I took a break from this blog some time around the end of 2011. I had then been writing the final post in a series of posts on Anthroposophical schools (aka Steiner and Waldorf schools) and state funding and the subject matter was to be how Steiner’s racist evolutionary narrative informs ‘Study of Man’, an essential text for Steiner educators. Alas, I ran out of steam. I’ll complete the ‘Study of Man’ post but it’ll have to wait because there’s a ton of stuff to catch up on.
What prompted my return to blogging here was due to a chance read of the letters column of the Guardian. In mid-February 2018 I’d been Googling for something Free School-related and found myself on a web page reading a clutch of letters from Steiner schools supporters. It transpired they were attempting to pooh-pooh a Guardian article written by Zoe Williams in which the author had criticised both the Free Schools policy and Steiner schools. Amongst the issues raised by the article had been the thorny topic of Steiner’s racism and the replies to it were predictable to say the least. There was a sense of deja vu in reading both the criticisms and the rejoinders. I hadn’t checked on my mothballed blog for a long time but surely things had changed since I was last active within the loose-knit ‘Steiner critical’ community?
I began to explore my old blogroll, pootled around some Anthro sites, checked a few old blog posts out and generally took a trip down memory lane. Well, the landscape hadn’t really changed that much since I was last around. Critics had come and gone and Anthro organisations had come and gone too. There did appear to be a tad more coverage in the mainstream media than there had been back in the day and public awareness of Steiner issues did seem to have risen.
The Guardian letters, though, bugged me. I began to look a little deeper into the old scene and found myself on the PLANS website. It’s a tad clunky currently, top menu links don’t work (fix it please Dan!) (edit July 2019: Dan the Man has fixed the links, thanks Dan) which broke the link to their discussion forum. When I did manage to get to the forum it was no longer the hectic busy place it had been but it definitely was still going, steadily ticking over in fact. One post there immediately grabbed my attention, BBC news was reporting imminent closures of Steiner schools. From there I went on to discover the current chaotic state of the member schools of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship (SWSF), the representative body for Anthroposophical schools here in UK.
In one of the Guardian letters Steiner’s racism was excused by use of the findings of a Dutch commission into the subject:
“They found that in 0.05% of the 89,000 pages of Steiner’s published works, a total of 16 sentences that “were of a nature that as isolated statements … would violate the present-day, well-developed and highly sensitive Dutch law on discrimination.”
As a veteran of the critics scene I recognised at once the ‘Dutch commission’, a body whose members were all of them 100% Anthroposophists and whose findings had been discredited a long time ago – we’ll see the how and why of that later on in this post.
Another of the letters to the Guardian was written by Roy Douglas of the Steiner Academy Bristol, a school found to be inadequate by Ofsted just days before his letter was published. The Telegraph’s report on this mentions that pupils at the school were “exposed to avoidable risk of harm” and that “physical intervention is used unnecessarily”. Regarding Steiner’s racism Roy wrote:
“As for Steiner’s ugly racism, we completely dissociate ourselves from such attitudes. Ours is a multi-ethnic, multi-religion school with a sharply focused curriculum that seeks to develop the head, the heart and the soul in a rounded way.”
The ‘sharply focused curriculum’ Roy Douglas mentions in his letter was interesting. When I had last been active there were a few voices within the Anthroposophy community recognising Steiner and some Anthroposophic beliefs as racist and seeking to somehow modernise Steiner education by hiving off the bad things within it whilst keeping the good. Had this actually come about, was Roy’s letter signalling such a transformation? Was it possible to ‘completely dissociate’ from Steiner racism and still operate a school according to Steiner principles?
From the Guardian I wandered over to the Steiner Academy Bristol website. Sure enough, as Roy Douglas had written, his school does claim to dissociate itself from Steiner racism. Unfortunately, rather than forthrightly repudiating Anthroposophy’s racist doctrines the school states:
“His (Steiner’s) ideas on race reflect the racism of the time and place in which he lived, and have been rejected within Steiner education. Instead, Steiner schools have focussed on his ideas of the unity of humanity and the value of the individual, above any categories of race, gender or nationality.”
Hopes of a modernised Steiner ed movement faded somewhat because this supposedly progressive Steiner school accepts Steiner was a racist (albeit implicitly) and then attempts to defuse and excuse Steiner’s racism by normalising it for his day and age, an old and oft used Anthroposophist PR technique. The statement then goes on to emphasise and position other views Steiner expressed within Anthroposophy (re humanity and the individual) over and above categories of race. The problem here is that Steiner’s racial categories were not neutrally constructed – Steiner emphasises and positions the white Aryan race over and above all others and characterises the other races in negative terms. This is what makes them racist categories and Steiner used such racist constructs all the way through his career as a clairvoyant. Examples of Steiner racism are all over the internet these days should you need to find them.
Despite its shortcomings, my hopes were kept alive by the Bristol school statement’s claim that Steiner’s ideas on race had been rejected by Steiner education. If that is so and the Steiner education movement as a whole has rejected Steiner’s racism then surely there should somewhere be an official Steiner education policy document on the matter and what better place to look for such a thing than on the SWSF website. Within the ‘Resources’ section of the SWSF website is a downloadable ‘statement on racism’ document and here’s what the SWSF offers re Steiner racism:
“Although Steiner’s ideas are based on a profound respect for the equality, individuality and shared humanity of all people, regardless of race or ethnic origin, his works do contain a number of statements on race that are inappropriate in a modern context. They do not inform the education in any way: they influence neither content nor methodology.”
Claiming that unspecified inappropriate ideas do not inform Steiner education is hardly reassuring of a racism free pedagogy is it. In fact nowhere is this statement even accepting Steiner’s incontestably racist comments are racist – an unspecified number of his ideas are simply deemed ‘inappropriate’, like wearing your pyjamas at a wedding is inappropriate. The statement is a slap in the face for the people Steiner denigrates and it also marks a retrograde step in that eight years ago the SWSF was singing a different tune:
“Even though Steiner’s ideas are based on a profound respect for the equality, individuality and shared humanity of all people, regardless of race or ethnic origin, his works do contain a small number of quotations that are discriminatory. The SWSF rejects these statements and all racism. However, it should be noted that other great thinkers of his time including Darwin, Schweitzer, Gandhi and Carl Jung also spoke of race in a way that offends modern sensibilities. This does not render them or their work ‘racist’.”
As you can see, in former years the SWSF did at least accept some Steiner texts to be discriminatory but look closely, this statement is not a rejection of Steiner racism, it’s a rejection of a small number of discriminatory ‘quotations’ and racism in a general sense, outwith Steiner.
Nowadays, though, the SWSF has retrenched in that it now considers some vague portion of Steiner’s output to be merely inappropriate. Worse still, the new (to me) SWSF statement on racism continues:
“In July 1996 accusations that racism appeared in Steiner’s writings prompted the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands to set up a commission to investigate the concerns…The key question it tried to investigate was whether Rudolf Steiner taught a racial doctrine, in the sense of a seemingly scientific theory whereby the superiority of one race is supposed to be legitimized at the expense of another. The 720 page report of the commission, that was published on April 1, 2000, going through the complete collected works by Steiner, answered the question in the negative: anthroposophy contains no such racial doctrine.”
Oh dear me no. This delusional statement is based on the Dutch commission findings mentioned earlier. Time to put this one out of its misery.
Regarding the racist evolutionary doctrine structuring Steiner’s Anthroposophic beliefs – the doctrine the Dutch commission failed to recognise – it is worth quoting at length the scholars Staudenmaier & Zegers here. They remind us:
“Steiner was the chief public spokesperson for one of the largest branches of theosophy for a full decade. One of the primary original contributions theosophy made to the occult canon was the doctrine of root races. Steiner adopted the root race doctrine wholesale into anthroposophy. That comprehensive doctrine divides the human family into five root races (Wurzelrassen, sometimes also named Hauptrassen or Grundrassen, principal or primary races), with two more root races to appear in the distant future. Each root race is further stratified into sub-races (Unterrassen). These categories are biological (Steiner calls them “hereditary”) as well as spiritual. The racial classifications are not normatively neutral; they are arranged in ascending order of spiritual development, with the fifth root race, the “Aryan race,” and within that root race the “Germanic-Nordic sub-race,” at the top of the hierarchy. This hierarchy, in turn, is an integral component of the cosmic order. These ideas are explicitly laid out in great detail and with emphatic repetition in numerous books, pamphlets, articles and lectures written and published by Rudolf Steiner.”
And here’s an extract from Staudenmaier & Zegers’ assessment of the Dutch commission’s investigation:
“Undoubtedly the most celebrated of the commission’s findings is that “only” eighty-three quotes by Steiner, out of a total output of 350 volumes, are potentially racist. It goes without saying that a crudely quantitative approach is completely out of place here, but that is hardly the worst of the report’s troubles. Contrary to the repeated implication that these excerpts represent insignificant marginalia, the quotes in question are central passages from Steiner’s principal works, on a crucial aspect of anthroposophy’s cosmology: racial categories as a reflection of spiritual hierarchies. They are also substantial and lengthy passages; a full third of the 147 Steiner quotes that the commission examines in detail are multiple paragraphs or multiple pages. But the most amazing thing about the Dutch report is what it omits. Whereas the commission evidently included every last supposedly anti-racist fragment from Steiner that they could dig up, they deliberately excluded all of his writings on the root-race theory. They justify this incredible step with the absurd presumption that when Steiner wrote about “root races” he really meant chronological epochs, not racial groups, a claim which is immediately belied, on grammatical grounds alone, by every sentence Steiner wrote on the topic.”
To which we might add that in one of his now infamous ‘lectures to workers’ Steiner recapitulates and echoes his racist doctrines. Delivered in 1923, the lectures explicitly deploy the term race and give derogatory racist characterisations of black and Asian people, all set within a racial framework which has Whites as the forward facing race of the future. This is quite clearly and obviously an example of a racial and racist doctrine and it was given in a lecture in 1923, only two years before his death.
Having all but given up hope of a racism free Steiner pedagogy, I gave it one final shot and extended my search for announcements of the Steiner education movement’s abandonment of Steiner’s racist beliefs. One further policy/statement did come to light as a result of my searching, a lovely little ditty titled ‘Overcoming racism through Anthroposophy’. Composed by a group of veritable Anthroposophical super stars – the Anthroposophical Society in America, the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America and the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education, I dimly remembered reading it years ago when I was last active here. Undated, it is comprehensively trashed in an article published over on DC’s improbable science blog in 2010 and so is likely to have first appeared at around that same period. Amongst the usual array of Anthroposophist assertions, sophistry, misinformation and lies which may be found in any such Anthroposophical PR statement, there was talk in this one about cleansing Steiner texts:
“While Steiner and those who are students of anthroposophy reject racism, serious attempts are being made to find any expressions in anthroposophical literature and thinking which inadvertently could support even a subtle form of it. As part of this search, translations, turns-of-phrase, inapt metaphors, etc. are being re-examined and recast so that nothing that even hints of racism or racial prejudice can be inferred.”
This must be where talk of a purge comes from then. Well, prior to this statement, Anthroposophical publishers had been quietly censoring our English language editions of Steiner’s works since at least the 1990’s. An example on the old CHASE group website circa 2009 shows how an entire chapter titled “Farbe und Menschenrassen” in the original text – ‘Colour and the Races of Mankind’ in English – has been excised from the English version. This is one of the controversial ‘lectures to workers’ mentioned earlier. Two English translations of the chapter have since appeared online, one from a Steiner critic and another translation (authorised by Anthroposophy’s HQ at Dornach,Switzerland at the Rudolf Steiner archive and elibrary. This latter translation with its racist content intact first appeared online in 2016. It was not purged, contains no warning of racist content or repudiation of the content, no caveats whatsoever. The proclaimed purge of Steiner texts was just a hollow promise.
What we’ve been seeing here via the Guardian letters and various statements and so on is how the Anthroposophy movement presents itself, markets and masks itself. Despite denials of his racism, thanks to the transcript of a meeting of Steiner educators we know that privately the educators are acutely aware of Steiner’s racism. The secretive self-censoring of the lectures to workers points to an awareness of Steiner’s racism in the wider Anthroposophy movement. When knowledge of Steiner racism became a problem for the movement we see shameless PR materials touting bogus investigative inquiries and purging of Steiner texts. When the fuss dies down the movement sees fit to give the nod to publication of an uncensored English language version of Steiner’s lectures to workers.
Back in the day, the Steiner critical community here in UK and across the world had helped raise awareness of Steiner racism and other controversial content of Anthroposophy, his preposterous belief system. Steiner and Steiner schools became a controversial issue here and in the run up to the advent of state funding of Steiner schools in England we critics made a fuss, made ourselves heard. Not that we had much support from the mainstream media or from politicians, quite the opposite in fact, but one way or another the media, the wider community and politicians were given clear and cogent reasons as to why Anthroposophy and hence Steiner and Steiner education/pedagogy should not be state funded.
However, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The SWSF had been an effective lobbyist for many a year and had friends and supporters at the very highest levels of our society. Regarding state funding of Steiner schools via the Free Schools policy, government advisers to the SWSF were not concerned about the content of Anthroposophy per se so much as they were concerned about the content itself becoming a political issue should Steiner schools become state funded. When advised of the problems Steiner racism could cause government, the SWSF accepted that something had to be done about Steiner racism else face the real risk of losing state funding. Government advisers or their lackeys offered the SWSF lessons on spin to help them spin their way out of trouble and that is exactly what the SWSF has done, spin its way out of trouble. It really didn’t matter to government or the advisers that they were assisting a racist doctrine become state funded, what mattered was how it might look to the electorate, the taxpayers who foot the bill for all of this ****wittery.
This is why I took a break from blogging – when it comes to decision making, personal and political agendas take precedence over dialogue, discourse and facts. Reasoned arguments aren’t listed to, reasoned fact-based decisions aren’t arrived at and the resultant dodgy outcomes are smothered in PR so as to mystify and mislead observers and commentators. It’s hard to maintain focus and commitment in such a milieu. It’s exhausting too, reading and writing about Steiner. So, after a good long break and a chance read of the Guardian, UK Anthroposophy is back – you can’t keep a good blog down!