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Behind the Iron Cage: What Can Max Weber Tell us About Leo Tolstoy?

By Jeremy Klemin.

You either stand in line, or you pick a number and wait. Sometimes you do both. You know it’s theoretically the most efficient way, but this means nothing when an eight minute estimated waiting time turns into forty. This, among other things, is bureaucracy. In the name of efficiency, large-scale progress has historically included bureaucratization; whether bureaucratization is a part of progress or an unfortunate byproduct is open to speculation. Countries have undergone massive bureaucratic restructuring at different periods in their histories. After the abolition of serfdom in 1861, Russia, too, joined the maximum efficiency party (albeit a little late, and with some minor hiccups in the middle).

Writing around this time, much of Leo Tolstoy’s work both explicitly and implicitly addresses Russia’s rapid bureaucratization. A bit later near the turn of the century, German Sociologist Max Weber wrote extensively about bureaucracy, both theoretically and in case-specific instances. On occasion, Weber would take a break from his incredibly detailed descriptions of both contemporary bureaucracies and bureaucratic theory to remark on how thoroughly impractical and dehumanizing the drive towards rationality and mechanization had the potential to be. He would stop almost mid-thought to remark on the absurdity of what he was describing, usually with some kind of pithy aphorism. Amidst the observational/descriptive focus that dominates his work, it’s easy to group Weber along with more traditional Sociologists (i.e. Talcott Parsons and those that are called the “Structural Functionalists”) instead of with the critical Sociologists, like Marx and the later Frankfurt School.

Both of Tolstoy’s most notable works War and Peace and Anna Karenina were published not long after the abolition of serfdom in 1861, and consequently can be seen as a vehicle for addressing the bureaucratization and rationalization of Russia. Because of censorship during the 19th century, the Russian novel started being used as a platform for ideas that, if overtly stated, probably would have been censored. War and Peace and Anna Karenina also foreshadow the trajectory that Tolstoy’s work later took; he turned away from fiction at the end of his life and dedicated himself almost exclusively to writing about and engaging with various social issues. Keeping Weber’s concepts regarding bureaucracy in mind and applying them to Tolstoy’s two canonical works, we can see that Tolstoy was not only a novelist but a profound and highly relevant social theorist. In his paper “Great Chords: Politics and Romance in Tolstoy’s War and Peace” critic Paul Romney said that Tolstoy was “alienated from modernity.” By itself, though, this phrase is universal to the point of banality: it means next to nothing. What part of modernity? What does being alienated from modernity mean, what does it look like? In part, it means that Tolstoy was incredibly critical of bureaucracy and all of its byproducts: rationalization, predictability, and calculability. This is where Weber will be helpful.

Weber, Bureaucracy, and the Iron Cage

Weber dedicates considerable time and effort towards analyzing how bureaucracy impacts law, economics, and politics, but he is most relevant with regards to Tolstoy when we look at bureaucracy’s place within the larger social structure. Despite the continually growing movement towards rationalization that marked the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century, Weber felt that there was a distinct gap between formal, bureaucratic rationality and lived human experience. He distinguished between substantive and formal rationality, referring to formal rationality as “the extent of quantitative calculation or accounting which is technically possible and which is actually applied.” Substantive rationality, on the other hand, was concerned with how people rationally react to economic incentive given the larger frame of “ultimate values.” In essence, he tried to distinguish between rationality as an idea and rationality in practice. Some things are good ideas, but don’t turn out quite so well. This isn’t a particularly revelatory point now; we know that dealing with large, unwieldy government institutions is anything but efficient. Writing around the same time, Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, too, realized this in his work Dead Souls. This distinction, however, was revelatory at the time. As countries start the slow, laborious process towards being an information-based economy, the distinction between theory and practice becomes very, very important.

Weber’s discussion of values is pretty crucial here: he is essentially arguing that failing to account for human values is failing to account for humanity itself. Humans are not wholly rational, linear creatures, and any form of bureaucratic organization that treats them as such is not going to work. Weber’s relationship with bureaucracy was polysemic: He understood that bureaucratic organization was “technically superior,” but still lacked faith in its real utility. Weber essentially felt that the notion of an absolutely rational bureaucracy was still relatively removed from lived experience, arguing that the increasing intellectualization and rationalization “do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.” This is where the gap between substantive rationality and formal rationality lies, substantive rationality reflects lived experience that accounts for human values.

The best synthesis of Weber’s understanding of the consequences of bureaucracy can be understood in the metaphor of the iron cage (Jurgen Habermas preferred to translate it as “shell of bondage,” but the idea remains the same). In Weber’s view, the inescapable nature of bureaucracy meant that citizens would inevitably be trapped within an ‘iron cage,’ unable to leave the confines of rationality without regard for humanity. Fearing the course that bureaucracy may take, Weber referred to the popular Goethe quote to illustrate his point: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” It is primarily Weber’s criticism of bureaucratic structures that will help inform our reading of Tolstoy.

Pierre and the Iron Cage

Nowhere is the notion of the iron cage more pronounced than in the character Pierre’s case towards the end of War and Peace. Beginning with his capture, Pierre increasingly feels himself constrained by an almost unfathomable larger system he does not comprehend. “A system of some sort was killing him – Pierre – depriving him of life, of everything, annihilating him.” The metaphor of the machine is prevalent throughout the novel, especially in reference to Pierre: “he felt himself to be an insignificant chip fallen among the wheels of a machine whose action he did not understand but which was working well.” To quote Weber, Pierre is a “small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism.” Think along the lines of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Life here: For Weber, the idea of the machine and bureaucracy are inherently connected; they are efficient, rational, and calculated.

Habermas describes Weber’s understanding of the rationality of bureaucracies as having “developed their own internal dynamics, in terms of a rationally operating machine.” Pierre does not understand the ‘wheels of the machine’ he is caught in precisely because it is an internal dynamic. This idea of a closed system is particularly important: a closed system may logically make sense, but may lack a meaningful relationship to the outside world regardless of how well it works according to its own rules. In other words, the reason Pierre “does not understand” is because he feels himself caught within a system of formal rationality that lacks substantive rationality. As Pierre increasingly falls into the trap of bureaucratic thought, he views humanity as an operating machine: “Pierre did not see the people as individuals but saw their movement.” If we take Weber’s notion of depersonalization in bureaucracy to its logical conclusion, Pierre is losing his ability at this point in the novel to see people as people: like him, they are simply cogs in a vast machine.

Upon being captured in the war, Pierre is interrogated by Davoüt, a cold, impersonal marshal who treats the judgment of human life as little more than paperwork. When Davoüt imprisons Pierre, the way he speaks is almost mechanical: “I know that man, he said in a cold, measured tone, evidently calculated to frighten Pierre.” Pierre’s ordeal with Davoüt serves as a means of understanding Tolstoy’s critique of formal rationality. Realizing that his interrogation is not going well, Pierre grows increasingly nervous over the fact that he may die under false pretenses (For whatever reason, Davoüt is convinced that the pitiable Pierre is actually a spy), but is saved purely because Davoüt receives good news from an adjutant and becomes disinterested in Pierre’s interrogation. Arbitrary chance saves Pierre, the fact that the adjutant enters the room at a particular time spares Pierre’s life: Pierre is a shining example of how in the context of history, a person’s fate isn’t always logically foreseeable or able to be rationally deduced. It is not just bureaucracy, then, but bureaucracy’s unshakable faith in the foreseeability of the future that Tolstoy takes issue with.

Levin, Karenin, and Logical Processes

Tolstoy does, however, demonstrate that the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy can be mitigated if one realizes that bureaucracy exists. Where Pierre feels himself an inevitable part of the perils of rationality, Levin of Anna Karenina seems to have made a conscious attempt to extricate himself from the bureaucratic procession of modernity. Immediately, Tolstoy delineates between Levin and his half-brother Sergey:  “Levin was confirmed in this generalization by observing that his brother did not take questions affecting the public welfare or the question of the immortality of the soul a bit more to heart than he did chess problems, or the ingenious construction of a new machine.” Like in War and Peace, we again see reference to the machine. Tolstoy is directly attacking the notion that all aspects of life can be rationalized, that even the immortality of the human soul can be approached in a mechanical, logical manner. One of the reasons Levin hesitates to enter into district service, then, is precisely because the human soul is absent from its processes: “The thought struck him that this faculty of working for the public good, of which he felt himself utterly devoid, was possibly not so much a quality as a lack of something […] a lack of vital force, of what is called heart, of that impulse which drives a man to choose someone out of the innumerable paths of life, and to care only for that one.” Levin rejects working for the district because working there would mean a fundamental lack of humanity, and by extension love. Not only is love absent, but in a bureaucratic system it must be absent according to Weber. Weber explains this need well: “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.”

Levin rejects bureaucratic thought not only on ideological grounds, but also feels that this mode of thought literally doesn’t work. Just like Weber thought law and legal authority were both not useful and not a decent way for human beings to interact with each other, Tolstoy feels more or less the same. While Sergey is attempting to convince his brother to reenter service as a district official, we again see Levin’s skepticism of bureaucracy, and its wide array of nonsensical byproducts, which critic George Ritzer identifies as dehumanization, poor work quality, and efficiency in his excellent book called The McDonaldization of Society. Levin feels that it is fundamentally absurd and useless to “serve on a jury and try a peasant who has stolen a filch of bacon, and listen for six hours at a stretch to all sorts of jabber […] and the president examining my old half-witted Alioshka, ‘Do you admit, prisoner of the dock, the fact of the removal of the bacon? Eh?”

Levin not only has no confidence in the merit of the system and its ability to carry out justice, but fundamentally lacks faith in its inherent structure, in the philosophy of the system itself. That is to say, it’s not that he doesn’t think the system isn’t working, but thinks that even when it is working correctly, the system is still fundamentally flawed. “I am ready to deliberate on what concerns me; but deliberating on how to spend forty thousand roubles of district council money, or judging the half-witted Alioshka—I don’t understand, and I can’t do it.” Levin’s view of the bureaucratic system is not linearly pessimistic; it is a complete lack of faith in a bureaucratic structure’s capacity to operate. Constance Garnett realizes this in a paper entitled “Tolstoy and Resurrection,” arguing that Tolstoy’s notions attack not only modernity but also the “structure of the modern state.” The structure of the modern state is predicated on bureaucracy.

Where Levin is weary of bureaucracy and process, Karenin seems to be an embodiment of the processional life that Tolstoy so despises. Karenin is a grim character, a government official with no real passion, and lives totally without fervor. He refused to acknowledge the reality that his wife is unfaithful “because it was too terrible to him to realize his actual position, and he shut down and locked and sealed up in his heart that secret place where lay hid his feelings towards his family, that is, his wife and son.” Despite a bureaucrat’s best attempts, emotion is not so easily compartmentalized. Even the manner in which Karenin accuses Anna of infidelity is roundabout and removed: “I am obliged to tell you that your behavior has been unbecoming today.” In the words of Weber, Karenin’s “scientific pleading is meaningless.” Such rationality, Tolstoy feels, is opposed to his idea of the human soul.


In writing about Max Weber, Jukka Gronow explains that Weber understood bureaucracy as being inherently related to rationality, abstractness, and most important, calculation. Following this thread, Tolstoy takes issue with bureaucracy and all of its byproducts – its emphasis on formal rationality, and by extension, of an unshakable faith in predictability and calculability. It is on this basis partially that both Tolstoy and Weber are opposed to some of the facets of basic Enlightenment thought, and to what Gronow calls the moral perfectability of man. In essence, Tolstoy is opposed to thinking about human progress in a positivist, linear manner, to the notion that humanity is slowly but industriously working towards being perfect, and a word free of serious problems is only a matter of time. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, he feels that positivism paradoxically reduces society to “blindness and dumbness.” The idea that progress is made by rationally, calculated decisions stands in stark contrast to how Tolstoy understands both war and history throughout War and Peace. Let us not forget that both Tolstoy and Weber also come from roughly the same epoch, it is not only a coincidence that they are both writing during the rise of sociological inquiry.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy attacks notions of calculated predictability on two fronts: via his portrayal of the nuances of the Napoleonic war, and via his conjecture on how history is understood a posteriori. In discussing Napoleon’s army, Tolstoy invokes characteristically mechanical imagery: “Strange to say all these measures, efforts, and plans […] did not affect the essence of the matter but, like the hands of a clock detached from the mechanism, swung about in an arbitrary and aimless way without engaging the cogwheels.” Habermas’s description of Weberian bureaucracy as having an “internal dynamic” helps again here: just because something is coherent within itself, does not mean that it makes sense in the context of a larger structure. This cold rationality not only applies to the larger structure, but also to the actors that make up the crux of the structure. Reconsidering Weber’s assertion that for a bureaucracy to work efficiently, imperfect sentiments like love, emotion, and the incalculable must be done away with, Tolstoy says in one of his many long-winded asides in War & Peace that a military leader must lack more or less these same qualities: “Not only does a good army commander not need any special qualities, on the contrary he needs the absence of the highest and best human attributes – love, poetry, [and] tenderness.”

The processional aspect of war is not only designated towards those who occupy the most important positions; Peter Petróvich Dokhtúrov faces a similar fate:  he “was one of those unnoticed cog-wheels that, without clatter or noise, constitute the most essential part of the machine.” Tolstoy, then, is not far at all from Weber’s realization that however futile it is, in war, “everything is rationally calculated, especially those seemingly imponderable and irrational emotional factors— in principle, at least, calculable in the same manner as the yields of coal and iron deposits.” This qualification of “in principle” is important: the attempt to calculate everything in war is an attempt, and more often than not, a failed attempt.

Nowhere is Tolstoy’s mockery of rationality more acerbic than in his portrayal of the German war theoreticians. Tolstoy describes Pfuel, one of the most prominent of the theoreticians, as “one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point that only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion—science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth.” Tolstoy argues that science is not relevant to “how one should live,” and Weber explicitly referenced Tolstoy during a lecture when attempting to answer the question of what the role of science is. Tolstoy’s dry, unwarranted lamentations become tedious throughout the novel, but they are helpful in understanding what he’s attempting to convey.

Through Pfuel, we see Tolstoy’s thinly veiled criticisms of the kind of Enlightenment positivism that I mentioned earlier. Tolstoy continues to absolutely eviscerate Pfuel, describing him as “one of those theoreticians who so love theory that they lose sight of the theory’s object—its practical application. His love of theory made him hate everything practical, and he would not listen to it.” Weber’s distinction between formal and substantive rationality helps us understand how Tolstoy views Pfuel, and what Pfuel represents. Pfuel is perfectly rational in theoretical terms, but, as Weber helps us understand, there’s a gap between theory and lived experience. Following Weberian thought, the German war theoretician’s devotion to theory indicates that “the most rational type of action was at the same time the most irrational one.” Again, Tolstoy is reiterating one of his grand projects: he is firmly delineating between the rationality of theory and the rationality of lived experience.

War and Predictability

Military Theory, like bureaucracy, promises predictability. It hopes that calculation will inevitably lead to a foreseeable event, and like many well-thought out blueprints, rarely goes according to the plan. Foreseeability, predictability, and calculability seem inherently connected to Tolstoy. In another one of his digressions aimed at nobody in particular, he writes, “What theory and science is possible about a matter the conditions and circumstances of which are unknown and cannot be defined […] No one was or is able to foresee in what conditions our or the enemy’s armies will be in a day’s time.” To Tolstoy, history cannot be approached in the same way mathematics or science is approached, because the course of history is an arbitrary process always made sense of in hindsight. Russian Formalist Boris Eikenbaum highlights this idea, arguing that Tolstoy’s alienation from modernity left him at odds with “the very fact of historical process.” In the context of war, it is predictability that Tolstoy so fundamentally disbelieves in; the logic of predictability stems largely from the rapidly popularizing bureaucratic organization of post-serfdom Russian society.

In War and Peace, Prince Andrew’s rationale for deciding to serve among the regiment during the war is intimately related to his disbelief in the utility of administrative war decisions. When Prince Andrew’s asserts that in war, “the most deeply considered plans have no significance, and that all depends on the way unexpected movements of the enemy—that cannot be foreseen—are met,” Tolstoy is again wary of predictability. Prince Andrew continues this discussion later in a conversation with Pierre, highlighting the arbitrary nature of war by arguing that war is won by those who resolve to win it. No science can be deduced in determining who is more “resolved to win,” meaning any attempt at providing a framework for predicting an outcome is essentially pointless. Prince Andrew’s decision to stay with the regiment rather than take up an administrative decision is thus two-fold: he feels that he can influence the war only by being a part of it; any attempt to plan the events of a war is ultimately meaningless.

The second reason Prince Andrew decides to stay with the army can be understood through Weber’s understanding of the “peculiarly impersonal nature” of bureaucracy. When asked what the outcome of a battle depends on, Andrew contends that it rests entirely “on the feeling that is in me and [Timokhin] and in each soldier.” War depends on individual humanity, not vague tactical strategy. Because bureaucracy is, in critic George Ritzer’s words, a setting “in which people cannot always behave as human beings,” Andrew paradoxically attempts to find humanity through the frontlines of battle. In all of its unpredictability, it seems that the precipice of death is the only space free from Weber’s iron cage for Andrew.

I had a professor once who told our class unequivocally that you’re “either a Tolstoy person or a Dostoyevsky person.” The implication was that a “Dostoevsky person” belonged to the realm of introspection, and to the realm of ideas, while a “Tolstoy person” belonged to the realm of life, action, and to humanity more broadly. The point here is that Tolstoy’s unique ability to create entirely believable, fully-imagined characters with all of the eccentricities and complexities of real people does not automatically exclude him from writing a novel of ideas, of critical, probing, ideas very concerned with the contemporary sociopolitical structure. Tolstoy is too often compared to the Shakespeare’s of the world (who, likewise, he absolutely hated), and not enough in the tradition of, say, a Thomas Mann. Tolstoy was anything but a masterful aesthete, quietly weaving the classic, sterile Russian epic. He was a grumbling, anarchic, engaged, and highly critical old man.


Jeremy Klemin recently finished his MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and is currently a freelance writer living in New York City. He’s still trying to figure out what his favorite brand of peanut butter is, but in the meantime can be reached on Twitter: @JeremyKlemin

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 28th, 2015.