"We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking
if mankind is to survive."
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 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
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 race?"
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 "society."
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
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 before.
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
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?
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