Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Tolstoy, History and Non-Violence

Academic journal article Anarchist Studies

Tolstoy, History and Non-Violence

Article excerpt

It is difficult to discuss Tolstoy's thought without invoking Berlin's famous dictum that, 'Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.'1 Applying this to Tolstoy's views of history, which have a prominent place in War and Peace, Berlin shows how Tolstoy's fox-like knowledge of the many things that constitute the complexity of events was both an incentive to seek, yet an obstacle to the discovery of, the one big thing that would make sense of history. As Berlin shows, Tolstoy's search for an overarching explanation of history led him to expose the deceptive character and weakness of the purported explanations currently employed by historians. However, it is not easy at first to identify what Tolstoy advocates as an alternative. This is inevitably so, because for Tolstoy the question of history is wrapped up with the far greater question of the meaning of life. This meaning, which the peasant Platon Karataev understands in War and Peace and which Pierre Bezukhov comes to grasp, or feel, is, according to Berlin, an experience of being part of the 'flow of life' in the universe; a sense of oneness with creation.2 In the later religious writings this meaning was identified, crystallised, articulated, or some might say, reduced, to the idea that we must do God's will.3 At this elusive and superlatively abstract level of generality it is easy to trace a thematic continuity from the truth of the novel to that of the later religious writings. Less easily, and less conspicuously, continuity can also be traced in the form of the compendious category of what Tolstoy holds to he false. Here it runs from the failure of current historical explanations, exposed in the authorial interjections and appendices to War and Peace,4 to the failure of moral and political theories condemned in the later writings. Central to this continuity is a very striking, but ambiguous, claim about the limitations of individual action. It is necessary to explore this before Tolstoy's theory can be properly appreciated.

In the imaginative world of the novel Tolstoy shows a profound understanding of the inner life and motivations of individual action in all its transient complexity. He also acutely perceived the self-deceptions, illusions and rationalisations that always seem to attend an individual's reflection on their own life. By contrast, in the case of collective action, of events like battles - not to mention wars and the course of history generally - there seems to Tolstoy to be litde hope of reaching any authentic understanding. If it is difficult to see into the heart of a single individual in order to understand their actions, how much more is this true with collective action where there are many, many individuals. It is, of course, the attempt to understand the former in the context of the latter that is such a conspicuous feature of War and Peace. In that novel Tolstoy's understanding of his characters comes from his own creative imagination, unlike the real events in which they are placed.5 When he turned to the actual events themselves as described by historians, instead of a real understanding of the immense and contingent complexity of events, he found only rationalisations. Thus, in the case of these events, the same sort of self-deceptions and illusions exposed so incisively in the central characters of the novel, were repeated on a grand scale where they passed for genuine historical explanations. In other words, repeated and compounded, the self-deceptions of the real individuals involved remained unexposed and, unlike those of his characters, were taken at face value. These then became the data of explanation, rather than their actual motives and experience. To these deceptions, were added those of the historians themselves about their own motives and their lack of ability to understand events. Rather than admit their limitations, Tolstoy implies, both historians and historical actors alike use abstractions like the 'power of ideas,' or the controlling influence of 'great men,' or vague concepts like 'forces' and so on. …

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