Acton Institute Powerblog

Lessons from a kibbutz on the problems of ‘bottom-up socialism’

Members of Kibbutz Amir working in the Hula Swamps (Photo credit: GPO, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When making the case against socialism, many of its critics focus first on the “practical” problems: the lack of incentives and market prices, the fatal conceits of central planners, the totalitarian temptations of ruling elites, etc. With problems such as these, socialism cannot possibly live up to its supposed ideals.

But sometimes, we go a step further, saying things like “socialism sounds good on paper,” or “socialism would be wonderful, if only it actually worked.”

Would it?

For those who believe there’s a certain idealism to the free society, it’s a bit of an appalling concession. Indeed, the fundamental problem with socialism is not that its methods are clumsy or that its aims are unrealistic — though they most certainly are — but rather that its end-game utopia is ill-suited to the needs, dreams, and design of actual human persons created in the image of God.

As economist Art Carden once put it, the socialist dream is not a “beautiful ideal that was corrupted by bad people,” but an organized, “blood-soaked” attempt to “snuff out the things that make us human.”

“Socialism didn’t fail because it is an ideal of which we aren’t worthy,” Carden wrote. “Socialism failed, because it is internally incoherent and structurally unsound.” Yes, it relies on Marx’s “intellectual rebellion against economics,” but more simply, this is a rebellion against man as he was created to be.

In a reflective essay on his conversion to libertarianism, economist Meir Kohn touches on these same themes, highlighting his own experiences as a young socialist living on an Israeli kibbutz. As a teenager in the 1960s, Kohn joined a Zionist youth movement in England, later emigrating to Israel to join the kibbutz. Somewhere in the journey, he became a self-avowed socialist.

“What do I mean by a socialist?” Kohn asks. “I mean someone who believes that the principal source of human unhappiness is the struggle for money – ‘capitalism’ – and that the solution is to organize society on a different principle – ‘from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’”

Israel’s kibbutz system is routinely praised as one of socialism’s finest incarnations, comprised of voluntary, agriculture-based communes wherein property is collectively owned and work and child-rearing responsibilities are shared. Unlike the more infamous, state-imposed alternatives, the Israeli kibbutz has a legacy of providing stability in the formation of what is now a thriving nation-state. In many ways, it represents what P.J. O’Rourke cheekily calls “good socialism.”

The model would eventually prove somewhat unsustainable, and many kibbutzim have now become highly privatized and individualized. But when it came to finding a socialist utopia in the 1960s, Kohn came unusually close to encountering the fulfillment of his youthful idealism.

The “[k]ibbutz is bottom‐up socialism on the scale of a small community,” Kohn explains. “It thereby avoids the worst problems of state socialism: a planned economy and totalitarianism. The kibbutz, as a unit, is part of a market economy, and membership is voluntary: you can leave at any time. This is ‘socialism with a human face’ — as good as it gets.”

But Kohn began to notice problems, leading to a disenchantment that began not with revelations about socialism’s economic inefficiencies, but with a face-to-face confrontation with the moral emptiness of its claims about the good life. “I came to realize that socialism, even on the scale of a small community, did not further human happiness,” he explains. The struggle for money would not bring life meaning, but neither would this intensive quest for collective conformity. Something was off.

The system mostly worked in terms of maintaining basic material provision. But the closer the community came to reaching material equality, the more the material differences seemed to matter, leading to a heightened individual awareness of the smallest divergences in community distribution. Paired with the community’s resistance of any notions of earned success, meaning became increasingly detached from the work itself. Kohn explains:

The differences in our material circumstances were indeed minimal. Apartments, for example, if not identical, were very similar. Nonetheless, a member assigned to an apartment that was a little smaller or a little older than someone else’s would be highly resentful. Partly, this was because a person’s ability to discern differences grows as the differences become smaller. But largely it was because what we received was assigned rather than earned. It turns out that how you get stuff matters no less than what you get.

Further, whatever stability was achieved seemed largely attributable to the work of a few select “saints,” as Kohn calls them – those who went above and beyond to make up for those who weren’t pulling their weight. This is a feature, not a bug, of traditional socialism. But for Kohn and may others, they found themselves somewhere in between, wanting to share with others in communal and economic life, but without the constant gaps in care and effort. Without the proper incentives to engage in skin-in-the-game partnerships with their neighbors, a different sort of inequality began to breed, making the average participant much more likely to burn out.

“On a kibbutz, there is no material incentive for effort and not much incentive of any kind,” writes Kohn. “There are two kinds of people who have no problem with this: deadbeats and saints. When a group joined a kibbutz, the deadbeats and saints tended to stay while the others eventually left. I left.”

Without the right incentives, “sharing” can quickly become a buzzword or a mirage. That’s not to say there wasn’t still room for real relationship or fruitful endeavors on Kohn’s kibbutz. In this idealized form, some things went well, particularly when paired with the cause of Zionism, which surely added their own sense of meaning and purpose. But the problems therein highlight that this is not a recipe for longstanding collaboration or social harmony, particularly when elevated to a model employing state-based coercion and control.

This was the beginning, not the end, of Kohn’s intellectual transition. Upon leaving the kibbutz, he went on to study economic ideas more deeply, and his opposition expanded to include that wider web of practical problems. But even now, that first, up-close encounter with a “socialism that works” remains a defining marker in his journey.

As the United States toys with its own “nicer” manifestations of socialism, Kohn’s perspective is one we would do well to consider. If the socialist dream were to somehow come to fruition with relative peace and prosperity, society would still be entirely steamrolled. Humans would be repositioned as serfs – albeit comfortable ones – submissive to their overlords’ plans for social “equity,” and thus, servile in all the areas where God intended them to exert ownership. Our bellies would be filled, and our daily toil might not be as troublesome as it could otherwise be, but our social and economic relationships would be entirely organized according to material factors.

Are these really the ends we were created for? Is this really utopia?

God created us in His image for specific purposes, blessed us with incredible gifts, and made us capable of remarkable contributions – that flow through creativity and innovation, yes – but which are propelled by the love that’s spent and lent through service, sacrifice, and relationship. Such features ought to be embraced, channeled, and unleashed, and yet it is precisely these features which socialism seeks to control, suppress, or forbid.

If we are somehow granted a “socialism that works,” we should stay mindful of what it reduces us to: mere material machines, destined to be positioned according to our assigned functions in pursuit of a ruler’s preferred vision of supreme material equilibrium.

The methods to reach that supposed utopia merit plenty of critique, but it is here – by taking notice of socialism’s hollow idealism – that our debates ought to begin.

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.