E=mc2 – how Einstein changed our understanding of the
results of an electrodynamic investigation recently published by me in
this journal lead to a very interesting conclusion, which shall be
The opening lines of one of five scientific papers written 100 years ago by Albert Einstein in 1905.
After three pages of mathematical notes, no more than a postscript
to his main Relativity article, the conclusion: E = mc2.
A century after these papers were published, Roy Farrar examines’
how the materialist basis for Einstein’s theories was reflected in his
socialist ideas and support for the struggle to change society.
The horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 thrust
Einstein’s most famous equation onto the world’s consciousness. Its
potency could not be denied – the conversion into energy of about 10
grammes per kilogramme of uranium was enough to destroy Hiroshima – the nuclear flash
would have been visible from the planet Jupiter!
In 1939 Einstein had written to President Roosevelt warning of the
possibility of Germany building an atomic bomb. That was his sole
contribution to the Manhattan Project, the U.S. atomic bomb programme.
When he contemplated "the fields of death" he declared that
if he had known that Germany would not succeed, and that the bomb would
be used against Japan, "I would never have lifted a finger. Not a
As a long time anti-war activist it had been no easy matter for him
to write to Roosevelt. His conscience struggled over whether to oppose
war, or to help the fight against the Nazis. He finally decided that a
Nazi Europe would be worse than world war.
Einstein’s status, as a foreigner and a Jew, and his controversial
political views had made him some influential enemies. He had already
publicly denounced the profiteering of the arms manufacturers. The FBI
had reported to Army Intelligence:
"In view of his radical background, this office would not
recommend the employment of Dr Einstein… unlikely that a man of his
background could… become a loyal American citizen".
First World War
When the First World War broke out in 1914, jingoism and war hysteria
were prevalent throughout the battling nations. This did not leave
science unscathed – instead of the former research work many turned to
weapons development. Einstein, then in Berlin, was disgusted.
Einstein openly opposed the war by co-signing the Manifesto to
Europeans. As the war progressed, so did his political involvement.
He joined an anti-war party which was subsequently banned by the German
government in 1916 and the authorities regarded him a traitor. He
concluded that the underlying cause of the Great War was economic, that
the conflict was born of imperialism – the ‘war for oil’ of its day
– and became a socialist.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party seized control and with them came
the systematic persecution of Jews and of political opponents. As a Jew
and a socialist, Einstein was a target of the Nazi secret police. Mass
meetings were held in Berlin denouncing Einstein’s theories and
"Jewish physics". A book One hundred authors against
Einstein was published – he remarked that if he had been wrong then
one would have been enough!
In the early 1950s, Einstein opposed McCarthyism and used his
celebrity to speak out against racial and ethnic discrimination. In 1952
he was offered the position of President of Israel, which he declined.
For some time he had supported the concept of a Jewish homeland but was
uneasy about aspects of Zionism. In 1938 he had said:
"I would much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs
on the basis of living together in peace than in the creation of a
Jewish state ….. My awareness of the essential character of Judaism
resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a
measure of temporal power ….. I am afraid of the inner damage
Judaism will sustain."
Einstein wrote an essay entitled "Why socialism" for the
founding issue of "Monthly Review" (May 1949). In it he
concurred with Marx that capitalism rested on private property and the
ownership of the means of production by an elite few. That goods are
produced only for profit and not for people’s needs. That capitalist
exploitation was based on the unpaid labour of the working class – that
wages are determined by the minimum needs of the workers not the value
of their labour.
Einstein’s "workers" were everyone who did not own the
means of production.
He recognised that these workers had achieved some reforms through
trade union and class struggle but the fundamental nature of capitalism
He understood that the history of society was conditioned through the
interplay of cultural, political, and social superstructures and trends
with the underlying economic base and in so doing rejected the
"exclusively economic" approach of the ‘vulgarisers’ of
Rejecting the arguments of the biological "reductionists"
(the ‘genetics is everything’ crowd) he argued that human nature was not
fixed and pre-determined by our biological make up. That our social and
cultural environment can mould, for the better, human development, and
He regarded scientific and technological advances, as not ends in
themselves, but able to furnish the means to achieve socialism. Under
capitalism however, he saw that new technology does not free people but
results in unemployment and intensified exploitation.
The profit motive coupled with competition means that capitalism
cannot create a stable society – that economic depressions and slumps
are unavoidable. He was particularly concerned that capitalism with its
inherent insecurities alienated the majority of its citizens:
"This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of
….."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."
He was clear, however, that a planned economy, as in Stalin’s Russia,
was not socialist. Questions of how to overcome its lack of democracy,
to safeguard human rights, to counter any bureaucratic tendencies that
may arise from the centralisation of production greatly concerned
He felt that the solving of such difficult socio-political problems
held the key to any successful transition to socialism, but also that
there seemed insufficient experience on which to base any definite
models for the socialist society of tomorrow. He ended his essay by
appealing for a serious debate to clarify the socialist programme.