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Leo Tolstoy on the state: a detailed picture of Tolstoy's denunciation of state violence and deception

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posted on 29.09.2010, 09:08 by Alexandre ChristoyannopoulosAlexandre Christoyannopoulos
Leo Tolstoy's peculiar religious and political thought has been discussed in numerous studies, yet few of these address a core anarchist concern: his criticisms of the state. Tolstoy denounces not just war but also law and the economy as violent and enslaving, all under the ruthless mechanical supervision of the state machine. Moreover, for him, state authorities are deliberately and hypocritically deceiving the masses, promoting a system that destroys any sense of responsibility, and keeping people hypnotised by regularly whipping up patriotic sentiments - the army being the best example of the strength of all this deceit. Not only is Tolstoy's denunciation of the state as violent and deceptive eloquently written, but much of it has not lost relevance since he first wrote it more than a century ago. Leo Tolstoy believed that the state is a violent and deceitful institution and that in a truly Christian society, the state would be obsolete. In a previous issue of Anarchist Studies, Terry Hopton summarised Tolstoy's political thought and justified its location within the anarchist tradition.' The purpose of this article is to complement Hopton's broad overview by scrutinizing Tolstoy's critique of the state. Whereas Hopton's article offers a general discussion of the continuity of Tolstoy's thought with his earlier fictional work and then briefly reviews Tolstoy's stances on religion, the state, the economy and revolutionary change, this article examines Tolstoy's condemnation of the state, but does so in considerably more detail. Thus the aim is to enrich Hopton's excellent introduction to Tolstoy's political thought by elaborating on a fundamental anarchist theme and by making more room for Tolstoy's poignant literary style, through use of verbatim quotes. The many arguments against the state that Tolstoy articulates in numerous books and pamphlets are here reorganised thematically, often by substantially expanding on themes already briefly touched upon by Hopton. These themes constitute the headings of the two main sections of the article. The first of these two sections (section 2) focuses on Tolstoy's condemnation of state violence, by exploring his views on war, law, economic exploitation and the effect of the structure of the state on its members. The second (section 3) then explores the state's mechanisms of deception: the hypocrisy of its leaders, the ingrained evasion of responsibilities, the hypnotic power of patriotism and the ultimate paradox of universal conscription. These two central sections are introduced (in section 1) with a review of the secondary literature on Tolstoy and followed (in section 4) by a short conclusion which hints at the contemporary relevance of Tolstoy's writings on the state. Tolstoy often contrasts the modern state with an ideal Christian society to illustrate the incompatibility of Jesus' principles, which he admired, with the state, which he loathed. His understanding of Christianity was deeply rationalistic: for him, Jesus was simply 'the highest representative of [humanity's] wisdom' - what he taught was actually confirmed by reason, and superstitions like the Resurrection were all fantastic stories later added by elites whose interest was to distort the essential teachings of Christianity. A critical discussion of this understanding of Christianity, however interesting, is too big a subject for this article. The contention to note here is that for Tolstoy, the essence of Jesus' rational teaching is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus supersedes Old Testament law with his new commandments not to be angry, not to judge, not to swear oaths, to love one's enemy, and in particular not to resist evil but to turn the other check. Even when nominally 'Christian', Tolstoy argues that the state breaks all these guidelines. The comparison with Jesus' standards is often made in the same breath as the more 'empirical' description of the state. Together, they combine to form a moving condemnation of the modern state. Some of the power of Tolstoy's writing rests precisely in the contrast between the reality of officially Christian statehood and the Christian ideal. So although the specific aim of this article is to present Tolstoy's critique of the state without considering his alternative, references to Jesus and Christianity have been kept to preserve all its intensity.



  • Social Sciences


  • Politics and International Studies


CHRISTOYANNOPOULOS, A.J.M.E., 2008. Leo Tolstoy on the state: a detailed picture of Tolstoy's denunciation of state violence and deception. Anarchist Studies, 16 (1), pp. 20-47.


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