What Then Must We Do? (1886)

If there is one idle man, another will be starving.

Several years ago, a friend named Tolstoy’s book, What Then Must We Do?, as his most influential read while sitting around the table at Riverbend. I bought it back then, but have only read it now. Alas. Of all the books that I’ve had for years, this is the only one I really wish I’d read back when I bought it.

The book itself is divided into two parts: first comes Tolstoy’s account of trying to help the Moscow poor during the time of a census; second comes Tolstoy’s account of why his attempts to help were doomed to failure. The reader is taken first on a journey through the slums of Moscow and then through Tolstoy’s mind as he presents his growing anger towards those who make their money off of other persons’ labor.

First, the census. Tolstoy, by chance, found himself drawn into wanting to help some of Moscow’s poor. Initially, he thought he would give money away, but he found that that act only increased his feelings of guilt. So, he arranged to go around with the census takers to chronicle persons who were in need and how best to meet those needs. However, after so doing, he found that the persons whom he’d met were in need of things that a gift of money could not remedy. He would have to befriend them and fight for justice.

What then must he do?

Tolstoy sets out to answer that question in the second part of the book. He begins by identifying himself as part of the problem. As a member of the Russian aristocracy, he writes,

I have arranged for myself the condition of any owner of a magic purse, that is, a condition which enables me, without ever doing any work, to compel hundreds and thousands of people to work for me—as I am doing; and I imagine that I pity people and wish to help them. I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means—except by getting off his back (63).

Tolstoy therefore identifies the possession of money not as a morally neutral state but as an enslaving state in which the person having money can enslave the person not having money. He bases this assertion on the fact that the persons with money have the ability to control the lives of persons without money through three means: the sword, hunger, and taxes. He uses the story of the colonization of Fiji as an example. Therein, through a series of events, Western colonizers were able not only to get taxes from the islanders but also to create a system where the local leaders were able to collect taxes as well, making the entire island rely upon money in a way it never had before. This was done both at the tip of a sword and upon threat of starvation.

The story of the Fijians fate serves as the foundation for the rest of the book.

Next, Tolstoy returns to the question of what to do. He finds his initial answer on the lips of St. John the Baptist, who in reply to the question of “What then must we do?” said,

Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.

Tolstoy also lists the sayings of Jesus that advise against wealth and that indeed bless the poor, culminating with the observation that no one can serve both God and mammon.

So Tolstoy, with the words of both John the Baptist and Jesus in his ear, confesses that he “could not but wish to free [himself] from taking part” in the cycles of money and enslavement (109). And he realizes “that in order not to cause suffering and depravity [he] must make as little use as possible of the work of others and must [himself] work as much as possible.” He continues,

By a long path I reached the inevitable conclusion reached thousands of years ago by the Chinese in the saying: “If there is one idle man, another will be starving.” I came to the simple and natural conclusion that if I pity a tired horse on which I am riding, the first thing I must do if I am really sorry for it, is to get off and walk on my own feet.

. . . For him who sincerely suffers at seeing the sufferings of those about us, there is a very clear, simple, and easy means, the only possible one for the cure of the evils surrounding us and to enable us to feel that we are living legitimately—the same that John the Baptist gave in reply to the question: “What then must we do?” and which Christ confirmed: not to have more than one coat and not to have money, that is, not to make use of other people’s labor and therefore, first, to do all we can with our own hands (111–112).

Labor, for Tolstoy, is the means by which the wealthy keep the poor down. Critiquing Malthus, Tolstoy argues that the wealthy form theories about why the poor are poor so that they, the wealthy, will not have to do any serious self-examination.

[T]he wretched condition of the working people is not due to cruelty, egotism, or lack of understanding, on the part of the rich and powerful, but is what it is by an immutable law not dependent on man, and if anyone is to blame for it, it is the hungry workmen themselves . . . And so the rich and powerful classes are not to blame for anything and may quietly continue to live as before (135).

And they can carry on so living precisely because they lie to themselves. Tolstoy identifies two nuances of the lie: one, the wealthy see themselves as special, above physical labor, and chosen ones to provide new ideas and education for the masses; and two, because the masses are clueless, they should not be allowed the financial gifts that the wealthy have.

The so-called specialness of the wealthy is in their science, which Tolstoy attacks as unscientific because true science, as well as art, advances the common good for all. But Tolstoy says that the scientists of the day only look to advance their own name and the cause of those with the purse strings.

The cruelest thing thing done by the so-called sciences, for Tolstoy, is its creation of the division of labor, “that is, the seizure of the labor of others which in our time has become a usual condition of the activity of men of science and art, has been and still remains the chief cause of the slowness of humanity’s forward movement” (182). No progress can be made while some go without food, water, and clothes.

So, what then must we do?

Tolstoy identifies four more things in addition to the commands of John the Baptist and Jesus (identified above).

  1. “I must not lie either to myself or to others, nor fear the truth wherever it may lead me” (196).
  2. What to do? consisted for me in repenting, in the full significance of that word, that is, completely changing my estimate of my own position and activity” (197).
  3. “[P]articipate in the struggle with nature to support [the poor person’s] own life and that of others. . . . [T]o feed, clothe, and take care of himself and of those near him, satisfies his physical needs, while to do the same for others satisfies his spiritual needs” (200).

He also suggests that we should do our own labor, getting off the backs of others. In his experience, doing his own physical labor, “far from rendering mental work impossible, improved and aided it” (203). Interestingly, Tolstoy breaks the day down into four “spells”: first, the time before breakfast; second, the time from breakfast to midday; third, from midday to the evening meal; and fourth, evening. And he advises varying the day’s activities according to the “four human faculties”—that is, labor, craftsmanship, mind and imagination, and socializing—and the four spells in the day:

the first, to heavy labor; the second, to mental labor; the third, to craftsmanship; and the fourth, to intercourse with one’s fellows (207–208).

And what will physical labor, in addition to the other things he names as answers to his question, do for us?

In the first place the simplest and most certain result will be that you will be merrier, healthier, fitter, and kindlier, and will learn what real life is, from which you have been hiding yourself or which has been hidden from you.

In the second place, if you have a conscience, it not only will not suffer as it does now, seeing people’s labor . . . , but you will experience all the time the joyous consciousness that every day you satisfy the demands of your conscience more and more, and get away from the terrible position of having such an accumulation of evil in your life as makes it impossible to do good to people” (214).

He ends by saying that property and the desire to claim objects as “mine” causes much grief also.

All in all, though there are some bizarre things in the book that I have glossed over, I think this is as important a book as I’ve read in nearly a decade. And I think it’s been by a stroke of bibliographic providence that I should read this book only after wanting to start a woodworking shop and a backyard homestead.

May we all struggle for justice.
May we all find good work to do.


Tolstoy Ploughing by Ilya Repin (source: wikicommons)

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