Steiner Shorts #4: Changing Conditions or Changing People?


In this short essay we turn our attention to the idea of social change itself. Steiner’s threefold social organism, as with other social and political theories, aims at the transformation of society to a perceived better condition for those who make up that society. Numerous different social and political theories approach this social change in different ways, from enabling individuals to engage in the free market in neoliberalism, to centralized worker control of the means of production in Marxism, to doing away predetermined external authorities entirely in anarchism. Regardless of the theory under examination the notion of change normally focusses on a combination of the need to change the social conditions and a need to change people, with one of these often – although not always – taking precedent over the over. Steiner’s work on the threefold social organism is no different and recognizes the need for both while arguing that changing people is the more fundamental.

To understand this position means retelling some of Steiner’s biography in order to effectively trace his own approach to social change. This starts with a brief overview of the social problem as Steiner saw it, and his proposed solution – any readers of previous essay in this series will be familiar with these areas. Once this is done the essay highlights two important experiences regarding social transformation which were integral to Steiner’s thinking, the first concerns the work of Robert Owen and his social experiments in New Lanark and New Harmony. The second focuses on Steiner’s own experiences of the change during the Stuttgart Weeks in 1919. Together these two experiences gave the impetus for Steiner to rethink his approach to social change and whether change in social conditions or change in people needed to come first.

Robert Owen was a Welsh mill owner and social reformer born in 1771. In 1800 Owen became the manager of a mill in New Lanark, Scotland and began to rethink how the mill could be run in order to improve the lives of the labourers. Thinking beyond the mill itself to the entire New Lanark community Owen pursued a programme of social change that included restoring worker housing, providing education for children, when they were not already working in the mill, and establishing general medical care (Claeys, 1991). Owen’s aims was to “[…] create a more moral, humane, kind, active, and educated workforce by providing an environment in which such traits could be nourished from childhood onward” (Claeys, 1991). Such an approach to social change was driven by a belief that in order to change individual and societal behaviour it was first necessary to change to material conditions people lived in. With this guiding principle Robert Owen elaborated a theory and practice of social change, using the mill and community at New Lanark as his test bed. Through changing the material conditions of the workers Owen believed that it would be possible to eliminate the undesirable behaviours of drunkenness, theft, dishonesty and alike without recourse to religious or societal punishment. Instead, Owen promoted a more positive approach to tackling what would now be termed anti-social behaviour by raising the living conditions of workers so that there would be no need to thieve or drink to excess. This approach included not only changes in housing and the promotion of community shops offering lower-priced goods, but also changes in working practices which emphasized productivity and proposed shorter working days (Owen, 1991). In Owen’s own estimations the experiment at New Lanark was a success, and he was an important figure in the development of British socialism. Other attempts at social change along similar lines were not as successful, with his experiment in New Harmony, USA dissolving after a few years due to the lack of community members with farming and practical experience who were needed to support and sustain the community (Claeys, 1991).

Lasting success or not, Owen’s examples had an impact on Steiner and in the years following World War I he became active in attempts at social change in Stuttgart and other southern German cities. From April 1919 to August 1919 Steiner was involved in what became known as the ‘Stuttgart Weeks’ (Schmelzer, 2017). This was a period of experimentation which saw several different competing visions of social change come to the fore, including socialism, communism, and anarchism, as the residents of Stuttgart sought to experiment with alternative forms of social organization. Steiner became involved in these attempts through his ideas on social threefolding and worker councils, in which production of goods was not decided upon by a single individual with the aim of profit making, but through conversation, negotiation, and agreement between co-operatives of producers and consumers on the basis of solidarity and need (Schmelzer, 2017). Such an approach to the economic sphere of society is central in the threefold social organism. The political sphere was also mobilized in this push for social transformation through the establishment and eventual passing of workers council legislation which gave a legal grounding to the councils (Schmelzer, 2017). Within the threefold social organism this was an example of the distinct yet connected roles the economic and political spheres played: economically the workers councils took care of production and consumption issues, politically the workers councils aimed to establish the equality of all through their ability to engage with the councils. As with Owen’s experiments in New Lanark and New Harmony, the Stuttgart Weeks represented an attempt to bring about social change led by a transformation in the material conditions of people: be that the economic or the political. Steiner’s involvement in Stuttgart came to an end as the conditions in the city began to shift away from the unofficial and decentralized collection of social movements, including social threefolding, towards established political parties which had begun to adopt the experimental approaches (Schmelzer, 2017).

Following the experiences of Owen and his own experiences of Stuttgart Steiner sought to reappraise his approach to social change from one that was led by the transformation of material conditions, to one led by the transformation of people. It would be misleading to say that this shift in approach was total, instead Steiner sought to elucidate the relationship between material conditions and personal change in such a way to maintain the necessity of the former while foregrounding the role of the later. Writing of the examples of New Lanark and New Harmony Steiner had the following conclusion:

[…] the experiences were, in fact, disastrous. After prolonged and heroic efforts, Owen was brought at last to the confession that: — Until one has effected a change in the general moral standard, all attempts to realize such colonies are bound to meet with failure; and that it is more worthwhile to try and influence mankind by the way of theory, rather than of practice (Steiner, 1982).

This conclusion of Owen’s attempts was echoed in Steiner’s own evaluation of the Stuttgart Weeks: that without the necessary development of the individual’s behaviour and approach to themselves and others, any attempts to bring about social change through the transformation of concrete social conditions in the spheres of politics and economics would ultimately fall short (Schmelzer, 2017) (Steiner, 2018).

The experiences of attempts to bring about social change through the transformation of social conditions resulted in a consideration of the nature of social change itself, as introduced at the start of this essay. When the dominant approach to social change is based on the transformation of material conditions and this appears to be unsuccessful it is necessary to reconsider the relationship between social conditions and personal change. The first step in addressing this relationship is the recognition that social conditions and personal change are both necessary for social transformation, and that the social conditions people live in are highly influential on the people themselves. Indeed, Steiner recognizes this not only as influential, but as fundamental: “[…] you must first pour humanity into these conditions, so that humanity will stream out of them again” (Steiner, 2018). On a first reading this appears to follow the same line as Owen and the Stuttgart Weeks by suggesting that social conditions are directly responsible for the development of human behaviour and relationships. In short, if you want people to be kind, just, and supportive of one another you need to create kind, just, and supportive social conditions, just as Owen attempted in New Lanark and New Harmony.

However there is a second step in Steiner’s reasoning around social change, one which attempts to put clear-blue-water between Owen’s experiments as well as the attempts of Marxism: “People have created today’s conditions out of a concern for their own welfare, sometimes only a short time before. Thus anyone who thinks people are dependent on circumstances is reasoning in a circle because the circumstances were brought about by people” (Steiner, 2018). The concession is that people are indeed dependent on the social conditions, but those conditions are created by people themselves. Social conditions are not natural constructs in this approach. It is the element of agency introduced here which important orienting Steiner’s approach to social change around the individual rather than the social conditions. If changes to material social conditions are introduced by a single individual, as in New Lanark, or even by collectives as in Stuttgart, these changes are then an imposition on the population covered by them. As a result of this imposition, if the people are not ready or willing to embrace the new form of social organization any attempts at transformation will collapse in on themselves.Therefore, as a first step in social transformation Steiner argues that individuals first need to engage in a process of transformation of themselves. What is key for Steiner is to move away from motivations of self-interest which not only orient but dominate individual behaviours and relationships in relation to themselves, to others, and to the world around them (Steiner, 2018). In such an approach the actions of a single individual, or even a collective, working to change social conditions in a move away from self-interest will come into conflict with the self-interest of those who are the recipients of the change in social conditions. In Steiner’s analysis, this is precisely what happened in New Lanark, New Harmony, and Stuttgart. One approach to counter the prevalence of self-interest is to educate people about the advantages to be gained by the transformation of social conditions, and it was this approach pursued by Owen through his education programmes. Once again, Steiner argues that these educational programmes will fall short, as while the advantages of changes in social conditions can be argued from a reasoned position it does not address the underlying individual motivation of self-interest (Steiner, 1982). What is needed is a means by which to address the self-interest in the individual themselves.

For Steiner this route lies in spiritual science and the need for individuals to realise that their prosperity does not lie in working for their own egotistical self-interest, but in working for others. This shift in working for others as part of an individual’s prosperity relies upon a belief in the value and meaning of the wider community the individual is part of, and connects to elements of Steiner’s ideas on solidarity in economics (Steiner, 1982; 2018). More than this, the change in thinking away from egotism is underpinned by what Steiner calls “a fundamental social law” (Steiner, 1982):

In a community of human beings working together, the well-being of the community will be the greater, the less the individual claims himself the proceeds of the work he has himself done; i.e. the more of these proceeds he makes over to his fellow workers, and the more his o requirements are satisfied not out of his own work done, but out of work done by the others (Steiner, 1982).

While claiming that this is a fundamental social law, Steiner also acknowledges that it always exists in tension with egotism, a tension which has become increasingly unbalanced through the development of capitalism and notions of individual responsibility for self. The way to navigate this tension comes through a recognition of the fundamental social law, a recognition which is rooted in the realization of the human spirit and the connection to others encouraged and emerging through anthroposophy (Steiner, 1982). The internally rooted nature of this understanding of the relationship between communal and individual prosperity is what places individual change at the heart of social transformation, and what limits the transformation available through the external change of social conditions.

While Steiner places this realization and practice of individual change in anthroposophy, there are other approaches to individual transformation as a force for solidarity and social change. Of note here is the work of Michel Foucault and care of the self, as developed in his late lectures at the College de France and his book project The History of Sexuality. The parallels between these two approaches are worthy of greater consideration and will be the focus of a future essay in this series.

There is a point to be raised here regarding social conditions as constructed by humans: while this would appear to apply when Steiner considers his critique of current social organization and attempts to transform society, his own work regarding the threefold social organism appears to rest on the claim that politics, economics, and culture are the three naturally occurring spheres of society, and that furthermore, each of these has a natural tendency toward equality, solidarity and freedom respectively. Indeed, it is a belief in the three spheres as natural phenomenon that underpin many of Steiner’s claims about the threefold society. His writings and speeches on the topics are grounded in the notion that anyone who observes society and its tendencies cannot help but come to the same conclusion as him, lending the threefold social organism a determined assurance outside the realm of human construction. This would appear to be a tension in Steiner’s work which warrants further exploration.

An additional area of consideration of social change is that Steiner was not alone in his claim that social conditions are social constructs, and that changing people and their behaviours can lead to positive social transformation. At the same time Steiner was active in Stuttgart, the anarchist writer Gustav Landauer was active in Munich and held a position in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. It is beyond the scope of this current essay to establish the connections between these two thinkers but, once again, it will form the focus of a future essay in this series.

Andy (


Claeys, G., 1991. Introduction. In: G. Claeys, ed. A New View of Society and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books.

Owen, R., 1991. A New View of Society and Other Writings. London: Penguin Books.

Schmelzer, A., 2017. The Threefolding Movement, 1919. A History. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Steiner, R., 1982. Anthroposophy and the Social Question. Spring Valley: Mercury Press.

Steiner, R., 2018. The Science of the Spiritual and the Social Question. In: Rudolf Steiner. Social Threefolding: Rebalancing Culture, Politics & Economics. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press.

Steiner, R., 2018. The Social Question and Theosophy. In: Rudolf Steiner. Social Threefolding: Rebalancing Culture, Politics & Economics. Forest Row: Rudolf Steiner Press.