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Is the Kibbutz Socialist?

In this essay, I will deal with the Kibbutz phenomenon from a purely political perspective, including my own experience of whether or not I found the Kibbutz to be a form of Socialism in Action, or a form of Actually Existing Socialism, to borrow the old CPGB line regarding the former Soviet bloc nations (plus China, Cuba etc). The more personal aspects of my three month stay on Kibbutz Yizre’el between June and September 1991, I will relate elsewhere.

Children of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, 1998

To give a little personal political context, I arrived as still more or less a Trotskyist, a few months after the split in Militant which, along with my being exposed to new ideas after leaving Grimsby for Manchester Metropolitan University, had caused me to leave the Tendency in all but name after nearly a decade of membership. A couple of months into my Israeli visit, the attempted coup against Gorbachev by the drunken, ill-fated Emergency Committee occurred in the dying embers of the once mighty and omnipresent Soviet Union, a coup I followed largely via a transistor radio by the Kibbutz swimming pool, and more or less supported, though without much hope or enthusiasm.

 The idea that anything regarding Israel and Zionism can in any way be progressive or socialist is I know highly controversial on the Left, which is I suppose why the Kibbutz experience is rarely discussed in those quarters., Maybe this wasn’t always the case. Interestingly, in the excellent Kibbutz library, I found a book on the history of the Kibbutzim movement, a book whose title I have long since forgotten, a rather old and well-worn book, written perhaps in the 1960’s, with a short introduction by Tony Benn. In his brief comments, Benn greatly praised the Kibbutz experiment and saw it as a potential model for the Left internationally, a possible alternative to the top-down bureaucratic socialism from above that was the norm amongst nations describing themselves as socialist (and to a lesser extent, though I can’t remember if Benn addressed this directly, the Western Social Democratic model of which he was an active, and leading, participant).

 Five years after my time on the Kibbutz, in 1996, following a holiday in Cuba, I ended a long period of virtual political activity by joining Arthur Scargill’s fledgling, and ultimately unsuccessful (though it struggles on as a relic, still led by the now eighty-four-year-old Scargill, to this day), Socialist Labour Party, for whom I would be a local election candidate in Manchester the following year. I mentioned positively to several members, who tended, in Manchester at least, to be young ex International Marxist Group types, my time on the Kibbutz, but my suggestion that this experience was in any way socialistic was treated with ill-disguised and near universal contempt.

Naturally, I fully understand this leftist reluctance to recognise the Kibbutz movement as being in any way socialist. Support for the Palestine movement is strong, including from me, both before and after my time on the Kibbutz, and to the present day; and the idea that socialism could be built on stolen land (though in reality most of what was once Palestine is now part of Jordan, not Israel), and there is in any case a residual opposition to any form of ‘socialism’ that is built on tribal, national, or ethnic identity.

I leave aside here the whole question of what it means to be Jewish. Certainly, to be a Jew is something separate to the religion of Judaism, as many Jews, probably the majority, certainly in the West and possibly in Israel itself, are secular in nature. So, is ‘Jewishness’ an ethnicity or a nationality, either linked or not necessarily linked to the state of Israel? Fact is, I don’t know, and it seems that this is a question that also vexes many Jews. It’s clear from the battles of recent years around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, that not all secular Jews feel an affinity with the state of Israel. At the other extreme, of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews, not all religious Jews do either.

But this aside, cannot a socialism that is practiced within distinct geographical areas by a particular grouping, be it a nation, a race or an ethnicity, still be a valid variety of socialism? Is Marxian international socialism, which in reality, for all of its professed high ideals, has mainly been practiced at the level of the nation state anyway, really the only form of socialism worthy of the name? Is the Kibbutz not a form of Tribal Socialism, or Tribal Anarchism, even National Anarchism or, whisper it, ‘National’ Socialism’ (as very much distinct from Nazism?

In a moment, I will give reasons as to why I think that the Kibbutz is a valid form of socialism. But first, a little history.

Most Kibbutz date from the early part of the twentieth century, when the collective ethos, working together to make often unpromising, desert terrain into fertile land, was seen as of benefit in the struggle to forge a Jewish nation. Certainly, this was seen as a better way of working, at least in these particular conditions, than that of individualistic capitalist farming based on private ownership of the land.

Without going into it too much, because I haven’t done the research, the degree of overt socialist influence from outside of the Kibbutz movement varied greatly. In fact, three distinct Kibbutz Federations were to emerge in due course, federations which were still more or less in existence during my stay in 1991. One of these federations consisted of Kibbutz’ which were more religiously inspired, strongly observant of the Judaic religion. The second federation had links to the Israeli Labour Party, and could thus ne said to be more or less Social Democratic in ideology. The third federation, which included ‘my’ Kibbutz, came into existence in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution in Russia, and could be said to be Marxist-Leninist in political inspiration.

It is true that, even on Marxist-Leninist Kibbutz Yizre’el, some of the more hard-line socialistic elements had all but disappeared. Most children now resided with their parents rather than living together, cared for communally, within specially designated the Children’s Houses. Having said that, a very close bond, more familial than mere friendship, still existed amongst the children of the Kibbutz, a bond that often persisted into adulthood. Indeed, sociological studies have demonstrated that despite growing through puberty in close proximity to one another, and with no artificially imposed segregation of the sexes, it is rare for Kibbutz kids to pare up sexually, and rarer still for them to later marry, the implication being that Kibbutz continued to regard one another as brothers and siters rather than potential partners, even once childhood was over.

And from a personal level, I have never before nor since encountered teenagers who were as intelligent, as physically fit, or as caring and publicly spirited as the teenagers I encountered on the Kibbutz. I was not and am not privy to the details of the Kibbutz education system, but the example of those who emerged through its ranks suggests it had much to recommend it, and that much of that, dare I suggest, is strongly socialistic in nature.

(I was told by someone on the Kibbutz that Bob Dylan had enquired about the possibility of having his children educated on this particular Kibbutz. The idea founded on his insistence that his children should live in their own accommodation, away from the Kibbutz.)

It was only a short time before my arrival that the ‘Great Kettle Debate’ had taken place (this may have been a Pan Kibbutz debate) during which it was decided that it was not a contravention of Kibbutz principles for members to keep a kettle in their own personal rooms/family homes, for the brewing of tea and coffee, rather than taking their drinks collectively in the communal dining hall, as had previously been the norm. Perhaps only High Maoism in China, at the peak of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, or perhaps in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, Maoism on steroids, had taken collectivism to such extremes.

The fact that the kettle debate was necessary at all is a clear indication of how seriously the Kibbutzniks took their socialism.

The main product of Kibbutz Yizre’el was almonds, with oranges and lemons produced in the citrus fruit season for which I didn’t stay. Every single member of the Kibbutz was expected to work alongside everyone else in the fields, with turns also taken in the kitchens and the factory, and that included the Kibbutz doctor. There was no special level of officialdom or bureaucracy, and all decisions as to the running of the Kibbutz were taken collectively. The aim was to be as self-sufficient, in food and energy usage as possible. The food we ate was almost wholly produced on the Kibbutz, though some trade, with other Kibbutzim and with the wider society, occurred. The work was carried out by the Kibbutz members, the small number of volunteers which included us, and a varying amount of hired outside labour, including Palestinian labour.

(Indeed, some have argued that the deterioration in the Israeli’s treatment of the Palestinian people over recent decades has arisen partly because Palestinian labour is now no longer required for the economic functioning of Israel, at least to nowhere near the degree it once was. It is now much easier, and cheaper, to hire workers from Eastern Europe)

Leaving that aside, isn’t the interna workings of the Kibbutz clearly a case of genuine socialism in action?

To give an example of how far the socialist ethos was ingrained in the minds of the Kibbutz members, I will relate the Saga of the Missing Towel.

The Kibbutz had a swimming pool around which, as well as the Kibbutz pub and the Kibbutz disco, of which much more in part two, much of the social life of the Kibbutz revolved. One day, one of the members, of white South African extract, South African and Argentinian being the most represented national groups in a veritable united nation of members of Kibbutz Yizre’el, revealed that he had left his towel behind in the nearby changing rooms whilst he had gone for a swim, and IT HAD GONE MISSING.

That this was treated as a major and terrible event worthy of comment, let alone of investigation, is an indication of how different a Kibbutz upbringing is to the crime ridden experience which is taken as normality by those of us who have been raised in a capitalist society (and sadly, it seems, also for many of those who grew up in the Soviet bloc).

A mass meeting was called in the canteen. It was made very clear from the beginning that the idea that one Kibbutz member may have stolen from another, was absolutely unthinkable. The culprit could only come from amongst the small number of volunteers (us) or from amongst the hired labour. It was made clear that if the towel was to miraculously re appear, then nothing more would be said on the matter. If it failed to do so, a vote would be taken by members on whether or not to mount a full-scale search of volunteer’s rooms.

Later that day, word came through that the towel had re appeared in precisely the place it had been originally left in the changing rooms.

Again, socialism in action?

Theirs is not much more to be said. As mentioned, many nationalities were represented on the Kibbutz. The bulk were indeed originally from South Africa or Argentina, hence the popularity of Rugby Union, though we didn’t stay for the Rugby season. But there were many others too: a Libyan Jew who remembered his mother singing hymns to the glory of Il Duce, remembered from the time of Mussolini’s Italian occupation, Iraqi Jews, Chileans, only the most memorable have remained with me this past thirty years or so. But the point is that all of these Kibbutz members were bound together by two things: 1) Their Jewishness, and 2) Their commitment to a collective manner of living.

Or socialism.

It’s true that many people, all over Israel, would at one time or another leave the safety of their home-Kibbutz. Young people went off, aged eighteen, as a matter of course, either to university or to serve their national Service in the Israeli army. Many, at various stages of their lives, merely went travelling or to prove to themselves that they could make it ‘out in the world,’ perhaps outside of Israel.

But it was not at all unusual for these travellers to return, to their home, to settle down, often with new husband or wife in tow, providing new blood, new life for the Kibbutz.

I gather that today the Kibbutz movement is much diminished, a victim like most everything else of the global mania for privatising anything and everything, concentrating more and more wealth and power in the hands of a few mega corporations.

But you can’t kill ideas, and I have no doubt that in Israel, despite its problems, and yes despite its crimes against the Palestinian people and others, something of the collective ethos furnished by the Kibbutz movement survives, enough to give hope for the future.

And yes, to answer the question I posed at the commencement of this essay, I believe that something like the Kibbutz system, ethnic/tribal element and all, through the federating of small, workable communities where everybody more or less knows everybody, does provide a model for a workable system of socialism.

Anthony C Green, April 2022

Picture by ארכיון גן-שמואל, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8539733


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