Socialism and Labor Zionism:
The Key to Early Israel
World affairs in 1948 were much different than they were three years prior. At the beginning of 1945, World War II (WWII) had been raging on for nearly six years as Nazi Germany still existed under the control of Adolf Hitler. The United States of America (U.S.) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) were allied with each other, albeit their political differences. The number of Jews on earth, in Europe specifically, were plummeting and had been for nearly six years as the gears of the Holocaust were still grinding along, having not yet come to a screeching halt. The world Jewish population in 1939 was 17 million.
By the end of 1945, Nazi Germany had collapsed and Hitler had met his ultimate demise. The world Jewish population had decreased by 35% to 11 million. Additionally, the Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had begun to heat up. In the latter half of the 20th century, the world would bear witness to a fight over political and economic ideological supremacy by the two world superpowers. On one side was the politically democratic and economically capitalist United States; on the other side was the communist Soviet Union built on Marxist-Leninist ideologies, which itself was built on principles of socialism.
Socialism firmly established itself on the world political stage in 1917 with the success of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. Other “socialist” revolutions (in quotations because they can more accurately be described as communist revolutions, but still falls under the larger umbrella of socialism) occurred in Vietnam in 1945, China in 1949, and Cuba in 1959. By the Marxist Cuban Revolution of 1959, most of Eastern Europe had been subsumed into the Soviet Union, either as a Soviet Socialist Republic or through membership via the Warsaw Pact. Soviet socialism, however, differs greatly from utopian socialism. Although the U.S.S.R. could trace its history to socialism, the U.S.S.R. was not socialist by definition due to their inability to fulfill socialist intent.
On the other hand, Zionism was largely successful in attaining socialist intent in Israel in a democratic political climate. Collectivism was a core component of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, and was implemented through the kibbutz. This paper will trace the origins, characteristics and consequences of collectivism in Israel from the 19th Century to modern times. Before focusing the attention on Zionism and the creation of Israel, this paper will give a brief overview of socialism as an ideology, delving into the goals of socialism and how its practitioners attempt to realize those goals.
II. Socialist Ideology
Socialism is a social and economic system based on collective ownership of the means of production. There are two schools of socialist thought: socialism originated in the form of humanitarian, or utopian, socialism before eventually being developed into Marxism by German philosopher and economist Karl Marx. Humanitarian socialism is most pertinent to this paper. In a socialist society, each individual member owns an equal stake in political, economic, and social matters. Socialism “can be described in terms of three basic components,” one of which is the collective ownership of production while the second is the establishment of a welfare state. The most important principle of socialism, however, is belief in the socialist intent, which is accomplished through installing of one, or both, of the aforementioned socialist components in the particular society.
Indeed, socialist intent is essential to the establishment of a socialist society. The underlying principle of socialist intent is the collective determination to create an equal society. Socialism sought to free people from “the condition of material dependence” through equal distribution of wealth. Socialism does not limit equality to purely-economic terms. Rather, it aspires for all-around equality, such that democracy is the logical political counterpart to a socialist economy. As British socialist and political scientist Harold Laski put it, “democratic pluralism must be a fundamental feature of any society based on freedom and equality,” such as a socialist society.
How do two seemingly opposite ideologies come together in such a way? It’s possible when looking through the lens of attaining equality. A democratic society places equal power in the hands of each individual citizen through the right to vote. Ideologically speaking, each vote is worth the same amount, guaranteeing that each individual is given an equal say in the decision making of that society. Although democracy is not a co-requisite when defining a socialist state, any limitations on political equality flies in the face of socialist intent and its aspiration for an equal society. If the “socialist” regimes of the 20th century were to be examined, it would apparent that no true socialist society existed, notwithstanding the legitimate collectivization of certain aspects of society. As Bartolke Bergmann said, “real socialism is to be found in the kibbutz, in contrast to the so-called socialist states.”
III. The Ascendance of Zionism
One such movement that featured socialist ideology and that was crucial in the formation of a new Middle Eastern state was Zionism, and that state is the State of Israel, which declared independence on May 14, 1948. To sufficiently understand Zionism, it is necessary to take a look at the factors that led to its rise as an ideological movement. Let us take a quick look at the most influential of these factors, the Jewish Diaspora and anti-Semitism.
First, it’s reasonable to conclude that anti-Semitism spawned the Jewish Diaspora, or simply, the Diaspora, and therefore they are one in the same as it relates to the incentives of the Zionist movement. However, it can also reasonably be argued that the Diaspora itself, in the absence of anti-Semitism, would have been enough of a catalyst towards the creation of Zionism. That is because according to Judaism, God promised the Land of Israel to the Jewish People.  Zionism didn’t form out of thin air; its precedent was set by God himself. Even so, anti-Semitism in Europe in the 19th century leading up to, and including, the Holocaust provided an urgency and sense of validity to the Zionist movement.
While Zionism had an overarching goal for the creation of a Jewish homeland, there were various schools of thought within the larger ideology. Zionism is “a broad movement of ideas and institutions” that included different ideological wings. The most relevant wing for this discussion is Labor Zionism. As opposed to political Zionism, which emphasized the use of political recourse for the creation of a Jewish state, Labor Zionism advocated for the establishment of a Jewish state through the achievements of the Jewish proletariat. Once settled in the British Mandate of Palestine, Labor Zionist’s would create a collective society built principally on the kibbutz and moshav (“private farms which participated in producer, marketing, and consumer cooperatives”). A kibbutz is a collective, where “the means of production are owned by the members in common [and] [l]abor is supplied by all able-bodied residents ‘according to their ability.’” The kibbutz is the tool of Labor Zionism through which it helped to achieve the movements goals.
Proponents of Labor Zionism included philosopher socialist Moses Hess, Ber Borochov, A.D. Gordon, and David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Hess proposed forming a socialist state based on the notion of “redemption of the soil.” Hess was alluding to Jewish claims of the Land of Israel, where he wanted to form a collective agrarian society. Borochov built on Hess’s foundations in his 1917 address in Kiev, Ukraine, in which he espoused his desire to flip the script of the Jewish worker from the “court Jew” to a working-class Jew. Gordon and Ben-Gurion were founders of the Mapai party after merging their two separate parties in 1930. The Mapai party became the dominant entity in Israeli politics upon its inception and until its own merger into the Israeli Labor Party in 1968. Labor Zionism was a core component of Mapai for the duration of the party’s existence, which included the Histadrut, Israel’s largest workers union.
IV. A Collective Society in a New Nation
The Holocaust provided a renewed sense of urgency in the Zionist movement as a whole. Three years after the end of the Holocaust, the chief goal of Zionism was achieved with Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948. Kibbutzim were already operating in the Mandate prior to the State of Israel’s independence through the Yishuv (Jewish residents living in Palestine before Israeli independence), such that when Israel realized statehood there was already a solid foundation present on which to forge a new nation. In fact, “[m]odern Zionist migration to Palestine began in the 1880s, and…the first kibbutz was founded in 1910.” The foundation wasn’t always solid, however, as difficulties inevitably arose as time progressed.
The response to challenges on the early kibbutzim were addressed in quintessential Jewish manner. There is a saying that goes, “ask two Jews and get three opinions.” That is to say, “as problems arose [on the early kibbutzim], they were endlessly discussed,” and would typically result in a pragmatic response. The history of the Jewish people and their actions can more or less be traced to pragmatic responses to the situations they faced. The necessity of survival depended on such a response. It was this pragmatism, formed through “‘an almost pure process of trial and error,’ which was to remain the hallmark of the kibbutz movement until 1948.” In the years leading up to Israeli independence, the kibbutzim were mapping the course to maintaining and growing a collective society. In turn, the “[kibbutzim] acquired great ideological and political importance [and] became the strongest sector of the rural economy, and developed a critical role in defending Jewish settlement.” The dynamic of the kibbutz changed with the creation of Israel, yet the kibbutz was still able to advance their role and impact in early Israeli society.
As the 1950’s wore on, the kibbutzim strengthened their ties to the Israeli political system. Differences between Mapai and Mapam, a similarly oriented party, in their views on the anti-Jewish policies in the U.S.S.R. led to a split in many kibbutzim. As a result, each side became entrenched in their positions. Each party then used their increase in support to further their political connections. Kibbutz “federation workers were effectively full-time party workers: a steady, committed, and reliable source of political manpower.” It should come as no surprise that kibbutz ideals were in turn implemented in Israeli society. Accordingly, “many labor policies…benefitted the kibbutzim particularly,” compared to other groups, and “[t]he kibbutz movement’s position in the elite…was clearly evident.”
Kibbutzim were also successful economically for nearly 40 years. In fact, “the significance of the kibbutzim in Israeli society after 1948 continued to rest on their secure economic base.” This was due in part to the growing immigrant population. As Israel’s most mechanized industry, the kibbutzim reaped the benefits of being asked to produce food for the growing Israeli population. The kibbutzim were able to “produce economic specialists whose trained expertise in one branch of production allowed more rapid economic advance.” Helping the economy didn’t stop there. Some kibbutz went against their code “by employing these new [immigrants] until they were ready to start farming their moshav plots.” Kibbutzim that hired labor wanted to ensure that the Land of Israel be successfully farmed.
While the kibbutzim had their successes, they faced their fare share of problems, namely labor shortages. It became apparent that “large numbers of immigrants could not accept the lifestyle and ideas of kibbutzim.” At the same time, the kibbutzniks were unsatisfied with many of the immigrants and found them to be “unsuitable recruits, lacking socialist ideas, modern Zionist commitments, and aspirations for rural life and proletarian rebirth.”
By the time the original kibbutzniks had children, and by the time the second generation gave birth to the third generation, the ideals that firmly held the kibbutz lifestyle together began to slip. While the original kibbutzniks firmly believed in the ideas of Labor Zionism, “[t]he second generation took kibbutzim for granted as strong, rich, and stable, and the third generation yearned for personal freedom.” The desire for freedom felt by the later generations was most likely due to the restrictions inherent in a collective society, such as a lack of personal freedom and identity. Moreover, the desire and importance placed on equality became an issue in some kibbutzim. Even something as seemingly inconsequential as the purchase of teakettles could engender a feeling of inequality among some kibbutzniks and lead to fraying in the community . At times such as this, the delicacy of egalitarianism could prove costly.
V. In Conclusion
By the 1980’s, many of the socialist-based policies were reversed by the Likud Party, which won control of Israeli government in 1977. This shift in the political spectrum, combined with the aging population of original kibbutzniks, proved to be a turning point in the kibbutz movement. At the same time, Israel was shifting from a secular and collective society to a religious and capitalist one. The kibbutz dynamic shifted along with the greater societal shift.
The Labor Zionist movement undoubtedly played a critical role in the formation and development of Israel. The socialist ideals of Labor Zionism created a collective society that proved economically and socially viable for close to 40 years. The thinkers at the forefront of the Labor Zionist movement laid the ideological groundwork for those successes, not to mention the pragmatism of the Yishuv. The desire for an equal society was met and sustained into the 1970’s. Collectivism indeed was a core component of Zionism and factored heavily in the creation of the State of Israel. The kibbutz was successful in carrying out the collective ideology that was integral to Israel’s formation and continued existence.
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