Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2012

The economic contradictions of Syrian Baathism

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

One can’t help but feel that the pro-Assad left is in some kind of time-warp. They see Syria as it was in 1969, when it was on the leading edge of economic change in the Middle East—or so it would seem. You get the same thing with the Qaddafi or Mugabe fan club, mostly involving the same people. Of course, there are pro forma acknowledgements that such governments have adopted neoliberal measures, but you are left with the impression that if not for them, things would only get worse. In many ways, this is the same “lesser evil” politics that leads to supporting Obama over Romney, but transposed to the “anti-imperialist” realm. It is necessary to back Bashar al-Assad because his foes would be worse. The same line has been applied to Zimbabwe and Qaddafi’s Libya. Mostly, it is inspired by a kind of bastardized version of “Defend the USSR”, making no effort to really come to grips with the nature of the Syrian economy.

Part of the problem is the tendency for figures such as al-Assad senior and junior, Mugabe, and Qaddafi to use the term socialism in describing their governments. Baathist Socialism has ruled in Syria for over 50 years while Qaddafi’s “Green Socialism” was around for over 30. Mugabe, of course, had the authority of a successful Marxist guerrilla struggle behind him, even though his economic policies were not that different from what could be seen throughout the continent under the rubric of “African Socialism”.

What marked these experiments apart from Marx’s original vision was the utter lack of democracy. When Marx wrote about socialism, he referred to the Paris Commune as an example of the type of system he sought. You always must keep in mind that not much changed economically under working class rule in Paris. Marx was far more interested in workers taking control of the state and making decisions democratically than in any particular measure carried out, which in retrospect appear quite modest.

Baath ideology was conceived by Michel Aflaq in the 1930s as an alternative to communism, just as Qaddafi developed “Green Socialism”, a kindred ideology. Aflaq started out as a member of the Lebanese CP but broke with the party after seeing it support French colonial rule. In coming to reject Marxism, Aflaq developed some curious tendencies. Among them was an admiration for the works of Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg. He also attacked Marxism as a “Western ideology, foreign to everything that is Arab” into which its founder “breathed something of his vengeful Jewish spirit.”

In a September-October 1967 New Left Review article on Baathism, Eric Rouleau summed up the movement’s class basis:

The founders of the Baath, whether of Arsouzi’s or Aflak’s current, addressed themselves exclusively to an elite: students, professors, intellectuals and country teachers, who were expected in their turn to carry the good tidings to the people. In effect, the great majority of recruits to the Baath belonged to the small and middle bourgeoisie. Their natural milieu was that which produced the leaders of nationalism throughout the Arab world.

Despite MRZine’s devotion to the al-Assad cult, the magazine that spawned it in bad seed fashion was quite hostile once upon a time. In 1963, not long after a successful Baathist coup in Syria, the magazine published an article by Tabitha Petran that stated:

The recent coups in Iraq and Syria realize the six-year-old Eisenhower Doctrine’s goal of anti-Communist “Arab unity” under United States protection. The coups’ authors are the international oil interests, the U.S., and their local placemen—the Baath and Arab Nationalist (Nasserist) parties, assorted militarists and feudal left over from Hashemite rule in Iraq, and in Syria elements from the right-wing of the Moslem Brotherhood.

If MRZine bends the stick too far in one direction (if not having fully snapped sometime ago), this article errs in the opposite direction. In fact, the Baathist state took some bold economic actions not long after Petran’s article appeared as Rouleau pointed out:

The authenticity of their radicalism need not be doubted. In the past three years, Syria has undergone a major social upheaval. The Baath government has decreed an agrarian reform with ceilings of 15 to 55 hectares for irrigated, and 50 to 300 hectares for unirrigated land. Uncultivated estates have been expropriated without further ado. In a country where as late as 1958, 45 per cent of all irrigated land and 30 per cent of non-irrigated land was owned by only 2 per cent of the population, while 70 per cent of the population owned no land at all, this is a very drastic change. The reform has not yet been fully implemented, although the Baath claimed to have redistributed 2,500,000 hectares out of the national total of 6,000,000 by early 1967. Simultaneously, the signing of an agreement with the ussr for the construction of the Euphrates Dam ultimately promises a huge leap forward for agriculture: the Dam will double the area of irrigated soil in Syria. In the industrial sector, the Neo-Baathists have been no less intransigent. The lightning decrees of January 1965 nationalized 80 per cent of Syrian industry. Foreign trade was effectively made a state monopoly. The scope of these measures can be gauged from the fact that they instantly led to a general strike and shut-down of all business and trade in the great urban centres and bazaars, while mullahs preached open revolt against the government from their muezzins. In an armed social conflict, the Baath régime, aided by workers’ militias, trade-unions and Communist militants, succeeding in crushing bourgeois resistance to the new order. This unfolding of a mass social crisis and violent armed clashes distinguishes the Syrian experience sharply from the tranquilly bureaucratic Egyptian nationalizations of 1958. It led to wave of emigrations among the once prosperous Syrian bourgeoisie: there are now 200,000 exiles in the Lebanon. Beirut has become the Miami of this class.

Starting in the mid-80s, Syria began to suffer economic stagnation. Mainly this was a function of declining oil prices but also bureaucratic mismanagement of the sort seen in the USSR and Eastern Europe. And just like the “workers states”, it began a kind of Arab perestroika in 1990 that included typical neoliberal measures that did lead to improvements. However, coinciding with a kind of modest boom was stepped up corruption and backroom deals. If Baathism could be characterized by hostility to private enterprise in the conventional sense, there was still lots of opportunities for well-connected businessmen who exercised monopolies under the protection of the Syrian state.

By the late 90s, the economy began to stagnate again. In a 1999 article in MERIP, Bassam Haddad, the editor of Jadaliyya.com, noted:

Virtually every imaginable consumer item is available in Syrian stores today. But most of these items are beyond the reach of the average civil servant earning a paltry 3,000-4,000 Syrian pounds each month (the equivalent of $60 to $80) — which is not enough to cover the most basic living expenses.

Side by side with diminished buying power was increased corruption, a function of Syrian society’s reliance on old-boy Baathist economic connections as Haddad described:

Private interests’ penetration of decision-making bodies, and the ensuing rent-seeking networks that have developed, have blurred the boundaries between state and society. The result is widespread corruption: the compromise of public office for private benefit. Syrian public discourse emphasizes the moral and economic dimensions of corruption more than its bureaucratic and administrative ramifications. The solution to corruption, and to administrative incapacity generally, is not just a matter of putting a morally upright person in the right place. Over the years, the rulers and regulations that bind various bureaucracies, agencies and administrative bodies, horizontally as well as vertically, have been so profoundly compromised that not even the best person or team could ameliorate the state’s administrative capacity in the short run. Serious bureaucratic renovation is required if Syria is to make ample use of its considerable human and natural resources. Rent-seeking networks exacerbate administrative incapacity and hinder the restoration of integrity to the relatively legal-rational framework informing Syria’s bureaucracy. It is important to note that Syria’s experience in this regard echoes that of many lower middle level income late developing countries.

As long as the Syrian economy could continue to expand, even if fitfully, the social and political contradictions did not become insurmountable. Of course, the existence of a powerful repressive police force and a tightly controlled media helped keep things manageable. All that, of course, began to unravel after the Arab Spring began.

Reese Erlich, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who started out as an antiwar radical in the 1960s, described the shifting loyalties in Syria as the struggle deepened:

Conflicting attitudes towards the Assad government date back to economic changes that began in 2004, when Syria shifted from a centrally managed economy to a more privatized one. The business elite benefited as the government allowed creation of private banks, insurance companies, and an airline.

The growth of large corporations in turn spurred creation of small- and medium-sized companies such as the marketing firm owned by Rana Issa. Government policies created economic growth and loyalty among business leaders.

But the new liberalization policy also amplified Syria’s system of crony capitalism, leading to charges of widespread corruption.

Demonstrators have singled out Rami Makhlouf, for example, a cousin of President Assad and owner of the country’s largest cell phone company. Critics say he’s made tens of millions of dollars due to family connections.

Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to the president, admits that corruption remains a serious problem in Syria. “Rami Makhlouf isn’t the only one who made money in the past period,” she says in an interview at the presidential palace. “There are many people, big capitalists, who made a lot of money.”

But, she argues, the government has taken steps to reform. “This crisis has made us 1,000 more times more aware,” Ms. Shaaban says.

In what can only be described as the classic instance of “too little, too late”, the Baathist system looks like it is on its last legs. While some on the left wring their hands over the possibility that Baathist “socialism” will be replaced by some terrible disaster cooked up by the Koch brothers, the only measures that will prove capable of resisting such an eventuality is the organized power of the Syrian working class and its allies.

For all of the hatred that the “anti-imperialist” left has directed against the common people who overthrew Qaddafi, there are signs that workers are more emboldened in Libya than any time under “Green Socialism”. Marxist.com’s Jorge Martin reported on October 21, 2011:

Workers at Waha Oil company have been on strike and holding protests for 7 weeks now. Their main demand is the purge of the top management of the company from directors whom they accuse of being stooges of the old regime. It is an example of class issues coming to the fore once the old regime has been put to one side.

Waha Oil workers demonstrate demanding management to resignWaha Oil workers demonstrate demanding management to resign Field workers say they have documental evidence that Waha Oil directors collaborated with Gaddafi’s troops by giving them food, shelter and equipment worth millions. Workers have vowed never to work for them again. “This management committee gave 60 four-wheel drive land cruisers to [ousted leader Moammar] Qaddafi’s forces in March. These cars helped the Qaddafi forces kill some Libyan people and commit other crimes,” said Riad, an organization supervisor and he added: “We are demanding that the management committee of Waha quit… After the February 17 revolution, we want to get rid of these figures of corruption.”

Could this be contagious? One hopes so.


  1. “Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg”

    really!? there was a Nazi theorist with the last name Rosenberg? You’d think he’d be run out on the last name alone…

    Comment by Nathan Tankus — July 19, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

  2. I have always found the left embrace of these regimes rather peculiar. There hasn’t been anything leftist about them for a long time.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 19, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

  3. These “time warps” are historically actually fairly common splitting points on the left. Similar debates raged on the left when Britain attacked the death squad regime leading Argentina over the Falklands and then again half a century before when Italy attacked Ethiopia. Not perfect analogies to be sure but worthy of comparison nonetheless.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 19, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

  4. It is possible Louis to have no particular sympathy for the Baathist regime in Syria and yet be completely opposed to any external intervention (and to support the Russian and Chinese vetoes). The Syrian revolution should be made within Syria. You fish for a newstory from October 2011 to persuade yourself and us that the Libyan intervention has opened space for a working class political awakening. The reality is the destruction of the state, of health, education, public safety, and a low intensity civil war. I am amazed how many ex-trotskyites like you end up really as the fellow travellers of the neo-cons, cheerleading a rolling series of fomented civil wars and western interventions.

    Comment by Impurity — July 20, 2012 @ 7:42 am

  5. The reality is the destruction of the state, of health, education, public safety, and a low intensity civil war.

    Another crypto-Stalinist Qaddafi fan.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

  6. Your attempt to respond via an insult “crypto-Stalinist Qaddafi fan” shows that you actually can’t really respond. The anger of ordinary
    Libyans in 2012 at the destruction of their country and the collapse of public order and public services is reported by the BBC- http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/9703046.stm
    as for the drift to ‘federalism’ aka partition that is also abundantly documented in the press

    The destruction of Libya’s health care system is documented by WHO and UNICEF, as is the spike in mortality across all age bands since 2011. The lethal reign of “democracy” expands. hip hip hooray.

    What precisely in the history of the impact of the West in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya since 2000 gives you any confidence that what follows western intervention is better than the national dictatorships which fell? And why stop here, if every NATO campaign opens the way to the victory of the eventual victory of the working-class why not go the full neo-con hog and urge that wherever American bombs fall, the buds of freedom rise.

    There’s a lot more of the Stalinist DNA in your politics these days than mine

    Comment by Impurity — July 20, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

  7. I think your use of the term “Trotskyite” gave your bullshit away, whether or not you understand that. Btw, my post was about Baathist economics. If that doesn’t interest you, then piss off.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  8. Impurity wrote:

    “wherever American bombs fall, the buds of freedom rise.”

    Typically, you miss the point: the buds of freedom rise _despite_ wherever American bombs fall.

    Comment by Todd — July 20, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

  9. [I have always found the left embrace of these regimes rather peculiar]

    Richard. The word “embrace” is actually a pretty gross distortion of a legitmate historical debate amongst revolutionists regarding courses of action when Opressor states attack Opressed states.

    As I said earlier, such debates on the left began in 1935 when Fascist Italy attacked the Halle Sallase (sp?) dictatorship in Ethipoia. Trotsky argued it was the duty of the working class to defend Ethiopia despite the leadership’s murder of Communists. Clearly Trotsky didn’t “embrace” anything about the Ethiopian dictatorship:

    1. Maxton and the others opine that the Italo-Ethiopian war is “a conflict between two rival dictators.” To these politicians it appears that this fact relieves the proletariat of the duty of making a choice between two dictators. They thus define the character of the war by the political form of the state, in the course of which they themselves regard this political form in a quite superficial and purely descriptive manner, without taking into consideration the social foundations of both “dictatorships.” A dictator can also play a very progressive role in history; for example, Oliver Cromwell, Robespierre, etc. On the other hand, right in the midst of the English democracy Lloyd George exercised a highly reactionary dictatorship during the war. Should a dictator place himself at the head of the next uprising of the Indian people in order to smash the British yoke – would Maxton then refuse this dictator his support? Yes or no? If not, why does he refuse his support to the Ethiopian “dictator” who is attempting to cast off the Italian yoke?

    If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.

    2. McGovern puts the “poor little Ethiopia” of 1935 on the same level with the “poor little Belgium” of 1914; in both cases it means support of war. Well, “poor little Belgium” has ten million slaves in Africa, whereas the Ethiopian people are fighting in order not to be the slaves of Italy. Belgium was and remains a link of the European imperialist chain. Ethiopia is only a victim of imperialist appetites. Putting the two cases on the same plane is the sheerest nonsense.

    On the other hand, to take up the defence of Ethiopia against Italy in no way means to encourage British imperialism to make war. At one time this is just what was very well demonstrated in several articles in the New Leader. McGovern’s conclusion that it should have been the ILP’s task “to stand aside from quarrels between dictators,” is an exemplary model of the spiritual and moral impotence of pacifism.



    As I also said earlier to apply this case as an analogy in today’s context is not without it’s problems. The point is that clearly it is a legitimate debate that doesn’t require either side to “embrace” anything.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 20, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  10. I should add that Richard’s wording is understandable in light of characters like A. Cockburn and some others on the pseudo-left — but they are not revolutionists.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 20, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  11. Karl Friedrich’s comments bring out the best way to analyze this problem. The issue cannot be decided on the basis of some “Marxist” principles, which can be mechanically applied to give the right answer in every case. The issue is What will be the consequences, both short-term and long-term, if we support the Assad regime, or if we support the opposition, or if we support foreign intevention? Much as many people dislike the term, it is time for some Realpolitik. The lack of factual information means we can only make an informed guess, and change it if new facts warrant it. Like a military commander has to do in fighting a war.
    Syria is a country divided into hostile ethnic/religious groups, held together by a strong, and sometimes brutal, leader. My personal view is that the fall of Assad now will lead to chaos, and the imperialist powers will pick up the pieces. Louis’ statement ” the only measures that will prove capable of resisting such an eventuality is the organized power of the Syrian working class and its allies.” is rheoreticaaly correct, but simply unreal. Assad has been fatally weakened, and has to be eventually replaced; I think the best we could hope for now is military intervention by the Russians. It would deny victory to the imperialists, and prevent the destruction of the country. The situation reminds me a little of the Second World War, where many of us supported Stalin to defeat the Nazis, even though we wanted to overthrow Stalinism. One thing at a time.

    Comment by Richard Vineski — July 20, 2012 @ 6:19 pm

  12. “What will be the consequences, both short-term and long-term, if we support the Assad regime, or if we support the opposition, or if we support foreign intevention?”

    In the real world no difference whatsoever to the Syrians of “our” choice of support .

    “…military intervention by the Russians. It would deny victory to the imperialists..”

    You need to rethink your definition of imperialist IMHO.

    Comment by meltr — July 20, 2012 @ 6:54 pm

  13. Karl: the missing piece of this puzzle are the people themselves. It is not just about the elites inside and outside the country (here, in Syria, the US, Europe and the Saudis outside, the Assad regime inside), but the populace as well

    Louis and Pham get this, but the defenders of, first, Qaddafi, and now, Assad, don’t

    personally, I think that this problem has its roots in the anti-imperialist efforts of the left in the 1970s and 1980s, wherein an anti-imperialist identification with these sorts of regimes emerged that resulted in the diminishment of the importance of the underlying class features within them

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 20, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

  14. interesting one; the writer of this blog refers to someone who criticizes him as being a “crypto-stalinist qaddafi fan”, yet takes issue with the fact that the same person uses the term “trotskyist” in referring to him.
    what louis fails to realise that while his ramblings regarding the syrian economy might sound interesting to him, they fail to support any thesis apart from the one which says there are a lot of people pissed off with the assad regime, just as there were a lot of people pissed off with qaddafi, “impurity’s” argument that the syrian revolution should be made by the syrian people remains the only pertinent one.
    after all, no matter how repressed the people of syria are, and, indeed, the people of libya still are, the only change they are meant to experience is that one which is in the west’s geopolitical interests. indeed, this is why china and russia are using their vetos and any other understanding of what is happening in syria is, at least, secondary. this is a “revolution” made in the west, with the sunni sultans of swing digging up the ghosts of kerbela and nadjaf past, and turkey and israel waiting in the wings.
    expect, however, louis to adopt the christopher hitchens approach when the occupation of iran comes along, and what was it he said when talking about the benefits of the occupation there?
    finally, telling the writer of a post that disagrees with his opinion reminds me slavoj zizek, when he refers to mao tse-tung as having synthesized with a hammer. indeed, the discussion above reminds me of a world turned upside down, that world we get in the last paragraph of ‘animal farm’. only this time it is snowball and the other pigs who closely resemble the humans.

    Comment by sanculottist — July 21, 2012 @ 9:03 am

  15. oops … the elision was unintentional … “telling the writer of a post that disagrees with his opinion to “piss off. but, then it was his showing his lack of interest in baathist economics that was at issue ….. oh right, got it, very interesting, very interesting!

    Comment by sanculottist — July 21, 2012 @ 9:16 am

  16. the same person uses the term “trotskyist” in referring to him.

    Actually, I objected to the use of “Trotskyite”, an epithet favored by Stalinists. There is nothing wrong with describing someone as a Stalinist or a Trotskyist. It is the use of “ite” that is questionable, as if I ever had any interest in the cult of Leon Trotsky, even when I was a member of the SWP.

    In terms of comparing me to Christopher Hitchens, keep in mind that most of the hatred directed against the revolts in Libya and Syria is based on a kind of left Islamophobia. Just read the execrable Pepe Escobar whose columns in Asia Times sound most of the time as if they had been written by Hitchens, with their constant reminders about the Islamist threat. For my part, I find this sort of thing inspiring–an Imam in Aleppo calling for armed struggle against the Baathist dictatorship:

    Comment by louisproyect — July 21, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

  17. While there are indeed some pro-Baath currents on the “US left,” like the PSL, I think that by and large most leftists criticize the regime for its rightward turn economically over the last decade (really, the last four decades). That includes MRZine. The (correct) fear is that the forces dominating the revolt will push Syria both politically and economically even more to the right if they are to take power, although personally I think it’s more likely that Syria will descend into civil war than that the FSA-SNC-LCC axis will gain power.

    Comment by Max AjlMax Ajl — July 21, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

  18. The matter of Baathist economics is sort of relevant to Third World conditions where the proletariat is in a demographic minority. History has proven that Permanent Revolution isn’t the way to go.

    However, by that same token, New Democracy and other Popular Frontisms with “national”/”non-monopoly” bourgeois segments aren’t the way to go, either. So, what’s the alternative?

    The starting points lie in Michael Parenti’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome and Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks musings contrasting Caesarism and Bonapartism. This implies being critical of Marx on “Caesarism” and of most Marxist tradition on “Bonapartism.”

    From there, the contemporary conclusions in terms of post-Trotskyist and post-Maoist political program are much clearer:


    Comment by Jacob Richter — July 28, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  19. Two of his relatives, however, do apparently understand it. Mohamed Makhlouf, the president’s uncle on his mother’s side, and his son Rami, Assad’s first cousin, have been seeking a deal with the French government to allow them to live in exile in Paris if the regime collapses. The Makhloufs have been at the centre of the government’s corruption in Syria and they are one of the reasons for the revolt and its 17,000 fatalities. For despite the dictatorship and its secret police apparatus, corruption was the glue that held the regime together.

    Comment by gold price — July 29, 2012 @ 2:17 am

  20. […] can also consult my own article on “The Economic Contradictions of Syrian Baathism” (http://louisproyect.org/2012/07/19/the-economic-contradictions-of-syrian-baathism/) for more […]

    Pingback by Prospects for the Syrian revolution | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 10, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

  21. […] can also consult my own article on “The Economic Contradictions of Syrian Baathism” for more […]

    Pingback by The Syrian Revolution at the Left Forum — June 12, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

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