E=mc2 and socialism

On July a hundred years will have passed since Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. The inter-convertibility of mass and energy demonstrated in this theory, and expressed in the well known equation, E=MC2, provided the theoretical basis for the development of the atomic bombs with which the US government destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Einstein's opposition to the further development of nuclear weapons, and his staunch support for the cause of pacifism and nuclear disarmament, is almost as well known as his outstanding contributions to scientific theory, thanks to his many outspoken public statements and brave initiatives. But what is less well known is that Einstein spoke out not only for peace but also for socialism and a planned economy, and against American imperialism. Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879. He was educated in Germany and Switzerland, becoming a Swiss citizen at the age of 21. He was an average student at university and after graduation got a job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office, reading scientific papers and deriving revolutionary conclusions from them in his own time. He published three important scientific papers in 1905, on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the special theory of relativity, which he expanded into the general theory of relativity in 1916, by which time he had been made a professor at both Zurich and Berlin universities. He was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1922 for his work on the photoelectric effect. In 1930 he went to California to lecture and was still there in 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany. As a Jew it was clearly unwise for him to return to Germany, and he moved to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, where he remained for the rest of his life, attempting unsuccessfully to develop a unified theory to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. He died in April 1955. Einstein was recognised even in his own lifetime as the greatest scientist of the 20th century and possibly of all time, certainly since Isaac Newton. He was described as a simple and kindly man, impervious to ambition and power. Supporters of the US military-industrial complex liked to attribute his opposition to war to naivety. He believed that science should work in the interests of humanity. In an address to the students of the California Institute of Technology, delivered on February 16 1931, he said: "Concern for man himself must always constitute the chief objective of all technological effort, concern for the big, unsolved problems of how to organise human work and the distribution of commodities in such a manner as to assure that the results of our scientific thinking may be a blessing to mankind, and not a curse. Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations!" (quoted in O Nathan, H Norden [eds] Einstein on peace New York 1960, p122). In the modern world of global capital science is used by governments to develop ever more destructive weapons, and by capitalists companies to devise new commodities first and foremost for their exchange-value, not for human need. Einstein hated both (ab)uses. In his address to the Californian students, he continued: "In times of war, applied science has given men the means to poison and mutilate one another. In times of peace, science has made our lives hurried and uncertain. Instead of liberating us from much of the monotonous work that has to be done, it has enslaved men to machines; men who work long, wearisome hours mostly without joy in their labour and with the continual fear of losing their pitiful incomes" (ibid). The theory of relativity marked a revolution in science, demonstrating unsuspected interrelationships between time and space, and mass and energy, and highlighting the shortcomings in Newtonian physics. The broad conclusions of Einstein's theory, if not the mathematics behind it, are now generally known. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and light always travels at the same speed relative to an observer, irrespective of the speed at which the observer is moving relative to the source of the light. At high speeds time slows down and mass increases and, most importantly of all, mass is a form of energy, which can be converted to other forms, with a small mass equating to a potentially huge quantity of energy. Radioactivity and sunlight both derive from this conversion. The equivalence of mass and energy was first demonstrated by Cockcroft and Walton in 1932. They split lithium nuclei by bombarding them with protons, and demonstrated the fission products weighed less than the original nuclei, and that the energy released in the reaction corresponded to the weight loss according to Einstein's equation, E=MC2. Physicists then turned their attention to the possibility of generating energy from these nuclear processes, and began to realise that they could be used to create a unprecedentedly destructive bomb. In July 1939 Szilard, a friend and colleague of Einstein, drafted a letter to US president Roosevelt warning that atomic scientists working in Germany were probably working to develop such a bomb, and advising that the US government should do the same. He persuaded the more famous and influential Einstein to sign it. This letter is believed to have been influential in persuading Roosevelt to set up the 'Manhattan Project', which developed the atomic bomb, using the chain reaction of nuclear fission in uranium 235. Einstein later claimed that, had he known the Nazis would not develop an atomic bomb, he would not have signed the letter. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, he urged that the development of atomic weapons be discontinued, but of course by that time the military-industrial complex already had its own momentum, and was racing to develop the bomb before the Japanese also surrendered. The first successful explosion of an atomic device took place in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16 1945. As everyone knows, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed three weeks later. Einstein spent the rest of his life working for peace and nuclear disarmament in his own way, which was to use his fame and prestige as the world's greatest scientist to publish articles urging governments to disarm. He also tried to persuade other leading intellectuals to add their voice to this call. His belief that "non-cooperation in military matters should be an essential moral principle for all true scientists" (quoted in O Nathan, H Norden [eds] Einstein on peace New York 1960, p401) led him to suggest, in an unpublished draft message to a proposed national congress of scientists (1946) that, if the government continued with its programme of developing nuclear weapons, "we scientists must refuse to submit to its immoral demands, even if they are backed by legal machinery. There is an unwritten law, that of our own conscience, which is far more binding than any bills that may be devised in Washington. And there are, of course, even for us, the ultimate weapons: non-cooperation and strike" (ibid p343). He knew that appeals to governments were not enough: "Men have never freed themselves from intolerable bondage, frozen into law, except by revolutionary action" (ibid p107); and "Deeds, not words, are needed; mere words get pacifists nowhere. They must initiate action and begin with what can be achieved now" (ibid p116). Predictably, the dream of a scientists' strike against militarism proved futile and, as the military-industrial complex employed more scientists and the political climate in the US turned more anti-communist, Einstein found himself increasingly isolated and threatened. He understood and deplored the growth of US imperialism but felt he could do nothing about it. In a letter written in January 1955 he remarked that the US had "invented for its own use a new kind of colonialism, one that is less conspicuous than the colonialism of old Europe. It achieves domination of other countries by investing American capital abroad, which makes these countries firmly dependent on the United States. Anyone who opposes this policy or its implications is treated as an enemy of the United States." Einstein himself was certainly regarded as such an enemy. In October 1945 Congressman John Rankin declared to the House of Representatives that "this foreign-born agitator" wanted to "further the spread of communism throughout the world" and "ought to be prosecuted forthwith" (ibid p344). István Mészáros has described Einstein's political struggle, its shortcomings and ultimate failure. Mészáros accepts that, while the appeal to "the best minds" was doomed to be unsuccessful, there was little else Einstein could do. "Unlike Romain Rolland, his friend and comrade in arms in the cause of militant pacifism, who worked in France in a social setting of growing mass movements, Einstein could not appeal to 'organised action on a large scale' in the interest of a 'social revolution as the only method for abolishing the system that begets war'" (I Mészáros The power of ideology Hemel Hempstead 1989, p210). There is no doubt that Einstein believed a socialist system was desirable, and in fact necessary to ensure the continued survival of humanity. His attitude was most clearly expressed in his article, 'Why socialism?', published in the first issue of the magazine Monthly Review in May 1949. He wrote: "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 labour - not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules." He concludes the article: "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 utilised 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 centralisation 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?" Einstein could not answer these questions. As a lone intellectual, not matter his fame and prestige, he was ultimately helpless. Only the working class, led by a mass Communist Party, can overthrow capitalism and create socialism. Einstein's life also demonstrates the need for workers to coordinate their revolutionary activities internationally. He said he would not have urged the US government to develop the atomic bomb if he had not believed that the Nazis were building one. But he did not say what he would have done if the Nazis had in fact produced such a bomb. If activity for socialism and against war is not coordinated internationally by the working class, the ruling class can always use nationalism and the threat of what the enemy is doing to win or neutralise progressives like Einstein. Mary Godwin