Column by Jim Davies.
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A few weeks ago my Tolstoy: Close, but No Cigar
suggested from a reading of his monumental War and Peace
that the novelist Leo Tolstoy was almost, but not quite, a market anarchist; and among the comments that followed its publication there were a couple that suggested some further reading about this amazing man. I thank Sir William Blackstone and Darkcrusade for doing so, and have now followed the former's suggestion and read Tolstoy's Resurrection
. This reports what I found.
Resurrection is a quarter the length of War and Peace and appeared in 1899, a third of a century later when the author was in his evening years and had committed himself to a rather ascetic life, having given away much of the wealth he'd inherited as a Count in Tsarist Russia, and when he was known as a “Christian Anarchist.” My opinion having now read the book is that he was more a Christian than he was an anarchist – and more a particular kind of Christian than is commonly found. Here's why.
The novel is another masterpiece, and Tolstoy even corrects the small fault I noted in the longer work – his treatment of tension, which I thought annoying. His hero without doubt reflects his own, maturing ideals, so as we follow the story of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, we are seeing into the mind of Leo Tolstoy. Nekhludoff is wealthy, with a large holding of land worked by many peasants, serves in the army when young and lives then as a playboy, but in middle age bitterly regrets his life to date and devotes himself to making amends. Simultaneously, he comes to see and deplore the profoundly wicked ways Russian society, under its government, functions. What most interested me were the ways he tried to correct them.
The hinge of the novel comes one Easter weekend when Nekhludoff visits relatives and sparks fly with a servant girl, Maslova. The two make love, but Nekhludoff makes no proposal of marriage. Eventually he almost forgets her. She, however, is pregnant and so is later dismissed; the baby is born but dies, she is refused employment, goes from bad to worse, becomes a prostitute and is later accused, unjustly, of murder. Nekhludoff meets her again (a dozen years after their passionate fling) at the trial and is overcome with remorse at having been the occasion of her ruin. He devotes his life from then on to an attempt to rescue her from the prison sentence and marry her – not for love, but as a duty or penance. He wallows, I would say, in an orgy of self-recrimination.
The fictional prince owed Maslova no such obligation. It takes two to tango, and he was no more or less responsible than she, for the outcome of the fling. Yes, he should have used a condom, and as a playboy about town, he ought to have carried some with him; but the decision to manage without was presumably shared. So the most he owed her was some of the cost of an abortion – perhaps a major share – whether or not she used the money to buy one. Her subsequent ruin, though awful and pitiable, was brought about not by the Prince but by almost everyone else she encountered, exercising their bigotry and prejudice which in some degree had resulted from living in a Christian, if not Puritan, culture.
Having come to repent his supposedly sinful life, Nekhludoff sets himself two main aims: to rescue Maslova, and to give most of his land to “his” peasants. The two separate aims are related closely in his mind because he comes to believe it was morally wrong to live very well off the labor of hundreds who served him in conditions of squalor. That opinion was shared by several well-meaning Russian aristocrats in the 19th Century, but as I see it, they were mistaken to think that to the extent that it was a problem, it could best be solved by giving the land to the peasants – more on that below.
So these twin themes – reforming Russia's “justice” system and its land ownership structure – occupy the bulk of Resurrection, and Tolstoy seems to me completely to miss a rational, anarchist solution to both. In summary, he recommends love for one's fellow man, whereas all that's needed is respect – and a clear head.
Tolstoy's Nekhludoff uses all his considerable influence to obtain favor for Maslova in the justice system – and not only for her, but for other prisoners he encounters who are also in a pitiable condition. He is met always by courteous and well-intended people, but the limit of their assistance is to ensure that the Law is properly carried out. Thus he condemns it; at one point he says he considers “all courts useless and immoral.” Tolstoy patiently reveals how each player – judges, lawyers, jailers, assistant governors, etc. – does his job against a background of personal circumstances that engages his primary attention, so that he does his work well perhaps, but dispassionately, without passion, without love. Hence his prescription: each of them needs to treat his fellow human being with love.
Tolstoy's perception here is perhaps his most brilliant. He sees in each player two separate personalities: the natural person and the “official” person. The first behaves agreeably and pleasantly, the second behaves harshly and mechanically. Anyone today who has encountered an IRS or other agent of government up close will recognize what he means; they are usually quite sociable in their natural persons, but once they don their job-related hats, they detach from their natural consciences and sensitivities.
Was his prescription (love) correct? This is for me the most intriguing question about the novel. If a government person treats all he meets with love, can he do his government job? Can a Tsarist prison guard both love his prisoners and at the same time shepherd them off to a hard-labor camp? Can an IRS agent both love his taxpayer and help steal his money? Can one love an adult person yet at the same time govern him, when to “govern” means to overrule his choices?
Obviously not. So, what gives? Is Tolstoy saying, subtly, that government is incompatible with love and therefore government must be abolished? If so, why didn't he spell it out plainly? Perhaps he was saying that, but had he been explicit, the censors would have made sure he joined those prisoners bound for Siberia. It would be nice to think that was the reason, and perhaps you'll take that view. I do not; I think it was simply that he failed to connect those dots and follow their logic; that he wrote from the heart, without thinking through the implications.
His portrait of a callous system with lawyers joking about making large fees while clients have their lives ruined might describe the government justice system in any developed country today, including America's. The reason stares him in the face, yet he apparently fails to see it; the cause is not that participants are greedy and heartless, but that the system is a monopoly. Why should participants do anything other than demonstrate that agreed rules of conduct have been followed, when it has no competition? To go for a moment from the profound to the trivial, my recent experience with a flask of gin reflects exactly that point; the TSA need not be flexible or sensible, it needs only follow rules. So it is with any and every bureau-rat, whose employer can exclude alternative vendors.
Through his character Nekhludoff, Tolstoy is so disgusted with the justice system that at one point (p.261) he asserts that there are only five classes of “criminal,” and I quote:
people entirely innocent, victims of judicial mistakes.
people convicted for offenses committed under exceptional circumstances, such as anger, jealousy, drunkenness, etc.—offenses which, under similar circumstances, would almost invariably have been committed by all those who judged and punished them.
those who committed, according to their own ideas, the most indifferent or even good acts, but which were considered criminal by people—entire strangers to them—who were making the laws.
people who were reckoned among the criminals only because they were morally above the average level of society.
people who were more sinned against by society than they sinned themselves. These were the helpless people, blunted by constant oppression and temptation...
Here,Tolstoy overstates his case. His five classes are no doubt correct, but there is in real life a sixth: people who actually did do evil, by deliberately harming their fellow men and women, behaving like miniature governments. It numbers a minority of the total, but it's foolish to pretend it doesn't exist. Possibly Tolstoy here sowed some seeds of the modern American extreme “liberal” myth that nobody is responsible for anything, that one-on-one evil just mysteriously happens, like the weather.
The coming free market justice system will handle those very well (by ordering restitution, not any kind of punishment of course), but they do exist. The State commits most evil, but not all of it. None of this, unfortunately, does Tolstoy show any sign of grasping. He fails to identify the problem, so naturally misses the solution; instead, just prescribing “love.”
A competitive environment in the justice or any other business ensures that customers are treated with respect; for if not, they shop elsewhere next time. It's all that's needed, and so it fits human nature; love is a bonus and makes life even nicer, yes – but only some are likely to exercise that quality and a very satisfactory relationships can work without it. Human nature does not need to change, for the coming free society to function just fine -- including its justice industry .
In Resurrection, the second major concern pursued by Tolstoy's Nekhludoff is that of land reform. Here too, he shows plenty of heart but not a whole lot of brain.
Peasants in Russia at the end of the 1800s were one step up from serfs; they were free agents, able to negotiate in their own names. They worked the land for a price (evidently a contract figure for a season, rather than a wage), but some bought land on their own account and made the business pay, despite impediments strewn in their way by the details of their 1861 Emancipation. By the 1930s, there were seven million prospering peasants ready to be ripped off and starved to death by Stalin's Communist government.
But for the most part, Tolstoy says peasants did not show that degree of ambition. They worked as their families had always worked, and could understand nothing different. While Tolstoy and his hero were full of remorse about their low standard of life, merely “giving them the land” was not too successful – and to his credit, the author admits that when Nekhludoff tried to do so, at first he got no more than a sea of faces with blank looks.
It's possible, though, that many peasants were a whole lot smarter than Tolstoy supposed. The deal Nekhludoff proposed to his was that they form an association to own his land, to which each would pay rent; and that the association would spend those revenues only on benefits for the members; schools, hospitals, etc. They said they didn't get it; I wonder whether perhaps they understood quite well but just didn't trust or like it. The landowner they understood; he might be good or bad, kindly or otherwise, but they could predict his behavior. How could they predict the behavior of a committee or board made up of their own membership? Who knew what mischief might result? The association would have the form of a commune, and later history of Soviet communes says their instincts were sound.
In any case, the idea of simply divesting himself of his primary property was bizarre. Had Nekhludoff (and Tolstoy) understood economics, I wonder if they would have been so eager to take such a step. Let's allow that there was a real problem in that peasants were “too” poor and that benevolent owners like the author and his character wished to fix it. There were several ways to do so, without... giving away the farm.
Low labor rates say there is a surplus of labor, relative to demand. That means the owner of farm land could with advantage diversify; he could invest in other forms of production like a factory on his land, and employ some of his peasants there while making new profits from that enterprise. In the 19th Century, that was easier in Russia than formerly because, rather belatedly, the country was racing to catch up Europe with an industrial revolution – including railroads to cross that immense land. Railroads need locomotives, carriages, freight cars and so on; and carriages need passengers tempted by tour and resort companies to travel to enjoy some of the spectacular scenery. This was happening; it was up to the wealthy landowners to spot the trend and take advantage of it for their own benefit and that of their presently too-cheap labor supply. Anyone with an eye for business, and capital to invest, would highly value low-priced labor, and its price wouldn't stay low for very long.
They could also invest in schools and hospitals for “their” peasants, partly as benevolence and partly to produce in time more productive peasants; and they could invest in farm machinery. Mechanization of agriculture was hardly a secret; it had been accelerating for over a century elsewhere in Europe and of course in the USA, and as educated and well-traveled people, Russian landowners would be well aware of it. Machines replace people, making even more available for new ideas in business enterprise with benefit all round.
Alternatively, if the owner insisted on giving it away, land might have been donated outright to individual peasants (perhaps with a lottery so as to prevent squabbles about who got better land than his neighbor) and the new owners left to sort out how to use it and market its produce. Cooperatives might have been formed, for the latter, and to purchase machinery for rental to members; there is no end to the arrangements a free market can invent, and free markets are the only form of social organization that has ever produced prosperity. Yet the phrase “free market” does not occur once in Resurrection, on any one of its 317 pages! Nor even in the 580,000-word War and Peace!
Instead, Tolstoy's Nekhludoff studied Henry George , and persuaded himself it was not moral that land should be owned; George was plain silly when he proposed that land should only be rented instead, on the grounds that otherwise all of it would be bought by “the rich” and pretty soon everyone would have to pay rent to stand upright. He supposed that land is community property, for the use of everyone.
Nonsense, for at least two reasons: (a) it's impossible for land not to be owned, in the sense of being controlled by someone. If that “someone” is a government department, so much the worse; if it's a commune, little better. It might with advantage be owned by a company, in which peasants and others hold shares, for then if it was well used, the share prices would rise – and vice versa. But that nobody own it is a guarantee that it will soon be wasted or over-worked and destroyed, as shown in The Tragedy of the Commons , and in a scholarly critique of George's “single tax” idea by Murray Rothbard.
Then (b) in any case, Russia is so vast that there was and is an abundance of land, which peasants unhappy with their lot could go East and claim. The country's population in the 1890s was about 100 million, and the area covered was 6.5 million square miles. Supposing that only two thirds of that was free of permafrost, we still have available over 100 acres per family of four. Business opportunities, begging to be taken, unless government in some way forbade peasants to relocate or to claim such undeveloped land.
In short, both of the themes in Resurrection – justice reform and land reform – are badly treated by Tolstoy. His sincerity and love for mankind is not in doubt; his ability rationally to analyze problems and propose rational economic solutions is very much in doubt. He was writing this book over a century after Adam Smith had published An Inquiry Into the Wealth of Nations, and if that book hadn't been translated into Russian, I'm sure it had appeared in French, in which Tolstoy was fluent. Further, he was well traveled, and had been in Paris in 1857 (where, after being sickened by a public execution, vowed never to work for the State) – only seven years after Frédéric Bastiat had written The Law. Is it not reasonable to imagine that he would see a first or second edition of that work in a bookstore as he walked around the Latin Quarter? So why didn't he buy it and bone up on some real-world economics? Finally, could he really have failed to hear of the “Manchester School” which had been hiking English living standards for 60 years?
Tolstoy's silence about free-market economics is his key weakness. He understood the importance of not working for government – and that's critical, for if everyone made such a resolution as he did, the State would implode; so the QuitGov website is one that today encourages all to leave government employ. Yet while he swore he'd never work for such an immoral institution himself, I saw no character among the hundreds in these two novels who quit government service, or declined to join it, on such grounds. It looks to me as if, again, he failed to connect the dots and propose how to terminate the evil he saw. Rational economics seem to have been off his radar; and that's a tragedy.
Before these remarks continue for as long as War and Peace, I must wrap them up, so will end with a word about Tolstoy's forte: compassion. What part will compassion – love for one's fellow man – play, in the coming free society?
Contrary to Tolstoy – and to Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:1, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” -- compassion and love are not vital for the functioning of a free society. Only respect is vital, respect for one's customers and other trading partners, from whom one hopes for further business – when negotiating contracts and honoring them. But love is an undoubted part of the human makeup, and since not even a free society can be perfect without “cracks” and anomalies, and since nature itself sometimes fails to produce a fully equipped human being, there will be some in need of assistance and love will be poured out in abundance to meet such needs, for it brings immense satisfaction back to the giver. It will not power the free society, but will most certainly help make it pleasant.
Compassion – freed at last from the wicked distortion of government “entitlements” -- will be the icing on the cake of freedom, the cherry atop the ice cream.