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Mainstream, VOL L, No 41, September 29, 2012

Tolstoy, Gandhi and the Peasant

Tuesday 2 October 2012, by Mohit Sen


The author, a distinguished Marxist ideologue, was a CPI leader about whom Jawaharlal Nehru had written that he was a Communist with a nationalist vision. He passed away in May 2003. This article, which is being reproduced from Mainstream’s Gandhi birth centenary issue that appeared on October 4, 1969, was actually a paper he presented at a seminar on “Gandhi and the West” orgainsed by the University of Mysore in 1969.

The question of ideological indebtedness is always tricky. Much more so when the person indebted is not only such an outstanding personality as Gandhiji who shaped, as did no other individual, the entire evolution of a sub-continent towards the essential breakthrough to modernity. The entire life of the man, who said that his life was his message, as well as of the movement directed by him, was so utterly original and so thoroughly indigenous that the question of borrowing anybody else’s ideas does not seem to arise.

Yet the evidence is quite categorical on the point. Apart from Gandhiji’s own repeated references to Ruskin, Thoreau and Tolstoy, there is any amount of cross-reference available to establish the fact that many of the Mahatma’s ideas and techniques were, to say the least, the result of the appropriation of the intellectual achievements of other sages.

The crucial point, however, is not this fact but that these ideas of sages were converted into the consciousness, of millions, converted, what is more, into the sustained action of millions; such conversion was only possible because of the manner in which Gandhiji trans-formed these ideas into the tradition and idiom and need of India as she was in the 1920s. (A good example of such conversion is the manner in which he likened the concept of breadlabour, picked up from Tolstoy, to the Yajna, sacrifice, mentioned in the Gita.) All the three elements in the transformation are important. Tradition, idiom, and need were fused into a single message in an incomparable manner.

The transformation was of such a dimension that one is reminded of the phrase that to borrow in this manner was to be original to the point of genius. The originality arose from the compulsions of providing an ideological banner and ballast to a mass movement. And because of this, at least as far as Tolstoy is concerned, one feels tempted to say that more than borrowing or even impact, it would be more appropriate to speak of convergence or congru-ence when describing the relationship between him and Gandhiji. Perhaps nothing great is entirely homespun but anything great is always homemade.

The examination of this relationship, inciden-tally, reveals the hollowness of the charge made against “importing” of “foreign” ideologies. If the imported commodity remains foreign it can do little to the mind of India. And if it is changed into something indigenous, then, it helps the growth of the mind of India and is to be wel-comed. There is, in any event, always the pro-blem of transformation. Only one who can ac-complish the transformation of ideas originating outside India in the manner that Gandhiji did, can make such ideas effective. But, then, these ideas become part of the very stuff of India.

One would like to enter a caveat at the lump-ing of the influence (in the specific sense indicated above) of Tolstoy on Gandhiji as part of the impact of or even the interrelation between Gandhiji and the West. To the extent that these two great minds converged, it was the conver-gence of two souls wracked with the problem of the transition to modernity of essentially mediaeval and Asiatic societies. This transition involved the problem of the maintenance or resurrection of identity. It involved, further, the critical appraisal of where some other countries had been led by such a transition. It is distressing to find this significant process labelled as Westernisation and the attempted response to it on the part of these two master spirits or, rather, the influence of one on the other, as that of Westernisation.
What was specifically Western about Tolstoy or Tolstoyanism? If it is Christianity that is being referred to, then, one has only to recall that Christianity did not originate in the West and the kind of Christianity or Christian anarchism that Tolstoy made his own was far removed from the institutionalised (or “eccele-siastical”) Christianity that prevailed in the West at that time. Above all, the transition that Tolstoy attempted to respond to and transform had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Indeed, it was his deeply held view that the entire spirit of the post-Renaissance period was commercialised hypocrisy and contrary to the tenets of Christ. Indeed, the impact on or the convergence of the approach of Tolstoy and Gandhi could take place precisely because the social situations in which they lived were largely similar, though the dissimilarities were also significant.
The Russia of Tolstoy was, to quote the remarks of Lenin, one where “the patriarchal country, only recently emancipated from serf-dom, was literally given over to the capitalist and tax-collector to be fleeced and plundered. The ancient foundations of peasant economy and peasant life, foundations that had really held for centuries, were broken up for scrap with extraordinary rapidity.”

He has these further penetrating remarks to make about the totality and significance of the views of Tolstoy: “Tolstoy is original, because the sum total of his views, taken as a whole, happens to express the specific features of our revolution as a peasant bourgeois revolution. From this point of view, the contradictions in Tolstoy’s views are indeed a mirror of those contradictory conditions in which the peasantry had to play their historical part in our revolution.

Role of Peasantry

“On the one hand, centuries of feudal oppression and decades of accelerated post-Reform pauperi-sation piled up mountains of hate, resentment, and desperate determination. The striving to sweep away completely the official church, the landlords and the landlord government, to des-troy all the old forms and ways of land owner-ship, to clear the land, to replace the police-class state by a community of free and equal small peasants—this striving is the keynote of every historical step the peasantry has taken in our revolution; and, undoubtedly, the message of Tolstoy’s writings conforms to this peasant stri-ving far more than it does to abstract ‘Christian Anarchism’, as his ‘system’ of views is some-times appraised.
“On the other hand, the peasantry, striving towards new ways of life, had a vary crude, patriarchal, semi-religious idea of what kind of life this should be, by what struggle liberty could be won, what leaders it could have in this struggle, what was the attitude of the bourge-oisie and the bourgeois intelligentsia towards the interests of peasant revolution, why the forcible overthrow of tsarist rule was needed in order to abolish landlordism.

“The whole past life of the peasantry had taught it to hate the landowner and the official, but it did not, and could not, teach it where to seek an answer to all these questions. In our revolution a minor part of the peasantry did fight, did organise to some extent for this purpose: and a very small part indeed rose up in arms to exterminate its enemies, to destroy the tsar’s servants and protectors of the landlords. Most of the peasantry wept and prayed, moralised and dreamed, wrote petitions and sent ‘pleaders’—quite in the vein of Leo Tolstoy... Tolstoy’s ideas are a mirror of the weakness, the shortcomings of our peasant revolt, a reflection of the flabbiness of the patriarchal countryside and of the hidebound cowardice of the ‘enterprising muzhik’.”

The truth of this analysis will be borne out, above all, by a study of the three major works of Tolstoy. One has to recall Nicholas Rostoff in War and Peace, indeed the whole ruin of the Rostoff family stands as a contrast to his success. Still more clearly is this revealed in Levin and his tussle with the peasants wonderfully bodied forth in Anna Karenina. The peasants wanted to work “gaily and lightheartedly” while he was “fighting for every penny he could get”. One finds Levin, eventually, coming out against the “European model” and, indeed, preparing a whole new political economy where labour would not be considered as an abstract force “but as the Russian Peasant with his instincts”.

Farming, he advocates, should be reorganised on the basis of the Russian working peasant as he was, with labour co-operatives as the form of the new structure of ownership of land. One discovers Levin reflecting that “alien civilisation artificially grafted on Russia, particularly the means of communications, that is, the railways, which led to a centralisation in towns, a growth of luxury and the resulting development of new industries at the expense of agriculture, as well as credit facilities and, as their concomi-tant, stock exchange speculations”. In another place he ruminates that “every acquisition that is disproportionate to the labour spent on it is dishonest…like the profits made by banks. This is evil, I mean, the acquisition of enormous for-tunes without work.” The deep understanding that Tolstoy had of the specific problems and propensities of the Russian peasant in the second half of the nineteenth century is expressed in Levin’s view that the Russian peasant felt a “vocation to populate vast, unoccupied tracts in the east”.

In Anna Karenina there is this constant juxtaposition of the tragedy of passion and sincerity in so-called high society and the simplicity and possibility of sincerity in the life lived close to the soil. At the same time it is pointed out that even for a person like Levin the return to this simplicity is impossible—the actual vision of Kitty even as he contemplates the possibility of a marriage with a peasant girl.
It is not as if Tolstoy is unaware of the loss that the abandonment of retreat from the post-Renaissance or capitalist civilisation would entail but he finds its continuance intolerable. Its mixture with the traditional society he finds even worse. Its transformation by the future, built upon its achievements, he has no faith in. Hence, at times an appeal issues for a throwback, a revival of the unspoilt village communal life, and at others there is the presentation of a bot-ched civilisation as the ideal—the tragic domesti-cation of Natasha in War and Peace, and the equally upsetting domestic felicity of the Levins, with Levin himself now finding compensation in mysticism.

In Ressurrection the artistic failure is compen-sated to a degree, by further clarification of Tolstoy’s views. Nekhlyudov’s obsession with sin and redemption and the repulsion from sex are, of course, to the fore and obviously speak of the author’s moral concern. At least as impor-tant, however, is the problem of landed property, the class nature of the state and of law.

Dispossession of Landlords

The question of the dispossession of the land-lords and reverting the land to the cultivating peasant, who is both more ignorant and less interested in increased productivity leading to enhanced profits, resulting in a relapse to a lower level of productivity, is squarely posed. But since the higher collectivism of socialism, based on the most modern available techniques, is taboo, the question is never satisfactorily resolved.

It is in this novel, though, that Tolstoy is at his most unequivocal in condemning land-lordism. The rather idyllic countryside of War and Peace and Anna Karenina gives way to the harsh reality of disease and death. “The people were dying out; had got used to the dying out process, and so had formed habits of life adapted to it: there was the great mortality among the children, the overworking of the women, and the underfeeding, especially of the aged. And so gradually had the people come to this condition that they did not realise the full horror of it, and did not complain, and we therefore considered their condition natural and proper. Now it seemed as clear as daylight of the people’s poverty was the one that they themselves knew and always pointed out, namely, that the land which alone could feed them had been taken from them by the landlords.”

The influence of Henry George and his scheme for the nationalisation of land is clearly manifest, but the nature of the tsarist state being also clear, the inclination is in the direction of peasant proprietorship. At the same time the suspicious-ness of the peasant, caused by centuries of ex-ploitation and suffering is wonderfully con-veyed—as it had been done earlier also in War and Peace when princess Maria confronted it after her father’s death and during the Napo-leonic advance.
To focus attention on these aspects of Tolstoy’s approach to the peasant would, however, lead to misleading conclusions and from its remar-kable congruence with that of Gandhiji’s. In What is Art? perhaps more explicitly and vehe-mently than elsewhere, we are given Tolstoy’s utter detestation of the post-Renaissance or capitalist spirit in the sphere where he was a supreme master. Once again the alternative proffered is not a reversal to mediaeval land-lordism but to an even earlier phase—the Asiatic mode, or the system based on the village commu-nity. This throwback is so violent and sought to be achieved through a stress on labour and spontaneous religious perception, that it almost rebounds into a socialist future. The apotheosis of the common labouring man, the supreme value given to sincerity and the stress placed on charity, are to be taken together with the emphasis on the break-up of power through its decentralisation.

For an explicit linkage of this vision with the peasant, we have his remarks on Semenov’s Peasant Stories: “His content is always important: Important because it relates to the most important class in Russia, the peasantry, whom Semenov knows as only a peasant can know them who himself lives in the laborious village.” A great and wonderful and illuminating phrase —laborious village! That is the keystone of the new arch.

The peasant of the laborious village is, how-ever, not to be a rebellious peasant, much less a revolutionary one. He is to be the embodiment of innocence, brotherliness but, above all, a shrewd stoic. The Kutuzov-like passage of history would one day redeem him, bring him to full plenitude and release the world into a new civilisation.

We have this fully bodied in the creation of Platon Karateyev for whom “happiness is like the water in a landing net; you pull it along and it is full—you lift it out and it is empty”. Platon Karateyev who so influenced Pierre Bezhukov because the latter saw in him “the perfect em-bodiment of all that is most genuinely Russian, warmhearted and true…the ideal type of simplicity and truth”. But is it an accident that Tolstoy had him shot—so meaninglessly as it were, almost wantonly and in a sportive manner? Is it only to give us an unforgettable image of the blindness of war? Or could it be to demons-trate that Platon Karateyev’s time was not yet?
If the stoic and shrewd peasant has to die because of sincerity and realistic imagination of Tolstoy, the Tolstoyan peasant can also haunt and tempt to suicide. Why else should he appear as the nightmarish apparition repeatedly in Anna’s visualisation of the end of her passion and of herself? The peasant is death as well as endurance.

But death appears only as the nightmarish retribution for the luxury and even the passion that is built upon his labour, not as the rising of the vengeful soil itself. Tolstoyan peasants can at best haunt. They cannot move as forces of historical change. And this explains the final desperate nihilism of Tolstoy himself, setting him apart even from the ultimate despair of Gandhiji in 1947.

Dimension of Desperation

The context in which Gandhiji was placed has obvious similarities with the Russia of the mid-nineteenth century. The decisive dissimilarity was the fact of foreign rule, of British imperia-lism. This added a dimension of desperation and placed a greater weight upon the peasantry in whom Gandhiji recognised, with all the sim-plicity and directness of genius, as the central force of the situation, indeed as the central figure of Indian civilisation (witness his mas-terly rebuttal of the logically superior polemic of Saklatvala).

Added to this is the subjective element which is of the greatest importance. Unlike Tolstoy, the Mahatma was a leader and organiser of a vast mass movement. He was the foremost and most successful organiser of the mass anti-imperialist struggle in India, comparable in stature only to Mao Tse-tung (Lenin one leaves out, because he operated at an incomparably superior level of theoretical elaboration as well as action). The problems of the movement, the study of the tactics of the enemy, the maintenance of the unity of the people, preoccupied most of his time.

Yet, Gandhiji opposed British imperialism and struggled to end its Satanic rule since it could not be mended, not merely from the angle of a nationalist who desired the resurrection of his vanquished people. He opposed, to the entire system of British rule, his own vision of what India should be. It is in this vision that we discover the startling similarity with Tolstoy, a similarity based on the value attached to the peasant.

We find this vision recorded in Hind Swaraj, written in 1909, but which he always accepted as the most important summary of his views. There he states: “It is not the British people who are ruling India, but it is modern civilisation… Medical science is the concentrated essence of black magic... hospitals are the instruments that the devil has been using. India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years or so. The railways, telegraph, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like have all to go.”

Some thirty years later he reiterated: “I do not believe that industrialisation is necessary in any case for any country. It is much less so for India. Indeed, I believe that Independent India can only discharge her duty towards a growing world by adopting a simple and ennobled life, by developing her thousands of cottages and living at peace with the world…. At the same time I believe that some key industries are nece-ssary…without having to enumerate key indus-tries, I would have state ownership, where a large number of people have to work to-gether…...” “Pandit Nehru wants industrialisa-tion because he thinks that, if it is socialised, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that the evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialisation can eradicate them.”

Throughout his life he was opposed to what he used to term the “mad rush” and the “multiplication of wants” of modern civilisation leading to yawning inequality and a false life. If he strove to the end to avoid the implanting of such a civilisation in India, it was also because of his compassion for the poor and the bulk of the poor were peasants.

In March 1922 he writes: “No sophistry, no jugglery in figures can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in villages present to the naked eye. I have no doubt whatsoever that both England and the town-dwellers in India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity which is perhaps unparalleled in history.”

Only a few months earlier he had replied to Tagore’s criticism of the first non-co-operation movement with an unsurpassed statement of compassion: “True to his poetical instinct the poet lives for the morrow and would have us do likewise. He presents to our admiring gaze the beautiful picture of the birds early in the morning singing hyms of praise as they soar into the sky. These birds had their day’s food and soared with rested wings in whose veins new blood had flown during the previous night. But I have had the pain of watching birds who for want of strength could not be coaxed even into a flutter of their wings. The human bird under the Indian sky gets up weaker than when he pretended to retire. For millions it is an eternal vigil or an eternal trance. It is an indescribably painful state that has to be experienced to be realised. I have found it impossible to soothe the suffering patients with a song from Kabir. The hungry millions ask for one poem—invigorating food. They cannot be given it. They must earn it. And they can only earn it by the sweat of the brow.”

It was through his ceaseless preaching and equally ceaseless activity that he achieved what Tolstoy could never do, to turn the mind of India to the peasant and his poverty. He did more. He achieved the awakening of the Indian peasant himself, not fully but in abundant measure—a stupendous feat by any standard. It is only the lack of a sense of concrete historicity that would enable certain rather superficial commentators to make the analysis that Gandhiji did all this because it was necessary for the struggle against British imperialism, a struggle from which the chief initial beneficiary would be the capitalist class. One the contrary, this opposition to British imperialism stemmed from the fact that it had reduced the Indian peasant to this state of destitution. It stemmed from the fact that British imperialism was to him the chief obstacle to the realisation of his vision of a resurrected peasant civilisation.

Lack of Clarity

Lack of clarity there surely was. Utopianism, too, as the development of Independent India, ruled for over two decades by the men he moulded, has only too cruelly shown. But his trusteeship theories and his technique of non-violent mass satyagraha were all linked to the desire to realise this impossible dream. The dream imposed a certain logic manifested in the nature of its realisation—controlled struggle and the attempt at the materialisation of conversion that is trusteeship. In other words, civil disobedience and non-violent satyagrahas did not spring only from certain moral principles. These moral principles, while of undoubted importance, were themselves part of the entire complex or design of the rebirth of peasant civilisation as the core of the new India that was to be built.
If such a rebirth was to be accomplished, the means could only be controlled mass action, step-by-step procedure, constant attempts at conversion. It was exactly a case of the end justifying the means or the realisation of the law that the relation between ends and means is always an organic and functional one. What should not be overlooked, in this connection, is that there was a relentlessness about the quest, a refusal to compromise on the end, despite temporary adjustments along the way.

If in April 1940 he states: “Who can dispute the fact that the grinding poverty of the masses is due to their having no land of their own?”, he is still more explicit elsewhere when he declares: “In the non-violent order of the future, the land would belong to the State, for has it not been said Sabhi Bhumi Gopal Ki?...The kisan or the peasant, whether as a landless labourer or a labouring proprietor, comes first. He is the salt of the earth which rightly belongs or should belong to him, not to the absentee landlord or Zamindar… I have no doubt that if we have democratic swaraj, as it must be if freedom is won through non-violence, the kisan must hold power in all its phases including political power.”

To realise the future where power would belong to the peasant—here the Mahatma is far more radical than Tolstoy—he trains him through the discipline of sacrifice and struggle. Step by step he reaches the conclusion that the scale and objective of the struggle must be constantly enlarged. In 1942, we find him telling Louis Fischer, in the course of an interview regarding the coming struggle: “In the villages the peasants will stop paying taxes…… But refusal to pay it will give the peasants courage to think that they are capable of independent action. This next step will be to seize the land.” Somewhat surprised, Fischer asks: “With vio-lence?” And Gandhiji says: “There may be violence, but then again landlords may co-operate… There may be fifteen days of chaos but I think we would soon bring that under control.”

He returns again and again to this theme of the necessity of the dispossession of the propertied classes, by conversion if possible, but by other means if necessary. In one place we find him saying: “The contrast between the palaces of New Delhi and the miserable hovels of the poor, labouring class cannot last one day in free India in which the poor will enjoy the same power as the richest in the land. A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give and sharing them for the common good.”

In Harijan of May 25, 1947, we find an even more forthright statement, this time with the challenge of action thrown in: “If the present owning classes did not of its own accord become trustees, force of circumstance would compel the reform, or the alternative would be utter destruction. The present power of the Zamindars, the capitalists and the Rajas can hold sway only so long as the common people do not realise their strength. If the people non-co-operate with the evil of Zamindari and capitalism it must die of inanition.”

Picture of Independence

With this dispossession accomplished, Gandhiji goes on to describe (not, of course, to be taken in a chronological sense) the new India, thus: “In my picture of independence, the unit is the village community. The superstructure of independence is not to be built on the village unit so that the top weighs down on and crushes the 40 crores people who constitute the base. The power will vest in the unit itself which will be economically and politically as autonomous as possible. I have conceived round the village as centre, a series of ever-widening circles, not one on top of the other but all on the same plane, so that there is none higher or lower than the other.”

In another passage he elaborates on this theme: “Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.”

This is the totality of the Gandhian commit-ment, a totality which the imagination of Tolstoy foreshadowed but could never so forcefully articulate since, for the latter, the involvement in mass action remained forever a missing link. The common weakness was also the common strength—the peasant as the bearer of a better life, a more human condition.

The peasant is essentially cultivation in action, cultivation which is change, but change that is not development, an ever-circular move-ment without the invigorating impulse of spiral jumps. The non-violence or passive resistance of both Tolstoy and the Mahatma are rooted in the very nature of cultivation, prior to the industrialisation of agriculture, as resistant and transforming collaboration with significant soil.

The tragedy of this impossible Utopia is not merely the superiority of industrialisation and the superiority of that class which industria-lisation inevitably produces, but the link be-tween this whole process and the differentiation of the peasantry, the break-up of the peasant community along with the destruction of feudal hierarchy. The tragedy, of course, is not only in the impossibility of peasant civilisation, but the cruel, wrenching, alienating process which makes it an impossibility. To look beyond this to a future based on its historical contribution might look even more utopian.

But the tackling of this challenge has proved to be the realistic course. There has been a vindication of Marx’s vision; “When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”

(Mainstream, October 4, 1969)

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