How to heal our ill societies? 

By Harrie Salman

Many of the present states are in fact failed states, states that are unstable and have institutions that do not function. Most of the countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and some countries in southeastern Europe belong to this category. They are usually artificial creations of post-colonial times. This does not mean that the other countries in the world are in a good condition. The social and political conflicts of today force us to find a way of improving conditions everywhere.

Society as an organism

At the end of World War I (1914-1918) Rudolf Steiner compared society to an organism; its health depending on the proper functioning of its three constitutive systems, which he distinguished as being those of culture, politics and economics. At the same time, in 1917, after three decades of research, he wrote about the three systems of the human body (the nerve-sense system, the rhythmic or heart-lung system and the metabolic-limb system). They are the physiological basis for thinking, feeling and willing in the human being. These three systems are not fully autonomous, rather they work together without any one system dominating the whole organism. With these revolutionary discoveries Steiner laid the foundations of a spiritual medicine, psychology and sociology.

In a similar way as these three functions in the human body, in society the three social systems should, ideally, work together in harmony. In the present time this harmony has to be created by human beings themselves. In the old civilizations of the Middle East, culture (religion) determined the way political and economic affairs were organized. In Roman times and in the later Middle Ages the political sphere became more independent and began to dominate society. Now economic interests largely determine political decision-making and the development of culture. Profit-oriented businesses are ruling the world, which is the cause of the pathological, unbalanced and ailing condition of modern societies. Their healing now depends on citizens with a concern about the future, a vision of healing society and the will to take political action. They may find inspiration in Steiner's social vision.

1917 was a crucial year in the history of Europe. The empires of the Central European powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) were collapsing. The United States entered the war under president Woodrow Wilson, who would soon bring his so-called peace programme to Europe. In November 1917 the Russian Revolution brought people to power with a communist ideology that challenged Western capitalism. Steiner had been observing these developments as a keen geopolitical analyst. His main concerns were, first, that the Western propaganda accused Germany of having caused the war, while it had actually been drawn into the war completely against its will. According to him, Germany was not ready, in the summer of 1914, to initiate a war. And secondly, that Germany and Austria-Hungary had no vision for the future to oppose the peace programme of US president Wilson.

Rudolf Steiner's first memorandum

In July 1917 Steiner decided to write a memorandum to the German government and a second one to the Austro-Hungarian government.[1] They were brought to the attention of the highest government circles. He described the course of events in which not Germany but England was guilty of bringing about the war.
For England, he said, this war was an economic war that had been prepared long before by circles of power, with the aim of establishing the Anglo-American global hegemony. They wanted to turn Central Europe into a colony of the Western powers.

The programme of President Wilson stated the idea of self-determination of the nations. This would lead to creation of many new states among the nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ignoring the fact that they would have minorities of many other nations within their border. Wilson promised to bring ‘freedom and democracy' to Central Europe, but according to Steiner this was an abstract freedom instead of the real freedom of the individual. In his view the Western model of parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Central Europe, because it would only serve to incorporate Central Europe into the Western world order.
Steiner remarked in the first memorandum that in England there will always be people representing economic interest groups that will find the way and the means to have parliament implement their political goals.

As a matter of fact, in modern democracies based on the Western model, democratic institutions are usually instruments of interest groups, such as multinational companies and the military-industrial complex, regardless of the political parties in power.

In the memoranda, Steiner urged the leaders of Central Europe to adopt a new vision that was in harmony with the historical impulses that were working in its history, and to proclaim this vision as the Central European peace programme. Its basic idea is that there are three natural spheres in society – culture, political life (concerned with law and order, protection of citizens) and economic life.
Since the last centuries, economics have dominated the whole society; politics and culture have lost their autonomy. These three spheres would have to be disentangled – drawn apart and each transformed – to allow a harmonious development of society. Each of these spheres would need its own parliament, with a kind of senate coordinating their overall activities. Besides that, the borders of cultural areas and economic areas would not have to coincide with the borders of the state.

Steiner's second memorandum

In the second memorandum Steiner made the interesting remark that the Western powers can create a political structure (with their type of parliamentary democracy) that is in line with their national ‘instincts' (their deep convictions of how political life should be organized), but that they should not impose their model on other nations.

The adoption of this peace programme would solve two fundamental problems of the Central European powers. According to Steiner, the problem of the German Empire was that it did not have a spiritual mission, and threatened English and French interests by its economic expansion. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had not solved the tensions within the areas with a Slavic population. In Steiner's view, the Slavic speaking territories should have been granted autonomy already in the late 1800's.

In the memoranda, Steiner described the consequences of accepting the programme of Wilson. Central Europe would lose its mission to develop the free individuality of Man, its nations would perish and lose their freedom. They would become economically dependent on Anglo-Americanism. In Steiner's view, the mission of Central Europe included supporting the development of the ‘germ' of a future spiritual culture in Russia. The Western circles of powers who were, since 1917, organizing the socialist experiment in Russia, wanted to take control of its future development. In the First World War they wanted to eliminate Central Europe and become the sole ‘educator' of Russia.[2]

The leaders of Central Europe did not have the courage to present a survival programme of their own and accepted the programme of Wilson and the huge war debt that Germany had to pay to France. A sequence of social catastrophes followed that led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War.

Social Threefolding

Steiner did not immediately give up his attempts to save Central Europe and its mission. In his lectures he spoke about the content of his memoranda. For example: In December 1918 he spoke about the plans of Anglo-Saxon circles of power to create a ‘caste of lords' in the West, ruling over an ‘economic caste of slaves' living in the East – starting from the Rhine and further eastward into Asia.[3]

In 1919 Steiner lectured in many German and Swiss towns about the three spheres of social life and how they could work together in a healthy way. He presented the creation of such a threefold society as the medicine for the ill societies of Central and Eastern Europe. His book Toward Social Renewal in which he elaborated his ideas on the necessary structure of social life was widely read, but the actions that were carried out to spread the new vision were not effective.

At the same time he worked for the liberation of education from the control by the state. Out of these efforts the first Steiner school was born in Stuttgart. He was also invited to speak in factories about the creation of work councils, in which workers and staff would take decisions together. In 1922 Steiner's activities in the area of the Social Threefolding (creating threefold structures in social life) came to an end.[4] He saw that the time was no longer ripe for understanding and working with this revolutionary vision. He was, however, confident that new opportunities would come later.

Threefolding is not a model to be simply applied, as a method, but rather was is a way of healthily structuring a society by creating three autonomous spheres and making them work together in harmony. Steiner proposed to use the three ideals of the French Revolution (never at all realised in that revolution's aftermath) as regulative principles – freedom for the area of culture, equality of all citizens in the political system, and brotherhood (solidarity) in economy. Also institutions and organizations (including business organizations and service organizations, such as schools) can apply principles of threefolding because they have aspects related to culture (the spiritual development of its members), politics (decision making) and economy (production and exchange of goods and services for human needs).

The Western World Order

What Steiner foresaw in 1917 has become reality. The Anglo-American world order continues to impose itself on the world, provoking resistance from many sides. Wars are the way to achieve world domination, the material resources of the earth are plundered by profit-seeking companies, the global climate is changing dramatically, big companies determine political decisions, agro-companies want to control the global seed market with their genetically modified seeds, culture becomes amusement, independent and spiritual thinking is marginalized, ‘alternative truths' distort our image of reality, and societies become addicted to economic growth to satisfy ever new artificial and materialistic needs of people.

The ‘caste of slaves' of Europe, as Steiner called them, is living in spiritual poverty but still in material prosperity (except in Eastern Europe), with a lifestyle that is not sustainable within a global context. The victims of globalization and the American wars have already started to enter the safe and still relatively comfortable haven of Europe.

In Steiner's view, after the First World War the Anglo-American nations were destined for global hegemony. By crushing the nations of Central Europe, the Western nations carry the responsibility for the future of humanity. As losers of the war the Central European nations do not share in this responsibility anymore, Steiner remarked, but individual persons do remain responsible. The domination of materialism that is spreading over the world will bring destruction and this will bear heavily on the Anglo-American nations. Steiner's message was that from the middle of the 20th century individuals have to stand up to take responsibility for the seeds of a new spiritual life that will heal humanity.[5]

In the second half of the 20th century new spiritual impulses were indeed born in Central Europe, as well as in the Western world, among individuals that felt their responsibility for the future of humanity.
The culture of Central Europe that had proved itself incapable of saving the mission of Central Europe in 1917 experienced a rebirth among the dissidents in the eastern part of Central Europe (Prague, Gdansk, Budapest, Zagreb and Ljubljana), as well as in its western part (Germany). The modern Peace movements, Human Rights movements and Green movements have very strong roots in the reborn culture of Central Europe.

The neoliberal ideology

The incorporation of Europe into the Western world order continued since 1917 until the present day. After the Second World War, and subsequently for the countries in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War, the nations of Europe have come into an ever stronger grip of the Anglo-American world order with its neoliberal ideology. This ideology turns people into competitive egoists defending their personal interests against others. Looking from the perspective that Steiner developed in his memoranda we may conclude that the European Union is one of the main instruments of this control. Since the 1980's the European Union has promoted globalization, the privatization of the public sector, the cutting down on welfare, the flexibility of the labour markets and the liberalization of the financial sector.

The European Commission was negotiating with the US on the heavily criticized Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) until it became clear that the new president Donald Trump was not interested in it. A similar agreement with Canada, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), however, was signed in 2016.

We cannot ignore the fact that the European Union and its predecessor the EEC have contributed to post-war peace and economic development in Western Europe and, after the end of the cold war, to stabilizing the East-European countries, but its structure does not meet the requirements of a healthy social organism as defined by Steiner.

New impulses

The healing of our ailing societies includes: liberating culture from political control and from market thinking, reducing the power of the state and making it independent from economic interest groups, and creating a framework in which economic activities can serve the society – this is a huge task, but is imperative for the creation of a healthy society in which the dignity of human beings, their spiritual development, their human rights and their bonds of solidarity with others are protected.

As a part of the rebirth of Central European culture that took place since the late 1960's, the impulse of social threefolding came to a new life, mainly in Germany but also in other countries, such as in actions for direct democracy, in the creation of associations of producers, traders and consumers, in new forms of banking, in private institutions of education, in study groups and in consciousness raising activities. The impulse of social threefolding has found new areas in which it can be applied in the creation of threefold structures representing the three fundamental aspects of social life.

This impulse also lives subconsciously among civil society activists. Many thousands of young people are now involved in initiatives creating free spaces in cultural life, in activities for direct democracy, for referenda and the right of a basic income, working with complementary currencies, in fair trade companies and in ecologically and socially responsible companies. The seeds of a new spiritual culture, which were so threatened by destruction following 1917, are germinating and growing again.


The year 1917 was a year of a great significance. Central Europe lost its spiritual mission and became part of the Anglo-American world order. Steiner's efforts to promote a social vision in which this mission could unfold, itself failed. According to esoteric wisdom, spiritual impulses have a 100 year rhythm. After this passage of time they need to be reinvigorated.

This has to happen now with the impulse of social threefolding that Steiner developed to realize his social vision. In this respect, the year 2017 marks a potentially great turn of European destiny. The presidency of Trump in the United States unmasked the naked face of American imperial power. Many people are becoming aware of the dark sides of an Anglo-American world order that ignores climate changes, violates principles of sustainability, uses terrorists groups for their goals and organizes wars to control resources. The lies of politicians are visible to everybody with a healthy faculty of judgement.

In spite of the positive effects it had in making Europeans aware of their common interests, the European Union appears as a technocratic institution that is criticized for many reasons, such as the lack of democratic control of its institutions, the implementation of neoliberal policies (causing the loss of jobs, cuts in welfare benefits, the demolition of the public sector and growing inequality), the admission of war refugees and economic refugees into Europe, and the concerns over EU governance of those United Kingdom citizens who voted in favour of Brexit.

There has been an expectation that the anger of many Europeans towards the European Union and their national politicians would bring populist parties substantial gains in the 2017 elections in France, Holland and Germany, but this did not happen. Enough people understand that this is the wrong direction of change.

In all countries of Europe populist leaders are stirring the subconscious forces of fear and anger in the souls of the citizens, in order to make these forces stronger. A century ago political leaders already developed the skills for this and created chaos in Europe.

At that time, Steiner's social vision was like a beacon of light but only a few people were able to see it and comprehend it; not enough to bring it alive in the world.

Today, a century after 1917, the future is open again. Many people are developing a new social vision. The opportunity is there for everybody to wake up and work together for a sane society and for the creation of a new, non-Anglo-American dominated world order, rather a world order in which spiritual impulses can work for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

Harrie Salman lives in Holland and is an itinerant teacher of philosophy and researcher in the areas of cultural history, social development and spirituality.

First publication in New View magazine, issue 85, Autumn 2017 (

[1] Rudolf Steiner, ‘Memoranda' (1917), in: Rudolf Steiner: Social and Political Science, ed. Stephen E. Usher Forest Row, U.K., Rudolf Steiner Press 2003.

[2] Rudolf Steiner, Manuscript on the background of the events of the war (probably written in December 1917), first publication in: Rudolf Steiner, Zeitgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, vol. 3 (Collected Works, Nr. 173c), Dornach 2010, p. 264-265. For an English translation see:

[3] Rudolf Steiner, lecture of December 1, 1918, in: The Fundamental Social Demands of Our Times - In Changed Situations, (Collected Works, Nr. 186).

[4] For an overview of these activities see: Christoph Strawe, ‘The Threefolding Movement of 1917-1922 and its Present Significance' (German original 1998), published on

[5] Rudolf Steiner, lecture of December 14, 1919, in: The Mission of Michael (Collected Works, Nr. 194).


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