Leo Tolstoy and Henry George

Ilya Tolstoy

[Reprinted from Land and Freedom, Vol. XXVIII, No.5, September-October 1928]

The one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian humanitarian, was made the occasion of a special celebration by the Soviet government, which stressed the work of Tolstoy in arousing a consciousness of human brotherhood. Although Tolstoy was a Christian and a pacifist, and thus in opposition to policies of the present Russian government as in other ways he was arrayed against the Czarist regime, the Soviet government not only established a school in his memory, but has agreed, in deference to his teachings, that neither atheism nor war shall be inculcated in the school.

In connection with this anniversary, many articles on Tolstoy have appeared in America, but practically all glorify him as a novelist; his views on social questions are either ignored, or glossed over as amiable idiosyncracies of a literary genius. The younger generation would never guess that Tolstoy had towered like a giant among his contemporaries, challenging one social institution after another divine right of kings, warfare, slavery, private property in land. Even such articles as mentioned Tolstoy's interest in social questions carefully omitted any reference to his scathing denunciations of what he termed "The Great Iniquity" private ownership of the land which God had made for all.

One notable exception, however, was an article in the New York Times of September 9, 1928, by Count Ilya Tolstoy, a son of the philosopher, from which we quote the following:

Speaking of father's American friends I have also to mention the great economist, Henry George. His book on "Single Tax" was a revelation to my father.

It must be said here that the land question in Russia is far more acute than in this country. The population of Central Russia is very dense and land hunger is the normal condition of the peasantry. It was especially so before the Revolution, when the large estates were in the hands of the nobles and the peasantry had not enough land to live on even in a state of semi-starvation. My father believed that land ownership was the "slavery of our times" and together with the Russian peasantry he thought that land belongs to God and cannot be man's property.

He was feverishly seeking for a solution of the land question in Russia when he ran across Henry George's Progress and Poverty. This was exactly what he was looking for. Here was a peaceful and righteous solution of the problem. Let the land belong to the nation as a whole and give the use of it to those who work on it with their own hands. My father believed in the practical possibility of such a reform in Russia so deeply that he even wrote to some of the members of the Russian Government and to the Czar himself advocating the abolition of land ownership and the institution of the Single Tax in Russia.

My father never met Henry George, but his son, Henry George, Jr., made a special trip to Russia to meet him. My father was certainly very happy to know the son of the man whom he so much admired and to hear from him of the life and activities of the great reformer. When they were parting my father turned to Mr. George and said: "Good-bye; we will probably never meet again. I am much older than you are and I will probably see your father in the beyond before you get there. What shall I tell him?"

"Tell him that I am continuing his work as much as it is in my power," said Mr. George, smiling.

However, fate decided differently. Young Henry George died the next year after his visit to Russia and my father survived him by a score of years. The picture of Henry George is another picture of an American friend that he always kept on his wall.