Henry George's Influence on the Life and Work of Leo Tolstoy
Edward J. Dodson
The following quotations
and excerpts from Tolstoy's writings and other references suggest
the extent to which Henry George influenced the ideas, writing and
actions of Leo Tolstoy. Readers interested in a more comprehensive
treatment of this subject are encouraged to obtain David Redfearn's
book, Tolstoy, Principles for a New World Order, published
in 1992 by Shepheard-Walwyn, London.
The most powerful description of how Leo Tolstoy's life changed
becuase of his reading of Henry George's book, Progress and
Poverty, and the subsequent corresponding relationship they
developed is found in the volume Family Views of Tolstoy,
published in 1926 by Houghton Millflin Company and edited by Aylmer
Maude. Tolstoy's daughter, Tatiana, contributes a chapter titled "How
My Father And I Dealt With The Land Question," an abridgement of
which follows. Writes Tatiana Tolstoy:
"My father's love of the land and reverence for work on it were
not only matters of principle, but were innate. ...He had always been
in close contact with the peasants' work on the land, and often took
personal part in it. When the break occurred, my father
renounced possession of property either in money or in land. He wished
to own nothing, and with characteristic ardour and passion strove with
all his might to get rid of the burden that oppressed him.
"...then, in 1879, doubts began to torment him. What is the
meaning of life? Was he living as he should do? Was he doing what he
ought to for his own happiness and for that of others?
"...My father was completely absorbed by the interests his new
outlook on life opened up to him. New people, quite strange to the
family, began to interest him and to be interested in him.
"... It became specially irksome to him to be a landed
proprietor -- and he invited the family to give away the whole of our
property and live as peasants.
"At last my father definitely announced that he did not wish to
be a proprietor, and he offered my mother the whole property. She
refused to take it. Then my father devised another way: he proposed
that the property should be dealt with as though he were dead. The
heirs should, as in the case of his decease, divide it among them.
"So, it was arranged. In 1891, in Passion Week, all my brothers
assembled at Yasnaya Polyana to effect the distribution. ...
"...I did not wish to take part in the distribution. It would at
that time have been far easier for me to decline my inheritance than
to accept it. But it is not in my nature to act under the impulse of
the moment, and I decided first to consider my position and weigh my
"And so I accepted my shre of the inheritance, 40,600 roubles
and an estate of [about 216 acres] ... At first our coachman's son
managed the property ..., but afterwards I sold off the stock and
rented the land to the peasants of the nearest village.
"I remember the peasants bringing me payment for the first time.
...Three peasants came with the money. ...
"I felt so uncomfortable that I decided at any cost to alter the
position. I settled down in solitude to consider the means of freeing
myself from this burden. ...I had not consulted my father, as I wished
first to consider the question and to weigh my strength with my own
"But I could not hide the mood I was in from my father's
sensitive loving heart. He immediately felt that I was pre-occupied
with something. This is what he wrote to my sister ... :
I have spoken with Tanya about
[the land], and I greatly wish to arrange for her that the money for
the land should go to the common use, a la Henry George.
"The heavy burden fell from y soul.
"The plough-land and the forest passed to the peasants. The
homestead I retained for myself, chiefly in order to let Marya
Alexandrovna Schmidt settle there, who was an old friend...."
"...In this agreement I placed the whole of the arable-land
and meadow-land at the full disposal and use of the two peasant
communes, so that they should have the right to plough, sow, and
take the harvest of the arable-land and of the meadows, and to feed
their cattle on the fields and meadows, and in the forests have the
use every five years of the clearings and the felling of the dry
wood. The peasants undertook to pay into a communal fund a rent of
six roubles per desyatina, to manure the ground, to guard the wood,
and to pay the taxes. The peasants bound themselves to use for
communal needs the money received for rent, in accord with the
decision of the meetings of the Communes of the two villages.
"Finally, I requested my heirs in case of my death, to hand
over the land to the absolute ownership of the peasants. Although my
father explained the land system of Henry George to me, I then felt
but little interest in it. My sould was well satisfied, because I
saw that my father was pleased and the peasants contented. Only some
years later did I take to Henry George's books and study them
conscientiously. When I had understood his system I was seized with
such a wave of enthusiasm at the clear justice of his masterly
teaching, that I wished to communicate what I had experienced to
everyone else as quickly as possible.
"I am convinced that no sincere unprejudiced man can fail to
succumb to the magic of the powerful logic displayed in Henry
George's teaching, based -- as everything great is -- on a religious
principle. the man developed his system not by detailed work in the
study, but by his life as a common workman who had on one occasion
been driven to ask a stranger in the streets for money, to buy
medicine for his sick wife. He reached the truth by his personal
sufferings, by the genius of his brain, and the nobility of his warm
heart. In all that happens in life, that truth is proclaimed by
Nature herself with all her unlimited resources, though till now
people are afraid to trust to that holy solution of the land
question at which Henry George arrived. Nevertheless, I do not doubt
that humanity will some day open its eyes to this simple method of
universal welfare, and that the riches of mankind will be so
increased that there will no longer be, as now, people dying of
"Is it surprising that, reading the powerful words of the
author of Progress and Poverty, another great soul, filled
with the same love for truth and for men, on the opposite side of
the globe, was moved and responded to the call?
"From the time my father read the books of Henry George he
never omitted an opportunity of disseminating that teaching.
Conversations often took place in my presence on this theme, and I
listened to them with sympathy.
"One thing perplexed me. Although for the accomplishment of
that system in life no rude seizure [Under
Henry George's system a single tax is put on the land, as on
something not produced by human toil. All other taxes are abolished.
Anyone unable to pay the single tax on the land he has, must pass
the land over to a common fund, from which it may be taken by anyone
who can pay for it.] was necessary, of the kind that,
like all violence, was repulsive to my father, yet the tax on land
will have to be collected by the Government, and government is based
"I spoke of this to my father. He replied that that was what
sometimes perturbed him, but that with the existing order it was,
nevertheless, the best solution of the land question. My father
imagined to himself a future social order in which the guidance of
the people would be different from the present kind of government,
and would be voluntary.
"Having ceased to interest myself in Henry George's system in
its application to [my former landed estate], I began to concern
myself with the theoretcial side of it with yet greater interest.
"At Yasnaya Polyana papers were received specially devoted to
the propaganda of Henry Georgeism as well as many of his books,
which at my father's instigation were translated into Russian. I
read everything that came to hand on that subject.
"Having read all Henry George's books I began to read works by
other authors relating to the same question, thinking that perhaps I
should find in them something new or something that refuted his
theory. Then I obtained and read criticisms of Henry George,
thinking that there might be refutations that had not occurred to my
father or to me; but on the land question I found nothing comparable
to Henry George, and in the Russian criticisms of him I found only
glaring ignorance of his works. Having read a pile of books I
remained of the same opinon -- that I had found nothing simpler,
clearer, more profitable, or more just, than Henry George's system.
"How I wished that the whole world would become acquainted
with it! I did not doubt that to know it meant to accept it; but
what could one do to direct people's eyes toward it?
"I decided to write a popular book expounding his teaching. It
seemed to me that I should be able to do this. I knew by my own
experience how difficult it is for one unacquainted with the science
of political economy and undeveloped on that side, immediately to
seize and assimilate the thought of the great American economic
philosopher [English readers usually find
Henry George very easy to read, but allowance must be made for the
difficulty that would naturally be encountered by a Russian lady
reading an American work on economics, either in English or in a
Russian transaction, which latter might be by no means equally
simple.]. Many technical terms are obscure to the
uninitiated. Knowing how much I had had to read, to meditate, and to
ask, before I clearly understood Henry George, I wished to express
his views in popular language intelligible to any ordinary reader.
"Of course the best judge of this would have been my father,
but I was hindered from submitting my work to his criticism by the
knowledge that, receiving it from me, he woud not be able to judge
of it freely and impartially. So I decided to send him the first
part of the book anonymously.
"I typed out my manuscript on a Remington, and also typed a
letter in which I asked L.N. Tolstoy to reply to me in Moscow to a
given address. ...I awaited a reply with the greatest impatience,
but it did not come. ...I grew impatient and excited, reproached
everybody, and did not know what to do with myself.
"At last I decided to go to Yasnaya Polyana.
"I arrived in the morning, but as my father was busy I did not
interrupt his work. I asked my sister, Sasha, what had been
happening at Yasnaya, what visitors had come, and what leter had
been received. She said that among other interesting letters papa
had received a manuscript from a certain Polilov, with which he had
been very pleased. She told me that he praised the article highly
and had written Polilov a long letter, a kind of essay, which he had
revised several times. She handed me the letter from the
pseudo-Polilov enclosing my article. ...I read the following:
Your article, with your letter to
me, has afforded me great pleasure. I have long ceased to interest
myself -- and in fact I never interested myself -- in political
questions; but the question of the land, that is of land slavery,
though it is considered a political question, is, as you quite
correctly say, a moral question, a question of the violation of the
most elementary demands of morality, and therefore that question not
only occupies my mind but torments me. I am tormented by the stupid
cynical decision of that question accepted by our unfortunate
Government, and by the complete misunderstanding of it by people who
are considered advanced.
God help you to complete your work, and the
sooner the better.
Do you know Nikolaev? [I
was not only acquainted with S.D. Nikolaev, but had received from
him much help both in advice and in books. He placed at my disposal
his whole library on the land question, and from it I had drawn much
of my information.] Get to know
him. He is such a connoisseur of Henry George, such a
passionate partisan of his teaching, and such an admirable man, as
one seldom meets.
...our Government class, standing as usual on
the lowest moral and intellectual stage, at the present time having
become particularly self-confident and bold, particularly after
their triumph over the revolution (1905-6), and being unable to
think independently or to understand the immorality of landed
property, are recklessly breaking up the age-long supports of
Russian life, in order to bring the Russian people to that horrible
immoral and ruinous condition in which the peoples of Europe are.
These people in their limitations and immorality do not understand
that the Russian people are not now in a position in which it would
be natural to compel them to imitate Europe and America, but in one
in which they should show other nations the path along which the
emancipation of people from land slavery can be accomplished.
At all my encounters with members of the Duma I have considered it
my duty to beg them at least to raise in this Duma the question of
the emancipation of the land from the claims of private property and
to introduce a land-tax in the manner of Henry George. Their reply
is always one and the same: "We have not occupied ourselves
with that question and are not acquainted with it. Above all, that
matter would in no case be accepted for discussion.
So how can I help rejoicing at your activity? Please write me of
the success of your work.
"Very complex and mixed feelings arose in me on reading that
letter. I was in ecstasy at my father's approval.
"But at the same time I had a feeling of shame and repentance
at the mystification I had practised. I only now realized that on
learning who the real author was, my father would be grieved and
disappointed that it was not from a new hearth that he knowledge and
propaganda of Henry George's idea had arisen, but that it had come
form one of his own flesh and blood.
"Then I told him all about it. What I had thought, and why I
sent him the article under a pseudonym.
"He did not reproach me, but I felt I had guessed right when I
feared he would be disappointed. He did not show it, but between
people so near to one another as we were no shadow can pass
"My father, as usual, did not give me any advice, but at the
end of our talk he laughed and said: 'But where is Polilov? I
imagined him to myself so clearly. Neat, and dressed in a dark blue
"Then he added, patting me on the head: 'Well, if you don't
finish that book you will be a real woman.'
"Alas! I was not false to my sex. I have remained a real
woman, and my manuscript remains till to-day unfinished.!
TOLSTOY'S DIARY ENTRIES
Tolstoy kept a diary, recording his activities and thoughts on a
fairly regular basis. He mentions Henry George and the land question
just eleven times beginning in 1895 (and twice before this time). On
May 18, 1895 he made this entry concerning his work on the novel
Didn't write during the day, and then wrote in the
evening agian, and quite a lot, so that more than half has been
sketched out. It's turning out in a strange way; Nekhlyudov must be
a follower of Henry George and must bring this in, ...
Continuing with a record of his progress on Resurrection,
on June 6 he writes:
... I'm writing about sins, and the whole work is clear
to me right to the end.Finished reading Spir. Splendid. Three
methods for the economic progress of mankind: the abolition of the
ownership of land according to Henry George; a tax on inheritance,
which would hand over accumulated wealth to society, if not in the
first generation, then in the second; and a similar tax on wealth,
on an excess of income over 1,000 roubles a family, or 200 roubles a
I was somewhat surprised that Tolstoy made no mention of the death
of Henry George in 1897.
On March 21, 1898, Tolstoy makes an entry not relating to Henry
George or land but on the futility of socialism and the necessity of
The socialists will never destroy poverty and injustice,
and the inequality of talents. The most intelligent and the
strongest will always make use of the most stupid and the weakest.
Justice and the equality of goods can never be attained by anything
less than Christianity, i.e., by renouncing the self and recognizing
the meaning of one's life to be in the service of others.
Tolstoy was still working on Resurrection as the year 1899
began. On January 2 he writes:
I'm at peace, as old men are. That's all. There are quite
a lot of notes to write out. I'll write them out on the pages I left
blank. Recently my interest in Resurrection seems to have
waned, and I rejoice to feel other, more important interests -- the
understanding of life and death. Much seems clear.
By mid-December his writing had come to an end. His entry of
December 18 reads:
Finished Resurrection. It's not good. Not
revised. Too hurried. But I'm free of it, and it doesn't interest me
Some years ago I found a copy of Resurrection in a used
book store and sat down to read it, marking off those sections
that related to Henry George and the land question. I
admit that I cannot remember the details of the plot, but one of
the central themes is that the moral sense of right and wrong we
are born with is strengthened and weakened, simultaneously, by
our nurturing in our family, community and society. Tolstoy's
main character, Nehludof, as a young university student
discovers, absorbs and accepts the ideas of Henry George. He
then enters the military and succumbs to the conventional
wisdoms of this world. What follows are excerpts from the
passages that relate directly to his intellectual and emotional
struggle with Georgism.
Nehludof was just about to open his letters ...
The next letter was from his steward. The steward wrote to say
that a visit to his estates was necessary, in order to enter into
possession and laso to decide about the further management of his
land: whether it was to be continued in the same way as when his
mother was alive, or whether, as he had represented ..., he had
not better increase his stock, and himself farm all the land now
rented by the peasants. the steward wrote that this would be a far
more profitable way of managing the property; ...This letter was
partly disagreeable and partly pleasant. It was pleasant to feel
that he had power over so large a property, and yet disagreeable,
because Nehludof had been an enthusiastic admirer of Herbert
Spencer. Being himself heir to a large property, he was specially
struck by the position taken up by Spencer in
Social Statics, that justice forbids private land-holding,
and, with the straightforward resoluteness of his age, he had not
merely spoken to prove that land could not be looked upon as
private property, and written essays on that subject at the
university, but had acted up to his convictions: considering it
wrong to hold landed property, he had given to the peasants the
500 acres he had inherited from his father. Inheriting his
mother's large estates and thus becoming a landed proprietor, he
had to choose one of two things: either to give up his property as
he had given up his father's land some ten years before, or
silently to confess that his former ideas were mistaken and false.
He could not choose the former because he had no means but the
landed estates (he did not care to serve in a government
position); moreover, he had formed luxurious habits which he could
not easily give up. Besides, he had no longer the same
inducements; his strong convictions, the resoluteness of youth,
and the ambitious desire to do something unusual were gone. As to
the second course, that of denying those clear and unanswerable
proofs of the injustice of land-holding which he had drawn from
Spencer's Social Statics, a brilliant corroboration of
which he had at a later period found in the works of Henry George
-- such a course was impossible to him. And this was why the
steward's letter was unpleasant to him.[pp.12-15]
When Nehludof first saw Katusha he was a student in his third
year at the university, and ws preparing an essay on land tenure
during the summer vacation, which he passed with his aunts. ...
During that summer ... Nehludof passed through that blissful
state of his existence when a young man for the first time
himself, without guidance from any one outside, realises all the
beauty and significance of life and the importance of the task
allotted in it to man, and, grasping the possibility of unlimited
advance towards perfection for one's self and for all the world,
ives himself to his task, not only hopefully, but with full
conviction of attaining to the perfection he imagines. In that
year, while still at the university, he had read Spencer's
Social Statics, and Spencer's views on land- holding
especially imprressed him, he himself being heir to large estates.
His father had not been rich, but his mother had received ten
thousand acres of land for her dowry. At that time he fully
realised all the cruelty and injustice of private property in
land, and being one of those to whom a sacrifice to the demands of
conscience gives the highest spiritual enjoyment, he decided that
he would not retain property rights, but would let the peasant
labourers have the land he had inherited from his father. It was
on this land question he was writing his essay.[p.46]
After that Nehludof did not see Katusha for more than tow years.
When he saw her again he had just been promoted to the rank of
officer and was going to join his regiment. ...He had then been an
honest, unselfish lad, ready to sacrifice himself for any good
cause; now he was a depraved, refined, egotist, caring only for
his own enjoyment. ...Then money was not needed, for he did not
require even one-third of what his mother allowed him, and it was
possible to refuse the property inherited from his father and give
it to the peasants. But now his allowance ... did not suffice, and
he had already had some unpleasant talks about it with his mother.
And all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased
to believe himself and had taken to believing others. This he had
done because it was too difficult to live believing one's self:
believing one's self, one had to decide every question, not in
favour of one's animal
I, which is always seeking for easy gratification, but in
almost every case against it. ...In the same way, when Nehludof
came of age and, because he considered the holding of private
property in land wrong, gave to the peasants the small estate
inheritged from his father, this step filled his mother and family
with dismay, and served all his relatives as an excuse for making
fun of him. He was continually told that these peasants were no
richer after having received the land, but, on the contrary,
poorer, having opened three pubic-houses and left off doing any
Book II / Chapter I
Neludof had lived on that estate in his childhood and youth, and
had been there twice since; and once, at his mother's request, he
he had taken a German steward there, and had verified the accounts
with him. The state of things there, and the peasants' relations
to the management (that is, to the proprietor), had therefore long
been known to him. The relations of the peasants to the proprietor
were those of utter dependence on his management. Nehludof knew
all this when, as a university student, he had confessed and
preached Henry Georgism and, on the basis of that teaching, had
given to the peasants the land inherited from his father.[p.225]
It was quite evident that all the misery of the people, or at
least the greatest and directest cause of it, lay in the fact that
the land which should feed them was not in their hands, but in the
hands of those who, profiting by the ownership of the land, live
by the work of these people. The land, so needful to men that they
die when deprived of it, was tilled by these people on the verge
of starvation, to the end that the corn might be sold abroad and
the owners of the land might buy themselves hats and canes, and
carriages and bronzes, etc. Nehludof now understood this as
clearly as he understood that horses when they have eaten all the
grass in the enclosure whre they are kept, must of necessity grow
thin and starve unless they are put where they can get food off
This was terrible, and must not go on. Means must be found to
alter it, or at least not to take part in it. ...In scientific
circles, Government institutions, and in the papers, we talk about
the causes of poverty among the people and the means of
ameliorating their condition; but we do not talk of the only sure
means which would certainly lighten their condition, namely,
giving back to them the land they need so much.
Henry George's fundamental position recurred vividly to
Nehludof's mind. He remembered how he had once been carried away
by it, and he was surprised that he could have fortotten it. "the
earth cannot be any one's proerty; it cannot be bought or sold any
more than water, air, or sunshine. All have an equal right to the
advantages it gives to men." ...[pp.248-249]
"...There is an American, Henry George; this is what he has
thought out, and I agree with him. ..."
"Why, you are the master, and you can give it away as you
like. What is to hinder you? The power is yours," said the
cross old man.
This confused Nehludof, but he was pleased to see that not he
alone was dissatisfied with the interruption.
Nehludof was encouraged by this, and began to explain Henry
George's single-tax system.
"The earth is no man's; it is God's," he began.
"The land is common to all. all have the same right to it.
But thre is good land and bad land, and every one would like to
take the good land. How is one to do in order to get it justly
divided? In this way: he who uses the good land must pay the value
of it to those who have got none," Nehludof went on,
answering his own question. "As it would be difficult to sya
who should pay to whom, and as mney is needed for communal use, it
should be arranged that he who uses the good land should pay the
value of that land to the commune for its needs. Then every one
would share equally. If you want to use land, pay for it -- more
for the good land, less for the bad land. If you do not wish to
use land, don't pay anything, and those who use the land will pay
the taxes and the communal expenses for you."[p.262].
Tolstoy was now engrossed in the writing of The Slavery of our
Times, finished in August of 1900, which was published that year
in the United States by Dodd, Mead & Company.
The third chapter of this essay begins
with a challenge to the integrity of those who had founded the
science of political economy, "which declared that it had
discovered the laws which regulate division of labor and of the
distribution of the products of labor among men." The
consequence of their work, Tolstoy suggests, is that "according
to the guidance of science, people belonging to the class of
robbers, theives or receivers of stolen goods may quietly
continue to utilise the things obtained by thefts and robbery,"
and "that the existing order of things is what it ought to
be." Finally, in chapter eight, Tolstoy offers readers a
glimpse into the means of ending slavery:
We can imagine that the land may be freed from
the claims of private proprietors by Henry George's plan, and
that, therefore, the first cause driving people into slavery --
the lack of land -- may be done away with. With reference to
taxes (besides the single-tax plan) we may imagine the abolition
of taxes, or that they should be transferred from the poor to
the rich, ...
Not until 1905 does Tolstoy once again mention George, prompted by
his reading of a collection of George's speeches and aritcles edited
by S.D. Nikolayev and published in The Intermediary. On
April 16, he writes:
...I very much want to write an exposition of my belief
and also something about Henry George, whom I read in Nikolayev's
edition and was delighted by once more.
On April 2 of the following year, 1906, Tolstoy collected his
thoughts and recorded "the revelations of life." Last in a
list of 18 items, he included this:
People talk and argue about Henry George's system. It
isn't the system which is valuable (although not only do I not know
a better one, but I can't imagine one), but what is valuable is the
fact that the system establishes an attitude to land which is
universal and the same for everybody. Let them find a better one if
In June he had written to a correspondent named Y.D. Belyayev, of
New Times, regarding George's proposals and noted:
A correspondent has been, and I wrote down a few things
about Henry George and told him about the Duma and the repressions.
On June 2 of 1909 Tolstoy received a telegram from Henry George
Jr., who had recently arrived in Russia and asked to visit Tolstoy
at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy readily agreed and they met on June 5.
Of the meeting, Tolstoy wrote simply:
George's son came with a photographer. A pleasant person.
Later that year he recorded that he had had a dream about George.
Then, on November 7 he made he final entry mentioning George:
Yesterday morning I received a wonderful letter from
Polilov about Henry George and replied to him, ...
Polilov, as detailed above, was Tolstoy's daughter.
In the rather brief time spend to research and write this essay I
have not stumbled across any other reference to Tatiana's
manuscript. Of some interest is what happened to the manuscript, as
well as what role, if any, she played in supporting the spread of
Henry George's message to the Russian people. David Redfearn adds
nothing more to what Tatiana records. Perhaps a reader of this
modest summary who is more familiar with Tolstoy's influence and
that of his close associates (at least up to the point of the
Bolshevik takeover) might add some of the history.
The Complete Works
of Lyof N. Tolstoi (Patriotism, Slavery of Our Times, General
Articles). New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1928.
Resurrection. Originally published 1899 by Dodd, Mead &
Tolstoy's Diaries, Vol. II 1895-1910, edited by R.F.
Christian. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.