Albert Einstein Writes the 1949 Essay “Why Socialism?” and Attempts to Find a Solution to the “Grave Evils of Capitalism”

Image by Fer­di­nand Schmutzer, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Albert Ein­stein was a com­pli­cat­ed human being, with a wide range of inter­ests. His per­son­al­i­ty seemed bal­anced between a cer­tain chill­i­ness when it came to per­son­al mat­ters, and a great deal of warmth and com­pas­sion when it came to the wider human fam­i­ly. The physi­cist struck up friend­ships with famed Amer­i­can activists Paul Robe­son, Mar­i­an Ander­son, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and he cham­pi­oned the cause of Civ­il Rights in the U.S. He pro­fessed a deep admi­ra­tion for Gand­hi, and praised him sev­er­al times in let­ters and speech­es. And in 1955, just days before his death, Ein­stein col­lab­o­rat­ed with anoth­er out­spo­ken pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al, Bertrand Rus­sell, on a peace man­i­festo, which was signed by six oth­er sci­en­tists.

Ein­stein saw a pub­lic role for sci­en­tists in mat­ters social, polit­i­cal, and even eco­nom­ic. In 1949, he pub­lished an arti­cle in the Month­ly Review titled “Why Social­ism?” Antic­i­pat­ing his crit­ics, he begins by ask­ing “is it advis­able for one who is not an expert on eco­nom­ic and social issues to express views on the sub­ject of social­ism?” To which he replies, “I believe for a num­ber of rea­sons that it is.”

Ein­stein goes on, sound­ing some­thing like a com­bi­na­tion of Karl Marx and E.O. Wil­son, to elab­o­rate the the­o­ret­i­cal basis for social­ism as he sees it, first describ­ing what Marx called “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion” and what the social­ist econ­o­mist Thorstein Veblen called “’the preda­to­ry phase’ of human devel­op­ment.”

…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.

The sci­ence of eco­nom­ics, as it stands, writes Ein­stein, still belongs “to that phase.” Such “laws as we can derive” from “the observ­able eco­nom­ic facts… are not applic­a­ble to oth­er phas­es.” These facts sim­ply describe the preda­to­ry state of affairs, and Ein­stein implies that not even econ­o­mists have suf­fi­cient meth­ods to defin­i­tive­ly answer the ques­tion “why socialism?”—“economic sci­ence in its present state can throw lit­tle light on the social­ist soci­ety of the future.” We should not assume, then, he goes on, “that experts are the only ones who have a right to express them­selves on ques­tions affect­ing the orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety.” Ein­stein him­self doesn’t pre­tend to have all the answers. He ends his essay, in fact, with a few ques­tions address­ing “some extreme­ly dif­fi­cult socio-polit­i­cal prob­lems,” of the kind that attend every debate about social­ism:

…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?

Nev­er­the­less, Ein­stein is “con­vinced” that the only way to elim­i­nate the “grave evils” of cap­i­tal­ism is “through the estab­lish­ment of a social­ist econ­o­my, accom­pa­nied by an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem which would be ori­ent­ed toward social goals.” For Ein­stein, the “worst evil” of preda­to­ry cap­i­tal­ism is the “crip­pling of indi­vid­u­als” through an edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem that empha­sizes an “exag­ger­at­ed com­pet­i­tive atti­tude” and trains stu­dents “to wor­ship acquis­i­tive suc­cess.” But the prob­lems extend far beyond the indi­vid­ual and into the very nature of the polit­i­cal order.

Pri­vate cap­i­tal tends to become con­cen­trat­ed in few hands… 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 polit­i­cal econ­o­my Ein­stein describes is one often lam­bast­ed by right lib­er­tar­i­ans as an impure vari­ety of crony cap­i­tal­ism, one not wor­thy of the name, but the physi­cist is skep­ti­cal of the claim, writ­ing “there is no such thing as a pure cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety.” Pri­vate own­ers always secure their priv­i­leges through the manip­u­la­tion of the polit­i­cal and edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems and the mass media.

The preda­to­ry sit­u­a­tion Ein­stein observes is one of extreme alien­ation among all class­es; “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 naïve, sim­ple, and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed enjoy­ment of life. Man can find mean­ing in life, short and per­ilous as it is, only through devot­ing him­self to soci­ety.” Ein­stein believed that devo­tion should take the form of a social­ist econ­o­my that pro­motes both the phys­i­cal well­be­ing and the polit­i­cal rights of every­one. But he did not pre­sume to know exact­ly what such an eco­nom­ic future would look like, nor how it might come into being. Read his full essay, “Why Social­ism?” here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty (Even Aristotle’s) to Think Clear­ly About Racism

Albert Ein­stein Express­es His Admi­ra­tion for Mahat­ma Gand­hi, in Let­ter and Audio

Albert Ein­stein Impos­es on His First Wife a Cru­el List of Mar­i­tal Demands

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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