Biographies & Memoirs

10. Dr. Einstein’s Mistaken Notions

An Open Letter From Sergei Vavilov, A. N. Frumkin, A. F. Joffe, AND N. N. Semyonov1

THE CELEBRATED PHYSICIST, Albert Einstein, is famed not only for his scientific discoveries; of late years he has paid much attention to social and political problems. He speaks over the radio and writes in the press. He is associated with a number of public organizations. Time and again he raised his voice in protest against the Nazi barbarians. He is an advocate of enduring peace, and has spoken against the threat of a new war, and against the ambition of the militarists to bring American science completely under their control.

Soviet scientists, and the Soviet people in general, are appreciative of the humanitarian spirit which prompts these activities of the scientist, although his position has not always been as consistent and clear-cut as might be desired. However, in some of Einstein’s more recent utterances there have been aspects which seem to us not only mistaken, but positively prejudicial to the cause of peace which Einstein so warmly espouses.

We feel it our duty to draw attention to this, in order to clarify so important a question as to how most effectively to work for peace. It is from this point of view that the idea of a “world government” which Dr. Einstein has of late been sponsoring must be considered.

In the motley company of proponents of this idea, besides out-and-out imperialists who are using it as a screen for unlimited expansion, there are quite a number of intellectuals in the capitalist countries who are captivated by the plausibility of the idea, and who do not realize its actual implications. These pacifist and liberal-minded individuals believe that a “world government” would be an effective panacea against the world’s evils and a guardian of enduring peace.

The advocates of a “world government” make wide use of the seemingly radical argument that in this atomic age state sovereignty is a relic of the past, that it is, as Spaak, the Belgian delegate, said in the UN General Assembly, an “old-fashioned” and even “reactionary” idea. It would be hard to imagine an allegation that is farther from the truth.

In the first place, the idea of a “world government” and “superstate” are by no means products of the atomic age. They are much older than that. They were mooted, for instance, at the time the League of Nations was formed.

Further, these ideas have never been progressive in these modern times. They are a reflection of the fact that the capitalist monopolies, which dominate the major industrial countries, find their own national boundaries too narrow. They need a world-wide market, worldwide sources of raw materials, and worldwide spheres of capital investment. Thanks to their domination in political and administrative affairs, the monopoly interests of the big powers are in a position to utilize the machinery of government in their struggle for spheres of influence and their efforts economically and politically to subjugate other countries, to play the master in these countries as freely as in their own.

We know this very well from the past experience of our own country. Under tsarism, Russia, with her reactionary regime, which was servilely accommodating to the interests of capital, with her low-paid labor and vast natural resources, was an alluring morsel to foreign capitalists. French, British, Belgian and German firms battened on our country like birds of prey, earning profits which would have been inconceivable in their own countries. They chained tsarist Russia to the capitalist West with extortionate loans. Supported by funds obtained from foreign banks, the tsarist government brutally repressed the revolutionary movement, retarded the development of Russian science and culture, and instigated Jewish pogroms.

The Great October Socialist Revolution smashed the chains of economic and political dependence that bound our country to the world capitalist monopolies. The Soviet Government made our country for the first time a really free and independent state, promoted the progress of our Socialist economy, technology, science and culture at a speed hitherto unwitnessed in history, and turned our country into a reliable bulwark of international peace and security. Our people upheld their country’s independence in the civil war, in the struggle against the intervention of a bloc of imperialist states, and in the great battles of the war against the Nazi invaders.

And now the proponents of a “world super-state” are asking us voluntarily to surrender this independence for the sake of a “world government,” which is nothing but a flamboyant signboard for the world supremacy of the capitalist monopolies.

It is obviously preposterous to ask of us anything like that. And it is not only with regard to the Soviet Union that such a demand is absurd. After World War II, a number of countries succeeded in breaking away from the imperialist system of oppression and slavery. The peoples of these countries are working to consolidate their economic and political independence, debarring alien interference in their domestic affairs. Further, the rapid spread of the movement for national independence in the colonies and dependencies has awakened the national consciousness of hundreds of millions of people, who do not desire to remain in the status of slaves any longer.

The monopolies of the imperialist countries, having lost a number of profitable spheres of exploitation, and running the risk of losing more, are doing their utmost to deprive the nations that have escaped from their mastery of the state independence which they, the monopolies, find so irksome, and to prevent the genuine liberation of the colonies. With this purpose, the imperialists are resorting to the most diverse methods of military, political, economic and ideological warfare.

It is in accordance with this social behest that the ideologians of imperialism are endeavoring to discredit the very idea of national sovereignty. One of the methods they resort to is the advocacy of pretentious plans for a “world state,” which will allegedly do away with imperialism, wars and national enmity, ensure the triumph of universal law, and so on.

The predatory appetites of the imperialist forces that are striving for world supremacy are thus disguised under the garb of a pseudo-progressive idea which appeals to certain intellectuals—scientists, writers and others—in the capitalist countries.

In an open letter which he addressed last September to the United Nations delegations, Dr. Einstein suggested a new scheme for limiting national sovereignty. He recommends that the General Assembly be reconstructed and converted into a permanently functioning world parliament endowed with greater authority than the Security Council, which, Einstein declares (repeating what the henchmen of American diplomacy are asserting day in and day out), is paralyzed by the veto right. The General Assembly, reconstructed in accordance with Dr. Einstein’s plan, is to have final powers of decision, and the principle of the unanimity of the Great Powers is to be abandoned.

Einstein suggests that the delegates to the United Nations should be chosen by popular election and not appointed by their governments, as at present. At a first glance, this proposal may seem progressive and even radical. Actually, it will in no way improve the existing situation.

Let us picture to ourselves what elections to such a “world parliament” would mean in practice.

A large part of humanity still lives in colonial and dependent countries dominated by the governors, the troops, and the financial and industrial monopolies of a few imperialist powers. “Popular election” in such countries would in practice mean the appointment of delegates by the colonial administration or the military authorities. One does not have to go far for examples; one need only recall the parody of a referendum in Greece, which was carried out by her royalist-fascist rulers under the protection of British bayonets.

But things would be not much better in the countries where universal suffrage formally exists. In the bourgeois-democratic countries, where capital dominates, the latter resorts to thousands of tricks and devices to turn universal suffrage and freedom of ballot into a farce. Einstein surely knows that in the last Congressional elections in the United States only 39 per cent of the electorate went to the polls; he surely knows that millions of Negroes in the Southern states are virtually deprived of the franchise, or are forced, not infrequently under threat of lynching, to vote for their bitterest enemies, such as the late arch-reactionary and Negrophobe, Senator Bilbo.

Poll taxes, special tests and other devices are employed to rob millions of immigrants, migrant workers and poor farmers of the vote. We will not mention the widespread practice of purchasing votes, the role of the reactionary press, that powerful instrument for influencing the masses wielded by millionaire newspaper proprietors, and so forth.

All this shows what popular elections to a world parliament, as suggested by Einstein, would amount to under existing conditions in the capitalist world. Its composition would be no better than the present composition of the General Assembly. It would be a distorted reflection of the real sentiments of the masses, of their desire and hope for lasting peace.

As we know, in the General Assembly and the UN committees, the American delegation has a regular voting machine at its disposal, thanks to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the members of the UN are dependent on the United States and are compelled to adapt their foreign policy to the requirements of Washington. A number of Latin-American countries, for instance, countries with single-crop agricultural systems, are bound hand and foot to the American monopolies, which determine the prices of their produce. Such being the case, it is not surprising that, under pressure of the American delegation, a mechanical majority has arisen in the General Assembly which votes in obedience to the orders of its virtual masters.

There are cases when American diplomacy finds it preferable to realize certain measures, not through the State Department, but under the flag of the United Nations. Witness the notorious Balkan committee or the commission appointed to observe the elections in Korea.

It is with the object of converting the UN into a branch of the State Department that the American delegation is forcing through the project for a “Little Assembly,” which would in practice replace the Security Council, with its principle of unanimity of the Great Powers that is proving such an obstacle to the realization of imperialist schemes.

Einstein’s suggestion would lead to the same result, and thus, far from promoting lasting peace and international cooperation, would only serve as a screen for an offensive against nations which have established regimes that prevent foreign capital from extorting its customary profits. It would further the unbridled expansion of American imperialism, and ideologically disarm the nations which insist upon maintaining their independence.

By the irony of fate, Einstein has virtually become a supporter of the schemes and ambitions of the bitterest foes of peace and international cooperation. He has gone so far in this direction as to declare in advance in his open letter that if the Soviet Union refuses to join his newfangled organization, other countries would have every right to go ahead without it, while leaving the door open for eventual Soviet participation in the organization as a member or as an “observer.”

Essentially this proposal differs very little from the suggestions of frank advocates of American imperialism, however remote Dr. Einstein may be from them in reality. The sum and substance of these suggestions is that if UN cannot be converted into a weapon of United States policy, into a screen for imperialist schemes and designs, that organization should be wrecked and a new “international” organization formed in its place, without the Soviet Union and the new democracies.

Does Einstein not realize how fatal such plans would be to international security and international cooperation?

We believe that Dr. Einstein has entered a false and dangerous path; he is chasing the mirage of a “world state” in a world where different social, political and economic systems exist. Of course there is no reason why states with different social and economic structures should not cooperate economically and politically, provided that these differences are soberly faced. But Einstein is sponsoring a political fad which plays into the hands of the sworn enemies of sincere international cooperation and enduring peace. The course he is inviting the member states of the United Nations to adopt would lead not to greater international security, but to new international complications. It would benefit only the capitalist monopolies, for whom new international complications hold out the promise of more war contracts and more profits.

It is because we so highly esteem Einstein as an eminent scientist and as a man of public spirit who is striving to the best of his ability to promote the cause of peace, that we consider it our duty to speak with utter frankness and without diplomatic adornment

A Reply to the Soviet Scientists

FOUR OF MY Russian colleagues have published a benevolent attack upon me in an open letter carried by the New Times. I appreciate the effort they have made and I appreciate even more the fact that they have expressed their point of view so candidly and straightforwardly. To act intelligently in human affairs is only possible if an attempt is made to understand the thoughts, motives, and apprehensions of one’s opponent so fully that one can see the world through his eyes. All well-meaning people should try to contribute as much as possible to improving such mutual understanding. It is in this spirit that I should like to ask my Russian colleagues and any other reader to accept the following answer to their letter. It is the reply of a man who anxiously tries to find a feasible solution without having the illusion that he himself knows “the truth” or “the right path” to follow.

If in the following I shall express my views somewhat dogmatically, I do it only for the sake of clarity and simplicity.

Although your letter, in the main, is clothed in an attack upon the non-socialistic foreign countries, particularly the United States, I believe that behind the aggressive front there lies a defensive mental attitude which is nothing else but the trend towards an almost unlimited isolationism. The escape into isolationism is not difficult to understand if one realizes what Russia has suffered at the hands of foreign countries during the last three decades—the German invasions with planned mass murder of the civilian population, foreign interventions during the civil war, the systematic campaign of calumnies in the western press, the support of Hitler as an alleged tool to fight Russia. However understandable this desire for isolation may be, it remains no less disastrous to Russia and to all other nations; I shall say more about it later on.

The chief object of your attack against me concerns my support of “world government.” I should like to discuss this important problem only after having said a few words about the antagonism between socialism and capitalism; for your attitude on the significance of this antagonism seems to dominate completely your views on international problems. If the socio-economic problem is considered objectively, it appears as follows: technological development has led to increasing centralization of the economic mechanism. It is this development which is also responsible for the fact that economic power in all widely industrialized countries has become concentrated in the hands of relatively few. These people, in capitalist countries, do not need to account for their actions to the public as a whole; they must do so in socialist countries in which they are civil servants similar to those who exercise political power.

I share your view that a socialist economy possesses advantages which definitely counterbalance its disadvantages whenever the management lives up, at least to some extent, to adequate standards. No doubt, the day will come when all nations (as far as such nations still exist) will be grateful to Russia for having demonstrated, for the first time, by vigorous action the practical possibility of planned economy in spite of exceedingly great difficulties. I also believe that capitalism, or, we should say, the system of free enterprise, will prove unable to check unemployment, which will become increasingly chronic because of technological progress, and unable to maintain a healthy balance between production and the purchasing power of the people.

On the other hand we should not make the mistake of blaming capitalism for all existing social and political evils, and of assuming that the very establishment of socialism would be able to cure all the social and political ills of humanity. The danger of such a belief lies, first, in the fact that it encourages fanatical intolerance on the part of all the “faithful” by making a possible social method into a type of church which brands all those who do not belong to it as traitors or as nasty evildoers. Once this stage has been reached, the ability to understand the convictions and actions of the “unfaithful” vanishes completely. You know, I am sure, from history how much unnecessary suffering such rigid beliefs have inflicted upon mankind.

Any government is in itself an evil insofar as it carries within it the tendency to deteriorate into tyranny. However, except for a very small number of anarchists, everyone of us is convinced that civilized society cannot exist without a government. In a healthy nation there is a kind of dynamic balance between the will of the people and the government, which prevents its degeneration into tyranny. It is obvious that the danger of such deterioration is more acute in a country in which the government has authority not only over the armed forces but also over all the channels of education and information as well as over the economic existence of every single citizen. I say this merely to indicate that socialism as such cannot be considered the solution to all social problems but merely as a framework within which such a solution is possible.

What has surprised me most in your general attitude, expressed in your letter, is the following aspect: You are such passionate opponents of anarchy in the economic sphere, and yet equally passionate advocates of anarchy, e.g., unlimited sovereignty, in the sphere of international politics. The proposition to curtail the sovereignty of individual states appears to you in itself reprehensible, as a kind of violation of a natural right. In addition, you try to prove that behind the idea of curtailing sovereignty the United States is hiding her intention of economic domination and exploitation of the rest of the world without going to war. You attempt to justify this indictment by analyzing in your fashion the individual actions of this government since the end of the last war. You attempt to show that the Assembly of the United Nations is a mere puppet show controlled by the United States and hence the American capitalists.

Such arguments impress me as a kind of mythology; they are not convincing. They make obvious, however, the deep estrangement among the intellectuals of our two countries which is the result of a regrettable and artificial mutual isolation. If a free personal exchange of views should be made possible and should be encouraged, the intellectuals, possibly more than anyone else, could help to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding between the two nations and their problems. Such an atmosphere is a necessary prerequisite for the fruitful development of political cooperation. However, since for the time being we depend upon the cumbersome method of “open letters” I shall want to indicate briefly my reaction to your arguments.

Nobody would want to deny that the influence of the economic oligarchy upon all branches of our public life is very powerful. This influence, however, should not be overestimated. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in spite of desperate opposition by these very powerful groups and was reelected three times; and this took place at a time when decisions of great consequence had to be made.

Concerning the policies of the American Government since the end of the war, I am neither willing, nor able, nor entitled to justify or explain them. It cannot be denied, however, that the suggestions of the American Government with regard to atomic weapons represented at least an attempt towards the creation of a supranational security organization. If they were not acceptable, they could at least have served as a basis of discussion for a real solution of the problems of international security. It is, indeed, the attitude of the Soviet Government, that was partly negative and partly dilatory, which has made it so difficult for well-meaning people in this country to use their political influence as they would have wanted, and to oppose the “war mongers.” With regard to the influence of the United States upon the United Nations Assembly, I wish to say that, in my opinion, it stems not only from the economic and military power of the United States but also from the efforts of the United States and the United Nations to lead toward a genuine solution of the security problem.

Concerning the controversial veto power, I believe that the efforts to eliminate it or to make it ineffective have their primary cause less in specific intentions of the United States than in the manner in which the veto privilege has been abused.

Let me come now to your suggestion that the policy of the United States seeks to obtain economic domination and exploitation of other nations. It is a precarious undertaking to say anything reliable about aims and intentions. Let us rather examine the objective factors involved. The United States is fortunate in producing all the important industrial products and foods in her own country, in sufficient quantities. The country also possesses almost all important raw materials. Because of her tenacious belief in “free enterprise” she cannot succeed in keeping the purchasing power of the people in balance with the productive capacity of the country. For these very same reasons there is a constant danger that unemployment will reach threatening dimensions.

Because of these circumstances the United States is compelled to emphasize her export trade. Without it, she could not permanently keep her total productive machinery fully utilized. These conditions would not be harmful if the exports were balanced by imports of about the same value. Exploitation of foreign nations would then consist in the fact that the labor value of imports would considerably exceed that of exports. However, every effort is being made to avoid this, since almost every import would make a part of the productive machinery idle.

This is why foreign countries are not able to pay for the export commodities of the United States, payment which, in the long run, would indeed be possible only through imports by the latter. This explains why a large portion of all the gold has come to the United States. On the whole, this gold cannot be utilized except for the purchase of foreign commodities, which because of the reasons already stated, is not practicable. There it lies, this gold, carefully protected against theft, a monument to governmental wisdom and to economic science! The reasons which I have just indicated make it difficult for me to take the alleged exploitation of the world by the United States very seriously.

However, the situation just described has a serious political facet. The United States, for the reasons indicated, is compelled to ship part of its production to foreign countries. These exports are financed through loans which the United States is granting foreign countries. It is, indeed, difficult to imagine how these loans will ever be repaid. For all practical purposes, therefore, these loans must be considered gifts which may be used as weapons in the arena of power politics. In view of the existing conditions and in view of the general characteristics of human beings, this, I frankly admit, represents a real danger. Is it not true, however, that we have stumbled into a state of international affairs which tends to make every invention of our minds and every material good into a weapon and, consequently, into a danger for mankind?

This question brings us to the most important matter, in comparison to which everything else appears insignificant indeed. We all know that power politics, sooner or later, necessarily leads to war, and that war, under present circumstances, would mean a mass destruction of human beings and material goods, the dimensions of which are much, much greater than anything that has ever before happened in history.

Is it really unavoidable that, because of our passions and our inherited customs, we should be condemned to annihilate each other so thoroughly that nothing would be left over which would deserve to be conserved? Is it not true that all the controversies and differences of opinion which we have touched upon in our strange exchange of letters are insignificant pettinesses compared to the danger in which we all find ourselves? Should we not do everything in our power to eliminate the danger which threatens all nations alike?

If we hold fast to the concept and practice of unlimited sovereignty of nations it only means that each country reserves the right for itself of pursuing its objectives through warlike means. Under the circumstances, every nation must be prepared for that possibility; this means it must try with all its might to be superior to anyone else. This objective will dominate more and more our entire public life and will poison our youth long before the catastrophe is itself actually upon us. We must not tolerate this, however, as long as we still retain a tiny bit of calm reasoning and human feelings.

This alone is on my mind in supporting the idea of “World Government,” without any regard to what other people may have in mind when working for the same objective. I advocate world government because I am convinced that there is no other possible way of eliminating the most terrible danger in which man has ever found himself. The objective of avoiding total destruction must have priority over any other objective.

I am sure you are convinced that this letter is written with all the seriousness and honesty at my command; I trust you will accept it in the same spirit.

1 Biographical Note: Sergei Vavilov, a physicist specializing in the field of fluorescence, is President of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. A. N. Frumkin, a colloid chemist of note, is Director of the Colloid-Electrochemical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. A. F. Joffe is well known for his work on the behavior of crystals under water, and is Director of the Physico-Chemical Institute of the Academy in Leningrad. N. N. Semyonov, an authority on chemical kinetics, is Director of the Institute of Chemical Physics of the Academy in Moscow.

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