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Tolstoy and Politics

For years I have been fascinated by Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace, a fascination prompted by the BBC’s grand, multi-episode version made back in the ‘70s when I was growing up (and featuring a young Anthony Hopkins — who even then stood out in my mind as a face to watch). It’s a huge book, and somewhat daunting to get into at first, but after a while it creeps up on you. I recall, about a third of the way in, encountering the death of a particular character — I burst into tears, unexpectedly. It made me watch more carefully what Tolstoy was doing, how he was winding the lives of these characters into my imagination and emotions, and where it was all leading.

Character creation and deft plotting aside, though, Tolstoy’s lasting legacy from this book was the philosophical view which he elucidates in it at length. Whole chapters in the book are really essays about military and social history and a way of looking at politics and human endeavour in their entirety. Towards the end, once the tale of the characters is done, once Napoleon’s invasion of Russia has been defeated by what you might call ‘a series of unfortunate events’ (unfortunate if you’re Napoleon that is), Tolstoy launches into a whole final section which is more to do with philosophical musing than with fiction. Though it’s at times a turgid read, it is largely that viewpoint which has drawn me back to the book again and again. I’ve read it four times now.

The book attempts to make clear a viewpoint about Life which seems at first counter-intuitive. It’s the idea that history is propelled forward not by the actions of individual leaders but by the random alignment of events and groups of people, large and small. It’s a perfect view for a novelist, of course, focusing on ordinary people who don’t make it into the history books. But to a novelist, the lives and dreams of ordinary people possess a power and value equal to those whom history thinks of as ‘great figures’. Tolstoy’s view is that, rather than Napoleon determining the course of history, it’s the collective actions and decisions of individual people, sometimes coming together, sometimes diverging, which decides ‘what happens’. Tolstoy argues that kings, generals, so-called leaders of any kind are slaves to history; they don’t determine outcomes. In fact, the hands of an individual are progressively tied tighter the higher he or she rises in any political hierarchy — the action of ‘rising’ in that hierarchy, in another way of looking at it, is determined by how aligned that person is with hundreds, thousands, millions of tiny actions and decisions leading up to that person rising and not another. A casual conversation, a series of accidental encounters, an unforeseen delay — all these things lead to one set of events occurring and not another.

Napoleon, for example, often thinks he is issuing distinct orders and changing the events on a battlefield, and this is what is generally conveyed in history books about the French emperor and his ‘military acumen’. But Tolstoy, through meticulous attention to detail, shows the emperor is merely engaging in a performance — events unfold on the field in ways that he can scarcely have imagined, much less decided upon. Couriers carrying orders never arrive; communications break down; planned operations do not take place or occur in an entirely unforeseen way resulting in completely opposite outcomes. History, Tolstoy argues, is the recording of the consequences of a billion prior decisions, moods, chance occurrences, and random unforeseen incidents, which is then ‘painted over’ to be the result of decisions and actions taken by so-called ‘great figures’.

One of the mysteries Tolstoy evokes is why hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen followed a diminutive corporal from Corsica all the way across Europe and back, rather than merely dispersing and carrying on with their own affairs: collective decisions, peer pressure, the momentum of millions of moments, all added up to the ‘French invasion of Russia’ in 1812. A million other things might have occurred, but what occurred was that.

It’s such a counter-intuitive idea. We view the ‘great figures’ as they campaign, as they rise up hierarchies, as they pronounce and pontificate, as they release manifestos and make great decisions — but it is all a vast illusion. It’s a sideshow, in effect. It distracts from the main event, which is what is happening right in front of us, in our own homes, our own neighbourhoods, our own communities. This main event isn’t some abstract announcement of a policy change in a distant city, but our own mini-decision to speak in a certain way to the person next to us, to stay at home or go out, to be kind or not to be kind, to decide upon one mini-action rather than another. Those tiny decisions, that multitude of actions and inactions, multiplied a millionfold, give us what we call ‘history’.

Think of tectonic plates: immeasurably vast shapes, floating upon boiling seas of magma, forming the crust of the earth. Their slow, collective movements, their inch-by-inch responses to forces and pressures coming from all directions at all times, gradually lead to the temporary shapings of land masses we call the continents. Human society is analogous to this: slow, ponderous, formed of incalculably large numbers of micro-motions, sometimes coming together, sometimes diverging, sometimes subjected to pressures, sometimes released from them. What we call ‘politics’ is analogous to the earthquakes and aftershocks which result on the surface after these movements have occurred — the unavoidable ‘twitches’ which are the consequences of vast and mainly invisible movements below. They are a symptom of something, not its cause.

We see world leaders strutting and sounding off, threatening and theorising, marketing themselves as leaders and manipulating ‘positions of power’. What we don’t see (usually) are the much larger and far more mysterious undercurrents upon which their illusory performances rest — the sea-changes in communities, the gradual and unplanned coming together of many purposes, the subtle but widely felt alterations in mood which add up to human society moving in one way or another. Occasionally we see — as recently we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic — these slow, ponderous social movements occurring beneath the surface, eluding the attention of the professional political class to such a degree that none of the usual individuals arose to give them voice, and so demagogues have appeared as crude mouthpieces for vast, brooding tectonic shifts which have happened out of sight.

Just as the shape of the earth’s continents at this precise moment in time is temporary, so is the condition of our society and its ‘political alliances’ an ephemeral thing. Beneath the surface, out of sight, huge collective motions are taking place all the time which will alter the outline of the map both geographically and politically in years to come. Who speaks for whom at any given moment is almost an irrelevancy; they are merely the mouthpieces of one mass grinding against another over time.

What can we do, then, if these things which seem to be of utmost importance are actually just the after-effects of subterranean inertias over which we seem powerless?

The answer is as counter-intuitive as the view which gives rise to it: we need to concentrate on the main event. We need to pay attention to who and what is in the room with us; we need to take responsibility for the micro-movements and decisions which we make every minute, every hour; we need to open our eyes and see that we are part of something vast and momentous and already in motion. Communicate with the person next to you; love your neighbour. These are the things which in the end decide the fate of nations, not placing a cross on a piece of paper which apparently transfers responsibility far away to someone more helpless in the face of events than we are. We must cease to delegate away to a mirage our own souls, and start to live what we currently only dream.

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