Book Review from the October 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
What Then Must We Do? By Leo Tolstoy. Reissued 1991 with an introduction by Ronald Sampson. Green Books. £8.95.
Leo Tolstoy was a writer of genius: his novels are amongst the best ever written, but this is without doubt his worst book and it is difficult to believe that the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina could write this also.
This book was written in 1886 when Tolstoy believed that his idiosyncratic religious views had given him the answers to society’s problems. A quarter of the book is devoted to Tolstoy’s guilt-ridden forays among the destitute to offer them charity. He rightly concludes that charity is not the answer to poverty but the point could have been made much more succinctly. Tolstoy concludes that money given by the rich to the poor is money that was gained by exploiting their labour in the first place.
Of wage labour he notes:
Money is the new form of slavery, differing from the old only in its impersonality. in the freedom it gives from any human relation with the slave.
A large section of the book is devoted to the way that institutionalised violence maintains wage slavery. Marxists agree that the state is the instrument which the capitalist class uses to enforce exploitation but Tolstoy overlooks the fact that many workers accept working for wages because they believe it is natural and inevitable. The power of propaganda as a superior instrument of control to avert violence has been recognised more in the present century, but even in Tolstoy’s time the capitalist class used it for their own ends quite successfully.
Tolstoy’s solution to the inequalities of his time was to recommend that everyone should work on the land, living a simple life, without employing the labour of others. But this restriction of consumption would be regressive and not to the tastes of most people. Capitalism has made it possible, through technology, to release productive forces which would be used in a socialist society to eliminate all poverty and austerity.
The introduction by Ronald Sampson is more interesting than the rest of the book, such is the subordination of Tolstoy’s literary skills to the task of getting his message across. Tolstoy the novelist deserves our admiration but Tolstoy the polemicist and self-appointed prophet is downright dull.