Did Albert Einstein’s ideas alter the course of human history?
The BBC documentary, Einstein’s Equation of Life and Death, argues along these lines. While a brilliant retelling of the dilemmas faced by the world-renowned physicist throughout the Second World War, it somehow falls short on the real causes of the conflict. It argues that Albert Einstein’s discovery of nuclear physics, as well as his ideas about the origins of the universe – encapsulated in the famous formula E=mc2 – were somehow central to the events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima.
This article argues, in contrast, that Einstein and his ideas were inevitably moulded by the circumstances of his era, which in turn prompted the development of the nuclear bomb. The ideas of a guilt-stricken physicist did not define history. Rather, Einstein’s ideas, as ideas tend to, came into their own at the start of the war, and were then manipulated to suit the needs of the great powers.
It was above all the political and economic forces governing society, more than the laws of physics, which led to the tragedy at Hiroshima. The Bomb was a product of human error, not nuclear fusion.
Here it is important to appreciate Einstein’s holistic conception of reality. As a physicist, he understood how the laws of motion (at least as it was understood in his time) were in reality contingent on a universe in constant flux. Thus to try and understand a physical phenomenon by taking it out of context, by seeing it in abstract, beyond the physical events that ground it in real life (as modern economics tends to do) is not to understand it at all.
Like his theory of relativity, which posits that one can only fully understand time from a certain limited point, he was concerned with stepping back from the chaos of his era to see truth and see it whole. He refused to take events in society apart only to view each in isolation. Like space and time, they were part of one and the same reality, and had their own inner logic which moved history forward.
Perhaps this carried over to his own political views.
Einstein was a pacifist who renounced his German citizenship, twice, in anticipation of his native homeland’s turn to militarism. He was also an avowed socialist, an internationalist, a civil rights activist, and a member of the Brussels-based League against Imperialism. He doubtless understood – as did Rosa Luxemburg, who founded the anti-war Spartacus league (later the Communist Party of Germany, banned by the Nazis) – that the real reasons for the war lay more in political economy than Nazi ideology.
He stood clearly in the Marxist tradition when he saw both world wars as rooted in concrete historical conditions, not the empty slogans or abstract ideas about human nature that emanated from all sides, which only masked the real reasons for the conflicts.
Hitler’s Nazism did not, by itself, spark and sustain the Second World War. In the same vein, a paper Einstein wrote fifty years before the war did not, by itself, herald the nuclear era.
At this point it would be best to understand what the man himself thought. Discussed below are quotations from some of his political essays, including an article1 he wrote for the inaugural issue of the socialist magazine, Monthly Review.
Science, Nature and War
In contrast to the growing nihilism so fashionable in his day – in the context of a society that made the 20th century perhaps the most violent in human history – Einstein’s deep sympathy for the plight for humanity was unmistakable. While he did not deny certain essential aspects of a physical human nature, he believed the social aspects of society were entirely capable of evolution and change. Of radical transformation.
Einstein certainly did not believe that violence was in any way an essential quality of human nature. He saw it instead as rooted in an economic system that give rise to rivalry between individuals and violence between states.
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.”
Einstein was sensitive to the links between the individual and society, and saw in the capitalist mode of production the destruction of both. The profit-seeking drive that underpins capitalism was at one with the exploitation of labour, the commodification of life, the ceaseless expansion of markets, and the competition between states which expressed the interests of their dominant classes – interests that would lead, in the end, to world wars.
These conflicts, far more than they were clear-cut battles between “good and evil”, or expressions of an inherently selfish human nature, were really clashes between rival powers; elite wars that came at the expense of millions of ordinary people who fought and died in a holocaust that engulfed the world (and could do so again one day).
Society, in Einstein’s view, was out of balance, and an economic system that promised progress now found its expression in a culture of selfish “egotism” and mutual self-destruction. Capitalism privileged man’s acquisitive nature while downplaying those qualities that made him human, even as it concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a handful of corporations, individuals or states.
The end result was a society that had turned people into dehumanized cogs in the Profit Machine.
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… 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.
The wars of the 20th century had a solid political-economic basis. The First World War had its roots in the rivalry of the ruling classes of the dominant western economies, who were locked in seemingly endless conflicts over their colonies in Africa and Asia. These were driven in turn by the search for new markets and the anxiety to secure raw materials to fuel their industries. Capitalism, after all, had to grow.
The defeat of Germany following its own attempts to expand early in the century – which brushed against the interests of other European powers and for which it was severely punished – lay the seeds for its second attempt at Empire less than half a century later.
The contradictions of the global economy reached their peak in the Great Depression of the 1930s, which threw the world powers, Allied and Axis-affiliated alike, into disarray. Financial speculation was rife (the major banks and big business, including Coca Cola and Volkswagen, would later fund and support both wars). Wages and living conditions were at an all-time low. The colonies, too, were in revolt.
While the western powers spoke of liberation and democracy, they clamped down hard on third world peoples abroad and their own oppressed classes at home. All had been clamouring for independence and democracy. Many were calling for socialist revolution. They were given a War instead.
Rising inequality and social unrest in the capitalist centres, and Europe in particular, went hand in hand with a decline in democracy and the rise of all sorts of ideologies and right-wing movements which in the end distracted from the root causes of the crisis.
Hitler was a product of this period.
The Cold War was driven by a similar dynamic, which saw the two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union – which had by then adapted itself to a tyrannical brand of state capitalism, not socialism – against one another, and trapped the rest of the world in between.
Some point to the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand, the rise of Hitler, or the invention of the nuclear bomb, as key events which fuelled the wars. Factors that shaped the course of any conflict are of course far more complex than this simple reading suggests. Chance events and the actions of key individuals only give the pretext to launch wars which the ruling classes of every era are ready to launch from the beginning.
But nor do these elites determine how wars play out. Mass opposition or support for war can either strengthen or weaken, end or perpetuate, the forces arrayed on either side of a conflict. In the Second World War, the European labour movement and other leftist political forces (including Soviet Russia – however odious its rulers) launched a united front against fascism, and played a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
War is a chessboard with space for an array of social forces, where those who declare war, presidents and their puppet-masters, avoid fighting on the frontlines. They lay their pawns and wait in their fortresses, ready to claim victory when the carnage is over. On the ruins of civilisation, they write history in their own image – a history that can be rewritten by the pawns.
To a capitalist economy in the doldrums, War was, and continues to be, a potent stimulus. In the United States, this is in seen in the military-industrial complex that keeps the American economy humming. It’s seen in the rise of militarism, state impunity, and police crackdowns on popular social movements that go against the status quo and its stifling economic orthodoxy. It’s seen in the way world governments spend some $ 1.5 Trillion a year on war2 (the United Nations’ total annual budget, in contrast, is barely two per cent of global military spending); an amount that could easily drive terrorism
Indeed a suite of military interventions in recent years – from Afghanistan and Iraq, to Syria and America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ – prove war’s enduring relevance to the global capitalist order.
Regardless of their humanitarian rhetoric, these wars are driven by a need to root out economic competition, and open up “new markets” in the third world while securing access to oil, land, water, and other raw materials to fuel the machines of industry. At the same time, they provide a convenient distraction from domestic political problems.
Einstein understood all this, and knew such violence would only increase as time went on, without an end to a system that made war inevitable. War is not part of human nature. It is in the nature of capitalism.
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.
In another essay he adds, “My opinion of the human race is high enough that I believe this bogey [patriotism and war] would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the peoples not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interest acting through the schools and the press”. (The World As I See It, 1931)
In this context, Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt would have made little or no difference at all over America’s decision to develop the Bomb – except perhaps to lend some legitimacy to Roosevelt’s war drive in the eyes of the public. Like their Nazi counterparts, American scientists could well have already begun experimenting with nuclear technology.
Yet amid the paranoia of war and the prodding of his friend Szillard, Einstein wrote that letter. It was, perhaps, a moment of personal weakness. He did not anticipate the nuclear arms race that would culminate in Hiroshima. Or maybe he did.
In any case, he wanted little to do with the Manhattan Project and continued to be an active supporter of the anti-war movement. As the Cold War took off, he and some of the world’s leading scientists, including Bertrand Russell, another socialist, would sign a manifesto calling for nuclear disarmament.
He would later condemn government attempts to open up nuclear technology to private companies. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “US is no longer a free country… If a visitor should come to this country from another planet, would he not find it strange that in this country so much power is permitted to private corporations without their having commensurate responsibility? I say this to stress that the US government must keep the control of atomic energy, not because socialism is necessarily desirable, but because atomic energy was developed by the government, and it would be unthinkable to turn over this property of the people to any individuals or groups of individuals” (Atomic War or Peace).
Einstein’s stand against US militarism, his views on the global economy, his defence of left-wing activists and involvement in socialist circles would prompt US Senator Joseph McCarthy, a vehement anti-Communist, to denounce him as an enemy of the state. While he considered the Stalinist bureaucracy a stark betrayal of the socialist cause, he was nonetheless targeted for investigation by the FBI, and was long held in suspicion of supporting the Soviets.
While his increasingly vocal critiques led to a falling out with the American establishment, Einstein continued to enjoy immense popular support from the public.
Toward the end of his life, he would devote considerable energy in support of the newly established United Nations, in accordance with his vision of an international system that would put a final end to the roots of human conflict and destitution.
The Fight for Peace
Today, the social and economic conditions that gave rise to the two world wars are again at work, and are stronger than ever. Racist ideologies and right-wing attacks on the social gains of the working class over the past century and a half– labour rights, relative income equality, functioning democratic institutions – are again taking root across the globe amid rising social polarisation.
The rich, as they say, are getting richer, and the poor, poorer.
Poverty and inequality on a mass scale is simply incompatible with real democracy. But the chronic contradictions of capitalism, and the wars of exploitation and impunity that are its symptoms, have yet to be resolved.
Ultimately Einstein saw a solution to all this, an end to war and a lasting global peace, as only possible within the framework of an entirely different world system.
“I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate (the) grave evils (of capitalism), 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.”
And for a figure now seen as Science personified – a universal icon of scientific discovery – Einstein’s own views on the subject were perhaps more sober than many of his fans would like to believe:
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.
As with a great many other thinkers, Einstein’s radical views were ultimately diluted in favour of a depoliticized image of him – a harmless old genius with fuzzy white hair – that fit the status quo. Many other scientists have gone down that same path, seeking to detach themselves, in the name of a false “objectivity”, from the socio-political implications of their own discoveries.
The consequences of such an attitude are profound, as proven by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the irrationality of a “scientific” economy hooked on competition and endless growth, and the manipulation of science itself by a self-destructive profit system that has put the future of the planet itself at stake.
It is only right that we restore the political legacy of a man who not only shaped our views of reality, but was shaped by it. Einstein saw all around him the anarchy and violence of a society that had lost its way, but did not give up on the human prospect.
The man who championed the theory of relativity was no relativist. He saw the progress of human history, however bleak, as containing within it the seeds of radical change.
CJ Chanco is a communications undergraduate at De La Salle University Manila and a former features editor at The LaSallian. Between street protests and long runs, he blogs at A Cynic Meets Hope.
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Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. SIPRI Yearbook 2013. < http://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2013/03[accessed 13 October 2013]>