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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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The Social Question
GA 328

I. The True Form of the Social Question

3 February 1919, Zürich

The concept contained in the words “social question” is something which thinking humanity has been occupied with for decades, occupied because this question has not only become urgent for the evolution of humanity, but it has become a burning question. In particular, one may say that the terrible war catastrophe which has broken over mankind during recent years has thrown its dark light on the social question in particular and its correlation to humanity's mobility in the immediate present.

As I wish to place the social enigma within the totality of history of more recent times I need to address in my upcoming lectures various things which are connected to the cause and course of the terrible catastrophe of war. In these introductory explorations, I only need to point out how, already at the war's starting point, it is clear how the social question works itself into every emotion of fear, clearly seen in those present at the beginning of the war. Certainly, a lot would have changed in 1914 when those who had encountered difficult decisions here or there, would no longer have stood under the fear of the question: ‘What will happen if the social movement becomes increasingly pertinent?’ Much which has crystallized out of this so-called war has sprung out of fear on the one hand and under complete misunderstanding of some leading personalities regarding the social question, on the other. Things would have developed in a different way if this fear and misunderstanding were not there. Then again, in the course of the war we see how personalities, who are active within the social movement, call for hope in themselves and others to activate the actual possibility towards restoring balance in the disharmony which has entered in such a shocking way into people's lives. Now, because these tragic events have infiltrated in a type of crisis, we see specific results have been left in the conquered countries: the most urgent necessity to take a stand towards the social question and to intervene in the social demands appearing in the history of this time.

Out of all of this, a thinking person viewing life at present, who wants to become familiar with present day habits, can gather how something appears in the social question which all members of humanity have been occupied with for an extremely long time. Just at this moment when, as we said, solutions to the social question are promoted in these conquered countries, something like tragedy is stored in the largest part of civilised humanity.

By looking at the spiritual efforts, at literature and anything similar which for many decades have appeared within meetings and in discussions with the intention of relating them to the social question, it appears as an immense amount of human labour in the minds of mankind. Never before has the social question been approached with such liveliness as today. Today the social demands are apparent in life itself. Despite all efforts, penetrating thoughts, despite the best will being shown in the last decades which have been instilled in capabilities, it was still insufficient to deal with the social question as it comes to the fore in its true form today when placed before the life of the human soul. Something unbelievably tragic is stored against the efforts of present day humanity. Something on which humanity has been preparing itself for such a long time, now met only those who one would like to believe had authority, but for which they were apparently quite unprepared.

For those who weren't occupied with the social question from the viewpoint of theoretical science, nor out of mere notions and not from one sided party views in the last decades, those would have discovered that the most powerful contradictions of life in just these areas always come to light. Perhaps the following is one of the most obvious contradictions in the areas of social life which has come forward. Much has been heard in discussion, much can be read by people whose lives are orientated towards the modern social movement. When within the midst of a discussion, standing within the will of a modern workforce itself one always has the feeling: Yes, here various things are discussed regarding many questions and various life forces. There is an attempt to give one or the other impulse a direction. However, in what one could call social will is something completely different to what is spoken about. Regarding any kind of event in life, no can one come to a clearer feeling than this: a more or less greater role is played by the subconscious, undeclared elements than what comes to the fore through apparently clear concepts delivered in a sober discussion. Here is the point where one can find the connection and not doubt the attempt in approaching the social question from a specific point of view.

Here in Zurich and in other Swiss towns I have often spoken about the question of spiritual science. From the standpoint of spiritual scientific research, I have also approached the social question for decades. If you hear about people who consider themselves practical you can certainly doubt that a convincing result will solve some relevant question out of simple spiritual research. Only contradiction, which I have pointed out in the striving within social life, drives away this doubt. One sees how important personalities within the social movement smile when the argument turns to people's desire to find a solution for the social question out of this or that spiritual effort; they smile because for them it is an ideology, a grey theory. Out of thoughts, out of mere spiritual life, so they think, nothing can be attributed towards the burning social question of the present. However, if you look more closely then it becomes obvious how the actual nerve, the actual foundation for the modern-day proletarian movement does not lie in what they are talking about, but it lies in their thoughts.

The modern proletarian movement is, perhaps like no other similar movement in the world — when one looks more closely it strikes you in the most imminent way — a movement born out of thoughts. This I don't say purely out of consideration. If I'm permitted to add a personal remark it would be this: For years I have taught in an educational school among the most varied branches of proletarian workers. I learnt to know what lives and strives in the souls of the modern proletarian worker. From this I came to recognise what lived in the labour unions in the most varied occupations and range of professions. Thus, not only from the point of view of theoretic consideration like in a clever play of words do I want to express it, but as the result of a real experience in life. Whosoever — this is so seldom the case in leading intellectuals — has learnt to know the modern worker's movement, where it is carried by the workers, will know what a wonderful phenomenon this is, how a certain direction of thought, a certain stream of thought has taken hold of these souls. It is this which makes it so difficult today to take a position regarding the social question, because such a small possibility exists for the understanding, the mutual understanding of the classes. The middle class has difficulty in placing themselves into the souls of the proletarians, they can hardly understand how it came about, one could call it, that a still unknown mind with an elementary intelligence could find a place such as this — be as it may towards this content — that one can have human thought develop the highest measure for an applied system, like the philosophy of Karl Marx.

Certainly, the philosophy of Karl Marx can be accepted by one and rejected by another, perhaps on the same grounds as the other. It may well be revised later for those observing social life after the death of Marx and his friend Engels. I do not wish to speak about the content of this philosophy at all. The most important for me is the fact presented: there worked a forceful thought impulse within the workforce, within the proletarian world. Added to this, one can express it in the following way: a practical movement, a pure philosophy of life with universal human claims has never stood nearly as totally alone based on a purely scientific thought as this modern proletarian movement. It is to some extent the first of its kind of movement in the world based purely on a scientific basis. Nevertheless, if all of this is considered — I've already indicated it — what the modern proletarian expresses about his personal thoughts, desires and experiences seem hardly important when considered through a penetrating examination of life.

Many people have fiercely shown how this modern proletarian social movement originated from the evolution of humanity during the last few centuries. Vehemently it was shown how the development of modern technology in particular, through the development of the modern nature of machines, actually created the proletariat in the modern sense; how through even the forceful scientific turnaround of the new time, it created the social question. Other sharp criticisms about the origin of the social question I do not wish to repeat. However, it seems important to me to characterize the present contradictions in this modern proletarian movement. Certainly, it is important that without the enormous turnaround, without the technical revolution of the new age the modern social movement could not have come to expression to such an extent. However intensively as its origins are claimed out of purely scientific impulses, out of economic powers, out of class clashes and out of class struggles, what is obvious in social life today does not stand as coming from mere scientific oppositions, mere scientific forces if considered through penetrating soul observations of the modern proletariat. Those who are familiar with a spiritual scientific approach who considers all that is human, the refinements and intimacies of soul life, even though these carriers of the soul life are often not conscious, for them it is clear that nothing which is technically or scientifically created has an importance in today's social question but that the facts are important which relate to the entirely different interrelationships in life where some people are involved with machines in the realm of big capitalist enterprises. Through this placement something is awakened in these people that are not directly related to what surrounds them and the economic situation in which they are involved. What is awakened in them is far more connected to the deepest lifetime habits of modern humanity.

If history is only considered in this way, as it wants to do now again in the newer time out of social science which says results follow from what went before — processes always refer to earlier causes — it indicates that forces of change and evolution are not considered as being alive in reality, but are being seen as mere cause and effect — one could call it the sober, arid connection of cause and effect expressed at certain points of its revolutionary development.

Take a single example in human development. For my sake let's take, if we may call it ‘successive’ development, what happens between birth and the first change of teeth. An enormous transformation takes place in the human body. Just observe what develops during this period of life. There is no obvious straight line connecting cause and effect. Then again, we can consider what happens between the seventh and fourteenth years, fifteen years and so on, in order to follow a straight line of development from cause to effect. Now again a revolutionary formation in the human body takes place towards adolescence. These changes are less obvious later but they are there. Just like such things happen which ruin the repetition of comfortable but inaccurate claims that Nature makes no jumps, jumps that take place in single organisms, it does appear in the historical evolution of humanity. In the time between the middle of the 14th and 15th centuries up to today you have quite powerful evolutionary processes taking place in human consciousness itself.

Just as a single human organism becomes something different after puberty than in the specific direction it had been going before, just so the human social organism has become something different after the elementary, underlying aspects have been validated by not merely following the straight line of cause and effect. Whoever wishes to observe history knows that before present time, humanity reacted instinctively but that now we enter our present time in full consciousness, it must be approached with full awareness. Due to this the social movement takes on a particular characteristic, expressed in a word which does not characterise it intensively enough: proletarian class consciousness. With this expression ‘proletarian class consciousness’ one should take less into account that it points to a necessary battle where proletarians get mixed up with other classes but rather much more that the social instincts which lived in the souls of the proletarians earlier, have now been transformed into a social awareness. Earlier, class instinct existed. Now the basis of the social movement is class consciousness.

This class consciousness, one could say, is only superficially indicated when one takes the wording: proletarian class consciousness. What is hidden in this expression ‘proletarian class consciousness’ is something quite different. It could be said — when one wants to briefly characterise this serious fact — within the relationships of historical occupations, for example expressed in the handwork or other crafts of olden days, lies specific social instincts which shone through human souls and worked out of human souls. These instincts enabled a process to be brought about between the way people thought, felt and acted, what they treasured for their honour, their joy and their aesthetic needs. This work itself gave something to the people.

When people were introduced to machines, when they entered into the totally impersonal mechanism of modern capitalism, it was no longer clearly transparent how the remuneration for the human performance was evaluated but monetary increase of capital became most important, so people were driven on the one side by the power of machines and on the other side into modern capitalistic economic regulations, having been torn out of their present day relationship to the world and life which gave them something personal, something towards personal joy, personal honour and personal will impulses. They were to some extent placed on the pinnacle of the personal beside the machine, within the purely objective, impersonal circulation of goods and capital, which they did not basically care for on a human personal level. However, the human soul always strives for fulfilment, wants to unfold its entire circumference. The workers, torn from their characterised other relationships in life, were torn loose from a full human life and were urged to reflect about human dignity, urged to recreate human dignity.

So, hidden behind what we called proletarian class consciousness in modern history's evolution was actually a dawning, a brightening up of a self-created human consciousness out of the souls of the people. Steering the consciousness gave rise to the question: What am I as a human being? What meaning do I have as a human being in the world? — Experiencing this gave the opportunity to proletarians while being positioned beside machines denying humanity, next to capital denying humanity.

I do still believe that the entire consideration of the social question is placed on another basis if one thinks that, while the rest of humanity more or less out of the context of their lives were not brought out of old instincts as radically and revolutionarily and drawn into the modern consciousness, the modern proletarian radically entered into a conscious understanding of themselves, whereas before they had been driven by instincts and human dignity for individuals in the community.

The arrival of consciousness in the soul of proletarians is connected to all kinds of other things which appeared earlier in human evolution. Its arrival coincides with certain steps in human thought, with certain steps in human development. Basically, the historical development of humanity is poorly understood. The historical development of humanity is basically always approached from one or other party. Whoever considers humanity's development objectively often sees it as completely different from how statements are made about this development. One can also say that whoever looks at what presently enjoys the most authority today, namely science, knows, anything proven with absolute objectivity has developed out of a previous element and clearly carries indications of its origin which can in turn take on other forms. If you look at science and its brilliant methods, at its endless conscientious research, so suitable at penetrating the phenomena of nature, then you see that the most pervasive statement it has to admit to is that basically it is hardly appropriate for understanding the deepest, most intimate human feelings and experiences, that it has little to say about actual concerns of the human being when he or she turns their gaze to self-knowledge and mindfulness. Science itself has also to some extent torn itself away from human beings. It no longer carries a personal character and it no longer speaks about the spiritual, super-sensory or eternal in human beings. If science does mention it then it is clearly shown as is the fashion today, that it neither has the corresponding methods nor the corresponding ways to research it.

One can look back to a time when the form of science within the development of humanity was fully integrated in the religious conception of life, with religious experience and scientific observation. The two separated. What was once united split around the same time when this revolution towards objectivity started, the time of machines, when modern capitalism found expression. At the time of this radical scientific change it was also the time religious evolution came to a standstill and did not want to cooperate with scientific developments. At the time Giordano Bruno became criticized over Galileo Galilei (heliocentrism), remnants remained of a withdrawal from intimate human experiences and feelings which needed expression about nature and the world as such. Humanity lost the belief that knowledge could be penetrated with a religious glow, with religious warmth. Today one is proud that science can remain free from all that is blameworthy in religion. During this time when science freed itself more and more from religion, wanting to become free of the spirit, into this time came the development of the proletarian consciousness, the apprehension of the human consciousness through the Proletariat.

Proletarianism penetrated into modern thinking, into modern intelligence, which can be grasped by human intelligence. It founded a science which no longer had the impact to capture and fulfil the whole human being. This resulted in the modern Proletariat having a specific form. The spiritual awareness of humanity, the spiritual consciousness of earlier classes which existed in earlier times lost the impact and human circumstances more or less were delivered to abstract science. Thus, the Proletarians in this new time saw science in opposition to their souls, science which did not instil trust that something can come out of it as a most true, inner spiritual reality living in the outer sensory, scientific activity. This was the type of science the Proletarian confronted, was set against. It lived into human beings. From the spiritual evolutionary basis, something rose up and today appears as a naturalness, as an absolute truth, which can only be recognised in its true nature if you have the ability to see what is happening in the soul of a person. An observer with deeper insight is moved the most by the manner and way which the modern Proletarian talk about actual spiritual affairs, about customs, morality, art, religion, even about science within evolution, that all of this is included by expressions of ideals. This is the most moving. In particular, it is most moving to know that the modern Proletarian clearly believes that everything, from thought, artistic creativity and religious experience actually arises out of the human soul as a falsely created image, an ideology. The actual reality is however scientific battles, economic causes; they represent reality. The reflection within the soul is human evolution, considered as ideological. At least this throws an impulse back into the pure materialistic reality of economic events. Even though it works back on economic events, it still has had its origins developed out of economic events.

This statement about spiritual life living in the modern proletarian question was something far more real than what is thought. Why have art, customs, morality, religion and the spiritual life of the modern Proletarian become an ideology? Because earlier ruling circles presented a science which no longer wanted to uphold a living relationship with the actual spiritual world, a science which no longer pointed to an impulse directed at actual spirituality. Such a science can at most lead to abstract concepts of natural laws. It can lead to nothing other than seeing the spiritual as an ideology. It produces methods which are only suitable on the one side for the purely objective, non-human nature and within human life only as economic events. When the modern proletarian had to take over this direction of science, his gaze was as if conquered by a mighty suggestive power which can only be linked to such a science; the economic life. He now started to believe that this economic life could be the only reality because for him from a civil class, science becomes the directive as the only truth for his economic life.

This was an unbelievably critical element because this gave the proletarian movement its actual characteristic impulse. One can see how old instincts within this proletarian movement were still present, even in the last decades of the 19th Century. One still finds in some proletarian programs such items of discussion on the awareness of man's worth, the preoccupation of rights leading to such real worthiness. Since the nineties we see under the influence of this impulse which I've just mentioned, how the Proletarians and their learned advocate glances appear as a powerful persuasive force linked to economic life. They no longer believed a spiritual or soul element from elsewhere needed to enter as an impetus into the realm of the social movement. They believed that only through the development of the un-spiritual, economic life void of soul could a sense of man's worth be brought about. They aimed at revolutionizing economic life to such a degree that all the harm resulting from egoism of single workers in private enterprise would be taken from them and single employers doing justice to the demands of human worth from the side of the employees made impossible. Thus, the Proletarians considered the only salvation to be the transfer of all private property towards a means of production in a communal business or else a common ownership. In addition, this depended basically upon people deviating their gaze from any spiritual or soul elements, regarding the spiritual as mere ideology when there was a purely scientific method, firmly established, which could be steered towards a pure economic process.

A very peculiar fact now transpired, showing how many contradictions lay in this modern proletarian movement. The modern Proletarian believed that the economy itself had to develop in such a way as to finally become a full human right. To acquire human rights as it appeared to him, was what he fought for. However, within his aspiration something appeared which could never have originated if it came only out of economic life. This is an important, penetrating fact of discourse at the centre of various forms of the social question arising from life's necessities of present day humanity which was believed to have come out of economic life itself, but which did not originate from economic life but developed much more during the gradual evolution of the old serfdom of bodily possession during the feudal times leading up to the modern proletarian worker. Just as the circulation of goods, circulation of money, the nature of capital, possession, the nature of land and grounds and so on has developed something out of modern life which cannot be expressed clearly by the modern Proletarian, it is nevertheless clearly experienced as the actual foundation of social will. It is like this: the modern capitalistic economic order basically only knows about its goods within its areas of circulation. It knows about building wealth of goods within the economic organism. It is within the capitalistic organism of the newer age where it has become goods, but the Proletariat feels it may not be goods. However, if he focuses scientifically on economic life he can't say anything but: “It is goods.” That is in other words his own labour.

When a person realizes where the basic impulse of the social movement comes from, with his subconscious experiences through his instincts as a modern Proletariat, a disgust grows towards this idea that labour is sold to the employee just like goods, this disgust grows because his labour is dependent on supply and demand, it comes down to disgust for the labour commodity as the actual basic impulse of the modern social movement, when this is impartially considered and not penetrated and radically spoken about adequately as socialistic theories then the point is reached which gives rise to the urgent, nay burning question regarding the social movement.

In olden times, there were slaves. An entire person was sold as goods. In serfdom, a little less of a person was sold, but still nearly the whole person. Capital became the power which made people a form of goods, namely labour. A method needs to be found for dividing the rest of the circulation of goods with labour as goods. Humanity will only realize what hides behind this fact when the economy is not considered through persuasion but through quite another method, when applied to the human being itself, is understood, not out of economy but quite something different flowing in a way which distances the human worker away from the nature of goods. People must realise — and here spiritual scientific research is available as a basis — that the belief is wrong that through the consideration of only the economic system which only fits the scientific method, the way can be found of how the labour of individuals can become members of the social organism. Only when the understanding is reached that labour belongs to the economic system as much as processes in the lung-, heart- and circulatory systems are the same as in the nerves and head system, then one is on the same track. The nervous system and senses centralised in the head is an independent member of the human organism. The lung and heart system are also independent members. Similarly, with the digestive system. These things can be studied more precisely in my book Riddles of the Soul. It is characteristic of the human organism that through their correct development and processes they are not centralised but exist beside one another and work freely together. If one can't understand the human organism in this all-inclusive, penetrating way, then one could through science, which has not been renewed and needs spiritual science to reform it, not understand the social organism correctly. Today it is believed that the human organism is centralised, while it is in fact threefold.

In the same way, the social organism is threefold. Today the powerful persuasion considered as the economic system, is only one member. Another member which needs to come out of this is an understanding of the function of human labour in the entire structure of the social organism. The two systems need to exist side by side. The attribute linked to goods by the labour force is wrongly given by modern thinking. This narrow minded, modern thinking which needs to place the third independent member into the social organism, the spiritual life, is made into a mere ideology. The theoretical view that spirituality is mere ideology, is the most harmless. The important element is that people who have the point of view that the spirit is not rooted at the base of all things in reality, but that it's only an ideology, can't be the real spiritual impulse. Such a person has no interest in his spiritual life allocating his true role in the world. By examining the more modern necessities of life in the proletarian consciousness then one finds no possible insight in the three aspects of the social organism. It was lost to them. Nationalization was striven for because it was believed to be the only social organization which could conquer everything. Spiritual scientific awareness may reveal a wider horizon as even today in this burning time of appointed leaders it is often given with reference to the social question. It needs to be pointed out that what is, is really needed is the necessity to renew thinking, the necessity to not only develop a scientific way of observing social life which is being substituted by traditional science but that it is necessary to recreate a science, a new way of thinking which will become a reality in the social organism, in human consciousness. This will have to lead to so much unhappiness in modern times being removed from consciousness. Those who do not work theoretically but out of life itself, as I believe they have done so during this hour, are also dispatched and made harmless by those who call themselves practical, by saying: ‘Oh, from such theoretical things nothing advantageous comes into the world.’ These people who practice practicality for life, who are the real members of abstractions, these people whose practice is nothing other than the limitation of their senses by the narrowest boundaries, these have caused a multitude of bad luck and catastrophes lately. If they are able to economise further in all party directions, misfortunes will not come to an end but will spread out immensely. The real life-practitioners must maintain their proper positions in the public sphere and speak about developmental possibilities in the spatial and temporal social organism as in the case of every single human being. These real life-practitioners who speak out of a deeper reality are the ones upon whom we may depend. They are the ones who do not need to disbelieve their own knowledge. However, as practical people, also socialistic life practitioners, they see their suffering and their regret on the other side with only the belief that it will lead nowhere else other than to the depletion of life. Those who as life practitioners want to work out of the spirit, strive out of reality towards viable reality.

Regarding the sense in which solutions can be found to the question I attempted out of newer habits of today and revealing their true form, how attempts at finding solutions could be proven on the basis of an examination of the reality of social life and the community's structure of humanity, I will allow myself to speak about, the day after tomorrow.