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Was Albert Einstein a Socialist?

  Why Socialism?
By Albert Einstein

From Monthly Review, New York, May, 1949.
[Re-printed in Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein]
Transcribed by Lenny Gray

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.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific
knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological
differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields
attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group
of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as
clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological
differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of
economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic
phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate
separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the
beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has -- as is
well known -- been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no
means exclusively economic in nature. 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

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    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

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really
overcome what Thorstein Veblen called "the predatory phase" of human
development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even
such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases.
Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance
beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its
present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed toward 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.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and
scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should
not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express
themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society
is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered.
It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent
or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In
order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I
recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of
another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of
mankind, and I remarked that only a supranational organization would offer
protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly,
said to me: "Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made
a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in
vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope
of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from
which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is
there a way out?

It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any
degree of assurance. I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very
conscious of the fact that our feelings and strivings are often
contradictory and obscure and that they cannot be expressed in easy and
simple formulas.

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a
solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those
who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his
innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and
affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to
comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only
the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting strivings accounts for
the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines
the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can
contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the
relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance.
But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the
environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development,
by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of
that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. 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. 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

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, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social
pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human beings which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.


Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we
must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are
characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he
acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through
communication and through many other types of influences. It is this
cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change
and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the
individual and society Modern anthropology has taught us, through
comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social
behavior of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing
cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in
society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man
may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their
biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a
cruel, self-inflicted fate.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude
of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as
possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are
certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the
biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to
change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last
few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively
densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their
continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly centralized
productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time -- which, looking
back, seems so idyllic -- is gone forever when individuals or relatively
small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight
exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community
of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me
constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the
relationship of the individual to society. 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.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my
opinion, the real source of the evil. 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.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call
"workers" all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of
production -- although this does not quite correspond to the customary use
of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to
purchase the labor power of the worker. By using the means of production,
the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist.
The essential point about this process is the relation between what the
worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value.
In so far as the labor contract is "free," what the worker receives is
determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but by his
minimum needs and by the capitalists' requirements for labor power in
relation to the number of workers competing for jobs. It is important to
understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined
by the value of his product.

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 the 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.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of
capital is thus characterized main principles: first, means of production
(capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see
fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing
as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be
noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have
succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the "free labor contract"
for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present-day
economy does not differ much from "pure" capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that
all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find
employment; an "army of unemployed" almost always exists. 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. Technological
progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of
the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with
competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the
accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe
depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to
that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our
whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive
attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship
acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

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. In such an
economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are
utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production
to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among
all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman,
and child. 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.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet
socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete
enslavement of the individual. 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?