The Magazine

Physics and Politics

The embarrassing but mostly harmless leftism of Albert Einstein.

Jul 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 42 • By RONALD RADOSH
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Jerome, however, wants Einstein to be a "role-model" for today's youth, who might emulate his politics if only they knew about them. Thus "The Einstein File" cannot stop itself from concluding that Einstein would "have been alarmed" after September 11 at Washington's "military attacks abroad and repression at home," and at the "unapologetic bombing of civilians; the roundup . . . with no evidence, of thousands of Arabs."

SO--forced to take up the question again--what shall we say now of Einstein's politics? The scientist lent his prestige to innumerable causes: the campaign to stop lynchings, the Loyalist government and the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, the postwar Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, the protest at the arrest of Communist party officials under the Smith Act in 1948--and on and on. He also joined his name to "The Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace" held in the spring of 1949 by a Communist front group called the Arts, Sciences, and Professions Council. Greetings to the conference--which Jerome mentions to show us how broad-based and innocent the meeting was--were sent by such prominent figures as Prime Minister Nehru of India, the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Americans included Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Langston Hughes, George Seldes, Aaron Copland, Norman Mailer, and Leonard Bernstein.

In other words, it was a prestigious and harmless group of proud and defiant left-wingers. Jerome writes disarmingly that the meeting "provided interesting and often intense debates between pro-Moscow delegates and many who believed there had to be a non-Soviet alternative to 'the American Century.'" Thus, he mocks Life magazine's coverage, which depicted a picket holding a sign, "Stop Stalin; Save Slovakia!" Jerome is most infuriated that Life called it a meeting made up of "dupes and fellow travelers."

Unfortunately for Jerome, the truth about that meeting has long been known. In his 1990 memoir, "Being Red," Howard Fast--in the postwar years still a leading Communist--reveals how he and other members of the "Cultural Section" of the American Communist party created the conference. "Over five hundred of the nation's leading intellectuals were willing to put their careers and names on the line for a conference created by the Communist Party," Fast notes. "The lines were clearly drawn, and no one at the conference had any illusions as to who the organizers were." Perhaps not, except at the time all those intellectuals lied and claimed that it was slander to say that the meeting was run by the Communist party.

TO LOOK BACK over Einstein's career is to see a parade of such embarrassments. He supported Henry Wallace's run for president in 1948 as candidate of the Progressive party (which Jerome admits the Communist party had a "crucial role" in setting up, but which, he insists, understood that "Red-baiting" was "far more destructive [than] having communists work" in the campaign). "The Einstein File" also contains a chapter outlining Einstein's relations with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, the great African-American scholar who had drifted to the far left and become a strong supporter of Stalinism.

Jerome also presents Einstein's public attempts to gain clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. This is not necessarily proof of Communist affiliation. Many throughout the world, including the pope, made similar appeals. Others argued that the death sentence would only make them into martyrs and thereby help Communist propaganda. But in Jerome's telling, it becomes precisely the Communist aspects of the case that are significant. The Rosenbergs were a "watershed issue" for the left, Jerome writes, and in calling for clemency Einstein became "a political hero."

Jerome scathingly mocks an FBI memo that read, "Einstein has often been found among the ranks of deluded liberals who front for Communists." But it is a conclusion that now seems not so wide of the mark, however much "The Einstein File" takes umbrage at the "image of an otherworldly Einstein wandering through the world with his head in a far-off mathematical mist." This is the man who told a Russian War Relief rally that "in Russia the equality of all national and cultural groups is not merely nominal but is actually practiced." This is the man who told an interviewer that "the philosophy behind communism has a lot of merit," and that he "refused to let the American anti-Communist stampede deter him from supporting what he considered just causes." This is the man who wrote Norman Thomas, "I believe America is incomparably less endangered by its own Communists than by the historical hunt for the few Communists there are here."