Leo Tolstoy and Henry George
[Reprinted from Progress, July, 1956]
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.
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
"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
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
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
"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.
This is the Prime Minister's answer. And he goes on with his
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.
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.
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
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
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
"Such is the thought of Henry George" -- Tolstoy
"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
"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
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."