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 life.

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 and ideology:

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: Freedom won."

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 more complex.

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