Basic issues of the Social Question was written in 1919 for the German-speaking peoples of central Europe. It deals with the social problems of that time and suggests solutions. The question therefore arises: Is this book still relevant today, in a new millennium, for a worldwide readership?
In order to answer this question, let us first look at the book's very last paragraph: ‘One can anticipate the experts who object to the complexity of these suggestions and find it uncomfortable even to think about three systems cooperating with each other, because they wish to know nothing of the real requirements of life and would structure everything according to the comfortable requirements of their thinking. This must become clear to them: either people will accommodate their thinking to the requirements of reality, or they will have learned nothing from the calamity and will cause innumerable new ones to occur in the future.
The calamity referred to is the First World War, and since that time history has certainly shown these words to be prophetic. Rudolf Steiner's suggestions were ignored in Central Europe at that time, at least by those who were in a position to put them into practice, and the calamities have been occurring ‘innumerably’ ever since. The ‘social question’ has not been resolved, nor have the steps been taken which are necessary to initiate the healing process. People all too often still look to the political state for the solution to all social problems, whether they be of an economic, spiritual (cultural), or political nature.
Where in the world is ‘spiritual life’, schools for example, free — not in the sense of cost, but free from state control and economic influence? Where does an ‘associative’ economy function? What political state is content with its legitimate function of ensuring that human rights are respected? The answer to all these questions is negative. The destructive tendencies which existed in 1919 are still very much with us; in fact, they have greatly increased their potency.
Certain historical circumstances are referred to, especially in Chapter Four, which were fresh in the minds of the readers in that part of the world at the time the book was written. Rudolf Steiner was born on 27 February 1861, in the town of Kraljevec, which was then in Austro-Hungary and is now in Yugoslavia (he died on 30 March 1925 in Dornach, Switzerland), so the events relating to such political entities as the Austro-Hungarian and German empires were entirely familiar to him and, for the most part, to his readers. This is no longer the case, so I have added a section of Notes at the end which can, however, only include a very brief description of the historical events referred to by the author.
This book is far from outdated, in spite of the fact that certain descriptions refer to specific occurrences and attitudes of the times in which it was written. The suggestions and essential principles given by Rudolf Steiner are even more relevant today than when they were originally described, if only because their realization has since become even more urgent.
Frank Thomas Smith