Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tolstoy, Hegel, Marx, and History

Marx and Engels, sculpture in China (photo credit

Perhaps it was inevitable that there would eventually be a post on this blog with the obnoxious title I've chosen above.

At the outset of Volume III, Tolstoy veers away from the affairs of the heart of Natasha and company and into a few pages of his philosophy of history. (603-06) Tolstoy's description of history suggests that he views history as a predestined process unfolding through the actions of the crowd and of "great men" -- actions that the actors are unaware they are helpless not to take:
Each man lives for himself, uses his freedom to achieve his personal goals, and feels with his whole being that right now he can or cannot do such-and-such an action; but as soon as he does it, this action, committed at a certain moment in time, becomes irreversible and makes itself the property of history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

There are two sides to each man's life: his personal life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental, swarmlike life, where man inevitably fulfills the laws prescribed for him.

Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achivement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance....

In historical events the so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as with labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself.

Their every action, which to them seems willed by themselves, in the historical sense is not willed, but happens in connection with the whole course of history and has been destined from before all ages.

There are a number of interesting things going on here, some of them puzzling. Tolstoy suggests that all historical actors act as part of a "swarm", unconsciously arriving at inevitable decisions and actions. What it is that impels them toward these decisions is a bit unclear. Tolstoy suggests that it is the predestined force of History. This is, of course, a bit circular and tautological: whatever ends up happening in history was what History had preordained. The theory is always proven right. How could it be proven incorrect?

Reading Tolstoy's theory of history, I was reminded of Hegel's theory of the historical process. (I will confess that I am not expert in this area.) As Hegel saw it, "it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History." (See Hegel, Philosophy of History)

Marx, of course, influenced by Hegel, would later adopt Hegel's theory of history and modify it, to focus on the material and economic conditions of life, and how history moved inevitably, through the dialectical process, through the rise and fall of capitalism, towards a post-capitalist society, socialism, and then, eventually, communism, etc.

All three theories of history share the characteristic of being firmly determinist. Hegel and Tolstoy suggest that the driving force is something vague and immaterial (Hegel calls it "Spirit", Tolstoy doesn't give it a name). Marx, at least, pins his theory to the real world, and ventures actual predictions. (Marx famously broke with Hegel and criticized Hegel's dialectic theory as "mystification" -- presumably precisely because Hegel's theory posited some mysterious "Spirit" (Geist) as the driving force of history.)

Neither Hegel's nor Tolstoy's theories would appear to have any specificity or any testable predictive power -- because they are totalizing and tautological. Tolstoy's theory does not appear to feature anything like the dialectical process set out in Hegel's theory.

Interestingly, Hegel's works were published in the early nineteenth century, well before Tolstoy wrote WAR & PEACE. We know that Tolstoy had a firm command of German. It is entirely possible that he had spent some time struggling with Hegel's notoriously dense and abstruse works before or during the writing of W&P. (I should probably consult my Tolstoy biography on this point.)

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