This article was published by Alliance (Marxist-Leninist) as part of the publication Alliance, issue #51, “Pan-Arabic or Pan-Islamic ‘Socialism.’”
December 2002; based on an article of 1996
Introduction – Pan-Arabism in the Middle East
(i) Syria – The place, peoples and religion
(ii) Early History of Syria to the Ottoman Empire
(iii) The End of the Ottoman Empire and the French Colonial Yoke
(iv) The Post-Independence Economy
(v) What Were The Class Forces of Syria?
(vi) The Ba’th Party and the Ba’th Arab Socialist Party
(vii) The Egyptian Modification of Ba’th Ideology – Nasserism
(viii) The Syrian Communist Party
(ix) The Syrian CP, the Ba’th and the United Arab Republic
(x) The Syrian CP and the Khruschevite Revisionists
Introduction – Pan-Arabism in the Middle East
As Comrade Bland pointed out in his analysis of Sultan-Galiyev, the dubious attractions of “Muslim Nationalism,” were a pit-fall for communists in Muslim dominated countries. Bakdash – from his initial revolutionary phase to his later revisionist phases, was closely involved with the question of the relationship between bourgeois nationalism in the Middle East, and communism.
The English historian Patrick Seale writes:
“The prophet of Syrian (In fact “greater Syrian” ) nationalism was Antun Sa’ada… His bitterest opponent was the Communist leader Khalid Bakdash, an eloquent Kurd who had steered the chequered fortunes of the Syrian party since 1930.”
Seale, Patrick, “Asad. The Struggle For the Middle East”; London; 1988; p.26.
However, Marxist-Leninists examining Bakdash’s views, would have to concede that he was the engineer of the revisionist disembowelment of the most advanced Arab communist party.
Sa’da was the founder of the Syrian National Party, and represented the regional Syrian based bourgeoisie who wanted an undivided Greater Syria, rather than the more ambitious Pan-Arabists.
“Pan-Arabism” swept the Middle East, partly in response to the rising Zionist tide. As early as June 1913, the First Arab Congress was held in Paris (Walter Laquer “A History of Zionism”; New York; 1972; p.224). Later at the Pan Arab Congress of Jerusalem December, 1931, held simultaneously with the General Islamic Congress, an ‘Arab Covenant‘ was proclaimed. Hourani uses this as a “standard definition of the aims of the nationalists”:
“(i) The Arab lands are a complete and indivisible whole, and the divisions of whatever nature to which they have been subjected are not approved or recognized by the Arab nation.
(ii) All efforts in every Arab country are to be directed towards the single goal of their complete independence, in their entirety and unified ; and every idea which aims at limitation to work for local and regional politics must be fought against.
(iii) Since colonization is, in all its forms and manifestations, wholly incompatible with the dignity and highest aims of the Arab nation, the Arab nation rejects it and will combat it with all its forces.”
Hourani A.K. “Syria and Lebanon. A Political Essay”; London 1968; p. 114.
The main tenets of this proclamation were to live on, in the form of the Ba’th Party, and in Nasserism and the Wahd movement. An increasingly urgent problem played a role in side-tracking the main goal of Arab liberation. This was the Zionist presence in Palestine. In September, 1937, the Pan-Arab Congress of Bludan in Syria, organized by the Syrian Committee for the Defence of Palestine, which passed:
“a number of resolutions in regard to the solution of the Palestinian problem and stated that the adoption of the policy embodied in these resolutions would be regarded as a condition of friendly relations between the Arab peoples and the British Empire”
Hourani Ibid; p.114-5.
However the establishment of the state of Israel continued a destruction of bourgeois nationalist dreams. It became increasingly likely that only lesser goals would be achieved. This article examines the narrowing focus of Arab nationalism, as it played out in Syria.
Following the enforced departure of France as an overt occupying imperialist presence in 1946, the French adopted a pattern of disguised neo-colonial relations. France took over Syria at a time when the British dominance over the Middle East was adequate to push France into a subordinate imperialist position, while Britain waited to see how it would fight off the USA interests in the area.
(i) Syria – The place, peoples and religion
The ancient idea of a ‘bilad al-Sham’ – The “Lands of Damascus”, was built on the premise that there was a distinct Syrian entity. The so-called “Natural Syria” was vast – extending from Taurus mountains in the North, to the Western Mediterranean shores, the Eastern Euphrates, and the Arabian Southern deserts. As such, it was frequently divided up during the centuries.
Later, Syria was known under the French Mandate rule, as both Syria and Lebanon being part of one administrative area (with Latakia and Jebel Druze) from 1925 to 1936. Syria as a term, refers to the Syrian Republic formed in 1936, from Syria, Jebel Druze and Laakia (also known as the State of the Alawis).
Syria ranks fourth in population in the 15 countries usually considered to be a part of the “Middle East” extending between Libya and Afghanistan (excluding these two countries); eighth in gross domestic product, fourth in size of military force, and sixth in rate of growth of GDP. (Ramet, Pedro “The Soviet-Syrian Relationship Since 1955- A Troubled Alliance”; Boulder USA; 1990; p. 6).
The population is largely of the Muslim religious faith, and Arab speakers formed 85% of the population in 1946. Although a Christian Maronite minority (taking its name from a 5th Century Syrian hermit) was always significant in number, as were other minorities. The population by the time of the French Mandate 1920-1946 was made up of:
Sunnis (60% of the total population); ‘Alawis 11.5%; Druze 3.0 %; Ismaílis 1.5%; Christians 9.9%; Non-Arabs (Kurds 8.5%; Armenians 4.2%; plus small numbers of Circassians and Jews etc; (See Malik Mufti: “Sovereign Creations- Pan-Arabism & Political Order in Syria & Iraq”; Cornell; 1966; p.45).
When Mohammed died (632 BC), as the head – supposedly appointed by God – of both temporal and religious parts of the Muslim world, a crisis of leadership was precipitated. This engulfed all the expansionist desert Arabs who had embraced Islam. They solved it be appointing a temporal and religious head of the Muslim world, as a “deputy” – the Caliph, or Khalif:
“Islam as an expansionist ideology began during the lifetime of Mohamed, who made several unimportant expeditions outside the desert of the Arabian peninsula, The real expansion and invasions were to come after the death of Mohammed from the caliphs, or his “representatives”, the heads of or leaders of Moslem communities.”
“Hoxha Enver, “The Glorious past of Peoples Cannot be Ignored”; Written 1983; In “Reflections On the Middle East”; Tirana 1984; Toronto N.D.; p. 469.
“The death of Mohammed … (led to).. a constitutional crisis… The crisis was met by the resolute action of three men: Abu Bakr, Úmar, and Abu Ubaida who by a kind of coup d’état imposed Abu Bakr on the community as the sole successor of the prophet… with the title of Khalifa or “Deputy,” and his election marks the inauguration of the great historic institution of the Caliphate”
Lewis Bernard, “The Arabs in History”; New York 1966; p. 50-1.
Sunni are adherents of the sunnah (practice) of Mohammed alone whose sayings (hadith) form the Holy Words. They are the largest grouping of Muslims, and are themselves divided into sects. The most important of these is the Wahhabi sect largely based in Central Arabia, and headed by the Ibn-Saud dynasty of what is now Saudi Arabia. The Wahabis are named after a jurist of the area of Najd, called Ábd al-Wahhab (1703-1791). During the period of Ottoman expansion, he founded a sect that:
“Was based on a rigid anti-mystical Puritanism. In the name of a pure primitive Islam of the first entry he denounced all subsequent accretions of belief and ritual as superstitious innovation,” alien to pure Islam. … The conversion to the Wahhabi doctrine of the Najdi emir Muhammed ibn Su-ud gave the sect a military and political focus.. spreading by conquest over most of central Arabia wresting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from the Sharifs who ruled them in the Ottoman name… (till-Ed) 1918, when an invading Turco-Egyptian army sent by Muhammad Ali the pasha of Egypt broke the power of the Wahhabi Empire and confined them to its native Najd”
Lewis Bernard, “The Arabs in History”; New York 1966; p. 161.
The ‘Alawis [meaning followers of ‘Ali] are members of the Shi’i (Or Shi’ia) Muslim sect; as indeed are the Druzes (originating from Egypt) and the Isma’ilis. The Shi’ia trace their roots to the 8th century, when ‘Ali the Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law – was – as the claim goes – robbed of his inheritance by the first three Caliphs. The Shi’ites also claim that ‘Ali was granted a divine essence, making them ‘infidels’ to the Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. The materialist reality underlying the Shiía sect was a factional grouping based on the claims of Ali to the Caliphate.
In present day Syria, the Alawi are concentrated in the mountainous areas. Previously, they tended to be dominated by the Sunni or the Christian-Maronites.
The various divisions of sects played a role in preventing a united ‘national’ identity. Colonising powers used the minorities in a divide and rule strategy. The Sunnis were closely linked to the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire, and oppressed the ‘Alawis and the other minorities. The French reversed the preferences:
“In Turkish times the Sunni Muslim had been the privileged community, growing rich on ‘Alawi labour….(who) could be expected to be ground down by the Sunni or Christian merchant, money-lender or landowner….But….in the early 1920’s the French gave the ‘Alawi privileges….”
Seale P: “Asad – The Struggle for the Middle East”; Ibid; p.17.
“France tried to pit all of Syria’s minority communities against the Sunni Arabs, who constituted the core of its traditional political elites;”
Malik Mufti; “Sovereign Creations- Pan-Arabism & Political Order in Syria & Iraq”; Cornell; 1966; p. 45.
(ii) Early History of Syria – To the Ottoman Empire
Being at the intersection of the Mediterranean and India and the Far East – Syria was always subject to international influences and trade. Its peoples were initially Arabs from the South, who brought with them Semitic influence – but they then intermingled with invaders from central Asia and Anatolia (Hourani A.H.: “Syria & Lebanon- A Political Essay”; London 1968; pp.11-13).
Historic Syria was dominated first by the Semitic tribes such as the Phoenicians. Later waves of invaders included the Egyptians, Assyrians, the Hittites, Persians, under Alexander the Great – the Greeks and later by the First Century BC – the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire introduced Christianity. But Christianity gave way to Islam in Syria, during the course of the Persian-Roman wars in the 3rd Century AD.
Although the Byzantine Empire tried to hold onto Syrian territories, by 633 the Arabs from the Egyptian peninsula took it by war. A Moslem Government was established. It became a central part of the Moslem empire, under the Umayyad Caliphate of Mu’awiya in 661. Till the 8th century, the Caliphate territories extended from Spain to Morocco to Central Asia. As the Abbassi Dynasty took control of Syria, its fortunes waned under the pressure of repeated wars with the Byzantine Empire.
Ultimately this allowed the Mameluke Sultans of Egypt – led initially by Baibars to dominate Syria. By 1516, Syria was ruled as a single unit by Egypt, from the seat of Damascus. This was the first modern time that this had occurred since the rule of the Umayyad caliphs 1200 years earlier. However the Ottoman Turks easily displaced the waning Egyptian Mamelukes in 1516, and the Osmani Sultans became the Caliphs.
Upon the end of Egyptian rule, bilad al-Sham (Syria) reverted to the Ottoman Empire, and became sub-divided into provinces. These were not ‘national divisions’; or even ‘natural division’ but administrative divisions facilitating rule over the provinces. As the Ottoman Empire was challenged by Ibrahim Pasha (son of Muhammed Ali a vassal to the Ottoman Sultan) of Egypt, a modernisation began in Syria. A central government was formed with a measure of modern progress such as education. But Ibrahim Pasha then attempted to invade Constantinople in 1839, and the Great Powers intervened. They ‘propped up the Sick Man of Europe’ – the Sultanate of Constantinople.
The Ottoman Empire was an Oriental Despotic form of state; broadly speaking it was the equivalent of feudalism in the West. Its characteristic was the almost complete absence of private property in land. As Marx characterised it:
“Bernier rightly considered the basis of all phenomena in the East – he refers to Turkey, Persia, and Hindustan – to be the absence of private property in land. This is the real key to the Oriental heaven”
Letter Marx to Engels; 2 June 1853; In Collected Works; Volume 39; Moscow; 1983; p.334 (See Appendix 1 to this article).
“The absence of landed property is indeed the key to the whole of the East. Therein lies its political and religious history. But how to explain the fact that oriental never reached the stage of landed property not even the feudal kind? This is I think largely due to the climate, combined with the nature of the lands more especially the great stretches of desert extending from the Sahara right across Arabia, Persia, India and Tartary to the highest of the Asiatic uplands. Here artificial irrigation is the first prerequisite for agriculture, and this is the responsibility either of the communes, the provinces or the central government. In the East, the government has always consisted of 3 departments only; Finance (pillage at home); War (pillage at home and abroad); and travaux (i.e. works –Ed) publics, provisions for reproduction”;
Letter Engels to Marx; 6 June 1853; In Collected Works; Volume 39; Moscow; 1983; p.339.
(iii) The End of the Ottoman Empire and French Colonial Yoke
By the end of the 19th Century, the break-up of the Ottoman Empire was eagerly expected by the imperialists. After several secret organizations had struggled for years, in 1908, some young reformers led by a small bourgeoisie forced a parliamentary system. In 1913 the Committee of Union and Progress, led by the army officer Enver Pasha, took power in the seat of the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople, finally un-seating the Sultanate.
The Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire, a dictatorship based on Oriental Despotism was forced into a democratic reform. At the opening phases of the First World War, Enver Pasha led Turkey into an alliance with Germany. This was sealed in the secret Treaty of Berlin July 28. By its provisions, the Ottoman Empire would observe strict neutrality and Germany would defend Ottoman territory in case of external threats.
Within a few months, Turkey’s secret dealings with Germany had been revealed. Following incidents where German cruisers evaded British ships to obtain safe berths in Turkish waters, Britain declared war on Turkey. As the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill initiated war actions against Turkey on November 1 1914 War was formally declared by Britain only on November 5th. Churchill noted that with the Ottoman Empire as an enemy, its territories were free to being divided up much easier.
As the war progressed, the Allied forces blundered into the defeat at Gallipoli. This invasion between 25 April 1915, to 17 November 1915, left half a million dead. British command had led an Allied force with a large Australian contingent, was defeated by the Turkish forces commanded by Mustapha Kemal – later to be known as Attaturk.
Naturally at the end of the First World War, the victorious super powers led then by the Allied powers, in particular Britain and France – took the opportunity to divide up the Ottoman territories. In 1914:
“At the end of a fevered expansionist movement that was rooted in the 1880’s, France had built the second largest colonial empire in the world, an empire of more than 10 million square kilometers, with nearly 50 million inhabitants.”
Thobie J, Meynier G, Coquery-Vidrovitch C, Ageron C-R: “Histoire de La France Coloniale 1914-1990”; 1990; p.7.
France had up to then, no significant colony in the Middle East. This did not deter its pretensions in the area, based on the rather tenuous, and distant history of the Crusades:
“During the Crusades, French knights won kingdoms and built castles in Syria….In 1914…there were still Frenchmen who regarded Syria as properly part of France. France maintained close contacts with one of the Christian communities along the Mount Lebanon coast of Syria, and French shipping, silk, and other interests eyed commercial possibilities….The moment that the Ottoman Empire entered the war, French officials in the Middle East therefore formulated plans to annex Turkey’s Syrian provinces. Frances’ Minster in Cairo and Consul General in Beirut immediately joined in urging their government to invade the Lebanese coast”
Fromkin, David: “A Peace to End All Peace. The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East”; New York; 1989; p. 94.
Meanwhile, in Britain manoeuvring had also begun. The De Bunsen Committee was appointed by Prime Minister Asquith to advise on polices post-war in the Middle East; the proceedings were dominated by Sir Mark Sykes a Tory MP. It reported five autonomous provinces should be created in the decentralised Ottoman Empire: Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Anatolia and Jazirah-Iraq.
During the war, Lord Kitchener Minister of War in the British Cabinet, proposed a pact to the Sherif of Mecca – Hussein. Kitchener’s plan was to make the Sherif Caliph, thereby displacing both religious and temporal power away from Constantinople to Mecca – Arabia proper. This would appeal to the majority of the Ottoman Empire who were Arabs, yet ruled by the 40% of Turkish speakers – by the Ottoman Empire. In return Hussein was to assist with the overthrow of Turkish rule:
“Kitchener’s telegram … sent by Grey at the Foreign Office, told the British Agency (in Cairo-Ed) that Storr should reply to Abdullah Hussein that (son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca-Ed):
” If the Arab nation should assist England in this war that has been forced upon us by Turkey, England will guarantee that no internal intervention take place in Arabia, and will give the Arabs every assistance again foreign aggression”…. In other words if the Arabian leaders freed their peninsula from the Sultan and declared their independence, Britain would help to protect them against any invasion from abroad.”
Fromkin Ibid; p. 102-3.
This promisory note was to lead to serious future conflicts. Apart from anything else, British calculations that the Mecca Sharif Hussein dynasty (the Hashemites) would be given the allegiance of all Arabs was mistaken. It ignored the ambition of the Wahabi sect led by the Sunni Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, based in Central Arabia.
Nonetheless, the illusions of Britain’s backing took hold of Sharif Hussein somewhat. An illustration of this was in the demands he made, in what came to be known as the Damascus Protocol. This demanded an independent Arab kingdom under his rule. This was presented by Hussein to the British command at Cairo in summer 1915. The British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon – was pressurised by Kitchener to write accepting the demands of Hussein (See Fromkin Ibid; p. 178). This led to the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. In these McMahon used duplicitous wording, to the effect that Hussein should understand a British commitment towards Palestine. The British imperialist had understood that they would have to:
“pay a price… to obtain France’s consent to the making of promises to Hussein”
Fromkin Ibid; p. 182.
Accordingly McMahon forced Hussein to relinquish claim to Syria, Lebanon, Basra and Baghdad, leaving only Arabia. This would mean negotiation with other contenders such as Ibn Suad (See Fromkin; Ibid; p.183). Hussein explicitly rejected this “offer” – stating that:
“Any concession designed to give France or any other Power possession of a single square foot of territory in those parts is quite out of the question”
Fromkin, Ibid; p. 185.
In reality he had little other choice, as the Ottoman Empire Young Turks were about to depose him. The British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey gave the signal:
“Not to worry about the offers being made by Cairo as “the whole thing was a castle in the air which would never materialise”
Cited Fromkin Ibid; p. 185.
Hussein then insisted that there could be no Arab uprising against the Ottomans without an Allied landing on the Syrian coast. This spurred an imperialist presence in the Middle East.
This frames the talks between imperialist France and Britain. France, represented by the son of an African French colonist – Francois Georges Picot and Britain – represented by Tory M.P. Sir Mark Sykes. These two simply secretly divided Syria up, under the secret provisions of theSykes-Picot Agreement of February 1916. Partition kept the Allies united. Palestine was to be “placed under an international regime”- to be determined after “consultation” with all parties involved – including (sic) other interested allies such as Russia and Italy!
Such negotiations between “Allies” were un-trustworthy. In the meantime a secret French-Russian pact between the French Prime Minister Aristide Briand, and the Russian foreign ministry, it was “decided” that the post-war administration of Palestine was to be French controlled.
Hussein tried for as long as possible to temporise, but when the Ottoman Young Turks discovered his plots, they mobilised. To circumvent this, Hussein “declared” war, leading to the pathetic Arab Uprising in June 1916. It did not ignite any reaction, and the Arab tribes largely ignored the call. Simmering continued. However, in 1920, the Battle
Thus ensued the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The United Nations “awarded” the French the Mandate over Syrian and Lebanon. France ‘took’ the North , which became the republics of Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile in the South, Britain seized Palestine and Transjordan. This, occurred despite the fact that the population itself, had made clear its own desire for independence:
“The inhabitants of the whole region made it clear that they wanted natural Syria to be independent and undivided: In July 1919 an elected body calling itself the Syrian National Congress repudiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration and demanded sovereignty status for a united Syria-Palestine.”
Seale; Ibid; p. 15.
In the interim, an Arab administration led by Amir Faysal established itself in Damascus. The contradictions between the European waning imperialisms of France and Britain were set against the rising imperialism of the USA. Even the USA led King-Crane Commission visited the area and confirmed the popular view. But the USA was as yet unable to effectively challenge the hegemony of the USA in the area. Thus in 1920, the European powers were given Mandates over the new states carved out of the former Ottoman provinces. Although Faysal fought against this both politically and then in armed struggle, the troops of French General Geraud entered Damascus in 1920. At the Battle of Maisaloun, they decisively defeated Faisal.
The French dismissed Faysal and set up a classic colonial state. Their Mandate, made the French Government the ‘intermediate’ between its High Commissioner and the League of Nations. On the principle of divide and rule, they quickly proceeded to create new states, and to foster the remaining divisions between people of the former bilad al-Sham.
They created out of Syria a newly detached State of Greater Lebanon; by detaching Tyre, Sidon, Beirut and Tripoli, the Baqa’ Valley and the Sh’i region of North Palestine. These were attached to Mount Lebanon – the fief of Maronite compradors of France.
Then in 1921, France yielded to Turkey, large parts of Aleppo, and Alexandretta-Antioch.
A further administrative manoeuvre divided Syria into four parts: These were the mini-states of Damascus, Aleppo, and the “independent” Alawi mountains and the Druze mountains.
Finally the Northern part of Syria was colonized and further division fostered by encouraging settling by Christians and Kurds. Of course the purpose of all this sub-division of Syria was to ‘ensure’ French hegemony:
“The French fully understood that Syrian nationalist sentiment would be opposed to their rule. This in effect meant the that the Sunnis were their principal antagonists and they thus proceeded to capitalise on the .. Christians, their oldest friends, by creating a new state that stripped Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli, the Baaka valley & Beirut itself from Syria and added them to the Ottoman sanjak (administrative district) of Mount Lebanon the very backbone of Maronite Christianity. Syria was cut off from its finest ports and Damascus … was weakened at the expense of Beirut and the new Christian dominated regime”:
Fisk R; “Pity the Nation – The Abduction of Lebanon”; London 1990; p. 62.
Political parties were only allowed a legal existence in January 1925. At that time, the Peoples Party launched armed struggle. This party had been the first that the French had legalised ( Ismael T & Ismael J: The Communist Movement in Syria & Lebanon, Gainsville; 1998 p. 12). Within 2 years it was crushed. But, the French remained aware of the depth of feeling, and allowed a national assembly to convene in 1928. But it was soon dissolved, in 1930, by the French. Large popular protests erupted by 1936. This compelled the French Government, under the leadership of the Popular Front Government to enter negotiations with the Syrian nationalists. The Franco-Syrian Treaty of September 1936, called for a Syrian [neo-colonial] ‘independence’ in return for French privilege in trading and military status. The National Bloc was elected to power, but the Second World War supervened. The French suspended the 1930 Constitution by the imposition of martial law (Dilip Hiro: “Inside The Middle East”, London; 1982; p. 42).
“was not a unitary party so much as a working alliance of individuals and groups. It including leading members of important land-owning families… like Hashim al-Atasi, the President… individuals…”
Hourani A.H. “Syria and Lebanon. A Political Essay”; 1968; Beirut; p.191.
In 1943, the British pushed Vichy France, to hold elections in Syria. The National bloc was again elected. Syria declared war on Germany in February 1945, thereby winning a seat at the Founding Conference of the United Nations. France was clearly a faltering imperialist nation. Britain, at that time was still struggling hard to keep the upper hand, against a new insurgent USA imperialism. However, it still had could browbeat the French out of Syria. Britain had foreseen that unless the Syrians were allowed a nominal ‘independence’, the whole Middle East was threatened from the perspective of imperialism.
It was only in April 1946, that the French left Syria as an occupying colonial military power. As the History of Colonial France puts it:
“The Syrian Affair had ushered in decolonisation at the worst possible time for France. It was under the very powerful menace of the British, and suffering from the injuries inflicted by the Arab League, these forced it to abandon its mandate without contradiction.”
Thobie J, Meynier G, Coquery-Vidrovitch C, Ageron C-R: “Histoire de La France Coloniale 1914-1990”; 1990; p.360 (Tr Kumar H).
The Syrian Parliament of the 1943 elections, was deposed by a military coup led by Husni al-Za’im in March 1949. This was assisted by the debacle of the first Arab-Israali war of 1948 and the defeat of the Syrian army. It was only in 1954, that his successor (Colonel Adib al-Shisakli) was overthrown by a further military coup.
This was precipitated by the United Front meeting at Homs in July 1953, where the National Party, the People’s Party, the Arab-Socialist party, the Ba’th party and the Communist party signed a National Pact to overthrow the Shishakli dictatorship.
At this time, parliamentary democracy was restored. The ensuing poll in September 1954 was the first in the Middle East with full women’s suffrage, and was generally free.
Syria by the time of the French withdrawal in 1946 had been whittled down to 185,190 square kilometers from 300,000 square kilometers in Ottoman times. (See Seale; Ibid; pp14-16). Open colonialism was to be replaced by a neo-colonialism.
(iv) The Post-Independence Economy
The class character of Syria after the war, was that of a neo-colony dominated by French and British interests, with major feudal remnants. The economy was largely based on peasant based, raw material production, with oppression from the landowners.
The French had developed a comprador base. Since industry was weak in the area, both from previous Oriental Despotism, and the depredations of Ottoman oppression followed by European imperialism, the representatives of the national bourgeoisie were initially weak.
The French had created a large comprador class by fostering various sections of the ‘Alawis (eg. The Kinj Brothers; the Abbas family); and in Mount Lebanon from 1860 onwards the Maronite Christians; and other landowners throughout the former bilad al-Sham.
Previously, a collective type of farming , known as ‘musha’ had enabled the peasantry to each gain a subsistence living. The plots were periodically re-distributed in order that each family would have turns on the better plots. But following the previous example by the Ottomans from the 1858 Ottoman Land Code, the French drew up a land register. This meant that local notables and tribal shayks were enabled to seize property by legal title.
Under this pillage, comprador owned latifundia were built up. Monied merchants and moneylenders in the cities also became Latifundists. In the process the peasantry was of course expropriated and impoverished to the status of being share-croppers. This meant that they obtained between 25-75% of the crop they worked, depending upon how much they provided in money for seed, and water.
Since as Seale puts it, Syria was a “predominantly agricultural country”, the solution of the misery of the peasant was a major goal for the country’s development. This required a national democratic revolution. The extent of the poor development of industry, and the misery of the people can be seen from the following statistics:
“Syria was a predominantly agricultural country, its backbone being two million peasants out of a then population of about 3.5 million, inhabiting some 5,500 villages built mostly of mud and mostly lacking piped water sewerage electricity tarred roads or any other amenity of modern life… The population was ravaged by disease… In 1951-3, 36% of registered deaths occurred among children under five. National income per head was a mere 440 Syrian lire (US$157), although socials disparities were such that most Syrians earned even less. Outside the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo electricity was rare, serving fewer than three-quarters of a million people in the whole country. There were only some 13,000 motor vehicles a single port Latakia, and three small railways all Ottoman built and of different gauge.”
Seale; Ibid; p. 44.
By the Second World War and immediately after, a small industrialist class, and its corollary a working class had arisen in cotton and rayon cloth, soap, cement, glass, and matches; and some industrial penetration into the countryside latifundia had also occurred. (Seale Ibid; p. 46).
The French had created several divisions in the area, or had deliberately stoked up older, historic division – these were at the minimum the following:
Divisions of land into arbitrary areas with peasant expropriations; and
Divisions of territory between potentially hostile ‘religious’ divisions (Sunni versus Shi’i Muslim sects – of the latter being Druzes, ‘Alawis, and Isma’ilis).
But, the class divisions overlay – but sometimes depended upon the above divisions.
(v) What Were The Class Forces of Syria?
These can be characterized with respect to their relations to the ownership of the means of production; and to their relations to the democratic revolution and a subsequent second socialist stage:
1. Those Forces Interested in the Social Revolution
i) The predominant class was the peasant class, the majority of whom were actually share- croppers;
Initially they were led by the Arab Socialist Party (ASP) of Akram al-Hawrani, formed in 1950.
ii) A small working class based mainly in Damascus and Aleppo;
These were initially led and represented by the Communist Party Syria and Lebanon (founded October 1924, admitted Comintern 1928), who ultimately, also gained the leadership of the peasantry. After Syrian territory was divided into Syria and Lebanon, the two parties formed separate organisations in 1930, leaving in Syria the Syrian Communist Party (SCP).
2. The Class Forces Implacably opposed to any phase of National or Social Revolution:
i) The feudal-type latifundia land owners; who were comprador bourgeoisie;
these were led and represented by the French imperialists;
and then later by the so-called pro-“Pan-Syrian” nationalists; Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP – or Parti Populaire Syrien) established by Antun Sa’ada. The Pan-Syrians only wished that the territory of Syria and Lebanon not be divided, and allowed a diversion to offer against the Pan-Arabists. They had established a management hold over the tobacco growers of the mountains, and had a monopoly with the French ‘regie de tabacs’. They were known to be pro-West and anti-communist (See Seale Ibid; p. 49-50).
3. Forces interested in “national democratic” revolution – but wished to abort the second stage, the socialist revolution.
The petit bourgeoisie, and the peasantry, and at a later stage the small but potentially important national industrialist capitalist class, was represented by the Ba’th Party at first and then by the Arab Socialist Ba’th Party (ASBP).
The industrialists were as always frightened of the arousal of the workers and peasantry. They were at best then ‘vacillating’ allies of the national democratic revolution.
(vi) The Ba’ath Party and the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party
Welding Arab nationalism into a movement that could make strides against imperialism in reality needs Marxism-Leninism. But nationalists who shied away from revolution, tried to find a different solution. They tried to ignite Arab pride. This involved a mystical Pan-Arabism.
The formation of the Ba’th Party (or Baath) in Syria took place in 1947, led by Michel ‘Aflaq, Salh al-Din Bitar and Wahib al-Ghanim. The concept originated in Syrian intellectuals who upon return to Syria from the Sorbonne in Paris, were dismayed to find themselves treated as ‘colonials’:
“The party was…founded…by two rival schoolmasters, the ‘Alawi from Antioch, Zaki al-Arsuzi, and the Damascene Christian, Michel ‘Aflaq…Zaki al-Arsuzi was a Syrian intellectual from a modest background who in the late 1920s, won a place at the Sorbonne from which he emerged four years later with a philosophy degree and a boundless enthusiasm for French poetry, painting and civilization … Arsuzi … gathered a circle of young followers to whom he explained that the ‘renaissance’ of the Arabs – that is what the word ‘ba’th’ means – was in their grasp.. (but-ed) he came to suffer from delusions” …. In Hama Akram al-Hawrani led a youth movement and …. a lawyer, jalal at-Sayyid, started a boys’ club with a strong nationalist flavour which was to be the first Ba’th party branch in eastern Syria. But of all these youth groups, the most significant for the future was that of Michel ‘Aflaq and Salah al-Din Bitar who, like Arsuzi graduates of the Sorbonne, on their return home to Damascus in 1934 became teachers ….By 1940 ‘Aflaq and Bitar had set up their own study circle … At the start they called their group the Movement of Arab Revival (barakat al-ibya’al-arabi)”
Seale P; Ibid; p. 27 -28
These intellectuals repudiated Marxism, and were explicitly anti-communist. Although the Ba’th movement built on prior sentiments of Syrian nationalism, these had been close to a religious interpretation dominated by the Sunni sect. This alienated other parts of the Muslim Arabs, who consequently did not join in with the national movement:
“In the past, the Arab nationalist movement had always been interwoven with a kind of Sunni Islamism. And the Sunni Arabs, who usually played first fiddle in this movement, assigned in their Arabism such an important and central role to (Sunni) Islam that heterodox Muslims, let alone Christians, were allotted a secondary place: ‘timid subordinates’ tolerate by (Sunni Arab) ‘superiors.’ In fact, many Sunni Arab nationalists tended to regard members of the Arabic speaking religious minorities as ‘imperfect Arabs’ because they were heterodox Muslims or not Muslims at all. Equally, the religious minorities tended to suspect Arab nationalism as a disguise for unrestrained Sunni ascendancy, similar to the situation that pertained during the Ottoman Empire, the only difference being that Arab rather than Turkish Sunnis now held power.”
Van Dam Nicholas: “The Struggle for power in Syria. Politics & Society Under Asad & the Ba’th party”; London 1997; p. 17.
The Ba’th ideology was supposed to be secular and it based itself on all Arabs irrespective of sect of Islam, or even of Islam itself. Ba’th means “re-birth” and took the notion as central, to mean the renaissance of the Arab movement, also holding out a promise of “socialism” to “all Arabs“:
“Ba’th ideology had a quite different basis. The Ba’th wanted a united secular Arab society with a socialist system, i.e. a society in which all Arabs would be equal, irrespective of their religion. This did not imply that Islam was of secondary importance to Ba’thist Arabism. In the Ba’thist view Islam constituted an essential and inseparable part of Arab national culture. Other than the Sunni variants of Arabism, however, the Ba’th considered Islam to be not so much an Arab national religion as an important Arab national cultural heritage, to which all Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian, were equal heirs apparent. In the opinion of Michel ‘Aflaq, the Ba’th Party’s ideologist, Christian Arabs therefore need feel in no way hindered from being Arab nationalists:
“When their nationalism awakens in them completely and they regain their original nature, the Christian Arabs will realise that Islam is their national culture with which they should satiate themselves, in order that they may understand and love it and covet it as the most precious thing in their Arabism.’
Van Dam Nicholas: “The Struggle for power in Syria. Politics & Society Under Asad & the Ba’th party”; London 1997; p. 17.
However, they slipped frequently into defense of the religious aspects – of Islam, stressing the social and progressive aspects, as preached by its religious leaders. To get the full flavour of mystic philosophy of Ba’th philosophy, a portion of their words are in Appendix Two , which contains a short extract from a 1955 speech by a leader Elyas Farah.
An appeal to the entire Arab peoples should have instantly appealed to the nascent bourgeoisie. But its more immediate appeal was to the petit-bourgeois intellectuals, and only to a limited extent to the peasant masses. Intellectuals who were already breaking away from tribal and narrowing holds, saw its potential:
“It was thus only natural that the Ba’th ideology appealed strongly to Arabic-speaking religious minority members, who may have hoped that the Ba’th would help them to free themselves of their minority status and the narrow social frame of their sectarian, regional and tribal ties.’
Finally, the minority members must have been attracted by the idea that the traditional Sunni-urban domination of Syrian political life might be broken by the establishment of a secular socialist political system as envisaged by the Ba’th, in which there would be no political and socio-economic discrimination against non-Sunnis or, more particularly, against members of heterodox Islamic communities.
After the take-over of Hafiz al-Asad in 1970, membership of the struggle for party apparatus was opened to all Syrians, including non-Arabs such as (Arabised) Kurds, Circassians and Armenians.” The number of non-Arabs in an Arab nationalist party like the Ba’th was bound to remain small, however. “
Van Dam Nicholas: “The Struggle for power in Syria. Politics & Society Under Asad & the Ba’th party”; London 1997; p. 17-8.
The Pan-Arabic vision, was illustrated by the Constitution of the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party, which officially states:
“The Arab nation constitutes a cultural unity. Any differences existing among its sons are accidental and unimportant. They will disappear with the awakening of the Arab consciousness … The national bond will be the only bond existing in the Arab state. It ensures harmony among the citizens by melting them in the crucible of a single nation, and combats all other forms of factional solidarity such as religious, sectarian, tribal, racial and regional factionalism.”
Bashir al-Da’uq ed; Nidal al-Ba’th; Volume 1; Beirut 1970; pp172-6; Cited by:
Van Dam Nicholas: “The Struggle for power in Syria. Politics & Society Under Asad & the Ba’th party”; London 1997; ; p. 15.
Michel Aflaq and Zaki Arsouzi, in 1943, at first formed the Arab Ba’th Party, in secret out of two small groups. But the legal establishment of the party: had to wait till the French military left in 1946 (Dilip Hiro; ” Inside The Middle East”; London 1982; p. 130).
From its formal beginning in 1947, the Ba’th Party intended to cover all countries where Arabs were predominant. It was not restricted to Syria. Its’ programme called for land reform and nationalisation of major parts of the economy, and a constitutional democracy:
“At its first pan-Arab congress in Damascus in April 1947, delegates from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Morocco adopted a constitution and a programme. The party’s basic principles were described as: the unity and freedom of the Arab nation within its homeland; and a belief in the ‘special mission of the Arab nation’, the mission being to end colonialism and promote humanitarianism. To accomplish it the party had to be ‘nationalist, populist, socialist and revolutionary’. While the party rejected the concept of class conflict, it favoured land reform; public ownership of natural resources, transport, and large-scale industry and financial institutions; trade unions of workers and peasants; the cooption of workers into management, and acceptance of ‘non-exploitative private ownership and inheritance’.” It stood for a representative and constitutional form of government, and for freedom of speech and association, within the bounds of Arab nationalism.”
Dilip Hiro; ” Inside The Middle East”; London 1982; p. 130.
The main social base for the Ba’th was not initially the larger sections of the bourgeoisie. They were not yet convinced that the Ba’th would serve their interests. Later, these were to follow the lead of President Nasser of Egypt:
“In Syria the party drew its initial support either from the urban Sunni (Muslim) and Orthodox (Christian) petty bourgeoisie, or the rural notables, particularly those in the Alawi and Druze areas of Latakia.
‘The party’s social base remained the petit bourgeoisie of the cities, and in the countryside middle landlords with local social prestige,’ notes Tabitha Petran. ‘However, the Baath did not develop much in the cities. Most of the Sunni petit bourgeoisie, even in Damascus, was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and later also by President Nasser. But the Ba’th won a following among students and military cadets: future intellectuals and army officers.”
Dilip Hiro; ” Inside The Middle East”; London 1982; p. 130.
A related party was the Arab Socialist Party. This party had a mass peasant base, which was to become vital to the Ba’th:
“The other party to draw support from the military cadets was the Arab Socialist Party, founded in January 1950 by Akram Hourani, a lawyer from Hama. .. At his suggestion the Syrian government had instituted the egalitarian policy of disregarding the social background of the applicants to the only military academy at Horns. Since a military career was the only way a son of a poor or middle peasant could raise his social status, the Horns academy attracted many applicants from this section of society. Given the ASP’s commitment to ending feudalism and distributing government land to the landless, and its leadership of peasant agitations, it was not surprising that it enjoyed considerable following among young cadets and officers.”
Hiro; Ibid; p. 131.
Soon the ASP and the Ba’th Party came together, forming the Arab Socialist Ba’th party (ASBP) in 1953. Its’ leaders, who later forced into exile, were Michel ‘Aflaq, Salh al-Din Bitar, and Akram al-Hawrani.
As discussed they represented the “middle ground” elements consisted of representatives of the petit bourgeoisie who having become educated, were cognizant of the need for progressive modern change. But most of these elements (white-collar urban workers school-teachers, government employees, large sections of the army and the air force etc;) were not of communist mentality. The Ba’th Socialist Party now restated the Ba’th’s founding aims:
“Drawn together by their opposition to the dictatorial regime of Colonel Adib Shishkali, the leaders of the Baath and the ASP decided in September 1953 to form the Arab Baath Socialist Party: this was formally done six months later. The new party re-stressed the Baath’s central slogan: ‘Freedom, unity, socialism’.”
Hiro, Ibid p.131.
What did “socialism” mean for the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party? It was a very vague and imprecise ideology:
“Socialism, which comes last in the Baath trinity, is less a set of socio-economic principles than a rather vague means of national moral improvement. . . . All they [Ba’thist leaders] said was that socialism was a means of abolishing poverty, ignorance, and disease, and achieving progress towards an advanced industrial society capable of dealing on equal terms with other nations.”
Hiro Ibid; p.131.
The ASP’s peasant base gave the new party a mass following:
“The infusion of the ASP’s predominantly peasant following into the new party gave it the militant mass base that the old urban-based party had lacked. Winning sixteen parliamentary seats in Hama, the ASP’s stronghold, in the general election of September, strengthened the hands of the leftists in the party, and softened its anti-Communist stance, associated with the founders of the pre-merger Arab Ba’th Party.”
Hiro Ibid; p.131.
(vii) The Egyptian Modification of Ba’th Ideology – Nasserism
Nasserism was a specific form of Pan-Arabism, led by Gamel Abdul Nasser. Starting in the context of a nationalist movement in Egypt alone, Nasser struck a renewed hope for liberation from imperialism throughout large sections of the Middle East, using instead of Ba’th – the notion of Wahda, to mean ultimately the same. Wahda (Arabic for union) was to be a renewal of Arabic “culture,” under a twentieth century guise of nationalism.
As a strategy of the national bourgeoisie in the Middle East, both these ideologies aimed to contain the mass movement, emphasising the notions of an Arab peoples, denying any class content.
Revisionism in the parties of the entire Middle East had deprived the working class of capable leadership. Nasserism was only able to consolidate itself because the Egyptian Workers Party, the Communist Party, was itself under the influence of the now Soviet-revisionist leaders.
Wahda called for unity of several different struggling national bourgeoisies against imperialism. It hoped to be able to avoid the social revolution, by using nationalistic demagogic slogans. Effectively a class coalition was to be created, of all the national bourgeoisies, and the working classes of the different countries, led by the national bourgeoisie.
That way it was to be hoped, that the singly weak national bourgeoisie together would be strong enough to fight imperialism, and yet still be able to contain the social revolution.
Ultimately Pan-Arabism failed, as there was a single dominant national bourgeoisie, which itself tried to create “comprador” relations with the other weaker national bourgeoisie. This dominant national bourgeoisie was Egyptian and it was led by Nasser. It was successful for a time, as evidenced by the short lived creation of the UNITED ARAB REPUBLIC– consisting of Egypt and Syria. However the dominant Egyptian bourgeoisie, could not suppress the Syrian national bourgeoisie of the coalition. The experiment thus failed.
(viii) The Syrian Communist Party
The party was founded by Yusuf Ibrahim Yazbak, who used the paper al-Sahafi al-T’eh (The Wandering Journalist) to form a base; and Fouad al-Shamli, who after expulsion from Egypt, formed a base for the Lebanese Communist party. The two groups united to form the first Arab communist party:
“After two meetings were held in October 1924 at al-Hadath (a suburb of Beirut), a communist party in Syria and Lebanon was formed on 24 October 1924 by five Arabs (four workers and one intellectual): Yazbak, al-Shamali, Farid Toma, Ilyas Qashami, and Butros Hishimah. They selected Yazbak as secretary general and called the party the Lebanese People’s Party (LPP) as a public front for the communist party. The Supreme Committee of Syndi-cates constituted the main membership of the communist party and its front organization, the Lebanese People’s Party. This was the first organized and constituted communist party in the Arab world.”
Tareq Ismael and Jacqueline Ismael: “The Communist Movement in Syria And Lebanon”; Gainsville Florida, 1998; p. 8.
They contacted the Comintern in 1924, who sent them Joseph Berger of the Palestine Communist Party (PCP). This was only established in 1923, but it was a member of the Communist International (Degras J: Volume 2; p. 95). Berger was assigned the responsibility of “setting up the Lebanese CP”. But problems rapidly surfaced as he insisted on a PCP hegemony:
“Almost since the very beginning there were signs of major disagreement between the representative of the Palestinian Communist Party, Joseph Berger, and the Lebanese communists in connection with the rejection by those present of the Palestinian guardianship of the Lebanese party. It was obvious that the Palestinian Communist Party wanted the Lebanese party to be a branch, whereas the Lebanese insisted on maintaining their independence. This occurred in spite of the coordination that was going on between members of the party and their counterparts in Palestine during the party’s first decade. The Communist Party of Palestine, which was then almost exclusively Jewish, was at that time the most ideologically mature, organizationally coherent, and genuine communist outpost in the Middle East. Its leaders believed the party to be “the only communist front in the Arab Orient” and considered it their duty “to pay attention to every question … in relation to the revolution … to look into matters relating to Syria, Egypt, and Islamic Congresses in Cairo, Mecca, and elsewhere.”” However, their aspirations were soon curtailed by the Secretariat for Oriental Affairs of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, which in December 1926 “censured” the Palestinian communists for their “ambitious demand to monopolize work in contiguous countries” and considered it to be a malady, harmful for the further expansion of communist influence in the region.”
Ismael and Ismael; Ibid; p. 8.
This attitude of the Palestine CP persisted, as seen in the 1929 Comintern discussion on the revolution in Arabistan. This forms Appendix 3 (See: Comintern on Arabistan).
The party put forward a short term programme including labour demands, and
“promotion of Lebanese industry agriculture and trade” and nationalisation; and control of religious endowments by public agencies”
(Ismaels Ibid; p. 10-11).
In 1925, an Armenian organisation (Spartacus League) initiated contacts, and they fused on May Day to form the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon (CPSL). The first Central Committee also included a representative of the Palestine CP – Jacob Tepper (Heikal M; “The Sphinx and the Commissar”; New York; 1978; p. 41).
In 1926 however, the Oriental Secretariat Executive Committee of the Communist International, placed the party under the supervision of the Palestine CP, countermanding the prior Lebanese decision (Ismael and Ismael; Ibid; p.14). At the 6th Congress of the Communist International in September 1928, the CPSL took part.
During the French mandate, the Syrian CP (SCP) legally functioned, though suffered harassment such as the banning of its paper – al-Insaniya (Mankind – or Humanity).
At the time of partition of Greater Syria, the CPSL strongly objected. In 1930, it emerged from secrecy to become public (Ismaels Ibid; p.17). Its first full programme was published in 1931.
The programme called for the national liberation of Syria and Lebanon and a democratic revolution to include land reform and abolition of feudalism.
Khalid Bakdash joined the party in 1930, recruited by al-Shamali. Promoted to the Central Committee in mid-1931, he was sponsored by Artin Madoyan. Within six months he had ensured al_Shamali’s expulsion – on:
“unsubstantiated and specious allegations that he had connections with the Security”
Ismaels Ibid; p.20.
Six months later, Bakdash became the party Secretary-general in early 1932, and went on to translate the Communist Manifesto in 1933 into Arabic. He was given further training in Moscow, and there, was made the permanent representative of Arab communist parties in 1934. Although the Comintern rejected the formation of a federation of Arab communist parties, on the grounds of security, the CPCL was accorded in effect the guardianship of the region.
The CPSL supported the French Popular Front government and hoped this would led to the independence of Syria. During this time, the first legal organ of the Syrian CP was allowed – Sawt-al-Sha’b (People’s voice). However the SCP remained small, in the range of 200 members, rising to 2000 by 1939. In the mid-1930’s an internal purge was undertaken of those calling for collaboration with Arab Nationalists (Ramet, Pedro: “The Soviet Syrian Relationship Since 1955 – A Troubled Alliance”; Boulder; 1990; p.65.).
On the declaration of war on the USSR, the CPSL came to the aid of the Allied efforts against fascism. But during the war, significant steps towards downplaying the revolution were taken. In the elections of August 1943, the CPSL declared:
“We assure the national capitalist , the national factory owner, that we do no look with envy or malice on his national enterprise. On the contrary, we desire his progress and vigorous growth. All that we ask is the improvement of the conditions of the national worker. We assure the owner of land that we do not and shall not demand the confiscation of his property.. All that we ask is kindness towards the peasant and the alleviation of his misery”
Ismaels Ibid; p. 32.
While it is correct to fight for a national democratic revolution – such promises violate the meaning of a principled united front. Similarly, Bakdash was prepared to accept the leadership of the National Bloc. Bakdash went so far as to state that the CPSL was ‘a party of national liberation’:
“above all, and before ever consideration, a party of national liberation, a party of freedom and independence.”
Ismaels Ibid; p. 33.
And he traced the attraction to the USSR to a nationalist perspective:
“We approach this [issue of relation with the USSR] as patriots and as Arabs… not because the Soviet Union has a particular social system”
Ismaels Ibid; p. 33.
It can be concluded that already as early as 1945, Bakdash was a revisionist.
In 1943, Bakdash reversed the whole prior policy of the CPSL and assisted the goals of the French colonists and future neo-colonists by splitting the party into separate organisations for Syria and for Lebanon. This decision took place at the national Congress of 1943 held in Beirut. Its grounds were contradictory – arguing that firstly the “national movement in Lebanon was less developed than in Syria,” and that “democracy is more deeply rooted in Lebanon than in Syrian. where the feudal landlords still continue to rule” (Ismaels Ibid; p.35).
The relations with the French CP were one of close liaison – if not instruction. Since, in the post Independence year of 1947 – the new Syrian government again banned the CP – the two sections of Lebanon and Syria amalgamated again, until 1958.
Since its inception the Syrian CP had been anti-Zionist. However with the revisionist inspired support of the diplomatic corps of the USSR, the USSR vote at the United Nations for the creation of Israel, led the Syrian CP to reverse itself. (The revisionist manoeuvres underlying this are described in Alliance 30).
As a result of this the party rapidly lost public support (Ismaels Ibid; p.39). Bakdash refused to tolerate criticism of this within the party, which was purged. At the Central Committee meeting of 1951, he reasserted control. At this juncture, Bakdash re-discovered the injunction of Stalin to maintain a “complete freedom to carry out its political and organisational activity” within a United Front” (Ismaels Ibid; p.43). He also correctly reasserted that the strategic aim at that time, was the democratic national liberation. As a result of these steps, party support ws re-built.
In the 1954 general election, in Damascus Khalid Bakdash became the first Communist deputy to be elected, his margin was 11,000 votes. This indicated a popular respect for the Communist Party. (Mohamed Heikal “The Sphinx and the Commissar”; New York; 1978; p. 48).
This suggests that the Syrian CP was following correct strategy and tactics at this stage. Indeed Bakdash declared in 1955, in parliament, an unequivocally Marxist-Leninist viewpoint:
“We, the communists, always announced, and repeat today, that the center of our policy is to find meeting points, not disagreements, with all true nationalists…. Our program in this national democratic lib-eration stage that our country is now experiencing is crystal clear: to strengthen the foundations of independence and sovereignty … ; to participate in strengthening world peace; and to challenge imperialist conspiracies;… to spread democracy and strengthen it; to liberate our economy and work to improve it; to reform our agriculture; to raise the standard of living of workers, peasants and all toilers. After the achievement of national democratic liberation, we open the door to a higher stage of socialism … scientific socialism admits that the road of each nation toward socialism must be consistent with the character-istics of each nation and with its historic evolution, economic conditions and the other national specificities of the society … this is our program, and these are our grand aims. Show me where these conflict with the interests of Syria.”
(Ismaels Ibid; p.47).
At the same elections, the Arab Ba’th Party also won several seats. They were cooperating with the Syrian CP in the control of the streets (Hiro Ibid; p. 131).
The correct policy, was indeed to move from the first stage towards the second stage of the National democratic liberation struggle – for socialism. Yet one year after, after the USSR 1956 20th Party Congress, Bakdash again steered the party towards a more total emphasis on purely national goals rather than a conscious movement to the second stage.
(ix) The Syrian CP (SCP), the Ba’th and the United Arab Republic
By 1957, the Syrian party was one of the strongest in the Middle East. At the same time, the alliance with the Ba’ath party, was stronger than it had ever been. The coalition between the SCP and the Ba’ath, proceeded to expel American diplomats, sign arms agreements with Moscow, and appoint a member of the Syrian CP (General Afif el-Bizri) as Chief of staff – all in August 1957 (Mohammed Heikal; “The Sphinx and the Commissar – The Rise and Fall of Soviet Influence in the Middle East”; New York; 1978; p.76-78).
This precipitated anti-Syrian moves by the USA imperialists – who arranged that an Iraqi and Turkish troop amassment took place on the borders with Syria. In September 1957, Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA was sent to Egypt to warn Nasser not to proceed with an arms agreement with the USSR. Nasser pre-empted the USA by a public announcement of the impending arms. This transformed the Middle East from a pure “Western” preserve into a free-for-all.
When the Suez incident led to the subsequent humiliation of the British and French, the USA was using the episode as a further breach through which their imperialism would dominate. (This is discussed in more detail at: Three Tactics of the Nationalists in the Middle East).
This led to further USA attempts to destabilise Syria. A coup they sponsored had already failed in August (Hiro Ibid p.132). Under pressure a polarisation took place, and it appeared that the Syrian CP was likely to gain further control of the leading positions in the coalition government with the Ba’thists. The Ba’thist leaders called for Nasser’s aid in fighting off the communists.
A situation analogous to the Shanghai massacre of the peasants and workers during the 1928 Chinese Revolution – was in the making. (See Notes on “Stalin & the 1928 Chinese Revolution” at Stalin & China). Stalin had repeatedly urged the CCP, through 1926 and early 1927 to break the bloc with the right KMT and move to a militant revolutionary struggle. The CCP did not heed this.
“The victory of the revolution cannot be achieved unless this bloc is smashed, but in order to smash this bloc, fire must be concentrated on the compromising national bourgeoisie, its treachery exposed, the toiling masses freed from its influence, and the conditions necessary of the hegemony of the proletariat systematically prepared. … the independence of the Communist Party must be, the chief slogan of the advanced communist elements, of the hegemony of the proletariat can be prepared and brought about by the Communist party. But the communist party can and must enter into an open bloc with the revolutionary part of the bourgeoisie in order, after isolating the compromising national bourgeoisie, to lead the vast masses of the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie in the struggle against imperialism.”
J.V.Stalin “Stalin’s Letters to Molotov”; Edited Lars T.Lih; Oleg V. Naumov; and Oleg V. Khlevniuk; Yale 1995; p.318-9.” at: Stalin & China
The situation of the Syrian Ba’th and the Syrian CP was very much the same. The Ba’th were preparing to renege. The Syrian CP was refusing to take the struggle forward, using the guise of preserving the united front. The Ba’th flew emissaries to Egypt offering Nasser an immediate military and political union of Syrian and Egypt. It was well understood that Nasser had brutally suppressed Egyptian communists. The Syrian army was strongly in support of this offer of the Ba’th leadership.
As the Syrian CP refused to go beyond their “national front,” they were dragged further backwards. Rather than oppose Nasser – the “hero” of Suez – they abandoned their prior insistence on a loose federal formula with Egypt. They now outdid the Ba’th, and insisted on a “total union” with Egypt (Ismaels; Ibid; p. 50). Belatedly they again changed tack, but it was now too late.
Nasser had seized the opportunity to accept the disastrous (For Syrian workers and peasants, and national bourgeoisie) formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in February 1958. This was the formal amalgamation of Syria and Egypt, and represented an expansionist phase of Egyptian national capital under Nasser. After the UAR was formed, the Arab Socialist Ba’th party was completely dissolved by its leaders on Nasser’s insistence. (Seale Ibid; p. 60). The Syrian CP refused to dissolve. Nasser was never a whole-hearted supporter of the USSR, as evidenced by his treatment of Egyptian communists.
The Egyptian suppression of both Ba’thists and communists proceeded apace. Syria’s rule was transferred to Nassers’ aide, Marshall ‘Amer (Seale Ibid; p. 59).
But when the Iraqi monarchist regime was toppled by the USSR supported military coup of General Abdul Karim Qasssem, the UAR relations became tense with Iraq. Iraq was now a client state of the USSR. Matters became worse for Syrian communists, whose Syrian CP supported Qassem. Qassem refused Nasser’s offer to join in the UAR.
But by 1961, the suppression of native Syrian capital had been so blatant, that the Syrian nationalists allied to the army, launched a coup that separated the states of Egypt and Syria once mere. Strongly supported by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and Syrian businessmen. Another wing of discontents were led by Hafiz al-Asad in a “Military Committee”. Because the Ba’th leading politicians had first asked for the Union with Egypt, and then reneged on it – they were discredited. The Military Committee members were jailed. This situation allowed the former comprador notables to take control of the state, led by Dr Ma’ruf al-Dawalibi, then Dr Bashir al-‘Azmah, and finally, Khalid al-‘Azm (Seale Ibid p. 72).
The Military Committee now united with the Ba’thists under Michel ‘Aflaq. In the coup of March 1963, the Military Committee took power in a complex coalition with both the Ba’thists and elements of ex-Nasserites. Asad was very much in the background at this stage. When the Nasserites were prompted by Egypt, they tried to seize power. In a pitched battle on 18 July 1963, the Ba’thist loyalists of the army won. In the ensuing years, Asad took control of the Ba’th Party. By 1966 the leading lights of the Ba’th were dealt with – Amin al-Fafiz was arrested; and Michel Aflaq & Salah al-Bitar were expelled (Seale Ibid p.102).
Bakdash had been previously expelled from Syria. When he was now allowed back to Syria in 1966, it was only under severe conditions:
“Khalid Bakdash the veteran leader of the Syrian Communist Party was allowed home after eight years of exile, while for the first time in Syrian History a Communist – Samih ‘Atiyya entered the government as Minister of Communications… Bakdash came home on stringent terms forbidden to hold meetings or make speeches.. “
Seale; Ibid; p. 108-109.
In fact, Bakdash had only been allowed back as a quid pro quo – the Khruschevites had demanded his return in lieu of payment for the construction of the Euphrates dam – only able to be constructed with the Khruschevite “aid.” The other two conditions included the Cabinet post named above to Atiyya – and the permission to publish a CP paper in Damascus. (Ramet Pedro: Ibid; p. 38).
The Syrian state was now fast becoming a client state of neo-USSR imperialism.
There were two primary vehicles for the USSR- the Syrian CP – but now increasingly important – and over-taking the SCP was the Ba’th.
(x) The Syrian CP and the Khruschevite Revisionists
Over the very same period, counter-revolutionary events were taking place inside the USSR. Khrushchev was eliminating the Marxist-Leninists from any state positions. Shepilov, Molotov, Kaganovich, were all removed from any control in the party of the USSR by July 1957.
The positions of the Syrian Communist Party (SCP), were unlikely to recieve revolutionary clarification from the Khruschevites. In particular, a correct approach to the question of United Front in alliance with bourgeois democracy was jeopardised. We have detailed the switches and turns engineered by the revisionists following Stalin’s death, on this question (See Alliance 25: Khruschev Revisionism On The Colonial Question). Bakdash was to launch open polemics with the Khruschevite forces.
As Egypt was an important new semi-colony of the revisionist USSR, the Middle East merited special attention. R.A.Ulianovsky who specialised in national liberation struggles, was an aide to the revisionist Boris Ponomarev, himself an aide to Mikhail Suslov chief party ideologist. Ulianovsky was assigned a special role in the Middle East. Nasser and Ulianovsky came to an understanding over what would supposedly constitute the Arab Socialist Union.
The debate first opened in its new form at the 23rd Congress of the CPSU, in Moscow between 29 March and April 8 1966. Already Khrushchev had denounced Stalin at the 20th Party Congress (February 1956). The issue erupted as to how Communists interacted with bourgeois nationalists in the Middle East.
Bakdash took yet another turn, and now took a correct Marxist-Leninist line, against the Russian revisionists led by Ulianovsky. We believe that it is likely that Bakdash was now becoming concerned that the USSR revisionists were favouring the Ba’th Party as their “vehicle of choice”. He therefore tacked back towards a more correct Marxist-Leninist viewpoint on the question.
Bakdash opened the subsequent printed debate in the Cominform monthly “Problems of Peace and Socialism”, called the “National Liberation Movement and the Communists” (December 1965). Here:
1) Bakdash asserted the independence in united fronts of the Communist parties: In his article he denied that:
“Even though the Soviet Union and other socialist countries pursued a policy of alliance with some of the newly free countries in Asia and Africa, this does not mean that the communist parties and the democratic forces generally must under all circumstances support their governments and renounce the fight for democratic freedoms.”
(Heikal Ibid; pp 157-161).
2) Bakdash asserted that the communists should hold the hegemony in the united front on behalf of the working class:
In fact Bakdash insisted that:
“No other social group, no class and no individual leader could take over the historic mission of the working class. Though he admitted that situations might arise in which another social group of individual leader was ‘carried to the fore on the tide of struggle against fascism, imperialism, feudalism and in some cases, also against the big bourgeoisie.'”
3) Bakdash asserted that bourgeois nationalists should be critically supported:
Bakdash stated that:
“They should be supported, ‘But we must be on our guard against attempts to justify such alliances by spurious theories repudiating the role of the working class.’ Bakdash insisted the proletariat must be the leaders of socialist transformation and the ‘future depends on the struggle between the classes and the outcome of this struggle.'”
4) Bakdash rejected any “populist” variants on Scientific socialism, such as “Arabic socialism”:
“He cast doubts on the argument that those who have come to Marxism partially, can be induced to accept it completely at some future stage- ‘there are those who say that the supporters of the so-called ‘Arab’; ‘African’; or ‘Islamic’ socialism will ultimately discover that the only real socialism is scientific socialism… Experience shows that this is not the case.”
5) Bakdash asserted that socialism required a centralized mass Communist party; that took power; and was not the same as the enactment of simple reforms:
He argued that reforms undertaken in state were NOT the same as establishing socialism, and that the latter is dependent upon the working class being the leaders of the revolution and of the government:
“He rejected the idea that the superstructure in a country always reflected the base: ‘On the contrary internal and domestic factors can cause sudden changes in the superstructure capable of influencing the base’; Referring to land reforms in countries like Algeria and The U.A.R., and Syria, he said that the machinery of state alone, with army and police, was not sufficient to deal with the problems involved:
‘What is needed is an influential authoritative revolutionary mass party enjoying the confidence of the people’… ‘At the same time there are no grounds for saying that the given country has taken the socialist way. To take this view would be tantamount to saying that the leading role in establishing socialism no longer belongs to the working class but has passed over to the nationalist groupings and the small bourgeoisie.'”
6) Finally he rejected the Egyptian variant of Liquidationism.
He openly criticized the Egyptian communist party for dissolving itself, in April 1965. This had been on the advice of the Khruschevites.
“Its members were advised to join the Arab Socialist Union – as individuals.”
(see Heikal Ibid; p. 140-1)
In return the USSR Revisionists, in their turn now chastised Bakdash.
As Heikal says, the official answer to Bakdash came in an article by R.A.Ulianovsky entitled: “Some problems of the Non-Capitalist Development of liberated Countries” – which appeared in the Soviet monthly magazine “Kommunist” for January 1966. Here Ulianovsky repudiated on behalf of Khruschevite revisionism – all these points. (Heikal Ibid; pp.158-161). There, Ulianovsky wrote:
“Life demands the creation of a left-wing bloc in wihhc the more conscious and better equipped Marxist-Leninist elements would play the role of friend and helper of the national democrats….If the Marxist-Leninists undertake this mission in a left-wing bloc they will help the progressives to avoid making mistakes and will thus exert a beneficial influence at critical moments of development”;
Cited heikal; Ibid; pp. 158-159.
Unfortunately, even now, to the best of our knowledge, Bakdash did not yet openly and fully repudiate Khruschevite revisionism.
Later on during the post 1967 Egyptian/Arab war with Israel, after the collusion of the Russians revisionists, with the USA and the state of Israel, in the estruction of the Arab forces, (See Heikal, Ibid; pp 178-183) various attempts were made to enforce a so called “negotiated settlement.”
During this period, Bakdash was asked to comment upon the two rival plans being floated for this “negotiated settlement”. One emanated from Gromyko and the Russian revisionists; one came from the USA imperialists. His comment was revealing:
“After reading the Russian version…He was shown the American proposals. He could not help noticing the similarities, and admitted that there was no Arab Communist who could defend the Gromyko Plan – and no Arab nationalists who could defend it either. Bakdash’s explanation of what had happened was… That the Russians wanted to demonstrate to the Americans that it was the Arabs who were being negative… Bakdash confessed that he was disappointed at the other communist parties over Palestine. ‘We have to admit it,’ he said, ‘That there is a lot of Jewish influence in European Communist parties, and that if it had not been for Soviet influence the resolution on the Middle East at the Moscow Conference would have been weaker. Over Zionism the Rumanians showed themselves more royalist than the king- the Israeli communists were prepared to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people, but the Rumanians refused.'”
Heikal Ibid; p. 195-196.
By 1971 when the Russians formally left Egypt, Khaled Bakdash was again in Moscow, now able to argue that the policy of an un-principled support – to the point of jettisoning the independence of the Communist party – had been proven again to be wrong. But the revisionists had by now created huge damage already in the Middle East (Heikal; Ibid; p. 253).
The later career of Bakdash was however a renewed slide into revisionism.
We believe that Bakdash tried to fight the Soviet revisionist distortions of the revolutionary line in colonial and semi-colonial countries, but ultimately, due to the disintegration of the world communist movement led by revisionism, Bakdash was unable to overcome the world propagation of the new revisionist line, pushed by Moscow. As Heikal puts it:
“There was a considerable contrast between the views of Khaled Bakdash and Ulianovsky – Khaled Bakdash wanted each local party to be an individual entity….whereas Ulianovsky was trying to keep them inside the national organizations.”
(Heikal; Ibid; p.160).
There can be no solution to the problems of Syria’s people until the formation of a new Marxist-Leninist party there.
The “solutions” of Pan-Arabism have been shown to be false.