Einstein was a socialist. Einstein, however, expressed great concern about the individual. He didn’t support a socialism that submerges the individual beneath an ocean of conformity and bureaucracy, which only makes sense: why would a true original like Einstein, creative genius, want to live in a stifling world of conformity?
We’ve been trained to think of socialism as a social system that impedes our self-determination, erodes our civil rights, and dims our creativity and imagination. But is that truly what socialism is about? Is socialism the path that inevitably leads to a dark and doomed dystopia? Not according to Einstein.
Einstein’s article Why Socialism? was written in 1949, when he was 70 and seasoned from experience. His essay displays none of the naïveté of many leftists of his time, leftists who idealized the Soviet Union or General Mao. Einstein’s perspective is realistic and mature. As a Jew, Einstein understood, personally, the devastating effects of totalitarianism and violence, whether that be within the context of fascism, socialism, or capitalism.
Whatever the “ism,” Einstein was concerned about preserving the dignity of the individual. It only makes sense. After all, Einstein was renowned for his originality and imagination.
Einstein makes a point of emphasizing that human beings are both individuals as well as social animals. And on this, most would agree. Of all animals, the human animal requires great attention: in order to fully develop his/her potential requires nearly two decades of hard work. It isn’t just parenting, it takes a village.
We all tend to agree on this, more or less, but Einstein makes a keen observation: as the world became more interconnected, human beings have developed an increased anxiety about losing their individuality. The more we must rely on each other, the greater the fear that we will be swallowed and submerged by the collective. Here’s how Einstein put it:
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. (from “Why Socialism?”)
This anxiety about our dependence on others has flared up again. It’s on the verge of flaming up and raging out of control, both here in the U.S. and around the world, but perhaps we in the U.S. are most sensitive to feeling threatened by losing our personal independence.
“How can the rights of the individual be protected?”
Einstein’s response to this anxiety was not to rail against it. Einstein was a true original and a creative genuis. In his case for socialism, Einstein didn’t suggest or imply that we should set aside our concerns as individuals. On the contrary, Einstein did something quite interesting, as he closed his essay on socialism: he made the question of the individual central to the development of socialism.
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?
In asking the question, Einstein simultaneously anticipates the answer. The socialist response to the anxieties of the individual is to preach the gospel of democracy. Hence the reason why an increasing number of people are now calling themselves democratic socialists. The word democratic isn’t mere window dressing. It isn’t tacked on for shits and giggles. It means something.
Democratic socialism is the belief that we can use the collective efforts of humankind to benefit all, and that the best way to achieve this is by way of a robust democracy. As such, democratic socialists (like Bernie Sanders) focus incredible energy on identifying the ways in which democracy is compromised.
Our axiety at losing our individual liberty often leads to a move away from democracy. That’s on full display now. Our billionaire President just signed a tax bill that was opposed by 55% of Americans. It will transfer millions in wealth back to…well, back to Trump himself and others of his friends in the wealthy class.
Trump’s big transfer of wealth will inevitably result in greater hardship for the very people who support it — for Trump supporters themselves — but their support for Trump remains steadfast. Why? When you trace it back, this support for the self-enriching Trump is anchored in a fear at liberals, a fear and an anger that liberals will roll back individual liberty, that liberals and big government will “control our lives.”
Today democracy is under assault in the name of individual liberty. This is no accident. It’s our knee-jerk, emotional reaction, and it’s easy for an opportunist like Trump to exploit our anxiety as a pretense for passing legislation that benefits only the wealthy few.
We’ve been trained to believe that socialism cancels out individual liberty. In truth, the two compliment each other. A robust democracy combined with the aims of socialism is the way forward, or at least that was Einstein’s thought on the matter. I’m no Einstein but it makes sense to me.