Socialist Ideal\Military Settlement

The nature of the Middle East conflict in general, and the peculiar character of the Zionist colonizatory enterprise in particular, are only gradually beginning properly to be grasped by wide circles of the internationalist Left. In this respect, the kibbutz is one of a number of puzzles which the internationalist Left has found most elusive. Zionist propaganda portrays the kibbutz as the purest ever realization of the socialist ideal: a self-managing commune constituting a free association of politically conscious individuals on the basis of high technological and cultural level; exploitation of man by man has been abolished together with alienation of man from production and society. Crude anti-Zionist propaganda, on the other hand, often depicts the kibbutz as a mere fraud, essentially a military settlement of no interest to socialists.

Of these two versions it is probably the first that tends to be accepted by many thousands of young people (not all of them are Jewish) who come from many countries on a sort of pilgrimage to spend a few months living and working on a kibbutz – although even they are often disappointed by the fact that the kibbutzim comprise only a small fraction (not more than 4%) of Israel’s population, as well as by the rather parochial and chauvinistic atmosphere that permeates them.

But where does the truth lie? As usual, it does not lie between the two conflicting accounts, as the bourgeois philistine always claims in such cases, but is simply richer than both propaganda versions, which merely present two of its many aspects, distorting it beyond recognition.

I cannot of course even attempt to present here a complete analysis – or even a detailed factual account – of the kibbutz. Here I only want to suggest the social and political context in which the kibbutz must be evaluated, for to judge it out of such context is the worst and most fallacious mystification.

Settlers’ Society

The kibbutz is part and parcel of the Zionist colonizatory enterprise; it was one of the structures consciously created by the Zionist Yishuv (Jewish settlers’ community before 1948) and today it forms one of the specific structures of the Zionist state of Israel, which is a settlers’ state. It is important to stress this for two main reasons. First, as a caution against a hastily enthusiastic value judgement: the kibbutz surely cannot be more progressive than the Zionist colonizatory project as a whole, which has been accomplished at the expense of the indigenous Arab population and under the protection and sponsorship of imperialism. Second, it provides a clue to understand the apparently progressive aspects of the kibbutz (as well as other Zionist structures). For, paradoxical as it may seem, settlers’ societies very often display democratic, populist and even egalitarian characteristics. This is generally the case where (as in Zionism) the settlers aim not at exploiting the labour of the indigenous people, but at setting up a purely settlers’ society, from which the natives are totally excluded – even as an exploited class – and which therefore tries to displace the natives, exterminate them or expel them from their own country. This was the case in Australia and even in the Boer colonization of South Africa (later on the capitalist development is South Africa created an enormous demand for African labour and finally converted the pattern from the exclusivist to the exploitative type; but it took even South Africa a long time to overcome the older democratic and populist tradition of the Boer pioneers). The best-known example is perhaps that of the Frontier days of the United States – the Wild West.

It is not difficult to understand this phenomenon. The settlers have to live on the labour of their own hands, in difficult material and geographical conditions, far from what they regard as Civilization, surrounded by the hostility of the dispossessed native people. These circumstances naturally favour the development, in the settlers’ community, of mutual aid and cooperation as well as of democratic grass-root social institutions based on the participation of the entire membership of the community.

Ideological Compromise

All these factors certainly operated in the case of Zionist colonization. Added to them was the specific ideological make-up of a large proportion of the settlers who came from East Europe. In pre-war East Europe (as, in some extent, in the West today) the young Jew was faced with a choice between two – and only two – competing ideas and political roads: socialism or Zionism. The choice was rather difficult to make (given the alienated social psychology that resulted from the circumstances of Jewish history) and many people tried to compromise. Thus, many of those who opted for Zionism also clung to some socialist ideas. This element of subjective consciousness, in combination with the objective factors sketched above, was the stuff of which the kibbutz was made.

Excluding the Arabs

Of course, the democratic, populist and egalitarian aspects of the kibbutz – and of the settlers’ as a whole, both in Palestine and elsewhere – pertain exclusively to the settlers, and the indigenous people are excluded as strictly slaves were excluded from Athenian democracy. An Arab cannot join a kibbutz, even if – as happened in some actual, though very rare, cases – he is married to a kibbutz daughter. Kibbutzniks do not see any contradiction between the socialist principles they claim to uphold and their greed for land of Arab peasants. Once the context of the kibbutz is understood, it is easy to realise that in this context it is perfectly natural – and, indeed, inherent in the very logic of the situation – that whole Arab villages should be dispossessed and their land taken to make room for a “specialist” kibbutz. (A particularly blatant, but by no means exceptional, case was that of the Mapam1 kibbutz Bar’am set up in 1949 on lands taken – for this very purpose – by the state from the Arabs of Kafr Bir’im, using the most cynical methods of legal robbery).

Harmless Experiment

“Left” Zionists often claim that the kibbutz is not only socialist, but is actually a socialist factor in society as a whole. According to Mapam ideology, the kibbutzim are the vanguard of the proletariat; it is also claimed that socialism will come about through proliferation of kibbutzim. This is obviously an extremely anti-revolutionary and false ideology.

In fact the kibbutz is embedded in a capitalist system and is no threat to it. Zionist capitalists rightly regard the kibbutz as an interesting and quite harmless social experiment. (It is therefore not surprising that in several African countries where American imperialism uses the so-called “third-country technique” employing Israeli “technical aid” as a cover for its own neo-colonialist penetration, the kibbutz and similar Zionist structures are recommended as an alternative to “other”, more dangerous, forms of socialism.) Moreover, not only have most kibbutzim undergone capitalist development themselves, so that they now rely to some extent on exploitation of labour hired from the outside, but the kibbutzniks as a social stratum play in Israeli society a peculiar elitist role, similar to a certain extent to that of the British landed gentry in the heyday of the Empire.

Laboratory Model

Having said all this, I think it is important to stress that in my opinion it would be very wrong for socialists to dismiss the kibbutz as having no positive interest for them. Whatever our verdict on the kibbutz in its actual socio-political context, it is legitimate to abstract from this context while studying its inner working as a self-governing community of producers. True, the kibbutz is not socialism; even if we ignore the political context, it is still only a small unit of a few hundred people, embedded in a capitalist economy. But to some extent it can be regarded as a sort of small-scale laboratory model which – bearing in mind the limitations of such models and avoiding the fallacy of confusing it with “the real thing” – can indicate several kinds of problems of a socialist society as well as the possible ways of solving them.

M. Machover

(reprinted from “Middle East for Revolutionary Socialism“)


  1. The “left Zionist” United Workers Party