short stories, Tolstoy was also a prolific non-fiction writer. His non-fiction, however, has been largely dismissed. A pacifist and passionate proponent of the non-aggression principle, his ideas were deemed too extreme from his day onward.

Already during his lifetime it was said that Tolstoy was a brilliant novelist but only an average philosopher. The latter part of this conventional wisdom is wrong. The truth is that in addition to being a genius story teller Lev Tolstoy was also a superb political theorist and philosopher.

As you will see, Tolstoy’s analysis of the nature of government is as incisive as anything Murray Rothbard ever wrote on the subject.

Below you will find an excerpt from Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Of special importance for students of political theory is the sixth chapter in which Tolstoy explains why the peace movement of his time was destined for failure. With his preternatural insight, Tolstoy shows how the governments of that day not only co-opted the peace movement but used it to further the cause of war.

In the process of explaining that insidious co-option, Tolstoy elucidates the nature of the state and explains why violence and war are necessary for its successful functioning.

Tolstoy thus affirms the truth of a dictum frequently quoted by Murray Rothbard: "War is the health of the state." If you ever doubted that this is so, let Tolstoy’s conclusions serve as evidence of its correctness. It cannot be an accident that the views on government of a Russian literary mystic cohere so closely with that of an unorthodox Jewish economist from Bronx. Their views can only coincide, because their quest for truth took them to the same destination despite their different backgrounds and cultures.

The affinity between these two thinkers is startling indeed. While Rothbard calls government "a gang of thieves writ large," Tolstoy uses the term "a band of brigands." If one did not know better, he would think that Tolstoy was — at least when it comes to views on government — a Russian incarnation of Rothbard. But since Tolstoy died some sixteen years before Rothbard was born perhaps the incarnation relationship runs the other way.

Needless to say, Tolstoy’s incisive analysis sheds a devastating light of truth on the real nature of the state. Most importantly, Tolstoy views are as relevant and applicable today as they were when he first so eloquently articulated them more than a century ago.

Note on the Text: The following excerpt comes from the sixth chapter of Tolstoy’s book titled The Kingdom of God Is Within You. The English version below is from the translation by Constance Garnett which was first published in New York in January of 1894. The text of this translation is currently in the public domain in the United States. As such it can be copied and distributed freely.

To suggest to governments that they should not have
recourse to violence, but should decide their misunderstandings in
accordance with equity, is inviting them to abolish themselves as
rulers, and that no government can ever consent to do.

[T]he specialty of government is not to obey, but to enforce obedience. And a government is only a government so long as it can make itself obeyed, and therefore it always strives for that and will never willingly abandon its power. But since it is on the army that the power of government rests, it will never give up the army, and the use of the army in war.

The error arises from the learned jurists deceiving themselves and others, by asserting that government is not what it really is, one set of men banded together to oppress another set of men, but, as shown by science, is the representation of the citizens in their collective capacity. They have so long been persuading other people of this that at last they have persuaded themselves of it; and thus they often seriously suppose that government can be bound by considerations of justice. But history shows that from Caesar to Napoleon, and from Napoleon to Bismarck, government is in its essence always a force acting in violation of justice, and that it cannot be otherwise. Justice can have no binding force on a ruler or rulers who keep men, deluded and drilled in readiness for acts of violence — soldiers, and by means of them control others. And so governments can never be brought to consent to diminish the number of these drilled slaves, who constitute their whole power and importance.

Such is the attitude of certain learned men to the contradiction under which our society is being crushed, and such are their methods of solving it. Tell these people that the whole matter rests on the personal attitude of each man to the moral and religious question put nowadays to everyone, the question, that is, whether it is lawful or unlawful for him to take his share of military service, and these learned gentlemen will shrug their shoulders and not condescend to listen or to answer you.

The solution of the question in their idea is to be found in reading addresses, writing books, electing presidents, vice-presidents, and secretaries, and meeting and speaking first in one town and then in another. From all this speechifying and writing it will come to pass, according to their notions, that governments will cease to levy the soldiers, on whom their whole strength depends, will listen to their discourses, and will disband their forces, leaving themselves without any defense, not only against their neighbors, but also against their own subjects. As though a band of brigands, who have some unarmed travelers bound and ready to be plundered, should be so touched by their complaints of the pain caused by the cords they are fastened with as to let them go again.

Still there are people who believe in this, busy themselves over peace congresses, read addresses, and write books. And governments, we may be quite sure, express their sympathy and make a show of encouraging them. In the same way they pretend to support temperance societies, while they are living principally on the drunkenness of the people; and pretend to encourage education, when their whole strength is based on ignorance; and to support constitutional freedom, when their strength rests on the absence of freedom; and to be anxious for the improvement of the condition of the working classes, when their very existence depends on their oppression; and to support Christianity, when Christianity destroys all government.

To be able to do this they have long ago elaborated methods encouraging temperance, which cannot suppress drunkenness; methods of supporting education, which not only fail to prevent ignorance, but even increase it; methods of aiming at freedom and constitutionalism, which are no hindrance to despotism; methods of protecting the working classes, which will not free them from slavery; and a Christianity, too, they have elaborated, which does not destroy, but supports governments.

Now there is something more for the government to encourage — peace. The sovereigns, who nowadays take counsel with their ministers, decide by their will alone whether the butchery of millions is to be begun this year or next. They know very well that all these discourses upon peace will not hinder them from sending millions of men to butchery when it seems good to them. They listen even with satisfaction to these discourses, encourage them, and take part in them.

All this, far from being detrimental, is even of service to governments, by turning people’s attention from the most important and pressing question: Ought or ought not each man called upon for military service to submit to serve in the army?

“Peace will soon be arranged, thanks to alliances and congresses, to books and pamphlets; meantime go and put on your uniform, and prepare to cause suffering and to endure it for our benefit,” is the government’s line of argument. And the learned gentlemen who get up congresses and write articles are in perfect agreement with it… And since it [this attitude] is that most beneficial to governments, it is also the most encouraged by all intelligent governments.

Born and raised under a totalitarian regime, Vasko Kohlmayer [send him mail] is a freelance writer who loves liberty.

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