(This Einstein’s text was published in the journal Monthly Review in 1949)
It is recommended for anyone who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the question of socialism? For a complex of reasons I think so.
Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might seem that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general validity within a limited order of phenomena, so as to make it as understandable as possible connections between these phenomena. In reality, however, methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the economic field is made difficult by the fact that in the observed economic phenomena are often involved many factors that is very hard to evaluate separately. Furthermore, the experience accumulated from the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history was, as is known, strongly influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic nature. For example, most of the major states owed their existence to conquest policy. The conquering peoples is imposed legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They meted the monopoly of land ownership and created a priestly caste members with members of their own class. The priests, having control of education, transformed the division into classes of society into a permanent institution and worked out a system of values by which, since then, the people were driven to a large extent without his knowledge in his social behavior.
But historic tradition is, so to speak, what to yesterday; anywhere in the world we have actually exceeded what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The economic facts that we can observe belong to that stage, and the same laws that we can possibly draw from such facts are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and go beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw very little light on the socialist society of the future.
Second, socialism is aimed at an ethical-social order. Science, however, can not establish the purpose, much less inculcate them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to achieve certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by people with lofty ethical ideals; if these ideals are not sterile, but vital and strong, are adopted and carried out by the large part of humanity who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.
For these reasons, we should be careful not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it comes to human problems; and we should not admit that experts are the only ones who have the right to decide issues regarding the organization of society.
For some ‘time many voices say that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shaken. Characteristic of such a situation is the fact that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile to the social group, small or large, to which they belong. To illustrate what I mean, I want to recall here a personal experience.Recently I discussed with an intelligent person and open-minded about the threat of a new war which, in my opinion, would seriously affect the existence of mankind, and I pointed out that only a supranational organization would offer a form of protection from this danger. Then my interlocutor, a very quiet voice and cold, he said: “Because she is so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?”
I am sure that only a century ago no one would have asked a question like this so lightly.It is the affirmation of a man who struggled in vain to reach a balance internal and lost, more or less, the hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation suffered by many in these times. 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 security.I must groped, however, as best I can, although I am well aware of the fact that our feelings and our efforts are often contradictory and obscure, and can not be expressed by means of easy and simple formulas.
Man is, at the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop their natural qualities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the esteem and affection of his fellow men, to share their joys, to comfort them in their grief, and to improve their living conditions. Only the existence of these different efforts, frequently conflicting, it explains the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and contribute to the welfare of society. It is perfectly possible that the relative strength of these two trends is substantially determined by the legacy. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man finds himself during his development, by the structure of society in which he grows, from the history of that society, and the judgment that it gives the different types of behavior.The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of these direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and with all men of previous generations. The individual can think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends on the company, in its physical existence, intellectual and emotional, so much so that it is impossible to think of him or understand him, outside the structure of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible by the work and the accomplishments of the many millions of people of the past and present that are hidden behind the small word “society.”
It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual by society is a fact of nature which can not be abolished, just as in the case of bees or ants. 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. The memory, the ability to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human beings not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organizations, in literature, scientific and technical discoveries, in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can, through behavior, influencing their lives, and that in this process can have a function the thought and the will conscious.
Man receives hereditarily, at birth, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, and that includes the natural requirements that are characteristic of the human species. In addition, over a lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he is by the company through direct communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution to be, over time, subject to changes and determine to a large extent the relationship between the individual and society. Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative study of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behavior of human beings may be very different, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organization which predominate in society.It is on this that those who are fighting to improve the lot of man may base their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to destroy each other or to be at the hands of own hands, at the mercy of a cruel fate.
If we ask in what way 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 be aware that there are certain conditions that we can not change. As we mentioned before, the biological nature of man is not likely to change for all practical purposes. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions intended to last. In relatively dense stable populations, with the goods that are essential to the continuation of their existence, they are absolutely necessary an extreme division of labor and a highly centralized productive apparatus. It’s been forever the time, which in turn back seems so idyllic, in which individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is no exaggeration saying that already much of humanity today is a planetary community of production and consumption.
Having reached this stage in the speech I can indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It is the individual’s relationship with society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive thing, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to its existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical impulses of his character are constantly being accentuated, while his social impulses, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unconsciously prisoners of their 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 devoting himself to society.
The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today, is in my opinion the true source of evil. We see before us a huge community of producers, whose members strive ceaselessly to undress each other of the fruits of their collective labor, not by force, but all in all complicit in compliance with rules established in a legal form. In this sense it is important to realize that the means of production, that is to say the entire production capacity required to produce both the consumer goods that the additional capital goods, may be with full legal chrism, and for the most part they are, private property of individuals.
For simplicity, in the discussion that follows I will indicate with the word “workers” all those who do not participate in the ownership of the means of production, even if it does not fully correspond to the use of the term normal. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labor-power of the worker’s job. Using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point of this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured quantities in terms of real value. As long as the labor contract is “free,” what the worker receives is determined not by the real value of the goods he produces, but its survival needs and the demand for labor power by the capitalist, compared to the number of workers they are competing for jobs. It is important to understand that even in theory the worker’s wage is not determined by the value of his product.
Private capital tends to be 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 complex production
to the lower expenses. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power which can not be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. The truth of this is determined by the fact that members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purpose, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not protect, in fact, sufficiently the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under present 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, that citizens are received at the objective conclusions and make intelligent use of their political rights.
The prevailing situation in an economy based on private ownership of capital is thus characterized by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners will have to their liking; second, the labor contract is free. Of course it does not exist, as such, a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter struggles, have succeeded in securing a form in a way improved the “free labor contract” for certain categories.However, it is taken as a whole the economy of our times does not differ much from pure capitalism.
It produces for profit, not for use. There is no measure by which all those who can and want to work will always have a chance; there is almost always an “army of unemployed”.The worker always has the fear of losing their jobs. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not represent for consumer goods a profitable market, the production of these goods it is limited, resulting in serious damage. Technological progress frequently resolves in a worsening of unemployment rather than in an easing of the amount of work for everyone. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and deployment of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and those distortions of social consciousness in individuals, which I mentioned before.
These distortions in the individual, in my opinion are the worst defect of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, getting used to worship the
success as a preparation for his future career.
I am convinced that there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely the creation of joint socialist economy to an education system that is oriented toward social goals. In such an economy the means of production are owned by society itself and are used according to a planned schedule. A planned economy, which balances the production and the needs of the community, would distribute the work among all able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman and child. The education of the individual, in addition to encouraging his innate abilities, we propose to develop in him a sense of responsibility towards his fellow man instead of the glorification of power and success, as happens in our current society.
It must, however, remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. Such a planned economy could be supported by the complete enslavement of the individual.The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely complex social and political problems: how is it possible, in view of a far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy to become all-powerful and overbearing? How the individual’s rights can be protected, ensuring a democratic counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy?