Quoting an interview with the veteran socialist, Akram Hourani, Kamel Abu Jaber reports that when asked to whom he felt closer—a British socialist or a Saudi Arabian Sheikh, Hourani replied, “the Saudi Arabian Sheikh without any question.” Events of the past few months, culminating in the lightening war of June in the Middle East, strongly bear out the accuracy and the paradox of this position. In the midst of crisis, the socialists of the Arab Ba’th (Resurrection) Party did not hesitate to unite with some of their less progressive brothers; the link was Arabhood rather than socialism. But this choice cannot be attributed solely to the exigencies of war, it is part of the complex nature of Arab socialism and its most sophisticated variant, the Arab Ba’th Socialist party. Committed partisans of the Ba’th would claim that there was less evil in an alliance with a feudal Saudi Sheikh than in one with the heirs of the imperialist tradition in the Middle East. But Western socialists, even those fully capable of understanding such an evaluation, would be wise to question the history and theory that have been accumulated in its defense. The history of the Ba’th party is an excellent introduction to this subject.
The Ba’th party was founded in Damascus in 1943 by a small group of intellectuals; it held its first national convention in 1947. Despite its modest membership—ten members in the first three years—it adopted an ambitious program that distinguished it from its competitors in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. In 1949 the party won three seats in the Syrian Parliament, a number that climbed to 16 five years later and eventually brought the Ba’th into the Cabinet in the summer of 1956. The Ba’th, claiming to be an Arab and not exclusively a Syrian party, had already spread to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan before Syria entered into the brief and difficult union with Egypt in 1958. Two years after the breakup of the U.A.R., in 1963, the Ba’th succeeded in toppling the Qasim regime in Iraq and one month later, in March, it repeated this performance in Syria, thus regaining power in its home base. Yet the Ba’th has been neither as successful as its founders wish it to be, nor as much of a failure as its enemies like to assume