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



Anthroposophy and the Social Question

On-line since: 10th July, 2009


Robert Owen, already mentioned in this essay, who lived from 1771 to 1858, may in a sense be designated a genius of practical social activity. He possessed two qualities which may well justify this designation: a circumstantial eye for institutions of social utility, and a noble love of mankind. One has only to look at what he was able to accomplish by means of these two faculties, in order to esteem them at their due value.

He started, in New Lanark, model industries, in which he managed to employ the workers in such a way that they not only enjoyed a decent human existence in material respects, but also lived their lives under conditions that satisfied the moral sense. Those who were collected together in this place were in part people who had come down in the world and taken to drink. Amongst such as these Owen introduced better elements, whose example had a good influence on the others. The results thus obtained were beneficial in the highest degree. This achievement of Owen's makes it impossible to class him with the usual type of more of less fantastic “world-regenerator,” — Utopians, as they are termed. For it is characteristic of Owen that he kept within the lines of what was practicable and confined himself to schemes that could be put into actual execution, and which the most hard-headed person, averse to everything fanciful, might reasonably expect to do something towards abolishing human misery within a small and limited field. Nor was there anything unpractical in cherishing the belief that this small field might perhaps serve as a model, and in course of time give the incentive towards a healthy evolution of man's human lot in the social direction.

Owen himself must have thought so; he ventured a step further along the same road. In 1824, he set to work to create a sort of little model State in the Indiana district of North America. He obtained possession of a piece of territory with the intention of founding there a human community based upon freedom and equality. Every provision was made for rendering exploitation and enserfment impossible. The man who embarks on such an enterprise must bring to it the finest social virtues; the longing to make his fellow-men happy, and faith in the goodness of human nature. He must believe that the love of work will of itself grow up with man's nature, once the benefits of his work seem to be secured by the needful institutions. In Owen this faith was so firmly seated that the experience must have been disastrous indeed that could shake it.

And ... the experiences were, in fact, disastrous. After prolonged and heroic efforts, Owen was brought at last to the confession that: — Until one has effected a change in the general moral standard, all attempts to realize such colonies are bound to meet with failure; and that it is more worthwhile to try and influence mankind by the way of theory, rather than of practice. To such an opinion was this social reformer driven by the fact that there proved to be no lack of “work-shys,” who desired nothing better than to shoulder their work onto their neighbors; which inevitably led to disputes and quarrels and, finally, to the bankruptcy of the colony.

There is much to be learnt from this experience of Owen's by all who are really willing to learn. It may lead the way from all artificially devised schemes for the benefit of mankind to really fruitful social work that reckons with matter of fact.

These experiences were enough to cure Owen radically of the belief that human misery is solely caused by the “bad institutions” under which men live, and that the goodness of human nature would manifest itself without more ado, once these institutions were reformed. He was forced to the conviction that any good institution is only so far maintainable as the human beings concerned are disposed by their own inner nature to its maintenance and are themselves warmly attached to it.

One's first idea might be that what is necessary is to give some preparatory theoretical instruction to the people for whom such institutions are being established; by demonstrating, perhaps, the appropriateness and utility of the measures proposed. To an unprejudiced mind this might seem a fairly obvious conclusion to be drawn from Owen's admission. Yet, for the really practical lesson to be learnt from it, one must go deeper into the matter. One must pass on beyond that mere faith in the goodness of human nature, by which Owen was misled, to a real knowledge of man. People may learn to perceive ever so clearly that certain institutions are practical and would be of benefit to mankind; but the clearest possible perception of this will not suffice in the long run to carry them through to the goal proposed. This kind of perception, clear as it may be, cannot supply a man with the inner impulses that will make him work, when the instincts that are based in egoism assert themselves upon the other side. This egoism is there, once for all, as a part of human nature; and consequently it begins to stir within the feeling of every human being, when he is called upon to live and work together with others in the social community. Thus, as a kind of inevitable sequence, most people practically will consider that form of social institution the best which best allows each individual to gratify his own wants. So that the social question quite naturally under the influence of these egoistic feelings comes to assume the form: What particular social institutions must be devised, in order that each person may secure the proceeds of his labor for himself? Few people, especially in our age of materialistic thinking, start from any other assumption. How often may one not hear it stated, as a truth beyond question, that it would be a thing against all nature to try and constitute a society on principles of good-will and human kindliness. People are much more ready to go on the principle that a human community will, as a whole, be most prosperous, when it also allows the individual to reap and garner the full — or the largest possible — proceeds of his own labor.

Exactly the contrary, however, is taught by Anthroposophy, which is founded on a more profound knowledge of man and the world. Anthroposophy, in fact, shows that all human suffering is purely a consequence of egoism, and that in every human community, at some time or other, suffering, poverty, and want must of necessity arise, if this community is founded in any way upon egoism. Fully to recognize this, however, requires knowledge of considerably greater depth than much that sails about under the flag of “Social Science”. For this so-called Social Science only takes account of the exterior surface of human life, not of the deeper-seated forces that move it. Indeed, with the majority of people of the present day it is hard to arouse so much as even a feeling that there can be a question of any such deeper-seated forces at all; and anyone who talks to them of anything of the sort is looked upon as a dreamer and a “crank”. Nor can there here be any attempt made to elaborate a scheme of society based upon deeper, underlying forces. To do so adequately would need a whole book. All that can be done is to indicate the true laws of human co-operation and to show what, therefore, will be the reasonable points for consideration in social matters for one who is acquainted with these laws. A full comprehension of the subject is only possible for someone who works his way through to a world-conception based upon Anthroposophy. And this whole magazine is an endeavor to convey such a world-conception; one cannot expect to learn it from a single essay on the Social Question. All that one such essay can attempt to do is to throw a searchlight on this question from the anthroposophic standpoint. Briefly as the subject must be dealt with, there will, at any rate, always be some people whose feeling will lead them to recognize the truth of what it is impossible to discuss in all its fullness here.

There is, then, a fundamental social law which Anthroposophy teaches us and which is as follows:

In a community of human beings working together, the well-being of the community will be the greater, the less the individual claims for himself the proceeds of the work he has himself done; i.e. the more of these proceeds he makes over to his fellow workers, and the more his own requirements are satisfied not out of his own work done, but out of work done by the others.

Every institution in a community of human beings that is contrary to this law will inevitably engender in some part of it, after a while, suffering and want. It is a fundamental law which holds good for all social life with the same absoluteness and necessity as any law of nature within a particular field of natural causation. It must not be supposed, however, that it is sufficient to acknowledge this law as one for general moral conduct, or to try and interpret it into the sentiment that everyone should work for the good of his fellow-men. No — this law only finds its living, fitting expression in actual reality, when a community of human beings succeeds in creating institutions of such a kind that no one can ever claim the results of his own labor for himself, but that they all, to the last fraction, go wholly to the benefit of the community. And he, again, must himself be supported in return by the labors of his fellow-men. The important point is, therefore, that working for one's fellow-men, and the object of obtaining so much income, must be kept apart, as two separate things.

The self-styled “practical people” will, of course — the Anthroposophist is under no illusion about it! — have nothing but a smile for such “outrageous idealism”. And yet this law is more really practical than any that ever was devised or enacted by the practicians. For, as a matter of actual life, that every human community that exists, or ever has existed anywhere, possesses two sorts of institutions, of which the one is in accordance with this law, and the other contrary to it. It is bound to be so everywhere, whether men will, or no. Every community, indeed, would fall to pieces at once, if the work of the individual did not pass over into the whole body. But human egoism again has from of old run counter to this law, and sought to extract as much as possible for the individual out of his own work. And what has come about in this way, as a consequence of egoism, this it is, and nothing else, that from old has brought want and poverty and suffering in its train; which is as good as saying that a part of human institutions will always and inevitably prove to be unpractical which owes its existence to “practicians” who calculated either on the basis of their own egoism, or the egoism of others.

Now obviously with a law of this kind, all is not said and done when one has merely recognized its existence. The real, practical part begins with the question: How is one to translate this law into actual fact? Obviously, what it says amounts to this: Man's welfare is the greater, in proportion as egoism is the less. Which means, that for its practical translation into reality one must have people who can find the way out of their egoism. Practically, however, this is quite impossible, if the individual's share of weal and woe is measured according to his labor. He who labors for himself cannot help but gradually fall a victim to egoism. Only one who labors solely and entirely for the rest can, little by little, grow to be a worker without egoism.

But there is one thing needed to begin with. If any man works for another, he must find in this other man the reason for his work; and if any man works for the community, he must perceive and feel the meaning and value of this community, and what it is as a living, organic whole. He can only do this when the community is something other and quite different from a more or less indefinite totality of individual men. It must be informed by an actual spirit in which each single person has his part. It must be such that each single one says: The communal body is as it should be, and I will that it be thus. The whole communal body must have a spiritual mission, and each individual member of it must have the will to contribute towards the fulfilling of this mission. All the vague progressive ideas, the abstract ideals, of which people talk so much, cannot present such a mission. If there be nothing but these as a guiding principle, then one individual here, or one group there, will be working without any clear comprehension of what use there is in their work, except its being to the advantage of their families, or of those particular interests to which they happen to be attached. In every single member, down to the least, this Spirit of the Community must be alive and active.

Wherever, in any age, anything good has thriven, it has only been where in some manner this life of a communal spirit was realized. The individual citizen of a Greek city in ancient days, even the citizen too of a “Free City” in medieval times, had at least a dim sense of some such communal spirit. The fact is not affected because, in Ancient Greece for instance, the appropriate institutions were only made possible by keeping a host of slaves, who did the manual labor for the “free citizens”, and were not induced to do so by the communal spirit, but compelled to it by their masters. This is an instance from which only one thing may be learnt: namely, that man's life is subject to evolution. And at the present day mankind has reached a stage when such a solution of the associative problem as found acceptance in Ancient Greece has become impossible. Even by the noblest Greeks, slavery was not regarded as an injustice, but as a human necessity; and so even the great Plato could hold up as an ideal a state in which the communal spirit finds its realization by the majority, the working people, being compelled to labor at the dictation of the few wise ones. But the problem of the present day is how to introduce people into conditions under which each will, of his own inner, private impulse, do the work of the community.

No one, therefore, need try to discover a solution of the social question that shall hold good for all time, but simply to find the right form for his social thoughts and actions, in view of the immediate needs of the times in which he is now living. Indeed, there is today no theoretic scheme which could be devised or carried into effect by any one person, which in itself could solve the social question. For this he would need to possess the power to force a number of people into the conditions which he had created. Most undoubtedly, had Owen possessed the power of the will to compel all the people of his colony to do their share of the labor, then the thing would have worked. But we have to do with the present day; and in the present day any such compulsion is out of the question. Some possibility must be found of inducing each person, of his own free will, to do that which he is called upon to do according to the measure of his particular powers and abilities, But, for this very reason, there can be no possible question of ever trying to work upon people theoretically, in the sense suggested by Owen's admission, by merely indoctrinating them with a view as to how social conditions might best be arranged. A bald economic theory can never act as a force to counteract the powers of egoism. For a while, such an economic theory may sweep the masses along with a kind of impetus that, to all outward appearance, resembles the enthusiasm of an ideal. But in the long run it helps nobody. Anyone who inoculates such a theory into a mass of human beings, without giving them some real spiritual substance along with it, is sinning against the real meaning of human evolution.

There is only one thing which can be of any use; and that is a spiritual world-conception, which, of its own self, through that which it has to offer, can make a living home in the thoughts, in the feelings, in the will — in a man's whole soul, in short. That faith which Owen had in the goodness of human nature is only true in part; in part, it is one of the worst of illusions. It is true to the extent that in every man there slumbers a “higher self”, which can be awakened. But the bonds of its sleep can only be dispelled by a world-conception of the character described. One may induce men into conditions such as Owen devised, and the community will prosper in the highest and fairest sense. But if one brings men together, without their having a world-conception of this kind, then all that is good in such institutions will, sooner or later, inevitably turn to bad. With people who have no world-conception centered in the spirit it is inevitable that just those institutions which promote men's material well-being will have the effect of also enhancing egoism, and therewith, little by little, will engender want, poverty and suffering. For it may truly be said in the simplest and most literal sense of the words: The individual man you may help by simply supplying him with bread; a community you can only supply with bread by assisting it to a world-conception. Nor indeed would it be of any use to try and supply each individual member of the community with bread; since, after a while, things would still take such a form that many would again be breadless.

The recognition of these principles, it is true, means the loss of many an illusion for various people, whose ambition it is to be popular benefactors. It makes working for the welfare of society no light matter — one too, of which the results, under circumstances, may only be composed of a collection of quite tiny part-results. Most of what is given out today by whole parties as panaceas for social life loses its value and is seen to be a mere bubble and hollow phrase, lacking in due knowledge of human life. No parliament, no democracy, no big popular agitation, none of all these things can have any sense for a person who looks at all deeper, if they violate the law stated above; whereas everything of the kind may work for good, if it works on the lines of this law. It is a mischievous delusion to believe that some particular persons, sent up to some parliament as delegates from the people, can do anything for the good of mankind, unless their whole line of activity is in conformity with this, the fundamental social law.

Wherever this law finds outward expression, wherever anyone is at work along its lines — so far as is possible for him in that position in which he is placed within the human community — there good results will be attained, though it be but in the one single instance and in ever so small a measure. And it is only a number of individual results, attained in this way, that together combine to healthy collective progress throughout the whole body of society.

There exist, certainly, particular cases where bigger communities of men are in possession of some special faculty, by aid of which a bigger result could be attained all at once in this direction. Even today there exist definite communities, in whose special dispositions something of the kind is already preparing. These people will make it possible for mankind, by their assistance, to make a leap forward, to accomplish as it were a jump in social evolution. Anthroposophy is well acquainted with such communities, but does not find itself called upon to discuss these things in public. There are means, too, by which large masses of mankind can be prepared for a leap of this kind, which may possibly even be made at no very distant time. What, however, can be done by everyone is to work on the lines of this law within his own sphere of action. There is no position in the world that man can occupy where this is not possible, be it to all appearance ever so obscure, nor yet so influential.

But the principal and most important thing is, undoubtedly, that every individual should seek the way to a world-conception directed towards real knowledge of the Spirit. In Anthroposophy we have a spiritual movement which can grow and become for all men a world-conception of this kind, provided it continues to develop further in the form proper to its own teachings and to its own inherent possibilities. Anthroposophy may be the means of each man's learning to see that it is not a mere chance that he happens to be born in a particular place at a particular time, but that he has been put of necessity by the law of spiritual causation — by Karma — just in the place where he is; he learns to recognize that it is his own fitting and well-founded fate which has placed him amidst that human community in which he finds himself. His own powers and capacities too will become apparent to him, as not allotted by blind hazard, but as having their good meaning in the law of cause and effect.

And he learns to perceive all this in such a way that the perception does not remain a mere matter of cold reason, but gradually comes to fill his whole soul with inner life.

The outcome of such understanding will be no shadowy idealism but a mighty pulse of new life throughout all a man's powers. And this way of acting will be looked on by him as being as much a matter of course as, in another respect, eating and drinking is. Further, he will learn to see the meaning in the human community to which he belongs. He will comprehend his own community's relation to other human communities, and how it stands towards them; and thus the several spirits of all these communities will piece themselves together to a purposeful spiritual design, a picture of the single, united mission of the whole human race. And from the human race his mind will travel on to an understanding of the whole earth and its existence. Only a person who refuses to contemplate any such view of the world can harbor a doubt that it will have the effects here described.

At the present day, it is true, most people have but little inclination to enter upon such things. But the time will not fail to come, when the anthroposophic way of thinking will spread in ever- widening circles. And in measure as it does so, men will take the right practical steps to effect social progress. There can be no reason for doubting this on the presumption that no world-conception yet has ever brought about the happiness of mankind. By the laws of mankind's evolution it was not possible for that to take place at an earlier time, which, from now on, will gradually become possible. Not until now could a world-conception with the prospect of this kind of practical result be communicated to all and every man. All the previous world-conceptions until now were accessible to particular groups of human beings only. Nevertheless, everything that has taken place for good as yet in the human race has come from its world-conception. Universal welfare is only attainable through a world-conception that shall lay hold upon the souls of all men and fire the inner life within them. And this the anthroposophic form of conception will always have the power to do, wherever it is really true to its own inherent possibilities.

To recognize the justice of this, it will of course not do to look simply at the form which such conceptions have so far assumed. One must recognize that Anthroposophy has still to expand and grow to the full height of its cultural mission. So far, Anthroposophy cannot show the face that it will one day wear, and this for many reasons. One of the reasons is, that it must first find a foothold. Consequently, it must address itself to a particular group of human beings; and this group can naturally be no other than the one which, from the peculiar character of its evolution is longing for a new solution of the world's problems, and which, from the previous training of the persons united in it, is able to bring active interest and understanding to such a solution. It is obvious that, for the time being, Anthroposophy must couch the message it has to deliver in such a language as shall be suited to this particular group of people. Later on, as circumstances afford opportunity, Anthroposophy will again find suitable terms, in which to speak to other circles also. Nobody, whose mind is not rootedly attached to hard and fast dogmas, can suppose that the form in which the anthroposophic message is delivered today is a permanent or by any means the only possible one. Just because, with Anthroposophy, there can be no question of its remaining mere theory, or merely gratifying intellectual curiosity, it is necessary for it to work in this way, slowly. For amongst the aims and objects of Anthroposophy are these same practical steps in the progress of mankind. But if it is to help on the progress of mankind, Anthroposophy must first create the practical conditions for its work; and there is no way to bring about these conditions except by winning over the individual human beings, one by one. The world moves forward, only when men WILL that it shall. But, in order for them to will it, what is needed in each individual case is inner soul-work; and this can only be performed step by step. Were it not so, then Anthroposophy too would do nothing in the social field but air brain-spun theories, and perform no practical work.




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