Anthroposophy is, ultimately, a revolutionary movement that seeks to reform all human institutions.

In addition to offering new visions for religion, education, medicine, and agriculture, 

Rudolf Steiner offered a political blueprint for the reorganization of society. 

Called “threefolding,” this plan has had less impact than other portions of Steiner’s ideology. 

Nonetheless, Steiner’s followers often attempt to implement threefolding in their own lives and communities, 

and Waldorf schools are often organized along threefold lines.

Here are a few reports throwing light on this lesser-known element of the Steiner/Waldorf agenda. 

The first is excerpted from “Rudolf Steiner’s Threefold Commonwealth And Alternative Economic Thought” 

by Peter Staudenmaier. 

[Click on the title to see Staudenmaier's entire essay.]

The economic and political doctrines of German occultist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the founder of Anthroposophy, are often referred to as ‘social threefolding’ or ‘the threefold commonwealth’. Many of Steiner’s admirers view his social teachings as a promising part of an alternative economic vision ... What enthusiasts of social threefolding often do not realize is that Steiner’s economic and political doctrines developed in a specific historical context and carried a very different social significance in their time, one which in many ways aligned anthroposophical thinking with several varieties of right-wing thought that were current in early twentieth-century German culture....

The origins of ‘social threefolding’ lie in Steiner’s response to the First World War. Particularly during the early years of the conflict, Steiner was a fervent supporter of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), blaming the war on the English, French, and Russians and insisting that Germany and Austria were merely defending themselves against the evil machinations of their enemies. Steiner simultaneously offered a spiritual and supernatural interpretation of the war’s causes ...  But the First World War did not conclude with the German victory its advocates expected, and the far-reaching social changes that swept Germany and Austria in the wake of the lost war spurred a re-assessment of anthroposophist priorities. This led to the emergence of Waldorf schools, biodynamic agriculture, and the distinctive anthroposophical approach to economics and politics that Steiner called ‘social threefolding’. Anthroposophist disillusionment at the outcome of the war centered on the notion that the unblemished German spirit had been failed by an inadequate array of societal institutions which needed to be revitalized through spiritual and national regeneration....

The theory of ‘social threefolding’ holds that society consists of three autonomous branches, the economic sphere, the political sphere, and the spiritual or cultural sphere. According to Steiner, the three realms are to be kept separate from one another, and each is subject to a different overarching principle: equality in the political realm, fraternity in the economic realm, and liberty in the cultural realm. Of these three, the cultural or spiritual sphere is paramount, and encompasses many of the activities and functions more commonly associated with the political sphere. 17 One crucial aspect of the ‘threefold social order’ is that neither the economic realm nor the cultural realm is to be organized democratically; democratic forms and procedures are permissible only in the somewhat attenuated political realm....

What anthroposophists envisioned under the rubric of social threefolding ranged from vague utopias of an organic national community to straightforward calls for a völkisch state as a bulwark against the Western imposition of democracy...

Many of those interested [today] in Steiner’s economic and political teachings find various elements of the theory inspirational, disregarding the historical form they actually took in Steiner’s day....

Steiner’s model amounts to an ‘enlightened’ variety of private property and hierarchical management under the benevolent control of a spiritual aristocracy. These teachings are perhaps best understood not as an alternative to established economic systems, but as a kinder, gentler version of current institutions, a form of capitalism with a human face. In combination with anthroposophical theories about race and ethnicity, and the complex historical relationship between anthroposophy and the politics of the far right, Steiner’s vision of a threefold commonwealth merits increased critical scrutiny from those seeking genuine transformation of the existing social, political, and economic order.

[New Economy Books, 1996]

Steiner drew up his threefolding proposals in opposition to the Fourteen Points offered by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for ending of World War I. Wilson’s points included arms reductions, the adjustment of colonial aims, and the drawing of national boundaries to correspond with the ethnicity of populations. Steiner considered Wilson’s proposals — and the entire set of terms discussed by the Allies for the treatment of defeated Germany — too harsh. [See, e.g., Rudolf Steiner, THE THREE-FOLD COMMONWEALTH (Macmillan, 1922).] 

The threefolding movement had little effect, and Steiner soon redirected his attention to mysticism. 

[BiblioLife, 2011]

The following is excerpted from “The Threefold Social Organism: An Introduction"
by Stephen E. Usher 

[Click on the title to see Usher's entire essay.]

The core concept [in Threefolding] recognizes three domains of human social activity: economic, legal, and cultural. Steiner maintained that the health of human society depended on an adult population that understood the characteristics of each domain and could thereby organize society so that each domain enjoyed independence and autonomy. In an early characterization Steiner said the three domains should be as independent from one another as national states interacting by way of treaties.

Economic life concerns transforming what nature provides in the mineral, plant, and animal kingdoms into commodities that meet human needs. From the threefold perspective, economic activity should be organized and carried out in the spirit of brotherhood with the objective of meeting the needs of all human beings on the planet.

Rudolf Steiner maintained that the entire economic life was encompassed by what he called the “Law of True Price” ... [T]o properly perceive the economic life, it is necessary to picture each wage earner as actually running a little business that creates value ... When wages are included among other prices then it is possible to apply the Law of True Price....

The middle realm of the threefold social organism is the legal domain ... Its role is to establish laws that govern the behavior of all adults equally ... Political questions concerning human rights and obligations are the sole subject matter of the political/rights domain ... Once rights and laws have been established society must have the power to enforce them and, consequently, police power belongs to the legal domain ... [M]ilitary power also belongs here. 

Culturein the widest sense, is about the cultivation and recognition of human capacities ... Finding the best way of unfolding these capacities is the task of the cultural domain. The key ingredient for this is freedom. The archetypal picture of this freedom-in-operation is the teacher with his students ... [N]o laws or regulations should be formulated about how or what a teacher should teach....

In addition to education the cultural life encompasses all of science, art, religion, medicine, and the working of judges. Each of these areas is about human capacity. Artistic endeavor concerns the capacity to transform nature into sensory experiences that awaken spiritual ideals, even beauty; religion concerns — among other capacities — the capacity of reverence; medicine the capacity for recognizing and tending illness; the work of judges deals with the capacity for weighing truth with criminality. Inventing and innovation are actually part of cultural life too. The aspect of banking and finance concerned with recognizing individuals whose developed capacities make them able to manage capital is likewise part of cultural life. 

All of these [cultural] activities require freedom and competition among human beings of capacity, allowing the most talented to rise to the top. The notion that competition belongs in economic life is a confusion that arises because part of cultural life is mistakenly viewed by our civilization as economic ... Equally erroneous is the association of freedom with the economic life. In reality a deep and dense network of dependencies characterizes economic life....

“A Waldorf school is more than just another independent school that provides a developmental education. It is an organization that seeks to allow the spiritual impulses of our time to manifest on earth in order to transform society.” — Waldorf teacher Roberto Trostli, “On Earth as It Is in Heaven”, Research Bulletin, Vol. 16 (Waldorf Research Institute), Fall 2011, pp. 21-24.

The following items originally appeared on the Waldorf Watch "news" page:

From the Waldorf Institute of Southern California: 

"Threefold Social Ideals & Spirituality in Waldorf Education 

"Do threefold social ideals describe the path of spiritual evolution for human beings today? Welcome to an adventure in discovering and practicing the ideas and practices that earn Waldorf education the right to call itself a revolution! The anthroposophical-spiritual roots of Waldorf education are asking for a revolution in consciousness, a change in thinking from analytical to morphological and pictorial. We will explore how this applies to life in a Waldorf school – from lesson planning to block planning to the threefold operation of the whole school! Singing, rhythmic activities and role-playing will complement our developing imaginations of threefold life. Eurythmy with Rachel Schmid.” [3-8-2012

Waldorf education is indeed intended to be revolutionary. Rudolf Steiner prescribed “reforms” for virtually all spheres of human activity: science, the arts, medicine, religion, education... Ultimately, Steiner’s followers would like to reinvent every human institution, remolding it to fit Anthroposophical spiritual ideals. 

“Threefolding” is Steiner’s plan for dividing society into three distinct spheres (political, cultural/spiritual, economic) that would be wholly separate; no sphere would interfere in any other sphere. One benefit of this approach is that Waldorf schools would be free to go their way unimpeded. "[T]he threefold social order strives for the complete disassociation of the educational system from government and industry ... The administration of the educational institutions, the organization of courses of instruction and their goals should be entirely in the hands of [teachers]." — Rudolf Steiner, "The Threefold Social Order and Educational Freedom", THE RENEWAL OF THE SOCIAL ORGANISM (Anthroposophic Press, 1985), GA 24. 

Many Waldorf schools attempt to organize themselves in accordance with threefolding, so that participants in various parts of the school do not interfere with one another. Among other things, this means that the board of directors and students' parents should not interfere with the teachers. This organization is thought to conform to threefold human nature: we are beings with physical bodies, souls, and spirits. (Our physical bodies are our lowest parts. Higher beings, Steiner said, have left their own lower parts behind. They were once like us — they were, in fact, human — but they have evolved further. "When we examine the human being we therefore find him consisting of three parts, a bodily, a soul, and a spiritual part ... Those beings, for instance, whom we call Lunar Pitris, or Angels in Christian esotericism, possess no coarse bodily nature ... They passed through the stage of humanity on the Moon and have now ascended higher." — Rudolf Steiner, THE INFLUENCE OF SPIRITUAL BEINGS ON MAN (Anthroposophic Press, 1961), lecture 8, GA 102.

The "pictorial" thinking that Waldorf schools promote is imagination, which in Waldorf belief is a form of clairvoyance. If we follow Steiner's directions now and all become clairvoyant, the needed revolution in human affairs (i.e., the ascendancy of Anthroposophy) will come soon. Otherwise, we can wait until we all evolve to Jupiter. "On the planet which will replace our Earth, the whole of humanity will have this psychic-consciousness or Imagination, the 'Jupiter' consciousness." — Rudolf Steiner, UNDERSTANDING THE HUMAN BEING (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993), p. 30.

(The thinking behind Waldorf schools is not only revolutionary, it is deeply mystical. If you don't know that we, like the Lunar Pitris, have evolved through a lunar period, and that we are on our way to a Jupiter period, you may want to read up. Such knowledge is necessary to grasp what Rudolf Steiner's followers think is going on. See, e.g., "Prehistory 101" and the pages that follow it.)

A few Anthroposophical publications dealing with social/political issues,
as well as the proper role and organization of Waldorf schools:

 [Anthroposophic Press, 1941]


[Rudolf Steiner Press, 1977]

[SteinerBooks, 1996]

 [Anthroposophic Press, 1997]

 [Association of Waldorf Schools of
 North America, 1997]

From the Susquehanna Waldorf School [Pennsylvania, USA]: 

“Tuition Adjustment Program Introduction 2012-13 

"We are committed to a Tuition Adjustment (TA) Program that is both appropriately responsive to our community while remaining true to the intentions of Waldorf Education. Our program attempts to work out of the original impulse of Waldorf Education and in service to the tenets of the Three Fold [sic] Social Order.” [3-9-2012

The Threefold Social Order — the political/social goal set forth by Rudolf Steiner — will be achieved when human institutions are reorganized according to the principle of "threefolding." In essence, this is Steiner's plan for dividing society into three spheres (governmental, spiritual/cultural, economic) that will function independently. Each sphere will operate without interference from the other spheres. There is nothing inherently mystical about this scheme, but Steiner's followers tend to treat it as sacrosanct since it came from their spiritual leader. And one practical consequence would be that, under threefolding, Waldorf schools and Anthroposophy would be able to go their own way without any controls imposed on them by political or economic powers.

As for the “original impulse” of Waldorf schooling: Waldorf schools today still try to honor it. But what is it? Here are some indications given by Steiner: 

“As Waldorf teachers, we must be true anthroposophists in the deepest sense of the word.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 118. 

“Among the faculty, we must certainly carry within us the knowledge that we are [here] to carry out the divine cosmic plan ... [W]e are actually carrying out the intentions of the gods.” — Ibid., p. 55. 

“One of the most important facts about the background of the Waldorf School is that we were in a position to make the anthroposophical movement a relatively large one. The anthroposophical movement has become a large one.” — Rudolf Steiner, RUDOLF STEINER IN THE WALDORF SCHOOL (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p.156. 

“[W]e have to remember that an institution like the Independent Waldorf School with its anthroposophical character, has goals that, of course, coincide with anthroposophical desires. At the moment, though, if that connection were made official, people would break the Waldorf School’s neck." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER, p. 705.

The "original impulse of Waldorf Education," which persists today, is to create schools that embody Rudolf Steiner's occult vision — Anthroposophy — from top to bottom. (But hush! Don't endanger the schools' necks by making any of this official.)


Threefolding Goes to School

As I have indicated elsewhere [see "Faculty Meetings"], Waldorf schools often have — in effect if not in official formulation — a hierarchical structure consisting of concentric rings. The most devoted Anthroposophists tend to populate the inner rings, wielding the real power in the schools. Other rings, stretching out toward the periphery, are occupied by faculty, staff, students, and parents who are less aware of the schools' spiritual mission and who thus hold correspondingly less real power.

This picture is complicated, however, whenever a school tries to observe the principles of threefolding. In that case, the neat symmetry of concentric circles may be fractured by structures that cut across the circles.

In a typical, concentrically organized Waldorf school, the innermost circle is often referred to as the College of Teachers, and most of the real power in the school radiates out from it (and especially from any preeminent leaders standing at the focus of this inner ring). But when threefolding is attempted, the College may lose much of its authority, at least in theory. Under threefolding, a Waldorf school will be structured in such a way that spiritual/educational matters are kept separated from economic and "political" matters. Under this scheme, the College may become a body where all spiritual issues concerning the school are discussed, but where no practical decisions are taken. In a sense, the College then has complete oversight; but in another sense, it is largely powerless.

Substituting the label "spiritual organ" for the "College of Teachers," Dieter Brüll puts the matter this way in his book, THE WALDORF SCHOOL AND THREEFOLDING (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, 1997): "[T]he spiritual organ has a right to demand that the spiritual aspect of every problem [throughout the school] be subjected to its judgement ... But, no one has the right to include the aspect of the rights life [i.e., political concerns] and the economic aspects in [the spiritual organ's] considerations. No matter who it may be, if he or she ignores this constraint [i.e., raising a question of economics or politics during a meeting of the spiritual organ], they must be inexorably silenced" — p. 17.

In other words, under strict threefolding, the College or spiritual organ becomes a sort of spiritual debating society, where everything really important to the school is discussed, but where no actual decisions are taken: "[T]he conference does not make a single decision." — Ibid., p. 20. Practical decisions are left to the school's "economic organ" and the "rights organ." (The deliberations of the spiritual organ presumably have their effect in the spirit realm, and thus they have the greatest overall — albeit imperceptible — effect.)

Another complication is that membership in the spiritual organ is not as tightly controlled as it would be under a concentric, hierarchical organizational scheme. The spiritual life of the school is deemed to include every educational activity at the school, and therefore anyone who plays an educational role may join in the discussions of the spiritual organ. This may mean admitting staff members who, under other schemes, would be excluded. "In my children's [Waldorf] school there was a janitor whose pedagogical qualities exceeded those of most of the teachers." — Ibid., p. 19. Brüll argues that anyone with such qualities should be included in — or at least heard by — the spiritual organ.

The "economic organ" of the school is, in a sense, the practical organ — what might be termed the support system at other schools. "Economics" in this sense means anything related to addressing people's needs; the exchange of money may be involved, but it need not be. If a parent or student or teacher expresses a need, the economic organ attends to this need. Often, the organ's decision may be to explain why a particular need cannot be met (Brüll gives the example of rejecting a parent's request to substitute ballet lessons for eurythmy lessons). Some needs may be deemed unworthy or unfulfillable in a Waldorf context (if you really want ballet rather than eurythmy, you should go to a different school). But it is the job of the economic organ to handle all such matters, meeting the needs that should be met, explaining why other needs cannot be met, and making the necessary practical arrangements to implement the disposition of each request.

The "rights organ" of the school handles all discussions and decisions that guard or promote the rights of the individuals involved in the school. These decisions, clearly, may infringe on the ambit of the other organs, but they are made solely with reference to rights, not needs ("economics") or educational concerns ("spirit"). Sorting out who has which rights, and adjudicating between various individuals' conflicting rights, and determining whether a "right" is actually only a desire or perhaps a need — these are complex issues, and no easy resolution can be expected in many instances. Moreover, deciding who should pass judgement — i.e., who should be included in the rights organ — is difficult. "We shall have to find out who belongs in the rights organ from within that organ. We wind up carrying responsibility but in a different context, namely that only persons who carry the consequences of their decisions are to do the deciding." — Ibid., p. 29.

As you may perceive, threefolding can cause complexities and conflicts that are difficult to resolve. For example, how should a Waldorf school deal with the spiritual ramifications of a need expressed by a parent who apparently has a right to have that need fulfilled? Is this a question for the spiritual organ, the economic organ, or the rights organ? Brüll offers many pointers, but he acknowledges that no hard and fast rules can be established. A living process of delicate sensitivity must be implemented. In any event, all such matters must be worked through internally, with no interference from the outside. In a properly organized Waldorf school, there should be no organs beyond the three we have enumerated. There cannot even be a board of trustees. "There is no room for a board of trustees ... The board of directors does not represent the threefold principle but the monolithic state." — Ibid., p. 38.

In practice, however, threefolding may be less radical than appears at first sight (although the resulting procedures may strike outsiders as highly unusual). The actors in all three organs will be, to a large extent, one and the same. Thus, the actual operation of the school may wind up in the same hands that would be holding the reins under other organizational schemes — the hands of senior faculty members who feel themselves deeply concerned in all three spheres and who therefore install themselves in all three organs. So a subject may first arise in the spiritual organ, where profound spiritual implications are carefully considered while all efforts to sidetrack the members into practical decision-making are inexorably silenced. Adjourning, the members of the spiritual organ may then reconvene — with some marginal changes in membership, a few junior faculty exiting and a few parents or staff members entering — as the economic organ. Remaining mum about spiritual matters and personal rights, the economic organ may then hit upon a practical mechanism for fulfilling the identified needs of the various individuals who will be impacted by decisions in this matter. Adjourning and reconvening again (again with some shuttling in and out of the room), the rights organ may then review the matter, making sure that everyone's rights are upheld — and possibly sending some issues back to the spiritual or economic organs for further adjudication.

And thus will the life of the school evolve — not, perhaps, precisely as Brüll has specified or as I have described, but in some such Steinerish fashion. (And to the extent that threefolding proves impractical, the school will evince the standard, underlying concentric-circle hierarchical structure common to Steiner schools worldwide.)

— Compiled, and in part written, by Roger Rawlings