Swans Commentary » swans.com March 11, 2013  



Rudolf Steiner And The Organic Movement


by Michael Barker



(Swans - March 11, 2013)   Magical thinking has a long history of involvement with the global organic agriculture movement, and one of the most influential proponents of such connections was the white supremacist Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). (1) As the founder of a spiritual movement known as Anthroposophy, Steiner was a true believer in miracles, and the year before he died he presented a series of lectures to farmers in Europe that expounded the principles of what would come to be known as the biodynamic cultivation. These ideas, like Anthroposophy did not die with Steiner, and would prove to play an important role in catalyzing the growth of the budding organic movement, a history that is briefly explored in Philip Conford's book The Origins of the Organic Movement (Floris Books, 2001). Using this book as a launching point, this article endeavors to explore the manner by which organic activists have had the misfortune to be inspired by Steiner's eco-mystical biodynamics.

For a start, a theory of agriculture such as biodynamic farming that was "based on the influence of astral and zodiacal forces could attempt to justify itself only by the bold expedient of challenging the assumptions of established scientific method and arguing, as Steiner did, that it was modem science rather than his own method which was 'quite insane.'" (2) Such a New Age approach to farming, however, did not sit well with all budding organic agriculturalists, and while influential individuals in the movement like Sir Albert Howardwere "not averse to personifying Nature, ...he was uncompromisingly sceptical about Steiner's biodynamic cultivation." Steiner's ideas certainly "influenced some members of the mainstream organic movement," but Conford is of the opinion that the "influence of Howard, [Sir Robert] McCarrison and Lady Balfour was more significant in the development of the British organic movement than was the work of the Steiner school..." (3) However, while this may have been true in the early days of the organic movement, in later years Steiner's magical thinking came to re-exert itself upon the thoughts of mainline activists like Lady Balfour.

Here it is important to note that prior to founding this own spiritual movement, Steiner had been an avid promoter of the "esoteric doctrines" of Theosophy, having joined their German branch in 1902 where he went on to serve as their general secretary before breaking with them to found his own school of Anthroposophy in 1913. (4) As Conford adds, Theosophy consequently "played a part in the emergence of the organic movement through its effect on Steiner and, less directly, through A.R. Orage, a Theosophist as a young man who towards the end of his life established the New English Weekly." (5) Conford also acknowledges that another individual whose "experiences... were to be almost as important to the organic movement as those of McCamson and Howard" was Richard St. Barbe Baker, a former member of right-wing English Mistery, a person who significantly later "helped establish the Findhorn Community." (6)

Although not explored by Conford, Richard St. Barbe Baker's role in helping found Findhorn is important owing to the influence of Anthroposophy on the Findhorn community's development. (7) Of especial note here was the interest that Lady Balfour showed in Findhorn after she first visited their garden in 1970. This visit was organized by avid anthroposophist Sir George Trevelyan, an individual who "was both a personal friend and a religious ally" of Lady Balfour. It was his educational college at Attingham Park that hosted the Soil Association's annual conference throughout the 1950s. Sir George had sent a memo to Lady Eve Balfour and Lady Mary of the Soil Association that celebrated Findhorn's remarkable achievements, suggesting that there would be "virtually no limit" to food production anywhere (even in deserts) if the spiritual factor, "Factor 'X' can be brought into play on top of our organic methods." (8) After Lady May's subsequent visit to the garden in September 1968 she heaped praise upon Findhorn, and the following winter Professor R. Lindsay Robb, a consultant to the Soil Association, visited the garden and could not explain the extraordinary success of the garden. When Lady Eve Balfour finally visited the garden in 1970, she likewise found its phenomenal vibrancy inexplicable: magic was in the air.

Rudolf Steiner died in 1925, so the year after he had given his influential lectures on magical farming, his disciple Ehrenfried Pfeiffer coined the term biodynamic farming and worked hard to popularize Steiner's ideas. (9) Pfeiffer succeeded in doing this in large part by "turn[ing] the biodynamic movement in a more secular direction," collecting "scientific justification for organic and biodynamic methods" to such an extent that he presented an "'acceptable,' exoteric form of Steinerism for the mainstream organic movement." So when Faber and Faber published two of his books in 1947, Soil and Fertility and The Earth's Face, the former included an introduction written by Lady Balfour while the latter had a foreword penned by Sir George Stapledon. (10)

Pfeiffer's subtle approach to the promotion of Steiner's magic evidently proved successful, and during the first two years of World War II, even the esteemed Public Relations Officer for the British Ministry of Agriculture supported biodynamic farming. Here the individual in question was Laurence Easterbrook, who had first had his bourgeois journalistic-mind opened to Steiner's ideas in the 1930s, but much like Pfeiffer...

Easterbrook wore his esoteric philosophy lightly enough to represent the voice of official farming policy during the rapid expansion of agriculture early in the war; to edit the 1943 publication The Future of Farming, whose contributors included the Minister of Agriculture R.S. Hudson, Sir George Stapledon, and Sir John Russell of Rothamsted, and to write the post-war guide to British Agriculture (1950) for the British Council. He was an excellent example of the combination of earth and spirit so typical of the early organic movement. (p.76)

According to Conford in spite of harboring such spiritual beliefs, "Easterbrook was very much a part of the mainstream organic movement, being a founder member of the Soil Association and serving uninterruptedly on its Council from 1946 right through to the 1960s." (11) Likewise it is interesting to observe that another influential adherent to biodynamics -- in the early part of his career at least -- was Lawrence Hills, who is "probably the best-known of all organic gardeners..." Conford is furthermore happy to acknowledge how "some of the most noted figures in the organic movement were impressed by or actually experimented with biodynamic methods; Pfeiffer was closely associated with the Kinship in Husbandry, and Steinerians were actively involved with the Soil Association." However, he adds that "looking at the Index for the first fifteen years of Mother Earth, one is struck by how few references there are to biodynamic cultivation." (12)

But the downplaying of mystical beliefs is surely in keeping with Pfeiffer's own work, and the exclusion of such ideas could hardly be unexpected given the organic movement's attempts to influence agricultural policy-making. Nevertheless the scarcity of references to biodynamics does not necessarily mean that individual members of the organic movement did not consider spiritual techniques to be useful for their farming practices. For example, as Conford himself goes on to observe:

The New English Weekly, the most important journal in the organic movement's formative period, rarely referred to biodynamic cultivation, but its editor Philip Mairet was familiar with Steiner's work, and one of Mairet's gurus, Dmitri Mitrinovic, greatly admired and even envied Steiner. (p.79)

That said, one should recognize that there were influential individuals within the organic movement who were opposed to adoption of biodynamic cultivation. Within the Soil Association itself, a notable example, mentioned by Conford, is founding council member, H.J. Massingham, "who provided a satirical account of Steinerian composting in This Plot of Earth..." Another person who refused to join the Soil Association (for undocumented reasons) but still played an integral role in the organic movement was Sir Albert Howard, the individual who developed the Indore Process. However, regardless of the exact influence that Anthroposophy exerted on the early evolution of the Soil Association, in recent decades the Association appears to have returned to its mystical roots. As discussed earlier, various leading members of the Soil Association actively promoted the activities of the Anthroposophy-inspired Findhorn Garden, and in 2011 the former long-serving director of the Soil Association (1995-2010), Patrick Holden CBE, agreed to become the patron for the Biodynamic Association. (13)


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1.  Drawing upon the excellent work of Peter Staudenmaier I recently published an article titled " Fascism and Anthroposophy." At this point, however, it is important to note that many of the members of the Soil Association's founding council were active in right-wing and even fascist political organizations; two particularly notable exceptions were Innes Pearse and her partner George Scott-Williamson who are best known as being the founders of the Peckham Health Centre (for further details, see "Anarchism and the Welfare State: The Peckham Health Centre"). For a detailed discussion of the historical connections between fascism and the organic movement, see George McKay, Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden (Frances Lincoln, 2011), pp.42-69; and Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience (AK Press, 1995) -- a revised edition of this book was published in late 2011 by New Compass Press.

For more on organic politics in the far-right, see Philip Conford, "Organic society: agriculture and radical politics in the career of Gerard Wallop, ninth Earl Of Portsmouth (1898-1984)," (pdf), Agricultural History Review, 53, I, pp.78-96. Conford writes: "Since the 1945 Labour landslide ensured that" Gerard Wallop and his conservative friends "vision of an organic, ruralist society became more remote than ever, they achieved very little politically." Nevertheless in the face of such political problems they worked hard to help "establish the organic movement as a coherent alternative to the industrialized, chemically-intensive approach which dominated agriculture in the second half of the twentieth century..." (p.82) When his influential book Famine in England, was published in the spring of 1938 it "received widespread and overwhelmingly enthusiastic press coverage." "Even the left-wing New Statesman reviewed it favourably, rejecting its racial alarmism but praising its sound views on agricultural policy." (p.83) Here it is important to note that a vital element of Wallop's organic commitments revolved around his role along with his good friend Rolf Gardiner in founding Kinship in Husbandry, a right-wing group dedicated to countryside revival in a post-war world that was formed in 1941. Wallop then went on to serve on the Soil Association's Council for four years (1947-50). (p.89)

In 1948 Wallop had first visited East Africa and, no doubt delighted by the unique melding of eugenic and imperialism in Kenya, he bought a series of farms (which amounted to some 10,000 acres) near Mount Elgon. "He spent about 25 years in Kenya, improving soil fertility and playing his part in agricultural policy and national politics. He was a government-nominated member of the Board of Agriculture, and Chairman, and later President, of the Electors' Union during the Mau Mau troubles. In 1957 he was chosen under the new constitution as a Member for Agriculture, serving three and a half years in the Legislative Assembly. Once the 'wind of change' began to blow through Africa, Wallop found himself, in 1965, among the first estate-owners to have their land nationalized. Compensation was minimal and was in any case paid in the non-negotiable Kenya shilling. Rather than leave Kenya, however, he accepted an invitation from the President, Jomo Kenyatta, to become a special advisor to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, discharging his duties in this capacity until he suffered a severe stroke in 1976 and returned to Britain." (p.85)  (back)

2.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.66. "Yet there were paradoxes in Steiner's writings: he greatly admired the philosopher of evolutionary theorist Ernst Haeckel, whose work might be regarded as the apogee of the very materialism which Steiner opposed. Steiner's support for Haeckel's ideas stemmed from his conviction that the idea of the evolution of life was correct and that in some form it must be accepted. He found Haeckel's theory inspiring but Haeckel himself an inadequate expositor of its implications." (p.67)  (back)

3.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.66, p.257. Even though "Howard and his followers saw no need to subscribe to the esoteric theories underpinning biodynamic methods," in practice there was some considerable overlap between the scientific organic methods he propounded and biodynamics, "as is suggested by the fact that Howard's prominent disciples, Lord Northbourne and Roy Wilson used both the Indore Process and biodynamic methods on their estates." (p.71, pp.71-2)

According to Matthew Reed, Sir Albert Howard "viewed the Earth as a feminine actor, capable of concerted action: 'Mother Earth, rather than the advocates of these various views, will in due course deliver her verdict' (Howard 1940, p59)." Matthew Reed, Rebels for the Soil: The Rise of the Global Organic Food and Farming Movement (Earthscan, 2010), p.44.  (back)

4.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.68. Conford adds that "Theosophy and its influence on Europeans have been analysed with wit and in detail by Peter Washington" in his book Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru (Secker & Warburg, 1996).

On the connections between Theosophy and the Nazis, see George Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, 1999).  (back)

5.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.68. In 1924 A.R. Orage had become a disciple of influential occultist George Gurdjieff, remaining under his guidance until 1931.  (back)

6.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.59, p.220. In 1936 Richard St Barbe Baker "established the journal of the Men of the Trees, simply entitled TREES, to which several important members of the organic school contributed, and the first Men of the Trees Summer School was held in 1938, the speakers including Sir Albert Howard and Rolf Gardiner." (p.62)  (back)

7.  According to Dorothy Maclean when Richard St. Barbe Baker visited Findhorn when he was in his eighties he was a member of the Baha'i faith. Dorothy Maclean, Memoirs of an Ordinary Mystic (Lorian Press, 2010), p.117.  (back)

8.  Paul Hawken, The Magic of Findhorn (Souvenir Press, 1975), p.167, pp.168-9, p.170, p.173.  (back)

9.  The Earl of Portsmouth, who served on the Soil Association's first elected council, "recalled in his autobiography Pfeiffer lecturing on crystallization of plant juices, and diagnosing human illness from slides of crystallized blood; as a result Portsmouth grew sympathetic to the idea of cosmic influences affecting plants and human." (p.72)  (back)

10.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.73. Pfeiffer settled in the United States in 1938, but prior to this the "biodynamic movement had been established in North America by 1927, when the Anthroposophists Elise Stolting and Gladys Barnett bought Threefold Farm, New York State..." (p.73)

The Earth's Face "is a treatise on ecological landscape management, free of the esoteric detail found in Steiner's Agriculture Course; but it would be more accurate to describe it as 'exoteric' rather than 'secular,' for the sense of the sacred is explicitly invoked in the chapter on agricultural history." (pp.73-4)

Carl Alexander Mier is credited as introducing biodynamic cultivation to the United Kingdom and "By 1929, though, the British biodynamic movement was taking shape." During these early years Mier apparently worked with a subsequent founding member of the Soil Association, Maurice Wood, who began applying Steiner's methods to his farm in 1928. (p.75) Another founding member of the Soil Association who followed Steiner's use of miracles was Miss Maye Bruce, who "contribut[ed] an article on her [composting] methods to the second issue of Mother Earth." (p.78) However, in 1937, Bruce, who was not a practicing anthroposophist, became engaged in a "quarrel" with the Anthroposophic Society in England because [she had] used the same herbs that were especially prepared for biodynamic preparations and combined them in a simpler method in her Quick-Return-Preparation, which she then sold." Such blatant profiteering from biodynamic cultivation was completely anathema to the Anthroposophists. M Schmitt, "Fertile Minds and Friendly Pens: Early Women Pioneers," In: Georgina Holt and Matthew Reed (eds.), Sociological Perspectives of Organic Agriculture: From Pioneer to Policy (CABI Publishing, 2006), p.61.  (back)

11.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.77. Conford writes: Easterbrook "is presumably the only PRO for the Ministry of Agriculture to publish a pamphlet on reincarnation." (p.77) "Another link between the biodynamic movement and the higher echelons of government was provided by C. Alma Baker, who serves as further evidence that there need be no disjunction between adherence to Steiner's esoteric philosophy and success in worldly practical matters." In 1940 Baker published The Labouring Earth (with a foreword written by Lord Addison) -- a book which was allegedly co-written by Ben Suzmann, "an agricultural journalist on the New Statesman..." On the matter of this book Conford writes, that according to Baker: "The ultimate cause of soil exhaustion and erosion was secularism; agriculture must become once again 'the most sacred' of all human tasks." (p.76, p.77)  (back)

12.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.78, p.79. Conford points out that "To try to determine the influence of Steiner's followers on the mainstream organic movement is a task deserving a study in its own right, and my conclusions here can only be provisional." (p.79)  (back)

13.  Conford, The Origins of the Organic Movement, p.79. Patrick Holden has a longstanding interest in biodynamic farming, as in 1972 he spent a year studying biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College -- an adult education center that was founded in 1962 and is run in coordination with the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain.  (back)


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Published March 11, 2013