Anna Karenina: A Conservative Morality Tale
The new movie version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina might be a bit stagy for some tastes, but any movie that--a) stars Keira Knightley and b) advances Leo Tolstoy's worldview--is surely worth watching.
I will leave the story itself to the moviegoer, but in the novel of the same name Tolstoy describes liberalism in terms that are entirely recognizable 140 years later. In the following passages he speaks to the character of Anna's philandering, self-important brother, Stepan Arkadyevitch, a landau liberal because it suited his life style. Indeed, writes Tolstoy wryly, liberalism had become something of a habit for him, like smoking his cigar, "for the slight fog it diffused in his brain."
The liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction; and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was so repulsive to his nature.
The liberal party said, or rather allowed it to be understood, that religion is only a curb to keep in check the barbarous classes of the people; and Stepan Arkadyevitch could not get through even a short service without his legs aching from standing up, and could never make out what was the object of all the terrible and high-flown language about another world when life might be so very amusing in this world.
Writing more than 40 years before the Russian Revolution, Tolstoy noted the myopia of one-percenters like Stepan Arkadyevitch who believed that the real danger to Russia lay "not in that fantastic revolutionary hydra, but in the obstinacy of traditionalism clogging progress."
Curiously, the 100 or so million lives lost to that revolutionary hydra have not wised up our friends on the left. As one prominent Kansan said famously in the pages of the New York Times, today's religious right poses a "far greater threat than the old threat of communism." In his best court French Tolstoy just might have replied, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.