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A REFUTATION OF THE ALLEGATION OF RACISM AGAINST RUDOLF STEINER
By Richard House, New View magazine, 31 (Spring), 2004, pp. 51–3
It is commonplace in developed Western culture for the slightest whiff of `racism' to be unconditionally condemned – an understandable balance-restoring tendency, perhaps, when viewed in the context of the Western world's own disreputable history in these matters. However, an equally interesting and quite new cultural phenomenon, at least in Britain, is the increasing challenge being mounted to what some see as an overbearingly stifling `political correctness' on questions of race.
I maintain that Rudolf Steiner's uniquely panoramic contributions on these questions can shed a great deal of light on to these commonly fraught debates – not least because, in Steiner's view of `the universal human being', we are presented with a quite new way of thinking about these questions that takes us well beyond the uncritical – and singularly non-illuminating – dichotomous thinking that swings simplistically between `racist' and `anti-racist' belief systems. In what follows, the comparatively recent charge of `racism' that was levelled at Rudolf Steiner in the 1990s is used as a vehicle for bringing some much-needed illumination to what is, in mainstream culture, an issue that typically generates far more heat than light.
In the 1990s a series of attacks were made on Rudolf Steiner, coming out of The Netherlands. This became something of a cause célèbre in Holland, and as a result, a detailed survey of all Steiner's literary corpus (over 6,000 lectures in all, with Steiner's Collected Works amounting to 360 volumes) was undertaken. The resulting Commission examined and evaluated 245 quotations from the 89,000 pages of Steiner's Collected Works. The study was carried out under a mandate of the Anthroposophical Society in The Netherlands, by a commission chaired by the lawyer Dr Th. A. van Baarda.
The Commission's final report, Anthroposophy and the Question of Race', comprises some 720 pages, and is the result of nearly four years of work. It examined all passages about the subject of race in Rudolf Steiner's collected works in their context, and it issued an interim announcement on 4th February 1998 that there was no ground for accusations of racism in the work of Rudolf Steiner.
The following is a direct quotation from the Commission's final report:
There is no question of a racial doctrine being involved in the work of Rudolf Steiner. Nor does his work contain any statements which have been made with the intention of insulting people or groups on account of race… Suggestions that racism is inherent in anthroposophy… has been shown to be categorically incorrect.
Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophical portrayal of man is based on the equality of all individuals and not on an alleged superiority of one race over another one. Nevertheless, the collected work of Rudolf Steiner does contain some statements which according to current criteria are of a discriminatory [nature] or could be found to be discriminatory. (My added emphasis)
As to Steiner (Waldorf) education, the Commission concluded – in agreement with the prior judgement of Dutch Government Education Inspectors (Onderwijsinspectie) – that racism does not exist there.
In its report, the Committee made the point that Steiner appeared to have been subjected to `selective indignation'. Clearly, too, the fact that the comments identified are from `live' lectures, noted contemporaneously, rather than from specifically written books as such, is an important consideration. It is certainly arguable that a small number of quotations are, indeed, somewhat problematic, even when taken in context; yet it is crucial to emphasise the great changes in sensibility about these issues that have occurred since 1920 and earlier.
The Commission's report goes on to indicate the `racism' (according to present-day standards) in the work of Darwin, Schweitzer, and Gandhi! (not to mention Carl Jung, Martin Heidegger and many great cultural thinkers)…
Moreover, in the evolution of language many words have developed a different meaning in the course of time, and the originally intended content of a statement made by Steiner in the early 1900s (and in a different language to our own) may change if it is repeated verbatim. If a dated choice of words is simply repeated, the result may indeed be – quite unfairly – to cast Steiner in an unfavourable light.
At this point it is useful to consider the words of Steiner himself, who said:
[one of the aims of the] anthroposophical movement…[is to] cast aside the division into races. It must seek to unite people of all races and nations and to bridge the divisions and differences between people and various groups of people…[we]…must get beyond the illnesses of childhood and understand clearly that the concept of race has ceased to have any meaning in our time. A more clear and unambiguous statement of `post-racist' thinking could hardly be imagined.
Moreover, the Commission regretted that in the debate about racism, Rudolf Steiner's progressive views about society are always conveniently left out of the discussion. In short, in regard to races, Steiner was of the opinion that racial differences are no longer of our time. In his participation in the debates after the First World War about the structure of society, Steiner argued not only for cultural diversity but also for the equality of all peoples and races as a universal principle. Moreover, he did this at a time when equality before the law was not at all self-evident, not even amongst white peoples.
Rudolf Steiner's concept of man, then, is based upon the equality of all individuals, and not on some supposed superiority of one race over another. Anthroposophy is diametrically opposed to `social Darwinism', in which the idea of `survival of the fittest' leads to the domination of the strongest race. In Steiner's view of society, the central idea is a cosmopolitan striving for one humanity without distinctions as to races and peoples.
By its very nature, Anthroposophy cannot possibly be racist, for it simply does not encompass any theory of mutation and selection with regard to human races. The question of which race is `stronger' or `superior' is therefore irrelevant. There is clearly no inherent relationship between Anthroposophy and any ideologies based on racism, fascism or anti-Semitism. Steiner, for example, emphatically condemned the annihilation of the Indians by the white man; and in 1935 the Anthroposophical Society in Germany was banned by the Nazis.
I would like to ask you all carefully to consider the following: Just how many of us would be prepared to have virtually every public word we utter today written down and published (amounting to 360 volumes in all!) – and without having the opportunity to edit most of the resulting texts; and then, 80-100 years later, for every single word that we have uttered now to be judged and assessed according to the ethical standards and mores prevailing in the year 2100!…
I would guess that not one of us would be prepared to see this as in any way fair or appropriate; yet this is in effect precisely what Rudolf Steiner is being subjected to in these absurd attacks. There's surely not a human being who has ever lived who, if every word they had ever uttered were subjected to a searching gaze similar to that to which Steiner's have been subjected, wouldn't come out looking dubious, if a few statements were selectively and manipulatively highlighted, and divorced from the original living context in which they were made…. And this is of course precisely what has been done to Steiner's words in the making of these pernicious accusations.
Racism is also a very tricky subject, especially in an age where political correctness has arguably run out of control. At certain times in history and in certain cultures, racist views have actually been the taken-for-granted cultural norm – and, often as not, in very `respectable' sections of society. Some of the greatest minds and individuals of the past century or so have been similarly accused of racism – notably, Carl Jung, Martin Heidegger (arguably the world's greatest 20th century philosopher); and perhaps in a few cases there may have been some limited truth to the accusations.
But I don't think it has ever been seriously suggested by even the strongest critics that it is valid to reject a body of thought generated by or from one person's cultural contribution merely because they have had one or two views which subsequent (presumably more enlightened) societies have regarded as morally questionable. I believe, in short, that it is important to bring some `historically relative' meta-understanding to the views held by people in earlier times, countries and cultures, and to understand, and even have some compassion for, the specific historical contexts in which they arose.
I hope this clarifies the circumstances surrounding this question, and the highly misleading and grossly unfair accusations that have been levelled against Rudolf Steiner. It remains for those who persist in clinging to these baseless allegations to examine their own motivations for so doing, and for others to judge the possible motivations driving any such persistence.
Above all, I urge anyone harbouring the slightest doubts to actually visit a Steiner school or Kindergarten and to judge for themselves, rather than basing their view on prejudicial second-hand hear-say: for ultimately it is a direct experience of our learning environments that is the best antidote to the absurd claims that our education – or the ideas that underpin it – are `racist' or discriminatory.
Summary of the final report from the Commission
"Rudolf Steiner recognized as opponent of anti-Semitism and nationalism, Zeist/Driebergen, Netherlands, April 1, 2000: On Saturday, April 1, 2000, the Commission on Anthroposophy and the Question of Race made its final report to the Council of the Anthroposophical Society in The Netherlands.
In this final report the Commission reiterates its prior conclusion of the interim report of February, 1998 – namely, that the work of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) contains neither racial doctrine nor statements made for the purpose of insulting persons or groups of people because of their race, and which could therefore be called racist.
In the opinion of the Commission, the collected works of Rudolf Steiner do contain a number of statements that, by today's standards, are of a discriminatory nature or could be experienced as discriminatory. Certain words or phrases, even if Steiner used them in a descriptive way, are emotionally charged today, and may, by current standards, be experienced as discriminatory.
The Commission found that the debate in The Netherlands about the question whether Anthroposophy embodies racism and racial discrimination has been conducted on the basis of grossly incomplete information; and that this incompleteness has led to a distorted picture. It found that any suggestion that racism is an inherent part of Anthroposophy was proven to be categorically wrong.
The investigation shows that, beginning in the year 1900, Steiner clearly spoke and wrote against the dangers of anti-Semitism, including in the periodical of a then existing German association against anti-Semitism existing at that time."
It should be noted that the Commission did criticise the way in which the anthroposophical movement has dealt with allegations of racism. The Council of the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands had no coordinated strategy to defend itself against such allegations made, which then probably had a `greater harmful effect' than would have been the case had there been an energetic defence against them.
RICHARD HOUSE, Ph.D. is Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy and Counselling, Department of Psychology, Roehampton University. A counsellor since 1990 and a trained Steiner Kindergarten and class teacher, his books include Therapy Beyond Modernity (Karnac, 2003), Implausible Professions (co-editor Nick Totton, PCCS Books, 1997/2011), Against and For CBT (co-editor Del Loewenthal, PCCS, 2008) and Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos (co-editor Del Loewenthal, Karnac, 2009).
Richard is a co-founder of The Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy and the Open EYE early-years campaign. With author Sue Palmer, he co-orchestrated the two press Open Letters on `toxic childhood' and `play' in 2006 and 2007, precipitating a global media debate about the state of childhood in modern technological culture.
Last updated Jan 2004
REBUTTAL by Peter Staudenmaier, Waldorf-Critics list, 12/18/10
I would be delighted to have a discussion with Richard House or any other anthroposophist about this topic, and I very much encourage House to consider the invitation, in any forum of his choosing. For now, I can explain why I think House's analysis of racism is trivializing and ahistorical in the same ways that so many anthroposophical statements on the subject are, from Steve Sagarin's dissertation to the virtually indistinguishable articles by Stephen Usher or Bernard Nesfield-Cookson to the official position papers of Waldorf organizations.
Like those other anthroposophical texts, House's approach is fixated on the completely irrelevant concept of "political correctness". It makes absolutely no sense to apply that concept to Rudolf Steiner's work. Steiner died in 1925, for goodness sake, something anthroposophists oddly seem to forget whenever the topic of racism arises. Thus House's article amounts, alas, to yet another uninformed apologia for anthroposophy's racial doctrines.
Scholars have studied racism for a very long time, since decades before the notion of 'political correctness' was invented. Whether or not Steiner's various statements about race are 'politically correct' has nothing whatsoever to do with whether those statements are racist. Like other anthroposophists, House appears entirely unaware of the extremely large body of scholarship examining racism in its multifarious forms. Consider, for example, Dante Puzzo's article “Racism and the Western Tradition,” Journal of the History of Ideas 25 (1964), pp. 579-86, or Richard Popkin's article “The Philosophical Bases of Modern Racism” in Walton & Anton, eds., Philosophy and the Civilizing Arts (1974).
These studies have nothing in common with contemporary standards of 'political correctness'. Puzzo's article appeared more than forty-five years ago, in a mainstream historical journal, and its analysis is anything but strident or accusatory. It is instead an attempt to make sense of racism as an idea that has a specific history. At the outset of his article Puzzo writes: “Racism rests on two basic assumptions: that a correlation exists between physical characteristics and moral qualities; that mankind is divisible into superior and inferior stocks.” (p. 579)
This is a central point, one that seems lost on Steiner's admirers. Analyzing racism as a historical phenomenon is not a matter of "attacking" Steiner, as House would have it, or attacking any other historical figure. It is a matter of making sense of how and why racial themes played the role they did within the work of various thinkers. That is the task at hand when we examine Steiner's teachings about race. For Steiner, a correlation did indeed exist between physical characteristics and moral
qualities, and humankind was indeed divisible into superior and inferior stocks. That is the heart of anthroposophy's racial theory.
By neglecting even the most basic historical context of this sort, House's article is built around incredibly naive assumptions. He begins by claiming, without qualification, that "it is commonplace in developed Western culture for the slightest whiff of `racism' to be unconditionally condemned." As a historical claim, that notion is utterly false. Before 1945, "developed Western culture" celebrated racism as a major aspect of intellectual life, whether in the sciences or philosophy or elsewhere (House would do well to familiarize himself with the history of his own discipline in that regard). Before 1945, it was commonplace for racists themselves to use the term "racism" proudly to describe their own worldview. Several of Steiner's major followers did just that, assertively characterizing themselves and Steiner as "racists."
In first half of the twentieth century, many leading thinkers quite explicitly endorsed and promoted racism, while other more critical thinkers rejected racism and offered incisive critiques of racism as an ideology. Rudolf Steiner aligned himself with the first group, lauding the work of figures like Gobineau, the 'father of racist ideology', and belittling the notion of racial equality. Far from engendering unconditional condemnation, adopting racist views was at that time a respectable way of seeking scientific and popular approval for one's beliefs.
House appears to be completely oblivious to these basic historical facts. Moreover, he seems unaware that this error undermines his own point about relativizing the taken-for-granted standards of today. He has managed to get moral judgement mixed up with historical analysis -- witness his absurdly credulous comments on Heidegger and Jung, for instance.
I'm sorry to say that this sort of historical naivete is not the worst of the article's problems. Astonishingly, House does not cite any of Steiner's works on race and does not analyze any of Steiner's racial teachings. Indeed he claims: "Rudolf Steiner's concept of man, then, is based upon the equality of all individuals, and not on some supposed superiority of one race over another." That is thoroughly preposterous. Steiner's racial works explicitly reject the notion of equality and emphatically declare the superiority of some races over others. House has evidently never even looked at what Steiner actually said and wrote about race. How then did he come to write an entire article on the topic?
Even setting aside these rather serious mistakes and oversights, the basic premises of House's approach are simply inadequate to the task at hand. Above all, the very notion of framing the question as a matter of "attacks" is an unhelpful way of understanding racism. Several scholars have examined Steiner's racial teachings in great detail (something that appears to have somehow escaped House's attention), and their analyses are not "attacks" on Steiner or on anybody else. For scholars such as Helmut Zander, Georg Otto Schmid, Jana Husmann-Kastein, and myself, the point of assessing anthroposophy's teachings about race is not to condemn anthroposophy, but to provide historical understanding of the role that racial discourse plays within anthroposophy. (As an aside, House's notion that people like Schmid or Zander or I are beholden to "positivistic science and naive verificationism" is laughable; Schmid is a Protestant theologian, Zander's background is in Catholic theology, and I am as harsh a critic of positivism as Adorno or Horkheimer.)
Grasping such distinctions is essential to making sense of this subject. For scholars who study the history of racism, the term 'racism' is a descriptive category that refers to specific beliefs about race, not an insult or an attack or a moral condemnation. From the point of view of historians who study the development of ideas about race, to argue that a particular historical figure held racist views is not an "attack" but simply an analysis, a conclusion based on evidence, a comparative classification of various statements about race. Recognizing this usage of the term 'racism' would be a very helpful step toward a meaningful discussion of Steiner's racial teachings.
House also seems to have missed the past decade and a half of public debate on anthroposophy's race doctrines. External analysts of anthroposophy, including very vocal critics of Waldorf education, have discussed the complexities of racism and the very different conceptions of racism at considerable length for years. This list is one obvious example. In that and other respects, House's interpretation is strikingly obsolete.
Critics of anthroposophy and Waldorf education have long recognized that there are substantial disagreements on what 'racism' means. Apart from the factors that matter to scholars of racial thought, in popular discourse today there are many different contending conceptions of racism, quite a few of which are mutually incompatible. Such differences arise frequently in discussions between anthroposophists and non-anthroposophists. The standard anthroposophical confusion between racism and discrimination adds another layer of complexity to public discussions of the topic.
In the hopes of finally sparking a worthwhile exchange on the subject, here is a brief primer for House and any other admirers of Steiner who have taken an interest in Steiner's racial teachings:
The term 'racism' can refer to many things. One of the things it has always referred to is a specific set of ideas about race. It is this sense of racism that is usually employed in discussions of Steiner's teachings on race. As far as we know, Steiner did not have personal interactions with non-white people, and the possibility of 'discrimination' is not at issue, though it can of course arise in latter-day Waldorf schools.
From this viewpoint, 'racism' is not the same thing as active discrimination, it is simply an ensemble of concretely identifiable beliefs about race and its significance. Some ideas about race are racist, and some are not, and a number of historical figures simultaneously held overtly racist beliefs while rejecting discriminatory actions. In the case of Steiner or any other historical figure, the challenge is to figure out which ideas about race count as racist and which do not.
The notion of racism as a body of ideas about race is common in the historical literature. George Mosse's history of European racism begins by characterizing racism as an ideology, "a fully blown system of thought" (Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, 1985, p. ix). Christian Geulen's recent history of racism describes racism as a "system for understanding the world" (Geulen, Geschichte des Rassismus, 2007). Michael Banton's entry on “Racism” in The Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies (edited by Ellis Cashmore, Routledge 2003, pp. 349-51) begins by emphasizing racism as a belief system, an ideology. Banton notes: “Up to the late 1960s most dictionaries and textbooks defined it [racism] as a doctrine, dogma, ideology, or set of beliefs.” (349) He goes on to distinguish racism from both “discrimination” and “prejudicial attitudes” while examining how all three are interlinked.
The entry on “Racist Discourse” by Teun van Dijk in the same Encyclopedia (pp. 351-55) explores this interlinking further. It begins as follows: “Racist discourse is a form of discriminatory social practice that manifests itself in text, talk and communication. Together with other (non-verbal) discriminatory practices, racist discourse contributes to the reproduction of racism as a form of ethnic or “racial” domination. It does so typically by expressing, confirming or legitimating racist opinions, attitudes and ideologies of the dominant ethnic group.” (351)
George Fredrickson's essay "The Concept of Racism in Historical Discourse" (which concludes his 2002 book Racism: A Short History) begins by observing that while 'racism' today often refers legitimately to a range of institutionalized forms, historically the term was usually considered "primarily a matter of belief or ideology" (p. 151; see also p. 167). Fredrickson's earlier essay "Understanding Racism: Reflections of a Comparative Historian" pursues a similar argument (the essay can be found in George Fredrickson, The Comparative Imagination: On the History of Racism, Nationalism, and Social Movements, University of California Press 1997, pp. 77-97). The same point arises in many other works as well.
Ali Rattansi, Racism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2007) emphasizes how ambivalent and contradictory racist statements and racist perspectives often are, and notes repeatedly that it is common for the same individual to hold both racist and non-racist or even anti-racist views, all at the same time. Similar treatments can be found in Robert Miles' 1989 study Racism; Michel Wieviorka's chapter "Racism as Ideology" in his 1995 book The Arena of Racism; John Solomos, ed., Theories of Race and Racism (2000); Martin Bulmer, ed., Researching Race and Racism (2004); and Christian Geulen's 2004 book Wahlverwandte: Rassendiskurs und Nationalismus im späten 19. Jahrhundert.
For further background on this subject, additional helpful works include John Jackson and Nadine Weidman, Race, Racism, and Science (Rutgers 2006); Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars (Cambridge 1992); Seymour Drescher, “The Ending of the Slave Trade and the Evolution of European Scientific Racism” Social Science History 19 (1990); Nicholas Hudson, “‘Hottentots’ and the evolution of European racism” Journal of European Studies 34 (2004); Nancy Stepan's pioneering study The Idea of Race in Science (London 1982); David Theo Goldberg, Anatomy of Racism (University of Minnesota Press 1990); Neil Macmaster, Racism in Europe 1870-2000 (New York 2001); and Michelle Brattain, “Race, Politics and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to the Postwar Public” American Historical Review 112 (2007), pp. 1386-1413.
On the basis of historical studies such as these, it is possible to construct a reasonable set of criteria for 'racism' as a specific range of ideas about race. In order to count as racist, a given body of ideas must posit the existence of purportedly racial differences among human groups and rank these differences in some sort of hierarchical order. A workable criterion of racist belief could run as follows:
A way of thinking about race that links biological features to non-biological features, sorts human groups into racial categories, accords essential meaning to these categories, delineates specific differences between them, associates these differences with significant cultural, spiritual, or intellectual traits, and ranks the resulting constellation of categories in some hierarchical order of higher and lower.
This yields a historically meaningful standard of racist thought. The classic instance is the idea that some races are higher than others, whether conceived in evolutionary terms, spiritual terms, cultural terms, moral terms, emotional terms, intellectual terms, etc. While racist belief systems teach that some races are higher and others lower, non-racist belief systems hold that there is no such order in regard to racial categories, that there is no such ranking, no evolutionary differential, no higher and lower arrangement of racial groups or sets of racial traits. According to non-racist viewpoints, ostensibly racial differences do not reflect or embody anything important in a normative sense, they carry no spiritual, cultural, moral significance in themselves.
That is what makes Steiner's racial teachings racist. It is not an attack on anybody, much less an expression of 'political correctness', to point this out. Both historically and today, racial doctrines come in an extremely wide variety of forms. It is obviously not the case that all racial doctrines posit the superiority of one group of people over another or rank different racial groups into categories of higher and lower. Only racist doctrines do so. Steiner's work contains a range of racial doctrines. Some of Steiner's racial doctrines are racist, and some are not. Many of Steiner's statements about race are built around the contrast between higher and lower racial forms. That notion is essential to racism as a belief system.
For this reason, it is foolish to reduce the racist components of anthroposophy to a mere assemblage of "questionable passages." In order to understand the topic adequately, what anthroposophists need to undertake is an informed assessment of Steiner's racial views and the contexts within which they arose, their historical meaning, their genesis within Steiner's broader intellectual development, their influence on his followers, and their place in the overarching ideological edifice of anthroposophy as a whole. There is no need to worry about this procedure 'condemning' anthroposophy as such.
According to the conceptions of racism employed by historians and other scholars of racial thought, as well as the conceptions of racism employed by numerous non-academics, Steiner's work contains both racist and non-racist elements. Steiner elaborated a complex theory of race as part of his conception of cosmic evolution and spiritual progress. He sorted racial and ethnic groups in a stratified ladder from lower to higher, and assigned them central importance in the process of evolution toward the Universal Human. He also posited a clash of races as part of this evolutionary narrative.
All of these elements are part of anthroposophy as Steiner taught it, regardless of whether particular anthroposophists today find them appealing or questionable or negligible or essential. The racist aspects of Steiner’s teachings continued to be extended and elaborated by many of his followers for decades after Steiner’s death, and quite a few of these anthroposophical race theories are still current within parts of the latter-day anthroposophist milieu.
Thus the fundamental question that House's article fails to address is this:
What do Steiner's racial statements say about the spiritual significance of race, and what do these statements have to do with anthroposophy as a whole? Considering House's stature within the Waldorf movement and in Steiner schools, it could also be helpful to devote some attention to the ongoing role of such teachings within Waldorf contexts.
By declining to engage with the various critical analyses of anthroposophist racial doctrines that have been put forward by non-anthroposophist scholars and other observers of Waldorf and anthroposophy, House and his fellows deprive themselves of an opportunity for critical dialogue on a matter which is of evident interest and concern to them. House's article amply illustrates the defensiveness that still characterizes anthroposophist responses to external inquiry, even after years of effort by outsiders to get Steiner’s followers to take his racial teachings seriously.
Steiner’s complex racial doctrines are a topic on which anthroposophists in general have even farther to go toward a meaningful historical understanding than on the similarly charged topic of the anthroposophical movement’s history during the Nazi era. Steiner's statements about race contain all sorts of inconsistencies and contradictions, and there is no reason for Waldorf enthusiasts to avoid examining them straightforwardly. Here's looking forward to the day that might happen,
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