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Tolstoy: Close, But No Cigar
Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
I'd heard somewhere that Leo Tolstoy was an anarchist, so reckoned it was high time I read War and Peace. Thanks to gutenberg.org, I was able to download both that and Anna Karenina and enjoy the pair of them on vacation rainy days. Having done so, I must dismiss the rumor; he was an extraordinary author and thinker, and upset Establishment clerics and scholars of his time and place wonderfully well, but he fell short of grasping that the source of evil is government, and that society could function nicely without any.
That, at least, is what I found in the book, written in 1869; he may have changed later in life. Wikipedia quotes Tolstoy as having said, shortly after witnessing a public execution in 1857, “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens ... Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.” And in War and Peace, Tolstoy reflects that experience in a highly moving, realistic account of another execution; yet although written twelve years later, his character who sees it makes no such forthright resolution. If he was indeed an anarchist, and given that War and Peace is his magnum opus and so his most widely read publication, that's a real pity.
My first impression was of the enormous size of War and Peace. The download was of 3.4 megabytes; by comparison, my copy of the delightful but lengthy Brontë romance Jane Eyre is only 1.1 MB. War and Peace is a single story, but is divided into 15 books, each with numerous bite-sized chapters, plus two epilogues for extra measure.
From his Russian perspective, Tolstoy tells the tale of the War of 1812; the big war, not the tiny squabble between the UK and the US in which the nation's capital was set ablaze. The one in Russia consumed the lives of 200,000 Russians and 380,000 Frenchmen, who invaded that year and captured Moscow, only to retreat after their “victory” and exit Russia after losing ninety five percent of their number, dead and captured. It is one of the most amazing military encounters in history and set an eerie precedent for the German invasion and defeat a century and a third later.
As a novel, War and Peace is masterly. With a total cast of hundreds, Tolstoy brilliantly follows the interweaving stories of a couple of dozen individuals and families, all Russian and mainly but not exclusively aristocratic, bringing the reader into the mind of each character with profound insight, empathy and pathos – male and female, young and old, rich and poor, in situations “normal,” exciting and tragic – especially, tragic. This was Russia, after all; there's a pessimistic flavor, a dark tone. I was impressed at the way he could not only paint each character in full detail, but credibly mature them over time – and the story covers a decade of time, 1805 through 1815. Thus, for example, Count Pierre Bezukhov (probably his alter ego) begins as an unattractive, dissolute, shallow young man, very tall and very fat, with little to commend his character; he ends up a deeply sincere and loving person happily married and benevolent to all. Such maturing is true to life, of course, but it's unusual in novels, except when they relate the growing up of a child.
His style had one feature that annoyed me: he knew how to build up tension, and kept it going over several chapters sometimes, but when eventually it was released, it was done quickly, and after a few lines he moved on to some fresh topic. It's as if there was a whole lot of foreplay but very little afterglow. It's a defect in my humble view, but as a critic, I'm far too late; Tolstoy died in 1910 as a universally acknowledged master of his craft.
As a novel, then, War and Peace deserves its top-shelf reputation. But it's not just a novel. Tolstoy was not a professional historian, so he used it to convey his view of history, and in so doing he reminded me strongly of Ayn Rand--another Russian – who also wrote a long novel, to convey to the public her radically new philosophy. It suggests to me that she took note of Tolstoy's technique and borrowed it. How else could she, a lowly immigrant waitress, hope to throw a “Hail Mary” over the heads of the established scholars of philosophy?
There's a difference: whereas Rand puts her lengthy explanations into the mouths of her heroes as speeches, Tolstoy takes a break from the tale and interposes a book about what the developing Napoleonic invasion means; then he gets back to the story. It's dramatic. He first does that in Book 9, Chapter 1 – worth fetching, from Gutenberg. There, Tolstoy revises history. I love revisionist historians, don't you?
Before reading War and Peace, I had a vague idea that Napoleon's army had invaded Russia so as to complete his conquest of Europe (except for that tiresome island nation to France's North) and that the defenders had scorched the earth in front of his army, even burning Moscow, the capital, so as to strand him without provisions. Then when he turned his starving army homewards, I thought it had perished in the Russian winter (of 1812-13) like Hitler's did in 1942-44. Turns out that, according to Tolstoy, I was a bit wrong.
He published War and Peace in 1869, and is scathing about all historians who wrote about this up to then. The Russian ones had praised the clever strategy of the Tsar as above, and the French ones had praised the bravery and vision of Napoleon and attributed this one failure to bad luck. Nonsense, says Tolstoy, and takes a saber to the lot of them. He says Napoleon invaded Russia mainly on a whim, not after forming a Grand Plan; and Tsar Alexander, far from directing his army to retreat 650 miles to Moscow in front of the French, scorching the earth as it went, repeatedly called for a battle to stop the advance, and appointed a new Supreme Commander (Kutuzov) when he didn't get one. Far from ordering Moscow burned, he wanted the army to defend it at all costs.
Kutuzov, however, continued the wiser policy and is credited with resisting both the Tsar and his own generals, who were likewise impatient, and so with carrying out the successful strategy. He did stop once (or twice, counting Smolensk) at Borodino outside the capital, for an epic battle that later inspired Tchaikovsky to write his “1812” symphony, but otherwise let the French grow weaker and weaker on their own. And no, after Moscow was evacuated and the intact Russian army passed though to its East, it caught fire because the occupying French soldiers settled themselves in all the best houses but were careless about their cooking; the city was built of wood, the summer was long and hot, and once a few fires began, there was no brigade to put them out. Finally, Moscow was not cleared of provisions before its government people and wealthy residents quit; they took their most valuable treasures but left behind ample supplies of food and some valuables – most of which the French looted and later tried to carry home, on a journey that devastated their numbers not primarily because of winter weather but from lack of food, desertions, and guerilla raids by small units of the Russian army, eager to help them depart.
Nonetheless, Kutuzov's strategy has an important lesson for anarchists pressed to explain how a zero-government society would defend itself; and it's disappointing that Tolstoy failed, in War and Peace, to point it out. In fact, he so deeply supposed that government will remain forever that he never once visualized doing without one.
Napoleon occupied the capital expecting to take it over and administer it – first the city, then the nation it led. This is what he had done successfully throughout Europe. But this time, when he got there, there was no there, there.
There was nobody to carry out his orders, except his own soldiers; and most of those were busy relaxing, looting, eating, drinking and whoring.
So after a few weeks when the food stores had been depleted and Russian farmers showed themselves curiously reluctant to bring fresh supplies to feed them, he had few options but to declare victory and lead his soldiers home again.
In essence, that's exactly how an anarchist society would deal with potential invaders, and I say “potential” because invaders don't suddenly appear from nowhere; governments make plans, and calculate likely gains and losses, and make war only if the former greatly exceed the latter. Knowing in advance that there is no intact government to subdue and direct, that calculus will tell them to go rampage somewhere else; and the example of Moscow in 1812 is right before their eyes.
Tolstoy does come tantalizingly close to understanding one aspect of government and war. In that same chapter, he notes that Napoleon could easily have been dissuaded from his invasion of Russia by any of several simple factors – one of which was “had all his sergeants objected to serving a second term, then also there could have been no war.” What's this? “What if they gave a war, and nobody came?” a century and a half before its time? Evidently, Napoleon's NCOs were under no compulsion to remain for a further tour of duty. They might very well have gone home to rest on their laurels. The fate of 95% of their comrades was sealed when they all chose, individually, not to do so. Ultimately, governments depend entirely on the support of their victims; withdraw it, they collapse.
In War and Peace, the author comes close to an anarchist understanding in one other way; in the second epilogue, he takes time to probe the nature of power, and of free will and how it relates to what he calls the “Law of Inevitability.” Once again, however, it seems to me he misses the point even when looking at it almost head-on.
That second epilogue left me confused, and I suspect Tolstoy was himself confused when writing it, so let's deal first with that supposed Law. He reasons that freedom is not real. We may think we are making a choice in unfettered freedom, but it's actually an illusion because the choice is really determined by countless millions of events that preceded it. We might take the example of the NCOs in Napoleon's invading army; they chose to stay for another tour, and it seemed a free choice, but actually (Tolstoy would say) their choice was determined by the pay offered, the high morale of their comrades, the precedent of victory and glory elsewhere, and the uncertain prospect of employment back home. All those factors were external to the individuals making the choice, so it was... inevitable.
Nonsense. Each one who chose to join the invasion could equally have considered the morality (the adverse effect on his self-respect) of going on yet another rampage of destruction and murder, and of the suffering he would help cause. He might have done just what Tolstoy is said to have done as above in 1857 and repudiated the State and all its bloodthirsty works; he was not compelled by law to continue in the army, so there was not even a need to disobey orders. For all practical purposes the choice was free, and while obviously all choices take account of external factors that no one person can control, the choices made are in no way inevitable. Tolstoy tried to solve a non-existent problem.
His other main reflection there is upon the nature of power. Several times, he asks “What is power?” and attempts answers. Again, he comes close to something useful, but again manages somehow to miss the obvious.
Tolstoy does perceive that there is an interdependency between ruler and ruled; that, for example, Napoleon could not have simply ordered “invade!” at the start of the Russian campaign, unless there had been a hierarchy of command already willing to follow his lead, a hierarchy that took years to build up, while the young Corsican was proving he had the skill to lead units of an army. Tolstoy names the question “What is power” as the “most essential of history” and answers it (Epilogue 2, chapter 5) as follows: “Power is the collective will of the people transferred to one person. Under what condition is the will of the people delegated to one person? On condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power: in other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.”
That close, he came! If only he'd asked the question a different way, he could have grasped so very much more. Of what power consists is plain to anyone who has has said “no” to a government bureau-rat; and Tolstoy had just been busy writing over three megabytes of history about the obscenity of government power in war. Had he asked instead from where government acquires power, and whether it is ever valid in some sense, he might well have seen that the answers respectively are “nowhere” and “no.”
Having realized that power has no valid source at all, Tolstoy might then have realized that the whole problem is government itself, as an irrational, chaos-causing, blood-spattered, power-intoxicated, evil-creating, lie-spouting fraud that has no valid place in human society – and set about figuring how to scrap it altogether. As far as I saw in War and Peace, he never considered that possibility; the world had to wait another century, and look in a different continent, to discover thinking that clear. Tolstoy evidently assumed that government was a permanent fixture, like the weather, so had to struggle with the impossible task of how its power can be limited or channeled to something beneficial. He didn't exactly give up the struggle to abolish the State – he never even began it.
There are many like him, today. None of them have anything close to his excuse.