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The Socialist Attitude to the Kibbutznik

First, we had better define our terms. Most of our readers will probably know what a Socialist is. But if, for example, you think he is a follower of say, Harold Wilson or Nikita Khrushchev, you would be sadly mistaken. Socialists are people who want political power for one purpose only, to revolutionise the world we live in, and change it from a Capitalist system to a Socialist one, where the means of life are owned by society as a whole. Which of course rules out the Khrushchevs and the Wilsons. They want power sure enough. But whatever labourites and communists have used power for, they have never used it for making the means of life into the common property of all the people. No sensible person even expects them to.

What are kibbutznik? They are Israelis who live in various kinds of communal settlement (the kibbutz). It is the purpose of this article to tell something about this interesting experiment, to show what the kibbutznik aim at, what they achieve, and to see what lessons they provide for those interested in Socialism.

The general background of the kibbutz movement is that among the many Jews who became Zionists (people who believed that the remedy for anti-semitism and persecution from which Jews have suffered for centuries was to form a Jewish State in Palestine) were some who felt that the economic basis of their life should be communal. These people were dissatisfied not only with anti-semitism but also with capitalism and considered themselves to be Socialists. They therefore formed themselves into groups, varying in size from a few dozen to a few hundred, for the purpose of organising their lives on farm settlements in what was formerly Palestine and is now Israel.

Most members of these groups were young Jews from Eastern Europe. They had to be young because the conditions were arduous, the land often barren and malarial, and the surrounding Arab population hostile and dangerous. And it is no coincidence that the bulk of these pioneers came from countries like Poland and Tsarist Russia, because there antisemitism was rife and so-called Socialist movements were thick on the ground. There were a number of different “movements " among the settlers roughly corresponding to the kind of left-wing movements they were used to in Europe—Labour (Mapai). left-wing and somewhat fellow-travelling labour (Hashomer Hatsair) and various orthodox religious groups.

One thing they had in common was that they were all idealists who wanted to show that there was another kind of life (and another kind of Jew) than the one of sweating in tailoring factories or furniture works or, for the go-getters and the successful minority, the chance of becoming rich exploiters themselves. They wanted to show the world that people can live in a spirit of one-for-all and all-for-one. They obtained land mainly with funds raised from the charity of Jews rich and poor who stayed in the countries of the west, and from the same source they also obtained the capital to buy materials for building their living quarters and farm buildings. The land was usually cheap because in many cases it was desert and swamp and the main asset of the group was the enthusiasm, the sweat and tears (often also the blood) of the kibbutzniks themselves.

Many readers will have already detected a similarity between this sort of movement and others which have been tried in various countries of Europe and. particularly, of America. The one important difference appears to be that, after a history of up to about 50 years, with new settlements being formed even now, the kibbutz movement can make a reasonable claim to have stood the test of time — some time at least. Any visitor to Israel can see for himself that the kibbutz are viable institutions; they work. And by and large, the majority of the people are reasonably satisfied with their daily lives.

Now perhaps we can take a look at the way a typical kibbutz is run and in so doing we may be able to see how their ideas compare with those of Socialists. We will find that the kibbutzniks are not Socialists. The fact that they call themselves Socialists proves nothing. After all. so does Khrushchev, so does Wilson. But we may find some features of kibbutz life which we are happy to salute as demonstrating the truth of some of the things we Socialists claim.

“From each according to his ability." That, the first half of the Socialist's golden rule for the kind of society he wants to create, is by and large a principle which works in practice in the settlements. The problem of the scrounger, the lazy man who will let his fellows do the work, is one that is always thrust at Socialist propagandists; it is not a problem that causes much loss of sleep in the kibbutz. The average settler does his best for the settlement because he knows that it belongs to him as much as to anyone. He knows he is working for his own wife and children as well as others. And he knows that the work is necessary for the settlement to survive; and acting on this knowledge, he behaves not like a rat in a capitalist rat race but like a human being.

The problem of “ who will do the dirty work " is also one that does not loom large. There is a lot of dirty work on a communal farm. It gets done because it has to be done. Those who are used to looking down on the dustman forget that this is only the case because he is regarded as an also-ran who has failed in the rat-race towards so-called better (and of generally better-paid) jobs. The kibbutznik who cleans the cowshed does so because it needs cleaning. He is doing a job for the good of all. And because of this he is looked up to and not down upon by his fellows. Surprisingly enough, this makes the cow-dung less smelly. Some people like doing the job and have only pity for the white-collared clerk in a London bank who adds up his incessant rows of figures of other people's money. Of course, they are sensible enough to rotate jobs as much as possible, when elections take place for administrative committees to run the affairs of the community, the cowman’s vote is equal to the secretary’s. He is in fact just as likely to be elected himself, and in such a process, the principle of leadership tends to get lost. Which is the best thing that can happen to it.

“To each according to his need." It is in this second half of our dictum that the kibbutz shows its essential failing. Socialism encourages a world which is built upon the enormous powers of production which capitalist society has engendered. A world where goods are so plentiful that we can all have free access to them in the way that we have virtually free access to water now. The kibbutz, far from utilising the enormous powers created by international capitalism, is by very definition a small-scale isolated enterprise. As such it cannot produce goods in teeming abundance so that all can help themselves freely. On the contrary, kibbulzniks can only have a limited ration of limited supplies. It is only their idealism that enables the settlers to run with reasonable smoothness a society where everyone must be spartan enough to take only an equal share of the modest amount available. And partly for this reason, most of the workers of Israel prefer to work for private capitalists. But think how life could be if only we all had a chance to share, not in parsimony, but in abundance.

The kibbutz is an attempt to make little islands in the worldwide ocean of capitalism. It cannot be self-sufficient (not even a giant country like Russia or the US. could be that) so it must produce its goods—normally farm produce—for sale on the capitalist market. In return it buys the things it cannot produce—clothes, bricks, glass, tractors, radios and the countless other essentials. It is therefore at the mercy of the market like all capitalist enterprises and the demand for (and the price of) its products shows the usual anarchic fluctuations of glut and shortage that the capitalist world knows so well. Socialism means, among other things, production not for sale on a market but directly for the use of human beings. No kibbutznik, be he never so convinced that he is a living exponent of Socialism, can claim that his movement has anything like this basic feature of Socialism: most of them, in fact, will hardly be aware that Socialism poses this as a basic fundamental. The kibbutz is as far from this as is every other section of our capitalist world.

The kibbutz movement has to struggle with the fact that many of its younger members become dissatisfied with their small island and are lured to the big world where there are so many of the things that large scale production offers—not to speak of theatres and pavement cafes and sea-beaches. But it has an advantage over most such experiments in that the Israeli government finds the settlements and their idealistic (and often chauvinistic) members to be valuable adjuncts of their military forces. If and when their use in this respect is less important, the kibbutz will find that the government's benevolence and support, which have been so valuable to their survival, will tend to disappear. Such are the facts of life in a capitalist world.

In a word then—the kibbutznik is not a Socialist But he is a human being who is demonstrating in practice what we Socialists have always maintained—that people can behave like human beings. And if they can do this under their own difficult restricted circumstances, how much better and easier could it all be in a society of world-wide abundance. For that is what Socialism will be.

L. E. Weidberg