Leo Tolstoy on the Obsolescence of the State as a Form of Government and the Antidote to Violence


“Violence no longer rests on the belief in its utility, but only on the fact of its having existed so long, and being organized by the ruling classes who profit by it.”


Leo Tolstoy on the Obsolescence of the State as a Form of Government and the Antidote to Violence

“To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears,” Octavia Butler wrote in her searing admonition about choosing our leaders. “To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.” But in some deep animal sense, to be led at all is to risk handing one’s own moral conscience over to another. The paradox of our invasive species is that, because there are simply too many of us, it is our self-made fate to be governed — but we are yet to invent a form of government wholly free from evil.

Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) tussles with this paradox throughout Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy (public library) — the collection of his final journals, which also gave us his reflections on science, spirituality, and our search for meaning.

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, an elderly man who wrote in the final days of the 20th century considers the greatest hypocrisies modern life.

The whole complexity of our urban life lies in the fact that people think up and accustom themselves to harmful requirements, and then use all their mental energies to satisfy them or reduce the harm caused by satisfying them… Before speaking about the goodness of satisfying one’s requirements, one ought to decide what requirements constitute goodness. That’s very important.

This confusion is largely due to the complexity involved in managing large numbers of human beings. Considering the obsolescence of the state as a form of government — an entity that concentrates and magnifies humanity’s most dangerous hypocrisies, making murder on a large scale, in the form of war, morally permissible even for good people who condemn it on the small scale — he writes:

It’s amusing, the opinion people have that non-resistance to evil by force or paying back good for evil are very good rules for individuals, but can’t be applied to the state. As though the state isn’t a combination of people, but something separate from people. These properties are all part of oxygen. These properties are not the property of oxygen molecules or atoms. But oxygen in big compounds acquires quite different, opposite properties. This alone is enough to prove the inadequacy of state government as an institution.

Pessimism & Optimism by Giacomo Balla, 1923. This print is also available as stationery card.

Tolstoy had made it more clear seven years ago, when he was referring to the foundations of resisting evil.

The belief in violence is no longer sufficient to justify it. It only depends on its existence and its organization by ruling classes, who make a profit from it. The governments of our day — all of them, the most despotic and the liberal alike — have become… organizations of violence based on no principle but the grossest tyranny, and at the same time taking advantage of all the means invented by science for the peaceful collective social activity of free and equal men, used by them to enslave and oppress their fellows.

Add to the conversation with Hannah Arendt about the best antidote against evil, both in society and within the self. Bertrand Russell will discuss how to heal an ailing world. Next, we’ll revisit Tolstoy regarding kindness and love.


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