Unfinished Business

The French Revolution and the Threefold Society [1989]

by Frank Thomas Smith

1989 marks the bicentennial of the French Revolution and the seventieth anniversary of the highpoint of the Threefold Society movement. The French Revolution is being celebrated with all the fanfare and hype of which the French government today is capable. Other states,-east and west, democratic and totalitarian, have joined the party, for all claim the ideals of the revolutionaries as their own: The Lights of Man; Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The Threefold Society movement however, is almost forgotten.

Indeed, the French Revolution was a true revolution, a spontaneous people’s uprising, but it had its dark. side. Charles Dickens, no lover of aristocrats and a staunch defender of the oppressed, paraphrased its motto as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death. The terror which accompanied the revolution wrote with a finger dipped in blood what the ruling classes of all Europe were to expect if the social question was not resolved. In 1830 the barricades were raised in Paris, there were uprisings in Germany, Poland and Belgium. They were suppressed, but the sufferings of the peoples continued and revolt simmered below the surface. In 1848 revolutions swept Italy, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin and, again, Paris. In England in 1815 and 1832 riots of hungry workers broke out and Habeas Corpus was suspended for the first time in history. It all came to a head and burst into the World War of 1914.

Immediately thereafter, in 1919, Rudolf Steiner published his Toward a Threefold Society 1 in which he described the basic issues of the social question. This book and the movement to which it related were directed to a Germany which was at a low point in its history: the devastating war had been fought and lost at a tremendous cost in young manpower, the economy was in shambles and the political system, based on a military-aristocratic oligarchy, was defunct. A vacuum existed which Steiner and his associates sought to fill with new ideas and spiritual strength. His Appeal to the German People and the Civilized World 2 was countersigned by many important personalities from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and widely distributed in that area. An extensive campaign of lectures, publications and meetings was undertaken. They tried hard, there is no doubt of that. But by 1922 it became clear — especially after a nearly successful attempt on Rudolf Steiner’s life in Germany by nascent Nazi groups — that the vacuum was being filled by those other forces which later inflicted a degree of destruction and death on Europe that even the most pessimistic minds could hardly have imagined. Rudolf Steiner, however, seemed to have foreseen what was to come. In the last chapter of Toward a Threefold Society he wrote: “One can anticipate the experts who object to the complexity of these suggestions and are uncomfortable even thinking about three systems that cooperate with each other. 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.”

Nevertheless, the historic moment for the people and leaders of Central Europe to “accommodate their thinking to the requirements of reality” had passed and the Threefold Society movement was abandoned as far as its political and economic aspects were concerned. The spiritual aspects were actively pursued however and were successful to a certain extent, as is evidenced by the growth of the Waldorf School movement.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Who can deny that these are the proper foundations of modern society? And who can claim that they are an accurate description of any existent society? Steiner used them often to demonstrate what should be, but isn’t. The problem as he saw it was the attempt to incorporate all three characteristics into a unitary political state, whereas in reality each describes the principal attribute of only one element of society: Liberty, the cultural-spiritual aspect; Equality, the political rights aspect; and Fraternity, the economic aspect – with none dependent on the other or others.

Freedom and Education

Equality is a leveling element. Therefore its application to the cultural sphere is not only inappropriate but fatal to that sphere. It is clearly impossible for everyone to play the violin like Yehudi Menuhin or act like Lawrence Olivier. If the principle of equality is applied to these activities, these two artists must play and act on the lower level of everyone. Result: the death of music and drama. A political institution, the State, whose only legitimate function is to ensure equal rights to all, will inevitably suffocate cultural freedom and accomplishment when it controls the cultural activities and institutions within its political jurisdiction. This is especially true of education. The State is obligated to insure that all citizens have the opportunity to be educated, but it should not carry out the educational process. In fact, the State* does* carry out this function, thereby creating huge, inefficient, politicized, ideological educational bureaucracies which not only inhibit the free exercise of the educators’ talents but also often make school an unpleasant, sometimes agonizing chore for the children, whose human potentialities are not challenged and developed. If the State is extracted (or extracts itself) from the educational process, who is to take its place? It is obvious that the teachers in each school, those who are intimately involved with the children on a daily basis, are the appropriate group to be entrusted with the ultimate responsibility for their school. (This does not imply that a group of teachers who know little about accounting, architecture, law or economics and do not have the time even if they did, must necessarily do all these things themselves. Only the ultimate responsibility is theirs. Most of the administrative tasks should be carried out by a school board and an administrator responsible to the college of teachers.

School Financing

This brings up the question of financing. If the State does not control an institution it has little motivation to pay for it. Although in some European countries the State subsidizes Waldorf schools, this is a double-edged sword, for even if money is not always used to control, it can exercise leverage. In any case, the money used by the State to finance education ultimately derives from the pockets of tax-payers, corporate or private. This money could flow directly to the schools instead of making a detour through the State where much of it is wasted in bureaucracy. An administrative correction could make this possible. For example, a certain percentage of taxes could be sent to a local Education Committee composed of school and university delegates who would decide how to distribute it. These delegates should not be representatives of the State. The same principle would apply to other cultural institutions, thus insuring their autonomy and making Liberty — or the stronger English word Freedom — a reality in the cultural sphere of social activity.

The Liberal Comeback

There is no question but that “liberalism” is making a comeback. In the United Kingdom, the United States and in most western European countries the tendency has become a reality. Even the Soviet Union with its Perestroika program is running hard to catch up. The Third World is trying to emulate the industrial world in this respect, but lacks the flexibility and the resources to do so.

Conservatism or Reaction would be more accurate terms to describe this self-styled Liberalism. It mostly consists in divesting the State of industrial property by returning it to private capitalists. The motivation for this change of heart is the realization, gained through experience, that the political State is incapable of efficiently administrating economic enterprises and that the attempt has resulted in enormous deficits, the degradation of currencies and general economic chaos. Although the withdrawal from State-owned industry is correct as far as it goes, it is questionable that it will have a positive effect in the long run, for it is more a regression than an advance. Marxist communism was a reaction to capitalism. The fact that experience has shown the cure to be worse than the illness is no reason to regress to the original, albeit modified, affliction. Obviously a synthesis must be found. A threefold society with its relatively autonomous sectors could be that synthesis.

The Third World

The industrialized world’s excess capital has overflowed into the Third World, but with deadly strings attached. Foreign debt suffocates the feeble economic efforts of those countries and threatens their fragile democracies. Both Argentina and Venezuela have recently experienced the reality of social violence: spontaneous uprisings sparked by sudden massive price increases leaving hundreds dead and wounded. The question on everyone’s mind in South America is: Who will be next? Peru, Colombia and most of Central America are already being devastated by ubiquitous violence, referred to as “subversive warfare”. Is it unreasonable to suggest the “Social Question” is still very much with us?

The political state’s role

After Withdrawing from the economic sector, the State may not simply bury its head in the sand and preach laissez-faire. Part of its human rights function is to insure that these rights are respected within the industrial process, which implies State intervention in respect of working conditions, wages and ownership. This concept raises many practical questions. In any case, only an autonomous political State, that is, one which is uninfluenced by economic-pressures, would be in a position to guarantee fairness.

Ownership of Capital

An interesting phenomenon may be observed in the United States today in this respect. Several important companies have been giving away stock to their employees and workers. They borrow the necessary funds, then distribute the stock as the loans are paid off. It is true that the motivation is not exactly altruistic; its purpose is to prevent corporate raiders from taking over their companies through stock purchases. Nevertheless, the solution is a healthy one. A major car-rental company (Avis), whose employees previously wore buttons stating that “We try harder”, have now modified the motto to: “Owners try harder”.

It is anti-social for persons or institutions who do not participate actively in a company to be its owners merely because they have purchased its stock. These non-active owners directly benefit from the work of the company’s personnel when they collect dividends. In fact, their only interest in the company or companies they own is the value of their stock and the payment of dividends. If ownership of industry is necessary at all (a larger question indeed), it should only be exercised by those who work in each firm, managers as well as employees and workers. Obviously motivation, an extremely important factor, would be greatly enhanced, for it is true that “owners try harder”, at least when they are active and not anonymous ones. This would also go a long way towards eliminating the inhuman “labor market” system. If labor is considered to be a commodity, it can be bought and sold like any other commodity — which is what happens in capitalist systems. As Rudolf Steiner pointed out, the buying and selling of human labor is a form of slavery. In the past the whole person was bought and sold, whereas now only an essential part of him is still on the trading block: his labor.

Economic Associations

Central State economic planning has been tried. Its results are economic stagnation, a diminution of human freedom and a dramatic increase in State power We told you so, say the conservatives, so back we go tho the “market forces” principle. Let supply and demand dictate all aspects of industrial development. This means retrogression and could lead again to economic chaos and State intervention. For who else would defend the consumers’ interests, if not the State? Our world economy is enormously complicated and cannot be left to theoretical “forces” which have been endowed with an almost mystical quality. Planning is necessary; the question is who should do the planning. Rudolf Steiner suggested that Associations be formed of producers, distributors and consumers which would be charged with planning ail aspects of economic activity. This idea is eminently logical, for it is these three interest groups which carry out the economic process. Much could be said about how they would function, but it would be theoretical. The important thing is that they be formed, and with decision-making authority. They would then establish their own terms of reference and procedures. In this way the political State would also be relieved of the need to defend consumer interests. The objection that consumers know little about the intricacies of the production-distribution process appears justified. It would be absurd, of course, for an unprepared housewife or a car-owner to participate in such associations simply because they consume food and drive cars. They could, however, become an informed group, and where necessary delegate experts to represent their interests.

If implemented; the ideas briefly presented here would go far towards resolving the “social question”. They are simple in conception, but require a serious effort to change attitudes in order to find practical solutions based on social reality.

To Summarize:

The three basic social elements— Spiritual-Culture, the Rights-State, the Economy — would become autonomous organs working together in a balanced social organism.

Cultural institutions (especially schools) would be free to administer their own affairs in respect to both curriculum and methods. They would be financed by non-governmental regional bodies composed of representatives of cultural-spiritual-educational organizations.

The political State would be limited to its natural rights function, which includes the rights of labor.

The economic process — production, distribution and consumption of goods — would be governed by Associations composed of representatives of producers, distributors and consumers.

When first attempted over a hundred years ago, the Threefold Society movement failed. The question is whether it failed decisively, forevermore, or whether there is still hope for its realization. In the latter case, the previous failure would be an pisode in a historical development which bears fruit when the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are realized as the characteristics of a Threefold Society.


Now, in the year 2021, the “Unfinished Business” is no closer to being finished than when this article was written thirty-two years ago. It was published in the English and German language versions of Das Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland.