Socialist Essay

Albert Einstein is the world-famous physicist. This article was originally published in the first issue of Monthly Review (May 1949). It was subsequently published in May 1998 to commemorate the first issue of MR‘s fiftieth year.

—The Editors

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 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 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 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. 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.

Socialism is the antithesis of individualism, which gave birth, to the capitalistic system of society. Socialism came as a countering force against the injustice and incompetence of capitalism, which involved exploitation of peasants and workers by those who own the instruments of production.

The advocates of Socialism regard the State as the instrument of achieving the greatest good of the largest community. It does not minimise the importance of the individual but seeks to subordinate the individual to the community.

Gandhiji also looks upon the state as an instrument of oppression of the common people. It attaches importance to such liberty only as may be necessary' for the fullest development of the personality of the individual, consistent with the total need of the community. It thinks that the interest of the individual can be best safeguarded and promoted by maximising the control of the State. But according to the latter, i.e. the democrats, the above end may be secured by curtailing the functions of the State to the lowest possible minimum. Thus, the two schools of thought differed more in their political methods than in the legitimacy of ends.

Socialism is both an economic and a political doctrine. It seeks to abolish private ownership of the means of production on the ground that such ownership and management lead to social inequalities and incompetence.

Hence, the socialists want to promote the common economic, political and moral interests of the people by replacing the present individualistic society with public ownership and public control of the means of production and distribution. The present order of society in the West is marked by private ownership of land, mines, factories, railways etc. In our country, State-ownership seeks to look after developments.

Private proprietors of these use them for the purpose of making the largest amount of profits for themselves. The decision as to what and how much to produce depends entirely on the sole consideration of private profit, the whole of which is appropriated by a small section of the people, .he owners. Thus under capitalism, the few roll in riches, while the many wallow in poverty. But under socialism, the means of production will be operated by the community through a highly democratic State-owned machinery, with a view to securing the maximum benefit to the society. Ownership is vested in the actual workers.

Hence, the socialist management of production will not only prevent the exploitation of the many by the few, but it will bring into existence a new order of society where every decision with regard to what and how much to produce will be made by considerations of usefulness of such things to society. Each citizen will then set according to his capacity to achieve this The State will maintain a central planning committee, which will develop and co-ordinate the different branches of produc­tion. Thus socialism, which grew out of the discontent among the toiling mass against the present social system, seeks to reconstruct society economically and politically on a new basis.

But the methods of achieving this object are many and varied, and differences as to these, have given rise to several schools of socialists, each of which prescribes different methods for the reali­sation of the socialistic ends of the state.

The oldest type of socialism, which appeared for the first time in the writings of Plato, is known as Utopian Socialism. Plato, in his Republic described the State as it ought to be, rather than as it is. Plato's 'Republic' furnished a basis for many later socialistic writers, notable among whom was Sir Thomas More who, in his Utopia, published in 1515, gave us the picture of an ideal state in an island of plenty where there was to be no private property. Utopian socialism found its advocate in St. Simon of France and Roberts Owen of England. These ardent exponents of socialism drew out novel schemes of society for the amelioration of the condition of the poor. But all these schemes turned out to be impracticable chimera and therefore are dubbed as Utopian.

Socialism passed from a speculative and idealist doctrine to a practical theory with Karl Marx whose classical works—Das Capital' and 'Communist Manifesto' (with Engles, 1848) are regarded as the Bible of socialism. According to Marx, workers produce more than what they get as their wages from their employers. The capitalist employers get the services of labour cheap but they sell the goods, produced by labour, at a rate higher than the amount spent on wages and upkeep of the factory. They appropriate this excess or surplus value by exploiting the labour as profit. Thus profit, according to Marx, is nothing but legalised robbery. Marxian socialism, therefore, seeks to root out this capitalistic system of production.

Marx's second proposition is based on the materialistic and dialectical interpretation of history. This explains the practical means and process, which govern the inevitable transition from capitalism to socialism.

Human society, according to Marx, is not static but is constantly moving towards new order, according to the needs of new economic conditions. The entire social structure of a country is determined largely by the material conditions of life, which is nothing but a struggle for possession between 'the haves' and the have-nots'. As such, all social and political history is the outcome of the conflict of economic classes, i.e. class conflict. The existence of this class struggle is nothing new.

In every age this class-conflict gave rise to two opposing economic classes—the owners and the toilers, the exploiters and the exploited. This class struggle will terminate only with the over-throw of the capitalists by the workers. The feudal system based on exploitation of labour and land slaves or serfs, was replaced by the capitalists through Bourgeoisie Democratic Revolution. Marx, therefore, urges upon the workers the imperative necessity of organising themselves into a powerful body with a view to capturing power by overthrowing capitalists, the bourgeoisie. The victory of the working class will be followed by the elimination of the capitalist class from the field of production like the new phoenix coming out of the old bird.

A new order of classless society with industries directed by the proletariat will emerge. In the new order of society, the guiding economic principle will be—"He who does not work neither shall he eat'. Thus, the transition from socialism to communism is one from 'each according to his capacity' to 'each according to his need'.

Marx's socialism has been subjected to searching criticism in recent times. His materialistic interpretation of history is said to be a narrow view, which ignores the importance of forces like religion, geography, and great men, all of whom have played their part, in shaping class-conflict, and rooting out the class enemies by dictator­ship of the proletariat.

They are criticised as out and out pessimistic, and contrary to the fundamental social nature of man. But as against these, it has been said that religion in practice has more often than not sided with the men in power and in exploiting the working class has usually been indifferent to fundamental human values, in their ruthless pursuit of profit; what they have conceded is rather due to force than to religion or reason. Orthodox economists have also criticised Marx's theory of value as fanciful and unscientific, based on a wilful disregard of many other forces.

Socialism in practice—in former Soviet Union or in China—is also shown to be anti-democratic and totalitarian. The latest devel­opment is that the great Soviet Socialistic Union of Russia has broken down in 15 nation-states; China has accepted roundly market economy and Cuba of Castro is gasping economically.

The chief danger of socialism lies in attaching too much importance to the State and minimising the role of the individual. In a socialistic State, the individual is liable to be considered merely a unit of the State, a cog in the machine and without initiative or freedom of action of its own. Such denial of freedom of thought and action to the individual will remove one of the principal stumuli to progress and reduce man to the position of a machine. The achieve­ments of Russia in the fields of arts and sciences, however, seem to make such criticism as prejudiced.

Within the unit of commune the creative urge of the individual has its due place and recognition.

In spite of hostile criticism, socialistic ideals have captured the imagination of the people, and States, which functioned so long on capitalistic basis, are being obliged to concede to the Socialist pattern. Britain under the rule of the Labour Party took up the policy of gradually socialising basic industries, though, later on, the tide has been reversed. The reason for this is not far to seek.

Socialism as a doctrine, which is based on the claim of the many for recognition of their inherent rights against the unjust privileges of the few. It has rendered a valuable service by not only bringing into prominence but also by driving into public consciousness the evils that came in the wake of the modern industrial system. It is being recognised that political democracy without its economic counterpart is meaningless, and a socialist programme is needed for the success of democracy.

Socialism stands not for any particular interest, but aims at promoting the interest of the entire community by socialising the means of productions, distribution and exchange. It therefore helps secure the emancipation of labour from the domination of capitalism and landlordism, and the establishment of social and economic equality of the sexes. Socialism is, therefore, based on altruistic and moral principles in as much as it seeks to establish a regime in which no one is excluded but everyone is given an opportunity to reach his best self, fullest stature, in which the governing principle of life -'Live and let live'.


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