Much has been written about the rejection of socialism by major powers such as China and the former Soviet Union. But nowhere is the failure of socialism clearer than in the radical transformation of the Israeli kibbutz.

The kibbutz movement was founded in the early twentieth century in Palestine by idealistic, utopian Zionist émigrés from Europe. Capitalism, industrialization, and the conventional family repelled them. Kibbutzniks, as they were called, replaced those fundamental features of modern societies and set up agricultural collectives in which all property was owned by the kibbutz, adults were treated equally regardless of productivity, and workers were rotated every few months among the various tasks that had to be performed: milking cows, planting crops, serving meals, and so forth. Kibbutzniks considered the closeknit family a creation of capitalism. In its place they encouraged communal dining, a fair amount of promiscuity, and separate communal living for all children, who were allowed only brief daily visits with their parents.

Several decades ago, I spent a few days on a traditional kibbutz in the Negev Desert. I was the guest of a married couple with two children. They had a two-room apartment, and their two children lived in dormitories with the other children of the kibbutz; I met the children briefly on a couple of their daily visits to their parents. We dined communally on good food, and we watched a movie in the large dining hall afterward.

Although my host had much more advanced training than other residents— he was a nuclear physicist—that gave him no more than the right to spend a few months a year working at a nuclear facility that used his skills. The rest of the time he took his turn, like everyone else, among the numerous menial tasks on the kibbutz. He was paid well for his outside professional work; but he had to hand over his pay to the kibbutz, and he received no greater benefits than anyone else. He was not happy with this arrangement, but because he had grown up on this kibbutz he had no money to get an apartment or car or to make the other outlays required to move to an urban environment where he could get a well-paying job. Rent control had destroyed the market for rental housing, so young couples lived with their parents until they had saved enough, or their parents had given them the money, to buy their own place. In this case, my hosts’ parents could offer no help to their children. They, too, lived on a kibbutz and had no apartments of their own.

By abolishing capitalistic organization, the founders of the kibbutz movement expected members to live in contentment and harmony. From what I saw firsthand, harmony was scarce.

The kibbutz movement was motivated in part by the Marxist dictum of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” By abolishing capitalistic organization, the founders expected members to live in contentment and harmony and to work for the common good. From what I was told and could observe during my brief visit, there was little harmony. Jealousy abounded, directed at those who were only a little better off, including my host, who was allowed to spend some time working at his profession off the kibbutz. Kibbutzniks were also angry at slackers who appeared to be living off the labor of others. Because everyone ate, worked, and socialized together, small differences were magnified and became festering sores. Nor were the family arrangements any more satisfactory; parents missed their children and vice versa.

The kibbutz movement was important in the creation of Israel and in its early days of independence. The kibbutz bred many military leaders, perhaps because of its emphasis on communal living and goals. A disproportionate number of the early political leaders and intellectuals also had a kibbutz background. But as the New York Times recognized in an article last September, the socialist zeal that propelled the kibbutz movement in its early days has now largely disappeared. A trend that began more than 40 years ago accelerated in the 1980s as the kibbutzim lost many young members and failed to attract new ones. Many were forced into bankruptcy, and the future of the movement seemed exceedingly dim unless they changed their ways.

Self-interest and family orientation are products not of capitalism but of a human nature developed under evolutionary pressure over eons. They will outlive any utopian experiment.

The vast majority of the kibbutzim that remain have embraced change. They have expanded into industry and even real estate; they now allow a substantial degree of private ownership and private enterprise; pay is no longer equal but is significantly related to productivity; and parents and children live and eat together in their own homes. Those changes may have prevented the kibbutz movement from disappearing, along with many past utopian experiments, but they have not restored its relevance. The kibbutz has become of little importance in the Israeli economy, which has shifted toward privately owned high-tech companies, as well as privately owned farms, including cooperatives, for agricultural output is much less important than it was during the heyday of the kibbutz.

The transformation of the kibbutz movement from avowedly socialist to mainly capitalist shows clearly in microcosm what has happened in socialist countries. Socialist countries, too, tried to divorce individual productivity from individual rewards. They also believed that self-interest was a relic of capitalism and that they could change human behavior to produce “a new socialist man” by abolishing private property and reorganizing society. Instead of the small scale of a kibbutz, countries such as China and the Soviet Union tried to create socialism on an enormous scale. Moreover, and this is crucial, whereas members of any kibbutz voluntarily joined and could leave at will, Russians and Chinese had no choice about whether they wanted to work on collective farms or in government-run enterprises; they could leave only with extreme difficulty and at personal risk.

Utopian socialistic experiments like the kibbutz movement, and countries that tried to create large-scale efficient socialism, all failed for the same reasons. Their participants did not realize that while pioneer zeal and revolutionary momentum could sustain a collectivist and other-serving mentality for a short while, these could not be maintained as the pioneers died off or became disillusioned and as revolutionary circumstances stabilized. Self-interest and family orientation are products not of capitalism but of a human nature developed under evolutionary pressure over eons. Yes, human altruism is abundant, toward both family and outsiders, and the latter might sustain a society for a brief time. But only a deep ignorance of history can foster the belief that propaganda and leaders’ enthusiasm can build an effective, long-term society out of people’s desire to help institutions— be they kibbutz or country—rather than themselves and those close to them.

This essay appeared in the Becker-Posner blog on September 2, 2007.

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