[RSArchive Icon]
Rudolf Steiner Archive Section Name Rudolf Steiner Archive and e.Lib

Anthroposophy and the Social Question

On-line since: 10th July, 2009

There are two conflicting views in respect to the Social Question. The one regards the causes of the good and bad in social life as lying rather in men themselves; the other as lying mainly in the conditions under which men live. People who represent the first of these opinions will, in all their efforts for human progress, aim chiefly at raising men's spiritual and physical fitness, together with their moral susceptibilities; whereas those who incline more to the second view will direct their attention first and foremost to raising the standard of living; they say to themselves that if once people have the means of living decently, the level of their general fitness and moral sense will rise of itself. It will hardly be denied that this latter view is held in many circles to be the mark of a very old-fashioned turn of mind. A person, we are told, whose life from early morning till late at night is one bitter struggle with dire necessity, has no possibility of properly developing his spiritual and moral powers. First give him his daily bread before you talk to him of spiritual things.

In this first declaration there is apt to be a sting of reproach, especially when it is leveled at a movement such as the anthroposophical one. Nor are they the worst people of our times, from whom such reproaches come. They are inclined to say: “Your out-and-out occultist is very loathe to leave the planes of Devachan and Kama, and come down to common earth. He would rather know half-a-dozen Sanskrit words than condescend to learn what ‘ground-rent' is.” These very words may be read in European Civilization and the Revival of Modern Occultism, an interesting book by G. L. Dankmar, which has recently appeared.

It is not far-fetched to couch the reproach in the following form: People will point out, that in our modern age there are not infrequently families of eight persons, all huddled together in a single garret, lacking both light and air and obliged to send their children to school in such a weak and half-starved condition that they can scarcely keep body and soul together. Should not those then — they ask — who have at heart the progress and improvement of the masses, concentrate their whole endeavors on abolishing such a state of things? Instead of pondering over the principles of higher spiritual worlds, they should turn their minds to the question: What can be done to relieve the existing social distress? “Let Anthroposophy come down out of its frosty insularity amongst human beings, amongst the common people. Let it place at the forefront of its program, the ethical claim of universal brotherhood, and act accordingly, regardless of consequences. Let it turn what Christ says about loving our neighbor into a social fact and Anthroposophy will become for all time a precious and indestructible human asset.” This is pretty much what the book goes on to say.

Those people mean well who make such an objection to Anthroposophy. Indeed, we may admit that they are right, as against many of those who devote themselves to anthroposophical studies. There are undoubtedly, amongst these latter, many persons who only have their own spiritual needs at heart, who only want to know something about “the higher life”, about the fate of the soul after death, and so forth. Neither, most certainly, are people wrong in saying that at the present day it seems more needful to exercise oneself in acts of common welfare, in the virtues of neighborly love and human usefulness, rather than to sit aloof, nursing in one's soul the latent seeds of some higher faculty. Those with whom this is the foremost object may well be deemed persons of a subtilized selfishness, who let the well-being of their own soul rank before the common human virtues.

Again another remark, often to be heard, is that a spiritual movement like the anthroposophical one can, after all, only have an interest for people who are “well-off” and have “spare time” for such things; but that, when people have to keep their hands busy from morning till night for a miserable pittance, what is the use of trying to feed them up with fine talk about the common unity of man, the higher life, and the like.

There has been a good deal of sinning in this respect undoubtedly, and by zealous disciples of Anthroposophy too. And yet it is none the less true that the anthroposophic life, lived with true understanding, cannot but lead men to the virtues of self-sacrificing work for the common interest. At any rate there is nothing in Anthroposophy to hinder anyone from being every whit as good a human being as others who have no knowledge of Anthroposophy, or will have none.

But, as regards the Social Question, none of this touches the point. To arrive at the root of the matter requires very much more than the opponents of the anthroposophic movement are willing to admit. It shall be conceded to them forthwith that much can be done by means of the measures proposed on various sides for the betterment of men's social conditions. One party aims at one thing; another, at another. In all such party claims there is a great deal that any clear thinker soon discovers to be mere brain-spinning; but there is much too, undoubtedly, which, at core, is excellent.

Robert Owen (1775–1858), incontestably one of the noblest of social reformers, over and over again insists that a man is determined by the surroundings in which he grows up; that the formation of a man's character is not due to himself, but to the conditions of his life being such as he can thrive in. There can be no question of disputing the glaring truth that is contained in such maxims; still less, any desire to shrug it away contemptuously, as being more or less self-evident. On the contrary, let it be admitted at once that many things may become much better, if people will be guided in public life by the recognition of these truths. Neither will Anthroposophy, therefore, withhold anyone from taking part in such practical schemes for human progress as may aim, in the light of such truths, at bettering the lot of the depressed, poverty-stricken classes of mankind.

But — Anthroposophy must go deeper. For a thorough, radical progress can never possibly be affected by any such means as these. Anyone who disputes this has never become clear in his own mind whence those conditions of life originate, in which men find themselves placed. For, in truth, so far as a man's life is dependent on such conditions, these conditions themselves have been created by men. Who else, then, made the institutions under which one man is poor, and another rich? Other men, surely. And it really does not affect the question that these other men for the most part lived before those who are now flourishing, or not flourishing, under the conditions. The suffering which Nature, of herself alone, inflicts upon Man are, for the social state of affairs, only of indirect consideration. These natural sufferings are just what must be mitigated, if not totally removed, by human action. And if this does not happen, if what is needed in this respect is not done, then the fault lies after all with the human institutions. If we study these things to the bottom, we find that all evils which can correctly speaking be called social evils, originate also in human deeds. In this respect certainly, not the individual, but mankind as a whole, is most assuredly the “Forger of its own Fate.”

Undeniable as this is, it is no less true that, taken on a large scale, no considerable section of mankind, no one caste or class, has deliberately, with evil intentions, brought about the suffering of any other section. All the assertions that are made of this kind are based simply on lack of discernment. And although this too is really a self-obvious truth, yet it is a truth that requires stating. For although such things are obvious enough to the understanding, yet in the practice of life people are apt to take a different attitude. Every exploiter of his fellow men would naturally much prefer it, if the victims of his exploitations did not have to suffer; and it would go a long way, if people not merely took this as mentally obvious, but also adjusted their feelings accordingly.

“Well, but when you have said this, what does it all lead to?” — so many a social reformer will no doubt protest. “Do you expect the exploited to look on the exploiter with feelings of unmixed benevolence? Isn't it only too understandable that he should detest him, and that his detestation should lead him to adopt a party attitude? And what is more” — they will urge — “it would truly be but a poor remedy to prescribe the oppressed brotherly-love for his oppressor, taking for text perhaps the maxim of the great Buddha: ‘Hate is not overcome by Hate, but by Love alone.”

And yet, for all that, we touch here upon something, the recognition of which can alone lead to any real “social thinking.” And this is where the anthroposophic attitude of mind comes in. For the anthroposophic attitude of mind cannot rest content with a surface understanding; it must go to the depths. And so it cannot stop at demonstrating that such and such conditions produce social misery; but must go further, and know what it is that created these conditions, and still continues to create them, which, after all, is the only knowledge that can bear any fruit. And in the face of these deeper problems most of the social theories prove indeed very “barren theories,” not to say mere shibboleths.

So long as one's thinking only skims the surface of things, one ascribes a quite fictitious power to circumstances, indeed to externals generally. For these circumstances are simply the outer expression of an inner life. Just as a person only understands the human body when he knows that it is the outer expression of the soul, so he alone can form a right judgment of the external institutions of life who sees that they are nothing but the creations of human souls, who embody in these institutions their sentiments, their habits of mind, their thoughts. The conditions under which we live are made by our fellow-men; and we shall never ourselves make better ones, unless we set out from other thoughts, other habits of mind and other sentiments than those of the former makers.

When considering such things it is well to take particular instances. On face of it, someone may very likely appear to be an oppressor because he is able to keep a smart establishment, travel first class on the railway, and so forth. And the oppressed will be he who is obliged to wear a shabby coat and travel third. But without being a “hidebound individualist”, or a “retrograde Tory”, or anything of the sort, simple plain thinking may lead one to see this fact, namely: That no one is oppressed or exploited through my wearing one sort of coat or another; but simply from the fact of my paying the workman who makes the coat too low a wage in return. The poor workman who buys his cheap coat at a low price is, in this respect, in exactly the same position towards his fellow-men as the rich man, who has his better coat made for him. Whether I be poor or rich, I am equally an exploiter when I purchase things which are underpaid. As a matter of fact no one in these days has the right to call anyone else an oppressor; for he has only to look at himself. If he scrupulously examines his own case, he will not be long in discovering the oppressor there too. Is the work that goes to the well-to-do class the only badly-paid work I do? Why, the very man sitting next to me, and complaining with me of oppression, procures the labor of my hands on precisely the same terms as the well-to-do whom we are both attacking. Think this thoroughly out, and one finds other landmarks for one's social thinking than those in customary use.

More especially, when this line of reflection is pursued, it becomes evident that “rich” and “exploiter” are two notions that must be kept entirely distinct. Whether one is rich or poor today depends on one's own energies, or the energies of one's ancestors, or on something at any rate quite different. That one is an exploiter of other people's labor-power has nothing whatever to do with these things; or not directly at least. It has, however, very closely to do with something else: namely, it has to do with the fact that our institutions, or the conditions of our environment, are built up on personal self-interest. One must keep a very clear mind here; otherwise one will have quite a false idea of what is being actually stated. If today I purchase a coat, it seems, under existing conditions, perfectly natural that I should purchase it as cheaply as possible; that is: I have myself only in view of the transaction. And herewith is indicated the point of view from which the whole of our life is carried on.

The reply will promptly be forthcoming: “How about all the social movements? Is not the removal of this particular evil the very object for which all the parties and leaders of social reform are striving? Are they not exerting themselves for the ‘protection’ of Labor? Are not the working-class and their representatives demanding higher scales of wages and a reduction of working hours?” As was said already: from the standpoint of the present time, not the least objection is here being urged against such demands and measures. Neither, of course, is any plea hereby put forward for any one of the existing parties and programs. In particular, from the point of view with which we are here concerned no question comes in of siding with any party — whether “for” or “against”. Anything of the sort is of itself foreign to the anthroposophic way of viewing these matters.

One may introduce any number of ameliorations for the better protection of one particular class of labor, and thereby do much no doubt to raise the standard of living amongst this or that group of human beings. But the nature of the exploitation is not thereby in its essence changed nor bettered. For it depends on the fact that one man, from the aspect of self-interest, obtains for himself the labor-products of another. Whether I have too much or too little, that which I have I use to gratify my own self-interest; and thereby the other man is of necessity exploited. And though, whilst continuing to maintain this aspect, I protect his labor, yet nothing is thereby changed, save in appearances. If I pay more for his work, then he will have to pay the more for mine; unless the one's being better off is to make the other worse off.

To give another instance, by way of illustration: If I purchase a factory in order to make as much as possible for myself out of it, then I shall take care to get the necessary labor as cheaply as possible. Everything that is done will be done from the view of my personal self-interest. If, on the other hand, I purchase the factory with the view of making the best possible provision for two hundred human beings, then everything I do will take a different coloring. Practically, in the present day, there will probably be no such very great difference between the second case and the first; but that is solely because one single selfless person is powerless to accomplish very much inside a whole community built up on self-interest. Matters would stand very differently if non-self-interested labor were the general rule.

Some “practical” person will no doubt opine that mere good intentions will not go far towards enabling anyone to improve the wage-earning possibilities of his workers. Good will, after all, will not increase the returns on his manufactured articles, and, without that, it is not possible to make better terms for his workmen. Now here is just the important point: namely, to see that this argument is altogether erroneous. All interests, and therewith all the conditions of life, become different when a thing is procured not with an eye to oneself, but with an eye to the other people. What must any person look to, who is powerless to serve anything but his own private welfare? To making as much as he can for himself, when all is said and done. How others are obliged to labor, in order to satisfy his private needs, is a matter which he cannot take into consideration. And thus he is compelled to expend his powers in the fight for existence. If I start an undertaking which is to bring in as much as possible for myself, I do not enquire as to how the labor-power is set in motion that does my work. But if I myself do not come into question at all, and the only point of view is: How does my labor serve the others? — then the whole thing is changed. Nothing then compels me to undertake anything which may be of detriment to someone else. Then I place my powers not at the service of myself, but at the service of the other people. And, as a consequence, men's powers and abilities take quite a different form of expression.

How this alters the conditions of life in actual practice shall be left to the next chapter.

The Rudolf Steiner Archive is maintained by:
The e.Librarian: elibrarian@elib.com