Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non Violence by Leo TolstoyIn Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence Tolstoy is a little heavy on the Christianity for me even if he is talking about the good Jesus Christianity rather than the bad institutional Christianity. I gave it three stars, an extra one because the topic of nonviolent civil disobedience is not found in much writing. I found it hard to get to the end of this book. It began to seem like I was reading the same thing over and over. Tolstoy’s writing is from 150 years ago and represents a part of the foundation for this modern day philosophy. Got to tip my hat to an ethic that says I would rather die than violate my conscience. A conversation about doing the right thing regardless of the consequences with Immanuel Kant (who lived in the 18th century) and Tolstoy would be interesting.
Tolstoy lived in Russia from 1828 until 1910. Most people know him because of War & Peace and Anna Karenina; fewer know that he was a pacifist and Christian anarchist when he died. Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence is a collection of letters and essays.
You might say that Tolstoy originated the phrase Power to the People. He says that a belief can start with one person and spread to the masses from there. His core belief is “I will not kill.” He did not believe in the institutional Christian church, premising his Christian belief on Jesus. “Only the complete and utter destruction of institutionalized Christianity in all it manifestations would, according to Tolstoy, open the way for a full appreciation and acceptance of Jesus,” said David Albert in the introduction to the book.
A friend of mine, Wally Nelson, was a war tax resister in western Massachusetts during the last half of the 20th century. He must have read Tolstoy because he had a story that he often repeated. Wally would say, What if a man came to your door asking you for money so he could kill a person you didn’t know? Would you give him money? Then Wally would spring the trap: This is like the IRS collecting income taxes from you so the U.S. can kill people you don’t even know in other parts of the world. Why do you pay to kill those other people? Tolstoy is very clear: “You are told in the Gospel that one should not only refrain from killing his brothers, but should not do that which leads to murder: one should not be angry with one’s brothers, nor hate one’s enemies, but love them.”
Now, I am not a religious person but I can relate to the organized Church being a force for evil and Jesus being a role model worthy of emulation. Tolstoy takes this quite literally. Tolstoy is severe. He uses hard and damning words: perversion, fraud, idolatry, abhorrent. “We, by God’s grace, the autocratic great Emperor of all Russia, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, etc., etc., proclaim to all our true subjects, that, for the welfare of these our beloved subjects, bequeathed by God into our care, we have found it our duty before God to send them to slaughter. God be with us.” Made Tolstoy want to puke!
Tolstoy wants all to say to the ruler impressing men into the military “Hell no! We won’t go!” He says, “The governments may and should fear those who refuse to serve, and, indeed, they are afraid of them because every refusal undermines the prestige of the deceit by which the governments have the people in their power. But those who refuse have no ground whatever to fear a government that demands crimes from them. In refusing military service every man risks much less than he would were he to enter it.”
Ah, but aren’t people in Tolstoy’s day in the 19th century afraid of the consequence of this civil disobedience and nonviolence? “But what will happen when all people refuse military service, and there is no check nor hold over the wicked, and the wicked triumph, and there is no protection against savage people – against the yellow race – who will come and conquer us?” You could fast forward to 2010 and hear the same arguments. Tolstoy replies, “I will say nothing about the fact that, as it is, the wicked have long been triumphing….” And he goes on. Is he convincing? Apparently not since we are still having the same argument 150 years later! And it is true throughout these letters and essays written in the 19th century, they could be letters to the editor in the 21st century. Tolstoy, like the Quakers and Mennonites, was blazing a path that some of us still try to follow.
As Martin Luther King, Jr and Gandhi learned from Tolstoy, the power of civil disobedience is our willingness to suffer the consequences of our actions. “Notwithstanding the admonitions of the authorities, and threats that they and their families will continue to suffer until they consent to fulfill military duties, those who have refused to do so do not change their decision. … These men say: We are Christians and therefore cannot consent to be murderers. You may torture and kill us, we cannot hinder that, but we cannot obey you…”
And, as the movement grows, it becomes harder for the government to control. “In our time it is impossible unperceived to sweep off the face of the earth a religious, moral, and industrious population of ten thousand souls.”
What does this writing from the 19th century have to say to us in the 21st century? And similarly, what of the words of the American writer Henry David Thoreau who wrote On the Duty of Civil Disobedience at the same period of the 19th Century? Social action and social criticism is an international reality even in the face of awful consequences.
“…on the one hand we find men professing the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, on the other hand we see these same men ready, in the name of liberty, to yield the most abject and slavish obedience; in the name of equality, to approve the most rigid and senseless subdivision of men into classes; and in the name of fraternity, ready to slay their own brothers.”
The line is drawn. “You wish me to be a murderer and I cannot do this; both God and my own conscience forbid it. And therefore do with me what you wish, but I will not kill or prepare for murder, or assist in it.”
According to Tolstoy, you cannot oppose evil with violence; he called that non-resistance. Today we would call it nonviolence.
“Non-resistance to evil by violence really means only that the mutual interaction of rational beings upon each other should consist not in violence ... but in rational persuasion; and that, consequently, towards this substitution of rational persuasion for coercion all those should strive who desire to further the welfare of mankind.”
In it, Thoreau argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences , and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican—American War — Resistance also served as part of Thoreau's metaphor comparing the government to a machine: when the machine was producing injustice, it was the duty of conscientious citizens to be "a counter friction" i.
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Published by Peter Owen, New York Seller Rating:. Condition: Good. First Edition. Former Library book. Shows some signs of wear, and may have some markings on the inside.