by Albert Einstein
This essay was originally
published in the first issue of Monthly Review (May 1949).
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 social behavior.
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 towards 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 supra-national 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
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 being 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
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. Insofar 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 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 by two 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 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?
Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance
in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and
unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I
consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.
Read my Nolan Chart column "Me & My Big Mouth"
The problem with marxists, socialists and social-democrats is that they actually believe in the false premise that WEALTH is humans natural state of things. Based on this error, they deformed the concept of RIGHT by creating "SOCIAL RIGHTS" and therefore an alleged "SOCIAL JUSTICE".
Got carried away.
My humble blog
It's easy to refute an argument if you first misrepresent it. William Keizer
I've never heard this explanation before, and I find it very interesting. Where do Marxists, socialists, and social-democrats say that "Wealth" is the natural state of things? And if it is not, then doesn't it play a big role in things? What *is* the natural state of things?
What *is* the natural state of things?
What *is* the natural state of things?
Growing up with Mom and Dad, did you "naturally" have money?
I read your response to my response through e-mail, but I cannot find it here. I am not a socialist, nor am I a social democrat, etc.
I am a libertarian just trying to make sense of the appeal of socialism to Einstein. I never said my arguments were logical, just that I could see how a person believed them. At the time, there were excesses of capitalism (the term I'm using here is a market untainted by government)- excesses like great distances between the rich and the poor, with barriers preventing the poor to gain upward mobility as the rich often did not value competition once they made it but kicked the ladder of success to the ground to try to keep others from climbing; and rather than simply try and organize people to demand corporations stop mistreating workers and consumers and stop creating barriers to entry to the market place, Einstein thought that government was the answer (i.e., socialism), though took the diluted rat posion, as you called it. If you don't think my brainstorming guesses make sense, then feel free to come up with different ideas why Einstein was a socialist, because that was the point of this whole mental exercise.
Some smaller points:
Charles Booth didn't automatically declare everything Marx said was right because he was right about one thing; I never said that.
Neill-Reynolds report to Congress on June 4, 1906 substainted the claims of filthy conditions in the meatpacking industry. Roosevelt thought Upton Sinclair was hystertical and did not believe most of what he wrote (fiction), though a small amount turned out to be true (non-fiction) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jungle#Public_and_federal_response)
Also, when I said people's political beliefs tend to follow from more fundamental beliefs, I was thinking about how people's beliefs in dieties or lack thereof (substituted by "society" or "laws of nature" or something) often influence (or dictate, if diety) their ethics, and how their view of politics would naturally be a manifestation of their ethical beliefs. An example of people doing this is Ayn Rand with Objectivism. Us libertarians do it too. Our cosmology: "In the beginning, there was liberty. And it was good," and from there ethics: "Thou shalt not mess with liberty, except to give up your right to be the cop, judge, and jury of cases against you," and then politics: "therefore no government except for the creation, enforcement, and interpretation of the law, laws to protect liberty, and have courts to mediate between civil/corporate suits. No more government than that."
Cosmology: "A human being is a part of a whole, called by us 'universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Everything is relative
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind"
To free ourselves from the areforementioned prison restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us using compassion
A government based on socialism (as all are one) and compassion (we are all one family, so we ought to be our brother's keeper)
When I said "great power is dangerous to us humans" I was thinking along the lines of the American Founders in their belief that power corrupts. I never said that this precludes good things to come from a big business. I just said that the more power a person has, be it due to their position of authority conferred on them by government or by wealth accrued through capital, then there is more temptation to abuse that power. It's just an old adage that is the basis of the checks and balances in our government system, and there even have been a couple studies done on it as it applies to the busienss world (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/02/27/are-rich-people-unethical/). Of course, I shouldn't confuse cause and effect: does power make people greedier/less ethical, or are greedier/less ethical people more likely to seek positions of power? Either way, I thought the Founders were on to something and think checks and balances is a good idea. It's hard to let go of power once it is held, that's why George Washington is often celebrated for not crowning himself king, right?
I did not have money. I had a social support system in place, my family, who had their own family that helped them with baby shower gifts. How does this answer any of my questions? Are you trying to say that social support systems are the natural state of things? That makes sense actually. Families...tribes...socially isoalted chimps tend to find each other and join aggressive and co-dependent gangs...we're basically like apes in that regard. I mean, technically we are part of the Great Apes.
Mises on the issue:
'...[Freud] was very different from Einstein [1879–1955] who said, “I don’t know anything about economics, but socialism is very good.”'
I just remembered an idea: most people's economic and political beliefs flow naturally from their beliefs about human nature. If you think human nature is mostly rational, you are not going to advocating for government intervention in the marketplace. According to this idea, Einstein mistrust human nature. *does quick google search*
"It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man."
"Small is the number of people who see with their eyes and think with their minds"
"We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive"
"Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers. This is a cruel libel, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves"
Good luck, Shep, and enjoy these fascinating topics.