1960s >> 1968 >> no-762-february-1968

Old Harmony

The story of the Kibbutzim the golden egg of that peculiar version of Social Democracy in Israel, Mapam, (though all the major parties run a few settlements all on fairly exclusive lines, politically), seems only too reminiscent of the utopian ideals of early 19th Century Europe. Substitute the name Ber Borochov for Owen or Fourier and we get surprisingly near to the misguided adventurers of those days.

At a time when the rising European bourgeoisie was still battling to break its feudal fetters, and when the proletariat was still in its early formative years, it is understandable that here and there socialist ideals, lacking the materials basis for their implementation, should find expression in the attempted establishment of utopian communities. In the modern world however, where technology and the forces of production have been raised to an unprecedented level, the notion that isolated communities can be established unaffected by the anarchic and alienating conditions of capitalism is completely unrealistic.

The Kibbutz provides, it is true, a living example of the practicability of the socialist demand for a society in which each shall give according to his ability. The problem of the “lazyman” is almost non-existent, but this was true also of the communities established in America some 160 years ago. (Charles Nardoff in his Communistic Societies of United States wrote in 1874 that “the lazy men who are the bugbears of speculative communists are not so far as I have heard to be found in the existing communes”.) The experiment has been performed and in this direction proved successful, now is the time to progress. We must move away from this variation of the ‘opt out’ illusion and consciously pursue the class struggle to a successful conclusion. This means building up international class solidarity without the provision of illusory escapes into the little world of the Kibbutz.

The fact is that the Kibbutzim, like its earlier models in the New World, have merely paved the way for class-divided capitalism. The pioneers regarded these communal farms as the pattern of a future nation, but those remaining have seen instead the growth of a way of life which is the very antithesis of what they stood for. In the United States those communities were invaluable in developing the previously uncultivated areas of the West, and in doing the hard and exhausting work necessary in the opening up of the country for others to exploit. They extended the boundaries of ‘civilisation’ and vastly increased the value of surrounding land. Precisely the same purpose has been served by the Kibbutzim of Israel, though on a more planned and systematised basis. The settlement of the arid and desert zones, and the extension of effective Israeli state control has been their contribution to the increased dominance of capitalism in the Middle East.

In the 19th Century America dozens of these communities went painfully out of existence. Those which remained so changed in character that they were no longer recognisable as ‘experiments in communism’, they became experiments in capitalism. The freedom from any lord or master which, for instance, the Rappites so cherished did not it seems extend to the two hundred Chinese workers whom they exploited in their cutlery factory. Similarly the Perfectionists employed some three hundred persons in manufacture, and even went so far as to hire servants. They became just another employer of labour, industrial and agricultural corporations, despite some unusual characteristics. The kibbutz, by definition a small scale enterprise, cannot hope to be self-sufficient. It could never fulfil the fundamental requirement of a Socialist society that each should take according to his need, but even to maintain the modest standard of living which they now have they are required to sell their produce on the capitalist market in exchange for those necessaries they are unable to produce. To this end they have entered the field of light industry, producing plastics, crockery, furniture and a host of other goods. Here again, as with their American predecessors, they become hirers of labour. They face all the problems of capitalism in regard to price fluctuations, wages, strikes and, as a capitalist organisation, are not backward in their methods of dealing with them.

The old communities of the United States relied heavily for their continuation on attracting more immigrants and, to a lesser degree, on financial contributions from their country or origin (which in many cases was Germany).

Similarly the kibbutz relies for its survival to some extent on the increase of Jewish immigrants encouraged by such organisation as the Mapai-Habonim and the Mapam-Hashomer Hatzair (“the builders” and the “young guardian”), also to contributions from Zionist organisations, and to government and private capital aid. The idealistic kibbutzniks have of course been a very useful adjunct to the Israeli military forces. The Shakers young men joined in Civil war on the side of Unionists, but this was exceptional for such communities. In this respect the kibbutzim have not even reached their predecessors standard. But if and when their use in these respects diminishes the government’s benevolence and support will undoubtedly fail.

Persecution in Europe by state and established church authorities has more than once led to emigration and attempts at forming a new and saner society. Some of the qualities achieved may be applauded but it is an unfortunate fact that their desired aims have not been fulfilled. The limited success and abundant failures of the 19th century experiments and those in the 20th century should be a lesson to workers everywhere. The building up of a strong revolutionary Socialist movement on an international scale is the immediate task to be faced.

Michael Bradley