A brief history of the Ba’th Party. Introduction to Michel Aflaq’s ideology.

Michel ‘Aflaq’s biography

Michel ‘Aflaq, the founder of the Ba’th Party, was an atypical personality in the Arab world: he was a thinker, a philosopher, and a teacher inspired who with his ideas an entire generation of young Arab men.

Has was born in 1920 in Damascus from a Greek-Orthodox family. His parents were involved in nationalistic activities against French rule in Syria.[1] He attended the Thajiz High School in Damascus, and while there he won a scholarship at the Sorbonne from 1928 to 1932.

Those were the formative years for Michel ‘Aflaq: he studied History, Philosophy and he became familiar with Marxism, Communism and Socialism. Moreover, he was in contact with other Arabs with whom he created the Union of Arab Students, a political association whose goals were freedom and independence for the Arab lands under colonial rule.

In 1932 he returned to Syria and begun to teach history in the same High School he had attended during his youth. In this period he begun to gather around him a group of students interested in the main contemporary political issues. Those meeting, usually held on Fridays, represented the beginning of the activities of the Ba’ath and its first nucleus.

The first official statement of the Ba’ath Party was issued in 1943 and focused mainly on Nationalism and Arabism.[2] Here, ‘Aflaq traced the outlines of his thoughts introducing a new Arab ideology and his movement as the vanguard of a new Arab generation whose mission was the reawakening of the Arab spirit to fight against the fragmentation of the Arab homeland and against Colonialism.

In 1940 ‘Aflaq resigned from teaching to devote himself to a full-time political activity. In this period he got acquainted with Nationalist and Socialist political groups and organisations. Due to his political activity he was imprisoned several times: in 1939, 1948, 1949, 1952 and in 1954: his imprisonment enhanced his public image and his prestige in the Arab world.[3] In 1947 ‘Aflaq celebrated the official foundation of the Ba’th Party with its first congress, during which he was appointed General Secretary and the Constitution of the Party was issued. We can describe the 1947 Constitution as the political manifesto of the Ba’ath and the first formalisation of Michel ‘Alfaq’s ideology. Meanwhile, due to its Pan-Arab identity, the Party spread in others Arab countries: in Jordan in 1948, in Iraq in 1952 and in Lebanon.

In 1954 the Ba’th merged with the Arab Socialist Party, founded by Akram Harwani in 1946.[4] This change did not reflect in an ideological shift despite the change of the party’s name from Hizb al-ba’th al-‘arabi to Hizb al-ba’th al-‘arabi al-ishtiraki.[5] In this new form the Ba’ath run for 1954’s elections obtaining 17 seats. Its strengthening was a consequence of the merge, chiefly proven by the widening of the electoral base.[6]

In the second half of the 1950s the Ba’ath begun its approach to Gamal ‘Abd Al Nasser’s ideology. This led to the creation of the United Arab Republic between Syria and Egypt in 1958. This union represented the acme of ‘Aflaq’s popularity but also the beginning of his political decline. The UAR was the product of two different forces: Nasser’s charisma, which was particularly enhanced after the Bandung conference in 1955,the 1956 Suez Crisis, and the political doctrine of Michel ‘Alfaq with his original idea of Arab unity. After the 1961 UAR’s break-up, caused by a military coup in Syria, Michel ‘Aflaq described the Union and its failure with these words: “The unity between Syria and Egypt in February 1958 was not sudden nor was it rash and unmediated. It was not an accident brought by circumstances. It had a history and a past behind it (…). The Ba’ath Party thought and declared that behind its intention to realise the first step in Arab Unity was its will to restore to all the Arabs their confidence in the idea of unity and its capacity for realization, and to make the first state of unity a support and a foundation for the Arab struggle in every part of the Arab homeland”.[7]

The UAR’s dissolution represented a turning point in Michel ‘Alfaq’s life and political career. In the 60s a process of ruralisation started within the Party and led to an ideological shift, with the consequent change of its membership and leadership. These transformations resulted into the isolation of the Ba’ath’s founding member. ‘Aflaq retired from political life and, after Hafiz al-Asad’s rise to power in 1970, he went in exile in Iraq, where in 1968 the Iraqi branch of the Ba’ath had seized power. He spent the last part of his life in Baghdad in an increasing isolation from political activity. When he died in 1989, Saddam Hussein stated that ‘Aflaq converted to Islam and built in his memory a mausoleum.[8] After the collapse of Iraqi regime the mausoleum was converted into a gym for rehabilitation of US soldiers; this was a sign that Michel ‘Aflaq’s cultural heritage was neither embraced nor preserved by the new generations.

The ideology

 

Michel ‘Aflaq’s ideology can be summarized in three different topics: Nationalism, Unity and Socialism.

Nationalism

In ‘Aflaq’s view, Nationalism is the embodiment of the Arab spirit, is the path of the Arab nation towards the realisation of its needs. This process has two main steps: the first is the emancipation of Arab land from colonialist influences, and the second is the unification of the Arab homeland.[9] As an ideology, Arab Nationalism is nourished with the values of truth, justice and goodness. The main task of the Arab Ba’th Party is to realise these values in a concrete way.

For ‘Aflaq, Nationalism is “love before anything else” and “the same feeling that binds the individual to his family because the fatherland is simply a large household and the nation is a large family”.[10] According to ‘Aflaq, Nationalism is an all-embracing feeling, it is open to anyone who shared with the Arab peoples their history, their language, and their culture.[11]

Unity

Arab unity is, together with nationalism and socialism, one of the central ideas of ‘Aflaq’s political thought. The Constitution of the Arab Ba’th Party states that: “The Arabs form one Nation. This nation has the natural right to live in a single state and to be free to direct its own destiny”.[12]

For ‘Aflaq, as Kadduri says, Arab unity provides the framework for the Arab Nation to realise its free will and resume its course of progress.[13] Unity is a general goal in the Ba’th ideology that gathers under its many different goals, such as the struggle against Colonialism, the liberation of Palestine and the achievement of a territorial union with the other Arab countries.

Socialism

The Ba’th is primarily a Nationalist party, but ‘Aflaq insisted on the need for Socialism to realise the Party goals. The Ba’th Constitution states that:“The Party of the Arab Ba’th is a socialist party. It believes that socialism is a necessity which emanates from the depth of Arab Nationalism. Socialism constitutes, in fact, the ideal social order which allows Arab people to realize their possibilities and to enable their genius to flourish, and which will ensure for the Nation constant progress in its material and moral output”.[14] Arab Socialism is limited to the economic organisation of Arab society and it allows private ownership and inheritance rights. ‘Aflaq saw Socialism not merely as an economic system but, as a combination of values designed to achieve dignity for man through social participation. His Socialism is based on the concept of justice and co-operation among individuals and not on class struggle.[15] It is a kind of Socialism that meets the demands of Arab society.[16]

 

Bibliography

Abu Jaber Kamal S., (1966)The Arab Ba’th Socialist Party History, Ideology and Organization, New York: Syracuse University Press.

‘Aflaq Michel, (1977) Choice of Texts from the Ba’th party founder’s thought, Firenze: Cooperativa Officine grafiche.

Haim Sylvia G. (1962), Arab Nationalism An Anthology, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Khadduri Majid (1970) Political Trends in the Arab World: the Role of Ideas in Politics, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Moubayed Sami (2006), Steel and Silk Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000, Seattle: Cune Press.

Roberts David, (1987) The Ba’th and the creation of modern Syria, Kent: Croom Helm Ldt.

REUTERS, Michel ‘Aflaq dies in Paris at 79; founder of Iraq’s Baathists Party, “The New York Times, 25 june, 1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/25/obituaries/michel-aflaq-dies-in-paris-at-79-founder-of-iraq-s-baathist-party.html.

Virost Milton (1995), Sandcastles: the Arabs in search of the modern world, New York: Syracuse University Press

[1] Abu Jaber Kamal S., (1966)The Arab Ba’th Socialist Party History, Ideology and Organization, New York: Syracuse University Press, p. 10.

[2] Cit. in Roberts David, (1987) The Ba’th and the creation of modern Syria, Kent: Croom Helm Ldt, p. 18.

[3] Cfr. Abu Jaber Kamal S., (1966)The Arab Ba’th Socialist Party History, Ideology and Organization, New York: Syracuse University Press, p. 13.

[4] Moubayed Sami (2006), Steel and Silk Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000, Seattle: Cune Press, p. 246.

[5] Torrey G. H. , (1969) The Ba’th: Ideology and Practice, “Middle East Journal”, p. 455.

[6] Abu Jaber Kamal S., (1966)The Arab Ba’th Socialist Party History, Ideology and Organization, New York: Syracuse University Press, p. 35.

[7]  ‘Aflaq Michel, (1962) The relapse into secession, febbraio, in (1977) Choice of Texts from the Ba’th party founder’s thought, Firenze: Cooperativa Officine grafiche, p. 27.

[8] REUTERS, Michel ‘Aflaq dies in Paris at 79; founder of Iraq’s Baathists Party, “The New York Times, 25 june, 1989 http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/25/obituaries/michel-aflaq-dies-in-paris-at-79-founder-of-iraq-s-baathist-party.html. Virost Milton (1995), Sandcastles: the Arabs in search of the modern world, New York: Syracuse University Press, p. 31

[9] Khadduri Majid (1970), Political Trends in the Arab World: the Role of Ideas in Politics, p.195.

[10] ‘Aflaq Michel, (1959), Fi Sabil al-Ba’th, Beirut, 1959, p. 29 in Haim Sylvia G. (1962), Arab Nationalism An Anthology, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 242. Haim Sylvia G. (1962), Arab Nationalism An Anthology, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 242.

[11] Haim Sylvia G. (1962), Arab Nationalism An Anthology, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 243.

[12] Haim Sylvia G. (1962), Arab Nationalism An Anthology, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press p. 233.

[13] Khadduri Majid (1970) Political Trends in the Arab World: the Role of Ideas in Politics, Baltimore and London, p. 157.

[14] Constitution of the Arab Ba’th Party, in Haim Sylvia G. (1962), Arab Nationalism An Anthology, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press p. 235

[15] Khadduri Majid (1970) Political Trends in the Arab World: the Role of Ideas in Politics, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 157.

[16] ‘Aflaq Michel, Fi Sabil al-Ba’th, in Khadduri Majid (1970), Political Trends in the Arab World: the Role of Ideas in Politics, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 157.

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