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Social Threefolding
Rudolf Steiner

and this is the law of the wild,
as old and as true as the sky.
and the wolf who keeps it will prosper,
but the wolf who breaks it will die!
Like the wind that circles the tree trunk,
this law runneth forward and back.
The strength of the pack is the wolf,
and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
(Rudyard Kipling)


In the social movement of the present day there is a great deal of talk about social organization but very little about social and unsocial human beings. Little regard is paid to that 'social question' which arises when one considers that the arrangements of society take their social or antisocial stamp from the people who work in them. Socialist thinkers expect to see in the control of the means of production by the community what will satisfy the needs of the wider population. They take for granted that under such control the co-operation between people must take a social form. They have seen that the industrial system of private capitalism has led to unsocial conditions. They think that if this industrial system were to disappear, the antisocial effects must also end.

Undoubtedly along with the modern capitalistic form of economy there have arisen social ills to the widest extent; but is this any proof that they are a necessary consequence of this economic system? An industrial system can of its own nature do nothing but put men into situations in life that enable them to produce goods for themselves or for others in a useful or a useless manner. The modern industrial system has brought the means of production into the power of individuals or groups of persons. The technical achievements could best be exploited by a concentration of economic power. So long as this power is employed only in the production of goods, its social effect is essentially different from when it trespasses on the fields of civil rights or spiritual culture. And it is this trespassing which in the course of the last few centuries has led to those social ills for whose abolition the modern social movement is pressing. He who is in possession of the means of production acquires economic domination over others. This has resulted in his allying himself with the forces helpful to him in administration and parliaments, through which he was able to procure positions of social advantage over those who were economically dependent on him; and which even in a democratic state bear in practice the character of rights. Similarly this economic domination has led to a monopolizing of the life of spiritual culture by those who held economic power.

Now the simplest thing *seems* to be to get rid of this economic predominance of individuals, and thereby to do away with their predominance in rights and spiritual culture as well. One arrives at this 'simplicity' of social conception when one fails to remember that the combination of technical and economic activity which modern life demands necessitates allowing the most fruitful expansion possible to individual initiative and personal worth within the business of economic life. The form which production must take under modern conditions makes this a necessity. The individual cannot make his abilities effective in business, if he is tied down in his work and decisions to the will of the community. However dazzling the thought of the individual producing not for himself but for society collectively, yet its justice within certain bounds should not hinder one from also recognizing the other truth, that society collectively is incapable of originating economic decisions that permit of being realized through individuals in the desirable way. Really practical thought, therefore, will not look to find the cure for social ills in a reshaping of economic life that would substitute communal for private management of the means of production. The endeavour should rather be to forestall the ills that can arise through management by individual initiative and personal worth, without impairing this management itself This is only possible if the relations of civil rights amongst those engaged in industry are not influenced by the interests of economic life, and if that which should be done for people through the spiritual life is also independent of these interests.

Genuine interests of right can only spring up on a ground where the life of rights is separately cultivated, and where the only consideration will be what the rights of a matter are. When people proceed from such considerations to frame rules of right, the rules thus made will take effect in economic life. Then it will not be necessary to place a restriction on the individual acquiring economic power; for such power will only result in his rendering economic achievements proportionate to his abilities, but not in using this to obtain privileged rights. . . Only when rights are ordered in a field where a business consideration cannot in any way come into question, where business can procure no power over this system of rights, will the two be able to work together in such a way that men's sense of right will not be injured, nor economic ability be turned from a blessing to a curse for the community as a whole.

When those who are economically powerful are in a position to use their power to wrest privileged rights for themselves, then among the economically weak there will grow up a corresponding opposition to these privileges; and this opposition must as soon as it has grown strong enough lead to revolutionary disturbances. If the existence of a special province of rights makes it impossible for such privileged rights to arise, then disturbances of this sort cannot occur. . . One will never really touch what is working up through the social movement to the surface of modern life, until one brings about social conditions in which, alongside the claims and interests of the economic life, those of rights can find realization and satisfaction on their own independent basis.

In a similar manner must one approach the question of the cultural life, and its connections with the life of civil rights and of industrial economy. The course of the last few centuries has been such that the cultural life itself has been cultivated under conditions which only allowed of its exercising to a limited extent an independent influence upon political life-that of civil rights -or upon economics. One of the most important branches of spiritual culture, the whole manner of education, was shaped by the interests of the civil power. The human being was taught and trained according as state interests required; and state power was reinforced by economic power. If anyone was to develop his capacities within the existing provisions for education, he had to do so on the basis of such finances as his place in life provided. Those spiritual forces that could find scope within the life of political rights or of industry accordingly acquired the stamp of the latter. Any free spiritual life had to forego all idea of carrying its results into the sphere of the state, and could only do so in the economic sphere in so far as this remained outside the sphere of activities of the state. In industry, after all, the necessity is obvious for allowing the competent person to find scope, since all fruitful activity dies out if left solely under the control of the incompetent whom circumstances may have endowed with economic power. If the tendency common amongst socialist thinkers were carried out and economic life were administered after the fashion of the political and legal, then the culture of the free spiritual life would be forced to withdraw altogether from the public field.

But a spiritual life that has to develop apart from civil and industrial realities loses touch with life. It is forced to draw its content from sources that are not in live connection with these realities; and in course of time it works this substance up into a shape which runs on like a sort of animated abstraction along side the actual realities, without having any practical effect on them. And so two different currents arise in spiritual life... Consider what conceptions of the mind, what religious ideals, what artistic interests form the inner life of the shopkeeper, the manufacturer, or the government official, apart from his daily practical life; and then consider what ideas are contained in those activities expressed in his bookkeeping, or for which he is trained by the education and instruction that prepares him for his profession. A gulf lies between the two currents of spiritual life. The gulf has grown all the wider in recent years because the mode of conception which in natural science is quite justified has become the standard of man's relation to reality. This mode of conception proceeds from the knowledge of laws in things and processes lying outside the field of human activity and influence, so that man is as it were a mere spectator of that which he grasps in the laws of nature...

A spiritual conception that penetrates to the being of man finds there motives for action which ethically are directly good; for the impulse to evil arises in man only because in his thoughts and sensations he silences the depths of his own nature. Hence social ideas arrived at through the spiritual conception here meant must by their very nature be ethical ideas as well. And not being drawn from thought alone but experienced in life, they have the strength to lay hold on the will and live on in action. For true spiritual conception, social thought and ethical thought flow into one...

This kind of spirit can, however, thrive only when its growth is completely independent of all authority except such as is derived directly from the spiritual life itself £ Legal regulations by the civil state for the nurture of the spirit sap the strength of the forces of spiritual life, whereas a spiritual life left to its own inherent interests and impulses will reach out into everything that man performs in social life...

If the life of the spirit be a free one, evolved only from impulses within itself, then civil life will thrive in proportion as people are educated intelligently from living spiritual experience in the adjustment of their relationships of rights; and economic life will be fruitful in the measure in which men's spiritual nurture has developed their capacities for it...

Because the spirit at work in civil life and the round of industry is no longer one through which the spiritual life of the individual finds a channel, he sees himself in a social order which gives him, as individual, no scope civically nor economically. People who do not see this clearly will always object to a view of the social organism divided into three independently functioning systems of the cultural life, the rights state and the industrial economy, that such a differentiation would destroy the necessary unity of communal life. One must reply to them that this unity is destroying itself, in the effort to maintain itself intact...It is just in separation that they will turn to unity, whereas in an artificial unity they become estranged.

Many socialist thinkers will dismiss such an idea with the phrase that conditions of life worth striving for cannot be brought about by this organic membering of society, but only through a suitable economic organization. They overlook the fact that the men at work in their organization are endowed with wills. If one tells them so they will smile, for they regard it as self-evident. Yet they envisage a social structure in which this 'self-evident' fact is left out of account. Their economic organization is to be controlled by a communal will, which must be the resultant wills of the people in the organization. These individual wills can never find scope, if the communal will is derived entirely from the idea of economic organization...

Most people today still lack faith in the possibility of establishing a socially satisfying order of society based on individual wills, because such a faith cannot come from a spiritual life dependent on the life of the state and of the economy. The kind of spirit that develops not in freedom out of the life of the spirit itself but out of an external organization simply does not know what the potentialities of the spirit are. It looks round for something to direct it, not knowing how the spirit directs itself if only it can draw its strength from its own resources. For the new shaping of the social order, goodwill is not the only thing needed. It needs also that courage which can be a match for the lack of faith in the spirit's power. A true spiritual conception can inspire this courage; for it feels able to bring forth ideas that not only serve to give the soul its inward orientation, but which in their very birth bring with them seeds of life's practical configuration. The will to go down into the deep places of the spirit can become a will so strong as to bear a part in every thing that man performs...

The experiments now being made to solve the social question afford such unsatisfactory results because many people have not yet become able to see what the true gist of the problem is. They see it arise in economic regions, and look to economic institutions to provide the answer. They think they will find the solution in economic transformations. They fail to recognize that these transformations can only come about through forces released from within human nature itself in the uprising of a new spiritual life and life of rights in their own independent realms.



Briefly as the subject must be dealt with, there will 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 a fundamental social law which spiritual science teaches, and which is as follows:


'The well-being of a community of people working together
will be the greater, the less the individual claims for himself
the proceeds of his work, i.e. the more of these proceeds he
makes over to his fellow-workers, the more his own needs are
satisfied, not out of his own work but out of the work done by

Every arrangement in a community that is contrary to this law will inevitably engender somewhere after a while distress 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 to interpret it into the sentiment that everyone should work in the service of his fellow men. No, this law only lives in reality as it should when a community of people succeeds in creating arrangements such that no one can ever claim the fruits of his own labour for himself, but that these go wholely to the benefit of the community. And he must himself be supported in return by the labours of his fellow men. The important point is, therefore, that working for one's fellow men and obtaining so much income must be kept apart, as two separate things.

Self-styled 'practical people' will of course have nothing but a smile for such 'outrageous idealism'. And yet this law is more practical than any that was ever devised or enacted by the 'practicians'. Anyone who really examines practical life will find that every community that exists or has ever existed anywhere has two sorts of arrangements, 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 it or not. Every community would indeed fall to pieces at once, if the work of the individual did not pass over into the totality. But human egoism 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 from of old in this way due to egoism has alone brought want, poverty and distress in its wake. This simply means that the part of human arrangements brought about by 'practicians' who calculated on the basis of either their own egotism or that of others must always prove impractical.

Now naturally it is not simply a matter of recognizing a law of this kind, but the real practical part begins with the question: How is one to translate this law into actual fact? Obviously this law says nothing less than this: man's welfare is the greater, in proportion as egoism is less. So for its translation into reality one must have people who can find their way out of egoism. In practice, however, this is quite impossible if the individual's share of weal and woe is measured according to his labour. He who labours for himself *must* gradually fall a victim to egoism. Only one who labours solely for the rest can gradually 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 anyone is to work for the community, he must perceive and feel the value, the nature and importance, of this community. He can only do this when the community is something quite different from a more or less indefinite summation of individual men. It must be informed by an actual spirit, in which each single one has his part. It must be such that each one says: 'It is as it should be, and I *will* that it be so'. The community must have a spiritual mission, and each individual must have the will to contribute towards the fulfilling of this mission. All the vague abstract ideals of which people usually talk cannot present such a mission. If there be nothing but these, then one individual here or one group there will be working without any clear overview of what use there is in their work, except it 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 most solitary, this spirit of the community must be alive...

No one 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 the light of the immediate need of the time in which he lives. Indeed there is today no theoretical 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. But in the present day any such compulsion is out of the question. The possibility must be found of each person doing of his own free will that which he is called upon to do according to his strength and abilities. For this reason there can be no possible question of ever trying to work on people theoretically, by merely indoctrinating them with a view as to how economic 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 *appears* to resemble idealism; but in the long run it helps nobody. Anyone who implants such a theory into a mass of people without giving them some real spiritual substance along with it is sinning against the real meaning of human evolution. The only thing which can help is a spiritual world-conception which of itself, through what it has to offer, can live in the thoughts, in the feelings, in the will -- in short, in a man's whole soul...

The recognition of these principles means, it is true, 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 a really difficult matter-one of which the results, too, may in certain circumstances comprise only 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 popular agitation can have any meaning for a person who looks at all deeper, if they violate the law stated above; whereas everything of this kind may work for good if it works on the lines of this law. It is a mischievous delusion to believe that particular persons sent up to some parliament as delegates from the people can do anything for the good of mankind, unless their activity is in conformity with the fundamental social law.

Wherever this law finds outer expression, wherever anyone is at work on its lines-so far as is possible in that position in which he is placed within the community-good results will be attained, though it be but in the single case and in never so small a measure. And it is only a number of individual results attained in this way that will together combine to the healthy collective progress of society.


The healthy social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community is shaped,
And when in the community
Lives the strength of each human soul.



From various points of view the opinion has been expressed that all questions of money are so complicated as to be well-nigh impossible to grasp in clear and transparent thoughts. A similar view can be maintained regarding many questions of modern social life. But we should consider the consequences that must follow if men allow their social dealings to be guided by indefinite thoughts; for such thoughts do not merely signify a confusion in theoretic knowledge, they are potent forces in life; their vague character lives on in the institutions that arise under their influence, which in turn result in social conditions making life impossible...

If we try to go the root of the social question, we are bound to see that even the most material demands can be grappled with only by proceeding to the thoughts that underlie the co-operation of men and women in a community. For example, people closely connected with the land have indicated how, under the influence of modern economic forces, the buying and selling of land has made land into a commodity, and they are of the opinion that this is harmful to society. Yet opinions such as these do not lead to practical results, for men in other spheres of life do not admit that they are justified... We must take into account how the purely capitalistic tendency affects the valuation of land. Capital creates the laws of its own increase, which in certain spheres no longer accord with an increase on sound lines. This is specially evident in the case of land. Certain conditions may well make it necessary for a district to be fruitful in a particular way-they may be founded on spiritual and cultural peculiarities. But their fulfillment might result in a smaller interest on capital than investment elsewhere. As a consequence of the purely capitalistic tendency the land will then be exploited, not according to these spiritual or cultural points of view, but in such a way that the resulting interest on capital may equal that in other undertakings. And in this way values that may be very necessary to a real civilization are left undeveloped.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion: The capitalistic orientation of economic life has these results, and must therefore be abandoned... But one who recognizes how modern life works through division of labour and of social function will rather have to consider how to exclude from social life the disadvantages which arise as a by-product of this capitalistic tendency... The ideal is to work for a structure of society whereby the criterion of increase in capital will no longer be the only power to which production is subject-it should rather be the symptom, which shows that the economic life, by taking into account all the requirements of man's bodily and spiritual nature, is rightly formed and ordered...

Now it is just in so far as they can be bought and sold for sums of capital in which their specific nature finds no expression, that economic values become commodities. But the commodity nature is only suited to those goods or values which are directly consumed by man. For the valuation of these, man has an immediate standard in his bodily and spiritual needs. There is no such standard in the case of land, nor in the case of means of production. The valuation of these depends on many factors, which only become apparent when one takes into account the social structure as a whole...

Where 'supply and demand' are the determining factors, there the egoistic type of value is the only one that can come into reckoning. The 'market' relationship must be superseded by associations regulating the exchange and production of goods by an intelligent observation of human needs. Such associations can replace mere supply and demand by contracts and negotiations between groups of producers and consumers, and between different groups of producers...

Work done in confidence of the return achievements of others constitutes the giving of credit in social life. As there was once a transition from barter to the money system, so there has recently been a progressive transformation to a basis of credit. Life makes it necessary today for one man to work with means entrusted to him by another, or by a community, having confidence in his power to achieve a result. But under the capitalistic method the credit system involves a complete loss of the real and satisfying human relationship of a man to the conditions of his life and work. Credit is given when there is prospect of an increase of capital that seems to justify it; and work is always done subject to the view that the confidence or credit received will have to appear justified in the capitalistic sense. And what is the result? Human beings are subjected to the power of dealings in capital which take place in a sphere of finance remote from life. And the moment they become fully conscious of this fact, they feel it to be unworthy of their humanity...

A healthy system of giving credit presupposes a social structure which enables economic values to be estimated by their relation to the satisfaction of men's bodily and spiritual needs. Men's economic dealings will take their form from this. Production will be considered from the point of view of needs, no longer by an abstract scale of capital and wages.

Economic life in a threefold society is built up by the cooperation of associations arising out of the needs of producers and the interests of consumers. In their mutual dealings, impulses from the spiritual sphere and sphere of rights will play a decisive part. These associations will not be bound to a purely capitalistic standpoint, for one association will be in direct mutual dealings with another, and thus the one-sided interests of one branch of production will be regulated and balanced by those of the other. The responsibility for the giving and taking of credit will thus devolve to the associations. This will not impair the scope and activity of individuals with special faculties; on the contrary, only this method will give individual faculties full scope: the individual is responsible to his association for achieving the best possible results. The association is responsible to other associations for using these individual achievements to good purpose. The individual's desire for gain will no longer be imposing production on the life of the community; production will be regulated by the needs of the community...

All kinds of dealings are possible between the new associations and old forms of business -- there is no question of the old having to be destroyed and replaced by the new. The new simply takes its place and will have to justify itself and prove its inherent power, while the old will dwindle away... The essential thing is that the threefold idea will stimulate a real social intelligence in the men and women of the community. The individual will in a very definite sense be contributing to the achievements of the whole community... The individual faculties of men, working in harmony with the human relationships founded in the sphere of rights, and with the production, circulation and consumption that are regulated by the economic associations, will result in the greatest possible efficiency. Increase of capital, and a proper adjustment of work and return for work, will appear as a final consequence...

Whether a man rejects this idea or makes it his own will depend on his summoning the will and energy to work his way through into the sphere of causes. If he does so, he will cease considering external institutions alone; his attention will be guided to the human beings who make the institutions. Division of labour separates men; the forces that come from the three spheres of social life, once these are made independent, will draw them together again... This inevitable demand of the time is shown in a vivid light by such concrete facts as the continued intensification of the credit system... In the long run, credit cannot work healthily unless the giver of credit feels himself responsible for all that is brought about through his giving credit. The receiver of credit, through the associations, must give him grounds to justify his taking this responsibility. For a healthy national economy, it is not merely important that credit should further the spirit of enterprise as such, but that the right methods and institutions should exist to enable the spirit of enterprise to work in a socially useful way.

The social thoughts that start from the threefold idea do not aim to replace free business dealings governed by supply and demand by a system of rations and regulations. Their aim is to realize the true relative values of commodities, with the underlying idea that the product of one man's labour should be equivalent in value to all the other commodities that he needs for his consumption during the time he spends in producing it.

Under the capitalistic system, demand may determine whether someone will undertake the production of a certain commodity. But demand alone can never determine whether it will be possible to produce it at a price corresponding to its value in the sense defined above. This can only be determined through methods and institutions by which society in all its aspects will bring about a sensible valuation of the different commodities. Anyone who doubts that this is worth striving for is lacking in vision. For he does not see that, under the mere rule of supply and demand, human needs whose satisfaction would uplift the civilized life of the community are being starved. And he has no feeling for the necessity of trying to include the satisfaction of such needs among the practical incentives of an organised community. The essential aim of the threefold society is to create a just balance between human needs and the value of the products of human work.



Taken from: "Understanding the Human Being", selected writings of
Rudolf Steiner, Chapter 7 - Reordering of Society; Edited by Richard
Seddon, Rudolf Steiner Press, Bristol, 1993, ISBN: 1 85584 005 7.

1. The Threefold Commonwealth, foreword. 1920, GA 24.
2. Anthroposophy and the Social Question. 1905/06, GA 34.
3. Anthroposophy, 1927 Vol. II, No.3, 'Capital and Credit', 1919, GA 24.


Steiner on World Economy
Rudolf Steiner Foundation
Social Threefolding