Tariq Ali on the Ba'ath Party

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 28 17:48:13 MST 2003

(Although I am not particularly happy with the direction that Tariq Ali and
Perry Anderson are taking the NLR, I have only the highest praise for Ali's
"The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity", which I am
about half-way through and plan to review in some detail when I am
finished. This passage on the Ba'ath Party is not only timely, it is
extremely astute.)

Given that different factions of the Ba'ath Party have ruled Syria and Iraq
for almost half a century, a study of its origins is not a purely academic
exercise. The party was the brainchild of Michel Aflaq (1910-89), a
left-leaning Arab nationalist intellectual of Greek Orthodox Christian
origin, who was born into a nationalist household in Damascus in 1910. Both
his parents were politically engaged. His father had been imprisoned by the
Ottomans and their French successors. Michel Aflaq was educated at the
Sorbonne, fell in love with Paris, founded an Arab Students Union and
discovered Marx. On his return to Syria in 1932 he worked closely with the
local communists and wrote for their magazine. Like many others he assumed
that the French Communist Party favoured the independence of French
colonies, but this illusion was broken in 1936 when the Popular Front
government left the colonial structure intact, and the Syrian communists
accepted this as an accomplished fact. Many years later he told an interviewer:

"During this period I admired the hardness of the Communists' struggle
against the French. I used to admire the toughness of the young men in the
Communist Party. After 1936 and the assumption of power in France by the
Leon Slum Front government, I became disenchanted and felt betrayed."

He now decided that the local communists were loyal, not to an idea, but to
the foreign policy interests of the Soviet state, and for that reason would
be unreliable allies in any protracted struggle. This experience pushed
Aflaq, his close comrade Salah Bitar and other young idealistic Arab
nationalists away from any internationalist perspective. They were shocked
by the 'imperialist nature' of European socialism and communism. For them
the key question was how to achieve freedom and independence for their
countries. Everything else was subordinated to that goal.

It was during the Second World War that Aflaq developed the theory which
motivated his followers: there was one Arab nation, one Arab people, and
they required one Arab republic. This unity derived from history. Islam and
its Prophet had united the Arabs as never before, and this historical
experience was now the property of all Arabs, not just the Muslims. Nation
and nationality became the main focus of his work in the early period.
This, coupled with his total disillusionment with the pro-colonial European
left, led him to view the Second World War through a strictly nationalist
prism. A defeat for the British and French empires would be good for the
Arab cause. Nationalists, as exemplified by the Alexandrian crowd, hoped
that Rommel might make their task easier. The Ba'ath was founded exactly
one year after Rommel's 1942 defeat in El Alamein. After Syrian
independence in 1947, it began to work closely with non-communist
socialists and its influence grew throughout the Arab world.

Underground parties were established in Jordan and Iraq, cells operated in
the Hijaz and the Yemen. Syria and the Lebanon alone permitted legal,
functioning parties for varying periods. It was Syria that first repressed
the party and arrested Aflaq, who served four spells in prison in 1949-54.
In Paris he had been impressed by the toughness of French communists. In
Syria he impressed this need for 'toughness' on the new recruits, most of
whom were students.

Throughout Aflaq's tenure -- 1943-65 -- as the secretary-general of the
Ba'ath, he made sure the party was seen as a Pan-Arab organisation and
dominated its policies and its organisation. He shunned the attributes of
power, preferring his job in the party. It was Aflaq who had been the
moving force behind the Egypt--Syria merger in 1958, but the mutual
antipathy between him and Nasser proved too strong. Both men were
modernising, anti-imperialist nationalists with the elements of an
anti-capitalist programme. Both shared a passion for ideas, but whereas
Aflaq was essentially a party insider, Nasser was a public leader and one
whose name had become a symbol of anti-imperialism. It irked him to deal
with Aflaq as if he were an equal. This explains why the Syrian ideologue
was prepared to share power. Nasser, however, preferred a monopoly. And it
was the highhandedness of Abdel Hakim Amer, the Egyptian pro-consul in
Damascus, that brought the union to an end.

But underlying these divisions was a material reality of more recent
vintage. Since the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman empire after World
War One, the new states encouraged by the imperialist powers had developed
a sub-nationalist existence of their own, based on a combination of
modernity and local/regional histories and traditions. The Ottomans had
united the Arab East from without, but had not established the structures
that could do so from within and, as we have seen, Egypt enjoyed a
semi-independence after Napoleon's brief occupation. Subsequently,
nationalist ideology proved too weak a vessel to contain regional
rivalries. This was the case even where the imperialist-imposed divisions
were most awkward geographically, as in Syria and the Lebanon. The
peninsula was another story altogether. Ignored by the Ottoman empire for
most of its existence, tribal divisions had created multiple sovereignties
in the region. Even though the British-backed al-Sauds had finally taken
the peninsula, it had been the discovery of oil, the creation of the US oil
giant ARAMCO and the giant USAF base in Dhahran that preserved the unity of
Saudi Arabia and made it a bastion of Arab reaction.

Imperialism, oil and, after 1948, Israel, were the three factors that gave
a tremendous boost to Arab nationalism. The existence of the Soviet Union
provided it with a pillar to which it could cling in moments of difficulty.
If the Zionist state had not existed it is likely that Arab nationalism
would have disappeared with the withdrawal of Britain and France from the
region and been replaced with each country defending its national
interests. The rivalry between Egypt and the Ba'athists in Syria and Iraq
weakened all three states. The final blow to Arab nationalism was being
prepared in Tel Aviv.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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