TOLSTOY ABOUT SOCIETY
By Roza Riaikkenen
When speaking about Leo
Tolstoy’s views on the society, its politics, economics and morals in his work What Should We Do?, we should have in
mind that these views belonged not to a man from the oppressed part of the
society, unhappy with his country’s social set-up and intending to change it by
revolution. This work has been written by Count Tolstoy, a man born in one of
the most privileged and powerful families of
At the same time, this work has been written by a man who accepted no violence and abuse whatsoever. Tolstoy didn’t approve of the government’s violent actions directed towards preserving the existing order; equally he didn’t accept changing the state order by force, by revolution; and he wrote that Christianity is incompatible with war.
Tolstoy’s views on the society were definitely challenging his contemporaries. His ideas applied to their conscience and conscious mind. Can we apply these ideas in our modern social environment, and do the social problems that Tolstoy discovered a century ago still exist?
Tolstoy began his exploration
of the society from a real life situation, which seemed to be hopeless. In a
With his inherent
conscientiousness, the writer decided to participate in and to use the census
to become aware of the needs of these poor people and to bring their plight to
the attention of the wealthy. Tolstoy’s habit was to always remain close to the
common people. He would go into the field works with his peasants, and to saw
wood with workers, when living in
To his dismay, Tolstoy was unable to fulfil his plans. The wealthy nobles weren’t ready to give anything but a pittance, and if even there would be money enough, the problems of the poor couldn’t be solved simply with money. The problems of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness of life appeared to be consequences of the deeply hidden problem of the social system, which was surfacing, on the one hand, as hopeless poverty, and on the other hand, as meaningless luxury. One impossible without the other like two sides of one coin.
When Tolstoy understood that the cause and means of preserving the condition of both sides of the society was money, he began examining – what is money, were did it start and what for it existed in reality. He applied to the science of economics and recognised from its statement that money is only the means for trade. Tolstoy doubted this statement and started examining real life examples to come to a true opinion. As a result, he came to the conclusion that money in fact is the means of forcing people to do that what they don’t want to do. Money is power. People who possess this power can force those who don’t have it to work for their sake, i.e. they can deprive the poor of their freedom and turn them into slaves.
“There were a people in
It started from personal
slavery. The first democracies of ancient
The economy of
another democracy, on the American Continent, also started developing primarily
from the slave labour of people who would be brought from
Using the example of the island of Fiji, Tolstoy shows us how the conquerors, Americans, required a money contribution from the locals and their leader, and how, as the consequence, the majority of the indigenous people became workers on the plantations of the white colonists, and were forced to work for a scanty wage to survive. Tolstoy examined the process by stages, and money was everywhere serving as an instrument, which enabled those in power to appropriate the results of the labour of those who didn’t possess money and power. Everywhere, it destroyed the natural social order of the locals, which the writer respected and thought to be very important.
This is usually done through the mechanism of rent, i.e. when someone pays with his or her work for the possibility of using the land and the working tools. Tolstoy writes: “…what is the cause that the people who possess land and money can enslave the people who don’t have land and money?
The answer, as common sense would see, is that this originates from the money which has a property of enslaving people… When people are devoid of the land and the working tools – this means they are enslaved.” The person who receives the rent will always try to increase it and to decrease the payment for the work as much as possible.
The countries, which ages ago had grabbed foreign lands with their minerals (metals, oil, diamonds, etc) and appropriated the labor of the people, received the starting capital for their fast industrial and technological development. These additional resources enabled them to become well developed countries, with living standards that are much higher than these in their former colonies.
Let us have a look from Tolstoy‘s viewpoint and ask – has money remained a mean of abuse in the developed countries or not? In all the developed countries, there is a substantial group of people who live on the edge of poverty and are forced to work only to survive.
At the same time, any member of the society is constantly bombarded by the advertisements of competitive consumerism, which often preys on the lowest people’s instincts and desires, and forces them to rotate in the constantly accelerating cycle of gaining and spending money.
In many of the former colonies, people are often working long hours in unbearable conditions, only to provide the basics of life for their families. These people make the majority of the planet’s population. This majority of low paid workers allow the minority to live a life where the abuse of money is not as noticeable as the convenience of using it.
In the last decades, the joint technological, informational and social development of the world has diminished the differences between countries. In the majority of countries, money is working in the same market economic mechanisms. Some of the former colonies are rapidly developing, and their citizens are becoming richer and gaining access to the goods of which they couldn’t even dream before.
On the one hand, we can be happy for them. The world economy is developing, productivity is growing, and the opportunities of consuming are expanding limitlessly…
On the other hand,
the development of economies around the world has already contaminated the
planet’s land, water and air and led to varied ecological degradation. Now we
face the dangers of irreversible climate change with possible dire
consequences. These dangers increased when the world most populated countries,
It appeared that while attempting to limitlessly raise productivity, using more and more of natural resources and producing more of waste, we are worsening the ecological situation around the globe. The first sufferers, as usual, become these who already existed on the brink of survival.
A century ago, Tolstoy was puzzled with a question: why does the economic science see only land, working tools and labour as the means of production; “why solar rays, water, food and knowledge aren’t understood as separate factors of production”. He thought that this is because economics sees only the factors which can be in someone’s possession. In Tolstoy’s opinion, in order to really understand economy, we have to have in mind many other factors like these.
The author is speaking about a human being as the purpose and meaning of society’s existence and searching for the ways of freeing people from abuse. He thinks that it is essentially not right to force people to do that what they don’t want to do. “The only sign of good in any job is that people execute it freely. The people’s life is full of such jobs… At the same time, if people have to be forced to do a job, then because of this abuse, the job ceases to be the common duty and good.”
The need for labour and for sharing its results is inherent in a human being. In an environment free from abuse, if a person cannot or doesn’t feel able to earn a living, the “others are working for his or her sake with love”. They are voluntarily working for this person’s sake because they understand that, by acting in this way, they help this man or woman to fulfil another duty, which this person sees as important for themselves and other people.
According to Tolstoy, the greatest abuser in the world is the State. It can force people not only to work, but also to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the powerful, when sending them to war to fight for their interests. “Where abuse is a law, there is slavery also.”
The goals and the means by which any State is reaching its goals are always arguable. They are contested by the opposition within and without the state. And history often recognises that these goals were either a mistake or even a crime before humanity.
Tolstoy didn’t believe that a person has any obligations towards the State – only towards another human being. He sees that “all the human life, with its complicated and varied, seemingly morally independent activities, - the State, scientific, artistic and trade life – doesn’t possess another aim but the understanding, affirmation, simplification and common accessibility of the moral truth”.
It “only seems to people that humanity is busy with trade, treaties, wars, sciences and arts; it has only one important job, and it does only this job – it comes to understand the moral laws, with which it is living. The moral laws already exist, humanity only attempts to understand them, and this understanding seems to be unimportant and even invisible for the person who doesn’t need this moral law, who doesn’t want to live in harmony with it. But this understanding of the moral law is not only the main, but the only job for all of the humanity”.
Tolstoy believed that humanity would understand the moral law and live in conformity with it. He predicted that humanity would change its understanding of the purpose of life. Tolstoy decided to begin the process of transformation from himself. He started from confessing that his previous way of life aimed to his personal good had been not right, and then found for himself out the answers to the question – “What should we do?”
“First: I should not lie to myself, however far away my way of life would appear to be from the right way, which my conscious mind had opened to me.
Second: I should renounce that which I thought of as my rights, my privileges, my particularities compared to the other people and recognize my guilt.
Third: I should fulfil this eternal and undoubted human law – to work with all of my strength, not being ashamed of any job, to fight whatever the nature of circumstances to sustain my life and support the lives of other people.”