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WPF Historic Publication

Tolstoy and Gandhi:

Genesis of an Ideological

Come Carpentier de Gourdon December 31, 2010

Original copyright © 2010 by World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations

Copyright © 2016 by Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute

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Tolstoy and Gandhi:
Genesis of an Ideological Revolution

Come Carpentier de Gourdon

Convener of the Editorial Board of the World Affairs Journal,

Deputy-Director of the Euro-Asia Institute, France

Originally published 2010 in World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations Bulletin 7,


“I am a fragment of the Infinite”.

Leo Tolstoy

“There is only one way of achieving independence through non-violence; by

dying we live, by killing never”.
Mahatma Gandhi (1945)

Count Leo Tolstoy’s philosophical and religious legacy is present in the

lifework and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, from the latter’s early action in

South Africa where, like the Russian novelist, he challenges the Western

Enlightenment School in the name of what we might call an early “Post-

Industrial’ Idealism.

The young M.K. Gandhi was decisively influenced in his early

writings, including the seminal “Hind Swaraj” (first titled “Indian Home

Rule”), by H.D. Thoreau, John Ruskin (in particular his “Unto this Last”)

and Tolstoy to whom he wrote four letters in 1909, the year of Hind

Swaraj’s publication. His interest in the great Russian’s thought, inter alia,

in his essay “What I believe” was stirred by his friend and supporter

Kallenbach who financed the purchase of the property near Johannesburg

that he advised him to call the Tolstoy Farm and which became one of

several communities around the world inspired by the radical teachings of

the Sage of Iasnaia Polyana.


Tolstoy’s convictions were in fact later reflected in several features of

Gandhi’s own ideology and socio-political vision, including some of the

more paradoxical and controversial ones, such as the distrust of organized

religion and an implicit rejection of the centrally and hierarchically governed,

militarily armed nation-state as a valid structure. In this as in many other

ideas Tolstoy was influenced by the ancient Russian Millenarist anarchists

who wanted the abolition of State and Church as a preface to the advent of

God’s kingdom, the Christian Second Coming.

Gandhi’s programme to restructure India into a loose confederation of

autarkic, semi-sovereign village republics, practicing a form of simplified,

syncretistic, largely rite-free and popular moral ‘religion of truth’ as the real

manifestation of God is very consonant with Tolstoy’s message though it

also refers to ancient Indian and Western Christian ideals. Like Tolstoy, in a

very Christian vein, he sees God in “hunger and the thirst of the lowly and

the lost” (1944). Interestingly, not a few religious philosophers in Russia and

Western Europe accused Tolstoy, widely perceived as an egotistic aristocrat.

of putting man (i.e., himself) above God in his personal theology, divested

from dogmas, rituals and mysticism. Gandhi’s creed may also be described

as a quest for universal morality in which man, seen as an individual, is


central and perhaps even supreme though he also defines him primarily as a

spiritual entity.

The Russian writer and the Indian social reformer regard the humble

peasant (the Russian Mujik, the Indian Kisan) as the pristine and most

enviable image of man, whom both strived to imitate and identify with,

justifying their reputation as adepts of Rousseau’s theory of the “good

savage” and also of Victor Hugo’s mystical “cosmic” socialism. For them,

the peasant is an ethical archetype of humanity and Plekhanov, Lenin and

Trotski all regarded Tolstoy as a champion of the ancient agricultural world,

steeped in tradition and averse to change and progress. However the most

important debt Gandhi owed at least in part to the rebellious Russian

aristocrat is the doctrine of non-resistance to violence –also sharply

criticized by Plekhanov and Lenin who in an 1908 article in “Proletarij”

even attacks vegetarianism, fashionable among Tolstoy’s Russian disciples -,

inherited from a long line of Slav mystical pacifism, and which became for

the purpose of India’s struggle for independence, non violent resistance to

colonial oppression.

Thereby Gandhi modified Aurobindo’s 1904 appeal to Satyagraha as

passive resistance into a full abjuration of violence, inspired by the Hindu,

Jain and Buddhism precept of Ahimsa which had however not been applied

or even intended for socio-political collective action since it was a rule of

conduct for the individual desiring enlightenment. Gandhi’s Ahimsa is

therefore closer to Tolstoy’s teaching (disparagingly called the

Tolstovchchina by Lenin) than to the Indian tradition. As the French

indologist Alain Danielou points out: “”The use made by Mahatma Gandhi

of the theory of non-violence as a political weapon has nothing to do with

the Hindu tradition. Non-violence is a strictly individual technique of

personal self improvement. It cannot serve political ends and cannot play a

role in the governing of states” (“Les Quatre Sens de la Vie”, 1992). Indeed

Plekhanov accused Tolstoy of focusing on individual self-improvement, to

the detriment of the majority’s welfare so that the future Mahatma was

making a departure from the real intent of the author of “Thou shalt not kill”.

One constant of Gandhi’s attitude which puzzled many and at times

angered other fighters for India’s freedom, especially in the religious Hindu

camp of the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha et al., to the extent of having some

carry out his assassination in 1948, was his unwillingness to endorse any

kind of nationalism and his readiness to accept even a foreign rule in

principle, if it had been righteous, according to his own definition. His oft

repeated call in the early days of his struggle was for Britain to renounce the

contemporary western civilization and return to the original “Christian” state


of nature or at least her traditional pre-industrial culture. This advocacy of

rural simplicity was tied to his misgivings about modern technical and

scientific schooling, also inherited from or at least shared with Tolstoy who

yearned for the blissful ignorance of the poor, the prirodnaja dukhovnost.

Some historians are of the opinion that Gandhi, in his desire to disarm the

colonizers’ opposition to his the Indian independence movement, tactically

chose to distinguish between English civilization, which he professed to

admire and British imperialism which he condemned. However there is little

doubt that he was sincere in his reverence for “true Christianity” which he

consistently said, the West had betrayed.

Even more controversial, even outrageous to many, was Gandhi’s

seemingly serious advice to the British not to resist Hitler’s assaults but let

the Germans take over, just as he later expressed the wish that the Jews had

accepted oppression and death at the hands of the Nazis by practicing non-

violence to the end and thereby winning the glory of martyrdom. He applied

the same extreme logic to his co-religionaries: “If they (Muslims) put all of

us to the sword, we should court death bravely; may they even rule the world,

we shall inhabit the world” (5 April 1947).

Such a doctrine, as illogical as it may appear, denoted his commitment

to integrally follow Jesus’s prescription to love the enemy and turn the other

cheek, but it was even more directly directly related to Tolstoy’s profession

of faith which however, the Russian nobleman, retired in his ancestral

estates, never had to put to the test in the political or religious arenas.

Tolstoy’s detractors often accused him of hypocrisy for that reason and

Soloviev pointed out that this unconditional non-violence is tantamount in

effect to “taking Cain’s side against Abel” (in his “Three Dialogues”) but

Gandhi had to try to be consistent when making concrete decisions and

defining his praxis, which was so much more fraught with consequences.

Yet there is little doubt that he espoused Tolstoy’s conviction summarized

by Soloviev: “…If the good become even better then the wicked will lose

their wickedness”: a controversial assumption to say the least. Both men

shared the view that social evils can be cured through teaching and

convincing people on the basis of personal moral example, which many

sociologists and students of low disagree with, not to mention human history


While Gandhi, by his personal sacrifice has achieved a hallowed

status as the father of the Indian nation and has been spared much criticism

as a result, despite the sometimes severe assessment of his ideas and actions

by men as notable as Ambedkar and Lohia, Tolstoy has not been so


protected. Some philosophers, such as Ivan Ilin have gone so far as to accuse

him of being responsible for many of Russia’s ills during the last century.

Unsurprisingly the critiques of both doctrines came from both the Left

and the Right of the political-ideological spectrum. It is more intriguing

however that not a few of their detractors, in their respective countries at

least, concluded that Tolstoy and Gandhi had been made into prophets and

patron saints by the liberal establishment of Bourgeois societies, particularly

in the Protestant Anglo-Saxon and Germanic cultures which thereby found

an innocent cure for their own feelings of guilt while keeping safely at bay

more dangerous and effective threats to the socio-economic and political

status quo of their making and choice. Some qualified Tolstoy’s decision to

till the soil, dress like a peasant and cobble his own boots as a “lie” because

it was unnecessary. However Soloviev and others who came to this

conclusion did not understand the symbolic and personally therapeutic value

that the Master of Iasnaia Polyana attached to this attitude, just as Gandhi’s

adoption of the lifestyle of a charkha-weaving artesan made him a national

and a global icon, especially for the poor working people. This effect would

hardly attract the sympathy of intellectuals, either Liberals or Socialists.

Unsurprisingly, Modernists rejected Tolstoy in Russia as much as they tend


to ignore Gandhi in India whom they regard as a rather naïve romantic in

socio-economic matters.

Russian Marxists and Bolsheviks, guided by Plekhanov, Lenin and

Trotski generally saw the author of “War and Peace” as a literary genius but

also as an impractical and rather pernicious social utopist, though according

to Shalamov, he became a model for Soviet realistic literature until his

“romantic” views of man were made irrelevant by the Totalitarian

experience. On the other hand the nation’s religious and conservative

thinkers and philosophers, beginning with Dostoevsky, Ioan of Kronstadt

and Soloviev showed aversion, bordering on contempt for Tolstoy’s

anarchical, iconoclastic message which they regarded as subversive and

destructive of the traditional culture.

Soloviev derided his illustrious compatriot’s glorification of

narodopokloi nichestvoe (the childish popular faith) and he was even more

unforgiving of the great novelist’s disdain for culture, in his later days, and

his promotion of “a false reconciliation between religions”, through the mere

precept: Nado byt’ dobrym: “one must be kind” as a substitute for theology,

mysticism and ethics. The focus of Soloviev’s criticism is indeed Tolstoy’s

reliance on Oproshenya Propoved (simplicity) while Ilin accuses him of

inciting Russia’s Intelligentsia to submit to Bolshevism without resistance


(neprotivlenstvo) by preaching the willing abandonment not only of material

goods but also of “universal spiritual values” in the face of a violent assault

of oppression.

Conversely Lenin went so far as to characterize Tolstoyism as “an

ideology of the oriental system, of the Asian system” (in “Tolstoy and his

Epoch’, 1911), no doubt with the Marxist critique of “oriental despotism” in

mind and he charged him with responsibility for the failure of the 1905

revolution through his advocacy of a non-violent peasant insurrection.

Gandhi, also often accused of trying to reconcile religions through

basic moral precepts, corrected that implicitly passive or quietist doctrine by

evolving a concept of struggle through self-sacrifice even up to martyrdom

but, nevertheless, the reaction to Gandhi from the Communist and Hindu

religious nationalist quarters is rather similar. He is still commonly seen as

an appeaser of colonial powers and native capitalists among the former and

of religious minorities, (especially the Muslims) among the latter; one who

did not actively seek the overthrow of the feudal and caste-based order, as

desired by Marxists, but did not encourage either the building of a strong

nationalist state on indigenous religious-cultural foundations as intended by

both traditionalist and reformist Hindu organizations.


It cannot be denied that there is an inherent contradiction between the

struggle to achieve national independence in order to build a strong state

capable of playing its role in an international system regulated by economic

and military power on the one hand and, on the other the vision of a unified,

borderless world where violence would be banned and where most powers

would be vested in local self-governing units.

In trying to bring together these two goals, Gandhi was trying to

reconcile Tolstoy’s rejection of the state with the international political

realities of his days, something that the Russian thinker himself had never

attempted to do. Some of his ideas on government were revived by

Solzhenitsyn in his 1990 Essay “Rebuilding Russia” on the lines of Slav

Orthodox traditional institutions after the collapse of the Soviet system but

so far Tolstoy’s ideological legacy has been mostly shunned in his

motherland just as Gandhi’s concept of Swadesh went largely ignored in

India where Pandit Nehru for one, Gandhi’s chosen successor, regarded it as

impractical and quixotic. Yet the renewed and expanding movement all over

the world for a return to nature and for a radical reappraisal of the

technocratic, science-guided society carries in its pantheon these two

towering heralds of changes that are now seen as inevitable.


The rejection of competitive and aggressive nationalism, exploitive

and unjust economic laissez faire, technocratic industrialization,

bureaucratic government and militaristic religion implies shunning both the

conventional Rightist and Leftist formulas for social organization. This

demand is the source of the worldwide pacifist revolutionary movement that

emerged in the closing decades of the nineteenth century within industrial

societies and was periodically revived through the Hippy and Ecological

mass awakenings, which were, consciously or not, indebted to the author of

“What I believe” and to the writer of “Hind Swaraj”.