Albert Einstein’s name is synonymous with genius. To even break into the public sphere and gain recognition is a difficult feat for any academic, let alone be the embodiment of intelligence itself. His contributions to theoretical physics did not just change our framework but took Newtonian science and turned it on its head. Today, not many people are aware of his politics. On this day in 1949, Einstein published an essay for the popular audience, in the American socialist magazine Monthly Review. In this piece, the great physicist presented a lucid moral argument against the ‘evil’ of ‘capitalist society’.
Born as a German Jew in late 19th century, he was a precocious talent in mathematics from an early age. He understood forms of knowledge by the age of sixteen that take some adults a lifetime of study to grasp. He had a love for geometry and Kantian philosophy, but it was Physics that he was awarded a PhD in, at the turn of the century. Physics before Einstein was thought to be a field that was complete and the job for the scientist, post-Newton, was to tinker around the edges to complete our understanding of the external world. In 1905 he published his Special Theory of Relativity and then just over ten years later he published a General Theory of Relativity. This latter paper made Einstein famous internationally but also a controversial figure within his field, due to the challenge it posed to preconceived physics.
Before 1933, Einstein travelled around the world and developed his scientific ideas while being politically conscious. His accomplishments were recognised, as he was elected as The President of The German Physical Society in 1916, became a foreign member of the British Royal Society and then won the Nobel Prize for Physics, these latter two both occurring in the early 1920s. He then carried on his touring around the world in that decade, sharing his work to all. He spent some time in America. In the land of the bold, he was turned into a celebrity, rubbing shoulders with other famous names like Charlie Chaplin. While on one of these trips in the USA, Einstein witnessed from across the Atlantic his country electing Adolf Hitler. Being a Jewish man, he saw the violent reality of what Nazism was and realised he could not return to his home country. So, he stayed in America from 1933 and then subsequently gained citizenship.
Einstein was a man of science, peace and socialism. The latter ideology he came to later in his life. By 1939, with war breaking out on the old continent of Europe, scientists that had escaped the grip of the Nazis were concerned with their scientific development. Leó Szilárd was such a person and went to visit Einstein to discuss writing a letter to the President of the United States, requesting they invest time in researching Nuclear weapons to beat the Third Reich. This turned into the Manhattan project and the eventual use of Weapons of Mass destruction by the USA. This became one of Einstein’s biggest regrets. After the war and the discovery of the crimes of Fascism in concentration camps like Dachau, the greatest scientist to have ever lived committed himself to social justice. Supporting the civil rights movement in the USA, he saw racism as a disease, that was supported by an economic system.
Einstein once said, ‘if you cannot explain something to a six-year-old, you do not understand it yourself’ and the spirit of this proposition is woven into his fantastic introduction to socialism. He starts by briefly detailing methodological difference in human sciences and then explains ‘most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest’. This is what would be called primitive accumulation. At one stage of human development, a certain class of people took land through violence. He goes on to detail how to make this act legitimate in the history of humans, a form of ideology was provided to justify it. He writes ‘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 behaviour’.
The two terms of ideology, through institutions like the church and schools, and the concept of primitive accumulation, are foundational pillars of understanding capitalism. He warns ‘we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems’, this means that scientific methods have taken us far and we have progressed, but we should be cautious about unchecked ‘progress’. Nuclear energy made us into gods, but nuclear bombs have the potential to take us back to the stone age. Then he makes the distinction that we are both solitary and social beings. We like being alone sometimes, but the essence of us, as humans, is in our social relations and what we do with one another in those relations. Think now, how much you miss your friends and socialising with them, this is a normal desire for any human, interaction with others.
Yes, we are individuals, but your ego only goes as far as the community you were born into. He goes on ‘It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought’. Society gives us everything we have, from the words in our mouths to the items we own. The main point of this is human productivity, and how and what we produce together. Einstein writes ‘[human] life is made possible through the labour and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word “society”’. It is in our production that marks us and our historical period. No one is an atom; we are all made by the society in which we are in.
He understands that people in a society built on self-interest are ‘Unknowingly prisoners of their own egoism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life’. He goes on to suggest that meaning in life is not discovered through solitary thought but in collective action, as he summaries ‘only through devoting oneself to society’ may one understand meaning in this world. He makes a moral condemnation of the society he finds himself in, as ‘the real source of the evil’. He fundamentally saw this arrangement of society as undemocratic. Most people have to work to live. Not many people become rich if they were born poor, so he writes ‘it is important to realize that the means of production…may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.’ By means of production he means the tools and the factories that are used to produce goods, and they are owned and controlled by a select few people.
This results in people working for companies that do not pay them in wages that equate to the value of which their labour produces. As Albert puts it ‘the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product’. You work in a bar and are paid £8 an hour, you work ten hours, which means you earn £80. Over that ten hours the business could have made £2,000, and the act of you pulling that pint could have contributed to £500, but you still only get paid less than the value you produced through your work. As without you and your work mates pulling those pints, no ones making money. Brain box goes on to say ‘private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists’. You get a mass field of workers who have to work for their living and capital gets hogged by those who can afford it. Think of everyone who hoarded toilet rolls a few weeks back, but we are talking about land or ownership of pubs. Just google how many companies own all the pubs, its what we call a monopoly.
In a very simplistic way of framing social relations, you have people who own the means of production and those who do not. Those who do not have to work for their pay, which then goes towards housing, food and all your basic needs. This does not just effect your workplace but the whole of society, so political institutions like parliament are ‘influenced by private capitalists’ through donations and lobbying, which ‘separate[s] the electorate from the legislature’ and ‘the consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population’. In an ideal world your MP represents you, however material interests take over and in politics big wallets talk. Einstein touches upon the media, and how they are in themselves private companies, who also have interests that are not just truthful claims and the interests of the public, as he puts it ‘under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education)’. Most of the media is distorted by money and a person of science can clearly see that.
So, if we are not told the truth, as it is influenced by various interests like the fossil fuel industry, the gambling industry or even the arms industry, and we do not know what we do not know, how can we act? Again, Einstein goes on to explain ‘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 their political rights’. There is a lack of trust with our established information sources and the everyday life of someone who works, is always fear of losing their job. Capitalist society makes truth a hard value to uphold when you are worried about bills. The main source of this is something called the profit motive. Simply put, this is the very logic that is at the heart of the western way of life. Something only has utility if there is a potential for profit to be made. Capitalism also, operates on the sole basis of competition among individuals who seek profit. So economic crashes happen, according to Einstein, because of ‘an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions’.
The idea of competition finds its way like water into every part of our lives as ‘our whole educational system suffers from this evil’ and ‘an exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student’. This can be felt if anyone has ever been taught in the UK. We are constantly told that we need to be thinking about what skills we are developing so we can think about our jobs. Especially in the university system, a degree now might as well just be a bit of paper for an employer as the uni is a servant to the business world. It almost works as a factory for the market, producing perfect people to slip into the corporate world and the once great art of critical thinking side-lined. Competition is a myth, my success does should not mean your failure. Education is still to this day instrumentalised, it is the hammer of capitalism, when in fact in the tradition of science and philosophy it is seen as intrinsic, it is valuable on its own terms. Einstein was acutely aware of this.
He finishes his essay with a declaration for the project of socialism, ‘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’. Profit is about surplus, what is left over and social good is about what benefits us, not the few. This article was written in the late 1940s, it looked like a new world could be born out of the violence of the old. The advent of the welfare state and reforms failed to alleviate poverty. That post-war consensus ended in 1979 and today we see the consequences of those political and economic policies. Albert Einstein’s essay reads as important today as it did on that May Day seventy-one years ago. Do not learn about the old cause from a person who wishes to discredit it. Learn through genius. Socialism is about the realisation of history and the freedom for all, which this great physicist understood. Einstein knew the practical concerns, ‘Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance’. Practicality is the issue that should ponder everyone who wants a better world of emancipation. In the 21st century we have two options: Socialism or Barbarism?
Read the original article by Einstein here.