Einstein’s Socialism

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E_KEinstein’s progressive views inevitably made him face the fundamental in our times question of socialism. He dealt with it in his extremely important article “Why Socialism?”1, published in the first issue of Monthly Review in 1949. In it Einstein explicitly declares in favor of socialism, recognizing its superiority over the capitalist system.

Einstein came to be interested in socialism through realizing that the present social order does not promote culture and through his understanding of the deep despair and hopelessness experienced by many people. He recounts in the article an enlightening incident from a conversation he had with an acquaintance, who had expressed his indifference about the eventual destruction of humanity after a relevant remark by Einstein. He makes an accurate diagnosis of the social crisis: “Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile towards the group, small or large, to which they belong”.

From this starting point, Einstein came naturally to the question of the feasibility and the historical need of another, socialist order. And with his usual mental integrity, he replied it in the affirmative when he was convinced that there is no other way to save human civilization.

In “Why Socialism?” Einstein does not only sharply condemn capitalism. Even more significantly, he adopts, to a large extent, the Marxist analysis of the capitalist system, criticizing its exploitative character and its other derivative afflictions, such as the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, crises, unemployment and the manipulation of public opinion. His judgments on the principle of profit and other currently dominant values of wild market capitalism are quite interesting:

“The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil… Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society… Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education)… Production is carried on for profit, not for use… an “army of unemployed” almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job… The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals… Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career”.

Einstein does not explicitly mention the source of inspiration of his critique of capitalism. He only refers in passing to Thorstein Veblen, one of the critical bourgeois intellectuals of the period, citing his words that humanity has not yet overcome its “predatory phase”. However, he depicts the competitive processes of capital accumulation and its harmful consequences on the condition of the workers in almost Marxist terms.

The lack of reference to Marx does not prove Einstein was unaware of his work. It is likely to have been acquainted with it, either directly or through discussions with his often referred as of Marxist inclinations Polish friend and collaborator, Leopold Infeld.

Apart from the passages cited, there is a number of typically Marxist formulations in “Why Socialism?”, suggesting some kind of familiarity with Marx’s work.

He talks, e.g., of the workers as “those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production”. He adds further: “The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor power of the worker… Insofar as the labor contract is “free,” what the worker receives is determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists’ requirements for labor power in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs”.

This is the classic Marxist idea that the worker is paid not the value of his work, but the value of his labor power, eventually determined by the minimum subsistence for himself and his family – an idea which would be difficult to find in the non-Marxist literature of the period.

Certainly it is unlikely that Einstein, who was vividly interested on all social and philosophical issues, had never heard of Marx. Moreover, Monthly Review in which his article appeared was a socialist, Marxist magazine. It is thus reasonable to assume that he preferred to express his views in a general way, so as not to allow malicious critics to divert attention from the substance of the matter. Anyway, the fact remains that either independently or through a direct or indirect acquaintance, Einstein came close to the Marxist notion of capitalism as a class society burdened with congenital, acute and antagonistic contradictions. Even if it was an independently developed problematic, this only increases its value.

In “Why Socialism?” Einstein did not criticize capitalism on the basis of “eternal moral values”, nor called for its “ethicalizing”, as shallow humanists do. It was completely clear for Einstein that the ills and inequalities of capitalism cannot be eliminated or corrected within the capitalist order. They require the reorganization of society on new, socialist bases:

“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion…The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society”.

It is difficult to exaggerate the value of the above declarations, especially when they come from the leading physicist of the 20th century. It is not surprising, then, that they enrage the vulgar apologists of the capitalist system, since they deny with the authority of an Einstein their claims about the unfeasibility and oppressive character of socialism.

F. Hayek, for example, one of the founders of neoliberalism, scornfully classifies Einstein as a socialist. Einstein, he writes, “Using a popular socialist slogan… wrote that ‘production for use’ ought to replace the «production for profit» of the capitalist order… We also find Einstein repeating… familiar phrases of socialist agitation about the ‘economic anarchy of capitalist society’… while ‘a planned economy… would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work’”2. For Hayek, an extreme reactionary and cynical celebrator of Pinochet, who identified socialism with slavery, there cannot be a greater anathema than these declarations of Einstein.

More “enlightened” conservative commentators often present themselves as Einstein’s admirers and do not engage in such vile attacks. In practice, however, they just replace an open rejection a la Hayek with a verbal acceptance that evades and denies everything for which Einstein stood.

A typical example is Einstein’s nomination as “Person of the 20th century” by Time magazine, in its last, anniversary issue of 1999. The authors of Time completely hide Einstein’s socialist ideas, in order to proclaim him their own precursor, a prophet of “free markets”. They speak about “the explosion of scientific and technical knowledge that unveiled the mysteries of the universe and helped secure the triumph of freedom by unleashing the power of free minds and free markets”. Lenin, they claim on the other hand, was the person who “snatched from obscurity the 19th century ideology of communism”, competing in “devilish distinction”3 with Hitler. In another article a disdainful reference is made to Einstein’s progressive activism, whose call for disarmament and for putting an end to intolerance and racism are discredited as “naïve”4.

Unfortunately there in not a grain of free spirit here, but only the servility of the apologists, who simply lack Einstein’s intellectual courage. As P. Street observes, “nowhere in Time’s 15 pages devoted to Einstein does the magazine bring itself to acknowledge the great physicist’s explicitly socialist views. For Time to concede that the century’s greatest thinker naturally and elegantly rejected the dominant political-economic system would not square with the conventional wisdom that the dominant theme of the 20th century is the glorious triumph of «free-market» capitalism”5.

One wonders naturally: if all of Einstein’s positions on social issues are discarded or evaded, then what kind of recognition do they offer him? As Street rightly says, such a “praise” does not represent a substantial progress from the position of Life, Time’s sister edition, during 1958, when it had classified Einstein as “one of America’s leading Communist “dupes and fellow travelers””6.

On the other hand, Einstein’s recognition of the historical necessity of socialism did not lead him into a naive belief about an automatic solution of all problems, nor to the usual identification of socialism with the nationalization of the means of production – views that typically characterized dogmatic Stalinist currents within the communist movement. Identifying the negative aspects of the socialist experience, he referred to the burgeoning of state bureaucracy and the need for measures in the direction of socialist democracy in order to prevent a new enslavement:

“Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”7

Einstein’s judgments concerning the socialist experiment in the USSR disclose a balanced approach, quite close to the Marxist analysis of the bureaucratic phenomenon, as formulated by Trotsky. In a similar vein, he points out all those problematic elements and distortions, products in the final analysis of the Russian backwardness and of the extreme bureaucratic centralism it evoked, which marked negatively the first socialist experience, but without denying in principle its importance.

Referring to the possibility of overcoming the capitalist crises with the aid of a planned economy, he evaluates as follows the historical experience of the USSR:

“The logically simplest but also most daring method of achieving this is a completely planned economy, in which consumption-goods are produced and distributed by the community. That, in essentials, is what is being attempted in Russia to-day. Much will depend on what results this mighty experiment produces. To hazard a prophecy here would be presumption. Can goods be produced as economically under such a system as under one which leaves more freedom to individual enterprise? Can this system maintain itself at all without the terror that has so far accompanied it?… We must take care, however, not to allow these suspicions to become prejudices which prevent us from forming an objective judgment”8.

Einstein’s declarations regarding the ills of capitalist society and the historical necessity of socialism are particularly topical today, when the global capitalist crisis has put back on the agenda the issues of social transformation. The crisis does not only reveal the acute contradictions of capitalism, which never ceased to exist and undermine the human future. It also brings to the fore the need for a comprehensive, serious approach to the problems of the socialist movement so as not to repeat the failures of the past, for which Einstein’s scientific spirit provides a positive model.

As a human personality, Einstein embodies awareness, shared today by many leading physicists, of the risks facing humanity and the critical choices it will have to make, a consciousness summed up in his motto: “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive”. He demonstrates by his example that in the present historical crossroad science cannot in the end remain neutral and that scientific integrity itself leads to progressive engagement. His final word in “Why Socialism?” –“Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition”– excellently sums up the condition of any fruitful and effective socialist activity.

An enemy of the conformist easy way, Einstein was well ahead in his social views from other natural scientists of his time. It is not accidental therefore that besides being the founder of modern physics, he was the one great physicist of the 20th century who realized more clearly the necessity of socialism.

The constant search for truth as a condition for a proper historical diagnosis and action, apart from his enormous scientific contributions, is probably “Uncle Albert’s” most valuable and timely bequest to the new generations.

 

Notes

  1. See the electronic edition of “Why Socialism?” at marxists.org, from which we quote further.
  2. F. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit, The Errors of Socialism, Routledge, London 1988, p. 59.
  3. W. Isaacson, “Who mattered and why”, Time, 31-12-99, p. 22.
  4. F. Golden, “Albert Einstein. Person of the century”, ibid, p. 37.
  5. P. Street, «Einstein: Socialist of the century», http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/History/ Einstein_Socialist.html.
  6. Quoted in the same article by Street.
  7. A. Einstein, “Why Socialism?”
  8. A. Einstein, The World as I See it, http://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/science_and_technology/physics/Albert%20Einstein%20-%20The%20World%20as%20I%20See%20it.pdf

 

*Christos Kefalis is a member of the editorial board of the Greek journal Marxist Thought. The present contribution is a subchapter of his recently published book, The Great Natural Scientists, ed. Topos, Athens 2015. The book evaluates the work and ideas of 23 great natural scientists like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Feynman, Hawking, Weinberg, Witten, Dawkins, etc., from the standpoint of Marxist dialectics.