Reading for Friday, June 19

The class in history continues. I always love Tolstoy’s examples that he uses to illustrate his philosophy, and this is no exception.

What drives a train? he gives us three answers – none of which really work – to explain that historians are a bit like this with history. We’re either looking at symptoms of history (like looking at smoke coming out a train), or we make up a cause we can’t prove (like a Demon driving a train) or we invent some force that still needs another explanation.

The particular force that Tolstoy is most keen on debunking is the concept of power. Basically, he asserts that we need an explanation of history that takes into account the movements of every single human being.

The problem with most historians, argues Tolstoy, is that they use the concept of power to explain the movement of the masses. Instead of having every single person contributing to the flow of history, historians imagine a handful of “great men” who wield power, and thus the movements of all the masses are controlled by the power wielded by this handful of men.

Obviously, this is not what Tolstoy believes in – in fact, he goes so far as to say it’s paper money that’s fine until it’s proved to be worthless. (An interesting insight back into the days when a paper currency not backed by some sort of gold standard was considered a bit suspect.) The argument shall continue . . .

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One thought on “One-Year War and Peace E2.3 – What Drives a Steam Engine?

  1. A good summary there, Matt, of Tolstoy’s argument and of the way he uses the train’s movement to illustrate it all.

    I guess Tolstoy’s view that power lies at the crux of it all is one of those perennially significant issues in any analysis of history, politics, economy. Pretty well all conflicts about how the world has changed and grown – and, therefore, how it will change and grow into the future – comes down to an argument about how power works.

    As a Marxist, my views on this are not exactly in accord with Tolstoy’s – but his recognition of the role of the masses in driving history is, of course, very important in Marx, too. It’s just that Marx focusses on the ways the masses divide into classes, and on the relationships between those classes, in his analysis of history – whereas Tolstoy was much more focussed on the significance of each individual person who made up those masses. Tolstoy talked about the cogs – Marx talked about the wheels, and how they turn, and counter-turn, each other (eventually leading, in Marx’s view, to the whole machine eventually imploding). But, even so, I’d be interested to know what Tolstoy thought of Marx – the Communist Manifesto was translated into Russian in 1882, so I presume Tolstoy would have read it. Someone with Tolstoy’s holistic view of history, combined with his fundamental opposition to materialism and inequality, must surely have found Marx fascinating.

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