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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

From The Vegetarian (London), January 23, 1890:

Count Tolstoi and his Work
[from the Guardian]

Count Tolstoi's later books cannot but claim serious attention, if only from the fact that the writer is in most grim earnest, and has put no word on paper which he is not ready and eager to translate into fact. In What to Do (Walter Scott) he tells us how, standing appalled at the horrible gulf open at his feet between the excessive luxury and idleness of wealth and the excessive hardness and misery of poverty, he could not but devote his life to endeavours in some way to redress the balance by bringing the excess of luxury to aid the excess of misery. His first effrots were anything but successful. Naturally enough, he first tried that easiest form of charity which consists in the giving of alms, and this by selecting the poorest district he could think of and making personal investigation in every house. Misery enough he found ; but when he came to the question of relieving it, he also found that those who were worthy of help were cheerful and content without it, that those whose misery appeared greatestwere of a class which it was impossible to relieve, and that any attempt at almsgiving only ended in more extensive drunkeness and more utter pauperisation. Here is his own summary of the case, speaking of a small sum which had been entrusted to him for distribution, and for which he had called in the assistance of an honest tavern-keeper.

"I saw that Ivan Fedoditch was in great difficulty, owing to his conscientiousness, for he knew that everything given away by me would be spent at his tavern. But, as I had to get rid of my thirty-two roubles, I insisted, and we managed, somehow or other, to distribute the money. Those who received it were mostly well dressed, and we had not far to go to find them ; they were all in the tavern."

After this failure, Count Tolstoi gave himself up to the solution of the great social problem that lay under his eyes, the right relation between wealth and poverty, between the employer and the employed ; and, as Count Tolstoi undoubtedly represents the extreme wing of the socialistic and communistic parties, his opinions, are those of a well-educated, deep-thinking, and thoroughly sincere man, are worth noting. Of property he speaks very plainly. It is to him the sum and the representative of injury and oppression. That which any man claims to possess as his own is the exact measure of his negation of the rights of his fellow-men. He shall speak on this matter for himself:

"Property is the root of all evil. . . . Men are accustomed to think that property is something really belonging to man, and for this reason they have called it property. . . . But this is obviously an error and a superstition. . . . Property is only the means of utilising other men's labour. And another man's labour can by no means belong to me. . . . As soon as he calls something his own which is not his, then he makes a mistake, and gets disappointment, suffering, and compels other people to suffer as well."

He speaks even of a man calling "his wife his own," as one of those things of which "the reality always shows him the error." The way which he opens as the only right way out of this maze of "error and superstition" is simply carrying into practice the conclusion to which his logic has brought him. If no man or woman have and property save their own bodies, then they have no right to any services beyond those which their own bodies can render. To claim as a right, or even to purchase as a favour, any extraneous service, is a wrong to society and an injury to an individual :

"There will soon come a time, and it is already drawing near, when it will be shameful to dine on five courses, cooked by any but the masters themselves ; it will be shameful to ride, when one has feet to walk on ; to wear on week-days dress, shoes, gloves, in which it is impossible to work ; to play on a piano which cost £150, or even £10, while others work for one ; to burn lamps and candles without working by their light ; to heat stoves in which the meal is not cooked. It would be impossible to think about giving openly, not merely £1, but 6d., for a place in a theatre or opera. All this will be when the law of labour becomes public opinion."

It is fair to note that Count Tolstoi has reduced all that he writes to actual practice in his own life. All this may seem simply visionary and fantastic, and the author merely dreams of one of those whom Mr. Wm. Morris writes "dreamers of dreams, born out of their due time." And yet Tolstoi does not deserve to be lightly thrown aside, much less to be scoffed at as a mere fanatic, bordering very closely on the limits of insanity. He has much if undoubted truth, as well as of subtle, exact reasoning in him. Like other books that have cost earnest thought to the writer, it will repay earnest thought in the reader. It will not bring the reader any nearer to the French La propriété c'est le vol, yet its startling pictures will add a terrible emphasis to the truer English version of the same thought, that property has its most solemn duties, as well as its most undoubted rights.