What’s To Be Done?


by Leo Tolstoy



About a month ago I had a visit from two young men, one of whom was wearing a cap and peasant bast shoes, and the other a once fashionable black hat and torn boots.

I asked them who they were, and with unconcealed pride they informed me that they were workmen expelled from Moscow for taking part in the armed rising.  Passing our village they had found employment as watchmen on an estate, but had lived there less than a month.  The day before they came to see me they had been dismissed, the owner charging them with attempting to persuade the peasants to lay waste the estate.  They denied the charge with a smile, saying they had attempted no persuasion but had merely gone into the village one evening and chatted with their fellows.

They had both read revolutionary literature, particularly the bolder of the two, who had sparkling black eyes and white teeth and smiled a great deal.  They both used foreign words such as “orator,”[1] “proletariat,” “Social-Democrat,” “exploitation,” and so on, in and out of place.

I asked them what they had read, and the darker one replied with a smile that he had read various pamphlets.

“Which?” I asked.

“All sorts.  Land and Liberty for instance.”

I then asked them what they thought of such pamphlets.

“They tell the real truth,” replied the dark one.

“What is it you find so true in them?” I asked.

“Why, that it has become impossible to go on living as we do.”

“Why is it impossible?”

“Why?  Because we have neither land nor work, and the government throttles the people without sense or reason.”

And interrupting one another, they began to tell how people who had done nothing wrong were flogged by Cossacks with their heavy whips, seized haphazard by the police, and even shot in their own houses.

On my saying that an armed rebellion was a bad and irrational affair, the dark one smiled and replied quietly, “We are of a different opinion.”

When I spoke of the sin of murder and the law of God they exchanged glances, and the darker one shrugged his shoulders.

“Does the law of God say the proletariat is to be exploited?” he asked.  “People used to think so, but now they know better, and it can’t go on…”

I brought them out some booklets, chiefly on religious subjects.  They glanced at the titles and were evidently not pleased.

“Perhaps you don’t care for them?  If so, don’t take them.”

“Why not?” said the darker one, and, putting the booklets into their shirts, they took their leave.

Though I had not been reading the papers, I knew what had been going on in Russia recently from the talk of my family, from letters I had received, and from accounts given by visitors.  And just because I had not read the papers, I knew particularly well of the amazing change that had recently taken place in the views held by our society and by the people.  The change amounted to this: that whereas people formerly considered the government to be necessary, now all except a very few looked upon its activity as criminal and wrong and blamed the government alone for all the disturbances.  That opinion was shared by professors, postal officials, authors, shopkeepers, doctors, and workmen alike, and the feeling was strengthened by the dissolution of the first Duma and had reached its highest point as a result of the cruel measures lately adopted by the government.

I knew this, but my talk with these two men had a great effect on me.  Like the shock that suddenly turns freezing liquid into ice, it suddenly turned a whole series of similar impressions I had previously received into a definite and indubitable conviction.

After my talk with them I saw clearly that all the crimes the government is now committing in order to crush the revolution not only fail to crush it but inflame it all the more, and that if the revolutionary movement appears for a time to die down under the cruelties of the government, it is not destroyed but merely temporarily hidden, and will inevitably spring up again with new and increased strength.  The fire is now in such a state that any contact with it can only increase its fierceness.  And it became clear to me that the only thing that could help would be for the government to cease any and every attempt to enforce its will, to cease not only executing and arresting, but all banishing, persecuting, and proscribing.  Only in that way could this horrible strife between brutalized men be brought to an end.

It became perfectly clear to me that the only means of stopping the horrors that are being committed, and halting the perversion of the people, was the resignation by the government of its power.  I was convinced that that was the best thing the government could do, but I was equally firmly convinced that, were I to make any such proposal, it would be received merely as an indication that I was quite insane.  Therefore, though it was perfectly clear to me that the continuance of governmental cruelty could only make things worse and not better, I did not attempt to write or even to speak about it.

Nearly a month has passed, and unfortunately my supposition finds more and more confirmation.  There are more and more executions and more and more murders and robberies.  I know this both from conversation and from chance glances at the papers, and I know that the mood of the people and of society has become more and more embittered against the government.

When I was out riding a couple of days ago, a young man wearing a pea-jacket and a curious blue cap with a straight crown was driving in the same direction in a peasant cart, and jumped off his cart and came up to me.

He was a short man with a little red moustache and an unhealthy complexion, and he had a clever, harsh face and a dissatisfied expression.

He asked me for booklets, but this was evidently an excuse for entering into conversation.

I asked him where he came from.

He was a peasant from a distant village, some of the men of which had lately been imprisoned and whose wives had been to see me.

It was a village I knew well and in which it had fallen to my lot to administer the Charter of Liberation,[2] and I had always admired its particularly bold and handsome peasants.  Especially talented pupils used to come to my school from that village.

I asked him about the peasants who had been sent to prison, and he told me that, though they had done no wrong, they had been seized, beaten, and imprisoned.  He said this with the same assurance and absence of doubt that I had recently encountered in everyone, and with the same full confidence that the government alone is to blame.

Only with great difficulty could I get him to explain what they were accused of.

It turned out that they were “orators,” and held meetings at which they spoke of the necessity of expropriating the land.

I said that the establishment of an equal right for all to the use of the land cannot be established by violence.

He did not agree.

“Why not?” he asked.  “We only need to organize.”

“How will you organize?”   I asked.

“That will be seen when the time comes.”

“Do you mean another armed rising?”

“It has become a painful necessity.”

I said what I always say in such cases: that evil cannot be conquered by evil, but only by refraining from evil.

“But it has become impossible to live like that.  We have no work and no land.  What’s to become of us?” he asked, looking at me from under his brows.

“I am old enough to be your grandfather,” I replied, “and I won’t argue with you.  But I will say one thing to you, as to a young man beginning life.  If what the government is doing is bad, what you are doing or preparing to do is equally bad.  As a young man whose habits are just forming you should do one thing: live rightly, not sinning or resisting the will of God.”

He shook his head with dissatisfaction and said, “Every man has his own God.  Millions of men – millions of Gods.”

“All the same,” I said, “I advise you to cease taking part in the revolution.”

“But what’s to be done?” he replied.  “We can’t go on enduring and enduring.  What’s to be done?”

I felt that no good would come of our talk and was about to ride away, but he stopped me.

“Won’t you help me to subscribe for a newspaper?” he asked.

I refused and rode away from him feeling sad.

He was not one of those unemployed factory hands of whom thousands are now roaming about Russia.  He was a peasant farmer living in a village, and there are not hundreds or thousands but millions of such peasants.  And the infection of such a mood as his is spreading more and more.

On returning home I found my family in the saddest frame of mind.  They had just read the newspaper that had come (it was October 6th, old style).

“Twenty-two more executions today!” said my daughter.  “It’s horrible!”

“Not only horrible, but senseless,” said I.

“But what’s to be done?  They can’t be allowed to rob and kill and go unpunished,” said one of those present.

Those words, “What’s to be done?” were the very words the two vagabonds from the estate and today’s peasant revolutionary had used.

“It is impossible to endure these insensate horrors committed by a corrupt government, which is ruining both the country and the people.  We hate the means we have to employ, but what’s to be done?" say the revolutionaries on the one side.

“One cannot allow some self-appointed pretenders to seize power and rule Russia as they like, perverting and ruining it.  Of course, the temporary measures now employed are lamentable, but what’s to be done?” say the others, the conservatives.

I thought of people near to me, both revolutionaries and conservatives.  I thought of today’s peasant, of those unfortunate revolutionaries who import and prepare bombs, murder, and rob, and of the equally pitiable, lost men who decree and organize the courts martial, take part in them, and execute the guilty.  They all alike assure themselves that they are doing what is necessary and all alike repeat the same words: “What’s to be done?”

“What’s to be done?” they all ask, but they do not put it as the question, “What ought I to do?”  They put it as an assertion that it will be much worse for everyone if we cease to do what we are doing.

Everyone is so accustomed to these words, which hide an explanation and justification of the most horrible and immoral actions, that it enters no one’s head to ask, “Who are you who ask, ‘What’s to be done?’  Who are you that you consider yourselves called on to decide other people’s fates by actions which all men – even you yourselves – know to be odious and wicked?  How do you know that what you wish to alter should be altered in the way that seems to you to be good?  Do you not know that there are many men such as you who consider bad and harmful what you consider good and useful?  And how do you know that what you are doing will produce the results you expect, for you cannot but be aware that the results attained are generally contrary to those aimed at, especially in affairs relating to the life of a whole nation?  And above all, what right have you to do what is contrary to the law of God (if you acknowledge a God), or to the most generally accepted laws of morality (if you acknowledge nothing but the generally accepted laws of morality)?  By what right do you consider yourselves freed from those most simple and indubitable human obligations, which are irreconcilable with your revolutionary or governmental actions?

“If your question, ‘What’s to be done?’ is really a question and not a justification, and if you put it to yourselves as you should, a quite clear and simple answer naturally suggests itself.  The answer is that you must not do what the Czar, Governor, police-officers, Duma, or some political party demands of you, but what is natural to you as a man, what is demanded of you by that Power which sent you into the world – the Power most people are accustomed to call God.”

And as soon as this reply is given to the question, “What’s to be done?” it immediately dispels the stupid, crime-begetting fog under whose influence men imagine, for some reason, that they, alone of all men – they who are perhaps the most entangled and the most astray from the true path of life – are called on to decide the fate of millions, and for the questionable benefit of these millions to commit deeds which unquestionably and evidently bring disaster to them.

There exists a general law that is acknowledged by all reasonable men and confirmed by tradition, by all the religions of all the nations, and by true science.  This law is that men, to fulfill their destiny and attain their greatest welfare, should help one another, love one another, and in any case not attack each other’s liberty and life.  Yet strange to say, there are people who assure us that it is quite needless to obey this law, that there are cases in which one may and should act contrary to it, and that such deviations from the eternal law will bring more welfare both to individuals and to societies than the fulfillment of the reasonable, supreme law common to all mankind.

The workmen in a vast complex factory have received and accepted clear instructions from the master as to what they should and should not do, both that the works may go well and for their own welfare.  But people turn up who have no idea of what the works produce or of how they produce it, and they assure the workmen that they should cease to do what the master has ordered and should do just the contrary, in order that the works may go properly and the workers obtain the greatest benefit.

Is not that just what these people are doing, unable as they are to grasp all the consequences flowing from the general activity of humanity?  They do not obey the eternal laws (common to all mankind and confirmed by the human intellect) framed for the success of that complex human activity as well as for the benefit of its individual members.  Not only that, but they break those laws directly and consciously for the sake of small one-sided casual aims set up by some of themselves (generally the most erring).  They are under the impression that they will thereby attain results more beneficial than those obtainable by fulfilling the eternal law common to all men and consonant with man’s nature, forgetting that others imagine quite the contrary.

I know that to men suffering from the spiritual disease of political obsession, a plain and clear answer to the question, “What’s to be done?” and an answer telling them to obey the highest law common to all mankind (the law of love to one’s neighbor) will appear abstract and unpractical.  An answer that would seem practical to them would be one telling them that men should continually act as if they infallibly knew what consequences their actions will produce, act as if they did not know that to kill and torment people is bad, and act solely on the basis of such and such a monarchy or constitution being desirable.  They would accept this answer, even though such men cannot know the consequences of their actions and cannot even know whether they will be alive an hour hence, but do know very well that every murder and act of violence is bad and that it is under a fanciful pretext that they are establishing other people’s future welfare.

That will be the case with many who are suffering from the spiritual disease of political obsession.  But I think the great majority of people suffering from the horrors and crimes committed by men who are so diseased will at last understand the terrible deception under which those lie who regard coercive power used by man to man to be rightful and beneficent.  Having understood this, they will free themselves forever from the madness and wickedness of either participating in force-using power or submitting to it, and will understand that each man must do one thing: fulfill what is demanded of him by the reasonable and beneficent Source, which men call God, of whose demands no man possessed of reason can fail to be conscious.

I cannot but think that if all men, forgetting their various positions as ministers, policemen, presidents, and members of various combative or non-combative parties, would only do what is natural to each of them as a human being, then not only would those horrors and sufferings cease of which the life of man (and especially of the Russian people) is now full, but the Kingdom of God would have come upon the earth.

If only some people would act so, the more of them there were the less evil there would be and the more good order and general welfare would prevail.


October 1906




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[1] Translator’s note – A stump orator for one of the political parties.

[2] Translator’s note – The only official position Tolstoy ever held after he left the army was that of “Arbiter of the Peace” in 1861-2.  In that capacity it fell to his lot to regulate the relations between the landlords and the newly emancipated serfs in his district.