Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Political Economy of Communal Life: Zionist Settlement Policy and Kibbutz Collective Practices, 1920-2010

Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Political Economy of Communal Life: Zionist Settlement Policy and Kibbutz Collective Practices, 1920-2010

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Kibbutzim in Israel continually pose challenges to the social study of communal life. At the end of World War II, Martin Buber presented the kibbutz as a potential model for the organization of society worldwide, a socialist alternative to the Soviet model. (1) Instead, during the following two decades the kibbutzim suffered an economic and demographic crisis. While they still retained extensive collective practices, most scholars agreed that modernization threatened their future. (2) Their view was in line with Kanter's claim that the longevity of communes depends upon commitment-building mechanisms based on sacrifice, religion, and hierarchy. (3)

During the 1970s, however, the kibbutzim prospered demographically and economically, while their collective practices still remained relatively stable. The reaction of most kibbutz scholars was to substitute the theoretical focus on the necessity of commitment building for the endurance of communal sharing, with emphasis on the need for maintaining a balance between rigid adherence to ideology and uncontrolled adoption of norms from the surrounding society. (4)

Since the 1990s, following an intensive decollectivization process at the kibbutzim, the theoretical focus has returned to the failure of communal sharing in voluntary, democratic communes. Some authors consider the recent kibbutz "privatization" as the last stage in a unidirectional process that had begun during the 1960s or earlier. (5) Other present it as evidence of universal social processes. Thus Sosis learns from it about the indispensability of religious motivation in the preservation of communal living practices, Abramitzky about "the limits of equal sharing," and Spiro about "the strength of the individualist constellation... most likely a characteristic of human nature." (6) These claims are nevertheless difficult to reconcile with the extensive diffusion of kibbutz communal sharing practices in the past.

In an attempt to escape this theoretical seesaw, this paper presents a preliminary analysis of the long-term diffusion and decline of kibbutz collective practices from a political economy perspective. I look at these practices as an instrument and more specifically, an instrument of Zionist settlement. The explanation I offer for the shifts in their diffusion and decline is therefore focused on the impact of changing Zionist settlement policies in Israel/Palestine.

The paper proceeds as follows. Section II provides a theoretical framework for the study of the diffusion of kibbutz collective practices. Section III presents the historical context in which the kibbutz movement was formed, stressing its role as the spearhead of the Zionist settlement project. Section IV describes the diffusion and decline of kibbutz collective practices since 1920, followed in section V by a tentative explanation of these processes, based on the impact of changing settlement policies. Finally, section VI reviews the findings and discusses their implications for the study of communal life.

II. Theoretical Framework

Communal sharing is a recurrent phenomenon in world history that has attracted public attention at least from early Greek times (e.g., in Plato's Republic). Weber addressed it in the context of his general analysis of social action, treating communal consumption ("communism" in his terminology) as the embodiment of an action based on "direct feeling of solidarity" rather than on "consideration of means for obtaining an optimum of provisions." He observed that this solidarity could rest on traditional, emotional, or charismatic foundations. Weber observed that nonpatriarchal "communism" was characteristic of field armies and religious communities. (7)

Weber's comments have had little impact on the extensive social research about communal life and collective economies that developed during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Most social scholars have approached the subject in terms of "utopian" or "intentional" communities. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.