This essay appeared originally in the third issue of The Social Future (organ of the Swiss League for the Threefold Order). The first item in the contents of the Hibbert Journal for July, 1921, was the English translation, which is here reprinted. In that form it is probable that a large number of English readers for the first time encountered the proposals by which alone, in Dr. Rudolf Steiner's judgment, the civilized countries of the world can grapple hopefully with the political, economic, and social problems, the solution of which seems at present beyond the power of every one of them alike.
Translations of Dr. Steiner's book on the Threefold Social Order have appeared in every significant European language, and it has won for itself a circulation (upwards of 100,000) attained only at rare intervals by works of this character. An excellent English version, entitled The Threefold Commonwealth: the True Shape of the Social Question, has been put upon the market by the Anthroposophic Press.
Hibbert Journal for July, 1921
In the social movement of the present day there is a great deal of talk about social institutions, but very little about social and unsocial human beings. Very little regard is paid to that “social question” which arises when one considers that institutions in a community take their social or anti-social stamp from the people who work them. Persons of a socialistic turn of thought expect to see in the control of the means of production by the community what will satisfy the requirements of a wide range of the people. They take for granted that, under communal control, the co-operation between men will necessarily take a social form as well. They have seen that the industrial system ordered on lines of private capitalism has led to unsocial conditions. They think that, when once this industrial system has disappeared, the anti-social tendencies at work in it will also necessarily be at an end.
Undoubtedly, along with the modern private capitalist form of industrial economy there have arisen social evils — evils that embrace the widest range of social life; but is this in any way a proof that they are a necessary consequence of this industrial system? Now, an industrial system can, of its own proper nature, effect nothing beyond putting men into situations in life that enable them to produce goods for themselves or for others in a useful, or in a useless, manner. The modern industrial system has brought the means of production under the power of individual persons or groups of persons. The achievements of technical science were such that the best use could be got out of them by a concentration of industrial and economic power. So long as this power is employed in the one field — the production of goods alone — its social working is essentially different from what it is when this power oversteps the bounds and trespasses on the other fields of civil rights or spiritual culture. And it is this trespassing on the other fields, which, in the course of the last few centuries, has led to those social evils for whose abolition the modern social movement is pressing. He who is in possession of the means of production acquires economic dominion over others. This economic dominion has resulted in his allying himself with the forces to be found in the governments and parliaments through which he could procure other posts of vantage also in society, as against those who were economically dependent on him: posts of vantage which, even in a democratically constituted state, bear in practice the character of rights. Similarly, this economic dominion has led to a monopolizing of the life of spiritual culture by those who held economic power.
Now, the simplest thing seems to be to get rid of this economic predominance of individuals, and thereby do away with their predominance in rights and spiritual culture as well. One arrives at this “simplicity” of social conception when one fails to remember that the combination of technical and economic activity, which modern life demands, necessitates allowing the most fruitful possible expansion to individual initiative and personal worth within the business of economic life. The form which production must take under modern conditions makes this a necessity. The individual cannot make his abilities effective in business if in his work and schemes he is tied down to the will of the community. However dazzling the thought of the individual producing not for himself but for society collectively, yet its justice within certain bounds should not hinder one from also recognizing the other truth, that society collectively is incapable of originating economic schemes that permit of being realized through individuals in the manner desirable. Really practical thought, therefore, will not look to find the cure for social ills in a reshaping of social life that would substitute communal production for private management of the means of production. The endeavour should rather be to forestall evils that may spring up along with management by individual initiative and personal worth, without impairing this management itself. This is only possible if the relations of civil right amongst those engaged in economic industry are not influenced by the interests of industrial and economic life.
It cannot be said that those who manage the business of economic life can, although occupied by economic interests, yet preserve a sound judgment as to relations of right, and that, because their experience and work have made them well acquainted with the requirements of economic life, they therefore will be able to settle best the life also of civil rights that should grow up in the round of economic business. To hold such an opinion is to overlook the fact that out of any special sphere of life man can only develop the interests peculiar to that sphere. Out of the economic sphere he can develop economic interests only. And if out of this sphere he is called on to produce moral and civil interests as well, then these will merely be economic interests in disguise. Genuine moral and civil interest — interests of Rights — can only spring up upon a ground specially devoted to the life of Rights, where the only consideration will be, what the rights of a matter are. Then, when people proceed from considerations of this sort to frame rules of right, the rule thus made will take effect in economic life. It will then not be necessary to place restrictions on the individual in respect of acquiring economic power; for such economic power will only result in his rendering economic services proportionate to his abilities — not in his using it to obtain special rights and privileges in social life.
A similar objection is, that relations of right after all show themselves in people's dealings with one another in business, so that it is quite impossible to conceive of them as something distinct and apart from economic life. Theoretically that is right enough, but it does not necessarily follow that in practice economic interests should be paramount in determining these relations of right. The manager who spiritually directs the business must necessarily occupy a relation of Right towards the manual workers in the same business; but this does not mean that he, qua business manager, is to have a say in determining what that relation is to be. But he will have a say in it, and will throw his economic predominance into the scales if business co-operation and the settlement of relations in Right take place in one common field of administration. Only when Rights are ordered in a field where business considerations cannot in any way come into question, and where business methods can procure no power as against this system of Rights, will the two be able to work together in such a way that men's sense of right will not be injured, nor economic ability be turned into a curse instead of a blessing for the community as a whole.
When those who are economically powerful are in a position to use their power to wrest privileged rights for themselves, then amongst the economically weak there will grow up a corresponding opposition to these privileges; and this opposition will, as soon as it has grown strong enough, lead to revolutionary disturbances. If the existence of a special province of Rights makes it impossible for such privileged rights to arise, then disturbances of this sort cannot occur. What this special province of Rights does is to give constant orderly scope to those forces which, in its absence, accumulate within men, until at last they vent themselves violently. Whoever wants to avoid revolutions should study to establish an order of society which shall accomplish in the steady flow of time what otherwise will seek accomplishment in one epoch-making moment.
People will say that the social movement of modern times is immediately concerned, not with relations of Right, but with the removal of economic inequalities. To such objection one must reply that the demands stirring within men are in nowise always correctly expressed in the thoughts they consciously form about them. The thoughts thus consciously formed are the outcome of direct experiences; but the demands themselves have their origin in complexes of life that are much deeper-seated, and that are not directly experienced. And if one aims at bringing about conditions of life which can satisfy these demands, one must attempt to get down to these deeper-seated complexes. A consideration of the relations that have come about between industrial economy and civil right shows that the life of civil rights amongst men has come to be dependent on their economic life. Now, if one were to try superficially, by a lopsided alteration in the forms of economic life, to abolish those economic inequalities that the dependence of rights on economics has brought with it, then in a very short while similar inequalities would inevitably result, supposing the new economic order were again allowed to build up the system of rights after its own fashion. One will never really touch what is working itself up through the social movement to the surface of modern life until one brings about social conditions in which, alongside the claims and interests of the economic life, those of Rights can find realization and satisfaction on their own independent basis.
It is in a similar manner, again, that one must approach the question of the spiritual life and its bearings on that of civil rights and of industrial economy. The course of the last few centuries has been such, that the spiritual life has been cultivated under conditions which only to a very limited extent allowed of its exercising an independent influence upon the political life — that of civil rights — or upon industrial economy. One of the most important branches of spiritual culture — the whole manner of education and public instruction — took its shape from the interests of the civil power. According as State-interests required, so the human being was trained and taught; and State-power was reinforced by economic power. If anyone was to develop his capacities as a human being within the existing provisions for education and training, he had to do so on the ground of such economic power as his sphere in life afforded. Accordingly, those spiritual forces that could find scope within the life of political rights or of industrial economy acquired entirely the stamp of this life. Any free spiritual life had to forego all idea of making itself useful within the sphere of the political state, and could only do so within the industrial economic sphere, in as far as this remained outside the sphere of the political state's activities. In industrial economy, after all, the necessity is obvious for allowing the competent person to find full scope — since all fruitful activity in this sphere dies out when left solely under the control of the Incompetent whom circumstances may have endowed with economic power. If, however, the tendency common among people of a socialistic turn of thought were carried out, and economic life were administered after the fashion of political and legal ideas, then the result would be that the culture of the free spiritual life would be forced to withdraw altogether from the public field. But a spiritual life that has to develop apart from civil and economic realities loses touch with life. It is forced to draw its substantial contents from sources that are not in live connection with these realities, and in course of time works this substance up into such a shape as to run on like a sort of animated abstraction alongside the actual realities, without having any useful practical effect upon them. And so two different currents arise in the spiritual life. One of them draws its waters from the life of political rights and the life of economics, and is occupied with the requirements which come up in these from day to day, trying to devise systems by which these requirements can be met — without, however, penetrating to the needs of man's spiritual nature. All it does is to devise external systems and harness men into them, without paying any heed to what their inner nature has to say about it.
The other current of spiritual life proceeds from the inward craving for knowledge and from ideals of the will. These it shapes to suit man's inward nature. But knowledge of this latter kind is derived from contemplation: it is not the gist of what has been taught by the experience of practical life. These ideals have arisen from conceptions of what is true and good and beautiful; but they have not the strength to shape the practice of life. Consider what conceptions of the mind, what religious ideals, what artistic interests, form the inward life of the shopkeeper, the manufacturer, the government official, outside and apart from his daily practical life; and then consider what ideas are contained in those activities which find expression in his bookkeeping, or for which he is trained by the education and instruction that prepare him for his profession. A gulf lies between the two currents of spiritual life. The gulf has grown all the wider in recent years because that particular mode of conception that in natural science is quite justified has become the standard of man's relation to reality. This mode of conception sets out to acquire knowledge of laws in things and processes that lie beyond the field of human activity and human influences; so that man is as it were a mere spectator of that which he comprehends in a scheme of natural law. And though in his technical processes he sets these laws of nature working, yet hereby he himself does no more than give occasion for the action of forces which lie outside his own being and nature. The knowledge that he employs in this kind of activity bears a character quite different from his own nature. It reveals to him nothing of what lies in cosmic processes in which his own being is interwoven. For such knowledge as this he needs a conception of the universe that unites in one whole both the world of man and the world outside him.
It is a knowledge such as this for which that modern spiritual science is striving that is directed to Anthroposophy. Whilst fully recognizing all that the natural science mode of conception means for the progress of modern humanity, anthroposophical science yet sees that all that can be arrived at by the natural science mode of knowledge will never embrace more than the external man. It also recognizes the essential nature of the religious conceptions of the world, but is aware that in the course of the new-age evolution these conceptions of the world have become an internal concern of the soul, not applied by men in any way to the reshaping of their external life, which runs on separately alongside.
It is true that, to arrive at such a form of knowledge, spiritual science makes demands upon men to which they are as yet but little inclined, because in the last few centuries they have grown habituated to carrying on their practical life and their inner soul-life as two separate and distinct departments of their existence. This habit has resulted in the attitude of incredulity that meets every endeavour to make use of spiritual insight in forming an opinion about life's social configuration. People have in mind their past experience of social ideas, that were born of a spiritual culture estranged from life; and when there is any talk of such things, they recall St. Simon, Fourier, and others besides. And the opinion people have formed about ideas of this sort is justified, inasmuch as such ideas are the outcome of a tendency of learning which acquires its knowledge not from living experience but from a process of reasoning. And from this people have generalized and concluded that no kind of spirit is adapted to produce ideas that bear sufficient relation to practical life to admit of being realized. From this general theory come the various views which in their modern form are all more or less traceable to Marx. Those who hold them have no use for ideas as active agents in bringing about satisfactory social conditions. Rather they maintain that the evolution of the actual facts of economic life is tending inevitably to a goal of which such conditions are the result. They are inclined to let practical life take more or less its own course, on the ground that in actual practice ideas are powerless. They have lost faith in the strength of spiritual life. They do not believe that there can be any kind of spiritual life able to overcome the remoteness and unreality which characterize the form of it that has predominated during the last few centuries.
It is a kind of spiritual life such as this, nevertheless, which is pursued by anthroposophical science. The sources from which it seeks to draw are the sources of actual reality itself. Those forces which sway the inmost nature of man are the same forces that are at work in the actual reality outside man. The natural science mode of conception cannot get down to these forces, being engaged in working up an intellectual code of natural law out of the experiences acquired from external facts. Nor are the world-conceptions, founded on a more or less religious basis, any longer at the present day in touch with these forces. They accept their traditions as handed down to them, without penetrating to their fountain-head in the depths of man's being. Spiritual science, however, seeks to get to this fountain-head. It develops methods of knowledge which lead down into those regions of the inner man where the processes external to man find their continuation within man himself. The knowledge that spiritual science has to give presents a reality actually experienced in man's inner self. The ideas that emerge from it are not the outcome of reasoning, but imbued through and through with the forces of actual reality. Hence such ideas are able to carry with them the force of actual reality when they come to give the lines for social aim and purpose. One can well understand that, at the first, a spiritual science such as this should meet with distrust. But such distrust will not last when people come to recognize the essential difference that exists between this spiritual science and the particular current recently developed in science, and which to-day is assumed to be the only one possible. Once people come to recognize the difference, they will cease to believe that one must avoid social ideas when one is bent on the practical shaping of social facts. They will begin to see, instead, that practical social ideas are obtainable only from a spiritual life that can find its way to the roots of human nature. People will clearly see that in modern times social facts have fallen into disorder because people have tried to master them by thoughts which these facts were constantly eluding.
A spiritual conception that penetrates to the essential being of man finds there motives for action which in the ethical sense too are directly good. For the impulse towards evil arises in man only because in his thoughts and sensations he silences the depths of his own nature. Accordingly, social ideas that are arrived at through the sort of spiritual conception here meant must by their very nature be ethical ideas as well. And being drawn, not from thought alone, but from life, they possess the strength to lay hold upon the will and to live on in action. In the light of a true ethical conception, social thought and ethical thought become one. And the life that grows out of such a spiritual conception is intimately linked with every form of activity that man develops in life — even in his practical dealings with the most insignificant matters. So, through this spiritual conception, social instinct, ethical impulse, and practical conduct become interwoven in such a way as to form a unity.
This kind of spirit, however, can thrive only when its growth is completely independent of all authority except such as is derived directly from the spiritual life itself. Legal regulations by the civil state for the nurture of the spirit sap the strength of the forces of spiritual life. Whereas a spiritual life that is left entirely to its own inherent interests and impulses will reach out into everything that man performs in social life. It is frequently objected that mankind would need to be completely changed before one could ground social behaviour on the ethical impulses. People do not reflect what ethical impulses in men wither away when they are not allowed to grow up from a free spiritual life, but are forced to take the particular turn that the politico-legal structure of society finds necessary for carrying on work in the spheres it has mapped out beforehand. A person brought up and educated under the free spiritual life will certainly, through his very initiative, bring with him into his calling much of the stamp of his own personality. He will not let himself be fitted into the social works like a cog into a machine. But, in the long run, what he thus brings into it will not hamper, but increase, the harmony of the whole. What goes on in each particular part of the communal life will be the outcome of what lives in the spirits of the people at work there.
People whose souls breathe the atmosphere created by a spirit such as this will put life into the institutions needed for practical economic purposes, and in such a way that social needs too will be satisfied. Institutions that people think they can devise to satisfy these social needs will never work socially with men whose inner nature feels itself out of unison with their outward occupation. For institutions of themselves cannot work socially. To work socially requires human beings, socially attuned, working within an ordered system of civil rights created by a living interest in this Rights system, and zuith an economic life that produces in the most efficient fashion the goods required for actual needs.
If the life of the spirit be a free one, evolved only from those impulses that reside within itself, then civil life will thrive in proportion as people are educated intelligently, from real spiritual experience, in the adjustment of their civil relations and rights. And then, too, economic life will be fruitful in the measure in which men's spiritual nurture has developed their capacity for it.
Every institution that has grown up in men's communal life is originally the result of the Will that dwelt in their aims; and their spiritual life has contributed to its growth. Only when life becomes complicated in form, as it has under the technical methods of production of the modern age, then the Will that dwells in the thoughts loses touch with the actual social facts. These latter then take their own automatic course. And man withdraws himself in the spirit to a corner apart, and there seeks the spiritual substance to satisfy the needs of his soul.
It is from this mechanical course of affairs, over which the will of the individual spirit had no control, that those conditions have arisen which the modern social movement aims at changing. It is because the spirit that is at work within the civil life of rights and in the round of industry is no longer one through which the individual spiritual life can find its channel, that the individual sees himself in a social order which gives him, as an individual, no scope civically nor economically.
People who do not clearly see this will always raise an objection to the conception of the body social as an organism consisting of three systems, each to be worked on its own distinct basis — i. e., the Spiritual life, the State for the administration of Rights, and the round of Industrial Economy. They will protest that such a differentiation will destroy the necessary unity of communal life. To this one must reply that right now this unity is destroying itself in the effort to maintain itself intact. The life of rights, that grows up out of economic power, in its actual working undermines this economic power, because it is felt by those economically inferior to be a foreign body within the social organism. That spirit coming to be dominant in civil rights and economic life, when these control its workings, condemns the living spirit — which in each individual is working its way up from the soul's depths — to powerlessness in the face of practical life. If, however, the system of civil rights grows up on independent ground out of the sense of right, and if the Will of the individual dwelling in the spirit is developed in a free life of the spirit, then the Rights system and Spiritual force and Economic activity all work together into a unity. They will be able to do so when they can develop, each according to its own proper nature, in distinct fields of life. It is just in separation that they will turn to unity; whereas, shaped from an artificial unity, they become estranged.
People of a socialist way of thinking will, many of them, dismiss such a conception as this with the phrase that it is not possible to bring about satisfactory conditions of life through this organic formation of society; that it can only be done through a suitable economic organization. In so saying they overlook the fact that the men at work in their economic organization are endowed with wills. If one tells them so, they will smile, for they regard it as self-evident. Yet their thoughts are busy constructing a social edifice in which this “self-evident” fact is left out of account. Their economic organization is to be controlled by a communal will. But this, after all, must be the resultant of the individual wills of the people united in the organization. These individual wills can never find scope, if the communal will is derived entirely from the idea of economic organization. But the individual wills can expand untrammelled if, alongside the economic province, there is a civil province of Rights, where the standard is set, not by any economic point of view, but by the sense of right alone; and if, alongside both the economic and civil provinces, a free spiritual life can find place, following the impulsion of the spirit alone. Then we shall not have a social order going by clockwork, to which individual wills could never permanently be fitted. Then human beings will find it possible to give their wills a social bent, and to bring them constantly to bear on the shaping of social circumstances. Under the free spiritual life the individual will, will acquire its social bent. Under a self-based civil state of Rights, these individual wills, socially attuned, will result in a communal will that works aright. And the individual wills, socially centred, and organized by the independent system of rights, will exert themselves within the round of industrial economy, producing and distributing goods as social needs require.
Most people to-day still lack faith in the possibility of establishing a social order based on individual wills. They have no faith in it, because such a faith cannot come from a spiritual life that has developed in dependence on the life of the State and of industrial economy. The kind of spirit that does not develop in freedom out of the life of the spirit itself, but out of an exterior organization, simply does not know what the potentialities of the spirit are. It looks round for something to guide and manage it — not knowing how the spirit guides and manages itself, if it can but draw its strength from its own sources. It would like to have a board of management for the spirit as a sort of branch department of the economic and civil organisations, quite regardless of the fact that industrial economy and the system of rights can only live when permeated with the spirit that follows its oztm leading.
For the reshaping of the social order, goodwill alone is not the only thing needful. It needs also that courage which can be a match for the lack of faith in the spirit's power. A true spiritual conception can inspire this courage; for such a spiritual conception feels able to bring forth ideas that not only serve to give the soul its inward orientation, but which, in their very birth, bring with them the seeds of life's practical configuration. The will to go down into the deep places of the spirit can become a will so strong as to bear a part in everything that man performs.
When one speaks of a spiritual conception having its roots in life, quite a number of people take one to mean the sum-total of those instincts in which a man takes refuge who travels along the familiar rails of life and holds every intervention from spiritual regions to be a piece of cranky idealism. The spiritual conception that is meant here, however, must be confounded neither with that abstract spirituality which is incapable of extending its interests to practical life, nor yet with that spiritual tendency which as good as denies the spirit directly it comes to consider the guiding lines of practical life. Both these modes of conception ignore how the spirit rules in the facts of external life, and therefore feel no real urgency for consciously penetrating its rulings. Yet only such a sense of urgency brings forth that knowledge which sees the social question in its true light. The experiments now being made to solve the social question afford such unsatisfactory results because many people have not yet become able to see what the true gist of the question is. They see this question arise in economic regions, and they look to economic institutions to provide the answer. They think they will find the solution in economic transformations. They fail to recognise that these transformations can only come about through forces that are released from within human nature itself in the uprising of a new spiritual life and life of rights in their own independent domains.
To lay hold on those evolutionary forces which in the development of modern mankind are striving toward the Threefold Social Order; to make them a conscious social will and purpose — this is at the present day what the hard facts of the social situation demand of us in unmistakable language.
—Rudolf Steiner, April 1919