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Racism vs Racialism

Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s distinction between ‘racialism’ and ‘racism’ seems important in considering Steiner’s statements on the subject of race. A nice summary is provided by George Fredrickson in his book Racism: A Short History.[1]First Fredrickson offers Appiah’s definition of ‘racialism’ as a belief "that there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, that allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race."[2] Fredrickson continues, "Such a belief essentializes differences but does not necessarily imply inequality or hierarchy. As a moral philosopher, Appiah finds such a viewpoint mistaken but not immoral. Racialists do not become racists until they make such convictions the basis for claiming special privileges for members of what they consider to be their own race, and for disparaging and doing harm to those deemed racially Other."

As a historian, Fredrickson finds the distinction useful in considering such people as pre-Civil War abolitionists, many of whom held the belief that blacks were fundamentally different, but were not therefore inferior. Of such people, he says, "I did not wish to use the pejorative ‘racism’, because, for at least some of these antislavery men and women, the alleged peculiarities of blacks did not sanction a belief in their inferiority or justify enslaving them or discriminating against them."

The abolitionist example is enlightening. Those who fought for the rights of minorities 100 to 150 years ago are none the less defined as "racists" today because they adhered to the widely held belief that human subpopulations differed in certain traits, while explicitly denying that such differences conferred any superiority or privilege. Today such a belief is considered by some as "racist". Yet moral philosophers and historians are bothered by this, because it applies the same label "racist" both to those who advocated and implemented slavery and those who opposed it. Hence the alternative term "racialism".

I feel that Rudolf Steiner falls into the same category as the abolitionists. Steiner opposed racism, national chauvinism, colonialism, and ethnic particularism his entire life. To Steiner the individual was primary, and all individuals are more important than their race, color, nationality, gender, or ethnic group identification. And this was during the time of the high point of "classic" racism, the actual doctrine that a person’s racial affiliation was more important than their individuality. It was Steiner’s explicit and repeated opposition to racism that caused Anthroposophy to be denounced in no uncertain terms by the Nazi government of Germany in 1935[3].

Yet Steiner did express a belief to the effect that that there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, that allow a grouping into five races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race. Steiner was also careful to warn that these traits were inessential and that there was no basis to claim one race superior to any other. By Appiah’s definition, this makes Steiner a "racialist" but not a "racist". "Racism" has become such an elastic term, applied almost indiscriminately whenever the word "race" appears, that many experts, among them George Fredrickson, complain that the term has lost all usefulness.[4]

Critics of Steiner are playing a shell game with definitions, using the broadest definition of "racism" to catch Steiner, then presenting their findings in a manner designed to imply that Steiner was a racist the narrowest sense. Realistically, had you conducted a poll 100 years ago, asking the general public, leading scientists, statesmen, and intellectuals, on all five continents, the single question, "Does race exist?" you would have heard "yes" from well over 99 percent of respondents, Steiner included. By the broad definition, nearly the entire world was racist back then. Ask further whether one race is superior to others and a large percentage would again have answered "yes". Steiner, however, would not have been among them. Yet by the critics, Steiner is presented in a manner designed to covey to the casual reader that he was an active advocate for the oppression of non-European peoples, or possibly even all non-Germans. This is intellectually dishonest.


1. Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002. Pages 153-54.

2. Appiah, Kwame Anthony. "Racisms" in Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg. Minneapolis, 1990. p 222.

3. Jakob Wilhelm Hauer to the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst RFSS), Oberabschnitt Süd-West, Stuttgart, on February 7th, 1935. (Archival source: BAD R 4901-3285. Hauer. Translation by Daniel Hindes.):

"Anthroposophical "spiritual science", because it holds fast to outmoded spiritual concepts, causes anthroposophy to belong to the epoch of occidental thinking against which our new race- and volk- based thinking (that sees man as a unified physical-spiritual entity) is fighting for its continued existence. Anthroposophy, too, frees the spirit from its connection to race and volk and damns all that is racial and folk-based (Völkische) to lower spheres of primitivism – to the instinctual – considering it to be a drive to be overcome by the spirit, a prehistoricism. Thereby it demonstrates its interconnection with the dominant streams of previous European spiritual history, above all the Enlightenment, German Idealist philosophy, and the Liberalism of the previous century. In it remains living the idealism of the French Revolution and the humanitarian ideals of the Freemasons, as it does in Theosophy, the mother-organization from which it arose. Like Freemasonry and Theosophy, it mixes itself with oriental mysticism, occultism and spiritualism, and breaks like a large wave – similar in form to the secret teachings of the Kabbalah – over Europe…
“These foundations of the world view have the effect that anthroposophy stands open in a disastrous manner to all anti-völkisch, anti-Nationalistic, pacifistic, überstaatlichen (considering something to be more important than the state) and especially Jewish influences…”

Report of the Security Service Central Office (SD-Hauptamtes) in Berlin on "Anthroposophie” dated May 1936. (Archival source: BAD Z/B I 904. Translation by by Daniel Hindes.):

“I consider the Anthroposophical worldview, which is in every way internationally and pacifistically oriented, to be quite simply incompatible with National Socialism. The National Socialist worldview is built upon the conception of blood, race, and Volk, and then also, on the conception of the absolute state. Precisely these two fundamental pillars of the National Socialist worldview and the Third Reich are denied by the anthroposophical worldview. […] Every study and activity involving anthroposophy necessarily has its source in the anthroposophical worldview. This means that schools built upon the anthroposophical worldview and managed by anthroposophists are a danger to true German education […]”

4. George Fredrickson cites Loïc Wacquant, "a prominent sociologist of race" as advocating, "forsaking once and for all the inflammatory and exceedingly ductile category of ‘racism’ save as a descriptive term referring to empirically analyzable doctrines about beliefs about ‘race’."

Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002. Page152-53.

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