Islam, Socialism and Arabism: the origins of the Ba’ath ideology in Syria


The on-going civil war in Syria has cost over a hundred thousand lives and created around ten million refugees, with the consequences of the conflict spilling over into the geo-politics of the region and further disequilibrating the balance of power in world politics. It is impossible to say what the results of the current diplomatic effort known as Geneva II will yield.

This article takes what may be an ironic look (in view of current conditions in Syria) at Ba’athism. With the coup that brought Hafiz al-Assad to power in 1970 the path to power for the Ba’ath cleared. It became the official constitutional party of this single party state in 1973. It continued as such after the succession that left Bashar al-Assad as the President of the (now embattled) regime.

A Syrian national Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) is the chief ideologue of earlier Arab socialist and pan-Arabist (seeking the unification of the Arab peoples and countries) parties associated with Ba’athism in the 1940s and the 1950s. Michel ‘Aflaq’s work In the Path of the Resurrection (Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath) and his more programmatic writings comprise the early and influential development of the pan-Arab nationalist ideology known as the Ba’ath – a word which means ‘revival,’ ‘resurgence,’ or ‘renewal.’ This article examines the meaning of the tripartite slogan of the Ba’ath: ‘Unity, Freedom, Socialism.’

Arab Unity

‘The Arabs will all meet together with their souls and ideas purified, and their morals unblemished. They will have an open horizon for their minds to become creative, for they will then be a normal and sound entity, one nation.’i

Aflaq’s ideal of Arab unity rejected as anathema the political divisions and boundaries in the Arab world. Aflaq considered Lebanon, Iraq and Syria as ‘qutr’ (regions or provinces), not as independent countries, even after they received such status following the termination of colonialism. Aflaq viewed political boundaries as harmful to the Arab capacity for defending themselves against Western imperialism and colonialism. The first principle of the Ba’ath constitution states: “The Arabs are a single nation [watan] having a natural right to exist within a single state [dawla] and having a right to realise its capabilities.”ii However, the force of this broad political claim is softened elsewhere, when Aflaq depicts the Arab mission not as a concrete and specific task to be realised at a particular moment, but rather as a tendency, or propensity, over time.iii

The explicitly political is only one aspect of the Arab nationalist struggle; spiritual and cultural aspirations are equally important; Aflaq viewed the Arab mission as a ‘regenerative’ or moral process, for the reform and improvement of Arab society and the individual character of Arabs. He took this process of political and moral unification as having trans-historical causes and implications. It was made possible by, in some sense, joining with the past, the heritage which the Arabs carry with them as a people, symbolised as ‘the Arab Spirit’. The process of unification is a means of uniting not only in the present and future, but also with past epochs of Muslim unity. Aflaq states that ‘the strength of Arab nationalism is the strength of Arab history for we are marching in the direction of the genuine Arab Spirit, we are acting according to what our heroic ancestors would want us to do at all times.’iv

Thus Aflaq provides historical depth to the Arab mission. However, even this characterisation does not fully capture the scope of the mission, which is, in fact, an eternal transcendent mission, It is an ‘eternal idea’ (risala khalida).v In this way, Aflaq’s version of Arab nationalism, as an eternal and transcendent idea, does not depend upon the acceptance or promotion of any individual or group accepting Arab unity is like a family name, or a visage, both of which are received or assigned before birth, without the opportunity to consent or to deny. Other metaphors include nationalism as ‘a living memory,’ and as love.vii These analogies all suggest the intimate relation between self and ideal, even as its origins cannot be known.

Because of the limits of knowledge, the ideal of Arab nationalism is taken as axiomatic, requiring no proof. It is a priori.viiiAflaq observes the importance of the perceived moral, humane and eternal content of Arab nationalism: “The significance of the message will not be adequate if it relies on narrowness and selfishness, but has to have an eternal, humane and comprehensive meaning.”ix

Another essential aspect of Aflaq’s Arab nationalism is its humanism; well-being and the development of human capacities are central. Aflaq compares nationalism to the ‘soil’ or ‘theatre’ of humanity; humanism is rooted in the idea of the Arab mission. Humanism is, on his view, part and parcel of Arab nationalism:

“Humanism is not a social or political condition that can be achieved materially in history, but a spirit, direction, ideals that take root in the constitution of the peoples and nations, colour their cultures and orient their conduct and morals. Humanism, therefore, accompanies nationalism and is not its follower.”x

Aflaq noted the suffering which he believes differentiates Arabs from westerners.xi He sought to distance Arab nationalism from the western origins of nationalism, and the bloody forms that nationalism often took there.

“The similarity between us and the West is in fact very remote or non-existent…Our nationalist movement…started as the most humane response to the oppression of man by man […], to the human condition as a whole. This nationalism has emerged ripened by all the sufferings sustained by us as if we sustained them on behalf of all the peoples of the earth.”xii

In contrast to the notion of Arab unity as the primary transcendent ideal, which admits no judgment, Aflaq tied Arab nationalism with another transcendent and explicitly moral concept, the concept of al-haqq, which means ‘the truth,’ ‘right,’ or ‘correctness.’ Thus, Aflaq admitted that the ideal of Arab unity did not guarantee moral rightness.

“We believe that one thing is above Arabism (‘uruba), and that is truth (al-haqq). Arabism must be bound to an eternal principle…Our slogan ought to be Truth above Arabism so that the union of Arabism with Truth may become a reality.”xiii

Two Types of Freedom

“The grandest of all freedoms is for man to associate himself with the renaissance and revolt of his own nation. Consequently, freedom, whether internal or external, must be indivisible, and conveys, in fact, the essence and significance of life itself.”xiv

Aflaq viewed Arab unity as the prerequisite for freedom. In Aflaq’s writings two senses of freedom – a positive and a negative, emerge.xv The positive sense is more integrally intertwined with Aflaq’s nationalism. It arises in the process of actively struggling against international domination and exploitation, as well as Zionism.xvi

The nationalist struggle is not only compatible with positive freedom, or liberty, it is constitutive of it: ‘There is no contradiction between it and liberty; for it is liberty if it pursues its natural course and fulfils its capabilities.’xvii Positive freedom is teleological: it is attained by striving for the end which in inherent in the Arab, the realisation of the unity of all Arabs.

Rather than blaming colonial interference for the fragmentation of the Arabs, Aflaq viewed the Arab failure to work towards unity as a cause of their subjugation. Consequently he believed that the struggle against colonialism must be directed inwards against the individual and collective failings of Arabs. ‘We saw colonialism as an effect rather than a cause; an effect of the deficiencies and distortions in our society.’xviii Aflaq concludes from this that the struggle must occur not only politically and militarily, but at the individual intellectual and moral level as well.

‘The struggle against the coloniser had to involve a change of mind and of thought, a deepening of national consciousness and of moral standards; it was related to the nation’s intellectual and moral life.’xix

In this way, the struggle for Arab unity and liberty was a constructive, transformative project. Aflaq emphasised the ‘positive’ aspects of the struggle: ‘Real struggle can never be destruction, negativeness or inaction. It is creativeness, building, a fruitful and positive action.’ For Aflaq, the pain and struggle inherent in this process themselves have value.xxThe Arab future is realised by the process of spiritually elevating the individuals in the present, and this spiritual change has concrete and tangible consequences.

‘In struggle we build the foundations of our future life. In struggle the factors causing decadence will be removed. In the atmosphere of struggle there will be no private benefit, base rivalries and selfishness will cease to exist, because struggle builds a new standard and spirits will have either to be elevated to it or be left out.’xxi

The negative sense of freedom is political and personal freedom – both from international domination and control, but also from domestic tyranny. Aflaq emphasised that liberal kinds of individual freedom are integral. The constitution of the Ba’ath party includes a catalogue of personal freedoms, not unlike the U.S. Bill of Rights. ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of belief, as well as artistic freedom, are sacred. No authority can diminish them.’xxii

And yet Aflaq recognised ‘liberation’ of individuals as a necessity; overriding personal liberties (negative liberty), may be justified and even necessary in order to make someone realise their Arab consciousness, and the importance of the Arab struggle (positive liberty); in essence, forcing someone to be free. Notwithstanding the motivation of love, the following passage quietly sanctions coercion:

‘in this struggle we shall preserve love for all. If we are hard on others let them know that we press in order to restore them to themselves…Their concealed will which is not yet made apparent is with us though they themselves are against us.’xxiii

Positive liberty embodies a celebration of active struggle in the Arab nationalist cause, which may not always be chosen freely. Consequently, negative liberty may be threatened by efforts to promote positive liberty, the higher ideal.


‘I have never regarded socialism merely as a means to satisfy hunger. I am not concerned about hungry men merely because they are hungry, but because of the potentialities hidden in them which hunger has prevented them from displaying.’xxiv

Aflaq borrowed selectively from Marx, and vehemently criticised other aspects of communism and socialism.xxv He accepted the centrality of revolution and the role of economic factors such as the importance of the ownership of means of production. However he generally rejected class analysis, historical and economic materialism, and overt disparagement of religion typical of Marx and Engels.

Aflaq was seduced by Communist ideas during his stay in France. He had high hopes for communism early in his political career, viewing it ‘as a way of life, a metaphysical cure which would end war and exploitation.’xxvi Despite his later divergence he retained a commitment to revolutionary methods, which appears exemplified by Article Six of the Ba’ath party constitution which states: ‘The Party of the Arab Ba’th is revolutionary [inqilab]. It believes that its main objectives…cannot be achieved except by means of revolution and struggle.’ Aflaq consistently uses the word ‘inqilab,’ which means ‘upheaval,’ ‘coup d’etat,’ ‘overthrow,’ rather than ‘thawra,’ which is translated ‘revolution,’ ‘uprising,’ ‘upheaval,’ ‘insurrection,’ and ‘riot.’ This choice may be related to the humanist strains in Aflaq’s thought, as discussed above, even when he is discussing the overthrow of the present regime.xxvii Aflaq treats inqilab as an outgrowth of the spiritual nature of Arabism. He says inqilab means ‘that true awakening…of the Arab spirit at a decisive stage in human history.’xxviii Inqilab is generally treated as the cause, or essential event for the realisation of unity, freedom, and socialism, rather than vice versa; however, partial elements of these three elements, most probably socialism, may be necessary in order for inqilab to come about.xxix

‘Revolution, then, before being a political and social program, is that prime propelling power, that powerful psychic current, that mandatory struggle, without which the re-awakening of the nation is not to be understood.’xxx

In other words, inqilab changes people, and people change the political and economic system. In this way, the notion of revolution is closely related to the struggle for freedom. Spirit alone is only sufficient when joined with economic considerations:

‘Any definition of the spirit and its values which does not essentially include the impact of the economic factors, assess their importance and envisage their results is an inadequate and false definition.’xxxi


i ‘On the meaning of the overthrow, 2 February, 1959’, in Michel Aflaq, Choice of texts from the Ba’ath Party founder’s thought, (Firenze: Cooperativa lavoratori, 1977), 69.
ii Dustur (Constitution), page 3, qtd. in Leonard Binder The Ideological Revolution in the Middle East (Huntington, NY: Krieger, 1979), 178. In other party literature, federation is accepted as a step towards unity. Some Theoretical Principles Approved by the Six (sic) National Congress, October 1963, (Beirut: Dar al-Tali’a, 1974.) Aflaq attended this Congress.
iii Michel Aflaq, Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath (In the Path of the Ba’ath), (Beirut: Dar al-Tali’a, 1963), 32 and 46.
iv ‘The Arab Ba’ath is the will of life, 1 – April, 1950,’ in Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 60.
vDustur (Constitution)‘ in Hizb al-Ba’ath al-‘Arabiya al-Ishtarakiya (The Arab Socialist Party of the Ba’ath), Volume 1: 1945-1949, (Beirut: Dar al-Tali’a, 1964), 119, inter al.
vi Aflaq sees Arabism as an existential rather than a rational fact; it exists independent of any Arab’s positive acceptance it.’ G.E. Von Grunebaum, Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), 111, note 35. Gordon Torrey notes Aflaq’s rejection of the racial criterion; – ‘The Ba’ath-Ideology and Practice,’ – The Middle East Journal, 23: 4 (1969): 449. This rejection can also be explained with reference to the humanitarian stream in Aflaq’s nationalism, which will be discussed below.
vii Aflaq, Fi Sabil; qtd. in Binder, 164-165.
viii Regarding the axiomatic quality, see Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 139. Also, regarding Arab unity as a logical necessity, see Batutu, Hanna, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 732.
ix ‘On the meaning of the overthrow, 2 – February, 1950,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 69.
x quotes Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 73.
xi ‘The West has not passed through the ordeals, tragedies, sufferings and subjection to imperialism and fragmentation,’ in ‘The humanism of the struggle of the Arab nation, 5-Baghdad – Late – July, 1958.’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 75-76. In his discussion of Arab nationalism, Aflaq says that it is ‘very unlikely’ that it will ‘end up where the West ended up,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 75-76.
xii Choice of Texts, 75-76.
xiii ‘On the Arab message, 1 – 1946,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 67.
xiv Tarif Khalidi expresses the relation of freedom and the nationalist struggle in this way: ‘In embracing its destiny, the Arab peoples become truly free, for destiny is no other than Spirit….Individual freedom works within a sort of pre-established harmony between Freedom and Necessity.’ ‘A Critical Study of the Political Ideas of Michel Aflak,’ in Middle East Forum, 42: 2 (1966), 59. However, as I have suggested, the link between the positive sense of liberty is actually closer than this: freedom is, in this sense of positive liberty, struggle.
xv see Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,’ in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 118-172.
xvi Aflaq’s treatment of Zionism resembles Nasser’s in that Zionism is depicted as an extension of Western imperialism, rather than as an imperial power in and of itself. Confer Gemal Abd al-Nassar, Philosophy of the Revolution (Buffalo: Smith, Keynes and Marshall, 1959).
xvii Qtd. in Kamel S. Abu Jaber, The Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party: History, Ideology, and Organization, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1966), 98.
xviii Qtd. in Seale, 157.
xix Qtd. in Seale, 149: ‘Struggle is the best educator for awareness because it is a direct and correct experience of the meaning of liberty and the meaning of right, justice and progress.’
xx Quote from Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 85; ‘the positive struggle is the way for this generation to achieve the overthrow,’ Haim, 178. The motif of Arab pain and suffering, which is closely allied to Aflaq’s concept of struggle, recurs. There is a resemblance between this motif and the Christian view of pain and suffering, as bringing salvation and redemption.
xxi ‘Our view of Arab unity, 1 – 1956,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 90.
xxii Ba’ath constitution, 2nd Fundamental Principle, in Haim op cit., 234.
xxiii Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 29.
xxivTharwa al-Hayat‘ (‘Richness of Life’) Al-Tali’a, Vol. II, June, 1936, qtd. in Majid Khadduri, Arab Contemporaries: The Role of Personalities in Politics(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1973), 217-218. Aflaq continues, in a passage which relates to the later discussion of nation religion: ‘If I were asked to define Socialism, I would not seek a definition in the writings of Marx and Lenin, but I would rather say that it is the religion of life, and life’s ability to overcome death.’
xxv ‘The Features of Arab Socialism’ in Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 200-208, and ‘Our Position Regarding the Communist Theory,’ 195-199, are of particular interest.
xxvi Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 150. ‘Aflaq mentions Gide and Rolland, and claims to share their interpretation of Marxism.
xxvii Hanna Batatu quotes and cites some passages which are more suggestive of violence, but concludes that on the whole humanism dominated Aflaq’s writings; Batatu, 739-740.
xxviii Haim, 244. The image of ‘awakening’ is often repeated in the revolutionary and other contexts.
xxix Robert Olson suggests that inqilab occurs only when all three elements are fully realised. Ba’ath and Syria 1947-82, (Princeton: Kingston Press, 1982), 5. I reject this conclusion; only partial realisation of some of these three elements is necessary for inqilab to occur, otherwise inqilab would serve no purpose.
xxx Haim, 244-245.
xxxi ‘The Arabs between their past and their future, 1 – 1959’ in Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 61.
xxxii ‘The economic problem is one of the most important aspects to which the national movement should give attention…In this field a small group is exploiting the majority of the people.’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 171. Also, ‘The fact is that a minority controls the wealth of the Arab lands and this impedes progress. It follows that all the citizens must come to share in the wealth of their country. Socialism is therefore a natural state where all the citizens would be in a position to develop their potential,’ qtd. in Khalidi, 60.
xxxiii Jaber, 101: ‘Ba’ath ideology explicitly emphasises nationalist goals over Socialist ones.’ Aflaq stated: ‘unity takes precedence over socialism,’ qtd. in Khalidi, 59.
xxxiv Jaber, 151.
xxxv Seale, 150. In terms of practical politics, Aflaq was on friendly terms with local Syrian Communists until 1936, when socialists and communists won substantial electoral victories in France. Aflaq stated that the Syrian Communists ‘became nothing more than cat’s paws of the French Communists, and, by and large of the French government.’ Walter Z. Lacquer claims that Aflaq was a member until 1943 – ‘Syria: Nationalism and Communism,’ in The Middle East in Transition, edited by Walter Z. Lacquer (London: Routledge and Paul, 1958), 327.
xxxvi Qtd. in Khalidi, 59. Also: ‘Socialism, in turn, is considered the handmaid of nationalism; it is a necessity which emanates from the depth of Arab nationalism itself. Socialism constitutes, in fact, the ideal social order which will allow the Arab people to realise its possibilities and to enable its genius to flourish.’ Ba’th Constitution, Article 4, qtd. in Haim, 235. This interpretation, with socialism as the means to nationalism, contrasts with the view of some scholars, such as Seale, who argues the reverse: ‘Political unity is hailed as a creative force which will, of itself, inspire a socialist society. Unity is, in fact, not conceivable without a ‘progressive’ content.’ Seale, 154. Also, in contrast with Bassam Tibi, in Arab Nationalism: a critical enquiry, translated by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 200, he argues that Aflaq attempted a synthesis of nationalism and socialism. The notion of synthesis does not adequately express the instrumental relation, the fact that it is not simply combination, but subordination of one to the other.
xxxvii The philosophy of the Arab Ba’th does not agree with this materialistic conception. On the contrary, it considers that the ‘spiritual’ factor plays a very important part in the evolution of history and human progress. Qtd. in Kemal Karpat, Political and Social Thought in the Contemporary Middle East (New York, NY: Praeger, 1982), 190. Aflaq continues, in a passage that will be relevant to the later discussion of Islam: ‘Consequently it considers that the spiritual influences that have appeared in the Arab world, such as Islam, are in no way strange.’
xxxviii Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 224. See also Tibi 201 regarding the relation of class interests and national unity in Aflaq.
xxxix Raymond A. Hinnebusch ‘The Islamic Movement in Syria: Sectarian Conflict and Urban Rebellion in an Authoritarian-Populist Regime,’ in Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World, edited by Ali E. Hillal Dessouki (New York: New York, 1982), 139, 141, inter al.
xl Binder, 183.
xli As Eric Rouleau puts it, in ‘Rejecting ‘sterile abstractions,’ Aflaq believed that socialism should not rest on any dogma or doctrine, but be the fruit of lived experience and pragmatic action.’ See ‘The Syrian Enigma; What is the Ba’ath?’ A Middle East Reader, edited by Irene L. Gendzier, (New York: Pegasus, 1969), 164.
xlii ‘The Arabs between their past and their future, 1 – 1959,’ in Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 61.
xliii For a brief analysis and interpretation of this aspect of the relation, see Khalidi, 63-64.
xliv Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 10. In fact, Islam itself was created out of Arabism, and out of the characteristics which are peculiar to Arabs.
xlv Rouleau, 160.
xlviDhikra al-rasul al-arabi‘ (In Memory of the Arab Prophet), 1 April 1943, qtd. in Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 57. John F. Devlin notes the absence of Orthodox Muslims in Aflaq’s crowd on this occasion. It is unlikely that Aflaq’s ideology ever had much of a chance to win over orthodox Muslims, due to its clash with basic tenets of Islam; Syria: modern state in an ancient land (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1983), 25.
xlvii Qtd. in Devlin, 24.
xlviii Derek Hopwood, Syria: 1945- 1986 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1988), 88.
xlix Hopwood, 88. In fact, Spencer Lavan argues that Aflaq develops a ‘detailed view of the life of the Prophet as a symbol of the highest living reality of the Arab soul,’ ‘Four Christian Arab Nationalists: A Comparative Study,’ in Muslim World, 57: 2 (1967), 118.
l ‘The doctrinal movement cannot grow if it ceases to have a bond with its heritage and its past…we should have a living conscious link with it [the past] in a way that fully realises the unity of the party, its march and the soundness of its orientation,’ in ‘A speech to the branches of the Syrian region, 3 January 18, 1966.’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 66.
li Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 55. For further analysis of Islam and the Arab nation in Aflaq’s work, see Khadduri, 197.
lii Hopwood, 88. It should be noted that following this passage, Aflaq carefully qualifies this statement, to the effect that no one can ever really be Muhammad, or achieve anything near his greatness.
liii ‘In memory of the Arab Prophet – April, 1943,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 57. In keeping with freedom of religion, which is among the individual rights Aflaq propounds, albeit inconsistently, he states the equality of faiths: The Ba’ath ‘addresses itself to all Arabs of all religions and sects and sanctifies the freedom of faith and looks at religions with equal respect and appreciation.’ In ‘The Arabs between their past and their future, 1 – 1959.’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 61.
liv Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 55.
lv With respect to Islam, Binder (168) claims that Aflaq’s ‘references to Islam are all secondary to the mainstream of his thought, except insofar as Islam is an aspect of the historical heritage of Arabism.’
lvi Aflaq, Fi Sabil, 213. Also, ‘Arab nationalism is not religious, because religious affiliation divides people.’ in ‘Arab nationalism and Nationalist Theory,’ 102-106. Also, religion ‘may very well lead to dissension and civil strife, and nationalism must not be based entirely on religion.’ Qtd. in Rashid Khalidi, ‘Social Factors in the Rise of the Arab Movement in Syria,’ in From Nationalism to Revolutionary Islam edited by Said Amir Arjomand (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 64.
lvii ‘We do not approve of atheism and do not encourage it. We consider it a fake attitude towards life. A false, injurious and fallacious stance, for life means belief, and the atheist is a liar, he says something and believes in something else, he is a believer in something, in certain values. We see his atheism a pathological symptom’ in ‘Our view of religion, March, 1956.’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 64-65.
lviii ‘The question of religion in the Arab Ba’ath, 1 – April, 1956,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 64-65.
lix ‘Interview in Forum,’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 10. ‘Aflaq also makes this distinction in a different way: ‘But we have to differentiate between religion with true and genuine aims and religion as incorporated, or, as it appears, in certain concepts, conventions, customs, and interests, in certain conditions and places.’ ‘Our view of religion – March, 1956,’ in ‘Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 62.
lx ‘Religion…is fundamental in the life of humanity…the question of religion is quite serious and we cannot solve it by words or by a superficial and transient judgment.’ ‘Our view of religion – March, 1956.’ Aflaq, Choice of Texts, 62.

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