The Threefold Commonwealth

By Frank Thomas Smith

Charles Dickens, no lover of aristocrats and a staunch defender of the oppressed, paraphrased the French Revolution'a motto as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity...or Death. The Terror which accompanied the revolution wrote with a finger dipped in blood, and was 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 out in the World War of 1913. Immediately thereafter, in 1919, Rudolf Steiner published his Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage (Towards Social Renewal - Basic Issues of the Social Question), in which he presented the principles of the Threefold Commonwealth or Social Triformation. 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" - included in Towards Social Renewal, was counter-signed 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.

But by 1922 it became clear — especially after an unsuccessful attempt on Steiner's life in Munich 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 which even the most pessimistic minds could hardly have imagined. Steiner, however, seemed to have foreseen what was to come. In the last chapter of "Toward Social Renewal we read: "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 nations and leaders of Central Europe to "accommodate their thinking to the requirements of reality" had passed and the Threefold Commonwealth movement was abandoned as far as its political and economic aspects were concerned. The spiritual aspects were actively pursued however and, to a certain limited extent, were successful, 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 attributes in a unitary political state, whereas each describes the principal attribute of only one element of society: Liberty, the cultural aspect; Equality, the political aspect; and Fraternity, the economic aspect.

Freedom and Education

Equality is a Ieveling element. Therefore its application to the cultural sphere is not only inappropriate but fatal to that sphere. It is clearly impossible for Everyman to play the violin like Yehudi Menuhin or act like Lawrence Olivier – or think like Albert Einstein. If the principle of equality is applied to these activities the result would be the dummying down of music, drama and science. The political states, whose only legitimate function is to ensure equal rights to all, will inevitably suffocate cultural freedom and accomplishment when it controls the spiritual/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 inhibitthe 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. The system can even undermine the child as an individual by hindering him from acquiring the necessary spiritual strength.

If the State is extracted (or extracts itself) from the educational process, who is to take its place? It is more' than obvious that the teachers in each school, those who are intimately involved with the children on a daily basis, form 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 — at least once the school has grown beyond the pioneer stage of development.)

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 Ieverage. In any case the money used by the State to finance education ultimately derives from the pockets of tax-payers, corporate or individual; it makes a detour through the State where much of it is wasted in bureaucracy. An administrative correction could make possible for schools – and other institutions of the cultural sphere – to receive the funds they need without being subjected to political control, thus insuring their autonomy and making Liberty — or the stronger English word Freedom — a reality in the cultural sphere of social activity.

The Neo-capitalism Comeback

There is no question but that neo-capitalism has made a strong  comeback after the fall of communism. It is now realized, through experience, that the political State is incapable of efficiently managing economic enterprises on a sustained basis and that the attempt has resulted in enormous deficits, the degradation of currencies and general economic chaos. Although the withdrawal from State 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 socialism was a reaction to capitalism. The fact that experience has shown the cure to be worse than the illness is not a legitimate 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 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 State, that is, one which is uninfluenced by economic-pressures, would be in a position to guarantee fairness.

Ownership of the Means of Production

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 often anonymous owners directly benefit from the labor of the company's workers when they collect dividends and speculate with the value of their shares. 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 really work in each firm, managers as well as employees. 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 Steiner pointed out, the buying and selling of human labor is a form of slavery. In the past the whole man 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 freedom and a dramatic increase in State power. We told you so, say the conservatives, so back we go to 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 violent intervention. For who else would defend the consumers' interests, if not the State?

The 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 all 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 State would also be relieved of the necessity of defending consumer interests. The objection that consumers know little about the intricacies of the production-distribution process appears to be justified. It would be absurd, of course, for an unprepared housewife or a car-owner to participate in such associations simply because they shop for 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 in 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:

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

2.Cultural institutions (especially schools) would be free to administer their own affairs, in respect to both curriculum and methods. They would be financed, but not controlled by the state through taxes in a way similar to “charter schools” in the United States.

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

4.The economic process — production, distribution and  consumption of goods — would  be  governed  by Associations composed of representatives of producers, distributors and consumers. These are to be established by law.

When first attempted, almost a hundred years ago, the Threefold Commonwealth 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 episode in a historical development, which bears fruit when the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity are practiced realized as functions of a Threefold Commonwealth.