Thursday Fiction Corner: Henry George and Leo Tolstoy

A Portrait of Henry George, Owned by Leo Tolstoy

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week, in honor of our new series of Russian literature in translation, the Russian Library, editorial intern Beatrice Collison has delved into the fascinating connections between Leo Tolstoy and the subject of a recent Columbia UP book: Henry George.

Henry George and Leo Tolstoy
By Beatrice Collison

Last month’s feature on the book Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age, by Edward T. O’Donnell, emphasized the similarities between contemporary America and that of the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th century, an era marked by rapid progress at the same time as crippling poverty. In 1879, Henry George’s bestselling book Progress and Poverty called out this inequality as unjust, and went on to propose a solution. As 21st century America continues to face many of the same problems as the “Gilded Age,” some scholars and biographers find themselves looking back to Progress and Poverty and to its author for lessons, or even answers. As O’Donnell urges us to reexamine George, perhaps it is fitting to consider other great thinkers of that era, who dealt with persisting questions about inequality, individualism, and laissez-faire government, to name a few. Besides George, there are many American names of that age that come to mind, from Mark Twain (who coined the term “gilded age”) to John D. Rockefeller. As we were reminded earlier this month during a visit to Russia to promote our new series of Russian translations, another, somewhat unexpected name comes up in conjunction with George; this would be Leo Tolstoy, who owned a portrait of George. He also happened to be one of George’s most devoted supporters and admirers—and the admiration was mutual.

It is not too difficult to see some basic similarities in both men’s lives and experiences that may have contributed to this reciprocal fondness. Though they lived through the “Gilded Age” in different countries—George in the US, and Tolstoy in Russia—both George and Tolstoy were highly attuned to similar forms of social and economic inequality in their respective societies; the same hypocrisy appeared to them, though different events. George lived through some of the United States’ greatest feats of the century (the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, the completion of the Atlantic Cable, and the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance), but also saw the extreme poverty that lay just beneath the surface, a poverty that the privileged attempted to justify by arguments ranging from religious to scientific (social Darwinism comes to mind). Tolstoy lived through similar times of inequality, including many years of political, economic, and social unrest in Russia. He was alive when serfdom was still legal, as well as when it was outlawed—though many of the same injustices persisted even after the emancipation of serfs in 1861. Tolstoy in fact writes about George’s political philosophy in relation to the politics and immorality of serfdom. Clearly, he believed that Russia experienced many similar problems to the US, and that George’s philosophy could be useful not just to Americans.

Examining both men’s work and ideologies, other baselines of agreement are easily found. George condemned the extreme social and economic inequality in the United States and world-wide, tracing its roots to issues of land ownership and profit made off of land. He claimed his proposal of a “single tax” would eliminate this profit and allow all equal access to the advantages God’s creation provided. For Tolstoy readers, this may already be sounding familiar. Tolstoy, in his literature published even before George came onto the scene, paid close attention to class tensions, differences, and inequalities of the society in which he lived. In his essays and letters he launched many critiques of the government and wealthy high society, critiques grounded in his own deeply religious and anarchist convictions. Many of his later writings—the novel Resurrection, in particular—are explicitly Georgist. It seems that both he and George started out from similar ideological standpoints: liberal, Christian, highly conscious of social inequality. What followed was a mutual admiration between the two, and a mixing of their dedicated groups of followers.

Though Tolstoy was initially suspicious of some of George’s propositions and how realistic it would be to implement them, he quickly came around, writing, “People do not argue with the teachings of George, they simply do not know it. And it is impossible to do otherwise with his teaching, for he who becomes acquainted with it cannot but agree.” He believed that George’s argument was air-tight, concurring with George himself that the proposals laid out in Progress and Poverty were unquestionably the solution to problems of inequality. Both men shared a concern for land, and its role in social and economic disparities. Tolstoy also admired George’s logic: in a letter to a German Georgist in 1897, he writes with admiration about how George crushes the social Darwinist arguments made by religious and scientific communities to justify inequality (and their position at the top).

Beyond just ideological similarities, George and Tolstoy’s connection went deeper. It was more than a shared political attitude—it was spiritual. As O’Donnell writes in Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality, George grew up in a family swept up in the Second Great Awakening; for him, Christian religion, or, more broadly, a sense of spirituality and moral duty, accompanied his political thought. He believed that God had chosen him to help usher in social justice for the world’s poor, even experiencing a divine “vision” that solidified this conviction. His political beliefs were his religion, and vice-versa. This was something that Tolstoy greatly admired; a letter to a group of English “single taxers” praises George’s philosophy as being “truly Christian.” Furthermore, both George and Tolstoy were committed to the belief that social and economic inequality were opposed to Christian morality—in fact, to God’s law. This was perhaps a controversial position to take during a time when religion was often used in arguments justifying inequality, and when many prominent religious leaders were also social Darwinists. Tolstoy went so far as to write that God, as well as reason and justice, were on the side of the Georgists; with these staunch supporters, he believed, the Georgists could not lose.

Tolstoy actively showed his support for George in letters to everyone from family members to “single taxers” around the world. He also championed Georgism in his literary works. For instance, Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, follows the nobleman Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov through a vividly Georgist revelation, exemplified in a monologue about how the earth cannot really be owned, and that everyone should have equal access to its resources and advantages. More explicitly, an unused act of Tolstoy’s unfinished play “The Light that Shines in the Darkness” hails George as having found the solution to Russia’s problems. Other works, such as the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” deal more subtly and playfully with questions of land ownership, though in a distinctly Georgist manner.

Just as Tolstoy admired George, so Georgists admired Tolstoy and the way he incorporated Georgism into his literary work. Of course, Tolstoy’s work also turned many readers to George’s writings. Admiration between the two men was not only passed down to their dedicated groups of followers, but also to later generations of Georges and Tolstoys. Though George died before being able to visit Tolstoy in Russia, his son, Henry George, Jr., traveled there in 1909, in large part to meet the great author. The visit was apparently a smashing success, commemorated by Tolstoy in an article, “On the Arrival of Henry George’s Son” and by the younger George in American publications. This same sort of reciprocal admiration was also passed down to Tolstoy’s daughter Tatiana, who attempted to implement a modified version of George’s “single tax” on her estate. Its eventual failure did not dampen her faith; she later wrote a summary of George’s philosophy that she hoped would make it more accessible for Russians.

O’Donnell points out the many similarities between contemporary American society and the America of the “Gilded Age.” He proposes that George’s history and philosophy are still relevant to social, political, and economic issues today. (Just take a look at the Occupy movement, for example.) Tolstoy, not only one of George’s most famous and dedicated supporters, also saw the variety of ways that his philosophy was applicable. He recognized how the inequality that concerned George was not confined to a particular time or place. He firmly believed that George’s proposals could help Russia (and not just the US), and sincerely hoped that they would be implemented—if not during his lifetime, then in the future. This admiration of and dedication to Georgism stayed with Tolstoy until his death: in an essay that in English appears as “Tolstoy’s Last Message,” Tolstoy continues to show his support for the philosophy, writing, “Henry George’s idea, which would change the entire life of nations in favor of the oppressed voiceless majority and to the detriment of the ruling minority, is so undeniably convincing, and above all so simple, that it is impossible not to understand it. It is therefore impossible not to make an effort to introduce it into practice.”

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