Leo Tolstoy and Henry George

Victor Lebrun

[Reprinted from Progress, July, 1966]

Victor Lebrun was a personal friend and Secretary to Leo Tolstoy. This is a translation of his article published in the July 1956 issue of the French periodical, "Contre-Courant," and reprinted in the July-September 1956 issue of the French Georgist magazine, "Terre et Liberte." Its historical interest, in view of the establishment of Communism in Russia in 1917, needs no emphasis.

In giving his extreme and sympathetic attention to other thinkers and writers, the great Tolstoy differed essentially from his colleagues -- the geniuses of all countries and all centuries. But nothing shows the complete honesty and surprising liberty of his spirit more than his attitude towards Henry George.

It was at the beginning of 1885 that he happened to lay his hands on the books of the great American sociologist. By then the moral and social doctrine of the thinker had been solidly and definitely established. Man's supreme and unique duty was to perfect himself morally and not to co-operate with the wrong. Thus the social problem would be automatically solved when the majority has understood the true meaning of pure Christianity and when it has learned to abstain from all crimes which are frequently and commonly committed. All reasoning about the precise nature of the citizens' rights, about laws, about the organisation of governmental compulsion for their protection is anathema to the great thinker.

But … hardly had Tolstoy had a glance at "Social Problems" and "Progress and Poverty" and he was completely captivated by George's outstanding exposition. His strict daily routine is broken.

"This morning I read George instead of writing," Tolstoy confesses in a letter to his wife. Two days later lie adds: "1 read my George" (He says "my"). He never sad this of any other author). "This is a very important book. This is a step forward of equal importance to the liberation of our serf's. This is the liberation of the earth from private ownership."

"Their point of view in this matter is the control of men. And it is necessary to read George, who defined the problem with precision and definitively. After this there is no more debating, one has to take resolutely one side or the other. Personally I demand much more than he does; but his project is the first step of the ladder which I would like to climb.

And the thinker does not hesitate any longer. From this encounter on he resolutely and enthusiastically takes George's side, and to his last breath for a quarter of a century, he makes every effort without relaxation to make his discovery known. He publishes articles on George; he writes introductions to the remarkable Russian translations of his works.

The "Posrednik" ("The Interpreter") series founded by Tolstoy distributes the articles and inflammatory addresses of the great American by the million at low prices. Hawkers carry the small pamphlets to the borders of Great Russia. To every politician to every writer, the master speaks about George. In "Resurrection" the novelist shows in practice to the whole world how its oldest daughter Tatiana, in the person of the repentent land owner, Nekleudoff, gives her land freely to the peasant commune on condition that the land users will pay rent to the peasant commune.

Finally, the thinker acknowledges the merits of many quotations from George by including them in his "Selection of Readings for Every Day." Among the 300 thinkers who are quoted, Henry George is represented by 30 quotations.

The historical moment in which the West, and especially Africa, find themselves to-day, reminds singularly of the Russia of 1906. Since the absurd Russo-Japanese venture the almost general indignation grew all the time. Tolstoy's popularity became such that Suvarin, editor of one of the biggest and most reactionary dailies, could publish the following significant sentences:

"We have two Czars: Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy; which of the two is strongest? Nicholas can do nothing against Tolstoy; he cannot shake his throne. While Tolstoy no doubt is shaking the throne of Nicholas and of his dynasty."

The correspondence of the Georgist Tolstoy with the Prime Minister of the time is also astonishing. Here the summits of the two camps clash, the two leading theories, those who "think right" and the honest ones.

In 1907 the people were exasperated. The peasant revolt was in full swing. And the Minister made his soldiers fire at the crowds, hanged peasants almost daily, imprisoned and deported them by the thousands. The gallows had been named after him "Stolphin's necktie." Tolstoy suffered terribly from the crimes and the hatred he saw growing on both sides. Finally he lost his patience. On the 26th July, 1907, he sent word to the Prime Minister:

"Peter Arcadievich, I write to you under the impulse of my best feelings towards the son of my friend.

"You are on the wrong road. You have two possibilities in front of you: The one is to continue not only to take part in but direct all the deportations, forced labour, executions, and not having achieved your aim, leave behind you a sordid memory. Or, doing the opposite, advance the peoples of Europe by helping to destroy the old, enormous injustice of the appropriation of the soil. In the latter way you would truly accomplish a great and good task, and you would appease the people through the most efficient of processes by giving satisfaction to their most loyal demands.

"This would 'stop these horrible crimes which are perpetrated on the side of the revolutionaries as well as on the side of the Government.

Leo Tolstoy."

It is after three months that the Minister decides to reply:

"Leo Nicolalevich, don't think that I have not given my attention to your letter. I couldn't answer it because it touched me where it hurt. You consider to be wrong what I consider to be for the welfare of Riissia.

"I don't deny the doctrine of Henry George but believe that the Single Tax could in time (sic) help in the struggle against the big estates. At present I don't see any reason why we should, here in Russia, chase the owners from their lands, which they cultivate better than the peasants. Quite the contrary, 1 see the necessity of making it possible for the peasants to acquire a piece of land of their own. …

"How could I do anything else than what I consider to be right. And you write to me that I am on the road of bad repute, of cruel actions, and above all of sin. Believe me that, feeling the possibility of approaching death, one cannot avoid thinking of these questions, and my road seems straight to me. I understand that it is completely in vain that I write this letter.

"Accept my apologies.

Yours, Stolphin."

This is the Prime Minister's answer. And he goes on with his countless crimes.

On the 28th January, 1908, Tolstoy loses his patience once more:

"Peter Arcadievich, why? Why are you losing yourself in going on with your erroneous action which can only lead to aggravation of the general situation and of your position in it? Courageous, honest and noble man, and I know you as such, should not persist with his errors, but should recognize them and direct his forces to correct their consequences. …

"Your two errors: the violent struggle against the irresistible force of the people, and the consolation of the ownership of land can be corrected by a simple, clear and achievable reform. It has to be recognized that the territory of the country is the equal property of the entire population, and a land tax has to be established which would correspond exactly to the privilege enjoyed by each site. This rent would replace entirely all taxes.

"Only this measure can appease the people. …Only this measure can dispose of the horrible repression which those who revolt have to suffer. …I repeat that I write this to you wishing you the best and loving you. … Leo Tolstoy

This second letter remained unanswered, but the terrible agony of the horrible regime remained.

Some time later the Prime Minister was assassinated by a revolutionary, and in 1918 the communists gained power. The hoarders of territory refused to pay the nation the economic rent. Now everything was taken from them. None escaped punishment.

It is terrifying to re-live this era, to re-read this correspondence.

And at the moment that I write these lines (1956) it has burning timeliness for Africa, for threatened Europe.

Soon the thinkers of the two continents established personal contact. In 1894 George asked one American correspondent to give his books to Tolstoy "into his own hands, and ask him to believe in his sentiment of profound devotion that George had been feeling for him since he read his works."

In thanking George, the master asks the intermediary to tell him that he is "enchanted by the clarity, the mastery and conclusions of his expositions; that George was the first who had put down solid foundations for the economy of the future, and that his name would always be remembered with gratitude by mankind."

In March, 1896, George wrote to the master and expressed his gratitude for "his good words" and his respect and admiration for his activity. He asked his permission to visit him during his forthcoming trip to Europe. Tolstoy replied that "he had known and liked him for a long time. The reading of each of his works opened new horizons to him, and to meet him would be a great pleasure."

The meeting of the two thinkers could not take place. George died during his election campaign for the mayoralty of New York.

Tolstoy wrote to his wife: "Henry George is dead; it is strange to say but his death surprised me like the death of a very close friend. -- The newspapers announce his passing and do not even speak of his books, which are so remarkable and of such great importance."

A fragment of Tolstoy's introduction to "Social Problems" shows to what degree he appreciated his works.

The great master wrote:

Henry George said: "To those who have never studied the subject it will seem ridiculous to propose as the greatest and most far-reaching of all reforms a mere fiscal change. But whoever has followed the train of thought through which in preceding chapters I have endeavoured to lead, will see that in this 'simple proposition is involved the greatest of social revolutions -- a revolution compared with which that which destroyed ancient monarchy in France, or that which destroyed chattel slavery in our Southern States, were as nothing."

"And see, this is just the enormous importance of the big and real reform proposed by George that has not been understood in the 'world until now," Tolstoy continues:

"George's idea which changes the way of living of the peoples, to the advantage of the big majority -- at present downtrodden and silent, and to the detriment of the ruling minority -- this idea is expressed so convincingly and effectively and above all so simply that it is impossible not to understand it. For this reason, there is only one way to fight against it, to falsify it and to keep silent about it. Both are practiced with such pains that it is difficult to induce people to read George's books attentively and to deepen his doctrine. In the whole world among the majority of intellectuals the ideas of George continue to be misinterpreted, and the indifference towards them appears to grow.

"But a precise, and consequently fertile thought, cannot be destroyed. However one tries to strangle it, it remains more alive than all the other doctrines which are vague and devoid of meaning and behind which one tries to force it. Sooner or later truth will pierce the veil by which it is hidden, and will throw light over the world.

"Such is the thought of Henry George" -- Tolstoy continues -

"He says that to transfer all taxes on the economic rent -- that is the income not earned by the user of the soil -- is conforming to the most important adjustment to natural laws. He says that the idea to employ the unearned income produced by unimproved land for the whole society is just as natural for society as it is natural for humans to walk on their legs and not on their hands.

"It is exactly this idea which was not always only recognised but applied by the Russian peasantry. It was regularly practiced by the peasant commune every time that the Government was unable to stop it. All taxes and rates were always paid in common for the whole territory owned in common, and each family paid in proportion to the area and quality of the part that it used.

"This is the way of thinking of the Russian people, and this is the same point of view as that of George. This is not at all, as it could appear to certain people, the simple question of dividing the land. The essence of this procedure is that it guarantees to each the complete inviolability of the products of his own labour, and the complete capacity to benefit -- equally with all others -- from the advantages which come from the individual exploitation of the land.

"This is how the Russian people envisage the rights of each of the products of his labour, and the right of each to exploit the land.

Leo Tolstoy

It is certainly surprising to find that in the whole world Leo Tolstoy, alone with a small intellectual or moral elite, was great enough to understand the matter.

All the others: the sociologists, the reformers. all the religions and sects, all political parties, all the idealists with their hobby-horses and "isms." do not notice the basic importance of Henry George's great work. All the orthodox Tolstoyeans are deaf to it. The Tolstoyan Christians, just as the Christians of benefaction, come into contradiction with themselves. They do not recognise the right of others. they believe that they only owe "love" to the neighbour. They give the poor a shirt and don't see that as long as the economic rent is appropriated by the owner of the soil, they infringe, by all their activity, the most elementary rights of the unfortunate. They do not see that as long as the owners of the globe's surface make proletarians of mankind, and make them a prey to the capitalist, as long as this unspeakable crime is tolerated, it is impossible to speak of "love" and "benefaction."