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ARAB SOCIALISM. The notion of Arab socialism was never articulated precisely, but it can be taken as representing the economic and social aspirations of Nasserism and Ba`thism, the state ideologies of Egypt in the late 1950s and 1960s and of Iraq and Syria from the 1960s until the early or mid-1980s (although officially until the present time). During the years following World War II, a widespread consensus developed among the educated middle classes and among the largely unofficial opposition in each of these states to the effect that the country’s most urgent needs were national independence and economic development, and that the state was the natural vehicle to carry out the necessary transformations. After the revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, this notion became an important part of the political discourse of the various successor regimes.

In practice, the word socialism is something of a misnomer in the sense that neither a socialist revolution nor exclusive state ownership of the means of production was envisaged. The postrevolutionary economies of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria might have had some superficial similarities with the command economies of the contemporary eastern European states, but it was no accident that all three countries continued to maintain substantial and indeed often buoyant private sectors. Thus the “socialism” in Arab socialism is best understood as statesponsored economic development.

Apart from the various land reforms of the 1950s (1952 in Egypt, 1958 in Iraq and Syria) and the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, it was not until the early 1960s that the nationalization of large private and foreign-owned companies took place, and the governments of all three states began to act more determinedly to bring the various sectors of the economy under state control. More stringent land reforms were introduced, and banking, insurance, foreign trade, and large industrial enterprises were all nationalized. This took place in Iraq under `Abd al-Salam `Arif in 1964. In spite of its socialist rhetoric, the Ba’th’s only further step in this direction after 1968-admittedly a particularly crucial one-was the nationalization of the Iraq Petroleum Company and its various subsidiaries in 1972. In fact, the considerable enhancement of Iraqi state power which the oil nationalization facilitated was only the most extreme example of what would turn out to be one of the salient features of Arab socialism, namely, that the concentration of economic power in the hands of a largely unaccountable political authority facilitated the emergence of increasingly repressive and dictatorial state structures.

Alongside this economic dirigisme came a very considerable expansion in social, welfare, health, and educational services. Naturally, the quality of provision varied considerably both between and within states and was generally much better and more comprehensive in the larger cities than in the countryside, but, at least in theory, free education, for example, was available from primary school through university for every child. At the same time, most basic foodstuffs were either or both subsidized or made available in exchange for coupons from special government establishments, and there were also government stores selling such items as clothing, footwear, and furniture at subsidized prices.

Insofar as it had ideological underpinnings, the notion of Arab socialism was probably most clearly articulated in some of the writings of Michel `Aflaq, one of the founders and principal ideologues of Ba’thism. It is important to stress, however, that `Aflaq formulated his ideas in the 1950s and did not significantly modify them when Bath parties came to power in Syria and Iraq in the 1960s. It is also important to note that, although socialism is the third member of the Ba’thist trinity (unity, freedom, socialism), it was far less important to `Aflaq, and the object of much less of his attention, than either (Arab) unity or (Arab) nationalism. Article 26 of the party constitution says: “The Party of the Arab Bath is a socialist party. It believes that the economic wealth of the fatherland belongs to the nation.” Article 34 reads: “Property and inheritance are two natural rights. They are protected within the limits of national interest.” The only other reference to socialism in the Bath Party constitution is the expression of the belief that “socialism is a necessity which emanates from the depth of Arab nationalism itself,” and that it “constitutes the ideal social order which will allow the Arab people to realize its possibilities.” There is no exposition of the meaning of these assertions, although it is clear from `Aflaq’s other writings, and also from the Nasserist version of Arab nationalism, that socialism is essentially non-Marxist and in fact anti-Marxist, in that it stresses the primacy of ethnic and national identity and rejects the notion of antagonistic social classes. Once the Arabs are liberated and united, it is asserted, class conflict will somehow melt away.

In general, some of the vogue enjoyed by Arab socialism and Islamic socialism probably reflected a need to incorporate some of the more unexceptionable aspects of socialist ideology (the extension of state power as an expression of the transfer of power to the people, the introduction of comprehensive social reform and welfare measures) into the nationalist and Islamic religious discourse of the time. Naturally, such a synthesis produces its own contradictions, such as the coexistence of the notion of the sanctity of private property with the notion of equality and equality of opportunity. It is clear, however, from the writings and speeches of Arab nationalists and Muslim Brothers in the 1950s that invocations of socialism were necessary for both groups to assert their progressive credentials and intentions; the aspiration for social justice, together with the sense that the state was the appropriate vehicle to spearhead social and economic development, was almost universally shared at the time. It was also the case that the Arab communists had their own much more precise and elaborate version of socialism. Arab socialism and Islamic socialism, because of their allegedly “home-grown” nature, could thus be useful weapons in blunting or deflecting the appeal of communism at the time of its greatest popularity in the Middle East, which coincided with the height of the Cold War.

[See also Arab Nationalism; Bath Parties; Nasserism; and Socialism and Islam.]


Baker, Raymond William. Egypt’s Uncertain Revolution under Nasser and Sadat. Cambridge, Mass., 1978. Interesting analysis of the balance of continuity and change in Egypt between 1952 and the mid-1970s.

Batatu, Hanna. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists, and Free Officers. Princeton, 1978. Beinin, Joel. “Labour, Capital, and the State in Nasserist Egypt, 1952-1961.” International  ournal of Middle East Studies 21.1 (February 1989): 71-90.

Carre, Olivier. “Le mouvement ideologique ba’thiste.” In La Syrie d’aujourd’hui, edited by Andre Raymond, pp. 185-224. Paris, 1980. Subtle and considered analysis of Ba’thism, with particular reference to its development in Syria.

Farouk-Sluglett, Marion. “Socialist’ Iraq, 1963-1978: Towards a Reappraisal.” Orient 23.2 (1982): 2o6-219.

Farouk-Sluglett, Marion, and Peter Sluglett. “The Iraqi Bath Party.” In Political Parties in the Third World, edited by Vicky Randall, pp. 57-74. London, 1988.

Haim, Sylvia G., ed. Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Berkeley, 1962. Contains useful extracts from the writings and speeches of `Aflaq and Nasser.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. “Syria under the Bath: State Formation in a Fragmented Society.” Arab Studies Quarterly 4.3 (Summer 1982): 177-199.

Sayegh, Faiz. “The Theoretical Structure of Nasser’s Socialism.” In St. Anthony’s Papers, no. 17, Middle Eastern Affairs, no. 4, edited by Albert Hourani, pp. 9-55. London, 1965.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/arab-socialism/

  • writerPosted On: October 11, 2012
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