(About a 5 minute read)
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. — Albert Einstein, Why Socialism?
Einstein’s essay, Why Socialism, was published in the first issue of the Monthly Review (May, 1949). It remains even unto this day a fairly good essay both on what socialism is, and on the chief reason (in Einstein’s eyes) that you might want to take a closer look at socialism.
He begins the essay in a way that might seem a bit strange to some of us today. That is, instead of directly addressing what socialism is, or why you might want to take a look at it, he talks about the methodology of economics.
Specifically, he asks if current economics has anything to say about what a socialist economy would look like — given, as Einstein points out, that nowhere in the world is there a pure socialist economy.
Einstein’s answer is “no”, and with that, he attacks the notion — very popular even today — that a socialist economy would be unworkable for any number of reasons. In Einstein’s view, saying such things is mere unfounded speculation.
From there, he spends a few words explaining that the sciences cannot decide questions of value — and hence, such questions are left up to all of us to resolve as best we can. That is, we cannot, say. fall back on economists to decide for us whether we should value socialism.
And now he launches into a discussion of human nature. His core idea:
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.
Of course, Einstein was far and away more sophisticated than many thinkers of his day (or even ours) in seeing human nature as essentially characterized by our being both a social and a solitary animal.
Some might argue a more essential difference is, say, our being both an animal and a soul. But such a division, even if true, goes almost nowhere in explaining human history. However, Einstein’s description readily lends itself to that — especially in the sense of explaining one of the core conflicts running through-out human history since the first complex societies arose in Sumer 5,500 years ago. The conflict between the needs of society and the needs of the individual.
Einstein goes on from there to first argue that capitalism does not adequately resolve the tensions between our solitary and social needs, and then to argue that socialism has the potential to do so.
After that he brings his essay to a close with a hint, a hint that even in 1949 — a year before Joseph McCarthy began is attacks on all things left — socialism was already on the verge of becoming too scandalous to publicly discuss.
It seems to me kind of presumptuous of me to turn at this point to a few quick comparisons between my own views and Einstein’s. I mean, Albert is a hard act to follow! A brilliant mind — even on topics other than physics.
Nevertheless, for anyone interested, here are some highlights:
I favor a mixed economy rather than either a socialist economy or a capitalist economy. For instance, I think some things should be publicly own, such as the roads, the schools, the police and fire departments, and so forth. I think a lot of people would agree with me there, but I would go further than that to include the defense industry — I’m tired of that industry lobbying for wars in order to increase profits.
Beyond that I completely agree with Einstein that humans are both solitary and social animals. And I believe he accurately described a major crises of our times — one of many now.
Here’s my challenge to my fellow bloggers. Read the quote that opens this post, then post your analysis and conclusions about it.
When you do, be sure to leave a link to your post in the comments.
Questions? Comments? Sound and insightful reasons for me to scamper nude down the main street of my town at lunch hour? New internet fads I should studiously ignore? Well intentioned warnings I might be losing my sanity?