Israelis Have Made the Desert Bloom, But They Couldn’t Make Socialism Work

The socialist experiment called the Kibbutz doesn't work, and never really did.

By Jonathan Leaf Published on July 30, 2016

Israel is an entrepreneurial hotbed and one of the leading countries to which the world looks for technical innovation. It also has a very successful arms manufacturing industry and a strong and growing pharmaceutical sector. It has gone from being a poor country to a rich one. Per capita GDP has risen to close to $33,000. Adjusted for inflation, this is almost seven times what it was in Israel in 1948, back when the country gained independence.

But one of the attributes that most people around the world think of when they hear Israel is an institution devoted to collectivist ideals, the kibbutz (pl. kibbutzim). Few tales of the failure of the socialist dream have been so little told or are so revealing of the inherent impossibility of a working socialist society as the kibbutzim.

Shortly before the First World War, Jews in Russia were suffering from organized attacks known as pogroms. These prompted waves of Jews to flee the country. Some came to the United States. Others went to Palestine.

Much influenced by the ideas of Marxist socialism as well as by the writings of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many of the emigrants to Palestine became involved in setting up autonomous socialist farming villages. Literally meaning “gathering” in Hebrew, the first kibbutz was organized in a town called Degania near the Sea of Galilee in 1910.

Its organization was extremely radical, as were those that came after it. In these communities married couples typically lived together in separate rooms, but their offspring were largely raised in common. Most often, the children of the kibbutz were placed in dormitories and reared together by nurses and teachers picked by the leaders of the kibbutz. Wages were equal for all jobs, and all members were required to assist in the basic duties of the village. This especially included helping out in the fields and orchards at harvest time.

Work was organized collectively, and decisions about the management of the farms was made through a process of collective self-governance. Moreover, the whole system was voluntary, in as much as no one was forced to stay on the kibbutz; those who wished to leave could do so. Here the ideals of the Marxist collective were undertaken without violence or bloodshed. In short, if socialism could ever be made to work in a humane fashion, this was the chance to prove it.

The Test Case for Voluntary, Democratic Socialism

And there was no shortage of kibbutzim. At the height of their popularity, more than one in 16 Jews in Israel was living on a kibbutz. What’s more, Jews and non-Jews who were committed to the ideals of democratic socialism came from all over the world to volunteer and participate in the experiment. Among those who did so for brief stints were Jews like the comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Sacha Baron Cohen and the photographer Annie Leibovitz.

There were also non-Jews who arrived and assisted, such as Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon and the actresses Helen Mirren and Sigourney Weaver. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also chose to work on a kibbutz as a young man. However, the one Sanders was employed at was not typical, as it was reportedly anti-democratic, committed to the Communist Party and intensely supportive of Joseph Stalin in his time.

During the 1960s, it was popular to talk about the kibbutzim as a model for future socialism, and Israel was widely admired by Labor parties and by Socialist intellectuals around the world because of the kibbutzim. These farms were also the place where many of Israel’s leaders were reared, and that number was not even limited to the country’s Labor Party politicians.

Indeed, the noted Conservative leader and army commander Ariel Sharon was raised on a kibbutz, and the list of avowed admirers of the movement has included men like left-wing Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (father of the current Canadian Prime Minister) and our President, Barack Obama.

But for all the hype and fascination that the Kibbutzim generated, there was a great deal wrong with them. The most basic of these problems was that they were economic catastrophes. Kibbutzim were wildly inefficient and a colossal drag on Israel’s economy. Mostly, they lost money. Sometimes they lost enormous sums. However, because the kibbutzim were an important source of votes, the government provided them with large subsidies for many decades.

Even this was not enough though for them to deal with their continual economic failures. Thus, by 1989, the kibbutzim were threatening to bankrupt the entire country. Although fewer than three percent of the country’s population still lived on kibbutzim, they had run up debts of $6 billion. This was more than a thousand dollars for every person, Jew and Arab, living in the nation.

Further, while the kibbutzim produced people with high levels of literacy, they did not produce the kinds of great musicians and scientists that appeared outside them in Israel. The successful people that the kibbutzim specialized in producing were politicians.

This was not all that was wrong with the kibbutzim. A further problem was that increasingly people did not want to live on them. Hence, by the early 1980s Israel was confronted by what was known as the “Kibbutz Crisis.” Young Israelis wanted to be almost anywhere else, that wasn’t a kibbutz, preferring even hazardous duty in the Israeli Army. Teens reared on the farms found them stultifying.

In addition, inefficient as the kibbutzim were, they required more hours of labor and longer work weeks of their members than those performed by other Israelis, whether in the city or the country.

As a result, gradually more and more people left the kibbutzim. In fact, just between 1983 and 1995, more than one-fifth of the total kibbutzim population departed. The response of these villages naturally was to try and replace their workers. But studies showed that the most skilled and capable members were the ones who were leaving and those replacing them tend to be less capable and lower paid workers.

In the Teeth of Human Nature

Among the most famous of the visitors to the kibbutzim was the Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker. His description of one kibbutz is revealing:

Jealousies abounded of those who were only a little better off, including my host because he was allowed to spend some time working at his profession [as a physicist] off the kibbutz. Anger was also felt toward those who were considered slackers since they clearly lived off the labor of others. Since everyone ate, worked and socialized together, small differences were magnified, and became festering sores. Nor were the family arrangements any more satisfactory since parents missed their children, and visa versa.

Summing up, Becker remarked that “nowhere is the failure of socialism clearer.”

As even Nir Tsuk, a well-known defender of the traditions of the kibbutzim, has been forced to admit:

The kibbutz is perceived as an excessively pressuring society, and as the carrier of outmoded values or values that do not enjoy public prestige and status. The kibbutz is seen as a community with its future behind it, only capable of serving either as a “nature reserve” or bastion of nostalgia for some, or as a red rag symbolizing difficult and bitter years for others.

Nonetheless, the kibbutzim have over time found a solution to their difficulties. It is called capitalism. The majority of the surviving kibbutzim have converted to for-profit enterprises. Many, in fact, are now public stock corporations. As such, in all but a few today, married couples aren’t obliged to live apart from their children any longer and wages are not equal for different tasks.

The kibbutzim are now a small but healthy part of the Israeli economy, and they provide the country with a considerable part of its export earnings through their shipments of agricultural products. But this is accomplished through the profit motive. Their belief that under socialism a new kind of man was possible — one without alienation from his labor or the strains and resentments arising from competition and striving — has been disproved. Human nature, it seems, did not disappear on these collective farms. One must ask: should this really have been a surprise?

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