Monday, June 18, 2012

Leo Tolstoy on Attempting to Change Government from Within (Or Via Violence)

James Grant (of Houston TX) emails:

For some reason, all of this Ron-Rand controversy prompted me to re-read Leo Tolstoy’s “Letter to the Liberals”.

Tolstoy could easily have been describing the Senator in his description of one of the means of fighting the state and the Congressman in his description of how it really should be done.

From Letter to Liberals by Leo Tolstoy:

At times it simply amuses me to see good, clever people waste their strength in fighting the government in the field of those very laws which are arbitrarily written by the government itself.  The matter seems to me to be as follows.  There are some people, to whom we belong, who know that our government is very bad, and who fight it.  Ever since the time of Radíshchev and the Decembrists, two methods of struggling have been in vogue: one, that of Sténka Rázin, Pugachév, the Decembrists, the revolutionists of the sixties, the actors of 

the first of March, and others; the other, which is preached and applied by you, the method of the "moderators,” which consists in fighting on a legal basis, without violence, by a gradual acquisition of rights.  Both methods have assiduously been applied for more than half a century, so far as my memory goes, and the condition is getting worse and worse.  If the condition is getting better, this is not due to this or that activity,  but in spite of the harmfulness of these activities (for different reasons, of which I shall speak later).  The force against which the struggle is carried on is growing more powerful, more potent, and more insolent.  The last flashes of self-government, the County Council, the courts, the committees of education, and 
everything else are all being abolished. Now, since so much time has passed in the vain employment of these means, we can, it seems, see clearly that neither method is any good, and why.  To me at least, who always had contempt for our government, but never had recourse to either method of fighting it, the mistakes 
of the two methods are obvious.

The first method is no good because, even if it should be  possible to change the existing order by means of violence, nothing guarantees that the established new order would be permanent and that the enemies of this new order would not triumph under favorable conditions and with the aid of the same violence.  This often happened in France and wherever there were revolutions.  And so the new order of things, which is established through violence, would have to be constantly supported by the same violence – that is, by lawlessness.  In consequence of it, the new order would inevitably and very quickly be ruined, like the one whose place it took.  But in case of failure, as has always happened in Russia, all the cases of revolutionary violence, from Pugachév to the first of March, have only strengthened the order of things against which they 
have fought, transferring to the camp of the conservatives and retrogrades the enormous number of indecisive people who stood in the middle and did not belong to either camp.  And so I think that, being guided by experience and by reflection, I may say boldly that this method is not only immoral, but also irrational and ineffective. 

Still less effective and rational, in my opinion, is the second method.  It is ineffective and irrational, because the government has in hand total power (the army, the administration, the church, the schools, and the police) and composes those very so-called laws, on the basis of which the liberals want to fight with it. 

The government knows full well what is dangerous for itself and will never permit the people who submit to it and who act under its guidance to do anything that might subvert its power.  Thus, for example, in the present case, the government, which in Russia (as elsewhere) is based on the ignorance  of the people, will never allow the people to get any real education.  It gives permission for the establishment of so-called 
educational institutions, which are controlled by it – public schools, gymnasia, universities,academies, all kinds of committees and associations, and censored publications – so long as these institutions and publications serve its purposes, which is to stultify the people, or at least not to interfere with their stultification.  At every attempt made by these institutions or publications to undermine the ignorance of the people, on which the power of the government is based, the government, without giving any account to anyone for doing so,  quietly pronounces its veto, reorganizes and closes the establishments or institutions, and prohibits the publications.  And so, it becomes clear from reflection and from experience that such a supposed gradual conquest of rights is only a self-deception, which is very advantageous for the government and so is even encouraged by it. 

But this activity is not only irrational and ineffective, but it is also harmful.  It is harmful, in the first place, because enlightened, good, honest men, by entering into the ranks of the government, give it a moral authority, which it did not have without them.  If the whole government consisted of nothing but coarse violators, selfish men, and flatterers, who form its pith, it could not exist.  Only the participation of enlightened and honest men in the government gives it what little moral prestige that it has.

This represents the first harm done by the activity of the liberals, who take part in the government or compromise with it.  Secondly, such activity is harmful because, for the possibility of its manifestation, these same enlightened, honest men, by admitting compromises, slowly get used to the idea that it is permissible to depart from truth both in words and acts for a good purpose.  It is permissible, for example, without 
acknowledging the existing religion, to execute its rites, to take an oath, and to deliver false addresses that are contrary to human dignity, if that is necessary for the success of the cause.  It is right to enter military service, to take part in the County Council (which has no rights), and to serve as a professor teaching, not what one thinks necessary, but what is prescribed by the government or even by the County Council chief.  It is right to submit to the demands and regulations of the government, which are contrary to one’s conscience, and publish newspapers and periodicals, passing over in silence what ought to be said and printing what one is commanded to print.  By making these compromises, the limits of which it is impossible to foresee, enlightened, honorable men, who alone could form a barrier against the government in its encroachment upon men’s liberty, fall into a condition of complete dependence on the government by imperceptibly departing more and more from the demands of their conscience.  Before they get a chance to look around, they receive their salaries and their rewards from it, and, by continuing to imagine that they are carrying out liberal ideas, become submissive servants and supporters of the very order against which they have been struggling. It is true, there are also very good and sincere men in this camp, who do not succumb to the enticements of the government and remain free from bribery, salary, and position.  These men generally get caught in the meshes of the net which the government throws about them, and they struggle in this net, as you now do with your committees, whirling about in one spot.  Or, they get excited and pass over to the camp of the revolutionists.  Some commit suicide, or take to drinking, or in despair throw everything aside and (what happens most frequently) betake themselves to literature, where they submit to the demands of the censorship and express only what is permitted.  By this very concealment of what is most important, they introduce the most perverse ideas, which are most desirable to the government, to the public, imagining all the time that with their writing, which gives them the means of existence, they are serving society. Thus, reflection and experience show me that both methods for struggling against the government, which have been in vogue, are not only not effective, but equally contribute to the strengthening of the power and the arbitrariness of the government.

What, then, is to be done?  Evidently, not that which in the course of seventy years has proved to be fruitless and has attained the opposite results.  What, then, is to be done?  The same that is done by those whose activity has accomplished all that forward movement toward the light and the good that has been accomplished since the world has existed.  It is this that ought to be done.  Now what is it? 

It is the simple, calm, truthful fulfillment of what one considers to be good and proper, quite independent of the government – of whether that pleases the government or not.  It is the defense of one’s rights, not as a member of the Committee of Education, as an alderman, as a landowner, as a merchant, or even as a member of parliament.  It is the defense of one’s rights as a rational and free man, and their defense, not as one defends the  rights of County Councils and committees, with concessions and compromises, but without any concessions or compromises, as indeed moral human dignity cannot be defended in any other way...

Only by fortifying ourselves on what is unsurrenderable are we able to conquer everything that we need.  It is true, the rights of a member of parliament, or even of the County Council, or of a committee are greater than those of a simple man, and, by making use of these rights, it seems that very much may be accomplished.  But to acquire the rights of the County Council, the parliament, or the committee it is necessary to renounce part of one’s own rights as a man.  And having renounced a part of one’s own rights as a man, no fulcrum is 
left, and it is impossible either to gain any new rights or retain those already possessed.  To pull others out of the mire, a man must himself stand on dry land, and if he, for greater convenience in the work, goes down into the mire, he does not pull any one else out and sticks fast himself.  It may be very well and useful to pass an eight-hour day in  parliament or a liberal program for school libraries in some committee, but a member of parliament must raise his hand and lie in public to do this, and lie in pronouncing an oath and expressing in words a respect for what he does not respect.  If we, to carry into execution the most liberal programs, are obliged to attend Te Deums, swear, put on uniforms, write lying and flattering documents, and make similar 

speeches, we renounce our human dignity and lose much more than we gain by doing all these things.  By striving after the attainment of one definite  end (as a rule not even this end is attained), we deprive ourselves of the possibility of attaining other important ends.  The government can be restrained and counteracted only by men who have something that they will not give up for anything, under any conditions.  To have the power for counteraction, it is necessary to have a fulcrum.  The government knows this  very well, and is particularly concerned about coaxing that which does not yield – human dignity – out of men.  When this is coaxed out of them, the government calmly does what it needs to, knowing that it will no longer meet with any real opposition.  A man who consents to swear in public, pronouncing the unbecoming and false words of the oath, or who submissively waits in his uniform for several hours to be received by a minister, or who serves in the  “guard of protection” during a coronation, or who goes through the ceremony of the communion for decency’s sake, or who asks the chiefs of the censorship in advance whether certain ideas may be expressed or not, is no longer a danger to the government. 

Alexander II said that the liberals were not dangerous to him, because he knew that they could all be bought with honors, if not with money. Men who take part in the government or who work under its guidance may, by pretending that they are fighting, deceive themselves and those like themselves.  Those who struggle against them know incontestably from the opposition which they offer that they are not in earnest, but 
are only pretending.  And this our government knows in relation to the liberals, and it is constantly making experiments as to how much real opposition there is, and, upon having ascertained to what extent it is absent for the government’s purposes, it proceeds to do its work with the full assurance that anything may be done with these men...


  1. So now we're to take advice from Tolstoy? Seriously?

    Robert, I think you badly need a vacation. Take a break, relax, and get some perspective back into your life and your blog.

    1. Aside from the fact that we should judge everyone, during theoretical discussion, by the logic of what they say, rather than who they are, just what is wrong with Tolstoy? He was a pacifist-anarchist.

      I suspect you have been on vacation for a very long part of your life and are confusing Tolstoy with Trotsky.

    2. I will ignore the personal insult and simply answer the question, "what is wrong with Tolstoy?"

      The most concise answer is found in "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool", an essay by George Orwell inspired by a critical essay on Shakespeare by Leo Tolstoy:

      But is it not also curiously similar to the history of Tolstoy himself? There is a general resemblance which one can hardly avoid seeing, because the most impressive event in Tolstoy's life, as in Lear's, was a huge and gratuitous act of renunciation. In his old age, he renounced his estate, his title and his copyrights, and made an attempt--a sincere attempt,though it was not successful--to escape from his privileged position and live the life of a peasant. But the deeper resemblance lies in the fact that Tolstoy, like Lear, acted on mistaken motives and failed to get the results he had hoped for. According to Tolstoy, the aim of every human being is happiness, and happiness can only be attained by doing the will of God. But doing the will of God means casting off all earthly pleasures and ambitions, and living only for others. Ultimately, therefore, Tolstoy renounced the world under the expectation that this would make him happier. But if there is one thing certain about his later years, it is that he was NOT happy. On the contraty he was driven almost to the edge of madness by the behaviour of the people about him, who persecuted him precisely BECAUSE of his renunciation. Like Lear, Tolstoy was not humble and not a good judge of character. He was inclined at moments to revert to the attitudes of an aristocrat, in spite of his peasant's blouse, and he even had two children whom he had believed in and who ultimately turned against him--though, of course, in a less sensational manner than Regan and Goneril. His exaggerated revulsion from sexuality was also distinctly similar to Lear's. Tolstoy's remark that marriage is "slavery, satiety, repulsion" and means putting up with the proximity of "ugliness, dirtiness, smell, sores"...,_Tolstoy_and_the_Fool/0.html

    3. Oh cute, you get to hurl insults, but Wenzel can't volley back.

      "he even had two children whom he had believed in and who ultimately turned against him"

      Keep going he sounds more and more like Ron Paul and a son who turned against him.

    4. Yes, yes, we get it 13OClock, you don't like Tolstoy. What the heck does that have to do with what he wrote. I personally feel all the wiser for having read it.

      Your comment is meaningless.

      Also, it was you who hurled the first insult, so don't dish it out if you can't take it.

    5. "I will ignore the personal insult and simply answer the question"

      One comment earlier:

      "Robert, I think you badly need a vacation. Take a break, relax, and get some perspective back into your life and your blog."

      LOL. Nothing more needs to be said.

  2. The best thing that any person can ask themselves is "Who pays me?" Are you paid voluntarily? Or are you paid with stolen money. If you are paid with stolen money, you are guilty. Period. It is never ok to receive stolen property, as it perpetuates and legitimizes the thief. Government is a racket; no price is worth it.

  3. Reminds me very much of Hoppe's idea of economic secession. I guess that would mean no voting, no support of any government programs, never succumbing to the good intentions of government. It is a worthy idea, but how can it be put into practice by us an-caps? I don't think that not paying taxes will accomplish much; Irwin Schiff isn't doing much from prison. Should we deny ourselves of government privileges, even though we pay for them? I can also see the other case, that these are corrupting. It's something to ponder, I suppose; how do we make ourselves more independent day by day?

    1. You can't leave Walter Block out of the debate. His argument, I think is similar to Ron Paul's argument about earmarks: The money IS stolen, but refusing it just leaves more for the villains.
      Me, I stayed outside the system as much as I could. Still do. Moved offshore.
      Like I said on another thread yesterday, might as well let the whole thing collapse and do a "Galt's Gulch".

  4. The whole point of the reference was the comparison of the methods of Ron Paul to those of Ron Paul and are most succinctly written in the following portion of the essay:

    "In order successfully to defend a fortress, it is necessary to burn all the houses of the suburb and to leave only what is fortified and what we will not surrender under any condition. The
    same is true here. It is necessary at first to concede what we can surrender, and to keep only what is not to be surrendered. Only by fortifying ourselves on what is unsurrenderable are we able to conquer everything that we need. It is true, the rights of a member of parliament, or even of the County Council, or of a committee are greater than those of a simple man, and, by making
    use of these rights, it seems that very much may be accomplished. But to acquire the rights of the County Council, the parliament, or the committee it is necessary to renounce part of one’s own rights as a man. And having renounced a part of one’s own rights as a man, no fulcrum is left, and it is impossible either to gain any new rights or retain those already possessed. To pull others out of the mire, a man must himself stand on dry land, and if he, for greater convenience in the work, goes down into the mire, he does not pull any one else out and sticks fast himself.

  5. Excellent text. Thank you for sharing, Mr. Wenzel.

  6. Very much in the same spirit of the letter by the late John Pugsley to Harry Browne. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it:

  7. Tolstoy's analysis perfectly describes both Rand Paul as well as Ron Paul, the difference being that Ron is one of those rare people in government not seduced by money or honors. Tolstoy also perfectly describes the core problem with government (it is an assault on human dignity), as well as the only way to fix the problem: demand the return of that dignity. And the only way to do that is by a mass movement of peaceful protest. Hayak is wrong in this: we are not on the road TO serfdom. We are already serfs. Our path must be moving FROM the serfdom which is our condition as the natural consequence of our acquiesence to government, our willingness to suffer the indignities that government inflicts on all.

  8. Call me historically old-fashioned, but as long as civil society survives, and inexorably it does as long as human spirit persists, the means to internally alter polities will always remain available. Unfortunately, most of the times it takes disasters and trying hardships for people to reawaken their motivation to do something novel. Throughout America's history whenever catastrophic instances surmised, changes were made, like the free market operates, until a self-correction occurred. While often times corrections were enacted inappropriately and faced challenges from agitated polemics, so too is the system deemed political; a never-ending process of corrections spurred by paradigm shifts, or challenges to conventional wisdom. Only then are former iconoclasts viewed as patriots and humanists.

    Society becomes unified whenever individual self-interests are threatened, rather than the more liberal explanation of communal awakening. No matter what time, place, or cosmology dictates, revolutions always begin and providence willing, succeed from below during times of imminent threat to individuals' liberties. I am confident that most Americans realize that their government violates common law principles daily, however, unfortunately it takes the most drastically idiotic moves by the said tyrannical state for people to engage in civil uprisings not from wants of overthrowing institutions, but rather as “an extralegal arm [protecting the] community’s interest.”