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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Threefold Social Order
GA 23

I. Nature of the Social Question In the Life of Modern Man

The great catastrophe of the War (World War I) reveals how inadequate was men's thinking concerning the social problem. They imagined that they understood what the worker really wants. The demands of the workers, formerly suppressed, are coming to the surface as the powers instrumental in their suppression are now in part destroyed. In many parts of the world, leaders have failed completely to understand the indestructible nature of these human impulses.

The greatest illusions existed among certain key people who, in 1914, could have checked the rush into this war. These persons actually believed that a military victory for their side would hush the mutterings of impending social storm. They have since recognized that it was their own attitude and its consequences that first brought these tendencies to life. During these last fateful years, these leading individuals and the leading classes have been obliged to attune their behavior to the demands of the Socialists. If they could have disregarded this group, they would often have been glad to act differently. The effects of all this are seen in the form events are taking today.

The facts are now before us, fully ripe, and yet the thoughts that accompanied their development are no match for them. While hoping that current happenings could serve the social ideals people had in mind, men have found themselves practically powerless to solve the problems.

The opinion of those under the delusion that it would be possible to retain the old scheme of things in the face of the demands of the workers must be dismissed. When we look at the aims of those who want to remodel social life, we have to admit that party programs are drifting about among us like the dried corpses of now dead creeds. The facts call for decisions for which the creeds of the old parties are altogether unprepared. The parties certainly did evolve along with the facts, but they and their habits of thought have not kept pace with events.

The tragedy revealed in all the attempts to solve the social question arises because the real meaning of the working-class struggle has been misunderstood. Men by no means always read their own purposes correctly.

What is the real meaning of the modern working-class movement? What is its will? Does the usual thinking about the “social problem” reveal that question in its true form? Or is an altogether different line of thought needed?

Such questions cannot be approached impartially unless one has had the opportunity of coming into intimate relationship with the modern worker's soul, his feeling-life. Much has been said and written about how the developments of recent economic life have led to the current demands of the workers. True enough, these have been evolved during the growth period of modern science and capitalism. But recognition of this fact gives no clue at all to the impulses behind these demands. The fact is that, although the demands are economic, the underlying impulses are of a purely human character. One must arrive at the cause of these impulses if one would understand the true form of the social question.

There is a word of striking significance frequently used by the modern worker: he has become “class-conscious.” He no longer follows, more or less unconsciously, the lead of the other classes. He knows he is a member of a class apart and is determined that the relation established between his class and the other classes shall be turned to good account for his own interests.

The way this word, “class-conscious,” is used by the worker standing in the midst of modern technical industry and capitalism, gives an important clue to his view of life. His soul has been impressed and fired by scientific teachings about economic life and its bearing on the destinies of men, and the idea that the “uneducated” working man has had his head turned by Marxism and by later labor writers of the Marxist school will not help towards the necessary understanding of the true facts.

The scientific evolution of recent times is responsible for the concepts that fill the consciousness of the working man. In the demands put forward by the workers today, whether moderates or radicals, we have the expression, not of economic life somehow metamorphosed into human impulse, but of economic science by which the working-class consciousness is possessed. This stands out clearly in the literature of the labor movement, with its scientific flavor and journalistic style.

The individual, working at his machine, may be a complete stranger to “science.” Yet those who enlighten him as to his own position borrow their method from this same “science.”

Everything said about modern economic life, the machine age and capitalism, may throw an instructive light on the underlying facts of the modern working class movement. But the decisive light on the present social situation does not come directly from the fact that the worker has been placed at the machine and harnessed to the capitalist scheme of things. This light comes from the different fact that his class consciousness has been filled with a definite kind of thought, shaped at the machine under the influence of the capitalist economy.

Many people may look at the stress laid on this factor as a mere dialectic play upon terms, but anyone who wants to understand the working-class movement must start by knowing how the worker thinks. For the working-class movement, all the way from its moderate efforts at reform to its most devastating excesses, is not created by “forces outside man,” that is to say “economic impulses.” This movement is created by human beings, their mental conceptions and the impulses of their will. These human ideas and impulses do not lie in what capitalism and the machine have implanted in the worker's consciousness. The labor movement turned to modern science for the sources of its thought because capitalism and the machine could give to the soul of the worker no nourishment worthy of a human being.

The medieval craftsman did not feel this lack. He got such inner substance from his craft that his humanity was enhanced by his work. Tending a machine under the capitalist scheme of things, the man was thrown back upon himself, his own inner life. As a result, the worker's class consciousness turned towards the scientific type of thought.

This change occurred at the time the leading classes were working towards a scientific mode of thought which, however, was lacking in spiritual force. The old views of the universe gave man his place as a soul in the total spiritual complex, but modern science viewed him as a natural object set in a purely natural order of things. The old conceptions withdrew from the everyday world and lived on full of things that meant nothing to the souls of the workers.

The leading classes did not look for new substance for their consciousness, because they were able to hold on to the old that had been handed down to them. But the modern worker was torn out of his old setting. His life had been put on a totally new basis. For him there disappeared all possibility of drawing from the old spiritual springs.

Therefore the faith of the modern worker turned to the modern scientific conception of the world. Here he sought the new content that he needed for his inner consciousness. For the ruling classes the concept of a natural order of things leading up from the lowest animals to man remained purely theoretical, without an emotional content.

The worker took the scientific outlook in earnest and from it drew his own practical conclusions for life. It was the only thing left to him that had the power to awaken faith. Some may smile at this, but it is a fact of modern life on which the fate of the future turns. The educated man has made a pigeonhole for science in the recesses of his soul, but it is the circumstances of actual life that give the direction to his feelings.

The worker may be far from what others call scientific, yet his life's course is charted by such scientific lines of conception. For him science is turned into a creed of life, even though it be science filtered down to its last shallows and driblets of thought.

Now what scientific thought has not brought down from the old order is the consciousness of being rooted, as a spiritual type, in a spiritual world. For a member of the leading classes this presented no difficulty. Life, to him, was filled by the old traditions. But it was different for the worker. His new situation drove the old traditions from his soul. He took over from the leading classes a scientific mode of thought—a spiritual life that denied its spiritual origin.

I know very well how these thoughts will affect a lot of people. Believing they have a practical acquaintance with life, they look at the view expressed here as something remote from realities. But the language of actual facts, as voiced by the state of the world, will increasingly prove such a view as theirs to be a delusion.

I know, too, how someone professing working-class views will react to what has been said. I can hear him saying, “Just like the rest of them. Trying to shunt the real gist of the social question off onto lines that promise to be smooth for the bourgeois.” He is unable to see that he himself lives as a working man but thinks as a bourgeois, using a type of thought inherited from them.

The scientific mode of conception will only become life-sustaining when, in its own fashion, it evolves an inner content. In its transition to the new age, the old spiritual life has turned into something which, for the working class, is ideology. The worker feels that this inner life does not come to him from a spiritual world of its own.

An important factor in the modern labor movement is this belief that spiritual life is ideology. It affects the worker's mood of soul as expressed in current social demands. Anyone who says that this idea exists only in the minds of the workers' leaders does not know what has been going on. The influence of this concept ties in with the demands of the Socialist and extends even to the deeds of those who “hatch revolution” out of the blind promptings of their inner life.

The non-worker listens with dismay to the worker saying, “Nothing short of socializing the means of production will make it possible for me to have a life worthy of a human being.” But the non-worker is unable to form the faintest notion of how his own class, in the period of transition, not only summoned the worker to labor at means of production that were not his, but even failed to give him anything to satisfy and sustain the soul in his labor.

Worker and non-worker may both insist that the soul does not come into the picture, but such insistence does not touch the essence of the social question nor reveal its true form. For if the working population had inherited from the leading classes a genuine spiritual substance they would have had a different consciousness within their souls and would have voiced their social demands in a different fashion.

The unhappiness of the workers over the ideological character of spiritual life, even though they are not definitely conscious of it, makes them suffer acutely. In its significance for the social question today, it far outweighs all demands for an improvement in external conditions, justifiable as some of these demands may be.

The modern proletarian movement has sprung out of thoughts. I did not come to this conclusion as a result of lengthy pondering, but from years of actual experience and observation, when I was a lecturer at a workers' institute, giving instruction in a wide variety of subjects. And I have had occasion to go further and follow up the tendencies at work in the various unions and different occupational groups.

It is hard for members of the middle class today to put themselves into the soul of the worker or understand how the worker's still fresh, unexhausted intelligence opened up to receive a work such as that of Karl Marx. I am not proposing to discuss the substance of the Marxian system. This is not the significant thing. What seems to me significant above all else is the fact that the most powerful impulse at work in the labor world today is a thought system.

No practical movement, making the most matter-of-fact demands, has ever rested almost entirely on a basis of thought alone. Indeed it is in a way the first movement of its kind based completely on a scientific approach. But this must be seen in its proper light. Of main importance is the fact that thoughts have become the determining factor of the worker's attitude toward life while in other classes thoughts affect only the activity in the intellectual sphere.

Thus, what has become an inward reality in the worker is a reality that he cannot acknowledge because thought life has been handed down to him as an ideology. He really builds up his life upon thoughts, yet he feels thoughts to be unreal ideology. This inner contradiction, with all that it involves, must be clearly recognized. Otherwise, it is impossible to understand the workers' views of life and the way those who hold these views set about realizing them in practice.

One cannot expect a spiritual life that one feels as mere ideology to provide deliverance from a social situation one has resolved to endure no longer. The scientific cast of the modern worker's thought has turned not only science but also religion, art, morality and legal rights into so many constituent parts of human ideology. He fails to see behind these branches of the spiritual life the workings of an actual reality that exists in his own life and could contribute something to material existence. To him the intellectual sphere is only the mirror image of the material life. He is convinced that anything that will lead to the removal of social difficulties can arise only out of the sphere of the material processes themselves.

In fact the impotence of the spiritual life is an article of faith with a large part of the working class, and is openly stressed in Marxism and similar creeds. Yet the man obliged to lead the life of a worker today needs a spiritual life from which inner strength can come, strength to give him the sense of his own human dignity. The discovery of a path out of the maze of confusion into which social affairs have fallen depends on a right insight into this fact. The path has been blocked by the social system that has arisen, under the influence of the leading classes, with the new form of industrial economy. The strength to open it must be achieved.

In a human community where spiritual life plays a merely ideological role, the general social life lacks one of the forces that can make and keep it a living organism. The impotence of the spiritual life in modern man is what is ailing the body social today, and the disease is made worse by the reluctance to acknowledge its existence. Once this fact is acknowledged, there will be a basis on which to develop the kind of thinking needed for the social movement.

At present the worker thinks he has come in contact with a major force in his soul when he talks about his “class consciousness.” The truth is that ever since he was caught up into the capitalistic economic machine he has been searching for a spiritual life that would sustain his soul and give him a consciousness of his human dignity. Yet there is no possibility of this with a spiritual life which he feels to be an ideology.

This human consciousness was what he was seeking. He could not find it, so he replaced it with “class consciousness” born of the economic life. His eyes are riveted on the economic life alone, as though some overpowering influence held them there. He no longer believes that anywhere in the spirit or in the soul can there be a latent force capable of supplying the impulse needed for the social movement. All he has faith in is that the evolution of the economic life, devoid of spirit and soul, can bring about the state of things he feels to be worthy of man. So he is driven to seek his welfare in a transformation of the economic life alone.

He has been forced to the conviction that with this mere transformation of the economic, all the social ills would disappear. He feels these ills were brought on through private enterprise, through the egoism of the individual employer, and also through the individual employer's powerlessness to do justice to the employee's claims of human self-respect. So he was led to believe that the only welfare for the body social lay in converting all private ownership of the means of production into a communal concern or into actual communal property. This conviction is due to people's eyes having, as it were, been removed from everything belonging to soul and spirit and fixed exclusively on the purely economic process.

Hence the paradox in the working-class movement. The modern worker believes that the economic life itself will, of necessity, develop everything that will ultimately give him his rights as man, the rights for which he is fighting. Yet in the heart of the fight something different makes its appearance, something which never could be an outcome of the economic life alone.

The fact is that this element lies in the direct line of evolution, through the old slave system, through the serfdom of the feudal age, to the modern proletariat of labor. This is what provides the fundamental force actuating the social purpose of the modern worker. It is related to the fact that the modern capitalistic system of economy recognizes basically nothing but commodities. In its processes something has been turned into a commodity which the worker feels must not and cannot be a commodity: the labor of the worker. If only the loathing that he feels at this were recognized as the fundamental force that it is!

Once people become aware of what this loathing means, they will have discovered the second of the two impulses making the current social question so urgent. The first, as was indicated earlier, is that spiritual life is felt as an ideology.

The fact that labor is still stamped with the character of a commodity has not remained unnoticed, but in studying it, people keep their attention fixed entirely on economic life. They see how the economic life gave the commodity character to human labor. What they do not see is that it is a necessity inherent in economic life that everything incorporated in it becomes a commodity.

Economic life consists in the production and useful consumption of commodities. One cannot divest human labor of its commodity character unless one finds a way of separating it from the economic process and bringing it under social forces that will do away with its commodity character. Any other form of industrial economy will only make labor a commodity in some other manner.

The labor question cannot take its place in its true form within the social question until it is recognized that the considerations of economic life (which determine the laws governing the circulation, exchange and consumption of commodities) are not considerations which should govern human labor.

Modern thinking has not learned to distinguish the totally different fashions in which the two things enter into economic life. On the one hand there is labor, which is intimately bound up with the human being himself. On the other hand there are those things that proceed from another source and are dissociated from the human being. The latter circulate along the paths that all commodities must take from their production to consumption. Sound thinking along these lines can show both the true form of the labor question as well as the proper place of economic life in a healthy society.

Thus we see that the “social question” divides itself into three distinct parts. The first is the question of a healthy form of spiritual life within the body social. The second is the consideration of labor, and the right way to incorporate it into the life of the community. Third is the correct deduction as to the proper place and function of economic life in today's society.