I rarely mention one of the most important things I’ve done in my life. When it does come up, I do my best to quickly move on. The trouble is, most people don’t have a frame of reference for understanding it, and so it confuses some and annoys others. But every once in a while, someone gets interested and asks me to explain, and then I get confused. In many ways I just don’t have the language and the patience to untangle all the historical nuances that make this thing so important. The experience to which I am referring is the five years I spent living in a socialist commune.
Yet the more time that gets between me and the commune, the more I realize that my experience can help fill a gap in today’s social-justice conversation. I’m referring here to a conflict between what activist groups and organizations aim to do and how they go about doing it; a misalignment of aims and means that has torn some groups apart and made some organizations ultimately ineffectual. We can easily fill this gap by adopting structures—legal, financial, and facilitative—that reflect our values and visions, but sadly, most people don’t know enough about these structures to name them, let alone to enact them.
Most people have some idea of what a commune is, and more often than not, it’s not good. The truth is that communes have been flourishing in the United States for many decades, and although there is a great diversity of these kinds of arrangements, they are commonly stereotyped as gaggles of lentil-eating hippies, or worse, some repressive or abusive cult. Although we did eat lentils sometimes, I was part of something different from that.
We were a group of six leaders—three men and three women—from Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”), a 100-year-old Socialist-Zionist youth movement that was a major ideological engine and training organization behind Israel’s founding Kibbutz movement. This network of independent agrarian socialist communities was scattered throughout Israel’s arid and remote countryside and believed itself to be the vanguard of a worldwide socialist revolution. But precipitated by decades of sneaky bank loans and vicious attacks from the right, much of the Kibbutz movement more or less collapsed in the 1990s, right alongside the Soviet Union and the Oslo Accord. Everywhere you heard the cynics and capitalists rejoice.
It took nearly 10 years of soul searching before anyone in the youth movement knew what to do next, but there was no chance of keeping it down. Hashomer Hatzair is filled to the brim with hard-core idealists in 19 countries, and the stubbornness of youth is legendary. But even more significantly, even as decades of work evaporated and its external goals were compromised, the movement was able to draw on a particular internal structure for meaning and support. This included forms of democratic decision-making, as well as ways of organizing groups and specific methods and schedules for facilitating group process. Our structure reflected our principles, our worldview, and our vision for how the world ought to be.
So, despite the setback, our movement was able to rely on its internal framework and go through a deliberate process of understanding our mistakes (there were many) and devising new ways to realize our vision in the 21st century. We resolved to create smaller, more nimble groups, and to focus our efforts on urban educational projects that could provide support for the millions in need of social services throughout Israel and around the world. We would also develop activist coalitions between Israelis and Palestinians to end the occupation. All the while, we would win over a critical mass of our national populations for dramatic political reforms. Needless to say, we were ambitious.
The group I was a part of was the first in North America to take the leap and join this new direction. Our first year together was spent in a cold concrete box of a building with no front door just steps from the dining hall in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha-Emeq. We had next to nothing; mattresses on the floor served as couches, and horrible oil-pastel doodles served as living room décor. The following year, we moved to New York and found an affordable five-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights. Immediately after the financial crash of 2008, we jumped at the chance to leave that roach-infested, lightless apartment, and got the recession special on an amazing duplex with a big backyard on the coziest tree-lined street in Carroll Gardens. For those four years together in New York, we shared our money (all of it in a single joint checking account), hosted Shabbat dinners on Fridays and yoga on Sundays, ran a socialist summer camp, and founded a suite of educational programs and activist organizations. We got busy.
It was no cakewalk. Although we had a shared history and principles, we experienced the tensions and conflicts that almost all groups do. Although we kept a rather clean house, someone was always cooking something delicious, and we were all pretty kind to each other, we each had our troubles. I hated when anyone left crumbs on kitchen counters or dishes in the sink, and I was quick to accuse. I sought out open confrontation. Others would internalize more, and little resentments would pop up in passive-aggressive comments or mean looks.
People can be hard to live with, even when your lives aren’t as deeply intertwined as ours were. We weren’t just living together. We were working together and sharing all of our money together. We relied on each other to buy groceries, feed our cat, and to do the other little things that it takes to manage a home. This meant we needed to put some systems in place to make sure we were treating each other right. No one wanted our commune to blow up in some massive fight. Lucky for us, when things were hard, we could rely on our youth-movement structures to help us out. We devoted one evening a week, about four hours, to checking in with each other, learning together, and mediating conflict. At any given time, two of us would be the group’s facilitators, and as such, it became our responsibility to figure out what the group needed (to work something out? to have fun? to learn something new?) and to find creative ways of making that happen. We would rotate facilitators every few weeks, and we would often invite guest facilitators to give us outside insight. The techniques we used encouraged a culture of listening, experimentation, and made it possible for each member of our group to guide our process in unique ways.
In the spring of 2011, we applied this same structure to help us disband in a positive way. The end of our communal life didn’t mean the end of our relationships or commitments to one another. And it didn’t mean that our process had failed us, or that we were wrong, naive, or idealistic. Our life trajectories were simply leading us elsewhere—to Israel to fight the occupation, to the arts, to law school—and we all needed time to pursue new things and grow on our own. Incredibly, not one of us is disillusioned from this experience. We all believe that our experience is extremely valuable and offers tools for effective work in the world at large.
To me, that sounds like success. And this is where it gets important—I can’t stress it enough: we succeeded because the structure succeeded. And the structure succeeded because it was based on the simple but powerful notion that the values we fight for in the world and the values that guide our relationships are mutually dependent. We believed, as many do, that it wasn’t enough to be an anti-capitalist activist in the streets but guard your trust fund jealously. But we also didn’t believe it was enough to “be the change you want to see.” Yes, be the change, but also urgently and courageously fight for change.
This idea has a name in Hebrew—tikkun adam and tikkun olam—the dual responsibilities of fixing the world and fixing yourself, and it guided how we understood our work. We recognized that internal structures to facilitate interpersonal dynamics were necessary for doing meaningful activist work together. So we devoted time to it. Our group became a sort of laboratory for refining the exceptionally valuable framework we inherited from our movement.
But this doesn’t mean we spent our time focused solely on ourselves. Actually, the opposite was true. Rather than getting stuck in conflicts, our structure ultimately helped us spend more time on our ambitious projects. Our days were devoted to administering, budgeting, recruiting, and teaching. The dynamics we experienced within our group, good and bad, helped us to better understand how conflicts in the outside world might be negotiated, how people can be treated with dignity and respect, how resources can be equitably distributed, and so much more.
Occupy Wall Street erupted just a few months after we disbanded. I was suspicious of it at first. In our youth movement, we had always had a clearly articulated worldview, and I didn’t quite understand why Occupy seemed to have no stated goal. But eventually, after joining a number of arts-related groups, I learned to love how the movement embraced the same basic assumptions as Hashomer Hatzair. Occupy required that every group use a very specific structure for group process facilitation: Progressive stack meant that nondominant voices could be heard, hand signals allowed for smoother consensus-building, clear agendas and rotating facilitators meant that everyone’s concerns could be addressed. The principles required that groups were always open to new members and new voices. Crucially, the movement’s actual goal was embedded within this structure: a vision of deep democracy that was truly beautiful. In Occupy, the form was the content.
But unfortunately, many groups within Occupy, especially after Zuccotti Park was forcibly vacated, failed to maintain the structures that gave them purpose in the first place. They eventually defaulted to what passes today for normal collaboration. Dominant voices dominated more than before, egos flared, feelings were hurt more often, accusations became more frequent, and decisions were less enthusiastically enacted. Secretive politicking often replaced open consensus-building. This occurred mostly in action-oriented groups because they were the first groups to put aside these internal systems and instead to privilege common notions of efficiency and productivity over process. It is ironic, though, because these groups often became mired in disagreements and toxic resentments and were less efficient in the long run. And while there are certainly exceptions to my testimony here, many Occupiers I know seem to have a story similar to this.
I was deeply invested in Occupy, and what I ultimately gained from the movement was a bittersweet reminder of the value of committing to intentional designs for internal systems that are consistent with our social missions. This is much harder than it seems. Activist groups tend to be packed with unpaid do-gooders who are anxious to know that their precious time is spent efficiently. Similarly, nonprofit organizations are typically driven by donor expectations to privilege efficiency and deliverables above all else. For both sets of groups, the easiest way to seem efficient is to borrow techniques and structures from corporate environments that have set today’s working standards. But they have done so by maximizing hierarchies and sacrificing other social values. So although these groups may feel they are getting more done, they also tend to reproduce the very dynamics they are fighting to change.
But can we think beyond this paradigm? Can we build new or renovate existing structures so they defiantly and unambiguously reflect the world we are working to create? There are already lots of great ideas out there, and for me, these questions are being explored most interestingly today in the arts. Artists with backgrounds in sculpture, performance, and social practice are engaging in projects that go beyond critique and into the actual design and function of institutional structures and policies, and the kinds of social relations they can produce. Since our commune ended, I have become one of those artists. School of Apocalypse, which I co-founded with three other artists, does this within the context of a learning community that examines creative practice and notions of survival. I also apply these ideas to a school for ecological justice I run with my wife and former commune partner, Eugenia Manwelyan. There are many other examples, including the Study Center for Group Work, an open-access library for collaborative methods, which offers a very useful set of resources for people who are interested in exploring these issues further.
I believe that we are on the cusp of a golden age of for this kind of work because it is so incredibly necessary. We need everyone, artists included, to succeed in creating forms we all can use, because now more than ever, we know that the way we run our society and economy is unsustainable. So think beyond we must. At a time when our trust in public institutions is at its lowest since they started keeping track, when democracy is on the ropes, we plainly see the failures of today’s social infrastructure and what passes for “best practices” in organizational structure. But this is also a time that is ready for new ways forward. Let’s all apply ourselves to the challenge.
Special thanks to Karen Isaacs, Michal Jalowski, Eugenia Manwelyan, Yotam Marom, and A. Daniel Roth for being my partners in our commune, Kvutzat Orev, as well as Jacob Ulrich and Solomon Gezari.
This article is part of a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.