Contributed by Carleigh Beriont, Harvard Divinity School
Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) was a Syrian philosopher and Arab nationalist whose ideas provided the foundation for Ba’athist political thought. With Salah al-Din Bitar, he cofounded the Syrian Ba’ath Party. Aflaq was a Greek Orthodox Christian, educated first in Greek Orthodox Schools and later in Paris at the Sorbonne. He became a secondary school history teacher upon returning to Syria. Although early on he was influenced by communist ideology, he later rejected it because of its association with Europe and colonialism. Instead he believed that nationalism should be the primary unifying agent within a state. Aflaq belonged to a generation of intellectuals whose ideas were deeply impacted by happenings in post-WWII Europe and the Middle East, such as the Syrian uprising against the French that took place in 1925.
Critical of colonialism and subsequent “radical nationalism” that purported Arab superiority, Aflaq championed an ideology that combined Arab nationalism and socialism. Wary of the divisive potential of Islam within a country, Aflaq believed that Islam should be subordinate to secular Arab nationalism. While he acknowledged the importance of Islam to Arab culture, he believed that Arab nationalism should take precedence over Islam.
Aflaq espoused three fundamental beliefs: unity, freedom, and socialism, which became the focus of the Ba’ath movement. According to Aflaq, these three objectives were inextricable and imperative to achieve pan-Arab unity, the ultimate goal of the Ba’ath movement. Aflaq believed that freedom, beyond overcoming poverty and political repression, required the social, political, and economic unification of the Arab people.
In order for this liberation to take place, however, the Arabs needed to free themselves from the power of the political, religious, and economic elites and restructure the entire society around the ideas of Arab nationalism and socialism. This structural transformation, or inqilab, that Aflaq believed was necessary for unity, freedom, and socialism to prevail in Syria and the Arab world had three prerequisites: first, people had to accept that the present reality in Syria and the Arab world needed to be radically changed; second, this feeling of responsibility had to have a strong moral foundation; and third, there had to exist a real conviction that this transformation was possible at this time in history. Aflaq acknowledged that establishing unity, freedom, and socialism within a society would be a long struggle, especially without the aid of military force.
Although Aflaq and Bitar saw themselves at the forefront of the Arab nationalist movement, initially they focused on disseminating their ideas and educating people using pamphlets and essays rather than engaging in politics. Although, Bitar convinced Aflaq that they should form a political party in order to engage a wider audience, it wasn’t until Akram al-Hawrani and the Arab Socialist Party merged with the Ba’ath Party in 1952 that the ideology promoted by Aflaq became a true political force.
Aflaq was known as the philosopher of the Ba’ath Party. For over two decades, The Road to Renaissance (Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath), a collection of essays written by Michel Aflaq in 1940, remained the Ba’ath Party’s central doctrinal text. Among Aflaq’s other important works are The Battle for One Destiny (Ma’rakat al-Masir al-Wahid), published in 1958, and The Struggle Against Distorting the Movement of Arab Revolution (Al-Nidal did Tashweeh Harakat al-Thawra al-Arabiyya), published in 1975.
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"Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq in the late 1930s," The Online Museum of Syrian History, from Wikimedia Commons.