Toward a Threefold Society

by Rudolf Steiner

Toward a Threefold Society was written in 1919 for the German-speaking peoples of central Europe. It deals with the social problems of that time and suggests solutions. The question therefore arises: Is this book still relevant today, in the twenty-first century, for a worldwide readership?

In order to answer this question, let us first look at the book's very last paragraph:

One can anticipate the experts who object to the complexity of these suggestions and find it uncomfortable even to think about three systems cooperating with each other, because they wish to know nothing of the real requirements of life and would structure everything according to the comfortable requirements of their thinking. This must become clear to them: either people will accommodate their thinking to the requirements of reality, or they will have learned nothing from the calamity and will cause innumerable new ones to occur in the future.

The calamity referred to is the First World War, and since that time history has certainly shown these words to be prophetic. Rudolf Steiner's suggestions were ignored in Central Europe at that time, at least by those who were in a position to put them into practice, and the calamities have been occurring 'innumerably' ever since. The 'social question' has not been resolved, nor have the steps been taken which are necessary to initiate the healing process. People all too often still look to the political state for the solution to all social problems, whether they be of an economic, spiritual (cultural), or political nature.

Where in the world is 'spiritual/cultural life', schools for example, free, not in the sense of cost, but free from state control and economic influence? Where does an associative economy function? What political state is content with its legitimate democratic function of ensuring that human rights and basic needs are respected? The answer to all these questions is negative. The destructive tendencies which existed in 1919 are still very much with us; in fact, they have greatly increased their potency.

Certain historical circumstances are referred to, especially in Chapter Four, which were fresh in the minds of the readers in that part of the world at the time the book was written. Rudolf Steiner was born on 27 February 1861, in the town of Kraljevec, which was then in Austro-Hungary and is now in Croatia (he died on 30 March 1925 in Dornach, Switzerland), so the events relating to such political entities as the Austro-Hungarian and German empires were entirely familiar to him and, for the most part, to his readers. This is no longer the case, so I explanatory footnotes in the text have been added which can, however, only include a very brief description of the historical events referred to by the author.

This book is far from outdated, in spite of the fact that certain descriptions refer to specific occurrences and attitudes of the times in which it was written. As criticism of capitalism increases and communism has been relegated to the dustbin of history, one wonders if there might be a practical “third way”. The concept of the Threefold Society as a third way does not eliminate capitalism completely – for what’s to take its place? It reforms it to the extent of no longer allowing huge individual wealth, but retaining the possibility of individual initiative and transforming the rules of economic and industrial ownership; of reducing the power of the political state to that of the guarantor of equality, justice and civil liberty; of making the spiritual-cultural sphere, especially education, truly free. The suggestions and essential principles given by Rudolf Steiner are even more relevant today than when they were originally described, if only because their realization has since become even more urgent.

Frank Thomas Smith (translator)

October 2019

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