“Tolstoy was not naïve in thinking that social and political reform would end all forms of evil in human life. Like Dostoevsky, he was very well aware that much wickedness flowed from the pride and vanity of men like Napoleon or the Russian tsars.”
A few weeks ago, I published an article in Merion West entitled “Dostoevsky’s Extremely Thoughtful Critique of the Left.” My argument in this piece was that, though Dostoevsky made many very salient critiques of the progressive personality, he and his contemporary disciples underestimate the importance of political agitation for social change. At the conclusion, I invoked Dostoevsky’s contemporary Leo Tolstoy as a counterpart to the former’s more conservative outlook on the topic. The article generated a reasonable number of comments, most of them very thoughtful, along with some criticism. The most frequent critique was that I had misunderstood Dostoevsky’s position in arguing that there are very good reasons to engage in political agitation for social change, since the Russian novelist was famous for insisting that true improvement can only take place at the individual level within the depth’s of each person’s soul. More specifically, some questioned whether any efforts to engage in such macro-level agitation can ever be motivated by a genuine desire to do good, since truly loving acts can only be directed at specific and particular individuals—never humanity as a whole.
There is something to this argument since I do believe these critics have accurately stated Dostoevsky’s position on the possibility and moral worth of political agitation. In general, he was extremely skeptical of reformers and their benevolent sounding platforms, seeing them as little more than masks hiding more insidious motives. Indeed, my article spent quite a bit of time discussing his numerous observations on these issues. Unfortunately, the critics also missed a key element of my position. It is not that I think Dostoevsky can or should be reinterpreted along progressive lines to support political agitation. It is that I feel Dostoevsky is wrong to take such a pessimistic and conservative stance on the issue. While love and an orientation to do good may begin at the individual level through our concrete relations with those closest to us, we have duties to continuously extend our moral outlook further. Indeed, as political liberals like Will Kymlicka observe, one of the thrusts of Western moral theory and religion since at least the advent of modernity (and arguably even further back) has been to gradually extend the horizon of our moral outlook more and more broadly. We gradually moved from regarding only our lives and perhaps those closest to us as being of moral concern to eventually recognizing that all people’s lives are equally important. At least in principle. This is a point figures like St. Augustine knew quite well, as did Tolstoy. In the remainder of this essay, I will draw upon the latter figure to explain why this is the correct approach to moral reasoning—and how it demands we take political steps to improve the lot of those less fortunate than ourselves.
Dostoevsky’s conclusion was that true fulfillment could only really be found through personal spiritual development and a commitment to private acts of love and grace.
The Limits of Dostoevsky’s Critique of Progressivism
Dostoevsky was initially attracted to reform and even socialism, and his early novels like Poor Folk compare admirably with figures like Dickens in their scathing denunciation of inequality and impoverishment. However, after his long imprisonment in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s work became far more relentlessly pessimistic about the possibility of just social change. In novels like The Devils, he satirizes the progressive impulse to create the kingdom of God on earth, for both religious and psychological reasons. Progressive reformers never recognize that life is defined by suffering and that people will even seek it out in order to find meaning and struggle in their transient existence. Moreover, those who wish to establish the kingdom of God on earth are often simply masking their resentment and anger at existence. Those who demand social change often conceal a darker impulse to obtain power and take revenge against all those who have allegedly wronged them, from the rich, to politicians and so on.
Dostoevsky’s conclusion was that true fulfillment could only really be found through personal spiritual development and a commitment to private acts of love and grace. His more noble characters, from Prince Myshkin in The Idiot and Alexei Karamazov (Alyosha) in The Brothers Karamazov embody these virtues. They are oriented by a fundamental faith in the goodness of God’s creation and constantly demonstrate small but extremely meaningful kindnesses to all those around them. They are modest, self-effacing, and moderately reflective. While they are certainly capable of thinking deeply about the plight of their families, friends, and neighbors, they spend little time deliberating on abstract theoretical principles or devising grand schemes to save the world. That is left to the more intelligent but ultimately more amoral and even evil characters like Ivan Karamazov and Peter Stepanovich, who are constantly theorizing on how to save the world while ignoring or mistreating those closest to them.
Consider a situation like Jim Crow or Apartheid in South Africa. In such situations, many whites demonstrated no personal malice towards blacks and may have even shown great kindness to individual marginalized people. Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. But the problems of racial discrimination and hatred persist because they do not simply flow from the attitudes of individuals and their private interactions but from structural and ideological factors which need to be changed if a great injustice is to be eliminated.
In my initial article, I observed that this was a powerful critique of the progressive impulse, but it also has serious limits. Injustices do indeed begin and pervade the personal lives of many people, and there is an important sense in which we should feel compelled to take care our private sins before looking outward. But social and political injustices do not just arise because of the individual actions of wicked men, even at the highest levels of power. They persist for a wide variety of structural and ideological reasons ranging from the unfair material ways goods and resources are distributed, through mechanisms of enforcing authoritarian power, and, of course, through the large scale propagation of hateful ideologies of violence. Consider a situation like Jim Crow or Apartheid in South Africa. In such situations, many whites demonstrated no personal malice towards blacks and may have even shown great kindness to individual marginalized people. Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. But the problems of racial discrimination and hatred persist because they do not simply flow from the attitudes of individuals and their private interactions but from structural and ideological factors which need to be changed if a great injustice is to be eliminated. These cannot be rectified simply by engaging in private acts of kindness and virtue and indeed ignoring them after a point can be tantamount to quietism or even indifference in the face of evil.
Dostoevsky is a good case in point. While the author is often praised for predicting the horrors of Soviet communism, he has also received a great deal of criticism for his comparative silence on the tyrannical nature of the Tsarist regime and his support of pan-slavic nationalism. The regime enriched itself through brutally exploiting and mistreating its people, before involving itself in failed imperialist wars in east Asia and later central Europe, which resulted in mass starvation and the deaths of millions. These monstrous acts belied Dostoevsky’s faith in the Russian Empire as somehow more spiritually attuned than its Western European counterparts. The comparative lack of moral vigor on these points is reflected in Dostoevsky’s more virtuous characters, most of whom are compassionate and thoughtful in their private interactions but have little interest in rectifying the structural and ideological factors which perpetuate mass injustice.
Leo Tolstoy was far less apathetic to these developments than his more conservative counterpart, and we shall see that his work takes on a resonance which often transcends Dostoevsky.
Leo Tolstoy on the Kingdom of God on Earth
“We are all brothers-yet every morning a brother or sister must empty the bedroom slops for me. We are all brothers, but every morning I must have a cigar, a sweetmeat, an ice, and such things, which my brothers and sisters have been wasting their health in manufacturing, and I enjoy these things and demand them…We are all brothers, but I take a stipend for preaching a false Christian religion, which I do not myself belief in, and which only serves to hinder men from understanding true Christianity…The whole life of the upper classes is a constant inconsistency. The more delicate a man’s conscience is, the more painful this contradiction is to him.”
Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You
Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy’s work can be periodized based on the author’s life experiences and interests at any given moment. But what distinguishes the latter is a constant willingness to explore the social and political dimensions of life and subject them to critique and calls for change. This runs from Tolstoy’s early criticisms of violence in the Sevastopol Sketches, based on his experiences fighting in the Crimean War through epic works like War and Peace. Much of his work demonstrates a serious disdain for the elitism of Russian society, which he initially benefitted from as a member of the nobility.
In particular, Tolstoy is scathingly critical of the imperialist nationalism of his peers, seeing it as abetting narcissistic illusions about what made a people superior to others. War and Peace offers a deep critique of Napoleon which should resonate with many today. The Emperor of France is widely regarded as a universal genius, who uses reason and logic to enact his will across the world under the auspices of working on behalf of the French people. Tolstoy instead presents him as a small, vain man with none of the humane qualities and inclinations which truly makes someone worthy of respect. Napoleon’s conceited vision of himself as a genius mastering the world belies his actual powerlessness in the face of historical movements generated by billions of people and conceals the immense suffering he helps bring about. Tolstoy’s insights resonate beyond just one figure of course and have a lot to teach us today when post-modern conservative demagogues promote “America First” or “Take Back Control of Britain” agendas stoking the vanity and insularity of entire peoples to benefit themselves. He also draws our attention to how a fascination with the private individual and his or her singular acts of good or evil is inadequate. At best it is insufficient to truly rid the world of the ills that plague it, and, at worst, it leads to a narcissistic fascination which lies at the root of self-induced illusions.
Tolstoy’s criticisms were animated by a profound compassion for the poor of the world, who did most of the actual working and fighting their masters benefited from. He was especially concerned by the plight of the Russian serfs, who were little better than slaves eking out a dreary existence supporting the luxuries of their masters. After his mid-life crisis where Tolstoy reflected on the meaning of existence, well-traced in his beautiful A Confession, he came to adopt a radical Christian perspective that the meaning of life lay in the effort to bring about a world of truly universal love. Here, Tolstoy’s own Christian existential orientation complements and contrasts nicely with Dostoevsky. Both of them came to see religion as necessary to providing meaning to life. But while Dostoevsky turned towards religious conservatism and traditionalism, particularly an emphasis on private acts of kindness at the expense of social agitation, Tolstoy reached a very different conclusion. To truly find meaning in one’s life, it was necessary to combat the great social evils of the day. This would be a powerful message inspiring reformers from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.
Somewhat paradoxically this, in turn, led Tolstoy to become more and more radically critical of Russian traditionalism and religious institutions, which he saw as complicit in perpetuating gross and unchristian injustices. In particular the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian conservatives tried to present various forms of suffering and violence (such as nationalist wars) as entirely part of God’s plan and therefore justified. Tolstoy thought this made a mockery of all sincere religious belief, since anyone who thought Christ—the man who preached that all were brothers and sisters before laying down his own life to redeem humankind—was somehow a closet nationalist was either a fool or inalterably corrupted. This echoes the claims made by other commentators like Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote a series of articles expressing how Christendom had been transformed through a steady process of traditionalization and moderation into a worldly philosophy. As such though there were billions living within Christendom, there were no true Christians. Only state religions preaching that if God were present he would be wearing a MAGA hat and agitating for restrictions on Muslims entering the United States. For Tolstoy, as for Kierkegaard, it was insufficient to say this was not Christianity. It was the opposite of Christian teaching, a perverse mockery of true and meaning giving faith. As he put it in A Confession:
“…In the name of Christian love Russians were killing their brothers. There was no way to avoid thinking about this. There was no way to ignore the fact that murder was evil and contrary to the most fundamental tenets of any faith. Nonetheless, in the churches they were praying for the success of our weapons, and the teachers of faith looked upon this murder as the outcome of faith. And not only was the murder that came with the war sanctioned, but during the disturbances that followed the war I saw members of the Church, its teachers, monks, and ascetics, condoning the murder of straying, helpless youths. I turned my attention to everything that was done by people who claimed to be Christians, I was horrified.”
Tolstoy’s insistence was that all these wicked phenomena flowed from social systems and individuals who were determined to showcase their superiority relative to all others. Rather than cooperating together to make life better for all, men and women were trained to either regard themselves as inferior specimens destined only for servitude of superiors whose job is was to fulfill the Hobbesian ambition of acquiring greater, “power after power.” The solution Tolstoy proposes in The Kingdom of God is Within You is dramatic reform to the status quo, including mass redistribution of private property, end to war, and the cessation of all forms of government tyranny. Tolstoy was not naïve in thinking that social and political reform would end all forms of evil in human life. Like Dostoevsky, he was very well aware that much wickedness flowed from the pride and vanity of men like Napoleon or the Russian tsars. But the systems which they manipulated in their empty quest for more power and “glory” (actually its opposite) were also responsible and so needed to be seriously reformed or even torn down. This was revolutionary agitation, and got Tolstoy into considerable trouble with both the Russian authorities and the Orthodox Church. Such courage remains admirable to this day. Moreover, Tolstoy insists that such political and social change must be the objective of all individuals who truly seek meaning in their life. In this respect, he pushes against the limitations of Dostoevskian Christian existentialism by recognizing that a failure to combat social injustice is not wisdom but indifference. We must recognize that if we believe our individual life has meaning and value, so to does everyone else’s equally. Only a more equal world can follow from this.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.