“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Einstein’s Article

Why should one seek socialism? It is common to adduce that socialism would be more just and fair than capitalism, but that does not fully resolve the issue, since people are not always motivated by social justice. Moreover motivation, especially for undertakings that are difficult and risky – such as changing a whole society!– is in fact a complicated affair. Not only are motivations not necessarily rational, but there is also the troubling question of how durable they are in time and whether the individual’s motive, while it lasts, will coincide with that of others long enough to coalesce into a viable socialist project.

It should be pointed out that, as long as socialism was seen to be a necessary consequence of an inexorable historical development, there was no need to ask “Why socialism?” In the period following Karl Marx’s death up through the first part of the last century, socialism was often understood to be so inevitable that it could be viewed as not especially desirable for humanity but nevertheless inescapably on its way (basically the stance of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter [1]).

Perhaps this is the real importance of Albert Einstein’s rightly esteemed article “Why Socialism?” [2] Over and above the specific contents of Einstein’s reflections (for example, his interesting claim that a planned socialist economy is the only way to overcome capitalism’s crippling of individuals) this brief text of 1949 forms a historical watershed because, by its very approach, the physicist’s writing recognizes that socialism is not inevitable and has to be wanted. That is to say, Einstein’s text implicitly recognizes that socialism needs to be actively sought after.

Albert Einstein’s take on this question was surely influenced by the general crisis of 1914 to 1945, which profoundly shook the faith in inexorable progress and the belief in universal schemes of history. The lessons of that crisis still mark our present moment: historical determinism, outside of the academic cloisters of analytic Marxism [3], has very few adherents today. Additionally, the era of neoliberalism and global chaos that began around 1970 and continues to the present has been no less efficient than the earlier crisis in destroying our confidence in necessary progress. For these reasons, the question of why socialism – why one should want and struggle for socialism – remains as pressing for us as it was at the time of Einstein’s writing.

A “Red” Thread in Marx

Karl Marx himself may have been inclined to sidestep the question of why socialism (what motivations one has to work for a socialist society). This is in part because his work was born in an effort to respond scientifically to the pipe dreams of the Utopian socialists and in part because, influenced by the widespread determinism of his moment, Marx often assumes that the mere accumulation of labor struggles and the numeric growth of the proletariat are enough to ensure a revolutionary subject. [4] That being said, there is nevertheless a string of literary clues in Marx’s oeuvre that point to the crucial, “existential” question of the motivations for socialism: the reasons for doing the revolution.

Marx has two related figures for the communist revolution that both allude to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the “spectre” that opens the Communist Manifesto and the “old mole” that appears in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Bonaparte. These Shakespearean references are both derived from Act I of the Hamlet, in which the ghost of the protagonist’s father visits Elsinore castle. When the ghost of the murdered king is above ground he is a spectre – he is called an “apparition,” “spirit,”  or “ghost” – but when he is below the stage boards and insists that Hamlet swear revenge the ghost figures as a “mole.” “Well said, old mole!, canst work in the earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!” Hamlet remarks when the now-underground ghost asks him to swear.

Hamlet is a play that is often taken to be constitutive of modern consciousness. It tells the story of the title character’s struggle to restore a lost order that has been usurped by his uncle Claudius, who has murdered the old king, Hamlet’s father. Like the somewhat later Shakespearean invention of the ambitious Macbeth, Claudius is a character who, because he has taken destiny into his own hands and is a “self-made man,” may be compared to a bourgeois. Thus, in this play which dates from the dawn of European capitalism, the protagonist struggles against the self-made “bourgeois” class, and his inspiration comes from a figure that is old: a parental figure. It is an old mole or forgotten spectre – a voice from the past. [5]

What to make of this Shakespearean voice from the past that Marx appropriated not once but on various occasions? [6] Moreover, why do so many Marxist texts, even today, employ the figures of the spectre and the mole to refer to the promise of socialism – with the former foretelling the possible advent of socialism and the latter standing for a revolutionary force that erupts irresistibly in the present? The best explanation is that the use of these Shakespearean tropes by the founder of scientific socialism and more importantly their persistence in the Marxist tradition implies that we still think that the call to socialism comes from the past, rather than from an abstract future or an abstract need for progress.

It is worth pointing out that this way of interpreting the reasons for the socialist revolution is not new. In fact, it is a central theme in the romantic-influenced work of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin states somewhat cryptically in his Theses on the Concept of History (1940) that the revolution will be done not for envy of the future but rather for a happiness that is essentially preterit: the revolution is to redeem present and past lives. In line with this need to redeem the past, Benjamin refers to the “weak messianic power” in present generations because past generations have a claim on them. Like Hamlet, Benjamin recognizes that this claim of the past on the present is “not to be settled lightly.” [7]

Something “Old”: the Use-Value

Whatever the important role assigned to the past and its ghostly messengers in these texts by Marx, Benjamin and Shakespeare, we can certainly accept that the idea that the past provides the key impulse for socialism is profoundly counter-intuitive. Why, in modernity, would the motive for, or call to, socialism come from an earlier time? Why, if socialism is to be constructed in the future, is not the call instead figured as coming from the future? In fact, the answer to these questions has much to do with the very construction of capitalist modernity and, most specifically, its phantasmagoric quality.

In the much-studied section of Capital entitled “The fetishism of the commodity and its secret,” Marx shows how the commodity world, with its fetishized value-form, is essentially fantastic: in a word, it is futuristic. This “sensual supersensual” realm that Marx refers to in this section of Capital prefigures the world of today’s shopping malls and their incessantly novel presentation of new products; it is the world that excludes death by ironically assuming the rigor mortis of the commodity’s hard, shiny surfaces. Because the commodity world is so modern and futuristic, any rupture with it must come from a subterranean voice or metaphorical space that contrasts with the futuristic alienation of capitalism because of its “old” or “unheimlich” character. [8]

This metaphorical space, comparable in some way to the spectral existence of Hamlet’s father, is that of the use-value in capitalist modernity. As a suppressed facet of the commodity, the use-value is often thought of in art, philosophy and even politics as belonging to a sort of lost paradise. [9] For example, in Baudelaire’s poetry and in the somewhat later painting of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, these artists’ desire to reencounter ur-values and ur-pleasures is projected onto an exotic or more primitive land of “lux, calme et volupté.” In philosophy, just as liberal thinkers appeal to states of nature and original positions to decide fundamental questions of social justice – pushing transhistorical value into an imagined, primordial space – so Martin Heidegger also finds himself appealing to archaic peasant contexts to evoke a more authentic lifeworld of utility that is in some way prior to capitalism’s pseudoconcretions. [10]

In the political sphere, the urge to recover lost values and common ideals – values from the past that haunt the present – is seen very clearly in the Basqueabertzale struggle that is carried out in the name of an indigenous European people dwelling on both sides of the Pyrenees. This project is essentially socialist despite its being cast as a recovery and redemption of what once existed. Another similar example is the Bolivarian socialist project which, because of its continental dimension, depends on reviving a primordial Latin American nation that lies buried under the balkanized, capitalist modernity of the continent. [11] In both struggles, which are among today’s most vibrant efforts to overcome capitalism and construct a new, socialist world, the project rests on redeeming what lies “behind” and “before” capitalism’s fetishized pseudoconcretions.

Socialism as an Obligation

That the call for socialism must come from the past is also confirmed by the way we commonly use the terms and concepts. That is to say, most people on the revolutionary left think and speak as if socialism were not merely an option but rather an obligation, and you cannot have an obligation to the future, except figuratively. A good, revolutionary attitude toward the future might be preparedness and hope, or “optimism of the spirit” (Gramsci’s famous slogan notwithstanding). By contrast, the motive for the socialist struggle is more akin to the keeping of a promise. It is a promise made to the past and to past generations.

How should we conceive the people from the past to whom we are obliged or bound in this way? One can easily imagine a long list of our ancestors – as José Martí characteristically did in a discourse from 1893 – with still unrealized or unfinished projects. Martí refers to the Paraguayan rebel José de Antequera and indigenous leader Tupac Amaru as well as to José Antonio Galán and Juan Francisco Berbeo, the latter two being Colombian comuneros. [12] Our referents for past struggles would surely differ today and depend on our specific contexts. However, the key point is that if we reach back, like Martí, to past generations, it is because we are conceiving humanity as a project.

Conducting a rapid review of this latter idea, we can see that, if barely glimpsed in Renaissance humanism, the project of humanity finally coalesces in the Eighteenth century as a normative ideal. It underpins, for example, both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the scheme of “perpetual peace” that Immanuel Kant thought could be a result of expanding adherence to liberalism. [13] In the next century, Simón Bolívar and Martí himself are credited principally with having fought for a Latin American patria or homeland, but their struggles were always informed by the ambition of a human patria – hence the idea of humanity and a human project still persists as the substrate or condition of the national project. In the twentieth century, the project of humanity barely stays afloat in that century’s roiled waters of global war, propaganda and genocide, but it survived in at least the ideology of real socialism, underpinning both its final struggle and pacific coexistence modalities. It also persisted as the horizon of many anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles.

In relation to these earlier periods and their conceiving humanity as a project worthy of struggle, our generation has certainly taken an enormous step back that expresses a drastic loss of ambition and commitment. [14] As a rule we have neither taken up their struggles nor have we held onto the human ideal that gave them horizon and scope. This is a tremendous loss, even if our forgetting and shirking is usually unconscious – the result of ignorance. Today, then, there exist two options for our generation. Either we persist in this “fallen” state or we recover these earlier projects, listening to the past and the legacies of struggle that it has bequeathed to us. To do that we need to recover the vision of humanity as something other than a collection of scattered individuals, and begin again to see it as a project with a long trajectory of struggle and sacrifice.

Of course, it is important to make clear that as far as the key struggles in our past are concerned – even those that were not explicitly socialist, such as the projects of Bolívar, Martí, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – the only way to keep these projects alive today and give them a coherent basis is socialism. In our time and given the way history has developed, socialism alone could make possible a pacific, non-racist, and fair society. This of course needs to be argued. Yet the case has been made with powerful arguments, such as those presented in Albert Einstein’s essay, that show that a capitalist economy necessarily leads to chaos, job insecurity and diverse forms of injustice. The conclusion then is that one is either a traitor to the past and its legacies, or one elects to struggle and take up the project that is the continuation of these earlier efforts: the project of socialism.

A Cultural Turn for the Better

This way of seeing things is illustrated by an important change that occurred in cultural production before the last turn of century. Up through the mid-1970s there was a powerful, even predominant tendency in writing and film, mostly expressed in science fiction, to imagine a new and always more advanced future. This is what was conveyed, often with a degree of skepticism, in the science-fiction tradition that reaches from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Yet in the mid-seventies this future-oriented stance in works of the imagination became increasingly impossible, and science fiction did a surprising thing: it turned its gaze to the past.

The key film is Star Wars which rolled onto screens in 1977 with the memorable opening text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” This surprising science-fiction film declared itself to be happening in the past, and it had a clear debt to romanticism because of the presence of knights, princesses, and sorcerers. Though it was certainly mediocre in almost all senses, the original Star Wars film marked a turning point. It initiated a romantic and nostalgic current that continues to be dominant in much of mass culture, as is shown by the success of such recent productions as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

This turning-toward-the-past that took place in film and television in the 1970s could be (and has been) interpreted as simply negative. That is, we could read Star Wars as merely a sign of capitalist culture’s degeneration and its increasing lack of ideas (as the film’s miserable acting and crude cinematic recyclings would seem to confirm). Yet given the epochal nature of the cultural shift that took place at this time, we are forced to take seriously at least the temporal structure of Star Wars. In fact, the film evidenced an essentially correct perception on the part of mainstream audiences that the progressivist myth has failed and that the faith in an automatically better future is now untenable and shabby.

This is indeed what Star Wars, along with the romantic science fiction that followed in its wake, stands for. On the one hand, the initial science-fiction film directed by George Lucas recognized that there is no guarantee that humanity will progress toward a shining ideal, as did the nearly contemporary films Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) with their extravagantly dystopic settings. On the other hand, Star Wars´ screenwriters and audiences understood that there is nothing binding in the progressivist vision of life: no commitment and therefore no adventure.

We need only go back a decade earlier to encounter a television series with a completely different character, that coincided perfectly with the dominant, future-oriented tendency in science fiction. That would be Star Trek, the popular series that initially ran from 1966 to 1969. Though apparently similar in theme to Star Wars, this earlier science-fiction story had in fact an antithetical argument. It embodied a progressivist cosmovision that – in neat parallel with the positivist ideals of the Second International – simply predicted a new, better society as a necessary product of a guaranteed historical development. Among other civilizatory achievements presented as faits accomplis in Star Trek is an inter-planetary federation along the model of Kant’s international foedus pacificum. In Star Trek, the Enlightenment is triumphing.

Walter Benjamin vs. James Kirk

By contrast, Lucas’s Star Wars operated in a totally different register and its message was in profound contradiction with Enlightenment thought. A hodgepodge of borrowings from Westerns and medieval legends, the film’s otherwise weak story and pathetic dialogue was propped up by two powerful arguments: first, that you have to fight for change and, second, that there is a long-standing mission – a human project that reaches back to previous generations – which the current generation has abandoned. The film said to its audiences, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father that Karl Marx had earlier adopted for the Communist Manifesto, that you can choose to take on this heroic mission (call it emancipation or socialism) or you can be a traitor to it…

This brings us back to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History. Many people of an academic bent have struggled with this difficult text, which turned out to be the writer’s last theoretical testament. One of the more puzzling references in Benjamin’s Theses is his affirmation of the presence of a “weak messianic force” in the present generation (affirmation that we have touched upon briefly above). Just before this peculiar phrase, the writer has mentioned the “echo of those who have been silenced” in the “voices to which we lend our ears today” and also has let drop the surprising idea of a “secret appointment between the generations of the past and that of our own.” [15]

This section of Benjamin’s Theses is indeed enigmatic. Why is the messianic force in present generations considered “weak”? Moreover, what eccentric variant of materialist historiography is Benjamin proposing (since his text positions itself as a critical form of “historical materialism”)? A full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this essay. Yet to grasp the essence of Benjamin’s thesis one need go no farther than the early scene in Star Wars, in which the protagonist encounters an aged, cloaked figure on the planet Tatooine who bears a message from the past. This is Obi-Wan Kenobi, but in his place we can imagine Simón Bolívar, Martin Luther King, or even Karl Marx. In this scene from Star Wars we have an dramatic representation of Benjamin’s “appointment” between past and present generations. The earlier generation, represented by Obi-Wan, interpellates the present generation in an adventure. He says: There is a difficult and old mission; you must learn about it and be loyal to it.

Mission, loyalty, adventure… perhaps these aspects of the human project are difficult to make convincing in anything but fiction and literature and sit uneasily in the context of theoretical essays. Yet they are essential to socialism. One must understand that the project of socialism – an aspiration both explicit and implicit in a great many previous generations – is not an option but an obligation. The mission that we have inherited from the past of making socialism, if it is not to be betrayed, demands loyalty and bravery. Does this seem overstated? Only if capitalism’s gray-on-gray were to have finally seized hold of the human imagination would the claim seem exaggerated. In fact, socialism and its project would be disappointing if it did not work – at least part of the time – in this heroic register.

[1] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (London and New York: Routledge, 1943/2003).

[2] Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism?” Monthly Review (May 1949).

[3] Gerard A. Cohen, La teoría de la historia de Karl Marx: una defensa (Madrid: Siglo XXI, 1986): 177-82.

[4] Daniel Bensaïd, La política como arte estratégico (Madrid: Oveja Roja, 2013): 34.

[5] The fatherly character of the ghost is doubly emphasized in the clever reading of Hamlet that Stephen Dedalus expounds in Episode 9 of James Joyce’sUlysses. Dedalus argues that Shakespeare, who had a son called “Hamnet,” played the role of the father’s ghost (the spectre) in performances of the work. It is interesting that Macbeth, a somewhat later play by Shakespeare, puts the story of the “bourgeois” usurper as the central one in the plot.

[6] Cfr. Karl Marx, Speech at Anniversary of the “People’s Paper” (1856) in www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1856/04/14.htm.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” in www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.

[8] Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): On Infantile Neurosis and Other Work (London: Hogarth, 1955): 217-256.

[9] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955): 18-19. “And the past continues to claim the future: [the unconscious] generates the wish that the paradise be re-created on the basis of the achievements of civilization… The recherche du temps perdu becomes the vehicle of future liberation.”

[10] Martin Heidegger “Origins of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2009): 143-212. The term pseudo-concretion comes from Karel Kosik, Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study of Problems of Man and World (Dordrecht/Boston: D. Reidel, 1976).

[11] This is the argument made by Jorge Abelardo Ramos in Historia de la Nación Latinamericana (Buenos Aires: Continente, 2012).

[12] José Martí, “Bolívar” (Discurso en la velada de la Sociedad Literaria Hispanoamericana del 28 de octubre de 1893) in José Martí, Política de Nuestra America (La Habana: Fondo Cultural del ALBA, 2006): 145.

[13] Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006): 67-109.

[14] This loss of commitment to the human project is what Einstein registers with his anecdote in “Why Socialism?” about the “intelligent and well-disposed man” who wonders why one should be concerned about humanity’s disappearance.

[15] Benjamin, Ibid. See the second thesis.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.