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Albert Einstein on Socialism

by Chris Kulczycki Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 04:37:02 AM EST

I recently came across this essay that was first published in Monthly Review, New York, May, 1949 (I think copyright has expired). I thought it might be of interest given some of the discussions about corporatism and capitalism we've had here recently.

Why Socialism?

By Albert Einstein

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

From the diaries - whataboutbob

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has -- as is well known -- been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called "the predatory phase" of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed toward a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and -- if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous -- are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half-unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

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 toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supranational organization would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: "Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?"

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any degree of assurance. I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very conscious of the fact that our feelings and strivings are often contradictory and obscure and that they cannot be expressed in easy and simple formulas.

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept "society" means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society -- in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence -- that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is "society" which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labor and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word "society."

It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished -- just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human beings which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time -- which, looking back, seems so idyllic -- is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor -- not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production -- that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods -- may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call "workers" all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production -- although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor power of the worker. By using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value. In so far 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. It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.

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 the 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. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the "free labor contract" for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present-day economy does not differ much from "pure" capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an "army of unemployed" almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers' goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. 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 which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. 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.

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. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. 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.

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?


I do so love Albert Einstein's writing, though I've never read The General Theory (not to be confused with Keynes's General Theory, which I've heard was written and built upon the structure of Einstein's book).  I have plenty of thoughts, but a comment would be too long, so I'll try to post a diary after I reread it.  There's a lot to cover.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Feb 14th, 2006 at 12:51:55 PM EST

Damn -- that guy was smart!

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Feb 14th, 2006 at 03:32:39 PM EST
The problem with trying to operate a "planned economy" is, of course, that people form plans from their own knowledge, including specific knowledge of persons, places, tools, and so on -- knowledge of costs and opportunities that cannot be written down on forms, collected in a central office, and processed into a "plan". Economic activities are planned by the people with the knowledge -- that is, by the people, and in a distributed and unpredictable way.

To the limited extend that central planning is possible, it functions as a supplement to these dispersed plans:

  • It places some actions out of bounds via law and regulation.

  • It changes incentives via taxes and subsidies

  • It makes specific things happen via purchase of goods and services.      

  • It influences broad levels of activity (via macroeconomic fiddling).

The original, historical "socialist planning" contemplated far more than this. It failed for fundamental reasons rooted in the distributed nature of societal knowledge. (Sweden is in no sense socialist, in the original sense.)

Einstein's thought was directed toward finding simple, universal, all-embracing principles. This was not a good background for contemplating the super-human complexity of society.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 02:47:06 AM EST
I have not much to add, just thanks for posting this.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 07:20:22 AM EST
I did not know Einstein was pro-Socialist. I wonder whether this fact (and the article, for that matter) effected his life in the USA. And I wish we had read this piece last semester in my IPE course (International Political Economy).

Interestingly, even George Soros wrote an article on the dangers of capitalism for a society of humans ("The Capitalist Threat," Atlantic Monthly, Vol.279, No.2, February 1997). Although it was much later.

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government -- Edward Abbey

by serik berik (serik[dot]berik on Gmail) on Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 08:57:02 AM EST
I did not know Einstein was pro-Socialist. I wonder whether this fact (and the article, for that matter) effected his life in the USA.

Yes. He was observed by the FBI.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 11:40:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
well if it isn't mr.relativity with his nutty theories again!

seriously chris....good catch.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 10:54:39 AM EST
If you are not for yourself, who will be?
If you are just for yourself, what are you?

The essence of socialism in an old Hebrew saying.

by shergald on Wed Feb 15th, 2006 at 03:52:18 PM EST
Interesting historical document, but not really earth-shattering in its content. To me it looks like his views on Socialism was pretty close to the "mainstream" among European intellectuals of the time.
by Trond Ove on Thu Feb 16th, 2006 at 12:07:44 PM EST
Yes, you're right. But the fact that it was written by one of the most respected men in America, a man who was a hero to millions of school children (and adults), is what I find fascinating. I also thought it was clear and well written, unlike some essays by European intellectuals of the time ;<)

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
Czeslaw Milosz
by Chris Kulczycki on Thu Feb 16th, 2006 at 06:09:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Many eminent figures in US popular culture were in favour of some form of Socialism, or were politically committed to "heretical" points of view like anti-militarism.  This is conveniently whitewashed out of their biographies as taught to school kids, and out of their writings as collected in popular anthologies.  Twain's passionate and scathingly-expressed opposition to US invasion of the Philippines is largely forgotten, as is Paul Robeson's commitment to Socialism and labour rights as well as civil rights for American Blacks.  Helen Keller (another "all American Disney heroine") was an active Socialist.  American textbooks of my generation managed to cover the works of GB Shaw without mentioning his Socialist or vegetarian views!

In American discourse, Socialism is inherently "evil" (wchurchill recently posted something to this effect I believe) rather than merely a flavour or point along the spectrum of legitimate political thought or opinion.  [I forget who once said that the "broad spectrum of American political discourse ranges from the pale greenish blue to the pale bluish green" or wtte.] It's the Scarlet Letter of American discourse, as contaminating as (at one time) was adultery, mixed-race love, Jewishness, divorce or homosexuality.  There is an old fashioned, prudish horror of Socialism, as if it were syphilis.  If any cultural hero was "weak enough to succumb to it" then we don't talk about it in front of the children :-) as that would (a) set a bad, bad example or (b) undermine a cherished national myth by exposing the dirty laundry.

A similar Bowdlerism or revisionism excises surgically from popular consciousness the outspoken antisemitism of Henry Ford, and until quite recently the pro-Nazi sentiments of "Lucky" Lindbergh.  Horatio Alger's fascination for teenage boys can now be spoken of  -- at least by US historians and literati -- in hushed tones;  I think it may many decades before Americans can bear to discuss the socialist speeches or essays of an Einstein or a Helen Keller.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Thu Feb 16th, 2006 at 08:46:10 PM EST
All too true.

One case of bowdlerism I find both very instructive and sadly amusing concerns Francis Bellamy, the Baptist minister who wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance in 1892.
I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'
He started with an act of self-censorship, omitting the word "equality", which, he knew, would not be accepted. Equality? With blacks and women? We'll have none of that, sir! So, to Bellamy's great personal grief, exit "equality".

Then came a rewrite in 1924 by the National Flag Conference to change "my Flag" in "the Flag of the United States of America" (and no other flag) and then a further rewrite by Congress in 1954 to add the obnoxious "under God".

And it is how what has become the symbol of all that is wrong and rancid with America nowadays, was originally written by an utopian Socialist. But don't worry, the kids will never hear about Bellamy himself.
by Francois in Paris on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 05:52:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Utopian Socialist he may have been, but still he took republic and indivisibility for granted. Two reasons why the original pledge could not be accepted by a majority in Spain, quite apart from the Franco-induced allergy we have to our flag.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 06:03:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Twain's passionate and scathingly-expressed opposition to US invasion of the Philippines is largely forgotten, as is Paul Robeson's commitment to Socialism and labour rights as well as civil rights for American Blacks.

The Manic Street Preachers ("Karl Marx's favourite band") have a son (not that great as a song but anyway) about Robeson.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 08:39:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
and he was such a good writer too.  I didn't remember him as such a good writer, having only been exposed to his mathematical writing about Relativity.  And even tho I took Honors Calculus, the Theory of Relativity is not the easiest set of concepts to understand.  AS a result, I remembered him differently.  

He touches all the right places doesn't he?  This almost last para is the one that says it all for me.  It is why I have been such a societal interloper all my life.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. 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.

Thanks a lot for tuning me on to this essay.  I'll return to reread it.


by Keone Michaels on Wed Feb 22nd, 2006 at 10:10:44 AM EST
Funny, I found his original papers on Relativity (the General one specially) clearer than most textbooks, with the definite exception of J.A. Wheeler's.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Feb 22nd, 2006 at 10:19:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Relativity" is a gorgeous little popular science book. Very readable.

Never occurred to me that digging out his original papers might be a useful thing to do. My understanding of Gen Rel still isn't very good.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Feb 22nd, 2006 at 10:27:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is a little booklet of original papers of relativity published by Dover. In 1915 physicists didn't know about differential geometry or tensors, so Einstein actually had to explain the geodesic equation and all that, and he does it better than most textbooks.

I'm not saying that the subject is easy, but that (as happens so often) it's better to read the original than some thrice-regurgitated version. Of course, the writing of Wheeler is also original and has the benefit of 50+ years of hindsight, but still...

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Feb 22nd, 2006 at 10:42:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My first 'popular' relativity book was the one by Landau, which has lots of cartoons. I got it when I was 10 and it took me quite some years to understand it ;-)

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Feb 22nd, 2006 at 10:44:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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