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Soon after Kibbutz Ein Harod Meuhad, one of the proudest flagships of the kibbutz movement, voted to abandon its traditional ways and "privatize," what could be more irrelevant than a book about communes in the world today? Isn't the transformation of this veteran kibbutz yet another sign that the communal idea is dead in the water?
Even the global economic crisis hasn't produced calls for the replacement of capitalism by some other system - let alone socialism. The entire world, led by US President Barack Obama, is looking for ways to heal the free market. Despite the events of the past two years, there is an almost universal consensus: Capitalism has won; the market prevails; free enterprise is still the least-worst option.
And yet could this version of social and economic history be overly simplistic? In Communes and Intentional Communities in the Second Half of the 20th Century, historian Ya'acov Oved, himself a member of a privatized kibbutz, suggests that the communal idea is flourishing as never before. He points out that the past five decades have shown a steady increase in the creation of cooperative communities in dozens of countries. These frameworks offer an alternative lifestyle to the competitive society in which most of us live.
Based on a measure of economic equality and cooperation between the members, they are often, like the early kibbutzim, agricultural communities, with jointly owned farms. Sometimes they are urban, with a hi-tech business providing most of the income. In other cases they may be groups of people pooling their incomes from a variety of professions and occupations.
It is appropriate that this, the first comprehensive study of the subject, has been written in Hebrew, the language of Israel, home of the kibbutz, the best-known communal movement in the modern world. In his foreword, Oved explains that he wants to share his knowledge of the subject with his Israeli readers. Anyone reading this landmark study can only conclude that his knowledge should be shared with readers around the world.
There are not many people who know as much about communes as Oved, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and the author of Two Hundred Years of American Communes and several other important studies. As both a kibbutz member and an eminent scholar, he is uniquely qualified to be our guide. He was one of the founders of ICSA, the International Communal Studies Association, and served as its chairman until 2004. This, together with his ongoing research, has kept his finger steadily on the communal pulse.
Oved notes the enormous surge in the creation of communes in the
1960s in the US and Europe, together with the student revolts and the emergence of the "hippies." A majority of these communes were relatively short-lived because their members were insufficiently prepared for the complexities of communal living, but in the 1970s more pragmatic and successful communes were established in Europe, the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
In the same decade, a number of communes combined to publish Communities magazine and the kibbutz movement started making contacts with communities outside Israel, establishing an International Communes Desk. Further consolidation occurred in the 1980s, with the founding of ICSA, which brought together scholars of communal living and commune members. Its first international conference was held here in 1985, and was the subject of a feature article by this writer in The Jerusalem Post magazine.
Whereas in the 1950s, communes (including the kibbutzim) were numbered in hundreds, notes Oved, today there are thousands all over the world. What typifies the modern commune is that it has learned from the mistakes of the 1960s. Today's commune members strive to reconcile communal responsibility with individual ambitions and aspirations. They also for the most part seek to engage and challenge the surrounding society.
Although Oved's book does not deal extensively with the kibbutz movement, it is interesting that the development of the commune in the world has paralleled that of the kibbutz. In the early days, kibbutzim were fiercely communal - some even scorned chairs in the communal dining hall as too individualistic, preferring (shared) benches. Since then, there has been a steady move toward more recognition of individual needs. In recent years the kibbutzim have been struggling with the problem of affording their members individual freedom, while maintaining a measure of mutual assistance and social responsibility. Most of them have undergone "privatization," abandoning many of their communal structures to permit their members to fulfill their personal ambitions.
Oved describes the enormous range of what are now called "intentional communities." They are religious and secular, socialist and evangelist, green and New Age. Co-housing in the US and Europe offers a relatively loose form of community; eco-villages emphasize the struggle to preserve the environment. In Israel too, there have been interesting new developments, with a notable increase in the number of urban communes, their members employed in education and social work, many of them established by the children of privatized kibbutzim, who want to find new ways of carrying forward the Zionist mission of their parents.
Oved emphasizes that, as opposed to revolutionary theories, aiming to build a new world on the ruins of the old, the communes have traditionally adopted a positive attitude to social change, leading by example and striving to build better relations between human beings. Ending on a personal note, he concedes that his research has not provided all the answers, just as his life as a kibbutz member did not, but both his scholarship and his personal experience of communal living have filled his life with meaning and strengthened his belief in the value of partnership and the principle of mutual responsibility.
The writer is the author of The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).