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A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement — Book Excerpt

Posted on September 11th, 2009 in AK Book Excerpts

Today’s excerpt from a recent AK Press book, comes from James Horrox’s A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement. We were very excited when we first received James’s book proposal way back when. We certainly knew that anarchism had a major influence on the early kibbutz movement, but in order to get a handle on the subject, one had only fragmentary accounts from a variety of sources.

James has done all the research. He explores the foundations of the kibbutz movement, providing a detailed look at its early economic, social, and political organization. Using newly translated letters, diaries, and essays by key figures, he uncovers a deep, explicitly anarchist strain running through the movement. This book illuminates a neglected aspect of Jewish history, taking serious issue with Marxists and other historians who see the kibbutzim primarily as progenitors of the Israeli State. It depicts anarchism as both an inspiring utopian ideology and a viable social practice.

As Uri Gordon notes in his Foreword to the book, “”The defining influence of anarchist currents in the early kibbutz movement has been one of official Zionist historiography’s best-kept secrets…. It is against this background of induced collective amnesia that A Living Revolution makes its vital contribution…. These pages bring to life the most radical and passionate voices that shaped the second and third waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine, and also encounter those contemporary projects working to revive the spirit of the kibbutz as it was intended to be, despite, and because of, their predecessors’ fate.”

The excerpt below is taken from the book’s introduction. It sort of jumps in in the middle of the narrative flow, but the only thing you probably need to know is that the previous section discusses Peter Kropotkin’s defining influence on anarchism in general and, in particular, “the philosophy and the practical character of early socialist Zionism.”



Gustav Landauer

The list of Kropotkin’s admirers in the Jewish labour movement at that time includes some of the most famous names in socialist Zionist history. The man perhaps most singularly responsible for introducing Kropotkin’s ideas into this milieu was German anarchist intellectual Gustav Landauer (1870–1919). Through Landauer’s close friendship with Jewish theologian Martin Buber, his ideas regarding social transformation became central to the thinking of many of the youth movements that came to Palestine and established kibbutzim in the early 1920s, and in particular to Hashomer Hatzair (the Young Guard), whose communities later became the Kibbutz Artzi federation.

Landauer rose to prominence within the European Left during the 1890s with the radical student group, the Berliner Jungen (Berlin Youth). As editor of the group’s newspaper, Der Sozialist (The Socialist), Landauer became something of a figurehead among the young, middle-class revolutionaries of fin de siècle Berlin, and he quickly made a name for himself further afield. By the turn of the century, Landauer had established a Europe-wide reputation as an essayist, lecturer, playwright, novelist, journalist, theatre critic and political theorist. Though his middle-class background and opposition to the class war often put him at odds with the mainstream workers’ movement, his contribution to fin de siècle German culture was such that his list of admirers included some of Germany’s most highly esteemed literary and philosophical figures.

Influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as by the German Romantics and English-language literary icons such as Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare, Landauer’s political outlook went firmly against the materialist grain of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century European anarchist Left. His pacifistic, non-doctrinaire form of anarchism was defined by his belief that the state is not an abstract entity existing beyond the reach of human beings, an entity that could be “smashed” by violent revolution, but an intricate and complex living organism composed of a variegated multiplicity of direct, living, interpersonal relationships between individuals. As Landauer famously wrote in 1910,

“The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another… We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.”(12)

For Landauer, it is the corruption of the human spirit (Geist) that keeps human beings locked into the competitive, mutually antagonistic relationships that perpetuate capitalism and the state. Should people step out of this artificial social construct, rejuvenate the communal spirit that had, in premodern times, bound society into a cohesive spiritual whole, and enter into a new set of relationships with each other, then capitalism and the state could not survive.

Revolution must therefore be a process of wholesale regeneration, a spiritual overhaul beginning with the individual and extending to the entire life of society. Rather than aiming for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois state-capitalist institutions, Landauer believed that to overcome capitalism and the state individuals must unite into community, “come together, grow into a framework, a sense of belonging, a body with countless organs and sections.”(13) If this were to happen, the “creation and renewal of a real organic structure” could begin, and it is this organic structure that in time “‘destroys’ the State by displacing it.”(14) With the growth of individuals into families, families into communities, and communities into associations, an entire alternative infrastructure would rise up within the bosom of the state, eventually to outgrow the existing order and replace it with a voluntaristic, freely-constituted “society of societies.”

Landauer argued that the anarchist movement should therefore focus its efforts on restructuring of society from below, on constructive self-emancipation through the establishment of peaceful, self-managed, self-sufficient cooperative ventures as the seeds of a non-alienated future. Ultimately, this future would see interlaced alliances and interalliances of agro-industrial gemeinschaft settlements freely woven together into a “society of societies.” Within these communes, the artisanal forms of production and rural communal traditions of pre-modern societies would be restored in tandem with small-scale industry, and the organic unity between agriculture, industry and crafts, and between manual and cerebral work, re-established.

With clear echoes of Kropotkin, Landauer described such a community as a “socialist village, with its workshops and village factories, with meadows, fields and gardens, with great and small cattle and fowl—you urban proletarians, get used to this thought, however foreign and strange it may appear at first, for that is the only beginning of true socialism that remains.”(15)

The Kibbutz

Landauer’s belief that individual self-realisation is the key to human progress, along with his conviction that this could be achieved at any time, means utopia, for him, exists in the eternal present, rather than at a future stage of human development. This idea was profoundly appealing to the generation of Jewish youth responsible for the foundation of the kibbutz movement. It is no coincidence that much of Landauer’s social theory, itself rooted firmly in the ideas of Kropotkin, would end up being put into practice in the kibbutzim.

The kibbutz is a voluntary, self-governing community, administered democratically by its members with neither legal sanction nor any framework of coercive authority to ensure conformity to its collectively-agreed-upon behavioural norms. The source of political authority in the community is the general assembly of all members (the asefa) in which every member has an equal vote on every matter relating to kibbutz life, with decisions made by majority vote. Until very recently, private property was nonexistent on the kibbutz, with all property, including the means of production, owned communally and with production carried out collectively, without individual remuneration.

Built around a participatory economy, with the principle of job rotation ensuring that no social distinction exists between manual and white-collar labour, “the community’s structural arrangements,” as one writer puts it, “are unilaterally built for social fellowship, mutual aid, economic cooperation, diffuse power, informational networks and visible, nonexploitative labour.”(16) Goods and services within the commune are provided on a basis of the Marxian formula “to each according to their needs.”

As a self-contained social and economic entity, the kibbutz is what Martin Buber famously termed a “Full Cooperative.” This means that, in contrast to traditional co-ops—organisations within which people came together for some or other specific purpose—the kibbutz embraces the whole life of its society. This being the case, it is more correctly described as a gemeinschaft-type society, a community built on strong primary relationships, norms and social control in which individuals are related to each other in an “all-embracing mutual conditioning.”(17) As such, the kibbutz is founded on an amalgamation of production and consumption that requires the community’s direct involvement in, and catering for, every sphere of life—political, economic, social and cultural activity alike.

The membership of the settlements today ranges from 50 to 2,000 people per community, with the average population of each standing between 400 and 500.(18) While each kibbutz is an autonomous entity, its general assembly retaining sovereignty and autonomy over its internal affairs and responsibility for its own social, political, cultural and economic development and decision-making, it exists as part of a federated structure of similar communes. The 269 settlements currently in existence are linked in a federative structure with a secretariat in Tel Aviv.(19) Should a decision of the secretariat not be accepted by the general assembly of a given kibbutz, the secretariat has little or no power of coercion to change the outcome.

The Kibbutzim and Zionism

In his postscript to a 1974 edition of Kropotkin’s book Fields, Factories and Workshops, British anarchist Colin Ward cites the kibbutz as one of the few examples in history where Kropotkin’s social theory has found successful practical expression. With this statement however, comes one caveat: “In citing the Jewish collective settlements as an exemplification of Kropotkin’s ideal commune,” he writes, “we have to consider them without reference to the functions they have performed in the last decades in the service of Israeli nationalism and imperialism.”(20)

For some, this will be quite a caveat. The kibbutz movement’s post-1948 link to the state of Israel—a country whose name has, to the contemporary global Left, become synonymous with apartheid and contemporary colonialism—including the number of its members who join the security services, the Israel Defense Force (IDF), and the political elite, certainly goes a long way towards explaining why the kibbutzim have generally not been perceived by anarchist movements as partners in their struggles. Many see the kibbutz’s very existence as predicated on the forcible displacement and subjugation of the region’s native Arab population, and would consider any progressive ideals of equality and social justice that the kibbutzim profess to hold nullified by the massive inequality on which the practical manifestation of these ideals has come to be based.

By definition, no commune that is officially loyal to any state can be viewed as an anarchist entity. However, that does not mean that we cannot identify and learn from the political precepts actualised within that commune. An article in London’s anarchist newspaper Freedom in 1962 observed how

“[The kibbutz] is one of the best examples of democracy and certainly the nearest thing to practising anarchism that exists. Every pet theory of anarchism, like decentralisation, minority opinion, “law” without government, freedom and not license, delegation of representation are all part of the daily pattern of existence. Here in microcosm may be seen the beginnings of what might happen in a genuinely free society.”(21)

Throughout history, all projects attempting to self-organise have been caught in different types of power networks that have complicated their existence. The kibbutz is no different.


12. Landauer in M. Buber, Paths in Utopia (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 46.

13. Landauer, G. “The Settlement, People and Land: Thirty Socialist Theses,” in Der Sozialist (Berlin: 1907) trans. Crump, R., 6.

14. Buber, M. Paths in Utopia, 48.

15. G. Landauer, “The Settlement,” in Der Sozialist, (Berlin: 1909) trans. Crump, R.

16. Joseph Blasi, The Communal Experience of the Kibbutz (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Inc. 1986), 179.

17. Barzel in Christopher Warhurst, Between Market, State and Kibbutz: The Management and Transformation of Socialist Industry (London: Mansell, 1999), 7.

18. Amir Helman, “Use and Division of Income in the Kibbutz” in Alternative Way of Life: The First International Conference on Communal Living (Communes and Kibbutzim), Yehudit Agasi and Yoel Darom, eds. (Norwood: Norwood Editions, 1984), 46.

19. This book is restricted to discussion of the kibbutzim comprised within TKM (The Kibbutz Movement), an amalgam of the two largest federations, TAKAM (the United Kibbutz Movement) and Kibbutz Artzi, which together house some 94 percent of the country’s total kibbutz population. The remaining 6 percent is accounted for by the orthodox Religious Kibbutz Movement (the Dati federation). As well as being different in structure and praxis to the main body of the movement, Dati is, for obvious reasons, more ideologically complex in terms of its relationship to anarchism. While kibbutzniks of all the federations are (with very few exceptions) Jewish, theirs is predominantly a cultural or national Judaism rather then a religious one. Within the seventeen Dati kibbutzim and the two kibbutzim of the Poalei Agudat Israel (Pagi) movement), the ultra-orthodox kibbutzim, this is of course different. The Dati federation grew out of the Mizrachi (and especially the Hapoel Hamizrachi workers’ strand) tradition of religious Zionism. Following the declaration of Israeli independence it formed a dovish faction in the National Religious Party. However, elements within it, and especially within its youth movement, B’nei Akiva were influenced by the right-wing, ultranationalist movement Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful). Although Dati is not covered in this book, it is nevertheless worth noting that its kibbutzim are not without their own ties to anarchist thought—even though they are even more complex than the other federations. The memoirs of the anarchist Augustin Souchy, who had been a member of Landauer’s Sozialistische Bund pre- World War I, include a couple of pages about his visit to Kibbutz Yavneh in 1951, and record how he was delighted to find that members of this Dati Kibbutz had been influenced and inspired by Landauer’s ideas. (see: Michael Tyldesley, No Heavenly Delusion: A Comparative Study of Three Communal Movements, 131.)

20. C. Ward, “Editor’s Postscript,” Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow (London: Freedom Press, 1974), 202.

21. S.F., “Reflections on Utopia,” in Freedom, March 24th, 1962.