It’s that time again. Our society is in a crunch, dealing with tensions both economic and social. And, like every time this has happened before, we rediscover the classics, each a titan all unto themselves in social critique or social theory. Hegel. Rousseau. Hume. And yes, Marx.
However, I think that there’s another one out there, hidden in the mist of classic literature and gargantuan sprawling novels. Leo Tolstoy, in addition to writing some of the world’s foremost examples of perfect art, was also a peculiar man who had a unique perspective on social and economic relations. Doubly-so in the stratified caste system of late 19th century Russia.
His brand of radical Christian anarchism and nonviolence was novel, drawing on a literal reading of “The Sermon on the Mount” and blending it with smaller splinter sects of Christianity like Quakers; he split from all forms of orthodox Christianity, and drew a clear delineation between the teachings of Christ, and governments all around the world.
"The Kingdom of God Is Within You"
Working in the shadows of attempted revolutions, coups, and assassinations (and a few successful ones) Tolstoy wrote two books. "What I Believe", and "The Kingdom of God Is Within You". The first was, by his own reckoning, somewhat incomplete, too indirect. The second was his opus, and last great piece of art.
"The Kingdom of God..." was at once diatribe and treatise: working in the vein of Martin Luther before him, Tolstoy drew a clear link between a corrupt and inhuman aristocracy and autocratic regime, and the Russian orthodox church. Very clearly and forecfully, Tolstoy argues that no true Christian would ever allow retaliation by force to any wrongdoing: the essence of Christ is nonviolence, piety, and martyrdom against whatever may come.
A bit of a left turn in Tolstoy's previous output, "The Kingdom..." was mildly successful at home, but was far more influential abroad. Most famously, a South African attorney and British subject found it to be disarmingingly powerful. It informed not only his current work in South African civil reform, but would put him on the path that would define the rest of his life and the future of a nation not yet born.
Mahatma Gandhi, with his copy of the book, would return to India, and act as the second pillar of the Indian revolution and independence from the British empire.
By no means am I attempting to minimize the other members of the canon of social critique. Like all canons, it's not meant to be exhaustive; rather, a canon determines a common language and background for scholarly debate, conversation, and shared research.
I do think, however, that Tolstoy's later work should be considered every bit a part of that canon. Having grappled with Hegel and Proudhon, Marx and Lenin, I find Tolstoy's work to have every bit the same gravity while (obviously) being a stellar read with powerful prose and characterization.