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Mary Bell

Overflow Crowd at Farrell LA Lecture

(1 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 49, 9 December 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NEW YORK; Dec. 1 – An overflow crowd of 200 people came to hear James T. Farrell, the prominent novelist and critic, discuss Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in the third of a series of Sunday evening forums held by the Labor Action School. Farrell began his lecture by pointing to the increase of interest in War and Peace during the Second World War, indicating why this great writer of the nineteenth century has contemporary appeal. Many were turned away from the hall.

Later, in analyzing this interest, Farrell stated:

“I think it is because we are now on the other side of progress, from which Tolstoy began. We on the other side of progress in America, the closest approach to paradise that capitalism will ever create on earth, feel the significance of public affairs affecting our destiny. I think that is one of the reasons Tolstoy makes us feel he is such a contemporary of ours. War and Peace in the development of Tolstoy is the central work in that it is Tolstoy’s first coming to terms with the Russian past and his own past and his feelings about his class and country ... It is the beginning of his chain of evolution ... It is a great beginning, not the isolated masterpiece many critics think it is.”

Since Tolstoy’s most renowned work is firmly imbedded in the society of his time, a “war panorama of the Czarist feudal nobility,” as Farrell called it, it lends itself particularly well to Farrell’s materialist criticism. Farrell compared the breadth of Tolstoy’s interests and the problems he posed in War and Peace with those posed by Marx and Engels: freedom versus necessity, the class nature of art, class misery, war and peace. Tolstoy believed that the history of any period is the history of the swarm of humanity, but he concluded that history was senseless and that war was the most senseless of all its aspects, whereas Marx uncovered the laws of history.

While Tolstoy in his characterizations of Napoleon and Kutuzoff, the Russian general, seems to favor feudal as against bourgeois society, Farrell contended that Tolstoy really attacked both in the name of the peasants, who had his great sympathy. He cited Lenin’s appraisal of Tolstoy’s later novel, Anna Karenina, that Tolstoy had both a progressive and a reactionary side, and that he was a literary harbinger of the peasant revolution in Russia.

Farrell traced Tolstoy’s evolution from the time War and Peace was written in the 1870’s, when Tolstoy was only forty, happy, secure and recognized as a genius by contemporary giants of literature. His future would seem easy, happy and productive. But War and Peace, written before the emancipation of the serfs in Russia, was the beginning of a change. Anna Karenina, written after the emancipation, which did not accomplish all that was expected, and during the hothouse development of Russian capitalism, continues the themes of the first novel on a somber level. In My Confessions, the next work, Tolstoy develops his theory that life is stupid unless we are intoxicated, and the only intoxication is love. He tries to achieve the love of all humanity.

Tolstoy also attacked the theory that great men make history, but threw out all the elements of causation. Farrell stated that Tolstoy believed that “art should be the servant of man, and not man the servant of art.” Farrell also contended that the failure of Tolstoy as a moralist testifies to the failure of Christianity as a viable social creed.

In response to a question, “Why did Tolstoy become religious?” Farrell pointed out that the period of his conversion to religion corresponded with the reactionary period of the ’80’s in Russia and that he embodied the “guilt-feeling of his class.”

The numerous questions and the comments after the meeting indicated the satisfaction of the audience with the well-rounded discussion of Farrell.

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