New Scheme of Social Organization


THE THREEFOLD COMMONWEALTH. By Rudolph Steiner. Authorized translation by S. Bowen-Wedgwood. Pp. 206. New York: Threefold Commonwealth Publishing Association.

HERE is a remarkable book by a remarkable man. Rudolph Steiner Ph. D., of Vienna, mystic and occultist, theosophist, until the break with Mrs. Besant, anthroposophist now on his own account, a man who has experimented and published strikingly in the fields of education, medicine, and art, in accordance with his esoteric philosophy and yet in a manner not without results and suggestions of value to traditional thinkers and regular practitioners in these fields, appears as a sociologist in "The Threefold Commonwealth." The book was written in German several years ago and was first translated Into English by O. Henry Frederick under the title, "The Tri-organic Social Organism" (Detroit: the Goetheanum Press). The earlier translation was not regarded as satisfactory by the followers, or admirers, of Dr. Steiner, and wider publicity for his ideas was desired; hence the present volume.

But the book in not merely part of the literature of a religious or semi-religious cult; it has novelty and bigness as a contribution to sociological literature–the most original contribution in a generation. The author is a German thinker as well as a Rosicrucian esotericist, and has addressed himself to social problems from an unusual point of view, producing the highly interesting conception of the Threefold Commonwealth. "Interesting" is used as a word of praise, not of disparagement. Most of our books on social maladjustment and the future of civilization are based on either an economic or a psychological interpretation of society; Dr. Steiner has what may be called a spiritual interpretation, and he would reorganize society in such a way as to bring it into conformity with the spiritual realities.

"What ails the body social," says Dr. Steiner, "is the impotence of the spiritual life."

It devolves upon this book–an unpopular task today–to show that the chaotic condition of our public life comes from the spiritual life's dependence on the state and on industrial economy, and to show further that one part of the burning social question is the emancipation of the spiritual life from this dependence.

The spiritual life, as Dr. Steiner sees it, is neither a collection of instincts nor a collection of ideas and ideals, but an entity that transcends the life of man and yet works in and through man and gives life all the reality it has. It is life itself. The comparative impotence of this spiritual life, its relative frustration, is the fundamental cause of the working class movement. Let the author (through his translator) speak:

The man of today who is obliged to live the life of the worker * * *—needs a spiritual life from which power can come—power to give his soul the sense of his human worth. For when the capitalistic economic order of recent times caught him up into its machinery, the man himself, with all the deepest needs of his soul, was driven for recourse to some such spiritual life. But the kind of spiritual life which the leading classes handed on to him as ideology left his soul void. Running through all the demands of the modern working class is this longing for some link with the spiritual life other than the present form of society can give; and this is what gives the directing impulse to the social movement today. * * *At present, the worker thinks that he has struck the main force in his soul when he talks about his "class consciousness." But the truth is, that ever since he was caught up into the capitalist economic machine he has been searching for a spiritual life that could sustain his soul and give him a "human consciousness"—a consciousness of his worth as a man–which there is no possibility of developing with a spiritual life that is felt as ideology. This "human consciousness" was what he was seeking. He could not find it; and so he replaced it with "class consciousness" born of the economic life. His eyes are riveted upon the economic life alone, as though some overpowering suggestive influence held them there. And he no longer believes that elsewhere, in the spirit or in the soul, there can be anywhere a latent force capable of supplying the impulse for what is needed in the social movement. All he believes is, that the evolution of an economic life, devoid of spirit and of soul, can bring about the particular state of things which he himself feels to be the one worthy of man. Thus he is driven to seek his welfare in a transformation of economic life alone. He has been forced to the conviction that with the transformation of economic life all those ills would disappear that have been brought on through private enterprise, through the egoism of the individual employer, and through the individual employer’s powerlessness to do justice to the claims of human self-respect in the employee. And so the modern worker was led on to believe that the only welfare for the body social lay in converting all private ownership of means of production into a communal concern or into actual communal property. This conviction is due to people’s eyes having been removed, as it were, from everything belonging to the soul and spirit, and fixed exclusively on economic processes.

Society and social institutions–the state and the school in particular– are dominated by the economic life, with consequences many and various. The economic life extends its influence far beyond its own proper sphere. The modern capitalist system of economy, says Dr. Steiner, recognizes nothing but commodities, and in the capitalistic process something has been turned into a commodity which the worker feels must not and can not be a commodity–namely, his labor power. He has much to say about the loathing which the worker feels at being obliged to barter his labor-power to the employer, as goods are bartered in the market; his loathing at seeing his personal labor-power play part as a factor in the supply and demand of the labor market, just as goods in the market are subject to supply and demand. We have had from other writers much criticism of the capitalistic system as affecting legislation and education, to the neglect or subordination of human values and as outraging the worker's sense of personality; but Dr. Steiner does not blame capitalism, he believes that any social system based primarily on economics must necessarily produce similar results. It is not reform of the economic system that the advocates; it is reform of the whole social system. Liberty is not to be found by changing to some other form of industrial economy than capitalism. It is not to be found in Marxism or neo-Marxism.

So long as the economic system has the regulating of labor-power, it will go on consuming labor-power just as it consumes commodities–in a manner that is most useful to its purposes—* * * One cannot divest human labor-power of its commodity character unless one can find a way of separating it from the economic process. It is of no use trying to remodel the economic process so as to give it a shape in which human labor may come by its rights inside that process itself.

At times Dr. Steiner sounds like many another critic of capitalism, at times like many another critic of socialism. He does not want capitalism. He wants the social order completely revised and changed, and that, as he carefully explains, is precisely why socialism will not answer; for socialism is an economic remedy. He does not want anything between capitalism and socialism. He does not want social legislation or Government ownership, or, as solutions, such things as profit-sharing and employee representation. Least of all does he want anarchism. All talk of socialization he regards is futile, in whatever sense the term "socialization" may be used–whether as meaning the common ownership of property or the triumph of humanitarianism. Futile so far as a solution of the social problem is concerned, socialization will prove no cure, but only a quack remedy, possibly even a fatal one for social life; that is, "unless in men's hearts, in men's souls, there dawns at least an instinctive perception of the necessity for a threefold division of the body social." If the body social is to function healthily, it must develop three organic divisions; must become triorganic. The economic life must have its separate division; so must "the life of rights," and so must the spiritual life–three autonomous divisions, functioning apart, yet bound together. Hard to conceive? But that is the conception of the Threefold Commonwealth.

One of the three divisions is that which belongs to the economic life–or in which the economic life belongs. Its concern is with everything in the nature of production of commodities, circulation of commodities, and the consumption of commodities. The production, circulation and consumption of goods is to be regulated, not by laws, but by people themselves, from their own direct insight and interests. (If this is not clear, the reviewer suggests going to Dr. Steiner's book for possible enlightenment. There will be associations, having their rise in purely economic considerations and drawn jointly from circles of consumers, traders and producers. The actual conditions of life will of themselves determine the size and scope of the associations.

In these associations it will not be "wage-workers" sitting, using their power to get the highest possible wages out of the "work-employer"; it will be the hand-workers, co-operating with the spiritual workers, who direct production, and with those interested in consuming the product, to effect a balance between one form of service and another, through an adjustment of prices. * * * Everything will take place by agreement between man and man, and between one association and another.

The second branch of the Threefold Commonwealth is the "rights-state," with legislative and administrative machinery for the expression and effectualization of the "life of rights." Here is the sphere of politics, but politics divorced from economics. Here is the realm of social ethics, of human relationships. In the rights-state, "built up on those impulses in human consciousness which go by the name of 'democratic,'" men's rights and duties are adjusted. Hours of labor and modes of labor are regulated independently of economic considerations. Every man meets his fellow on an equal footing, because all transactions and all control are confined to those fields of life in which all men are competent to form an opinion. Such transactions as are necessary between the executive heads of the rights-state and the economic organization are to be carried on pretty much as between the Governments of sovereign States today. Dr. Steiner does not elucidate; throughout his book he leaves a good deal to the imagination of the reader, and that, no doubt, is the method of true art.

The third division of "the body social" under the threefold plan has to do with "all those things which are connected with mental and spiritual life." But that phrase is not very clear, Dr. Steiner admits, and "spiritual culture" is not satisfactory, either. Perhaps, he says, one might more accurately express it as "everything that rests on the natural endowments of each single human being–everything that plays a part in the body social on the ground of the natural endowments, both spiritual and physical, of the individual." Definitions and descriptions of the spiritual life are difficult, partly because language itself is under the domination of forces and influences, habits and modes of thought that are primarily economic; the bondage of the spiritual life is shown in the limitations of language.

The educational and teaching system, lying as it does at the root of all spiritual life, must be put under the management of those people who are educating and teaching, and none of the influences at work in State or industry should have any say or interference in this management. No teacher should spend more time on teaching than will allow of his also being a manager in his own sphere of activity. And in the way that he himself conducts the teaching and education, so too he will conduct the management. Nobody will issue instructions who is not at the same time actively engaged in teaching and educating. No parliament has any voice in it, nor any individual who once on a time may have taught but is no longer personally teaching. The experience learned at first hand in actual teaching passes direct into the management.

Quite different, you see, is Dr. Steiner's belief from the usual notion that the conduct of education is the business of the State; and most persons, including socialists, "find it difficult to conceive of anything else than that society should educate the individual to its service according to its own standards." The state of the present day establishes law schools, or at least requires that the jurisprudence taught in them shall be the same as the state has fixed for its own constitution and administration; but when the law schools proceed wholly from a free spiritual life, this free spiritual life will itself supply the substance of the jurisprudence taught. "The state will wait to take its mandate from the spiritual life." "It will be fertilized by the reception of living ideas such as can issue only from a spiritual life that is free."

The author denies that his triorganic plan is an attempt to revive the three old estates of the Plow, the Sword and the Book. In the Threefold Commonwealth men will not be divided into grades, classes or estates. It is the body social itself that will be divided, functionally, and thereby man for the first time will be able to be truly man. The three social divisions will be such that every man will have his own life's roots in each of the three. His calling will give him footing in one of them, and to this he will belong by virtue of his practical interests. His relation to the other two will be a very close and vital one, for his connection with their institutions will be of a kind to create such a relation. Threefold, then, will be the body social, apart from man, but forming the groundwork of his life, and each man will unite its three divisions within himself.

A healthy social organism (namely, what Dr. Steiner describes) will have international relations, and these will be threefold. Each of its three branches will have its independent connection with the corresponding branch of every other threefold organism. (" Organism " he says, not "nation," though he does use the word "international.") All manner of interconnections will spring up between the economic network of one district and that of another, without being directly influenced by the connections between their "rights-States." And the relations between their "rights-States" will develop independently of their economic connections. "This independence of origin will enable these two sets of relations to act as a check upon each other in cases of dispute."  "Such a close interweaving of interests will grow up as will make territorial frontiers seem negligible in the life of mankind." A virtual League of Nations will be the outcome; there will be no need to institute one.

In this book, in the picture of the Threefold Commonwealth, there is much vagueness, a plentiful lack of detail, But Dr. Steiner says that he is not trying to describe a Utopia, a task of particularization; he is merely setting forth principles and presenting a general outline. Details and particulars will take care of themselves when the time arrives. It is worth noting, perhaps, that since the original publication of the book Dr. Steiner has written a series of explanatory and supplementary articles which have appeared as a separate volume soon to be translated into English. * * * How is the Threefold Commonwealth coming to pass? On one page Dr. Steiner hopes for "at least an instinctive sense" of its necessity, and on another says that "a reasoning will and purpose are needed to make a new social order, and are imperatively demanded by the forces at work in mankind's historic evolution."

The book contains much analysis and characterization of modern society that is shrewd, pungent and just. The conception of the Threefold Commonwealth is noble–a little aloof in its mighty grandeur. It is almost presumptuous in its scope and magnitude. It is a conception, nevertheless, worthy of man. It is a splendid piece of creation. Merely as a conception it has intrinsic value.

1.    Raymond G. Fuller, pseudonym of Genevieve May Fox (1888-1959), was born in Southampton, MA, and was an author and social activist. In 1922 she wrote "The Meaning of Child Labor" (Chicago, A. C. McClung & co) and in 1923 "Child Labor and the Constitution" (New York: Thomas Y Crowell). She was director of the National Child Labor Committee, and considered a moderate. In 1929 she published a book of case studies on community conflict (New York City, The Inquiry).