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The Cardinal Question of Economic Life



Rudolf Steiner


Translator’s note: This lecture, not revised by the author for publication, was given in Oslo, Norway, on November 30, 1921. As far as I know, this is the first time it has been translated into English. It has been somewhat abridged or, rather, “streamlined”. Certain repetitions, common in freely spoken lectures for the purpose of emphasis or transition, have been omitted. Also, in some cases, an interpretive rather than a literal translation of terms has been applied for the sake of clarity.    
Frank Thomas Smith



I would like to thank the chairman for his kind words and would also like to assure you that it is a great satisfaction for me to speak here about the social efforts to which I have been dedicating a large part of my time. But at the same time I must apologize, because to speak about the social question today is extremely difficult. In a short lecture one can only give a few indications and suggestions, so I ask you to bear that in mind.

You might think that someone who dedicates himself to the popularization of anthroposophical spiritual science would indulge in impracticalities, even fantastic ideas when it comes to the social area. But what I have been able to determine through the anthroposophical way of thinking is different from what one often hears nowadays, perhaps because this thinking is based completely on the practical aspects of life and I am therefore not basing myself on current social theories.

            Over the course of several decades I have personally acquired, from the most diverse sources, the concepts concerning the social question which I will outline today, and which are derived from a direct observation of social life. I have become convinced that our social question, especially the economic question, is one which concerns humanity in general. If this aspect is studied in respect to life and not theory, it reveals itself as a question that does not depend on economic viewpoints, but that for purely human reasons has become such an explosive issue. And it will only be possible to treat this question in a practical way if the solution – of course this only refers to a partial solution – is sought through purely human viewpoints. Therefore I will start with something quite different from what is generally expected. I will not try to answer this economic cardinal question in short phrases – life is richer than theories and ideas – rather will I let it appear on its own by means of the considerations I will express today.

Allow me, however, to begin with a completely abstract viewpoint, namely that we live in a time when what people consider correct principles alienates them from life in general and especially from economic life. This was confirmed during the years I spent as a teacher in a workers’ institution, where I taught many subjects, including history and economics. Because of this teaching opportunity, I was able to get to know the workers’ mentality and sensibilities very well. By realizing that the economic question essentially depends on how humanity relates to work, one is required to consider the economic question from the human side. I realized that if you try to awaken the workers’ interest in practical economic questions, they manifest very little interest.

            What lives in the working classes today – and internationally that means millions of people – is a completely abstract economic theory. The actual work performed by the worker is not what he has at heart. He doesn’t care what he works at. He is only interested in how he is treated by his company, and when he talks about this treatment, it is in completely abstract, general terms. He is interested in the relation of his wages to the profit earned on the product of his labor, whereas the quality of the product lies outside his field of interest. I tried, through lessons in history and natural science, to awaken interest in concrete branches of manufacturing and industry. But all that is of no interest to them. What interests them is the class struggle, what interests them is something I don’t have to go into here, what they call “surplus value”. They are interested in the development of economic life in that they ascribe to it the cause of all human history. And they speak from a theoretical region which is high above that in which they live from morning to night, and want to construct reality based on it. The economic theory that they adhere to arises from a completely theoretical way of thinking.

Most workers today are more or less modified or original Marxists, that is, followers of a theory that has nothing to do with the conditions of economic life as such. This is in a way only the reflection of a gradual alienation of purely human interests from the interests of practical life, which has been happening over the past few centuries. One could say: economic life, having become so complicated, has caused a kind of stupefaction, so that we don’t see that the goods themselves and the rights related to them have been submerged in the economic process. If we only talk about general abstract viewpoints we formulate principles and never touch on what the daily work, the daily tasks mean.

        What I have said about my own experiences can be confirmed by any number of examples. I would like to mention a grotesque example of what I mean. In 1884 Bismarck, in support of what he wanted to do about the economic cardinal question, said in the German parliament that he respects the right of every man to work. And he insisted to the parliament: if you guarantee to every healthy person the work with which he can feed himself, protect the ill and the weak through the community, insure that the aged are cared for, you can be sure that the workers will desert their leaders and that the social-democratic theories that are being spread about will find no adherents. Well, that’s what Bismarck said, who even claimed in his memoirs that in his youth he had republican tendencies, but whom you will certainly recognize as a confirmed monarchist who could hardly be expected to be in agreement with a hoorah! yelled out at the International Social-Democratic Congress.

            I’d like to also mention another personage who said the same thing in almost the same words, but from a completely different conviction: Robespierre, who, in his “Human Rights” of 1792 said roughly the same thing, no, he said exactly the same thing as did Bismarck to the German parliament in 1884: It is the duty of the community to provide work for everyone, to provide for the ill and weak, to give the aged a pension when they can no longer work. The question arises then: how is it possible that two so different people such as Bismarck and Robespierre could say exactly the same thing when each certainly viewed the social milieu which he wanted to bring about as being quite different?

            I can only find the answer in the fact that when we speak in such starkly abstract ways about the concrete questions which have become so complicated during the past centuries, we are all – Bismarck from the extreme right, Robespierre from the extreme left – in agreement about general principles. In life however, we immediately enter into disagreement because our general principles are far distant from what we must actually do all day long. We are not able to put such general thoughts into practice. And the most abstract of all is what the proletarian economic theory demands, for the reasons that I have tried to describe.

            This is the situation today. We see that the production processes of economic life are becoming ever more complicated due to technology. And if I may use a word that has become a slogan: we see that production has become more and more “collectivized”.

            Production has become so complicated that the individual is harnessed to a giant production mechanism. In this sense, production has become collectivized. The worker sees this and foresees in his fatalistic economic way that collectivism will become more and more intensive until all the producers merge, and the time will come when the international proletariat can take over all production. The workers are waiting for this to happen. They fall into the error of believing that the collectivization of production is a natural necessity – because they think that economic necessity is a natural necessity – and that this collectivism should be expanded. They also think that the proletariat, the workers themselves, are called to sit in the chairs in which the current producers are sitting, and what has become collective will be managed collectively. We can see how stubbornly the workers hold to this idea in respect to the sad results of the economic experiment in the east (i.e., the Soviet Union – trans.), for there the attempt is being made to structure economic affairs in this way – not as the proletariat theorists dreamed, but as a result of the war. This attempt – aside from its ethical or other values or the sympathy or antipathy one may have towards it – will fail miserably through its own destructive powers and will cause unspeakable misfortune to befall humanity.        

       Production is the opposite of consumption. But consumption can never be collective. The consumer is by nature an individual. The necessities of consumption arise from the human personality, from the individual. Therefore the individualism of consumption stands opposed to collective production. And the gulf between the tendency towards collectivism in production and the ever-stronger assertion of consumer interests will become even wider, especially due to this contrast. Whoever observes present day life without prejudice sees that this is no abstraction. The terrible disharmony we experience today is due to the disproportion between the interests of production and consumption.

            One can understand the misery which reigns today in humanity not by study, but only when you have immersed yourself for decades in this situation in practice. It was really not from any principles or theoretical considerations, but from such life experiences, that I wrote my book “Basic Issues of the Social Question”[1]. I had no intention of seeking a utopian solution to the social question. I realized however, that people’s thinking nowadays tends involuntarily towards the utopian. I had to summarize what life’s great diversity has shown me. Although I would have preferred concrete examples, I had to summarize in general descriptions, which are in turn summarized in the slogan “the tripartite social organism”. But the content had to be supplemented by a few examples. I had to say how I thought these things could be put into practice. Therefore I gave some examples of how capitalism should develop further, how the question of the workers should be resolved, etc. I tried to give concrete indications. Well, I have had many discussions about “Basic Issues of the Social Question” and have been constantly reminded that with their utopian tendencies people always ask: How will this or that be in the future? They pounced on the indications I gave about certain things, which I never meant as anything but examples. In real life one can somehow put into practice the things one organizes, but it could of course also be done otherwise. More than one theoretical aspect can always be applied to reality. But things could also be done differently. The utopist however, wants every detail characterized in slogans. So “Basic Issues of the Social Question” has often been interpreted in a utopian way. It has been transformed into a utopia when absolutely nothing in it was meant to be utopian, but was written based on what collectivism has meant for production, how there is a certain necessity to slip into collectivism in production, how on the other hand the strength to produce depends on the abilities of human individuality.

            It became terribly clear to me when observing the modern productive process that the fundamental impulse for production lies in personal ability, which has been in a sense absorbed by a collectivism that has arisen from economic forces. From one side one sees to what economic life tends, and from the other side the demands of the individual force of the individual human personalities enmeshed in this economic life. And one is therefore obliged to consider how this fundamental challenge – the cultivation of human abilities – can co-exist with the complexities born of technical advances in production processes.

            However, what we now call the social question does not arise from the production side. Although production tends towards collectivism, this is the result of the technical possibilities and necessities of economic life. The social question in reality arises from consumer interests, which in turn can only depend upon human individuality. So the remarkable fact arises – although it seems contradictory – that the call for socialization in the world comes as the result of consumer interests. I have seen during my lectures on this subject and the ensuing conversations, begun in April of 1919 and continuing, how producers and businessmen find the topic of consumer interests so antipathetic.   

            On the other hand, one sees that whenever Socialism is called for only consumer interests are involved. So individualism is what motivates the socialist ideal. Basically those who strive for Socialism do so from completely individual emotions. And the striving for Socialism is basically only a theory that floats over individual emotions. But a careful observation of what has been developing in economic life over the past centuries shows the real meaning of what in economics is referred to as the division of labor.

            I am convinced that a lot of clever things have been written and said about this division of labor. I don’t believe, however, that it has been thought through to its full meaning for practical economic life. I say that because otherwise it would be obvious that as a result of the division of labor no one in a society where the division of labor was complete could still produce something for himself. We see today the last vestiges of self-production, especially in small land-holdings, where what is produced is retained for the producer’s and his family’s needs. And what is the result of his being the provider for his own needs? The result is that he produces in an incorrect way in a society that is otherwise organized according to the division of labor. Everyone today who makes his own coat, or provides his own food from his own land, produces too expensively, because the fact that the division of labor dominates means that every product is cheaper that way than if it were self-produced. If you think about this, you will see that the last consequence of it is that basically no one can produce in a way that his work can somehow flow into the product. It is curious therefore, that Karl Marx considers the product to be crystallized labor. Today it is anything but that. The value of a product is least determined by work. It is determined by its usefulness, that is, by consumer interests, by the usefulness with which it exists within a division of labor dependent society. 

         All this is indicative of the most important economic questions of the present. It has become clear to me that in the present point in time it is simply necessary that the social organism be organized in a way that will allow its three natural components to emerge. One of these essential components is spiritual-cultural life, which depends on human abilities. When I speak about the tripartite society, I am not only including the more or less abstract spiritual life in the spiritual-cultural component, but I am including everything that depends upon human, spiritual or physical abilities. I must emphasize this, otherwise the frontiers of the spiritual sector in the tripartite social organism could be completely misunderstood. The person who only works with his hands needs a certain skill. He also possesses other qualities which do not correspond to the economic component, but to his affiliation with the spiritual sector.

            The other component of society is the purely economic. In the purely economic sphere we only have production, consumption and the circulation of goods between producers and consumers. This means that in the economic sphere we are only concerned with produced goods which, in that they circulate, become commodities. Goods that have a certain value because they are used in society, which then influences their price – such goods are commodities.

            Furthermore, commodities have a real objective value not only in an economic sense but also in relation to the entire social organism. Simply through what a product means within the consumption area, it has an objective value, which has an objective meaning. I must now explain what I mean by “objective meaning”.



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[1] This title is available as a SouthernCross Review e-book. Click on the title in the text above to view the description page and/or order.