Einstein: Socialist of the Century
by Paul Street
In These Times magazine, Feb. 2000
Recently featured as Time magazine's "Person of the Century,"
Albert Einstein is justly famous for his brilliant work as a theoretical
scientist. Einstein's theory of relativity fundamentally transformed
our understanding of the origins, laws and mysteries of the physical
universe. Less well known is Einstein's intellectual and political
A year before his death, Einstein said that he wrote and spoke
out on public issues "whenever they appeared to me so bad
and unfortunate that silence would have made me feel guilty of
complicity." He denounced the carnage of World War I and
advanced disarmament in the name of pacifism throughout his career.
In 1934, he perceptively diagnosed the Great Depression as a result
of the gap between workers' purchasing power and the productive-technical
powers of capital. He eloquently denounced American racism in
a 1946 essay, "The Negro Question."
After the horrors of Hitler (from which he escaped to the
United States) and the decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (enabled
by his theories), Einstein spoke out against nuclear weapons,
advocated world government, and supported Israel while warning
against trampling Arab rights in the Jewish state. In 1950, he
told an American television audience, "The idea of achieving
security through national armament is, at the present state of
military technique, a disastrous illusion."
But most inconveniently of all-at least to the gatekeepers
of history at Time-Einstein was an open and explicit socialist.
"I regard class distinctions as unjustified, and, in the
last resort, based on force," he wrote in 1931. Seventeen
years later, Einstein published a Marxist analysis of labor
exploitation in capitalist economies in the socialist journal
Monthly Review. He denounced "the economic anarchy"
and "crippling egotism" of capitalist society and called
for "the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied
by an educational system oriented towards social goals."
The essay offered the following take on capitalism's tendency
to concentrate wealth and centralize control of both politics
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 results 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.... 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.
Einstein's socialism was distinctly democratic. He feared
that a society based on a planned economy (which he consistently
advocated) could crush the rights of the individual with an "all-powerful
and overweening bureaucracy." He expressed his "passionate
opposition" to the idolatrous, bureaucratic and anti-democratic
Soviet state. However, such statements were lost on the FBI, which
in the early '50s collected 1,500 pages of material on Einstein's
allegedly pro-Soviet activities. In 1958, Life (Time's sister
publication) listed Einstein as one of America's leading Communist
"dupes and fellow travelers."
Yet nowhere in Time's 15 pages devoted to Einstein does the
magazine bring itself to acknowledge the great physicist's explicitly
socialist views. For Time to concede that the century's greatest
thinker naturally and elegantly rejected the dominant political-economic
system would not square with the conventional wisdom that the
dominant theme of the 20th century is the glorious triumph "free-market"
capitalism. "If you had to describe the century's geo-politics
in one sentence," Time says, "it would be a short one:
Einstein's take on the United States at the moment of the
"American Century's" triumph suggests that the reality
of both the present moment and the last 100 years is darker and