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BATH PARTIES. The Arab Socialist Bath Party (Hizb al-Ba’th al-`Arabi al-Ishtiraki) was founded in Syria in the early 1940s by militants of the Ihya’ al’Arabi (Arab Revival) movement, which was led by the two Damascene teachers Michel `Aflaq and Salah al-Din Baytar, in conjunction with followers of the philosopher Zak-1 al-Arsuzi of Antioch. At its first congress in Damascus in April 1947, the Bath promulgated the Dustur (constitution) as its fundamental text. In reaction to Ottoman domination and European colonization, the party took as its rallying cry the revitalization, reunification, and liberation of “one Arab nation with an eternal mission”-an expression inspired by Fichte-and advocated a revolutionary process of reversing (inqilab) the course of history. The Bath nationalist ideology developed in opposition to European nationalisms, but it also drew on German and Italian fascism. This ideology rests on the concept of an Arab nation defined not by race but by cultural reality.

Three elements underlie the notion of a common Arab identity “from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean.” The first is the history, and even the prehistory, of the Middle East and above all the modern history of imperialism and the installation of Israel at the center of the Arab East. The Second is the Arabic language-the natural language of humanity, according to al-Arsuzi (Antun Maqdisi. “Fi’l-tariq ila’l-lisan,” Al-Nawqif al-Adabi 3-4 [July-August 1972), pp. 15-55). Finally there is Islam, which is seen not as a religion-since the Bath respects the freedom of religion (Dustur II. 1) and rejects religious fanaticism (Dustur III.2)-but as a culture and spiritual experience unique to Arabs through the language and the revelation of the Qur’an. According to `Aflaq, who himself was an Orthodox Christian, the key to Arab identity lies in the sacred experience of the Muslim revelation to Muhammad, the Arab prophet. The Bath aims to instill the sacred and mobilizing mission of Islam into the secular mystique of nationalism.

From its inception the Bath has advocated a moderate form of anticommunist socialism. After World War II and decolonization the party adopted a report inspired by Yasin al-Hafiz, entitled Ba’da al-muntalaqat alnazariyah (Some Theoretical Points of View) at the Sixth National Pan-Arab Congress in October 1963 in Damascus. The report recommended the immediate adoption of socialism in the form of agrarian reform, nationalization, and economic planning in those countries where the party was in power, Iraq and Syria. However, its doctrine has been marked rather by populism and corporatism, and it challenges the class struggle within the nation.

Begun as an underground movement, the Bath party developed a hierarchical structure and a method of functioning inspired by democratic centralism, which was officially adopted by the Eighth National Congress in April 1965. Party members are grouped into categories ranging from the cell (khalwah) and the local section (firqah) to the division (shu’bah) of the departmental branch (far`), and finally to the participants in the Congress who elect the members of the Command and the secretary-general. It is distinctive in that it has developed a double structure and a double hierarchy. The national structure (qawmi) groups together adherents from the entire Arab homeland, while a regional structure (qutri) exists in each Arab state where the party is active, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

The Bath party came to power in Iraq in February 1963 for a period of nine months; in Syria it has ruled since March 1963. Before that year the party functioned as a Pan-Arab party in which Jordanians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and even Tunisians were represented along with the Syrian majority. The 1963 National Congress marked the high point of Pan-Arabism in the organization; certain Syrian leaders led by ‘Aflaq intervened in an internal struggle of Iraqi Ba’thists in November 1963. Their intervention failed to prevent a de facto rupture between the Syrian and Iraqi elements of the party. This rupture crystallized in February 1966 with the triumph of the neo-Ba’thist leftists of Salah Jadid in Damascus. From July 1968, when the party returned to power in Baghdad, it was officially divided and had two rival national Commands, one under Syrian influence and the other Iraqi-influenced, with `Aflaq serving as secretary-general until his death in 1990.

The conflict between Bath factions is not ideological; during the 1970s the two nations where the party was in power evolved toward state capitalism and infitah, or the opening up to private national entrepreneurs and Western partners. In part the conflict concerns the concept of Arab unity, which Syria envisions as developing in stages with an initial regrouping in the Mediterranean Arab region (“Greater Syria”) around Damascus. Baghdad, however, wishes to make Iraq the Arab nation’s federative state, following the example of Prussia in relationship to the German nation. This conflict is above all a conflict of competing ambition between two leaders, Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, both of whom are regional secretaries of the Bath party and derive legitimation of their power from the party. This explains the failure of the attempt at reunification from October 1978 to July 1979.

In Syria and Iraq, the Bath party rules without sharing any of its power, having learned from the painful experience during the period of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had forced the party to dissolve it self in Syria. After eliminating its rivals and reducing the number of likely candidates for leadership in the 1960s, the party allied itself with the Communists and other small parties of the left in a Progressive National Front (Syria, 1972; Iraq, 1973), where it was in the majority while retaining exclusive influence over the youth and the army. Formerly the party of the avant-garde, on coming to power the Bath in Syria and Iraq transformed itself into the party of the masses by taking control of trade unions and popular organizations. As an apparatus of recruitment and mobilization, it also became the privileged channel of social advancement and of redistribution of the advantages associated with positions of power.

Despite its uni-tarian and social agenda, the Bath progressively changed into a coterie of minority solidarity. The non-Sunni Arab minorities, especially the `Alawiyah, are overrepresented in the party in Syria, which permits leaders of the `Alawi community to dominate in the name of party ideals; President Assad, an `Alawi, is also head of the party. Opposition to the authoritarian and military-dominated Bath regime has been voiced in the name of Palestinian liberation and the defense of Arab Lebanon. This opposition was silenced in the political sphere but mobilized around Islamist themes and leaders who denounced the Bath’s atheism (1965, 1973) and waged a civil war from 1979 to 1982, followed by terrible repression.

In Iraq, the Sunnis of the Tikrit region progressively garnered more party representation, controlling the executive, the Revolutionary Command Council, at the expense of the Kurds and especially of the Arab Shi`i majority. As in Syria, Ba`thist Iraq makes explicit reference to Islam, and the shari`ah is recognized as the principal source of legislation. Yet in controlling the mosques and the `ulama’ the Bath imposes the domination of politics over religion. The opposition has rallied around the Shi’! `ulama’ since the beginning of the 1980s, the time of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, and calls for a re-islamization of society. Based on an ideology that fosters Arab unity and modernity, the Bath has become the sole party of two authoritarian regimes.

[See also Arab Socialism; Iraq; Socialism and Islam; and Syria.]


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. Exhaustive study of the social structure and politics of Iraq up to the second Ba’thi regime.

Choices of Texts from the Bath Party Founder’s Thought. Florence, 1977. Collection of essays and articles written in Arabic by intellectuals of the Ba’th’s first generation.

Devlin, John F. The Bath Party: A History from Its Origins to 1966. Stanford, Calif., 1976. Well-informed and reliable study of the party before its seizure of power.

Farouk-Sluglett, Marion, and Peter Sluglett. “Iraqi Ba’thism: Nationalism, Socialism, and National Socialism.” In Saddam’s Iraq: Revolution or Reaction?, edited by CARDI (Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq), pp. 89-107. London, 1986. Critical assessment of the Iraqi case.

Hinnebusch, Raymond A. “Syria under the Bath: Social Ideology, Policy, and Practice.” In Social Legislation in the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Laurence O. Michalak and Jeswald W. Salacuse, pp. 61-109. Berkeley, 1986. Balanced assessment of the Syrian case.

Kienle, Eberhard. Bath v. Bath: The Conflict between Syria and Iraq, 1968-1989. London, 1990. Useful study of intra-party conflict and political rivalries.

Party of the Arab Bath. “Constitution.” In Arab Nationalism: An Anthology, edited by Sylvia G. Haim, pp. 233-241. Berkeley, 1962. Translation from the Arabic of the party’s fundamental document. Rabinovich, Itamar. Syria under the Bath, 1963-66: The Army-Party Symbiosis. Jerusalem, 1972. Insightful study of a critical period. Springborg, Robert. “Baathism in Practice: Agriculture, Politics, and Political Culture in Syria and Iraq.” Middle Eastern Studies 17.2 (1981): 191-209. Thoughtful reflection on the relation between ideology and practice in Ba’thist regimes.


Translated from French by Elizabeth Keller

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bath-parties/

  • writerPosted On: November 2, 2012
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