Remarks on Tolstoy and the Russian Revolution, August 1918

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↑Longer article not sent to the New Republic -- shorter one sent

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 interpretations of Romain Rolland brought to many of us a healing and a 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 must be avoided."

May not this tendency to stand aside from political organization with its unreal abstractions and to cling to the tangible realities of existence, explain certain aspects of the present situation which it is so difficult for the outside world to understand? If it is a supreme function of genius to interpret his fellowmen, it is possible that Tolstoy may be able to throw light on the conditions in contemporary Russia which at moments seem to be so largely the result of the Russian temperament. It may be permitted to cite Tolstoy's inveterate distrust of abstractions, whether stated in philosophic, patriotic or religious terms; his firm belief that such abstractions lay the foundations for blind fanaticism; his oft-repeated statement that they are inimical to a life of reason. Tolstoy said in many forms that when we confound principles with people, it shows that we understand neither religion or our fellowmen:

"Many men not otherwise stupid, when they see that a thing is wrong, cannot 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 reasons for the 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 similar to that made by the dull school boy who unwittingly reduces his pears and apples into money. [page 2]

It would be difficult to find a statement presenting a greater contrast to the present mood of the Allied nations who, with all their grim determination and wonderful practicality in carrying on the war, are in a state of exalted heroism which will not brook any analysis of their motives and is often intolerant of even the most friendly discussion. At moments it is possible to find traces among them of the historic mood which has been so brilliantly formulated by Vernon Lee who contends that "When large bodies of men unite in a common purpose requiring for its consummation the thorough and efficient output of moral energy they are prone to make for themselves slogans and fixed ideas which gradually evolve into great historic myths; that mankind is so fertile in virtue and heroism, so prone to transcend his own powers; that the making and unmaking of the myths always accompanies a period of great moral awakening."

Two instances at least, during the last year, which sharply revealed a wide difference in point of view between Russia and the other Allied nations, suggested that the latter had fallen into the mood of myth-making at the very moment when the Russians were painfully and awkwardly growing toward new realities.

The first instance was the failure of the Allied Statesmen to define their peace terms in response to Kerensky's fervent appeal; and the second was the refusal of the allied diplomats to cooperate with the Russians when they were making their hard-driven bargain at Brest-Litovsk. In an analysis of the first situation one may cite the contention of Vernon Lee 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 fervor, they secure a great output of sanctity and heroism, but that it is always difficult for such myths to survive the test of their own partial consummation [page 3] because the actual achievement cannot possibly be so great as those who have sustained the long moral endeavor have a right to expect. Did the Allied nations subconsciously recognize the fact that undivided aims capable of unifying nations must necessarily be vague and can one detect a fear lest the moral output be lowered if they should have responded to Kerensky's appeal and should have reduced the war aims to concrete terms? Repeatedly Kerensky begged for such a statement. He wished to assure the Russian people that the imperialistic designs of certain of the European Allies as revealed later in the secret treaties published by the Bolsheviki had been definitely renounced. The Allied nations neglected this opportunity to cooperate with Kerensky's "political offensive" and insisted that military tactics must be renewed irrespective of the concrete aims of the war.

The second challenge from Russia was ignored by the Allied governments when they refused to take any part in the [negotiations] of Brest-Litovsk and suggests that in their devotion to military and diplomatic abstractions they were literally blind to the Russians' conception of life which in that shell-[wracked] town was striving singlehanded to remodel and enlarge the relations between nations. If we may assume that the Bolsheviki, 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 have been at length obliged to recognize; that no governmental group could have been eventually upheld by the Russian people unless it had declared for peace and free land -- and there is always [Lenin's] phrase "There is nothing else to do" -- we may conclude that however much in a minority and however doctrinaire the Bolsheviki may have been, in these two demands at least they voiced the desires of the Russian people and that their appeal for the diplomatic and moral support of their Allies was fairly representative of a national sentiment. [page 4]

The Russian Revolution, in spite of the rampant nationalism filling the world at the time of its birth, at Brest-Litovsk still faithfully reflected that desire for moral unity which was the great achievement of the last century as the recognition that genuine national interests are also international interests is said to have been its great social discovery. [Trotsky] at least made an appeal which transcended national lines. Russia had perforce given up the military offensive but there was still an opportunity to try another political offensive. We shall never know how near the [Bolsheviki] came to bringing about the German Revolution in those few weeks of desperate finessing at Brest-Litovsk. Certainly the Allied governments had not succeeded in obtaining it through their nearly four years of military offensive. [Trotsky] did not attempt "[nonresistance]" as has been sometimes stated. He merely tried to substitute ↑a↓ war of economic classes on an international basis for a war waged along nationalistic lines. His appeal to a loyalty higher than love of country failed but he made a desperate effort to utilize it before he submitted to the conditions of the wretched armistice. [Trotsky] himself here failed through his own adherence to abstractions. Theoretical socialism has certainly been the weakness of the Bolsheviki regime. It is said that in the Revolution of 1905 when the political strike became a powerful weapon and the village revolts spread like wildfire, [Trotsky] in the midst of the conflagration framed his theory of an immediate transition from absolutism to a socialistic order. Olgin tells us that [Trotsky] probably reasoned that "once in power the proletariat ought to appear before the peasantry as its real liberator and that it might be possible to win over millions of peasants after declaring all the land the property of the people." Having secured its class rule over Russia why then should the proletariat help to establish parliamentary government which is the rule of the Bourgeois classes [page 5] over the people? Why should the proletariat open up an era of parliamentary politics in which Social Democracy always forms only a party of opposition? [Trotsky] thus felt justified in breaking up the Constituent Assembly and this violent action had at once placed the Bolsheviki completely out of step with the declared purpose of the Allied Nations, i.e. to establish a responsible parliamentary government in Germany through which other democratic governments might deal directly with the representatives of the German people. On the other hand, [Trotsky's] theory of proletarian rule was more sympathetic with the theories held by the large body of Social Democrats in Germany who had striven for political power largely for the sake of securing economic changes. [Trotsky] reasoned that if his theory had "worked" at all in Russia, it would much more easily succeed in Germany where the proletariat is more class-conscious, more numerous and better organized. As war correspondent in the Balkans in [1912], [Trotsky] had become much impressed with the internationalizing spirit of war itself. It was perhaps natural for him to assume that the long continued war had brought the German proletariat into an international mood even if the formal "Internationale" organization of the Socialists had given way. [Trotsky], however, made the old mistake of believing that he could carry out a theory irrespective of the actual experiences of the people about him and in the stubborn application of his theory he eventually became quite as much out of sympathy with the bulk of the Russian people, on the one hand, as he was with the Allied Governments on the other. For at the Brest-Litovsk conference itself, it was evident that representatives of the Russian Revolutionists believed that a situation had been reached when something else -- the very antidote of coercion -- must be substituted; a reasonableness, for instance, "so uncontroversial, so appealing that the opponent becomes the auxiliary; a will-to-good so [page 6] strong that it does not annul that of the enemy but irresistibly draws it into cooperation." Doubtless remembering their successes with the political strike and their other uses of organized passive resistance, a [dispatch] of January 7th, 1918, reporting an interview with [Mr.] Radek, one of the Russian delegates to Brest-Litovsk, was fairly typical. It reads as follows:

"Our strength lies in our weakness. The weaker we are, the stronger we are. The Germans can drive us back but what good would it do them? We stand for 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."

Such a statement, while in line with Russia's dull resistance to Charles XII and to Napoleon I., both of which had been successful, is in absolute contrast to [Trotsky's] appeal for a class war which in its very theoretical statement issued a mandate to the Russian Revolutionists themselves to loot the landlords and other property owning classes among their own countrymen. The use of force thus became sanctioned and domesticated, as it were, among the same men who in the first marvelous days of the revolution, in their Franciscan piety, had loosed from their nets the very fishes in the Neva River because they wished them too to be free; and who stood for hours in the streets endlessly talking to each other of the strange good fortune which had befallen them. One's mind instinctively goes back to Tolstoy's teaching. The great Russian who never wavered in his protest against the substitution of the use of force when reason should be employed. He insisted that because it was easier and quicker to knock a man down than to convert him, society so often employed that method, especially when it could ease its conscience by first calling the man a criminal. But at no time did Tolstoy protest against the use of force more earnestly than when it was used by the Russian government against its own citizens driven into revolution. His protests against the wholesale execution of revolutionists had so touched the hearts of many [page 7] Russians, that after Tolstoy's death in the fall of 1910 thousands of students protested against capital punishment, as the most fitting memorial to him, in a wave of student strikes which rolled from Petrograd to Moscow, from [Kiev] to Odessa. This spontaneous understanding of his doctrines gives us courage once more to consider Tolstoy as in a sense the prototype of his countrymen and to believe that they will at length oppose a passive resistance to riot and disorder as they have already opposed it to war. [Trotsky's] theory also ignored the naïve and spontaneous method employed by the Russian soldiers themselves in the first days of the revolution when, believing that the Germans should inaugurate a similar revolution for themselves, the Russian soldiers had "put it up to" such individual Germans as they could reach. Russian soldiers, it is said, talked to German soldiers throughout the length of two thousand miles of trenches from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. These simple men assumed, quite naturally, that fraternal intercourse is the very matrix of democracy. With our Anglo-Saxon crispness of expression we are prone to be amused at the Russian's inveterate habit of discussion and to quote with tolerant contempt the old saying, "Two Russians -- three opinions," without stopping to reflect that the method has in practice worked out excellently for the self-governing administration of village affairs throughout an enormous territory.


When the first detachment of the [Doukhobors] -- a religious sect of non-resistants in whose emigration to America Tolstoy was most interested and for whose removal he had contributed the proceeds of his novel ["Resurrection"] -- were settling in western Canada, they discussed for two and a half days and two nights the location of the three villages into which the detachment was divided. One possible site was very much more desirable than the other two and the Anglo-Saxon [onlooker] feared that this factor alone might indefinitely prolong [the] difficulty of the decision. But not at all -- the discussion came to a natural end, the matter was settled and never again reopened nor was the disparity and the desirability of the locations ever again referred to by anyone concerned. The matter had been satisfactorily settled in the prolonged discussion by all the "souls" entitled to participate. It proved after all to have been a very good way. [page 8]

We forget that to obtain the "inner consent" of a man who differs from us is always a slow process, that quite as it is quicker to punish an unruly child than to bring him to a reasonable state of mind; to imprison a criminal than to reform him; to coerce an ignorant man than to teach him the meaning of the law he is asked to obey, so it is quicker to fight armies of men than to convince them one by one. Nevertheless it is characteristic of the Russian that he should fearlessly put his moral sentiment to the test of action. In all of the Russian 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. He subconsciously recognizes the fact that passive resistance has been the natural expression of Russian discontent with economic and political conditions. At any rate the Russian peasants were quite unprepared for [Trotsky's] proposition that the fighting should continue and should merely transfer itself to a war between the proletarians and the capitalists.

Certainly a sharp challenge of reality in two notable instances has come from Russia within a year and 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 abstractions. The Russians have always tended to judge life by men rather than by theories, to see the world in its actualities, to do the will rather than to know the doctrine. Has this attitude been the result of the unremitting toil of the Russian peasant, his daily effort to secure food for himself, for his family and for his village? Has the tax gatherer who so ruthlessly each year took the moiety of the peasant's grain and cattle for some vague and incomprehensible purpose of [page 9] "government" but increased his tendency to realism in all political affairs.

Next to the masses of India and China, the Russian peasant feels the pinch of hunger more keenly and frequently than any other people on earth. Russia is the land of modern famines, they occurred in 1891, in 1906, and 1911. The last still vivid in the memory of living men affected thirty million people and reduced eight million to actual starvation. It was the first of these famines and his experience in trying to feed his starving fellow countrymen, that drove Tolstoy from his life of "gentlemen farmer" to work with his own hands upon the soil, a practice which he never wholly abandoned, even to his extreme old age.

The Russian peasant has seen four 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 munition, food and clothing, have been reduced to the last extremity. It is said that they had so steadily foraged for five hundred miles back of the lines that scarcely a particle of food was left in the territory and the peasants living there [in spite of their] instinct to cling desperately to their own lands, have been obliged to abandon their patrimonies lest they too should starve. The Russian soldier but followed his imperative and unerring instinct when he went back to his village, claimed his share of food and tilled the ground as quickly as possible. In his village, if anywhere, he would find bread. The revolution had come, to him a much greater event than the war which was mere incident in his long history of suffering. Prince Kropotkin in his book "The Conquest of Bread," written twelve years ago, predicted that so as "The Revolution" came, the peasants would keep enough bread for himself and his children, but [page 10] that the towns and cities would experience such a dearth of grain that "The farmers in America would 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." 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 of the rest of the world will at length be in danger of starvation.

Tolstoy begged that Russia should stand free from all warfare because she must accomplish the Great Revolution, which would set men free from brutal oppression and which must before all repair "The Great Crime." This 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 of this iniquity as the Russian people. In a sense therefore the peasant regarded this world war as a mere interruption to the fulfilment of their supreme obligation to secure a more equitable distribution of the land. He of course expected the Revolution to achieve this end as his inveterate land hunger, his desire to carry on his main business of tilling the soil had been at the basis of the Revolution of 1905. The great achievement of that previous revolution had been the law issued November 9th of the following year which made it possible for the individual peasant to receive his share of the land as private property and thus become "free" from the inconveniences of the village community. Unfortunately much land thus often fell into the hands of the village sharks for the peasant [page 11] also had thus acquired the right to sell and many of them were absolutely destitute. Most of them, however, continued to live on their inadequate "strips" and famine became almost a constant feature of Russian rural life. Twenty million peasants had not enough to feed themselves and their families in 1911 and 1912, and eight million in that year received hunger rations from the administrative government. The relief brought to the peasant by the revolution of 1905 was more theoretical than actual, he still [suffered] from a dearth of land although he knew more definitely of the millions of acres in Siberia and in other parts of the vast empire which were absolutely uncultivated. From that time on it is said the peasant has tended to ignore his political limitations or rather in spite of them there has developed throughout Russia vast cooperative societies and experiments in economic relationships which have grown in the midst of changing political conditions. "The Moscow District Supply Company" for instance, consists of sixteen agricultural districts and eleven industrial districts and numbers a membership of five million people. They arrange the exchange of grain for manufactured products between their own members, between the producers of food and their city neighbors. There is a railroad organization, composed of employees from the Minister of Communication and Ways to the humblest worker, which was organized for the purpose of supplying the railroad men themselves with food stuffs during the war. This organization has been most successful in its purposes and is constantly growing, their capital has already reached two million rubles, and their membership one and a half million. The representatives of these two organizations who came to the United States in the early months of 1918 gave one a fresh impression of Russia's realism and her capacity to deal with an actual economic situation. One was reminded of another prediction of Prince Kropotkin's that when the revolution came money [page 12] would be of no value but that an elaborate system of barter would gradually be developed. Of course such a primitive system cannot endure, but it can easily be the beginning of more genuine governmental relationships, recognizing basic economic needs and human obligations. In line with these organizations during the great war itself civilian cooperation in Russia largely took the form of economic relief for the soldiers. The [Zemstvos] formed a national union of [Zemstvos] who provided the army with food and clothing; the Municipalities formed a Union of Cities with a similar program; big industry formed an industrial military committee with branches all over Russia. Something of the same tendency was exhibited among the Russians in the United States; a curious and very spontaneous manifestation of good-will towards Russia occurred in Chicago in the spring of 1918. A society was organized with the slogan: "Ten million pairs of shoes for Russia" and thousands of old shoes were actually collected and placed in a warehouse. The promoters contended that all of the Russian peasants knew how to work in leather and could make their own shoes if they only had the material with which to work. In reply to the objection that even if it were practicable to send the shoes they might easily fall into the hands of the Germans, the reply was always the same; that although there might be a risk of Germany's seizing the goods sent into Russia, if the United States did nothing at all in Russia's period of greatest distress and need, we ran the risk of Germany's obtaining the good-will of the entire country and of America's suffering an alienation and misunderstanding from which we might never recover.

Of course Anglo-Saxon good sense prevailed in the end and the shoes were never collected and sent, although there is no doubt that such a homely expression of good-will would have been most valuable for the future relations between the two countries. Throughout the prolonged [page 13] discussion I sometimes remembered what a famous British statesman wrote to Charles Sumner in 1862 concerning the cotton spinners of Lancashire who were starving owing to the withdrawal of southern cotton, but who nevertheless held to their [principle] that slave-grown cotton was an infamy. "Our people will be kept alive by the contributions of this country but I see that someone in the States has proposed to send something to our aid. If a few cargoes of flour could come, say 50,000 barrels, as a gift from persons in your northern states to the Lancashire workmen, it would have a [prodigious] effect in your favor here."

If this realistic interpretation of the war situation on the part of all classes added to the apparently instinctive tendency to terminate the war itself through the method of passive [resistance] had been followed by the [Czechoslovaks] within the very confines of Russia itself and by the border states in their intercourse with Germany, the present confused situation might have been avoided.

If the [Czechoslovaks] had remained faithful to the ideals of Pan-Slavism and had preached non-intercourse with the German economic penetration as a practical measure; if they had had recourse to their old method -- through which the Slavs in Bohemia have successfully resisted "Germanization" through generations -- and had converted to Slavic ideals all those with whom they came in contact, albeit by the means of interminable argument; if they had refrained from the use of violence to which the Russian had been urged by an imported dynasty and by strange Allies but to which they should not have been urged by their own kinsmen, who dares to predict what the result would have been? The Finns had won a constitution even from autocratic Russia by means of a universal and bloodless strike and lost it in time of war; yet in the crisis with Germany they raised a White Guard to fight against their brothers, a proceeding which [page 14] brought them help from military Germany, left them victorious over the representatives of the Bolsheviki but absolutely in the hands of the Germans.

The Lithuanians, having fought the revolutionists because they apparently distrusted their own ability to convert them, were content to cling to the fiction of self-government and gave up to the Germans the direction of their economic affairs such as the administration of the R.R. and the control of tariffs -- an absolute reversal of the methods learned through bitter experience of the peasants.

Did the [Czechoslovaks], the Lithuanians, and the Finns all fall back into the ways of war not so much because they distrusted any other method as because they had never been taught how to apply any other. In a world filled with military operations it is perhaps to be expected that they should fall into the universal belief concerning the efficacy of war. An English philosopher has pointed out the untried possibilities for the nation which should painstakingly prepare its young men to use its intellectual and spiritual ardors in such international crises as had hitherto been met by military force. Have the Russians attempted bunglingly and with every aspect of failure to put into practice this high doctrine? Have they applied the touchstone of reality to an abstraction which is holding fast in its grip the leading minds of the world? Are they displaying their great talent for realism in a new field?

Three times in crucial moments in the world's history and with a simple dramatic gesture has a representative of Russia attempted to initiate the machinery which should secure permanent peace for all nations. [page 15]

First: the proposals of the Russian Czar, Alexander I, in 1815, at the Peace Conference following the Napoleonic Wars for "An All-Embracing Reform of the political system of Europe which should guarantee universal peace" and the resulting Holy Alliance which according to practical historians did not succeed "owing to the extremely religious character in which it was conceived."

Second: the calling of the first Hague Conference by [Nicholas] II, in 1899. His broad outline of the work which such a conference ought to do, was considered "too idealistic" by the other powers who gradually limited the function of The Hague Conference to the reduction of armaments and to the control of the methods of warfare.

Third: the spontaneous effort of the Russian revolutionist to break through the belief that democracy or any other spiritual good can be established through the agency of large masses of men fighting other large masses and their naïve attempt to convert the individual German soldier, rather than to fight the German army. The rest of the world remained [skeptical] and almost rejoiced over the failure of the experiment, before it had really been tried.