Tolstoy College: The War and Peace of an Anarchist Education

When I asked the instructors of Tolstoy College if they found anything contradictory about establishing an anarchist college funded by the state of New York, they all kind of shrugged it off. Peter Murphy, who taught courses on radical history, said my question misunderstood the actual goals of anarchism, at least as he saw it: “Back then, I never believed it was a contradiction. I believed that [anarchists] seize the apparatus of the state and use that apparatus against the state. If the state wants to fund its demise, that’s great.” Founded in 1969 within the State University of New York (SUNY)-Buffalo campus, Tolstoy College was an experimental program built on the anarchist beliefs of Lev Tolstoy, the Russian novelist more famously known for nineteenth-century literary classics like War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Before it was closed due to budget cuts in 1985, Tolstoy College—otherwise known as “College F” in an alphabetized system that the university established—provided courses on topics as varied as civil disobedience, class struggle, collective organizing, and techniques for living off the land.

Tolstoy College was born of then-university president Martin Meyerson’s plan to make SUNY-Buffalo the “Berkeley of the East,” a somewhat cynical effort to attract red diaper babies from the wealthier counties downstate. An integral part of Meyerson’s project was the creation of several leftist “colleges” meant to show that the university was trying to create an intellectual space for the nation’s disaffected youth and their politics. Aside from Tolstoy College, there was a labor studies college named after Rosa Luxemburg, the Rachel Carson College for environmental activism, Black Studies College, Women’s Studies College (helmed by historian Elizabeth Kennedy), and a few others, some more radical than others, but all left-leaning. At the college’s peak, there were nearly two hundred students taking Tolstoy courses—which had names like “Intro to History from the Bottom Up,” and “Making a New Society.” Students couldn’t, however, “major” in Tolstoy College. An unofficial quality was built into the founding documents; in the charter, Professor Charles “Chip” Planck, the creator of Tolstoy College, wrote that the new experimental colleges should be “in tension with the university,” and thus should not “aim at the precise definition and finality of a ‘department.’”

In my interview with Planck, we talked about why he chose Tolstoy (and not a more obvious choice, like Emma Goldman, perhaps) as the namesake of his anarchist college. He talked about the author’s views on pacifism and non-violent resistance, which were acquiring new purchase in the Vietnam War era. Tolstoy actually fought in the Crimean War, an experience he recounted in the fictional Sevastopol Sketches (1855), which later served as the basis for his magnum opus War and Peace (1869). It was in Crimea that Tolstoy grew disaffected with battle, convinced that all the stories of heroism and valor won in war were fictions (literal and figurative) contrived by the ruling classes to convince young Russian men to become cannon fodder. Even more influential for Planck, however, were Tolstoy’s writings on pedagogy, which he came across in Tolstoy on Education, an edited volume published by the University of Chicago Press in 1967. The essays, born out of Tolstoy’s own experiences running a school for peasants on his estate, called for a radical non-hierarchal approach to pedagogy that spoke to Planck’s anarchism. One essay, titled “Should We Teach the Peasant Children to Write, or Should They Teach Us?,” particularly struck Planck.

Tolstoy also appealed to Planck because of his emphasis on what scholars Christina Kiaer and Eric Naiman have called “taking the revolution inside,” that is, the idea that tools for social change are modeled in daily life and interpersonal relationships. In his description of the Tolstoy College charter, Planck articulates the very same notion, writing that his reason for selecting Tolstoy as the college’s namesake was that the author placed the locus for social change in everyday life, not in ideology:

One of the reasons for identifying with Tolstoy is that he always stated the problem of life’s responsibilities in a straightforwardly moral and individualistic way: “How to live? What to live for?” Putting the question this way shifts emphasis away from figuring out the direction of abstract historical forces and a system of ideas to fit them, and onto the problem of what small groups of people can do now to make a better social order.

This ethos was perhaps nowhere better enacted than in the actual running of the school, wherein collective governing and assessment were adhered to religiously. Once, in lieu of grades, all the students in a Tolstoy seminar received the same collectively-composed written evaluation. For the faculty, anarchist rule meant meetings in which individual salaries were determined collectively based on individual financial need; for instance, a faculty member who had to pay for childcare or who had higher medical bills would receive a larger salary than a colleague with fewer expenses. A poster advertising the first meeting of the semester exemplifies the egalitarian structure Tolstoy College used:

Tolstoy College is back and ready to plan another semester’s activity. For that we need you – student or professor, janitor or secretary. We need your ideas, fantasies, desires and energy. Do you want to do political theater? Start a study group? Develop democratic art forms? Find alternatives to mind-numbing mass culture? Reject authority and take control of your everyday life? Create a center of radical social criticism on campus? Drink a few beers? Then tear yourself away from prime-time television Sunday night and come to Townsend Hall. Empower yourself and others. Create the university you want!

Frustrated with what he considered the comfortably bourgeois atmosphere of college life, Planck abruptly left Tolstoy College in 1970 to start a farm in Louduon County, Virginia. Following Planck’s departure, Charles “Charlie” Haynie, a former civil rights activist (who was also perpetually ABD in Cornell University’s Mathematics Department), became the ostensible leader (if anarchists believed in power relations) of Tolstoy College. Under the direction of Haynie, the orientation of Tolstoy College transformed, and it became known unofficially on campus as a “men’s studies college” that paid significant attention to gay male identity.

In a letter to the administration, Haynie wrote that he wanted Tolstoy College to explore the connection between sexuality and politics; he believed the university “needed to face the personal dimensions of political change raised by the women’s and gay liberation movements.” As a result, a number of new courses with titles like “Homophobia” and “The Working-Class Macho Male” were added to the Tolstoy College curriculum. A class titled “Gay Literature” was also introduced, the first such course to be taught at SUNY-Buffalo. Tolstoy College was also at one time affiliated with Stonewall Nation, a radio show hosted by instructor Alex Van Oss that focused on issues affecting the gay community across the country, including in the Buffalo area. Van Oss would later embark on a career in radio and eventually join NPR, but in his time at Stonewall Nation, he brought the issues being discussed at Tolstoy College, including gay literature and the experiences of gay men in the Vietnam War era, to the airwaves. He even interviewed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg about Ginsberg’s experience coming out to his parents. (The audio from that interview can be found here.)

Finally, in the mid 1980s, with the country awash in Reagan-era conservatism, Tolstoy College folded under administrative pressure and budgetary concerns. One Tolstoy College professor, Paul Richmond, even blamed disco for the school’s closing, suggesting that the 1970s put a wet blanket on the radicalism of the previous decade: “[It was] we’re all O.K. and we all have money for cocaine and dancing and we’re all going off to the disco, the lights, and everything.” A forgotten utopia, Tolstoy College inspires a deep longing for a time when universities were at the forefront of radical political movements aimed at building a more democratic society. It also speaks to the enduring quality of Tolstoy’s political thought to inspire groups who see revolution not as an historical moment, but as a practice of daily life.

One of the most powerful documents I found in the Tolstoy College archive was a letter written by a student in support of the college when it was facing closure in 1974 over yet another budget crisis. Perhaps nothing else better encapsulates what Tolstoy College meant for the students and instructors—not that they made much of a distinction between the two—who were part of this great experiment. The letter reads:

I am a poor, lesbian/feminist, vague socialist, professional waitress, and over-age student from the rural/poor socio-economic stratum of America. I am also a person who cares about my dignity and your dignity and therefore I am committed to the eradication of my oppression and your oppression. That commitment means I feel alienated a whole lot of the time in this city and in this school. Often it means that people see lesbian not me, or that men see woman not me, or that middle class students see waitress, not me. It means that outside my circle of friends Tolstoy College is where I feel most total. When a charter member asked at the public hearing if [Tolstoy] college had any specific plan for the future or in the community, I whispered “Revolution.” I wish I had shouted it.

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Jennifer Wilson

Dr. Jennifer Wilson is a Postdoctoral Fellow for Academic Diversity in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, she is working on two manuscripts: Radical Chastity: Abstinence and the Political Imagination in 19th Century Russian Literature and Writing a Free Society: Abolitionist Literature in Imperial Russia. She has also contributed articles on topics related to Russian culture, race, and higher education to The New Yorker, Al-Jazeera America, and The Guardian.