Below is the Nov. 29, 1910, article by V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the 1917 Bolshevik proletarian revolution in Russia. It’s entitled “An Appraisal of Leo Tolstoy,” one of the great Russian writers in the dying days of czarist tyranny. It is reprinted from the February 1936 issue of New International, the magazine of the predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party. Headings are by the Militant.
LEO TOLSTOY [1828-1910] is dead. His world significance as an artist as well as his world-wide fame as a thinker and preacher both reflect, in their own fashion, the world significance of the Russian revolution.
L.N. Tolstoy emerged as a great artist at a time when serfdom was still the prevailing system. In a whole number of gifted books, written by him during more than half a century of literary activity, he depicted primarily the old and pre-revolutionary Russia which remained semi-serf even after the year 1861. His was the Russia of the village, the Russia of the landlord and the peasant. In depicting this phase in the historical life of Russia, L. Tolstoy was able to pose in his works so many great questions, and he was able to attain such artistic force that his literary creations have occupied an outstanding place in world literature. Thanks to Tolstoy’s clarity of genius, the preparatory epoch of the revolution in one of the countries crushed by the feudalists has entered as a forward step in the artistic development of all mankind.
Tolstoy, the artist, is known to an insignificant minority even in Russia. A struggle is needed to make his great works truly available to all — a struggle against the social system that dooms millions to darkness, thraldom, galley-labor and poverty: a social revolution is needed.
Tolstoy not only produced works of art which will be valued always and read by the masses after the latter have created for themselves humane conditions of living, after they have overthrown the yoke of the feudal landlords and the capitalists; he was able to transmit with remarkable force the mood of the broad masses oppressed by the modern system, to depict their plight and give voice to their elemental urge of protest and indignation. Pertaining primarily to the epoch of 1861 to 1904, Tolstoy embodied with remarkable lucidity in his works — both as artist and as thinker and preacher — the traits of the historical peculiarity of the entire first Russian revolution, both in its weak as well as strong sides.
‘A peasant bourgeois revolution’
One of the principal distinguishing traits of our revolution lies in the fact that it was a peasant bourgeois revolution taking place during the epoch of a very high development of capitalism in the entire world, and of a comparatively high degree of development in Russia. It was a bourgeois revolution because it had as its immediate task the overthrow of the Czarist autocracy, the Czarist monarchy, and the destruction of feudal ownership of land and not the overthrow of the rule of the bourgeoisie. The peasantry, in particular, did not grasp this latter task, failing to understand wherein it differed from the more intimate and immediate tasks of the struggle. It was a peasant bourgeois revolution because the objective conditions pushed to the very fore the question of changing the root conditions of peasant life, scrapping the ancient and mediaeval system of land ownership, and “clearing the land” for capitalism; the objective conditions propelled the peasant masses into the arena of a greater or lesser independent historic activity.
Tolstoy’s books reflect both the strength and the weakness, both the sweep and the limitation of precisely a peasant mass movement. Tolstoy’s flaming, passionate and often ruthlessly sharp protest against the government and the police-Crown Church, transmits the mood of the primitive peasant democracy in which mountains of rage and hatred have been heaped up by centuries of serfdom, of despotism and looting by functionaries, of Jesuitism, fraud and rascality on the part of the Church. His unwavering denunciation of private land ownership transmits the psychology of peasant masses during the historical moment when the ancient medieval system of land ownership (both of the landlords and of the Crown “grands”) had definitely become an intolerable fetter on the further development of the country; and at a time when this ancient land ownership was inevitably destined to be destroyed most abruptly and ruthlessly. His incessant indignation, full of profoundest and most impassioned feeling, his exposure of capitalism transmits in full the horror of the patriarchal peasant who senses a new, unseen and incomprehensible enemy advancing against him, looming somewhere from the cities or from abroad, destroying all the “props” of village life, bearing unheard of ruin, poverty, famine, bestiality, prostitution and syphilis — all the evils of the epoch of “primitive accumulation,” aggravated one hundred fold by the transplantation to the Russian soil of the most modern methods of rapine devised by Sir Dividend.
Tolstoy’s denial of politics
But the flaming protestant, the passionate exposer, the great critic reveals together with this in his books a lack of understanding of the underlying causes of the crisis and of the means to emerge from the crisis that was advancing in Russia, a lack of understanding that is peculiar only to a patriarchal naive peasant and not to a writer with a European education. In him, the struggle against the feudal and police government and the monarchy, was transformed into a denial of politics, led to the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil,” and led to his standing completely apart from the revolutionary struggle of the masses in 1905-1907. His struggle against the Crown-Church was superimposed upon his preachment of a new and purified religion, that is to say, of a new, purified, and subtler poison for the oppressed masses. His denial of private ownership of land led not to a concentration of the entire struggle against the real enemy, the feudal landowners and their political instrument of power, i.e., the monarchy, but to visionary, nebulous and impotent sighing. The exposure of capitalism and the miseries inflicted by it upon the masses went side by side with an absolutely apathetic attitude to the world emancipatory struggle that the international socialist proletariat is waging.
The contradictions in Tolstoy’s views are not the contradictions arising solely from his own mentality but are the reflections of those most complex and contradictory conditions, social influences and historical traditions which determined the psychology of the various classes and estates in Russian society during the reformist but pre-revolutionary epoch.
For this reason a correct estimation of Tolstoy can be given only from the standpoint of that class which by its political role and its struggle during the first climax of these contradictions, during the revolution, has given proof of its mission to be the leader in the struggle for the freedom of the people and for the emancipation of the masses from exploitation — a class that has given proof of its unwavering devotion to the cause of democracy and of its capacity to struggle against the limitations and inconsistency of bourgeois (as well as peasant) democracy — a correct appraisal can be given only from the standpoint of the social democratic proletariat.
Observe the appraisal of Tolstoy in the government newspapers. They shed crocodile tears, take oath upon oath of their respect to the “great writer,” and, at the same time they defend the “Holiest” Synod. And the Holiest Fathers have just this moment perpetrated a trick, sneaking priests to the bedside of the dying man in order to dupe the people and say that Tolstoy “repented.” The Holiest Synod excommunicated Tolstoy from the Church. So much the better. This achievement will be put down to his favor in that hour when the people will settle accounts with the functionaries in cassocks, the gendarmes-in-Christ, the dark inquisitors who supported pogroms against the Jews and other similar feats of the Black Hundred Czarist gang.
Appraisal of liberal press
Observe the appraisal of Tolstoy in the liberal papers. They seek to brazen it out with those hollow Crown-liberal, hackneyed professorial phrases about “the voice of civilized humanity,” “the unanimous response of the world,” “the ideas of Truth, Good, etc.” for which Tolstoy lashed — and justly so — bourgeois science. They are unable to present directly and clearly their appraisal of Tolstoy’s views toward the government, the Church, private land ownership, and capitalism — not because the censorship hinders them; on the contrary, the censorship assists them to extricate themselves from the difficulty! — but because every postulate in Tolstoy’s criticism is a slap in the face of bourgeois liberalism; because Tolstoy’s fearless, open and ruthless sharp posing of the most acute, the most “cursed” questions of our time alone is a slap in the face to banal phrases hackneyed terms and sneaking “civilized” lies of our liberal (and liberal-populist) journalism. …
The liberals keep pushing to the fore that Tolstoy is a — “Great Conscience.” Is this not the same hollow phrase that we find repeated in a thousand variations in the Novoye Vremya1 and the like? Isn’t this an evasion of those concrete questions of democracy and socialism posed by Tolstoy? Doesn’t this push to the fore that which is the product of Tolstoy’s prejudices and not of his reasoning mind? that in him which pertains to the past and not to the future? that which pertains to his denial of politics and his preachments of moral self-perfection and not to his stormy protest against all class domination?
Tolstoy is dead: gone into the past is pre-revolutionary Russia together with the weakness and impotence that found their expression in philosophy, and that were depicted in the works of the artist-genius. But in his legacy there is that which has not receded into the past but belongs to the future. The Russian proletariat receives this legacy, and labors on it. The proletariat will make clear to the masses of toilers and the exploited the significance of the Tolstoyan critique of the state, the Church and of private land ownership not in order that the masses confine themselves to self-perfection and yearning for a saintly life but in order that they uplift themselves to deal a new blow to the Czarist monarchy and the feudal land ownership, which in 1905 were only slightly cracked and which must be destroyed. The proletariat will make clear to the masses the Tolstoyan critique of capitalism — not in order that the masses confine themselves to cursing capital and the power of money, but in order that they learn to base themselves, in every step of their life and struggle, upon the technical and social conquest of capitalism, in order that they learn to fuse together into a single many-millioned army of socialist fighters who will overthrow capitalism and create a new society without poverty for the people, without exploitation of man by man.
1 Novoye Vremya, founded in 1868 as a liberal paper, evolved into a supporter of czarist reaction known for its espousal of Jew-hatred. It was suppressed after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.