Basic Issues of the Social Question
Preface to the Fourth German Edition, 1920
The challenges which contemporary society presents will be misunderstood by those who approach them with utopian ideas. It is of course possible to believe that any one of diverse theories, arrived at through personal observation and conviction, will result in making men happy. Such a belief can acquire overwhelming persuasive power. Nevertheless, as far as the social question of the times is concerned, it becomes irrelevant as soon as the attempt is made to assert it.
The following example, although seeming to carry this proposition to an extreme, is nevertheless valid. Let us assume that someone is in possession of a perfect, theoretical ‘solution’ to the social question. In spite of this, in attempting to offer it to the public he becomes the victim of an unpractical belief. We no longer live in an age in which public life can be influenced in this way. People's minds are simply not disposed to accept the ideas of another as far as this subject is concerned. They will not say: here is someone who knows how society should be structured, so we will act according to his opinions.
People are not interested in social ideas which are presented to them in this way. This book, which has already reached a fairly large audience, takes this phenomenon into consideration. Those who accuse it of having a utopian character have completely misunderstood my intentions. It is interesting to note that such criticism has come principally from people who themselves indulge almost exclusively in utopian thinking and are inclined to attribute their own mental habits to others.
Truly practical people know from experience that even the most convincing utopian ideas lead absolutely nowhere. In spite of this, many of them seem to feel obliged to propound just such ideas, especially in the field of economics. They should realize that they are wasting their breath, that their fellow men will not be able to apply such propositions.
The above should be treated as a fact of life inasmuch as it indicates an important characteristic of contemporary public life, namely, that our present notions concerning economics, for example, have little relation to reality. How can we then hope to cope with the chaotic condition of society if we approach it with a thought process which has no relation to reality?
This question can hardly meet with favour as it requires the admission that our thinking is indeed remote from reality. Nevertheless, without such an admission we will not get to the bottom of the social question. Only when we understand that this divorce of thought from reality is a condition of the utmost seriousness for contemporary civilization, can we become clear in our own minds as to what society really needs.
The whole question revolves around the shape of contemporary spiritual life. Modern man has developed a spiritual life which is to a very large extent dependent upon political institutions and economic forces. While still a child he is given over to a state educational system, and his upbringing must correspond to the economic circumstances of his environment.
It is easy to believe that this situation results in the individual becoming well adjusted to contemporary life, that the state is best qualified to organize the educational system — and therewith the foundation of public cultural affairs — for the benefit of the community. It is also easy to believe that the individual who is educated according to the economic conditions of his environment and who is then placed according to these conditions becomes the best possible member of human society.
This book must assume the unpopular task of showing that the chaotic condition of our public life derives from the dependence of spiritual life on the political state and economic interests. It must also show that the liberation of spiritual life and culture from this dependence constitutes an important element of the burning social question.
This involves attacking certain wide-spread errors. For example, the political state's assumption of responsibility for education has long been considered to be beneficial for human progress. For people with socialistic ideas it is inconceivable that society should do anything but shape the individual according to its standards and for its service.
It is not easy to accept a very important fact of historical development, namely, that what was proper during an earlier period can be erroneous for a later period. For a new era in human relations to emerge, it was necessary that the circles which controlled education and culture be relieved of this function and that it be transferred to the political state. However, to persist in this arrangement is a grave social error.
The first part of this book attempts to indicate this. Human culture has matured toward freedom within the framework of the state, but it cannot exercise this freedom without complete autonomy of action. The nature which spiritual life has assumed requires that it constitute a fully autonomous member of the social organism. The administration of education, from which all culture develops, must be turned over to the educators. Economic and political considerations should be entirely excluded from this administration. Each teacher should arrange his or her time so that he can also be an administrator in his field. He should be just as much at home attending to administrative matters as he is in the classroom. No one should make decisions who is not directly engaged in the educational process. No parliament or congress, nor any individual who was perhaps once an educator, is to have anything to say. What is experienced in the teaching process would then flow naturally into the administration. By its very nature such a system would engender competence and objectivity.
Of course one could object that such a self-governing spiritual life would also not attain to perfection. But we cannot expect perfection; we can only strive toward the best possible situation. The capabilities which the child develops can best be transmitted to the community if his education is the exclusive responsibility of those whose judgement rests on a spiritual foundation. To what extent a child should be taught one thing or another can only be correctly determined within a free cultural community. How such determinations are to be made binding is also a matter for this community. The state and the economy would be able to absorb vigour from such a community, which is not attainable when the organization of cultural institutions is based on political and economic standards.
Even the schools which directly serve the state and the economy should be administered by the educators: law schools, trade-schools, agriculture and industrial colleges, all should be administered by the representatives of a free spiritual life. This book will necessarily arouse many prejudices, especially if the consequences of its thesis are considered. What is the source of these prejudices? We recognize their antisocial nature when we perceive that they originate in the unconscious belief that teachers are impractical people who cannot be trusted to assume practical responsibilities on their own. It is assumed that all organization must be carried out by those who are engaged in practical matters, and educators should act according to the terms of reference determined for them.
This assumption ignores the fact that it is just when teachers are not permitted to determine their own functions that they tend to become impractical and remote from reality. As long as the so-called experts determine the terms of reference according to which they must function, they will never be in a position to turn out practical individuals who are equipped for life by their education. The current anti-social state of affairs is the result of individuals entering society who lack social sensitivity because of their education. Socially sensitive individuals can only develop within an educational system which is conducted and administered by other socially sensitive individuals. No progress will be made towards solving the social question if we do not treat the question of education and spirit as an essential part of it. An anti-social situation is not merely the result of economic structures, it is also caused by the anti-social behaviour of the individuals who are active in these structures. It is anti-social to allow youth to be educated by people who themselves have become strangers to reality because the conduct and content of their work has been dictated to them from without.
The state establishes law-schools and requires that the law they teach be in accordance with the state's own view of jurisprudence. If these schools were established as free cultural institutions, they would derive the substance of their jurisprudence from this very culture. The state would then become the recipient of what this free spiritual life has to offer. It would be enriched by the living ideas which can only arise within such a spiritual environment. Within a spiritual life of this nature society would encounter the men and women who could grow into it on their own terms. Worldliness does not originate in educational institutions organized by so-called ‘experts’, in which impractical people teach, but only in educators who understand life and the world according to their own viewpoints. Particulars of how a free culture should organize itself are outlined in this book.
The utopian-minded will approach the book with all kinds of doubts. Anxious artists and other spiritual workers will question whether talent would be better off in a free culture than in one which is provided for by the state and economic interests, as is the case today. Such doubters should bear in mind that this book is not meant to be the least bit utopian. No hard and fast theories are found in it which say that things must be this way or that. On the contrary, its intention is to stimulate the formation of communities which, as a result of their common experience, will be able to bring about what is socially desirable. If we consider life from experience instead of theoretical preconceptions, we will agree that creative individuals would have better prospects of seeing their work fairly judged if a free cultural community existed which could act according to its own values.
The ‘social question’ is not something which has suddenly appeared at this stage of human evolution and which can be resolved by a few individuals or by some parliamentary body, and stay resolved. It is an integral part of modern civilization which has come to stay, and as such will have to be resolved anew for each moment in the world's historical development. Humanity has now entered into a phase in which social institutions constantly produce anti-social tendencies. These tendencies must be overcome each time. Just as a satiated organism experiences hunger again after a period of time, so the social organism passes from order to disorder. A food which permanently stills hunger does not exist; neither does a universal social panacea. Nevertheless, men can enter into communities in which they would be able to continuously direct their activities in a social direction. One such community is the self-governing spiritual branch of the social organism.
Observation of the contemporary world indicates that the spiritual life requires free self-administration, while the economy requires associative work. The modern economic process consists of the production, circulation and consumption of commodities. Human needs are satisfied by means of this process and human beings are directly involved in it, each having his own part-interest, each participating to the extent he is able. What each individual really needs can only be known by himself, what he should contribute he can determine through his insight into the situation as a whole. It was not always so, and it is not yet the case the world over; but it is essentially true as far as the civilized inhabitants of the earth are concerned.
Economic activity has expanded in the course of human evolution. Town economies developed from closed household economies and in turn grew into national economies. Today we stand before a global economy. Undoubtedly the new contains much of the old, just as the old showed indications of what was to come. Nevertheless, human destiny is conditioned by the fact that this process, in most fields of economic endeavour, has already been accomplished. Any attempt to organize economic forces into an abstract world community is erroneous. In the course of evolution private economic enterprise has, to a large extent, become state economic enterprise. But the political states are not merely the products of economic forces, and the attempt to transform them into economic communities is the cause of the social chaos of modern times. Economic life is striving to structure itself according to its own nature, independent of political institutionalization and mentality. It can only do this if associations, comprised of consumers, distributors and producers, are established according to purely economic criteria. Actual conditions would determine the scope of these associations. If they are too small they would be too costly; if they are too large they would become economically unmanageable. Practical necessity would indicate how inter-associational relations should develop. There is no need to fear that individual mobility would be inhibited due to the existence of associations. He who requires mobility would experience flexibility in passing from one association to another, as long as economic interest and not political organization determines the move. It is possible to foresee processes within such associations which are comparable to currency in circulation.
Professionalism and objectivity could cause a general harmony of interests to prevail in the associations. Not laws, but men using their immediate insights and interests, would regulate the production, circulation and consumption of goods. They would acquire the necessary insights through their participation in the associations; goods could circulate at their appropriate values due to the fact that the various interests represented would be compensated by means of contracts. This type of economic cooperation is quite different from that practised by the labour-unions which, although operational in the economic field, are established according to political instead of economic principles. Basically parliamentary bodies, they do not function according to economic principles of reciprocal output. In these associations there would be no ‘wage earners’ using their collective strength to demand the highest possible wages from management, but artisans who, together with management and consumer representatives, determine reciprocal outputs by means of price regulation — something which cannot be accomplished by sessions of parliamentary bodies. This is important! For who would do the work if countless man-hours were spent in negotiations about it? But with person to person, association- to association agreements, work would go on as usual. Of course it is necessary that all agreements reflect the workers' insights and the consumers' interests. This is not the description of a utopia. I am not saying how things should be arranged, but indicating how people will arrange things for themselves once they activate the type of associative communities which correspond to their own insights and interests.
Human nature would see to it that men and women unite in such economic communities, were they not prevented from doing so by state intervention, for nature determines needs. A free spiritual life would also contribute, for it begets social insights. Anyone who is in a position to consider all this from experience will have to admit that these economic associations could come into being at any moment, and that there is nothing utopian about them. All that stands in their way is modern man's obsession with the external organization of economic life. Free association is the exact opposite of this external organizing for the purpose of production. When men associate, the planning of the whole originates in the reasoning of the individual. What is the point of those who own no property associating with those who do! It may seem preferable to ‘justly’ regulate production and consumption externally. Such external planning sacrifices the free, creative initiative of the individual, thereby depriving the economy of what such initiative alone can give it. If, in spite of all prejudice, an attempt were made today to establish such associations, the reciprocal output between owners and non-owners would necessarily occur. The instincts which govern the consideration of such things nowadays do not originate in economic experience, but in sentiments which have developed from class and other interests. They were able to develop because purely economic thought has not kept pace with the complexities of modern economics. An unfree spiritual life has prevented this. The individuals who labour in industry are caught in a routine, and the formative economic forces are invisible to them. They labour without having an insight into the wholeness of human life. In the associations each individual would learn what he should know through contact with another. Through the participants' insight and experience in relation to their respective activities and their resulting ability to exercise collective judgement, knowledge of what is economically possible would arise. In a free spiritual life the only active forces are those inherent in it; in the same sense, the only economic values active in an associatively structured economic system would be those which evolve through the associations themselves. The individual's role would emerge from cooperation with his associates. He could thereby exert just as much economic influence as corresponds to his output. How the non-productive elements would be integrated into economic life will be explained in the course of the book. Only an economic system which is self-structured can protect the weak against the strong.
We have seen that the social organism can arrange itself into two autonomous members able to support each other only because each is self-governing according to its inherent nature. Between them a third element must function: the political state. Here is where each individual who is of age can make his influence and judgement felt. In free spiritual life each person works according to his particular abilities; in the economic sphere each takes his place according to his associative relationship. In the context of the political rights-state the purely human element comes into its own, insofar as it is independent of the abilities by means of which the individual is active in spiritual life, and independent of the value accrued to the goods he produces in the associative economic sphere.
I have attempted to show in this book how hours and conditions of labour are matters to be dealt with by the political rights-state. All are equal in this area due to the fact that only matters are to be treated in it about which all men are equally competent to form an opinion. Human rights and obligations are to be determined within this member of the social organism.
The unity of the whole social organism will originate in the independent development of its three members. The book will show how the effectiveness of capital, means of production and land use can be determined through the cooperation of the three members. Those who wish to ‘solve’ the social question by means of some economic scheme will find this book impractical. However, those who have practical experience and would stimulate men and women to cooperative ventures through which they can best recognize and dedicate themselves to the social tasks of the day, will perhaps not deny that the author is in fact advocating something which is in accordance with the practical facts of life.
This book was first published in 1919. As a supplement I published various articles in the magazine “Dreigliederung des Sozialen Organismus”, which subsequently appeared as a separate volume with the title “In Ausführung der Dreigliederung des Sozialen Organismus”. 1Page 21 (Preface) In Ausführung der Dreigliederung des Sozialen Organismus. These 22 essays by Rudolf Steiner, along with 44 others on the subject, are now contained in a volume entitled Aufsätze über die Dreigliederung des Sozialen Organismus (Essays on the Triformation of the Social Organism) published in 1961 by the Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach, Switzerland. In both of these publications much more emphasis is placed on the means which should be employed than on the ends, or ‘objectives’ of the social movement. If we think realistically we know that particular ends appear in diverse forms. Only when we think in abstractions does everything appear to us in clearly defined outlines. The abstract thinker will often reproach the practical realist for lack of distinctness, for not being sufficiently ‘clear’ in his presentations. Often those who consider themselves to be experts are in reality just such abstractionists. They do not realize that life can assume the most varied forms. It is a flowing element, and if we wish to move with it we must adapt our thoughts and feelings to this flowing characteristic. Social tasks can be grasped with this type of thinking. The ideas presented in this book have been drawn from an observation of life; an understanding of them can be derived from the same source.