Tolstoy on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence

I found a copy of the out-of-print collection Leo Tolstoy, Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence, at a used bookstore . I’d been interested in reading this because Tolstoy’s Christian pacifist anarchism bears some resemblance to my own project, although mine is not quite pacifist and not at all Christian.

Tolstoy appeals to individual conscience and he calls for individual action. He didn’t want to reform the government or the church, to institute a utopia or to join the revolution; he wanted you to disregard the government and the church and to behave as (he felt) God and Christ demanded — the rest would take care of itself.

Here’s an excerpt in which he ridicules the idea that the way to peace is through better treaties or through international law:

The government assures the people that they are in danger from the invasion of another nation, or from foes in their midst, and that the only way to escape this danger is by the slavish obedience of the people to their government. This fact is seen most prominently during revolutions and dictatorships, but it exists always and everywhere that the power of the government exists. Every government explains its existence, and justifies its deeds of violence, by the argument that if it did not exist the condition of things would be very much worse. After assuring the people of its danger the government subordinates it to control, and when in this condition compels it to attack some other nation. And thus the assurance of the government is corroborated in the eyes of the people, as to the danger of attack from other nations.

“Divide et imperia.”

Patriotism in its simplest, clearest, and most indubitable signification is nothing else but a means of obtaining for the rulers their ambitions and covetous desires, and for the ruled the abdication of human dignity, reason, and conscience, and a slavish enthralment to those in power. And as such it is recommended wherever it is preached.

Patriotism is slavery.

Those who preach peace by arbitration argue thus: Two animals cannot divide their prey otherwise than by fighting; as also is the case with children, savages, and savage nations. But reasonable people settle their differences by argument, persuasion, and by referring the decision of the question to other impartial and reasonable persons. So the nations should act today. This argument seems quite correct. The nations of our time have reached the period of reasonableness, have no animosity toward one another, and might decide their differences in a peaceful fashion. But this argument applies only so far as it has reference to the people, and only to the people who are not under the control of a government. But the people who subordinate themselves to a government cannot be reasonable, because the subordination is in itself a sign of a want of reason.

How can we speak of the reasonableness of men who promise in advance to accomplish everything, including murder, that the government — that is, certain men who have attained a certain position — may command? Men who can accept such obligations, and resignedly subordinate themselves to anything that may be prescribed by persons unknown to them in Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, cannot be considered reasonable; and the government, that is, those who are in possession of such power, can still less be considered reasonable, and cannot but misuse it, and become dazed by such insane and dreadful power.

This is why peace between nations cannot be attained by reasonable means, by conversations, by arbitration, as long as the subordination of the people to the government continues, a condition always unreasonable and always pernicious

But the subordination of people to governments will exist as long as patriotism exists, because all governmental authority is founded upon patriotism, that is, upon the readiness of the people to subordinate themselves to authority in order to defend their nation, country, or state from dangers which are supposed to threaten.

More tales of terror from the U.S. military:

Marines in Iraq conducted mock executions of juvenile prisoners last year, burned and tortured other detainees with electrical shocks, and warned a Navy corpsman they would kill him if he treated any injured Iraqis, according to military documents made public .

Worthy of note is that the mainstream U.S. press (the above excerpt is the opening paragraph from the Los Angeles Times) is starting to lose its reluctance to call torture “torture” when it is done by U.S. personnel. It had been traditional to use the term “abuse” instead when referring to torture committed by Americans.