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Albert Einstein, Radical: A Political Profile

Albert Einstein (1959), charcoal and watercolor drawing by Alexander Dobkin

Albert Einstein (1959), charcoal and watercolor drawing by Alexander Dobkin. Dobkin (1908–1975) was an important painter of the mid-twentieth century American realist tradition along with other left-wing artists such as Jack Levine, Robert Gwathmey, Philip Evergood, and Raphael and Moses Soyer. A student and collaborator of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, his work is in the permanent collections of the Butler Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution.

John J. Simon has been a book editor and public radio and television producer. He is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

2005 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Albert Einstein and the centennial of the publication of five of his major scientific papers that transformed the study of physics. Einstein’s insights were so revolutionary that they challenged not only established doctrine in the natural sciences, but even altered the way ordinary people saw their world. By the 1920s he had achieved international popular renown on a scale that would not become usual until the rise of the contemporary celebrity saturated tabloids and cable news channels. His recondite scientific papers as well as interviews with the popular press were front page news and fodder for the newsreels. Usually absent, however, was any sober discussion of his participation in the political life of his times as an outspoken radical—especially in profiles and biographies after his death.

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, into a liberal, secular, and bourgeois German Jewish family. Young Albert’s childhood and early adolescence does not seem to have been out of the ordinary. Like many late nineteenth century young men, he was curious, read Darwin, and was interested in the material, that is the natural, world and wished to fathom “the arcana of nature, so as to discern ‘the law within the law.’”

In 1895, Einstein, aged sixteen, renounced his German citizenship and moved to Switzerland. His main reason was to avoid military service and also to complete his education at Zurich’s Polytechnic Institute. There he eventually earned his Ph.D. in a climate relatively free of the anti-Semitism that pervaded German and Austrian universities. But Zurich had other rewards. Einstein spent much time at the Odeon Café, a hangout for Russian radicals, including Alexandra Kollontai, Leon Trotsky, and, a few years later, Lenin. Einstein admitted to spending much time at the Odeon, even missing classes to participate in the coffee shop’s intoxicating political debates.

Unable to find an academic job, Einstein went to work in 1902 in the Swiss patent office in Berne. It was there in 1905 that he had his annus mirabilus, publishing articles on the special theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and Brownian motion. In 1914 he was offered and accepted a full professorship in Berlin. Fred Jerome, author of The Einstein File,* notes that the job offer was probably a result of a bidding competition among universities in Britain, France, and Germany looking for scientific and technological talent to abet their respective governments’ imperial objectives. Unfortunately, Einstein took up his post just as the First World War broke out with Germany among the chief belligerents.

Einstein opposed the war, putting him at odds with the German Social Democrats to whom he had been previously sympathetic, instead aligning himself with the party’s minority who saw the war as a dispute among the ruling classes of the belligerents. Einstein also found himself in disagreement with most of his scientific colleagues. Max Planck, then a physicist of roughly equivalent stature to Einstein, and nearly a hundred other scientists signed a supernationalist “Manifesto to the Civilized World,” endorsing Germany’s war aims in language that prefigured the Nazi rants of a generation later, rationalizing the war as justifiable resistance to “Russian hordes,” “Mongols,” and “Negroes” who had been “unleashed against the white race.” Einstein and only three others replied in a document suppressed at the time by the German government, describing the behavior of the scientists (sadly joined by numerous writers and artists) as shameful. At least one of the signatories of the reply was jailed. Einstein was not; it was the first instance of the power of his newly acquired celebrity not only to protect himself, but to allow him to speak out when others couldn’t.

In the turbulent aftermath of the war Einstein continued to speak out. Famously, on the day Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated—it was during a fortnight that saw not only the armistice, but the fall of seven other European monarchies, all replaced, for the moment, by liberal and socialist regimes—Einstein posted a sign on his classroom’s door that read “CLASS CANCELLED—REVOLUTION.” He had joined with and defended liberal and radical students and colleagues for their wartime opposition; now he was with them in their postwar resistance to the burgeoning revanchist militarism that would quickly morph into Nazism.

Einstein’s visibility made him a focus of the revival of virulent anti-Semitism. His work on relativity was denounced as a “Jewish perversion” not only by far right-wing politicians, but even by fellow German scientists. Einstein was by now an illustrious international figure. In 1921 he received the Nobel Prize for Physics for work on the photo-electric effect, which demonstrated the quantum nature of light. He was also a visible presence in the cultural and social life of the Weimar Republic. At the same time, Einstein became increasingly outspoken in his political views. Opposing the mounting racist and jingoist violence and ultranationalism in Germany in the 1920s, he worked for European unity and supported organizations seeking to protect Jews against growing anti-Semitic violence. His egalitarian streak was irrepressible: confronting rising course fees poorer students couldn’t afford, Einstein routinely offered free after-hours physics classes. As the European economic and political crises grew more acute, Einstein increasingly used platforms at scientific conferences to address political questions. “He had no problem,” Jerome notes, “discussing relativity at a university lecture in the morning, and, on that same evening, urging young people to refuse military service.”

By 1930 Hitler’s National Socialist party was poised to become the dominant political force in Germany and Einstein, while still vocal at home, more and more found himself looking abroad for congenial outlets for both his scientific and political expression. He lectured in Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe and, from 1930 on, annually as a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology. On January 30, 1933, the Nazis seized power and confiscated Einstein’s Berlin property. In May, Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, organized a public book burning, prominently featuring Einstein’s work; photos of the atrocity were published worldwide. Following the offer of a large cash bounty for his murder in Nazi newspapers, Einstein was forced to complete a speaking tour in the Netherlands with the protection of bodyguards. That winter, while at Cal Tech, he and his family decided not to return to Berlin. Instead he accepted a lifetime appointment from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, settling into a modest house on Mercer Street.

There, while trying to orient himself to his new country, Einstein worked doggedly on his Unified Field Theory, an attempt to demonstrate that electromagnetism and gravity were different manifestations of a single fundamental phenomenon. It would be his main scientific concern for the rest of his life and remains one that continues to animate contemporary physics and cosmology.

In the years before he was granted U.S. citizenship in 1940, Einstein’s political concerns were focused on the depredations of Nazi anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism. Once again, making use of his renown, he petitioned the government to allow refugees to migrate to the United States, but to no avail. He then joined with other European intellectuals to ask Eleanor Roosevelt to intervene with her husband, but the result was the same. This was not Einstein’s first conflict with FDR’s administration. He vigorously and publicly supported the anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War. While the Nazi Luftwaffe bombed Spanish villages, the United States, along with Britain and France, enforced a phony “neutrality” embargo, denying Republican troops needed munitions. Despite organized demonstrations and appeals to which Einstein lent his name, the blockade was never lifted and the fascist regime imposed on Spain survived (with postwar U.S. aid) for nearly four decades. Nearly 3,000 American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade defied their government to fight with the Republic, with Einstein an early and zealous supporter.

In 1939, at the urging of the physicist and fellow refugee from the Nazis, Leo Szilard, Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt to warn about German advances in nuclear research and the prospect that they might develop an atomic weapon. The letter led to the U.S. effort to build such a bomb. It remains Einstein’s most remembered public act. However, a combination of government fear of Einstein’s radicalism and his own reluctance kept Einstein from having any role in the Manhattan Project.

After the war, Einstein protested the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fred Jerome cites a 1946 interview with the London Sunday Express, in which Einstein “blamed the atomic bombing of Japan on [President] Truman’s anti-Soviet foreign policy” and expressed the opinion that “if FDR had lived through the war, Hiroshima would never have been bombed.” Jerome notes that the interview was immediately added to Einstein’s growing FBI file.

The early postwar years were marked by a manipulated anticommunist frenzy in government and business circles to support U.S. international and domestic goals. Manhattan Project scientists, who had earlier debated the use of the bomb in the months between Germany’s defeat in May 1945 and the Hiroshima bombing in August, were well versed in the issues the bomb raised. Many feared a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. To lobby against that prospect, they founded the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), which Einstein agreed to chair. In that role, Einstein sought first to try to meet with Secretary of State George C. Marshall to discuss what he saw as the militarist expansion of U.S. power. He was rebuffed, but in an interview with a mid-level Atomic Energy Commission official he described Truman’s foreign policy as anti-Soviet expansionism—Pax Americana were the words he used to describe what he saw as U.S. imperial ambition. There was a substantial public response to ECAS’s antinuclear message, but, in the end, the group was unable to reach its goal of removing atomic development from the military and placing it under international control.

Another major political concern of Einstein in the 1940s was the persistence of racism, segregation, lynching, and other manifestations of white supremacy in the United States. During the war, the country had been mobilized to support the war effort, both on the battlefield and the home front with the promise of equality. In fact, however, the official message on racial justice was, at best, mixed. FDR set up a Fair Employment Practices Committee, an entity with much promise but with little power to affect discrimination in the work place. And the eleven million member-strong military remained segregated. In the aftermath of the war, economic dislocations, job shifts, and housing shortages were all dealt with in the usual Jim Crow manner: in the words of Leadbelly’s song “if you’re black, get back, get back, get back.”

The town of Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein lived (and for that matter, its university), though only a short drive from New York, might well have been in the old southern Confederacy. Paul Robeson, who was born in Princeton, called it a “Georgia plantation town.” Access to housing, jobs, and the university itself (once led by the segregationist Woodrow Wilson) were routinely denied to African Americans; protest or defiance were often met with police violence. Einstein, who had witnessed similar scenes in Germany and who, in any event was a longtime anti-racism militant, reacted against every outrage. In 1937, when the contralto Marion Anderson gave a critically acclaimed concert in Princeton but was denied lodging at the segregated Nassau Inn, Einstein, who had attended the performance, instantly invited her to stay at his house. She did so, and continued to be his guest whenever she sang in New Jersey, even after the hotel was integrated.

In 1946, in the face of a major nationwide wave of lynching, Paul Robeson invited Einstein to join him as co-chair of the American Crusade to End Lynching. The group, which also included W. E. B. Du Bois and others in the civil rights movement, held a rally in Washington at which Einstein was scheduled to speak. Illness prevented that, but he wrote a letter to President Truman calling for prosecution of lynchers, passage of a federal anti-lynching law, and the ouster of racist Mississippi Senator Theodore G. Bilbo. The letter was delivered by Robeson, but the meeting was cut short when he told Truman that if the government would not protect blacks they would have to do so themselves. An uproar followed, but Einstein, in his letter, agreed with Robeson, writing, “There is always a way to overcome legal obstacles whenever there is an inflexible will at work in the service of a just cause.”

Einstein was willing to use his fame on behalf of social justice, but steadfastly refused to accept honors his celebrity might have brought his way. There was one exception, however. In May 1946, Horace Mann Bond, president of Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Pennsylvania, awarded the scientist an honorary degree. Einstein, accepted, spending the day lecturing to undergraduates and talking, even playing, with faculty children. One of them was Julian Bond, then the young son of the university’s president, who later went on to be a leader in the civil rights movement and is now chair of the NAACP. The press ignored the event, but, in his address Einstein said, “The social outlook of Americans…their sense of equality and human dignity is limited to men of white skins. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape complicity in it only by speaking out.”

That impulse to political commitment led Einstein to take action on both the domestic crisis in race relations and the simultaneous Cold War-fostered nuclear menace. It also led him to support the new Progressive Party along with his old compatriot Thomas Mann and his friend and neighbor Ben Shahn—famed for his paintings on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, among many others with political themes. The party, formed by the left wing of Roosevelt’s old New Deal coalition, including radicals, socialists, and communists, was established as a vehicle to run former vice president Henry A. Wallace for president in 1948. Einstein especially admired the party’s stand against Jim Crow and lent it his prestige and endorsement, being photographed with Wallace and fellow third party supporter Paul Robeson. The latter two campaigning in the South, despite violent attacks on them, refused to appear before segregated audiences or stay in Jim Crow hotels. With Einstein’s support, Wallace also called for the international control and outlawing of nuclear weapons. In the end, however, a mix of anti-Soviet jingoism and Truman’s belated promises of liberal, New Deal-type social programs caused the collapse of the Wallace movement. Truman’s surprise reelection removed whatever barriers to the accelerating Cold War and the ideological repression that accompanied it.

Some among Wallace’s supporters chafed at his party’s failure to move beyond New Deal liberalism. They thought the party should have taken explicitly socialist positions on questions like public ownership of basic industries, for example. Among those who held such views were Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, founders of this magazine as a venue for ongoing comprehensive analysis and commentary from a socialist and Marxist perspective. Einstein applauded the founding of Monthly Review, and, at the request of Huberman’s friend Otto Nathan, wrote his essay, Why Socialism?, for the first issue in May 1949. Together with Einstein’s celebrity, the article’s clear statement of the case for socialism in logical, moral, and political terms drew attention to the birth of this small left-wing magazine.* In the hostile political climate of that time, the article surely provided necessary encouragement both to the authority and the circulation of this magazine.

At the end of the Second World War Einstein was also drawn to the crisis of European Jewry following the Nazi genocide. Self-identified as a secular Jew, at least since his first encounters with anti-Semitism as a child, he was an intimate observer and intermittent victim of this ultra-nationalist disease and reacted to it as he did to other hate crimes. As early as 1921, when he made his first trip to the United States to raise funds for the establishment of Jewish settlements in Palestine, he sought solutions to the impending catastrophe confronting Europe’s Jewish community. He resisted growing legal and extra-legal restrictions on Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe, supported (with little success) Jewish migration to the Americas, and advocated for the creation of what he and others called a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. As such he was identified with Zionism, a label that does not precisely fit but that he did not actively avoid. Nonetheless, he separated himself from Zionist jingoists and bigots including Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, and often from mainstream Zionists like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion. In 1930, Einstein wrote, “Oppressive nationalism must be conquered…I can see a future for Palestine only on the basis of peaceful cooperation between the two peoples who are at home in the country…come together they must in spite of all.” He went on to support a binational Jewish and Palestinian state both before and after the war.

In 1946, with hundreds of thousands of European Jews still “displaced” and with the victorious allies unwilling to absorb even a portion of the refugee population, Einstein appeared before an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, calling for a “Jewish homeland.” The Zionist establishment seemed to have intentionally misread this as a call for Jewish sovereignty, so with help from his friend Rabbi Stephen Wise, he clarified his position. Jews, he said, should be able to migrate freely within the limits of the economic absorptive possibilities of Palestine, which in turn should have a government that made sure there was no “‘Majorisation’ of one group by the other.” Resisting Wise’s demands for a more forceful statement, Einstein replied that a “rigid demand for a Jewish State will have only undesirable results for us.” Radical journalist I. F. Stone praised him for rising above “ethnic limitations.” (Einstein later became a charter subscriber to I. F. Stone’s Weekly.)

Nevertheless, like many Jewish radicals—including many socialists and communists—Einstein had difficulty overcoming his emotional ambivalence about the Zionist project and ultimately applauded Israel’s establishment. Given the often inconsistent response of some radicals to Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians after the 1967 war, it is difficult to guess how he would have responded. But he was clearly concerned with the implications of Jewish settlement on indigenous Palestinians; it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that he would have been appalled by the four decades of oppression of the latter by Israel.

The mid-century “red scare” occupied much of Einstein’s last years. He wrote, “The German calamity of years ago repeats itself.” Watching Americans lose themselves in the suburbia- and Korean War-driven affluence of the early 1950s, Einstein deplored the fact that “honest people [in the United States] constitute a hopeless minority.” But determined to fight back he looked for a forum—and found one in a reply to a 1953 letter from a New York City school teacher who had been fired for his refusal to discuss his politics and name names before a Senate investigating committee. Einstein wrote to William Frauenglass, an innovative teacher who prepared intercultural lessons for his English classes as a way of overcoming prejudicial stereotypes. Einstein exhorted “Every intellectual who is called before the committees ought to refuse to testify…If enough people are ready to take this grave step, they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.” The letter was national front-page news and had its desired effect. The movement to resist the witch hunt grew stronger. Einstein was supported by voices as distant as that of philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote to the New York Times from London when they published an editorial disagreeing with Einstein, “Do you condemn the Christian Martyrs who refuse to sacrifice to the Emperor? Do you condemn John Brown?”

Shortly after the Frauenglass affair, another unfriendly witness, Al Shadowitz, told Senator McCarthy that he was refusing to testify saying “I take my advice from Doctor Einstein.” McCarthy went ballistic, but, ultimately, the contagion spread both to the Supreme Court, which in 1957 put the brakes on the red hunters (one of the cases involved MR founder Paul Sweezy) and to young New Left students who, beginning in 1960, began to literally break up committee hearings, often with caustic satire and ridicule. It was only ten years after Einstein’s letter that Martin Luther King Jr. also employed civil disobedience to fuel the modern civil rights movement.

In 1954, in response to the denial of security clearance to his colleague, the wartime leader of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other violations of the freedom of scientific inquiry, Einstein wrote, with typical humor, that if he were young again, “I would not try to be a scientist or scholar or teacher, I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope of finding that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.”

Einstein also undertook other, more difficult and potentially more dangerous political acts.

Perhaps none attracted as much international attention as his effort to intervene in the case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In 1953, Einstein wrote to trial Judge Irving Kauffman pointing out that the trial record did not establish the defendants’ guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” He also noted that the scientific evidence against them, even if accurate, did not reveal any vital secret. When he received no response, he wrote to the president with his views. Truman also did not respond, so Einstein released the text of his letter to the media and later wrote to the New York Times asking for executive clemency. Tragically, in this circumstance, Einstein’s celebrity was to no avail. The Rosenbergs died in Sing Sing’s electric chair on June 19.

Two years earlier, in 1951, when his friend W. E. B. Du Bois was indicted for his pro-peace activities on the trumped up charge of being a “Soviet agent,” Einstein, along with Robeson and civil rights heroine Mary McLeod Bethune, sponsored a dinner and rally to raise funds for Du Bois’s defense. Du Bois’s lawyer, the fiery radical ex-Congressman Vito Marcantonio, managed to reduce the trial to a shambles even before the prosecution had finished its case. But had the trial continued, Marcantonio planned to call Einstein as the first defense witness.

Perhaps no one had been more pilloried or isolated during the “red scare” than Einstein’s great ally from the struggle against lynching, Paul Robeson. Attacked as much for his militant stands against white supremacy as for his radicalism and his call for pan-African independence, Robeson had become a virtual non-person in his own country, denied an income, venues for concerts, and the right to travel. In 1952, in a very public act to break the curtain of silence around Robeson, Einstein invited him and his accompanist Lloyd Brown to lunch. The three spent a long afternoon discussing science, music, and politics, all subjects of mutual interest. At one point, when Robeson left the room, Brown remarked about what an honor it was to be in the presence of such a great man. To which Einstein replied, “but it is you who have brought the great man.”

Einstein’s last years were taken up with both private and public acts of resistance. He used his still considerable network of acquaintance and influence to try to find jobs for those, who, like Frauenglass and others, who had been fired for non-cooperation with investigating committees. And in 1954 he permitted the celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday to be the occasion for a conference on civil liberties fight-back by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC). The committee had been formed in response to the failure of the American Civil Liberties Union to defend Communists and to take on civil liberties questions raised by the Rosenberg case. The conference, with speakers including I. F. Stone, astronomer and activist Harlow Shapley, sociologists E. Franklin Frazier and Henry Pratt Fairchild, and political scientist H. H. Wilson, launched ECLC on a forty-six-year trajectory defending freedom of expression, the rights of labor, and multifaceted campaigns for civil rights.

It is difficult to know how to conclude this brief and necessarily incomplete summary of Einstein’s politics. Not discussed here, for example, are Einstein’s lifelong commitments to pacifism and to some sort of world order, nor his long association with the physicist and Marxist Leopold Infeld. Einstein was also deeply committed, as were a number of other left-wing scientists, to mass education in the sciences as a tool against obscurantism and mystical pseudo-science, often used then—and again today—in aid of political and social reaction.

Days before he died on April 18, 1955, Einstein signed what became known as The Einstein-Russell Manifesto. In it, the theoretical physicist and the philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell, go beyond vague moral arguments for pacifism. Instead they posed political choices: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

Einstein was a radical from his student days until his dying breath. In the last year of his life, ruminating about the political affairs of the day and his world outlook, he told a friend that he remained a “revolutionary,” and was still a “fire-belching Vesuvius.”

Note on Sources and Suggested Further Reading

Fred Jerome, The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist (New York: Saint Martin’s Press/Griffin, 2002); see also Fred Jerome, “The Hidden Half-Life of Albert Einstein: Anti-Racism,” in Socialism and Democracy 18, no. 2.

Jerome’s important work uses the huge FBI-compiled file on Einstein, not only to expose Hoover’s machinations as well as the covert mechanisms and techniques of character assassination, but as a vehicle to introduce readers to the much hidden activist radical and socialist the scientist was. Forthcoming in July is Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, Einstein On Race And Racism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press).

Two useful biographies are: Jeremy Bernstein, Einstein (New York: Viking Press, 1973); and Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: Avon Books, 1984), the standard biography, but with almost no mention of Einstein’s politics other than Zionism.

Books by Einstein for the general reader include: Ideas and Opinions (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995); The World As I See It(New York: Citadel Press, 1993); Out of My Later Years (New York: Gramercy Books, 1993); and (with Leopold Infeld) The Evolution of Physics (New York: Free Press, 1967), still the most accessible and the best description of the progression from Newtonian to modern quantum mechanics and relativity.


* This narrative makes extensive use of research and insights found in Jerome’s book (its full title is The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist [New York: Saint Martin’s Press/Griffin, 2002]), for which this writer is grateful.

* This article has been frequently reprinted in Monthly Review over the last half-century and can be found here: “Why Socialism?Monthly Review vol. 61, no. 2 (2009).

2005, Volume 57, Issue 01 (May)
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