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A vote and its consequences

By Christian von Arnim

ANALYSIS | The AGM of the General Anthroposophical Society refused to extend the period in office of council members Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato. But this was no dispute about general direction but rather individual issues.

DORNACH (NNA) – The official statement from the annual general meeting of the worldwide General Anthroposophical Society (GAS) at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland was terse: “The meeting also refused to affirm the extension of the period in office of the two executive council members Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato.”

It is only seven years ago that a policy was introduced which replaced the lifelong period in office of executive council members by a seven year period after which their continued membership of the executive council would have to be affirmed by a vote in the AGM. This year it was the turn of Mackay and von Plato but the assembly refused to endorse them for another seven years: 49.8 percent of valid votes cast went against Mackay which, together with the abstentions, denied him the necessary majority. In the case of von Plato 51.7 % refused to affirm him in office.

As well-informed sources made clear, there was dismay in the executive council about the decision of the AGM not to follow its recommendation to reaffirm Mackay and von Plato in office: the debate preceding the vote had shown clearly, one source said, that the view of the members living in the vicinity of the Goetheanum was significantly different from that of the membership worldwide.

Others were less restrained and accused the Swiss Anthroposophical Society – or, more precisely, its executive council – of having lobbied against the affirmation of the two GAS executive council members by unfair means after the Swiss council’s doubts about the the reaffirmation leaked out. One report to a national anthroposophical society by its general secretary referred without further explanation to the need to find a way to deal with such differences in “more dignified” ways. Even the word conspiracy could be heard in some quarters.

No change of direction

What this vote was clearly not about was a new dispute about the constitution of the GAS or the fundamental direction of the society, as happened around the turn of the millenium and in the noughties when the society was riven with an internal conflict stoked by a vocal splinter group. That conflict ended in the courts and with the expulsion of the members of the latter group. Both Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato endeavoured in their time in office to give the Dornach world society a direction which was open to the world without fear of contact with other streams – indeed, which actively sought contact with other forces in civil society.

The present events were about the perceived track record of the two executive council members in the past seven years and whether they were the right people to carry the GAS forward in the next seven. Hence the reasons why Mackay and von Plato were not reaffirmed tend to be diffuse and different for each of them. There was the major Faust project which was severely criticised by some; the restructuring of communication as a whole at the Goetheanum, including the journal Das Goetheanum; but also the difficult financial situation for which Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato were held responsible. It is indicative in this connection that the report by treasurer Justus Wittich setting out the GAS’s serious deficit was approved by the overwhelming majority of the AGM. At another level which is less easy to pin down there was a feeling of a failure to listen, of not taking other voices into account.

One-sided accusation

It is, however, far short of the mark – not to say one-sided – to place responsibility for this generally unexpected result of the vote mainly on the Swiss Anthroposophical Society and its executive council, as the Solothurner Zeitung newspaper did, for example, under the headline “Rise of the hardliners”. In a statement published in the most recent edition of the Schweizer Mitteilungen, the newsletter of the Swiss society, the Swiss council expressly rejects the “one-sided and factually wrong interpretation of the result of the vote” and the accusation of having manipulated its members to vote against the affirmation of Mackay and von Plato: “We deliberately did not approach our members with regard to our view on the question of a renewed, extended mandate period because we were asked our personal opinion as an executive council – and no no account could or indeed wanted to speak on behalf of our members in whom there of course lives a range of different experiences, views and hopes,” the statement says.

The disappointment is palpable in Swiss circles that the council of the Swiss society has been publicly turned into the scapegoat for the vote against Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato; something that started when an internal opinion it had been asked to provide on its view about the affirmation of the two GAS executive council members was published without its consent. Sources say that the Swiss were not alone and a number of other general secretaries of national societies expressed reservations about the reaffirmation. One proposal to reduce the period in office of Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato from seven to three years was rejected, yet such a compromise might have led to a different outcome in the vote. 

Not only the Swiss

It is also disputed that it was mostly the Swiss living around the Goetheanum who voted against Mackay und von Plato. In its statement the Swiss executive council says that those attending the AGM had “travelled from many countries which a great deal of personal commitment”, it had by no means been a “Swiss meeting”. But these present and competent members formed the basis of the society. “When people say that it was only the Swiss, that is not the case. Most of the votes against [affirmation] did not come from Switzerland,” other Swiss sources told NNA. Criticism had also been voiced by members from the Netherlands, Italy and France. German members had also travelled to Dornach. Indeed, the Goetheanum enjoyed a high level of support in Switzerland.

Furthermore, it was not just the Swiss executive council which rejected a proposal from some in the group of general secretaries of national societies that they should present a united front in support of Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato at the AGM – because there was no such unity: “It became clear in advance of the AGM that the leading bodies of the GAS and School of Spiritual Science as a whole had agreed on a further seven years for Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato and that concerns of individuals were set aside in this respect. This was also articulated very clearly at the AGM,” the Swiss statement says.

There was also criticism of the overly emotional and sometimes less than objective argumentation which sometimes also turned personal. The Swiss executive council had deliberately tried to distance itself from this with its public silence. “But that does not mean that we agreed with everything or have to agree with everything and we consider an independent, critical dialogue in difficult questions as the help which the Goetheanum currently needs,” the Swiss council writes. Unconditional loyalty frozen in constant fear of a threatening loss of harmony or a “split” – Rudolf Steiner had already wished for much more alertness and willingness to take responsibility in this respect, “more individuality and less group or collective pressure”.

Next steps

What next? According to a Goetheanum statement, Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato will continue with their tasks and mandates at the Goetheanum and relating to projects, conferences and in their work until the retreat of the Goetheanum leadership on 11 and 12 June 2018, at which point all mandates will be newly allocated.

In the meantime, the Goetheanum leadership – formed by the Goetheanum executive council and the section leaders of the School of Spiritual Science – intends to analyse the result of the vote, discuss it and prepare further decisions for the June retreat. In particular, the following questions are to be considered: what errors did the Goetheanum leadership make or where were there omissions? Where was there an erroneous view of developments? Where are there deficits in communication with the members? Where were processes unclear? The aim was to develop sustainable perspectives for the future of anthroposophy in the world and at the Goetheanum with the inclusion of all members to the greatest possible extent, the Goetheanum says.

Laudable goals and perhaps also a recognition that in democratic processes, once they have been introduced, nothing should be taken for granted. Hence it was also surprising to see the extremely emotional reaction among some to the non-affirmation.

Information deficit

However, a question remains about the failure to inform members who were unable to attend the AGM about anything else that happened at the meeting. Reading some of the notices, also in reports to the members of national societies, one might well conclude that the affirmation of Paul Mackay and Bodo von Plato was the sole item on the agenda. Not a word about the report of treasurer Justus Wittich on the severe hole in the Goetheanum finances – possibly a subject which is just as serious with just as much relevance for the long-term future of the society.


Item: 180523-01EN Date: 23 May 2018

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Paul Mackay, one of the executive council members of the General Anthroposophical Society whose period in office was not extended.