Henry George and Leo Tolstoy:
A Comparison

Jack Schwartzman

[A paper delivered at a symposium on Henry George and Leo Tolstoy.
The date and location are unknown]

"Social reform is not to be secured by noise and shouting; by complaints and denunciation; by the formation of parties, or the making of revolutions; but by the awakening of thought and the progress of ideas. Until there be correct thought, there cannot be right action; and when there is correct thought, right action will follow." - George

"The position of the Christian world, with its fortresses, cannon, dynamite, guns, torpedoes, prisons, gallows, churches, factories, custom-houses, and palaces is monstrous. But neither fortresses nor cannons nor guns by themselves can make war, nor can the prisons lock their gates, nor the gallows hang, nor the churches themselves lead men astray, nor the customhouses claim their dues, nor palaces and factories build and support themselves; all these operations are performed by men; and when men understand that they need not make them, then these things will cease to be. " - Tolstoy

I had previously spoken about, and written essays on Henry George (1839-1897) and Lev (or Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910). In this article, I shall present (by means of a thematic comparison) the main ideas of both men. The reader will have the rare opportunity of listening to two noted champions of individualism discuss the same topics, each in his own words. It will truly be a symposium of great thoughts.

Who were these men? George, the author of Progress and Poverty, The Science of Political Economy, and other economic masterpieces, was a printer and journalist who became (late in his life) a celebrated political figure. Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and other great writings, was a famous novelist who became (also late in life) a proponent of what some have called "philosophic anarchism."

The two men had never met, but they corresponded with each other. On April 8,1896 (one hundred years ago), Tolstoy wrote George a letter (currently located in a special collection at the New York Public Library): "The reception of your letter gave me... great joy, for it is a long time that I know you and love you. Though the paths we go by are different, I do not think that we differ in the foundation of our thoughts." (Original letter, written in English by Tolstoy) Tolstoy once called George "a remarkable man," adding (later in the same work): "People do not argue with the teaching of George; they simply do not know it." (A Great Iniquity, 1905)

We are now ready for the "symposium."

* * *

To begin with, what are the "negative" factors of human existence?

The two thinkers (using the same expression: "masses") commented on the prevailing condition of humanity, which they declared to be grim and dismal.

GEORGE: "What oppresses the masses is their own ignorance, their own short-sighted selfishness." (Social Problems, 1883) "Until they trace effect to cause, until they see how they are fettered and how they may be freed, their struggles are... [in] vain." (Protection or Free Trade, 1886)

TOLSTOY: "The masses - that is to say, the majority of mankind, ... suffer and toil, their lives dull and uninteresting, never enlivened by a ray of brightness, enduring numberless privations." (The Kingdom of God Is within You, 1891)

Both George and Tolstoy attributed the stark condition of mankind to material poverty.

GEORGE: "Poverty is the openmouthed, relentless hell which yawns beneath civilized society. ...For poverty is not merely deprivation; it means shame, degradation; the searing of the most sensitive parts of our moral and mental nature as with hot irons; the denial of the strongest impulses and the sweetest affections; the wrenching of the most vital nerves." (Progress and Poverty, 1879)

TOLSTOY: "Every man ... sees his fellow-beings divided into two classes, the one in poverty and distress, which labors and is oppressed; the other idle, tyrannical, luxurious." (The Kingdom of God Is within You) "I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means - except by getting off his back." (What Then Must We Do?, 1886)

To George and Tolstoy, land monopoly - the usurping of the natural resources of the world - is responsible for the horrible poverty and social misery that exists everywhere.

GEORGE: "Historically as well as ethically, private property in land is robbery. It nowhere springs from contract; it can nowhere be traced to perceptions of justice or expediency; it has everywhere had its birth in war and conquest, and in the selfish use which the cunning have made of superstition and law." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "The evil and injustice of private property in land have been pointed out... by the prophets and sages of old. ...Possessing hundreds, thousands, scores of thousands of acres, trading in land, profiting one way or the other by landed property, and living luxuriously, thanks to the oppression of the people, possible through this cruel and obvious injustice... is not only an unkind but a detestable and evil thing." (A Great Iniquity)

To perpetuate their entrenched power, land barons (and other monopolists) create the State (or oppressive government, words synonymously used). Here is how George and Tolstoy regarded the concept of State/government:

GEORGE: 'To collect taxes, to prevent and punish evasions, to check and countercheck revenues from so many distinct sources, now make up probably three-fourths, perhaps seven-eighths of the business of government." (Progress and Poverty)

"Where there is gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, the more democratic the government the worse it will be; for, while rotten democracy may not in itself be worse than rotten autocracy, its effects upon national character will be worse. ...To put political power in the hands of men embittered and degraded by poverty is to tie firebrands to foxes and turn them loose amid the standing corn." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "Terrible force is lodged in the hands of the authorities ... a vast amount of money, institutions, riches, submissive functionaries of the clergy, and the army... The government... can - unless it is bribed - suppress and annihilate all those who are opposed to it." (Postscript to the "Life and Death of Drozhin," 1895)

A "strong" (autocratic) State is accompanied by zealous (often fanatic) patriotism. Our thinkers had definite views on the subject.

GEORGE: "In a corrupt democracy, the tendency is always to give power to the worst. Honesty and patriotism are weighted, and unscrupulousness commands success. The best gravitate to the bottom, the worst float to the top, and the vile will only be ousted by the vile." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "Patriotism today is the cruel tradition of an outlived period, which exists not merely by its inertia, but because the governments and ruling classes, aware that not their power only, but their very existence, depends upon it, persistently excite and maintain it among the people, both by cunning and violence." (On Patriotism, 1894)

The life-blood of the State is taxation.

GEORGE: The present method of taxation operates upon exchange like artificial deserts and mountains; it costs more to get goods through a custom house than it does to carry them around the world. It operates upon energy, and industry, and skill, and thrift, like a fine upon those qualities. If I have worked harder and built myself a good house while you have been contented to live in a hovel, the tax gatherer comes annually to make me pay a penalty for my energy and industry, by taxing me more than you. If I have saved while you wasted, I am mulct, while you are exempt... We punish with a tax the man who covers barren fields with ripening grain; we fine him who puts up machinery, and him who drains a swamp." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "We are all brothers: yet I make my living by collecting taxes from the poor, that the rich may live in luxury and idleness." (The Kingdom of God is within You)

The worship of the authoritarian State (augmented by frenzied patriotism and unbridled taxation) inevitably leads to war.

GEORGE: "As families and tribes are separated from each other, the social feeling ceases to operate between them, and differences arise in language, custom, tradition, religion - in short, in the whole social web which each community, ... constantly spins. With these differences, prejudices grow, animosities spring up, contact easily produces quarrels, aggression begets aggression, ... wrong kindles revenge ... and the powers of men are expended in attack or defense, in mutual slaughter and mutual destruction of wealth, or in warlike preparation." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "We see men in uniforms with rifles standing motionless, or... in general producing those fine reviews and maneuvers which emperors and kings so admire and show off one before the other... One cannot cauterize out of man all that is human and reduce him to the state of a machine without torturing... and deceiving him." (Notes for Officers, 1901)

"It has been instilled into you [soldiers] that you are not responsible for the consequences of your shots. But you know that the man who falls bleeding from your shot is killed by you and by no one else, and you know that you could have refrained from shooting and that then the man would not have been killed." (Notes for Soldiers, 1901)

Considering the desperate condition of humanity, would charity or philanthropy help?

GEORGE: "Charity is indeed a noble and beautiful virtue, grateful to man and approved by God. But charity must be built on justice. It cannot supersede justice. What is wrong with the condition of labor... is that labor is robbed. And while you justify the continuance of that robbery, it is idle to urge charity. All that charity can do where injustice exists is here and there mollify somewhat the effects of injustice. It cannot cure them. And thus that pseudo-charity that discards and denies justice works evil. On the one side, it demoralizes the recipients.... On the other side, it acts as an anodyne to the consciences of those who are living on the robbery of their fellows." (The Condition of Labor: An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII, 1891)

TOLSTOY: "Philanthropy had done more harm than good." (Tolstoy's comment, quoted in Charles R. Joy, Lyof Tolstoy: An Anthology, 1958, page xiii)

How should an individual oppose the all-powerful State? One of the methods of opposition is known as civil disobedience. What is civil disobedience?

GEORGE: "When large bodies come to act together, personal selection becomes more difficult, a blinder obedience becomes necessary, and can be enforced; and... absolute power arises." (Progress and Poverty) However, we must refuse obedience to this "absolute power," and obey only Justice. "If, while there is yet time, we turn to Justice and obey her, if we trust Liberty and follow her, the dangers that now threaten must disappear, the forces that now menace will turn to agencies of elevation." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "We must not only cease our present desire for the growth of our State, but we must desire its decrease, its weakening; and help this ... with all our might." (Patriotism or Peace?, 1896)

"You wish to make me a participator in murder ... but I profess that law ... which long ago forbade not murder only, but all hostility, ... and, therefore, I cannot obey you." (Two Wars, 1896)

Is there any other way (beside civil disobedience) to fight the tyrannical State? Should there not be a civil war or a bloody revolution?

GEORGE: No. "Social reform is not to be secured by ... the making of revolutions." (Social Problems) When the Georgist "remedy" of abolishing private property in land is adopted, then "society would ... approach the ideal of Jeffersonian democracy, ... the abolition of government. But of government only as a directing and repressive power." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: No. "Wonderful to relate, all this vast potential mass of men, armed with all the powers of human authority, ... is ready to crumble ... at the appearance of a single man ... who would not yield to human demands, but obeyed the law of God and was faithful to it." (Postscript to the "Life of Drozhin")

Poverty, oppression, social misery "can be undone, not by political reform, not Socialistic schemes for the future, not by revolutions in the present, and still less by philanthropic assistance or governmental organization for the purchase and distribution of land among the peasants. Such palliative measures only distract attention from the essence of the problem and thus retard its solution." (A Great Iniquity)

* * *

What are the "positive" factors of human existence?

The world, stated the two writers, is governed by Natural Law (or Laws, singular and plural interchangeably used), which is also the Moral Law. Each person must be guided by his or her own conscience to find and follow this Natural Law.

GEORGE: "The great fact which Science in all her branches shows is the universality of law. ...The social law runs into and conforms with the moral law." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "What is the law of nature? ...To be certain that my piece of bread only belongs to me when I know that every one else has a share, and that no one suffers because of it." (Religion and Morality, date uncertain)

"It is only necessary to act to others as we wish them to act to us. In that is all the law and the prophets... And to act in that way we need neither ikons, nor relics, nor church services, nor priests, nor catechisms, nor governments; but ... we need perfect freedom." (Letter to a Non-Commissioned Officer, no date)

... And speaking of freedom (or Liberty, words synonymously used):

GEORGE: "Liberty! it is a word to conjure with, not to vex the ear in empty boastings. For Liberty means Justice, and Justice is the natural law - the law of health and symmetry and strength, of fraternity and co-operation." (Progress and Poverty)

"In our time, as in times before, creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy Liberty. On the horizon the clouds begin to lower. Liberty calls to us again. We must follow her further; we must trust her fully. Either we must wholly accept her, or she will not stay. ...Either this, or Liberty withdraws her light! Either this, or darkness comes on, and the very forces that progress has evolved turn to powers that work destruction. This is the universal law. This is the lesson of the centuries. Unless its foundations be laid in justice the social structure cannot stand." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "Awake, brethren! ...Believe only the consciousness which tells you that you are neither beasts nor slaves, but free men." (Carthago Delenda Est, 1899)

"If only free men would not rely on that which has no power, and is always fettered ... but would trust in that which is always powerful and free - the truth and its expression!" (On Patriotism)
... And speaking of truth:

GEORGE: "I propose to beg no question, to shrink from no conclusion, but to follow truth wherever it may lead." (Progress and Poverty)

"The truth that I have tried to make clear will not find easy acceptance. If that could be, it would have been accepted long ago. If that could be, it would never have been obscured. But it will find friends - those who will toil for it; suffer for it; if need be, die for it. This is the power of Truth." (Progress and Poverty)

"Will it at length prevail? Ultimately, yes. But in our own times, or in times of which any memory of us remains, who shall say?" (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "As a fire lit on a prairie or in a forest will not die out until it has burned all that is dry and dead, ... so truth, once articulated in human utterance, will not cease its work until all falsehood... is destroyed." (The Beginning of the End, 1897)

"I would like to think that we Russian parasites [landlords], reared by and having received leisure for mental work through the people's labor, will understand our sin, and, independently of our personal advantage, in the name of the truth that condemns us, will endeavor to undo it." (A Great Iniquity)

The central theme in the writings of the two men is human individuality - the uniqueness and distinction of each person on earth.

"GEORGE: "No one ever said, 'In a multitude of generals there is victory.' On the contrary, the adage is, 'One poor general is better than two good ones.'" (The Science of Political Economy, 1897)

"Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whoever he may be, and wherever he may be placed, the man who thinks becomes a light and a power." (Social Problems)

TOLSTOY: "Let the government keep the schools, Church, press, its milliards of money, and millions of armed men transformed into machines; all this ... brute force is as nothing compared to the consciousness of truth, which surges in the soul of one man who knows the power of truth, which is communicated from him to a second and a third, as one candle lights an innumerable quantity of others." (A Reply to Criticisms, 1895)

How should each person live his or her life?

GEORGE: "As ... man develops his nobler nature, there arises the desire ... that he ... may somehow aid in making life better and brighter, in destroying want and sin, sorrow and shame.... He works for those he never saw and never can see; for a fame, or maybe but for a scant justice, that can come long after the clods have rattled upon his coffin lid." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "Religion is the meaning we give to our lives; it is that which gives strength and direction to our life. Everyone that lives finds such a meaning and lives on the basis of that meaning." (Church and State, no date)

What is the "essence" of the philosophies of George and Tolstoy? With what illustrative comment will each conclude this "symposium"?

GEORGE: "The poverty which in the midst of abundance pinches and embrutes men, and all the manifold evils which flow from it, spring from a denial of justice. In permitting the monopolization of the opportunities which nature freely offers to all, we have ignored the fundamental law of justice - for so far as we can see, when we view things upon a large scale, justice seems to be the supreme law of the universe. But by sweeping away this injustice and asserting the rights of all men to natural opportunities, we shall conform ourselves to the law - we shall remove the great cause of unnatural inequality in the distribution of wealth and power; we shall abolish poverty; tame the ruthless passions of greed; dry up the springs of vice and misery; light in dark places the lamp of knowledge; give new vigor to invention and a fresh impulse to discovery; substitute political strength for political weakness; and make tyranny and anarchy impossible." (Progress and Poverty)

TOLSTOY: "A time will come when all men will hearken unto the word of God, will forget the arts of war, will melt their swords into plowshares and their lances into reaping-hooks; - which, being translated, means when all the prisons, the fortresses, the barracks, the palaces, and the churches will remain empty, the gallows and the cannon will be useless. This is no longer a mere Utopia, but a new and definite system of life, toward which mankind is progressing with ever increasing rapidity... But when will it come? ...Men cannot know, since the coming of that hour depends only on men themselves.... Each one has but to begin to do his duty, each one has but to live according to the light that is within him, to bring about the immediate advent of the promised Kingdom of God, for which the heart of every man yearns." (The Kingdom of God Is within You)