What Then Must We Do?, by Leo Tolstoy

What Then Must We Do

What Then Must We Do? is an intriguing book in some ways and a convincing book in some ways, but in other ways it is decidedly neither of these things.

This is one of Tolstoy’s efforts at moral and political philosophy. He wrote this when he had all but abandoned his career as a novelist and was devoting himself to trying to alert people to the insanity of modern life, and its violence and social injustice.

Much of the book consists of lengthy arguments about politics and economics and such—more on that below—but it begins with a long descriptive section that is more novelistic in style. In it, Tolstoy recounts his observations of urban poverty and his futile early efforts to combat it.

I think this is the section that will most appeal to most readers. Tolstoy presents himself as something of a well-intentioned naïf, appalled by what he sees the first time he really stops to look at the poverty that has been around him all his life.

It’s a moving depiction of life in Moscow in the 1880s, the life of the overwhelming majority of people, all but invisible to the miniscule sliver of folks typically written about in novels, newspapers, and history books.

They are beggars, prostitutes, “working poor,” sick, healthy, old, young, and, very often, drunk. At times Tolstoy seems to be veering dangerously close to romanticizing them as the “noble poor,” but invariably he then tosses in an anecdote of how one of them exploited Tolstoy’s generosity in some dishonest manner and drank up the money that was supposedly going to turn his life around.

They do seem to have an admirable tendency to look after one another, to manifest a belief in family and community, but other than that they are as plagued by vices such as laziness, dishonesty, domestic abuse, and, again, drunkenness as anyone else, if not more so.

In response to the suffering he sees initially he just hands out money, but after realizing how inefficient this is, he comes up with various charitable schemes to help the poor that include understanding their lives better and individualizing the assistance.

He’s enthusiastic about his plans, but claims to also have had serious misgivings from the beginning that he tried to suppress, a feeling that there was something fundamentally misguided about what he was doing.

When he talks to his fellow rich people, he finds that zero share his enthusiasm. Not because they aren’t sympathetic to the poor (they don’t have the common American attitude that the poor are poor because they deserve it; apparently they’re more or less “liberal,” at least in a vague sentimental way), but more because it won’t work. I think they see Tolstoy as a well-meaning fellow with admirable but impractical ideas who just doesn’t understand the world well enough to realize that “the poor will always be with us.”

So they talk to him in a patronizing fashion and assure him they’ll be glad to chip in, and then they promptly forget the whole thing. Zero give him a dime on their own initiative; after he follows up and pressures them to make good their pledges a few cough up some token amount but most still give him nothing.

But underfunding turns out to be the least of the problems. His new system is more sophisticated than just handing out money to whoever approaches him first, but he finds that he still almost never can figure out how to give people money in a way that will really help them get their life in order.

He comes to the conclusion that almost always what they need more than anything is a change in values, a change in attitude. But instead of leaving it at that and blaming the poor for being poor, he turns it around on the rich.

He contends that the reason his schemes failed, and the reason he felt uncomfortable about them all along, boils down to a truth he was hiding from. What the poor need as much as anything is basically a better work ethic, but people from the upper classes have no standing to help them with that—or lecture them about that—because their idle lives manifest the very same flaw.

Yes, the poor are frustratingly apt to cut corners, to look for ways to avoid work, to deceive and exploit others to get ahead, but who do you think they learned that from?

Tolstoy takes it as a fundamental moral principle that every person is obligated to do the labor necessary to sustain his own life—grow one’s own food, make one’s own clothes, etc. If you don’t, then someone else must do it for you, making you a parasite.

Even most people who would be inclined to agree with that would surely insist on adding a corollary that as long as you’re contributing at least that much to the world in some other way you don’t really have to grow your own food and such. A division of labor is not only morally acceptable, but vastly more efficient than having everyone do all the basic tasks for themselves.

Tolstoy does not oppose this corollary in principle, but believes that in practice it is an unjustified excuse 99% of the time. The overwhelming majority of people he sees who are dependent on the labor of peasants and servants and such to sustain their lives contribute little if anything to the world, except in the negative sense of contributing plenty of mischief and strife.

What people regard as success, he observes, is largely a matter of putting to use your talents, luck, lack of moral scruples, and other resources precisely so as to avoid work. People use their aristocratic status, their capital, their political power, what have you, to escape from the necessity of actually getting their hands dirty by building their own dwelling, farming their own land, etc. The message they send by the way they live their lives is that idleness and dependency on others is something to strive for, a reward for having won at the game of life.

So the poor see this, and they try in their own haphazard way to follow suit, whether through crime, gambling, finding ways to avoid providing the labor they’re paid for, etc.

Even those who work hard, he notes, typically do so not because it’s a moral imperative but because they hope it will put them in a position to escape from it in the future and join those who live on the labor of others.

At least this is what he sees in the city. In the country people still tend to have at least a decent work ethic.

He doesn’t contend that charity can never be appropriate—later in life he was quite active in charitable efforts, especially famine relief—but he believes that the first thing he and people of his class need to do is to get their own lives in order by ceasing to avoid the moral law of labor. The best way they can help the poor is by setting an example that the kind of manual labor needed to sustain life is not something shameful, not something that only losers with no other options are stuck with, but something that is natural, obligatory, and in its way sacred. (The influence of Tolstoy on Gandhi here is unmistakable.)

Most of Tolstoy’s moral conclusions fit my beliefs and temperament quite well. But I confess that the one he emphasizes the most in this book—that you’re “cheating” if you get out of doing the work necessary to sustain your life—makes me a bit uncomfortable. Not because he’s wrong—though his simplistic version of his principle that largely dismisses division of labor considerations is almost certainly wrong—but because something roughly like what he’s saying is probably true, and my life and my dispositions are in conflict with it.

I have very mixed feelings about labor in general. My background—my economic class, the values of the people around me during my formative years, my intellect—strongly pointed me in the direction Tolstoy condemns, of living off the labor of others for the necessities of life. Some of the sub-options within that option would have involved contributing to the world in other ways through other valuable forms of labor—which he may or may not have recognized as an exception to his contention that almost always those who avoid the basic, life-sustaining labor are just pretending to themselves and others that their other contributions are worth as much—and some would have been more unambiguously parasitic and despicable, albeit in today’s world socially approved. An example of the former would be a physician, and an example of the latter would be a Mitt Romney-style capitalist.

But from early on I found almost all such labor options exceedingly distasteful. Always I had the vague sense that there was something morally unacceptable in the way almost all ways of making a living in my society seemed to involve constant little lies, constant phoniness, constant acceptance of degradation of oneself or infliction of degradation on others. I’m sure there are many things about a Marxist philosophy that I agree with and many things I disagree with, but one that I agree with is the accusation that buying and selling labor in a capitalist system is horribly dehumanizing.

So I pursued some of those possibilities, for varying lengths of time with varying intensity, but I don’t know that you can say I ever felt fully committed, fully comfortable, with any of them. I was more in the mode of trudging along some unpleasant path that I regarded at the moment as the least of the available evils.

Instead I’ve spent much of my adult life scrambling around on the margins of the economy, looking for more or less neutral, often meaningless activities that generated an income while safeguarding my autonomy and making me not feel too creepy about myself. I’ve made money with such activities as betting on sports, writing, even filmmaking to a limited extent.

I’ve long had the dream that if somehow I could remove myself from the system even further—if I found enough money lying in the street one day to sustain me in a modest lifestyle for life, and so never again had to sell my labor or engage in some kind of rat race-style activity to stay alive—that would be a happy ending. I would, I tell myself, still try to contribute something to the world—maybe through filmmaking or some such art or craft—and indeed would likely contribute more precisely because I had been freed of the time commitment and stress of income-production.

So in a way it’s very much the attitude Tolstoy—with some justification—rails against.

Is it just condemnable laziness, with my moral concerns being mere rationalizations? I can’t say for sure, as it’s always possible I’m deceiving myself, but I’m inclined to think not. For one thing, with the opportunities my class and intellect and such afforded me, it really would not have been hard to put myself in a position to live a quite comfortable life with little work. At most it might have meant a substantial short term effort, but then followed by decades of much less work than my actual life has involved. So if I just wanted to be lazy, surely I would have rationalized living that kind of life.

I also don’t feel like I have the attitude Tolstoy sees (and I see it plenty too) of feeling like the basic kinds of manual labor necessary to sustain life are somehow beneath me. Ironically I feel a certain attraction for that kind of work, in fact. To the very, very modest extent I’ve done work like that, I’ve generally felt a lot better about myself. I love to work with my hands, to build something, to be productive in that kind of straightforward way. I even feel some degree of pride doing something like housework.

The problem is I’m below average to horrible at everything like that. The background that made me a prime candidate to be some sort of white collar professional or capitalist rendered me correspondingly unsuited to anything simple and practical like that.

The idea of raising crops and livestock to feed oneself is something I admire in the abstract, not something I could ever pull off myself.

It’s easy to say, “Well then you can learn,” but how realistic is it to suddenly change course as an adult and acquire the skills to build houses, make clothes, grow food, etc. when you’ve never lived that way and never shown much aptitude for things like that. I’m not saying it’s unheard of that people with no relevant background “drop out” and manage to live like that, but it’s very rare.

So, it’s not a matter of considering myself somehow above such labor. It’s more being intimidated by the idea of doing something so enormously different from anything I’ve ever done, anything I’ve ever been good at.

Tolstoy himself is a good—negative—example of this. To the limited extent that he tried to practice what he preached he failed more than he succeeded. Off and on he made some effort to live off the land, to acquire the necessities of life through his own labor, but from what I’ve read he was about as bad at it as one would expect him to be. My impression is his workers humored him by letting him work the fields alongside them, but it’s not like he really knew what he was doing. And reportedly his persistent efforts to make his own shoes and boots like a cobbler were laughably bad.

I suppose it’s still admirable to at least try to live by your own honest labor like that, better to do it clumsily than not at all, so I’m not letting myself off the hook entirely.

Often I feel like if you do have to be a part of the world, if you do have to be tainted by the capitalist system to generate enough of an income to stay alive, being some kind of a simple tradesman probably is the path with the fewest compromises, the path that would enable me to sleep best at night. When I contemplate all the ugliness of how we treat each other to make money, all the lying, the phoniness, the game playing, the exercising of or succumbing to petty authority, to me the people who seem least undignified in the whole scheme may well be the carpenters, the electricians, the small farmers, etc. Especially if it’s not as an employee but more as some kind of small scale autonomous entrepreneur, I think in a lot of ways that’s really not such a morally distasteful life.

You provide something of undoubted value, and you accept enough compensation for it to live without insisting on the most the market—and whatever skills you have at manipulating people—will bear. You would certainly “lose” to anyone in the same line of work without moral scruples, but I think you could probably still sustain yourself.

Again, that’s if you had any aptitude for that kind of thing, and as I say, I haven’t manifested anything like that.

So even though I don’t fully buy what Tolstoy’s saying, there’s something like his principle that I suspect is true, and so I feel some regret, some guilt even, when I contemplate my failure to live my life more in accordance with it.

I’m somewhat receptive to his message of “Wake up and realize how morally unacceptable is the way you’re living your life!” but I guess I’m not convinced that it’s as easy to escape from that life once you do come to that realization as he sometimes implies. (And he does have his honest moments when he recognizes that, and when he admits how far short he himself has fallen of living the kind of life he advocates.)

Other aspects of his moral philosophy do not make me uncomfortable like that, because I’m either living up to them tolerably well (e.g., nonviolence) or I disagree with them (e.g., his anti-sex attitudes).

Anyway, returning to the book, once it gets past the autobiographical material, and the conclusions Tolstoy drew from his experiences, it is a tougher read.

He attempts to supplement the case he makes from personal experience with abstract economic and political theory. This is a mixed bag at best.

On the plus side, I admire his willingness to think outside the box, to offer a radical assessment of social reality that most people most of the time simply accept as a given. It can take a certain intellectual courage and imagination to realize there is something fundamentally wrong and unjust about “normal” life and how just about all societies have structured themselves, to attempt to articulate what that is, and to some extent to even attempt to articulate an alternative. Tolstoy’s efforts are in places provocative, compelling, and/or inspiring. Reading Tolstoy’s nonfiction way back when was one of the things that set me on my own philosophical path.

However, a lot of it frankly isn’t well argued. His haranguing like an Old Testament prophet can get tiresome, and is disrespectful to those who have an honest disagreement with him. He violates principles of critical thinking and argumentative civility left and right.

For example, he consistently fails to give the other side its due. If you’re going to make the best case you can for a given position, and you want to do so cogently rather than just being rhetorically forceful, you have to acknowledge and address the best points on the other side.

The aforementioned division of labor is one such case. Does everyone really have to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, shelter, etc. in a morally just society? Is everyone who fails to provide for himself through his own labor in this way really a contemptible parasite?

Granted, the notion that in a capitalist society all wealth and other advantages are earned—are reflections of merit, how hard one has worked, the value of what one has contributed to society—taken in any kind of literal or absolute way is ridiculous and insulting propaganda, but surely plenty of people who successfully avoid the most primitive of survival manual labor have worked at least as hard and as valuably in other ways. Tolstoy needs to address those cases, and explain why they have to throw it all away and retire to a farm somewhere and make shoes.

He holds that folks who claim to contribute in other ways (scientists, artists, academicians, etc.) typically don’t in fact contribute anything that’s valuable, or at least that’s subjectively valued by the ordinary people who are growing their food, making their clothes, cleaning their toilets, and so on so that they don’t have to. He doesn’t make a convincing case for that though. There are too many plausible counterexamples of physicians, teachers, inventors, journalists, scientists, etc. who don’t just contribute things that help themselves and those like them, but that provide enormous benefits to the masses.

The kind of hereditary aristocracy he was familiar with in Russia was no doubt even more parasitic on the whole than middle class and above people in a contemporary capitalist country, but, one, I’m sure there were still plenty of Russians born into the nobility who led productive lives that benefited ordinary folks, and, two, there existed in the world in Tolstoy’s time capitalist systems where there was at least some ability to rise through working hard and contributing to society, so it’s not like the Russian system was the whole world.

Or take his pacifism and anarchism. I’m more in agreement with those aspects of his philosophy than are no doubt 99% of people in the world, but I recognize that there are plenty of hard cases that opponents can bring up. I think Gandhi made a wonderful start to working out some way of fighting against evil and injustice without resorting to violence, but Tolstoy makes it sound as if there’s really no problem to be solved, like it’s just self-evident that soldiers and police officers and such are always on the side of the oppressors and violence is never used in a good cause.

Is it really just a myth perpetrated by governments that if a society were to disarm completely and unilaterally that it would quickly be overrun by its less pacifist neighbors?

I think in the long run a moral and political paradigm shift to nonviolence is the only way the human race will avoid some Armageddon or other, but it’s not an easy choice or an obviously morally obligatory choice by a long shot. Non-pacifists can make many worthwhile points about violence being a necessary evil in certain situations. Angrily denouncing the very possibility of such is not a respectful or cogent way of addressing those points.

Again, I’m more in agreement with Tolstoy than not, but hundreds of pages of overconfident fiery rhetoric is not my favorite style regardless of whether I agree or disagree. There is much I like in What Then Must We Do? but it’s not a persuasive, rational argument of social and political philosophy. He’s strongest and most inspiring when his compassion for the poor and his passion for making a better world come to the fore; when he attempts abstract intellectual arguments he’s bullying (or dull) as often as he’s enlightening.

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