A.D. Gordon

by James Horrox

{ Excerpt from A Living Revolution }


Doyen of the early kibbutz movement and an important, yet largely forgotten figure in the history of utopian thought, Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922) was one of the most influential ideologues of the early twentieth century Jewish labour movement in Palestine. Gordon’s agrarian philosophy – which he himself refused to speak of in terms of ‘socialism’, ‘anarchism’, “or any other isms” – was rooted in a deep-seated reverence of the natural world, which appeared to him driven by organic non-hierarchical principles in which he saw a model for the reorganisation of human society.

Born into a middle class, orthodox Jewish family in Podolia in 1856, Gordon was raised in the heart of the Ukrainian countryside where his father worked in the management of agrarian estates. An early member of the Hibbat Tziyon (Love of Zion) movement, he proved himself a charismatic teacher and local community activist, and by the time he arrived in Palestine in 1904 at the age of 48, thanks to his upbringing he had a knowledge of agriculture and the natural world uncommon among the Jewish immigrants of that era, most of whom came from sedentary urban lifestyles.

After working for brief periods at the First Aliya settlements at Petah Tikvah and Rishon Le-Zion, Gordon eventually settled at Kibbutz Degania. Though he never became a permanent member of the kibbutz it was there that he spent most of his working life in Palestine, lived out his last years, died and was buried.

In his memoirs, one of Degania’s founding members, Joseph Baratz, eulogised Gordon as “the most strange and wonderful figure in our kvutza”. He “had a great love of manual labour”, Baratz writes, “and he thought everybody should work with his hands – teachers, writers, administrators. One day, he was explaining this to [Chaim] Arlosoroff, the President of the National Fund, who had come to see him. He was spreading manure with a pitchfork in a field. ‘You see’ he said’, when you stand in a field and you use your pitchfork like this….and this….you feel well and you feel you have a right to live.’ He used to say that by work a man is healed”.

This love of manual labour and the natural world lay at the heart of Gordon’s writings. Influenced by Kabbalistic and Hassidic mysticism, Nietzschean existentialism and Tolstoyan agrarian anarchism, Gordon held that manual labour was not only essential for the regeneration of the Jewish people (it is through labour, he argued, that “a people becomes rooted in its soil and culture”) but also that it held a more holistic value. Physical, and in particular agricultural work, he believed, enabled the human being to connect with nature through creativity, and it was therefore through a return to the land that individuals, peoples and humanity would be able to find spiritual succour and a more meaningful way of life:

“Man’s life has been cut away from its source. Naturally, it has become narrowed, impoverished, meagre, hollow, empty, uninteresting, vain. On the one hand, this results in a feverish pursuit of a life of pleasure, of sickly passion, of grasping at anything in the dregs of life that still has pungency… On the other hand, there follow perplexities, barren spiritual confusion, sterile scepticism, aimless wandering, vacillation, mystic fancies, useless despair. The light in life has been lost; its zest has gone; the talent for understanding life is wasted; in short, the talent to live has been destroyed.”

Gordon echoed the Tolstoyan argument that human beings are at our best when and if we reject the mechanical artifices of civilisation and live our lives in an organic relationship with other people and with nature. It was largely through his influence that agricultural labour came to be seen by the early kibbutzniks not just as a means for the satisfaction of human needs, but as an end in its own right. Although he himself never actually used the phrase Gordon is credited as the founder of the “religion of labour” that became a “surrogate moral code” for the early kibbutzniks: a secular religiosity, akin to Tolstoy’s notion of seeking “the Kingdom of God not without, but within ourselves”.

Gordon’s Zionism was staunchly pacifistic and anti-militarist, and the idea of creating a Jewish state is never once mentioned in his entire body of work. While he believed in the Jews’ historical right to live in Palestine, he viewed the Arabs as an organic nation living in harmony with the land, from whom the Jews should take an example. At the same time he was not naïve about Arab resistance to Zionism, which he saw as a natural reaction to Jews’ westernised and rootless lifestyle, and he thus envisaged the future of Jewish-Arab relations as one of peaceful competition at best – at least until the Jews fully reconnected with the land and earned the respect and cooperation of their neighbours.

While opposed to capitalist forms of labour exploitation, Gordon also rejected “socialism” – by which he always meant Marxism – with its emphasis on class struggle for changes in economic relationships as the key to overcoming capitalism and alienation. In Marxism he saw merely a continuation of the reigning mechanistic conception of the human being and of society, an expression of alienated thought rather than a response to it, and argued that since class is itself nothing more than an artificial organisation of human beings, an edifice of industrial capitalism, the proletariat could hardly be expected to serve as an agent of human transformation.

Instead he believed that the nation – an organic collection of individuals based on the principles of kinship and shared cultural values – was the only agent capable of heralding such change. Rejecting the Marxist emphasis on changes in economic organisation as a privileging of form over content, the understanding that society would not change unless the individual changed was central to his thinking. It was through the self-improvement of each and every individual, within the context of a revival of organic national life, by which mankind – and in this setting Diaspora Jewry – would be able to achieve renewal.

It is in this context that Gordon emphasises the spiritual value of labour. Since human beings were deteriorating in proportion to the degree that they became alienated from the natural world, and since the Jewish people in the Diaspora had been affected more than any other in this respect, doubly detached from the cosmic flow of creativity by being both away from their homeland and occupied primarily in trade and sedentary urban professions rather than in agriculture, Gordon viewed a return to nature and a life of physical, and especially agricultural work as essential. This reconnection between man and land through agricultural labour was for him the sine qua non of the spiritual and political reawakening of humanity, hence the centrality of kibbutz in the regeneration of the Jewish people.

Although he never elaborated in much detail on the minutiae of social or political arrangements, Gordon had clear ideas about the form and function of the kibbutz. He argued that small, rural communities are a scale of human living preferable to modern urban civilisation, and that infrastructure and sociopolitical systems should be reorganised along these lines.

The basic molecular unit of human society was to be the kvutza, a communalism which should not only subvert the alienation inherent in capitalist production, but which must act also as a family, a vector for the extension of familial bonds outwards into the wider social space. Humanity’s natural bonds of fraternity and empathy, corrupted by capitalist modernity, need to be restored, and only from there can a new society arise. “The basic idea of the kvutza” Gordon wrote, “is to arrange its communal life through the strength of the communal idea, through aspiration and the spiritual life, and through communal work, so that the members will be interdependent and will influence each other along their positive qualities”

“The kvutza….can and must work on two fronts. On one side – that of work and nature, the person must be free and must reform him or herself through work and through nature. The individual must associate with the very work and the very nature wherein he or she labours and lives. On the other front, there is the life of the family in the kvutza. The kvutza must serve as a family in the finest meaning of the term. It must develop its members through the strength of their mutual, positive influence….As soon as [individuals] draw together and begin to associate with one another, they become a family as though they had already passed through the sacred rites of marriage.”

Gordon’s writings were mainly published in the magazine of the Hapoel Hatzair workers’ party, which he founded in 1904, alongside articles by and about well-known anarchists of the time, including Kropotkin, Landauer, Proudhon and, later, Hapoel Hatzair theorist Chaim Arlosoroff (the latter strongly influenced in his youth by fin de siècle European anarchist thinkers, in particular Kropotkin). Among the kibbutz founders there was a broad consensus that creating a new kind of society entailed the creation, first, of a new kind of person, and Gordon’s philosophy of spiritual regeneration was one to which the young idealists of the Second Aliya could readily subscribe.

Following his death in 1922, Gordon’s ideas continued to tower over the kibbutzim. Hapoel Hatzair continued to look to him as their spiritual leader, and the early groups of Hashomer Hatzair who arrived in Palestine from 1919 and subsequently evolved into the Kibbutz Artzi federation, were strongly influenced by his thinking (Kropotkin, Proudhon, Buber and Landauer were also required reading for Hashomer Hatzair members). In 1923-24, Hapoel Hatzair supporters in Galicia, led by Pinhas Lubianker, founded the Gordonia youth movement, which adopted Gordon’s philosophy and acted as a counterbalance to the Marxisms that were by then beginning to appear in the politics of other Zionist pioneering groups. In the decades following his death, however, Gordon’s subversive ideas would be muddled and eventually forgotten in the process of Zionist myth-making, which ultimately retained only his personal example of dedication to agricultural labour and Jewish renewal for the Israeli historical narrative.

Given the mythological status ascribed to him in this narrative, it goes without saying that Gordon has become a target for attack in recent leftist academia. He has become a prominent feature in particular in liberal historians’ explanations of why Zionism, irrespective of its secular claims, is indeed religious, and even a classically nationalist monism. Some have argued that it was precisely para-religious spiritual socialisms like his that laid the groundwork for a conciliation of Judaism and Zionism, and ultimately the far right national-religious ideology of the contemporary settler movement.

This argument, elaborated in Ze’ev Sternhell’s book The Founding Myths of Israel, holds that mystical naturalism of the kind Gordon espoused, European romanticism and hostility to industrial capitalism fuse in the Zionist context to become compatible with a classical nationalist outlook. Gordon’s pacifism, communitarianism and silence on the question of statehood on this view do not necessarily mean that his philosophy did not contain the same ingredients as European integral nationalism.

Gordon is a key illustration in Sternhell’s contestation of the idea that a synthesis of socialism and nationalism was ever an objective of the kibbutz pioneers. Sternhell argues that the ideologues of Labour Zionism realised early on that the two objectives were irreconcilable, and that the pursuit of egalitarianism was really only ever a “mobilising myth…a convenient alibi that sometimes permitted the [Zionist] movement to avoid grappling with the contradiction between socialism and nationalism”. He presents Gordon as the exemplar of this contradiction, dissecting his philosophy so as to rebrand him as a proto-fascistic figure who, “in his rejection of the materialism of socialism, employed the classic terminology of romantic, volkisch nationalism”.

The ontic-religious content of Gordon’s nationalism is presented as evidence of how Zionism expressed its religious character, undermining its self-image as a secular endeavour opposed to the ‘slave morality’ of Diaspora Judaism; Gordon’s positive attitude toward “the traditional requirements of religion”, and “the historical manifestations of tradition” in Sternhell’s view affirm his consistency with integral nationalism, which also held religion, tradition and ritual to be core components of national identity. The “paradox of religiosity without belief in God” in Gordon’s writing is thus for Sternhell an index of his congruence with integral nationalism’s “affirmation of religion as a source of identity [which] had no connection with metaphysics”.

Leaving aside the larger question of whether the Gordon Sternhell is analysing is actually Gordon the myth rather than Gordon the writer, the problem with this critique is that it rests on the erroneous assumption that the volkisch romanticism of Herder, in which Sternhell traces Gordon’s intellectual lineage, has no other descendants than the xenophobic views of writers associated with integral nationalism – a specious teleological view of European political romanticism that leads to an understanding of romanticism exclusively in terms of a simple unilinear development to fascism.

Since Sternhell fails to acknowledge that Gordon’s repudiation of “socialism” was in fact solely a rejection of Marxism, the question of parallels with other contemporaneous branches of socialist thought is an avenue he completely neglects to explore. In making this leap he overlooks an entire history of left-wing, democratic, humanitarian incarnations of volkisch romanticism, his reassessment of Gordon thus failing to examine links between Gordon’s philosophy and similar imbrications of volkisch thought, secular spiritualism and antipathy to capitalist modernity found in the works of certain European anarchists of the era.

Returning to Palestine from a conference in Prague in 1920, Gordon himself claimed to have ‘found his ideas’ in the writings of the German anarchist Gustav Landauer who, like him, drew together the secular spiritualism of Spinoza and Tolstoy, the existentialism of Nietzsche and the ideas of the volkisch thinkers into an antiauthoritarian and obsessively pacifistic left-wing volkisch romanticism. At the heart of Gordon’s philosophy is a synthesis of antiauthoritarianism, anticapitalism, anticlericalism, secular spirituality and mystical belief in land as source of creativity strikingly similar in its central qualities to Landauer’s anarchism.

Indeed, though he may have suffered at the hands of Sternhell, the consistency between Gordon’s philosophy and that of Landauer and other anarchists in this tradition, most notably Tolstoy and Proudhon, has led to an alternative view of Gordon as one of the kibbutz movement’s early anarchist ideologues. Some have identified his pacifist, anti-statist naturalism and anti-Marxist critique of modernity as anticipating contemporary eco-anarchisms specifically. Even the most perfunctory assessment of Gordon’s writings in the context of the anarchist thinking of his own time is more than enough to base an argument that it is in fact to the antiauthoritarian tradition that Gordon rightfully belongs.