Kibbutz – an example of a voluntary communist society?
Socialism and Zionism: Matching ideologies?
The ideas of newly born 19th century socialism were appealing at the time to many Jews in Europe. It promised them equality they didn’t take for granted, reassurance of the secularization spreading in the European Jewish society and of course, the promise of a better future. When Zionism became an important political movement in the Jewish world, many thought they are a perfect match: the mass immigration to Ottoman (and then British) Palestine would allow building a utopian socialist society from scratch, without the burdens and institutions of already existing nations in Europe. Anti-semitism, harsh treatment of socialist revolutionaries and sometimes even rejections from local socialist movements drove many Jews (mostly from Russia) to emigrate.
Socialism is usually enforced by a revolutionary or democratic government. But as Israel was controlled by foreign powers, this was impossible. So a voluntary alternative was suggested: new immigrants would settle on land bought by the Jewish National Fund (which was devoted to buying land for present and future Jewish settlement) and establish a commune based on agriculture. The first attempt took place in 1910, when a group of eight men and two women settled in the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, now “Degania Alef” in northern Israel.
The attempt to implement socialist ideas in the Middle East
Many Kibbutzim (Kibbutz in plural) were established later, mostly in the British mandate period. Not only socialists supported their efforts – the kibbutzim seemed like the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist dream – Unlike in the past, Jews could now be hard-working farmers, settling in their ancient homeland and making the wasteland bloom. In the Israeli Independence War (AKA Arab-Israeli War of 1948), their frontier locations made them immediate targets for invading Arab armies. They defended their positions first with private arms purchased and hidden away from British authorities, and then with the newly formed Israeli Defence Forces (Israeli military). Some fell, but others (like previously mentioned Degania) managed to hold their positions outnumbered and outgunned, shaping Israel’s borders after the war.
On a more local perspective, Kibbutzim tried to fully implement Marxist theory, but on a small scale. No private property was allowed, every possession belonged to the Kibbutz. The elected Kibbutz leadership micromanaged this small scale economy, assigning jobs and Kibbutz’s members usage of collective property. Even children were considered to be a “collective property” and were raised by the Kibbutz kindergarteners and teachers, allowed to see their parents for only a few hours each day. This practice also applied to teenagers until they were conscripted by the age of 18, creating a very interesting “natural experiment” for psychologists, as shown in this research.
The Kibbutzim as a political power
The Kibbutzim, seen as a Zionist symbol, had a very extensive political influence, especially in Israel’s first years, as Zionist Socialism was the mainstream political notion. Just 8% of Israel’s population in 1948 were Kibbutz members, but 22% of the first Knesset (Israel’s parliament) were so. They had key positions in the military, the government, and in the public sector, which was very large at the time. They became one of the strongest political powers and pressure groups, resulting in very generous land grants from the government and protection from foreign competition through tariffs, continued to this day. Because of this and the fact that early Israel had an almost Soviet-style centrally planned economy, the Kibbutzim actually had it better than most people at the time.
Now, remember that in the first paragraph I only mentioned European Jews? This was no mistake – Kibbutzim were almost exclusively inhabited by Jews of European origins (“Ashkenazim”). Middle Eastern and North African Jews (“Mizrahim”) immigrated only in the 50’s and 60’s, sent to government-built “development towns” along Israel’s borders. They came in poor, and so became wage laborers for the nearby richer Kibbutzim. This was one of the sources of the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide, still influencing Israel’s politics to this day.
Too Zionist to fail
The Kibbutzim had a superior standard of living during Israel’s first decades, but as the Israeli economy started a liberalization process during the late 70’s and 80’s, the general standard of living began to rise faster than the one in the Kibbutzim. This, along with a decline in members’ enthusiasm to work hard for the Kibbutz, made it so that Kibbutzim lived a higher standard of living than a one they could actually afford. The lack of personal responsibility (a Kibbutz member once told me: “Why should I turn off the light when I go out of the house? The Kibbutz pays for it!”) made this even more of a severe problem. When Israel’s stock markets crashed in 1983, most Kibbutzim found themselves being in very large debt that they could not possible repay. They were still a powerful pressure group nonetheless, so the Israeli government erased most of their debt and bailed them out. This debt nationalization only ended in 2013, when the entire debt was paid off. You could call it the “Too Zionist to fail” policy.
According to the debt arrangement, the Kibbutzim still had to repay some of their debt, and because of the drop in productivity due to youth urbanization and a general demoralization, most Kibbutzim decided to privatize themselves, meaning they went back to becoming a regular community embracing private property, but were still called a Kibbutz because of traditions and history. Some Kibbutzim are still “collectivized” as they were in the past: there is even an anarcho-communist Kibbutz called Samar in southern Israel. But their economic fields changed, shifting from agriculture to industry and tourism. The agricultural activity that remained is part of the Israeli farmer’s lobby, which is still an important pressure group. Ending the tariffs that protect them is a major Israeli Libertarian issue.
An example of a voluntary communist society?
So are the Kibbutzim an example of a voluntary communist society, heeding to socialist ideals without a use of governmental force? Not exactly. Practically, they were subsidized by socialist (and less socialist) governments, and their agricultural businesses were protected by government tariffs and cheap governmental lands. But before the establishment of the state of Israel, Kibbutzim were almost an example of libertarian philosophy: settling on private soil legally purchased by a private fund, working hard to earn their living, selling their products to compete on global markets. They carried private arms, hiding them away from British authorities, harming none but to protect themselves. In this sense, early Kibbutzim were a model of voluntary action striving towards shared values and goals.
Picture: Creative Commons WikiCommons
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