Tolstoy and Gandhi: Genesis of an ideological revolution
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 17 Oct 2009 6 Comments

If the English have enslaved the Hindoos, it is just because the Hindoos recognized and recognise coercion as the main and fundamental precept of the social order…In your case the only means of liberating your people from slavery lies in love. Love without non-resistance is a contradiction in itself” - Leo Tolstoy - Letter to a Hindoo (1909)

There is only one way of achieving independence through non-violence; by dying we live, by killing never” - Mahatma Gandhi (1945)

Count Leo Tolstoy’s philosophical and religious legacy is present in the lifework and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, from the latter’s early action in South Africa where, like the Russian novelist, he challenges the Western Enlightenment School in the name of what we might call an early ‘Post-Industrial’ Idealism.

The young MK Gandhi was decisively influenced in his early writings, including the seminal “Hind Swaraj” (first titled “Indian Home Rule”), by HD Thoreau, John Ruskin (in particular his “Unto this Last”) and Tolstoy, to whom he wrote four letters in 1909, the year of Hind Swaraj’s publication. He published Tolstoy’s response, after adding a foreword, under the title “Letter to a Hindoo”. His interest for the great Russian’s thought, inter alia, in his essay “What I believe” was stirred by his friend and supporter Kallenbach, who financed the purchase of the property near Johannesburg that he advised him to call Tolstoy Farm, and which became one of several communities around the world inspired by the radical teachings of the Sage of Iasnaia Polyana.

Tolstoy’s convictions were in fact later reflected in several features of Gandhi’s own ideology and socio-political vision, including some of the more paradoxical and controversial ones, such as the distrust of organized religion, and an implicit rejection of the centrally and hierarchically governed, militarily armed nation-state as a valid structure. In this as in many other ideas, Tolstoy was influenced by the ancient Russian Millenarist anarchists who wanted the abolition of State and Church as a preface to the advent of God’s kingdom, the Christian Second Coming.

It may indeed be argued that Gandhi’s definite rejection of violence as a means to achieve freedom was triggered by Tolstoy’s conclusions, summarized in the passage of his letter quoted at the inception of this paper. The influence of the Russian writer can therefore hardly be overestimated.

Gandhi’s programme to restructure India into a loose confederation of autarkic, semi-sovereign village republics, practicing a form of simplified, syncretistic, largely rite-free and popular moral ‘religion of truth’ as the real manifestation of God is very consonant with the old Count’s message, though it also refers to old Indian and Western Christian ideals. Like Tolstoy, in a very Christian vein, he sees God in “hunger and the thirst of the lowly and the lost” (1944).

Interestingly, not a few religious philosophers in Russia and Western Europe accused Tolstoy, widely perceived as an egotistic aristocrat, of putting man (i.e., himself) above God in his personal theology, divested from dogmas, rituals and mysticism. Gandhi’s creed may be described as a quest for universal morality in which man, seen as an individual, is central and perhaps even supreme, though he also defines him primarily as a spiritual entity.

The Russian writer and the Indian social reformer regard the humble peasant (the Russian Mujik, the Indian Kisan) as the pristine and  most enviable image of man, whom both strived to imitate and identify with, justifying their reputation as adepts of Rousseau’s theory of the “good savage,” and also of Victor Hugo’s mystical “cosmic” socialism. For them, the peasant is an ethical archetype of humanity and Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky all regarded Tolstoy as a champion of the ancient agricultural world, steeped in tradition and averse to change and progress. However, the most important debt Gandhi owed at least in part to the rebellious Russian nobleman is the doctrine of non-resistance to violence – also sharply criticized by Plekhanov and Lenin, who in an 1908 article in “Proletarij” even attacks vegetarianism, fashionable among Tolstoy’s Russian disciples, - inherited from a long line of Slav mystical pacifism, and which became for the purpose of India’s struggle for independence, non-violent resistance to colonial oppression.

Thereby Gandhi modified Aurobindo’s 1904 appeal to Satyagraha as passive resistance into a full abjuration of violence, inspired by the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist precept of Ahimsa, which had however, not been applied or even intended for socio-political collective action since it was a rule of conduct for the individual desiring enlightenment. Gandhi’s Ahimsa is therefore closer to Tolstoy’s teaching (disparagingly called the Tolstovchchina by Lenin) than to the Indian tradition.

As French Indologist Alain Danielou points out: “The use made by Mahatma Gandhi of the theory of non-violence as a political weapon has nothing to do with the Hindu tradition. Non-violence is a strictly individual technique of personal self improvement. It cannot serve political ends and cannot play a role in the governing of states” (“Les Quatre Sens de la Vie” 1992). Indeed Plekhanov accused Tolstoy of focusing on individual self-improvement to the detriment of the majority’s welfare, so that the future Mahatma was making a departure from the real intent of the author of “Thou shalt not kill”.

One constant of Gandhi’s attitude which puzzled many and at times angered other fighters for India’s freedom, especially in the religious Hindu camp of the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha et al, to the extent of leading to his assassination in 1948, was his unwillingness to endorse any kind of nationalism and his readiness to accept even a foreign rule in principle, if it had been righteous, according to his own definition. His oft-repeated call in the early days of his struggle was for Britain to renounce the contemporary western civilization and return to the original “Christian” state of nature, or at least her traditional pre-industrial culture.

This advocacy of rural simplicity was tied to his misgivings about modern technical and scientific schooling, also inherited from or at least shared with Tolstoy, who yearned for the blissful ignorance of the poor, the prirodnaja dukhovnost. Some historians are of the opinion that Gandhi, in his desire to disarm the colonizers’ opposition to the Indian independence movement, tactically chose to distinguish between English civilization, which he professed to admire and British imperialism, which he condemned. However there is little doubt that he was sincere in his reverence for “true Christianity” which, he consistently said, the West had betrayed.

Even more controversial, even outrageous to many, was Gandhi’s seemingly serious advice to the British not to resist Hitler’s assaults but let the Germans take over, just as he later expressed the wish that the Jews had accepted oppression and death at the hands of the Nazis by practicing non-violence to the end and thereby winning the glory of martyrdom. He applied the same extreme logic to his co-religionists: “If they (Muslims) put all of us to the sword, we should court death bravely; may they even rule the world, we shall inhabit the world” (5 April 1947).

Such a doctrine, as illogical as it may appear, denoted his commitment to integrally follow Jesus’ prescription to love the enemy and turn the other cheek, but it was even more directly related to Tolstoy’s profession of faith which however, the Russian Count, retired in his ancestral estates, never had to put to the test in the political or religious arenas. Tolstoy’s detractors often accused him of hypocrisy for that reason, and the orthodox philosopher Vladimir Soloviev pointed out that this unconditional non-violence is tantamount in effect to “taking Cain’s side against Abel” (in his “Three Dialogues”).

But Gandhi had to try to be consistent when making concrete decisions and defining his praxis, which was so much more fraught with consequences. Yet there is little doubt that he espoused Tolstoy’s conviction summarized by Soloviev: “…If the good become even better then the wicked will lose their wickedness”: a controversial assumption to say the least. Both men shared the view that social evils can be cured through teaching and convincing people on the basis of personal moral example, which many sociologists and students of law disagree with, not to mention human history itself.

While Gandhi by his personal sacrifice has achieved a hallowed status as the father of the Indian nation and has been spared much criticism as a result, despite the sometimes severe assessment of his ideas and actions by men as notable as Ambedkar and Lohia, Tolstoy has not been so protected. Some philosophers, such as Ivan Ilin have gone so far as to accuse him of being responsible for many of Russia’s ills during the last century.

Unsurprisingly the critiques of both doctrines came from both the Left and the Right of the political-ideological spectrum. It is more intriguing however that not a few of their detractors, in their respective countries at least, concluded that Tolstoy and Gandhi had been made into prophets and patron saints by the liberal establishment of Bourgeois societies, particularly in the Protestant Anglo-Saxon and Germanic cultures, which thereby found an innocent cure for their own feelings of guilt, while keeping safely at bay more dangerous and effective threats to the socio-economic and political status quo of their making and choice.

Some qualified Tolstoy’s decision to till the soil, dress like a peasant and to make his own boots as a “lie” because it was unnecessary. However Soloviev and others who came to this conclusion did not understand the symbolic value that the Master of Iasnaia Polyana attached to this attitude which, just as Gandhi’s adoption of the lifestyle of a charkha-weaving artisan, made him a national and a global icon, especially for the poor working people. This effect would hardly attract the sympathy of intellectuals, either Liberals or Socialists. Unsurprisingly, Modernists rejected Tolstoy in Russia as much as they tend to ignore Gandhi in India whom they regard as a rather naïve romantic in socio-economic matters.

Russian Marxists and Bolsheviks, guided by Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky generally saw the author of “War and Peace” as a literary genius, but also as an impractical and rather pernicious social utopist, though according to Shalamov, he became a model for Soviet realistic literature until his “romantic” views of man were made irrelevant by the Totalitarian experience. On the other hand, the nation’s religious and conservative thinkers and philosophers, beginning with Dostoevsky, Ioan of Kronstadt and Soloviev showed  aversion, bordering on contempt,  for Tolstoy’s anarchical, iconoclastic message which they regarded as subversive and destructive of the traditional culture. 

Soloviev derided Tolstoy’s glorification of narodopokloi nichestvoe (the childish popular faith) and he was even more unforgiving of the great novelist’s disdain for culture, in his later days, and his promotion of “a false reconciliation between religions”, through the mere precept: Nata byt dobryn: “one must be kind” as a substitute for theology, mysticism and ethics. The focus of Soloviev’s criticism is indeed Tolstoy’s reliance on Oproshenya Propoved (simplism) while Ilin accuses him of inciting Russia’s Intelligentsia to submit to Bolshevism without resistance (neprotivlenstvo) by preaching the willing abandonment not only of material goods, but also of “universal spiritual values” in the face of a violent assault and subsequent oppression.

Conversely, Lenin went so far as to characterize Tolstoyism as “an ideology of the oriental system, of the Asian system” (in “Tolstoy and his Epoch’, 1911), no doubt with the Marxist critique of “oriental despotism” in mind, and he charged him with responsibility for the failure of the 1905 revolution through his advocacy of a non-violent peasant insurrection.

Gandhi, also often accused  of trying to reconcile religions through basic moral precepts, corrected that implicitly passive or quietist doctrine by evolving a concept of struggle through self-sacrifice even up to martyrdom but, nevertheless, the reaction to Gandhi from the Communist and Hindu religious nationalist quarters is rather similar. He is seen as an appeaser of colonial powers and native capitalists by the former and religious minorities, (especially the Muslims) by the latter, who did not actively seek the overthrow of the feudal and caste-based order, as desired by Marxists, but did not encourage either the building of a strong nationalist state on indigenous religious-cultural foundations as intended by both traditionalist and reformist Hindu organizations.

It cannot be denied that there is an inherent contradiction between the struggle to achieve national independence in order to build a strong state capable of playing its role in an international system regulated by economic and military might on the one hand and, on the other the vision of a unified, borderless world where violence would be banned and where most powers would be vested in local self-governing units.

In trying to bring together these two goals, Gandhi was attempting to reconcile Tolstoy’s rejection of the state with the international political realities of his day, something that the Russian thinker himself had never attempted to do. Some of his ideas on government were revived by Solzhenitsyn in his 1990 Essay “Rebuilding Russia” on the lines of Slav Orthodox traditional institutions after the collapse of the Soviet system, but so far Tolstoy’s ideological legacy has been mostly shunned in his motherland just as Gandhi’s concept of Swadeshi went largely ignored in India where Pandit Nehru for one, Gandhi’s chosen successor, regarded it as impractical and quixotic. Yet the renewed and expanding movement all over the world for a return to nature and for a radical reappraisal of the technocratic, science-guided society carries in its pantheon these two towering heralds of changes that are now seen as inevitable.

The rejection of competitive and aggressive nationalism, exploitive and unjust economic laissez faire, technocratic industrialization, bureaucratic government and militaristic religion, implies shunning both the conventional Rightist and Leftist formulas for social organization. This demand is the source of the worldwide pacifist revolutionary movement that emerged in the closing decades of the nineteenth century within industrial societies and was periodically revived through the Hippy and Ecological mass awakenings, which were, consciously or not, indebted to the author of “What I believe” and to the writer of “Hind Swaraj”.



The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal; this is the prepared text of the speech delivered at the Rhodes World Public Forum on 10 October 2009

User Comments Post a Comment
Comments are free. However, comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate material will be removed from the site. Readers may report abuse at
Post a Comment

Back to Top