Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Tolstoi Once More*


 

Under the title "The Slavery of Our Times" Leo Tolstoi has given us another of his sincere and thoughtful essays. To call the book sincere and thoughtful is most inadequate, however; for the profoundness of his conviction needs some graver and more inspired adjective than these. One has the sense, in reading Tolstoi now, of being in the presence of a mortal from whose mind all perturbation has vanished. He seems no longer to strive. His voice is not the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Yet every accent is pregnant with conviction. He seems so deeply imbued with truth, that no shadow of doubt hangs about his speech. And his very simple and straight-forward words have for that reason an inherent power often lacking in more impassioned writing, as we call it.

Tolstoi has been a preacher of non-resistance; he has also practised it. And the habit of his life has influenced his temperament, so that an atmosphere of calm dignity is everywhere transparent in these luminous pages. Whether he is depicting the heartrending horrors of life, as it is lived by many wage workers in our own day, or expounding the remedy for these terrible evils-the only remedy that seems to him possible-he is alike unmoved. And this peaceful manner ought to go far to win our sympathy. The man has so evidently an open mind, a single and tranquil soul, that we say instinctively: "Surely there is truth here." And I think if we lay aside all our prejudice for an hour we shall be strangely drawn to his way of thinking.

The book, which is published by the Free Age Press in England, has been translated from the Russian by Aylmer Maude. And a word of praise must be said for Mr. Maude's introduction, which shows in its temperate criticism much of Tolstoi's own humane temper and composure of spirit. I think one is the more struck with this characteristic of Tolstoi's writing because of the feverish violence usually so apparent in Socialists and their literature. They lash themselves to pieces against the prejudices and wrongs and tyrannies they are trying to demolish. And their bitterness and passion, so unlovely in any character, and so ruinous to any art, have always seemed to me to make full sympathy with them impossible. Or rather, one might retain sympathy, but one's faith was shaken. Was it possible that truth could be presented in so unlovely a guise? Must there not have been some flaw, some defect, in the theory which could show its supporters so wanting in the graces of character? One felt usually that the socialistic advocate, even in his writings, was a fighter and not a scientist nor an artist. It is impossible to yield unqualified assent to obstreperous and boisterous persons.

But Tolstoi does not believe in force, and his disbelief is so thorough that he has ceased to use it even in his writing. He has gone beyond the Socialists, who have always proposed to do away with one form of government merely to substitute another. Naturally their plans have always seemed somewhat illogical, but Tolstoi has gone a step further than that, and traced social wrong not merely to the form of government, but to the existence of government.

I do not know that Christian Anarchy has ever been claimed as a specific creed or doctrine, like Christian Socialism, but I should think the term Christian Anarchist a very good one to apply to Tolstoi. True, he is as far removed from the Nihilists as day is from night. All his teaching is in direct opposition to theirs. He would have no violence whatever, no resistance to governments whatever; he simply would have nothing to do with governments. And if all men would act so, of course in time there would be no governments. When we speak of anarchy, we are usually thinking of a state in which savage force would rule; but anarchy actually means absence of all rule. And in this sense you might call Tolstoi an anarchist.

Yet there is nothing to be afraid of in Tolstoi's teaching, if we would all follow it. And how, indeed, are we all to follow it, unless some of us begin?

I should, perhaps, only give a wrong impression of "The Slavery of Our Times" if I tried to epitomize it, and, certainly, one cannot feel its full weight of conviction except by a personal perusal. Tolstoi begins by establishing the fact that the greater number of persons in the world are not free to work as they wish, but are driven to work as others wish them to; that is, they are practically slaves. Further he proceeds to show that this state of things is brought about by the tenure of land in the hands of a few, and by the tenure of capital in the hands of a few. And this tenure of land and capital is maintained by force of law. Laws are enacted by governments and enforced by mercenaries hired by those governments. Governments pretend to exist for the public good, but as a matter of fact, they only exist to maintain the idle supremacy of the few, and all their works are evil. It is the governments that make war and waste the wealth which they have extorted from the people in taxes. We must govern ourselves, we must not govern others. And we must not let others govern us, and the way to be rid of governments is to let them alone. If every one simply refused to have anything to do with governing, there would be no government. And since the great mass of people derive no good from government, but only harm and industrial tyranny and violence, why should governments be retained?

Violence is not necessary for the abolition of governments; it is only necessary that people should perceive the slavery in which they exist, and the fraudulent usurpation of governments. For governments are maintained by armed dupes, who even feel loyalty to their oppressors, and when the humbug of government is perceived universally government will have no power to enforce its violation of men's rights. Government only exists because men have blindly and voluntarily yielded to it all their natural right to land and the product of their labor.

It is an interesting and dangerous book. In Emerson's words, "Beware when God lets loose a thinker on this planet." The truth is always dangerous to the established order of things, and it ought to be for only through change do we grow.


"Tolstoi Once More," Commercial Advertiser, March 9, 1901 [back]