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A question of public influence: the case of Einstein

Einstein’s scientific achievements are well known even if not widely understood by non-scientists. He bestrode the twentieth century like a colossus and physicists are still working through his legacy. Besides, the theory of relativity penetrated far beyond science into many areas of literature and the arts. If hard to measure, evidence of his cultural influence is unmistakable. Even Mao Zedong described himself as an Einsteinian. It’s much more difficult to account for the influence of Einstein’s political opinions about which he was vocal from the moment he announced his opposition to the First World War, till his signature on the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955, the year of his death.

There’s no question that Einstein’s political views — on war, peace, the bomb, Zionism, world government, socialism, freedom and human rights — were listened to because of his fame as a scientist. That much he conceded himself. His opinions were expressed in highly individual and arresting ways but they were not in themselves original. Beyond the status his scientific genius gave him, what are the sources of his influence on political debate? How can we assess the impact of his ideas on the public life of the twentieth century?

There is no doubt that Einstein’s visit to America in 1921 and his emigration there in 1933 had a massive impact on his visibility as a public figure. The great image factory and publicity machine which is America worked its magic on Einstein, pushing him on to the global stage. Intensely private an individual as he was, he also had an instinct for publicity and a desire to be heard on causes he favored. He was eminently quotable as well as photogenic.

Albert Einstein receives his certificate of American citizenship from Judge Phillip Forman, 1 October 1940. Photo by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Aumuller. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Albert Einstein receives his certificate of American citizenship from Judge Phillip Forman, 1 October 1940. Photo by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Aumuller. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There is a danger, however, in pressing this line too far. It’s common to place Einstein on a pedestal and assess him in isolation from his contemporaries, and to be fair, his often pithy and profound utterances lend themselves to brief quotation. His writings are a gift to the sound-bite culture. But the truth is that Einstein was more often than not in company in his journey through the great crises of the twentieth century. He was in regular communication with an array of global intellectuals who can be broadly termed a ‘liberal international’ along the lines of the socialist internationals. They included Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Freud, Thomas Mann, Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Romain, Rolland, and John Dewey.

They did not form a group and they did not always agree but they were often to be found signing manifestos, joint letters, attending conferences supporting campaigns on behalf of peace and comparable causes. Einstein knew or corresponded with all of them. In his more optimistic moments he believed intellectuals could and should institutionalize such activity through the establishment of some permanent organization to exert a ‘salutary moral influence’ on public affairs. It never happened but the aspiration was always there.

There is another equally important reason for the power and visibility of Einstein’s radical liberalism — and this was the essentially moral tenor of his message. His was a peculiarly non- or apolitical stance which stayed clear of party and generally remained above the day-to-day battle of politics. Einstein was often accused of idealism and impracticality, but it’s more accurate to say that his impact was to redirect attention to fundamentals and thereby present a challenge to current practice. We are inured now to a profound cynicism about the motives and actions of politicians which affects our views, not only of the politicians but of their critics too. We trust neither, especially open expressions of idealism. Everyone, we are sure, has their self-interested motives in the merciless free-for-all which is modern politics. The political culture in which Einstein operated was markedly more open to expression of moral values.

Another vital feature of Einstein’s message is his genuinely global vision. From an early age, Einstein rebelled against nations and nationalism. At 16, he left Germany for Switzerland and renounced German citizenship. He was required to take it up later when he worked there, only to lose it again when Hitler came to power. He became a US citizen in 1940 but always retained Swiss citizenship since he felt Switzerland was most free of the attitudes which led other nations into war. When Bertrand Russell listed the scientists who signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto he did not place Einstein among the Americans, but described his citizenship as ‘somewhat universal.’ Einstein thus seemed free of narrow nationalistic motives which had helped to make the twentieth century the most destructive in history. In short, Einstein was a universal figure who stood for something larger than national life.

Einstein was a controversial figure in his time — hated as much as he was loved. The battlegrounds he chose are still current, not least in the tension between nationalism (or localism) and globalism, which ensures his continued relevance in our time.

Featured image credit: Albert Einstein in his office at the University of Berlin, c.1920. Unknown photographer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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