By David Hoggard
In late 1918, as Germany dropped any illusions that it might not have to surrender to the Entente, a series of private meetings occurred between Prince Max von Baden, a German statesman, and Rudolf Steiner, an occult philosopher who had written a pair of memoranda setting out his vision of the peace to come. Max von Baden was appointed Chancellor shortly afterwards, and seems to have intended to surrender on the condition that Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points were dropped in favour of the Steiner proposals. However, it was quickly made clear to him by the military commanders that Germany was not in a position to dictate terms.
Although mostly remembered nowadays as the founder of the Steiner-Waldorf education movement (in which children guide their own learning while undergoing a running commentary from two elderly puppets), Rudolf Steiner was more broadly the founder of an esoteric movement called Anthroposophy, and in the post-war years he had the status of a significant commentator on social affairs. Hitler wrote scathingly of his influence, and Nazi thugs broke up one of his lectures in 1922.
What was Anthroposophy, then? Well, in its most basic sense, it was not a political ideology at all: it was a mystical movement, believing in karmic reincarnation, the activities of spirits, and a history of the world which put the year 1918 near the start of the fifth post-Atlantean epoch. It grew directly out of Theosophy, a very similar movement founded by a medium called Madame Blavatsky – Steiner broke with the Theosophists when one of her more sinister successors, Charles Webster Leadbeater, declared a young boy to be a sort of Messiah figure. Like a New Religious Movement, the emphasis was on unleashing the inner idealism of the Society’s members, which would inevitably have impacts on the world around them. Incidentally, the movement’s focus on the operation of schools can be understood with reference to Steiner’s declaration that the only way for a mature person to restore their idealism was through close contact with children. The operation of the schools was therefore not entirely altruistic.
Deciphering the relevance of the core Anthroposophic beliefs to social or economic issues can be quite difficult: Steiner would say one thing to public audiences and quite another to an in-group of Society members, perhaps as a means of keeping them interested in the revelation of ever-deeper truths. And even allowing for that, Steiner himself seems to have struggled to work out what he believed. In 1898, he declared that the arc of history tended inexorably towards the exaltation of the individual and private enterprise, which was why the historically deterministic theories of the Marxists were completely contrary to reality. By 1905, he was propagating a version of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and claiming that the tendency of history was in fact towards social equality and common ownership. He suggested that his followers might like to live communally and put their money into a shared bank account – and some communities were in fact set up in this manner.
However, the core of Steiner’s socio-political thought emerged during the First World War: he argued that the natural state of humanity was bound up in a ‘Threefold Social Order’ consisting of a political organism, and economic organism, and a ‘spiritual-cultural’ organism which involved such things as religion, linguistic communities, the justice system - and education. With reference to Christ’s order to “render unto Caesar” and the dire consequences of breaking the barriers between blood, breath and guts within the human body, Steiner argued that these aspects of existence should be kept separate, particularly as the first two are purely material and corporeal concerns, while the spiritual-cultural axis is shaped by the karmic relationships between individuals before and after death – in previous lives and in the ‘supersensible’ world of the spirit.
It should be pointed out that this distinction could be seen as a self-serving doctrine, as Steiner was primarily interested in maintaining his influence over the Anthroposophical Society and in growing a chain of schools outside of the state system. If Politics and Culture were to be kept separate, the obvious corollary to this was that the state should keep out of the tasks of setting rules for Societies and competing with independent educators.
This is in fact what Steiner said in some lectures: that the state simply had no business in the world of Economics or in the Spiritual-Cultural ambit. However, only very rarely did Steiner set out a programme of reform, or a vision of exactly how society should be organised. Indeed, he was often dismissive of ‘ideology’, painting it as the place where ideas go to die. He proposed that the details of his ideas should be left undeveloped and that the really important thing was to put enthusiastic Anthroposophists (or, earlier, Theosophists) into positions of power and influence so that their deeper understanding of the nature of the world could be translated, as a matter of course, into superior policy outcomes. Again, a cynical person might see a glimmer of self-interest in this proposal.
Even in the Memoranda of 1917, upon which he wanted the future of Europe to be based, he says the following: “Of course countless issues arise… if this programme is thought of as something to be realised by an individual or a society. But it would refute itself if it were conceived in this way.” Things weren’t looking too rosy for Max von Baden, then.
Indeed, the Memoranda of 1917 are an exercise in self-refutation. Taking the logic of the Threefold Social Order, Steiner proposes that the German and Austro-Hungarian states be accorded their pre-War borders – very much a counterpoint to Wilson’s emphasis on national self-determination. Within these Empires (and, incidentally, Steiner demonstrates scepticism towards the imposition of Anglo-American styles of democracy upon Central Europe), three Parliaments would be set up – one governing Politics and Defence; one governing the Economy; and one governing Cultural Organisations. This last Parliament is an obvious retreat from the position that the state had no business in culture whatsoever, but Steiner emphasises that it should not have a remit over anything impacting on the individual. Exactly what kind of laws and policies could possibly be written which would govern cultural organisations but not any of the human beings belonging to or affected by said organisations is a question that can perhaps be left to the philosophers.
In any case, the main appeal of the separation of Culture and Politics was that the people of, say, Trieste, might be able to indulge in their Italian nationality through an utterly free panoply of linguistic and cultural forums, while merely happening to belong to the Austro-Hungarian state. As usual, Steiner does not consider the possibility that this settlement might not completely satisfy the average Italian in Trieste.
As a side note, although this rejection of nationalism is a significant facet of Steiner’s worldview (if we are going to reincarnate as Spaniards, why should we defend national states or national economies?), but he still managed to engage in lazy stereotypes, suggesting among other things that Russians are mystical, that the English are perfidious, and that Germans have the highest capacity for intelligence out of all the races. He also tended to use a rhetorical Jewish/Greek dialectic in defining Western civilisation, which tends to be seen as racist nowadays.
The distinction between Politics and Economics is similarly open to scepticism. As the political state is now debarred from interfering in the economy, we can see a relic of Steiner’s earlier free-market anarchism – but, by the same token, economic power is forbidden to translate into political power. Yet again, the details of how this is to be achieved are not given: indeed, the idea that a market in which some people have more of a desired commodity (e.g. money) than others will fail to result in the emergence of a social or political hierarchy seems mildly ludicrous.
Steiner has a little more success in separating the economic from the spiritual-cultural spheres. Under his system, the exploitation of the human soul by the institution of wage-slavery will end when we replace wages and salaries with something akin to a Universal Basic Income. The eternal spirit of the individual will thus become free from “self-interest, the compulsion that egoism exerts on us” – the need to work for money to pay for food to sustain the material body of the worker – and labour will then return to its true nature as a sacrifice in the interests of the community. Steiner emphasises that the word ‘sacrifice’ is meant very much in a religious or spiritual sense.
This part of the political ethos of Anthroposophy is still recognisable in many corners of the ideological landscape today, and a lot of people believe that a UBI will do something like what Steiner says it will do – although they tend not to argue from karmic principles. Perhaps people will still work hard if they are not given a cash incentive to do so. Perhaps they will choose to act in the best interests of the community and make that personal sacrifice. And perhaps, even if individuals manage to make money in the economic sphere, they will be prevented in some manner from using it to exert power in the social, cultural or political arenas. If this is the case, though – why have a free market at all? What are people supposed to be competing for, if their money can bring them neither happiness nor power?
The answer, of course, is that such a clear divide is not what Steiner has in mind. In his Threefold Social Order, despite the bluster, the state sets the guidelines for the cultural organisations, the economic actors subsidise them, and all three Parliaments are co-ordinated by a Senate which adjudicates when these bodies inevitably clash. It’s almost as if any attempt to ringfence these areas of the human experience are automatically self-refuting.
Steiner’s other main economic idea was the ‘World Economy’, essentially the observation that national economies are so interlinked that they can be viewed as a single closed system. The consequence of this is supposedly that, as imports and exports are impossible, the goods in the economy must simply decay and depreciate over time – and, to prevent hyperinflation, so ought money lose its value at a certain rate. It could do this – how else? – by being given to cultural organisations for the purposes of, for instance, education, at which point it would become valueless and economically inactive. Steiner seems to be unaware that schools use money to pay for things in the economy. He also seems to be under the impression that the value of the goods in the world economy can only shrink.
Again, despite the contention that the Political, the Economic and the Spiritual-Cultural are autonomous systems that should be treated separately, Steiner is frequently happy to muddle the issue. The economy, for instance, has a threefold order itself, as labour is supposedly an imposition from the material-political world, while capital is the cultural element of the economy. The spiritual-cultural element, in Steiner’s view, either is involved in, or ought to be involved in, every facet of the social order. Indeed, that’s why he claimed a role for Anthroposophy in the material world of politics and the social question. When Steiner complains that mainstream religions have declined to the status of mere ideologies, he means that they are simply a load of comforting words to hear on a Sunday morning, which do not transmit any impulse to act according to religious ethics in general society. In other words, when the spiritual organisations follow Steiner’s command to leave politics and economics alone, they are losing their spiritual content and becoming mere ‘ideology’ – just a load of stuff to believe.
Anthroposophy, then, demands that its adherents act anthroposophically in the political and economic spheres. Not only to Steiner’s followers operate schools (which, as above, are supposedly within the cultural sphere) and construct fascinating architectural edifices (ditto), they also intervene in the economic sphere by founding ethical banks. Several of these institutions have been founded, including GLS and Triodos, the former of which is owned co-operatively in the best traditions of Anthroposophic living, and the latter of which has been making ecological investments since the early 1980s. In the political world, we can point to Steiner’s call for his friends to be put in positions of power, his years of lecturing on the social question, and his intervention in the First World War peace process.
All this from a system of beliefs based on the idea that rendering unto Christ what belongs to Caesar (and vice versa) is the root of all social evil, akin to breaking the membranes between the pulmonary, digestive and circulatory systems in the human body. Steiner does not seem to be aware that these membranes are porous where appropriate. Or, worse, he seems to have been in favour of making exceptions whenever it suited his own interests to do so.
The obvious what-if question is around the timeline where Max von Baden proposes the Steiner Memoranda as the basis for an Armistice – but the answer, inevitably, would be that the Entente would reply in a flat negative. But what if Steiner had dug in against the opposition of Nazis and Marxists, and pushed for greater political engagement from the Anthroposophical Society – perhaps setting it up as one of the many political parties represented in the Weimar legislature, or establishing it as a more long-term political presence. If the Anthroposophists had ever reached power, the clear conclusion is that their programme (such as it was) would be refuted by reality, with negative results for ordinary people. The attractive features (interesting architecture, a concern for people with disabilities, an emphasis on co-operative ownership) would be outweighed by the negatives: time-wasting constitutional changes; an unrealistically understanding of the economy; and an undercurrent of self-serving ambition and in-group secretiveness. Where they might have had a role in later politics is in the Green area: Steiner promoted organic farming and alternative medicine, and many Anthroposophical communities pride themselves on their ecological outlook.
Sometimes the road not taken is a dead end – but don’t worry. As Rudolf Steiner tells us, death is not the end.
David Hoggard is the co-author, with Bob Mumby, of Many a Hero Untold, published by SLP