14 March 2009

Socialist birthdays, vol III

The world's most famous physicist was born on this date in 1879.

Albert Einstein openly embraced the public stature he had earned with his long list of important discoveries in the first decades of the 20th century and used it as a bully pulpit to advance his beliefs on anti-racism, nascent Zionism, and socialism.

Although Einstein moved to the United States from Germany before the Nazi takeover, he was acutely aware of the dangerous rise of fascism, and became disturbed by the racism he found at Princeton, which his longtime friend Paul Robeson once called "the northernmost city in the South." Though he famously wrote the letter to President Roosevelt urging the discovery of an atomic weapon before Germany could, he later became despondent of the arms race that letter helped set off, famously quipping "I don't know with what weapons the third world war will be fought, but the fourth will be fought with sticks and stones."

In 1949, Einstein published an essay entitled "Why Socialism?" in the debut issue of the Marxist magazine Monthly Review.

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.

Naturally, a man of Einstein's stature and persuasion kept the FBI and other anti-Communist poachers very busy. Among the claims in the nearly-1800 page file was one person insisting Einstein had invented an electric mind-control robot. Einstein, along with fellow emigre Bertolt Brecht, never missed the irony of exchanging fascist totalitarianism for this peculiar American version of freedom.