THE MEANING OF THE
by Leo Tolstoy
The Western nations, like all others, submitted to the power of their conquerors only to avoid the worry and sin of fighting. But when that power bore too heavily upon them, they began to fight it, though still continuing to submit to power, which they regarded as a necessity. At first only a small part of the nation shared in the fight. Then, when the struggle of that small part proved ineffectual, an ever greater and greater number entered into the conflict, and it ended by most of the people of those nations, instead of freeing themselves from the worry and sin of fighting, sharing in the wielding of power, which was the very thing they wished to avoid when they first submitted to power. The inevitable result of this was the increase of the depraving influence that comes with power, an increase not affecting a small number of persons only, as had been the case under a single ruler, but affecting all the members of the community. And steps are now being taken to subject women to it also.
Representative government and universal suffrage resulted in every possessor of a fraction of power being exposed to all the evil attached to power: bribery, flattery, vanity, self-conceit, idleness and, above all, immoral participation in deeds of violence. Every member of parliament is exposed to all these temptations in a yet greater degree. Every representative always begins his career of power by befooling people, making promises he knows he will not keep, and when sitting in his governmental body he takes part in making laws that are enforced by violence. It is the same with all senators and presidents. Similar corruption prevails in the election of a president. In the United States the election of a president costs millions to those financiers who know that, when elected, he will maintain on various articles certain monopolies or import duties, which are advantageous to them and which will enable them to recoup the cost of the election a hundredfold.
And this corruption, with all its accompanying phenomena – the desire to avoid hard work and to benefit by comforts and pleasures provided by others; interests and cares, inaccessible to a man engaged in work, concerning the general business of the state; the spread of a lying and inflammatory press; and, above all, animosity between nations, classes, and men – has grown and grown. It has reached such dimensions that the struggle of all men against their fellows has become so habitual a state of things that science (the science that is engaged in condoning all the nastiness done by men) has decided that the struggle and enmity of all against all is a necessary, unavoidable, and beneficent condition of human life.
That peace, which seemed the greatest of blessings to the ancients who saluted each other with the words “Peace be unto you!” has now quite disappeared from among the Western peoples. Not only has it disappeared, but men try to assure themselves by the aid of science that man’s highest destiny lies not in peace, but in the strife of all against all. And really, among the Western nations, an unceasing industrial, commercial and military strife is continually waged – a strife of state against state, class against class, labor against capital, party against party, and man against man.
Nor is this all. The chief result of this participation of all men in power is that men, being more and more drawn away from direct work on the land, and more and more involved in diverse ways of exploiting the labor of others, have lost their independence and are forced to lead immoral lives by the position they live in. Having neither the desire nor the habit of living by tilling their own land, the Western nations were forced to obtain their means of subsistence from other countries. They could do this only in two ways: by fraud, that is, by exchanging things for the most part unnecessary or depraving, such as alcohol, opium, or weapons, for the foodstuffs indispensable to them; or by violence, that is, by robbing the people of Asia and Africa wherever they saw an opportunity of doing this with impunity.
Such is the position of Germany, Austria, Italy, France, the United States, and especially Great Britain, which is held up as an example for the imitation and envy of other nations. Almost all the people of these nations, having become conscious participators in deeds of violence, devote their strength and attention to the activities of government, industry, and commerce, which aim chiefly at satisfying the demands of the rich for luxuries. They subjugate (partly by direct force, partly by money) the agricultural people both of their own and of foreign countries, who have to provide them with the necessaries of life.
Such people form a majority in some nations. In others they are as yet only a minority, but the percentage of men living on the labor of others grows uncontrollably and very rapidly, to the detriment of those who still do reasonable, agricultural work. Thus, most of the people of Western Europe are already in the condition of not being able to subsist by their own labor on their own land. (The United States is not so yet, but is being irresistibly drawn towards it.) They are obliged in one way or another, by force or fraud, to take the necessities of life from other people, who still do their own labor. And they get these necessities either by defrauding foreign nations or by gross violence.
From this it necessarily results that trade, aiming chiefly at satisfying the demands of the rich, and of the richest of the rich (that is, the government), directs its chief powers, not to improving the means of tilling the soil, but to making it possible to somehow until large tracts of land (of which the people have been deprived) by the aid of machines, manufacturing finery for women, building luxurious palaces, and producing sweetmeats, toys, motor-cars, tobacco, wines, delicacies, medicines, enormous quantities of printed matter, guns, rifles, powder, unnecessary railways, and so forth.
As there is no end to the caprices of men when they are met, not by their own labor but by that of others, industry is more and more diverted to the production of the most unnecessary, stupid, depraving products, and draws people more and more from reasonable work. And no end can be foreseen to these inventions and preparations for the amusement of idle people, especially as the stupider and more depraving an invention is – such as the use of motors in place of animals or of one’s own legs, railways to go up mountains, or armored automobiles armed with quick-firing guns – the more pleased and proud of them are both their inventors and their possessors.