Einstein and Socialism

This year sees a double anniversary for Albert Einstein: fifty years this month since his death, and one hundred since the publication of his first seminal papers on quantum theory and relativity. No doubt there will be fulsome, and well-deserved, tributes to one of the great names of twentieth-century science. But it is likely that there will be little if any reference to Einstein’s political views, especially his opposition to capitalism, including his acceptance of the labour theory of value.

In 1949, Einstein published an article ‘Why Socialism?’ in the first issue of the American left-wing journal Monthly Review. It is available on the web at various places. e.g. http://www.monthlyreview.org/598einst.htm  In it he argued that class society is an instance of ‘the predatory phase’ of human development (in Thorstein Veblen’s phrase). Yet humans depend on society to provide food, clothing, a home and so on. We have a fixed and unalterable biological constitution, but during our lives we acquire a ‘cultural constitution’ which is subject to change. Anthropological research shows that people’s social behaviour differs greatly, so our biological make-up does not determine the way we live.

But small groups of humans cannot be self-sufficient: ‘mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.’ This dependence on society, however, is seen as a threat to our existence rather than as a positive asset. This is largely due to ‘the economic anarchy of capitalist society’. All those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production, Einstein calls workers. Workers’ wages are determined not by the value of what they produce but by their minimum needs. As private capital becomes more and more concentrated, it achieves a power that even democratic politics cannot check.

Under capitalism, he continues, production is for profit, not use. Unemployment exists almost always, and workers are in fear of losing their jobs. Unlimited competition results in an enormous waste of labour. The worst evil of capitalism, he says, is the ‘crippling of individuals’, as education inculcates competitive notions.

Having given a pretty decent sketch of how capitalism works and of what’s wrong with it, Einstein goes on to advocate a planned economy which guarantees a livelihood to everyone and adjusts production to the needs of the community. But a planned economy, he recognises, is not socialism, as it may involve ‘the complete enslavement of the individual’ (so perhaps he had Russian-style state capitalism in mind?). And after a few misguided remarks about so-called problems of socialism (how to limit the power of the bureaucracy? etc), Einstein closes his contribution. It’s a shame that he is so inconclusive, but his article is still well worth reading, even if you can’t get through it at the speed of light.


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