Tolstoy's Georgist Gospel

Fred Harrison

[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, March-April 1989]

WHEN YOU are on your death bed, your last words are accorded some respect. The beneficiaries of your will, for a start, are most anxious to hear the distilled wisdom of the benefactor.

When that benefactor is Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest artists ever, you would think that the world would pause to listen and reflect.

And what were Tolstoy's last words? He rode on a train to his death, while fleeing from a wife who apparently hated him. On that train, he could have slumped back in anonymity, exhausted by a lifetime's creative endeavours, making peace with his maker.

Far from it. He announced to passengers in his carriage that he was Leo Tolstoy, and he proceeded to instruct them on the virtues of a fiscal policy articulated by an American social reformer, Henry George.

The policy was a simple one: a tax on the value of land. This tax, while efficient at raising revenue, had a moral significance for Tolstoy. It was the mechanism for abolishing an evil; the private exploitation of the resources of nature, which ought to be -- which were -- the property of all.

Right to the end, according to the latest biography[1], the wizened old man with the matted beard insisted on spreading the gospel according to Henry George.

THIS WAS one of the rich legacies that the writer sought to leave mankind.

No-one denies that Tolstoy was a perceptive observer of society and psychology. His major works of fiction are suffused with the dramas of the 19th century, which symbolically represented age old actions (such as wars) and human strengths and frailties (such as jealousy and courage).

Today, universities provide ample scope for Ph.D dissertations on the artistic merits of the novels, and lecturers build their eputations by spreading knowledge about the works of the Master.

And yet Tolstoy committed the last half of his life to the facts of life. He swapped the role of the artist for the even more monopoly power based on the private ownership of land would have removed the need for the socialisation of capital.

So Lenin "contained" Tolstoy. He did this by praising the man as a poet and patronisingly dismissing him as a social thinker and reformer. That disgraceful treatment set the tone for all the biographies and literary critiques that followed throughout this century.

Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, we are invited to believe, strayed from the straight and narrow when he became a proselytiser for the American writer who was stirring the minds of men around the globe, from San Francisco to New York, from Edinburgh to Dublin and on to Sydney and the outback of Australia.

THE latest biography repeats the shallow assessment of Tolstoy's commitment to the land tax.

A.N. Wilson dismisses this dimension to his subject's life with a few glib phrases and pronouncements.

For example. Wilson -- knowing that Tolstoy was a libertarian, who Hated authoritarian governments -- believes he can fault the writer by pointing out that a tax on land values implies the need for the State with machinery to administer the policy.

Not content with noting what he alleges is a contradiction in Tolstoy's "muddled political thinking." Wilson proceeds to distort the structure of the State that would be required if the land tax were adopted.

For land taxers, the minimalist State is acceptable and sufficient to enable a free people to go about their affairs unrestrained by authoritarian politicians or interfering monopolists who prefer a rigged market which favours an easy life and large profits.

For Mr. Wilson, however, Tolstoy's policy implies "an all-powerful state,"which was "understandably discarded".

Proceeding in this negative vein. Wilson notes: "Lenin, watching from abroad, was completely fascinated by the 'really glaring' contradictions in Tolstoy's works, ideas and teachings. Lenin was chiefly struck by the contradictions between the incomparable artist and the "landowner obsessed by Christ". He was unimpressed by the 'worn-out sniveller' who beat his breast and boasted to the world that he now lived on rice cutlets."

And so the process of assassinating his character and discrediting his philosophy proceeds apace.

Tolstoy thought he had broken away from the world of fiction, after being exposed to the insights offered by Henry George. Now, he thought, he could really contribute something to the labourers who eked j out a mean living from the soil as tenants on the vast estates of the corrupt aristocracy that controlled Russia.

He was wrong. His biographers have chained him to the world of fiction. They will not allow him to break out into the real world, where the level of rents ensured the permanent pauperisation of a large part of the population.

Why, pronounced Wilson, even "Tolstoy's later diaries are stupendously tedious, full of the usual old reflections about Henry George's land tax..." There is a conspiracy to demanding mantle of the social social reformer.

He was disgusted by the immiseration of the peasants, but could not see a practical solution until he received copies of Progress and Poverty[2] and the other works by his contemporary in the United States.

These books, according to his own testimony, removed the scales from his eyes. Now he could see that a simple tax would release the energies of workers and banish poverty; open the gates to freedom, and diminish the power of tyrants who used ignorance to exploit the masses.

If people did not wish lo believe Henry George, why should they not at least accord respect to the words of Leo Tolstoy on his death bed?

It did not suit the revolutionaries and anarchists to accord credence to Tolstoy's legacy: that would have endangered their plans for the Czar.

We have to presume that Lenin could see (as Karl Marx saw) that abolition of the monensure that the Master's reflections on the real world remain indecently buried with this body. That conspiracy is based on ignorance: this is the most benign interpretation we can offer for what is a discreditable attempt to deny to the new generations of readers' access to the wisdom that underpins the philosophy of one of the greatest modern artists.

The world continues to pay the price for failing to listen to the last words of the Master.

  1. A.N. Wilson. Tolstoy, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988, p.510.
  2. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1979.