While eating lunch at an Israeli kibbutz last winter, I learned firsthand about what used to be a self-contained, socialist community. I was struck by the local guide’s positive view that socialism produces strong communal life and economic prosperity. The guide’s praise only echoes A.I. Rabin and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi from Michigan State University. They wrote that “[t]he most successful attempt at building a Utopian commune has been the Israeli kibbutz.” The optimism expressed by these observations is not without cause: The kibbutz movement was foundational to the establishment and success of the Israeli state.
The “kibbutz” system refers to collective communities in Israel that were historically characterized by collective ownership of property, an emphasis on the dignity of manual labor, a system of direct democracy, and communal child care. In other words, no member exercised personal property rights but instead received toiletries, food, and other necessities according to a distribution system. All members earned the same allowance for their work – regardless of whether their occupation consisted of milking cows, preparing meals, or managing a large production facility. Children did not live in their family homes but instead grew up in communal childrearing facilities. Marx would have smiled in his grave if he knew that communal goods and services were provided “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Although most of the kibbutzim privatized in recent years, the appeal of its socialist ideology lives on; in fact, Senator Bernie Sanders lived and volunteered on a kibbutz in 1963 and is now a self-described democratic socialist.
Before Israel’s independence, the kibbutz provided a structure for the defense of Jewish settlers and was the backbone of the rural economy. After Israel’s independence, the kibbutz supplied around 20 percent of the country’s top military officers. Five prime ministers of Israel – David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak – were all at some point members of a kibbutz. In terms of members’ satisfaction, life expectancy, economic performance, and demographic growth, the kibbutz society was “relative to the rest of society in Israel – very successful” until the 1990s. These observations have led academics to ask whether the Israeli kibbutz sets itself apart from the myriad of failed socialist societies as a proven paragon of success.
Democratic socialists today like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believe that socialism is the key to alleviating poverty, and a rising number of young Americans are attracted to socialism as a moral economic system. A YouGov survey revealed that 43 percent of respondents under the age of 30 had a favorable view of socialism. When asked what socialism is, millennials use phrases such as “nice,” “being together,” or “the government pays for our needs.” Perhaps the success of the Israeli kibbutz is finally a victory for socialism. Whereas communal ideology propelled widespread killing and poverty in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cambodia, the socialist values of the kibbutz seemed to engender security, harmony, even prosperity.
But eventually the kibbutz would join the list of socialist models that were ultimately unsustainable. Debt and economic crisis were in part responsible for the abandonment of strict communalism. Israel experienced a dire economic crisis in the mid-1980s, with a 400 percent inflation rate and high levels of unemployment. Although the government and banks later agreed to bailouts, the economic situation still disheartened many members of the kibbutz. In particular, the elderly worried if the kibbutz failed to provide for them again in the future, their lack of personal pensions would be problematic. The uncertainty and feelings of vulnerability sewn by the financial crisis incentivized individuals to build personal savings accounts rather than deposit all their revenue into communal funds.
An economic crisis was not the only culprit for diminishing communal values; quite the opposite phenomenon – a rise in industrialization and an opportunity for a higher standard of living – dealt additional blows to the sustainability of the kibbutz. In their book The Renewal of the Kibbutz: From Reform to Transformation, Raymond Russell and his co-authors write that “[i]n the first years of the kibbutzim, kibbutz members had little to share with each other but their poverty. The kibbutzniks’ self-denying, ascetic values were well suited to the economic condition of the kibbutzim.” While communal ownership of housing, means of production, and cafeterias was feasible – even attractive – when members were themselves impoverished, the pull to community weakened as their potential standard of living rose. The challenge of prosperity to communal life is illustrated by the fact that more children moved to live with their parents as standard house sizes grew. Kibbutzim traditionally decried “the close-knit family” as “a creation of capitalism”, but eventually the communities had to bow to the demands of children and parents. The new living situation led to increased privatization and individualization, as communal cafeterias fell out of use and home-cooked meals became an accepted norm.
The popularity of the kibbutz in Israel seems peculiar, given that Judaism emphasizes the importance of the nuclear family. Parents have a sacred obligation to care for and raise their children in the Jewish tradition; children are commanded to respect their parents. Kibbutzim challenged the nuclear household, separating children from their parents. But families eventually united under one roof. Kibbutzim traditionally distributed goods to members according to their needs, regardless of their skill, but individuals eventually requested market-based wages. Members of kibbutzim were willing to share poverty equally, but when individuals experienced prosperity from industrializing, inequality ensued. Ultimately, the story of the kibbutz highlights the crucial problem of socialism: Its core tenants are at odds, not only with Judeo-Christian principles, but with innate human desires to raise a family, compete in the workplace, and act in their own self-interest.