Russia -- A Touchstone, August 1918

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↑Jane Addams


The year of Tolstoy's death when his admirers all over the world were filled with that peculiar sense of loss which a withdrawal of moral leadership implies, the interpretation of Romain Rolland brought to many of us a healing and comfort which it would be difficult to exaggerate. In an analysis of Tolstoy's relation to his countrymen, Mr. Rolland said that "The Russian people has always assumed in regard to power, an attitude entirely strange to the other people of Europe. It has never entered into a conflict with power, it has never participated in it, and consequently has never been depraved by it. It has regarded power as an evil which much be avoided."

The refusal of the Allied Governments to take part in the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk suggests that they are literally blind to the Russia conception of life which in that shell-wrecked town is striving single-handed to remodel and enlarge the relations between nations. If we may assume that the Bolsheviki government, in arranging an armistice, merely recognized the fact that the Russian soldiers had ceased to fight, which Kerensky's group, or any other remaining in power, would at length have been obliged to recognize; that no governmental group could have been eventually upheld by the Russian people [page 2] unless it had declared for peace and for free land, we may conclude that however much in a minority and however doctrinaire the Bolsheviki may be, in these two demands at least they voice the desires of the Russian people and that their appeal for the diplomatic and moral support of the allies in their attempt to have ↑secure↓ the first of these, is fairly representative of national sentiment.

In an attempt to understand the attitude of the Allies, to this very human situation, the question suggests itself, have the slogans -- this is a war to end war and a war to safeguard the world for democracy -- become so necessary to united military action that the Allies shrink from this naive attempt to accomplish their own aims ↑or↓ that they are so obsessed by the dogmatic morality of war, so lost in a grey limbo of abstraction, where ↑that↓ all humanly tangible distinctions between normal and abnormal ↑have↓ disappeared.

The necessity for holding fast to slogans, to an abstraction, as it were, suggests one of those great historic myths which large bodies of men are prone to make for themselves when "they unite in a common purpose requiring for its consummation the thorough and efficient output of moral energy." Mankind is so fertile in virtue and heroism, so prone to transcend his own powers, that the making and unmaking of these myths always accompanies a period of great moral awakening. Such myths are almost certain to outlast their social utility, and they frequently outlive their originators; as the myth of The Second Coming -- evolved by the Early Christians when only Heaven could contain their hopes -- held for a thousand years.

Has this myth of ours, that Democracy is to be secured [page 3] through war, so obsessed the Allies that they are constrained to insist that the troops fight it out on the eastern front as elsewhere, in spite of the fact that fraternal intercourse is the very matrix of Democracy? Has war so militarized and clericalized the leading nations of the earth that it is difficult for them to believe that the Russian soldiers, having experienced that purification of the imagination and of the intellect which the Greeks believed to come through pity and terror, have merely been the first to resolve the myth into its component parts, to envisage it freshly and to reduce it to its human terms?

Vernon Lee contends that it is the essential characteristic of an historic myth that so long as it does not attempt to produce its own realization, it begets unhesitating belief and wholesale action and that as men go on expecting it with sufficient self-denying fervor, they secure a great output of sanctity and heroism.

The necessity for continuing this output, of unifying diverse nations, may account for the touch of fear one detects on the part of the most ardent advocates of war, when they are asked not to ignore the fact that at least on one front, war is actually ending under conditions of disarmament and free trade, and that democracy can be established throughout one sixth of the earth's surface, only if the Russian people have a chance to give their undivided attention to their internal affairs.

Would the Allies rather accept a simulacrum of [page 4] democratic government in Russia than to jar the abstraction which has become so dear to them? Do they realize instinctively that it is unwise to cripple the usefulness of a slogan by partial achievement? Certainly the myth of the Second Coming barely survived the fixing of the date of its consummation and after the year one thousand, it ceased to be a vital force in the world, but on the other hand we are accustomed to think of the western nations as ready to recognize life's inevitable compromise, and of the Russians as more severely logical than life itself warrants.

It is perhaps to be expected that Russia should be the first nation to apply the touchstone of reality to this warring world so absorbed in abstraction. If Tolstoy may be considered in any sense the prototype of his countrymen, it may be permitted to cite his inveterate dislike of abstractions, whether stated in philosophic, patriotic, or religious terms; his firm believe that such abstractions lay the foundations for blind fanaticism; his oft-repeated statement that certain forms of patriotism are inimical to a life of reason. He contended that Russia should stand free from all warfare because she must accomplish the Great Revolution. This revolution which would set men free from brutal oppression must before all repair "the great crime", which, in Tolstoy's mind was always the monopolization of the land by a few thousand men with resulting enslavement of millions of others. The revolution must begin in Russia because no people are so conscious [page 5] of this iniquity as the Russian people. Their present absorption in the revolution may have caused the Russians to regard this world war as a mere interruption to the fulfillment of their supreme obligation as their inveterate land hunger has driven them back to their main business of tilling the soil. In the Russian peasant's dread of war there has always been a passive resistance to the reduction of the food supply, because he well knows that when a man is fighting he is not producing food and that he and his family with all the rest of the world will at length be in danger of starvation. Next to the masses of India and China, the Russian peasant feels the pinch of poverty and hunger more keenly and frequently than any other people on earth. Russia is the land of modern famines -- they occurred in 1891, 1906, and in 1911. The latter, still vivid in the memory of living men, affected thirty million people, and reduced eight million people to actual starvation. The Russian peasant has seen three and a half years of the Great War, during which time according to his own accounting seven million of his people have perished and the Russian soldiers never adequately equipped with ammunition, food, and clothing, have been reduced to the last extremity. To go back to his village, to claim his share of food, to till the ground as quickly as possible, is to follow his imperative and unerring instinct. In his village, if anywhere, he will find bread. Prince Kropotkin in his "Conquest of Bread" -- written twelve years [page 6] ago -- predicted that so soon as The Revolution came, ↑(so of course all the earlier Revolutionists believe that it would come in many nations of Europe at the same time)↓ the Russian peasant would keep enough bread for himself and children, but that the towns and cities would experience such a dearth of grain that "the farmers in America could hardly be able to cover it." But he adds "There will be an increase of production as soon as the peasant realizes that he is no longer forced to support the idle rich by his toil. New tracts of land will be cleared and improved machines set agoing...Never was the land so energetically cultivated as by the French peasants in 1792."

If it is the supreme function of genius to interpret his fellowmen, it is possible that Tolstoy may be able to throw light on the insistence of the Russian soldier to convert the individual enemy rather than to fight the German army, to break through the myth that Democracy can be established through the agency of large masses of men fighting other large masses. Tolstoy said in many forms that when we confound principles with people, it shows that we understand neither religion nor our fellow-men. "Many men not otherwise stupid, when they see that a thing is wrong, can not stop to discriminate between people and principle, or to understand that it is by enlightening the people rather than by hating them that progress can be made; that to enlighten people much sympathy and kindly consideration of the reasons for their errors is required." To ticket bodies of men by a collective name, and to regard the men as we believe the principles deserve to be regarded, is an egregious blunder [page 7] similar to that made by the dull school boy who confuses ["]his apples and pears with dollars and cents." It is characteristic of the Russian that he should fearlessly put his moral sentiment to the test of action, that if he really believes the Germans ought to inaugurate a revolution for themselves similar to this one that he should put it "up to" such individual Germans as he could reach. In all of the Russian's religious devotion there is an argumentative skepticism, a desire to know for himself, and to convince others, that we do not ordinarily associate with the pious mind taking its instructions meekly and without question. In point of fact, it makes the Russian only more secure in his conviction. His belief seems to him absolutely reasonable, as well as pious, and he is calmly willing to put his dogma to the test. 

As [dispatch] of January 7th reporting an interview with [Mr.] Radek, one of the Russian delegates to Brest-Litovsk, reads as follows: "Our strength lies in our weakness, and if we accepted help from the Allies, the significance of our position would be destroyed. The weaker we are, the stronger we are. The Germans can drive us back, but what good would it do them? We stand for a democratic peace. So do the German working classes. If the German Government attacks us, it will display itself to its own people in its true light." The Allies might well be grateful that the Russians are challenging our over-wrought nationalistic feeling if only because "the press [page 8] of all the belligerent countries has succeeded in exciting to an unknown degree the most horrible of all powers -- national hatred and idiotic race animosity, a hatred which is not founded upon the individual's faults and crimes, but upon his race and birthplace." The Russian Revolution, in spite of the rampant nationalism filling the world at this moment, is faithfully reflecting that desire for moral unity which is the great achievement of the last century. It may be quite possible that the war will be settled upon the lines of the recognition of nationalities just when the nationalistic fervor has worn itself out, quite as the last of the great religious wars was settled on doctrinal lines at the very moment that men ceased to care supremely about doctrines, although they still used difference in doctrines for war cries and were ready to fight for those differences.

Throughout this great war, Romain Rolland has insisted that there is a higher affection than love of country which must be drawn upon before the sacrifice can be ended of "the heroic youth of the world whom a common ideal tragically pits against one another."

Has not the situation already been reached among the warring powers, when something else -- the very antidote of coercion must be substituted, for instance, a reasonableness "so uncontroversial, so appealing that the opponent becomes the auxiliary; a-will-to-good so strong that it does not annul that of the enemy, but irresistibly draws it into cooperation." These are the very tactics that the Russians [page 9] are attempting.

[Bertrand] Russell has pointed out the great possibility for the nation which should painstakingly prepare its young men to use their intellectual and spiritual ardors in such international crises as have hitherto been met by military force. Has it remained for the Russians to put into practice the high doctrine so ably stated in the allied countries of France and England? Have they applied the touchstone of reality to an abstraction which is holding in its grip the leading minds of the world? [page 10]

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