Tolstoy on Politics

Dominic Cummings’s blog is one of the more fascinating sites you can read these days, given the rare combination of his proximity to power and ruthless willingness to share his unadorned opinions. His perspective on War and Peace is particularly intriguing.

Tolstoy describes a meeting with the Tsar to discuss goals and strategy. There are many factions. There are those who want to follow ‘the pseudo-theory of war’, those who think the opposite, and courtiers who try to effect a compromise between the two — ‘Though by this course neither one aim nor the other could be attained, this seemed to the party of compromise the best line to adopt’.

I’ve heard such arguments so often over twenty years. It is quite normal for those at the centre of power to be unable to define their goals and for someone trying to seem ‘sensible’ to argue for a ‘compromise’ that guarantees only chaos. The inability of senior people to be rigorous in their thinking about goals, and the failure of institutions to force clarity, is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of politics and government. For example, if you trace the history of the Prussia-Austria conflict 1862-6 through the famous Schleswig-Holstein affair to the decisive battle of July 1866, a conflict so crucial in shaping the modern world, one of the most important features is that Emperor Franz Joseph would not and could not prioritise the conflicting goals of a) retaining Austria’s position in Germany and b) regainining her position in Italy. On the other side, Bismarck knew exactly what his priorities were. This fundamental fact lies behind the hugely complex diplomacy and Austria’s disaster. And exactly the same failure to prioritise goals recurs over and over — you see it around the Cabinet table before August 1914 and I saw it around the Cabinet table in 2020. Assuming wrongly that ‘at least those in charge know what they’re trying to do’ is one of the biggest errors made by the media and high status, often highly competent, observers.

Another faction wants to promote X, another wants to promote Y. But most are thinking mainly about their own career, about money, decorations and promotions.

The eighth and largest group, numbering ninety-nine to every one of the others, consisted of men who were neither for peace nor for war, neither for offensive operations nor a defensive camp at Drissa or anywhere else; who did not take the side of Barclay or of the Emperor, of Pfuhl or of Bennigsen, but cared only for the one thing most essential — as much advantage and pleasure for themselves as they could lay hold of.

In the troubled waters of those cross-currents of intrigue that eddied about the Emperor’s headquarters it was possible to succeed in very many ways that would have been unthinkable at other times. One courtier simply interested in retaining his lucrative post would today agree with Pfuhl, tomorrow with Pfuhl’s opponents, and the day after, merely to avoid responsibility or to please the Emperor, would declare that he had no opinion at all on the matter. Another, eager to curry favour, would attract the Tsar’s attention by loudly advocating something the Emperor had hinted at the day before, and would dispute and shout at the Council, beating his breast and challenging those who did not agree with him to a duel, thus displaying his readiness to sacrifice himself for the common weal. A third, while his enemies were out of the way, and in between two Councils, would simply solicit a special gratuity for his faithful services, well aware that it would be quicker at the moment to grant it than to refuse it. A fourth would contrive to be seen by the Tsar quite overwhelmed with work. A fifth, in order to achieve his long-cherished ambition to dine with the Emperor, would vehemently debate the rights and wrongs of some newly emerging opinion, producing more or less forcible and valid arguments in support of it.

All the members of this party were fishing after roubles, decorations and promotions, and in their chase simply kept their eye on the weathercock of Imperial favour: directly they noticed it shifting to one quarter the whole drone-population of the army began buzzing away in that direction, making it all the harder for the Emperor to change course elsewhere. Amid the uncertainties of the position, with the menace of serious danger which gave a peculiarly feverish intensity to everything, amid this vortex of intrigue, selfish ambition, conflicting views and feelings, and different nationalities, this eighth and largest party of men preoccupied with personal interests imparted great confusion and obscurity to the common task. Whatever question arose, a swarm of these drones, before they had done with their buzzing over the previous theme, would fly off to the new one, to smother and drown by their humming the voices of those who were prepared to examine it fully and honestly.

From the euro campaign in 1999 to the Department for Education to the referendum campaign meetings to the Cabinet room and Chequers, this buzzing has been the background noise to my twenty years in politics.

Prince Andrei watched the debate and ‘could only wonder in amazement’. After listening, he asked to serve with the army instead of remaining near the Emperor and thereby ‘lost his standing in court circles for ever’.

Focus on the actual job, rather than the courtier game, is often a disaster for one’s status and career.

Cummings and Tolstoy are both right. I’ve twice been bitten by a foolish focus on the actual job rather than the courtier game. In fact, in order to be able to do the actual job, it’s often necessary to first solidify your political flanks within the organization.