Einstein Was A Radical Socialist Who Called Capitalism ‘Evil’
By Max Eternity
“Our task must be to free ourselves…by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty”
Though a century has passed since they were first conceived, the brilliant discoveries of Albert Einstein continue to shape mankind’s understanding of the universe. But he was not just a man beholden to the world of science. Einstein was a great philosopher, and a voluminous writer with strong views about art, beauty and social justice—about racial and economic equality. Now, in the Age of Trump, perhaps Einstein’s social discourse deserves a closer look.
In 1949, Einstein wrote a seminal essay for the Monthly Review, entitled “Why Socialism?” For all that he was, Einstein was neither politician nor economist. Acknowledging this, he starts the first paragraph in his high-minded essay, asking and then answering:
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.
Referencing Thorstein Veblen, Einstein continues in his 2,500+ word commentary, first asserting his belief that society is in “the predatory phase” of humanity’s evolution. As a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, this must have been a reality always on his mind—the idea of predator and prey—the ruthlessness of nationalistic conquerors—the hardship and sorrow of those vanquished and lost.
Defining the predatory phase, and using the term “priesthood” broadly, Einstein says:
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.
Making his next point, he says the predatory socioeconomic model is outdated and should be replaced with a socio-ethical form of governance; better known as socialism. To this point, Einstein continues:
Second, socialism is directed towards 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.
Speaking to inclusion, Einstein then says “we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” And though in his lifetime he was a scientist of extraordinary international acclaim, Einstein humbly warns in his essay that “we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems.”
After living through two world wars between the years of 1915 and 1945, Einstein observes that he sees around him an ever present “expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering.” In light of the fact that the United States has engaged much of the world with war directly and through proxy within numerous Middle East and North African nations for the last 15 years—costing hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars—this “suffering” must surely strike a chord with so many alive today?
Asking the questions “What is the cause?” and “Is there a way out?,” Einstein then writes that we must look deeper into our understanding of “society” in order to fully resolve this ongoing malaise, saying that:
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.
Elaborating further, Einstein then champions the notion of collectivism—something wildly antithetical to capitalistic culture, as seen particularly in Donald Trump’s ego-driven, self-made ideology, saying that:
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.”
Moreover, he then says that 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 unlike ants and bees, whose “whole life process…is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts,” Einstein writes that for human beings ‘the social pattern and interrelationships” that we experience are “very variable and susceptible to change.”
It is “the gift of oral communication” that has given human beings the ability to somewhat break free of “dictated” biological constraints, he says, and evidence of these “developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art.”
” The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil”
At the thematic heart of his essay, Einstein throws down the gauntlet saying the”economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil,” and only through an admission of such, human beings will then realize they “are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.”
In other words, to be beholden to capitalism is a choice.
Einstein then says “I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time.” And pointing out a core conundrum of unchecked capitalism by way of extreme individualism, he writes:
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.
Unquestionably, this is Einstein’s declaration of service—that one should surrender one’s life to the greater good—that true happiness comes “only through” a devotion to the wellness of others.
Distilling his socialist manifesto further, Einstein then states unequivocally that capitalism is counterproductive, because it creates an artificial scarcity that is “crippling” and based on rigged rules, and with a damning indictment he then says:
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.
Sound familiar? Instead of mankind working to uplift the greater whole, mankind works to enrich select individuals.
Deliberate or not, it is the end game of capitalism, he says. And it was Einstein’s belief that the more this end game is attained, the more democracy morphs into oligarchy, whereby individual political power becomes greatly undermined.
In the next paragraph, Einstein then explains what Dr. Cornel West calls “casino capitalism” and what contemporary economists-at-large generally refer to as late or later-stage capitalism and the creation of a de facto oligarchy:
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. 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.
Driving another huge nail in the coffin of capitalism, Einstein then says that it is a model in which there is a “huge waste of labor” because “[p]roduction is carried on for profit, not for use.” Too this, he says that capitalism provides no assurance “that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment,” and thus “an “army of unemployed” almost always exists.”
Einstein then says that capitalism is a system where:
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.
This result is a vicious cycle that causes a mass “crippling of individuals,” which Einstein says he considers “the worst evil of capitalism.”
Furthermore, he writes that society’s entire “educational system suffers from this evil,” because the system produces an “exaggerated competitive attitude” within the student body, also teaching students “to worship acquisitive success” instead of a “sense of responsibility for his fellow men.”
As he comes to a close in his essay, Einstein reaffirms his visionary commitment to the betterment of society, summing up what he believes is the best treatment for “these grave ills,” by saying:
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.
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.
By the end of his essay, it is apparent that Einstein has madeno attempt to equate socialism with utopia. Einstein believed it was really a matter of reason, and if it were to work, socialism would require rigorous checks and balances, saying that:
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?
Einstein makes clear that making the switch will not be easy, saying in the final paragraph that a dispassionate understanding of “clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition.”