Saturday 22 April 2017

Scientific Socialism: a Primer.

David Ruccio writes about yesterday's March for Science staged in many countries, including Australia. In our times of alternative facts and fake news, its significance is evident.

Ruccio's post, however, also reminded me of Albert Einstein's essay "Why Socialism?", where Einstein laid out his views on socialism.

Although his prominence may have afforded Einstein some protection, it took courage to pen that piece: the late 1940s-early 1950s wasn't a good time to write favourably about socialism anywhere, least of all in an openly Marxist journal. Yet, "Why Socialism?" was published originally in 1949 in the first issue of the Monthly Review, whose editors -- whom we might suppose know something about basic Marxism -- decided to file it under "Marxism".

The Cold War had just begun and western liberal democracies were in the grip of the Red Scare: McCarthyism, in the US. The last sentence of the essay, where he endorsed the new publication, suggests Einstein was aware of the risks involved:
"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".

The essay deals with several subjects under the "socialism" heading. Einstein starts with his understanding of how physical and economic scientific laws differ. Coming from perhaps the top scientific mind of the 20th century, one should imagine that carries some authority. Although he doesn't use these words (he doesn't use "epistemology", either), economic laws, he argues, are harder to find, subject to multiple causality, and historically contingent.

As a Marxist, I find those views compatible with the materialist conception of history or historical materialism. That includes Einstein's anti-scientism:
"[W]e 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."
Have you ever wondered why Marxism lacks a blueprint for a socialist society? Einstein offers some insight on that:
"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."
Attentive readers should find in the essay that and many more Marxist notions, ranging from alienation, to capital concentration. The echoes of "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" are there, too.

Sceptics may think that interpretation is wildly unwarranted. But even the most sceptical reader cannot deny the words Einstein himself used, appearing there in black and white. You find in the latter half of the essay "division of labor", "means of production", "labor power", "capitalist" ("owner of the means of production"), "workers" ("all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production"), "army of the unemployed", and "value":
"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."
Without using the word, Einstein is writing about exploitation. To the best of my knowledge, only Marxists and a subset of anarchists think of exploitation in those terms.

Einstein goes much further in the next few paragraphs, including this:
"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 few years ago I wrote about that essay. At the time, Nathan Tankus objected:
"Marxist? I don't think he ever described himself as a Marxist. Marxist inspired maybe...."
I never replied to him. Sorry about that.

At 2,667 words (less than 4 pages), "Why Socialism?" is a brief and clear read, tightly packed with Marxist content, to the point of making the essay an excellent primer. In my reading, that makes of Einstein a Marxist, and whether he, in the circumstances he lived in, never  described himself as such even if it were true, is irrelevant.

After all, was Darwin at most Darwinian-inspired, just because he never described himself as a Darwinian?

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