We met in Paris, in a small office on the top floor of a building looking out on a courtyard. Salah al-Din al-Bitar answered my questions in what was to be his last recorded interview. The year before, he had founded al-Ihya’ al-‘Arabi, the publication named after the movement that preceded the Baath Party. He devoted all his energy to this new publication. His aim was to provide a forum on Arab unity, the goal to which he devoted his life. The son of a Sunni bourgeois family from Damascus, Bitar was deeply involved in the struggle for Syrian national independence. He saw this struggle as closely related to larger developments in the Arab world. Such was the ideological thrust of the Baath, which he founded with Michel ‘Aflaq. Such also was his goal in power; he was the one who went to Cairo to propose the project of Syrian-Egyptian unity to Nasser. Bitar lived through the era of Arab nationalism in his own country, but was finally forced into exile. He first went to Beirut. He had to leave there when the troops of Hafiz al-Asad arrived in 1976. When I met him in Cairo in late 1977, he was deeply concerned with the effects of Sadat’s Jerusalem trip on regional politics. Unable to work freely in the Arab world, he finally moved to Paris. He remained faithful to his convictions, and pursued his struggle with rare humility until the very last. He refused to cooperate with other governments, such as Iraq, merely out of common opposition to the regime of Hafiz al-Asad. His integrity and honesty were outstanding. He was assassinated in Paris, a few weeks after this interview, in July 1980. The identity of his killer has never been proven; many informed observers believe that the Syrian government was responsible.
You were a founder of the Baath, and one of its main ideologues. What were your goals when you began?
The beginning was in 1935. I returned from France, where I had been in contact with Michel ‘Aflaq. We started a magazine al-Tali‘a [The Vanguard], which expressed our opposition to the situation in Syria at that time. After the revolution of 1925, the Syrian bourgeoisie reached a compromise with Mandate officials which allowed bourgeois representatives to come to power and form a government, based on a supposedly popular movement called the National Bloc.
In 1935, there were demonstrations in all the cities in Syria, touched off by these students. At the time, I was a science teacher and ‘Aflaq was a history teacher in a high school. We had contacts with our students, based on our nationalist consciousness. These developments represented a break with the past, even a break with the Syrian bourgeoisie, of which we were a part.
1936 was the year of the Popular Front in France. The government of Leon Blum decided to make an opening toward Syria, Lebanon and other countries. A similar opening occurred at that time in Egypt, as the Labor Party had just come to power in England. In Syria, the opening was expressed by the arrival of the National Bloc to power. A delegation went to France to sign a treaty; the delegation, on its return, presented the treaty as a great victory for national independence (though they never even published it!). The treaty, in fact, maintained French hegemony in a camouflaged form. The Syrian parliament, which was dominated by the National Bloc, nevertheless accepted the treaty, although the French parliament never ratified it.
That precipitated the break between the student movement (which was not a party) and the National Bloc. There also existed at that time an Arab nationalist movement in Syria called the National Action League. Most of its members — bourgeois intellectuals — later joined the Baath. The National Bloc split the National Action League, bringing some of the League’s members onto its electoral lists. But the essence, the base of the League, joined the Baath. The war in Europe naturally had its repercussions in Syria. For one thing, there was the Iraqi revolution directed by Rashid ‘Ali al-Gaylani against the British, the king and Nuri al-Sa‘id. Before that was smashed, we set up in Syria the al-Ihya’ al-‘Arabi [Arab Resurrection] movement, which called for independence and the departure of France.
What was the ideology that brought the mass of students to our side and won them away from the communist movement? Any political movement in Syria cannot materialize except through Arab nationalism. It is a characteristic of the country which remains forever operative. Al-Ihya’ al-‘Arabi developed a theory of this Arab nationalist feeling and elaborated it into an ideology. That became the basis of the ideology of the Baath. The Baath, born in a colonized country, could not at first express a social ideology, but only a national one. National independence preoccupied everyone’s thought at that time.
Before its formation as a party, the national question was a priority for the Baath. For us, it was a question not only of Syria but of Arab national independence as a whole. National independence had priority over the social question. I wrote at that time that a nation like the Arab nation, which has not achieved its unity, should not take up social questions in isolation from the national question.
The Baath Party was founded in Damascus in 1947. In 1949, there was the first coup d’etat, which overthrew the regime dominated by the corrupt bourgeoisie. We began to collaborate with Husni al-Za‘im, but we quickly saw that his was a dictatorial military regime. As for al-Shishakli, we were hostile to his regime from the very first day. After the coup d’etat of 1954, political and parliamentary life reemerged in Syria. We left our “prison.” The Baath could express itself. It was even considered to be a party of the future. We had 19 deputies in Parliament (out of a total of 150). Many military officers were close to our movement, even though regulations stated that members of the military were forbidden to belong to parties. These officers were friends from high school days. At that time, students from high school either went to university or to military school. Since the party recruited many high school students, many officers had been Baath members.
Did the national question pose itself for the Baath in 1954 in the same terms as before?
It remained primary. The proof is that the Baath had been the architect of unity with Egypt in 1958. In 1954, we didn’t have any contacts with President Nasser. We were preoccupied with internal elections. But in 1955, there came the Baghdad Pact. We were opposed to it. Nasser was opposed as well. That created a convergence, then an alliance, between us.
With 19 deputies in Parliament, we had a strong position because the military officers supported the Baath. The Syrian bourgeoisie, and others who were ready to have Syria join the Baghdad Pact, ran up against our firm opposition. The deviation, the great downfall of the Baath Party, began with the secession from the union with Egypt. The party degenerated into regional politics — the Syrians in Syria, the Iraqis in Iraq — and then the single party. The Baath has Arabism for its ideology, not socialism. Socialism was only a goal of social justice. It was not Marxism for us, nor could one call it “scientific socialism,” because in that case we would have been a communist party. We have always had major differences with the communists.
Isn’t the problem of the Baath due to the fact that it always put the national question first, without having thought very much about the social question?
That is possible, but my analysis is different. The major deviation of the Baath is having renounced democracy, liberty.
Why was it renounced?
Because the Baath became a ruling party. When it ruled the country, it could not convince the people of the sound basis of its policy, so it used force. It disbanded all the parties.
Which social classes were hostile to the Baath?
Obviously the right. But the Baath used violent methods which were not necessary. The Baath had seized power by a coup d’etat. The bourgeoisie was no longer a force likely to establish a formidable opposition. The Baath could have spread its ideas and won over many people. The Baath did not come to power by a popular revolution. The revolution was made from on high. The military officers made it. They didn’t have any program — neither a social program nor a national program.
You have worked on the formation of the Baath’s ideology and its translation into practice. Do you acknowledge that there have been certain mistakes?
Do you think that the current Syrian regime is a logical consequence of the ideological deficiencies of the Baath?
Logical? That is too strong. That is not the right word, I think. Because when we were in power, we could have had a planned social policy. But it would have required that the party exist in other respects. That was not the case. Following the coup d’etat of Salah Jadid in 1966, there was profound dissension within the party. Everyone had his theory, everyone had his social doctrine, since the party didn’t have any. But certain conditions are necessary in order to develop a new program.
I myself developed a program — not a party program but a government program — when I was prime minister. The key questions were agrarian reform and nationalization of the private sector. I had studied these questions concretely, and concluded that Syria was not Egypt. There was not any feudalism, as there was in Egypt. We needed to find concrete solutions to problems peculiar to Syria. I studied the private sector. The total capital then invested in Syrian private industry did not exceed $60 million. Syrians wanted to imitate Egypt, where there was major industry and a lot of foreign capital. But in Syria such conditions did not exist. There was only small industry, and it belonged to private Syrian capital. I proposed a solution based on joint private and public ownership. Why? Capitalism feared nationalizations and had sent its capital abroad. It had borrowed its new capital from the private banks. As soon as we came to power, we nationalized the banks. That was my idea. I had done a study on the spot and I had found that most of the enterprises had borrowed 50, 60, 70 percent of their capital. Once the banks had been nationalized, I summoned the capitalists and told them: “You owe us 50, 60, 70 percent. You have two choices: Repay to the banks what you owe them, or let us join as associates in your businesses.” I preferred this last solution, especially since these entrepreneurs were not going to bring back their capital from abroad. Within the party, people then considered me a right-winger. It was the military officers who knew nothing about either economics or politics, who talked only of power coming out of the barrel of a gun, without having any idea of the social complexities involved. They rejected my proposals, and on several occasions I offered my resignation.
In 1965, they nationalized all enterprises, even though at that time these were relatively small. I understood then what they wanted to accomplish with this nationalization: it was not socialism, but simply the advancement of the bureaucracy. They wanted to expand their ranks by bringing in more people. What was the result? In the enterprises which used to employ 100 persons, they brought in 100 more. As a result, the Syrian economy was completely thrown out of whack. For them, socialism was having a single party, and a clientele who assured them a kind of legitimacy.
Today, the Baath Party is in power, its pan-Arab aspirations are limited to Syria. It was secular; it has become confessional. In a word, it is the army which represents the propertied classes. Is this not the opposite of its point of departure?
I agree. Actually, there is no longer any Baath Party, neither in Damascus nor in Baghdad. In order to find the Baath Party, you would have to go back to the origins.
Would you do the whole thing again today, with the same ideological basis?
Yes, but taking into account the lesson of the past 30 years — that is to say, returning to the origins of the Baath but in view of the current situation.
Today, who supports the regime in Syria?
People talk a lot about the masses. Two years ago, when I returned to Syria after 13 years of exile, I met Hafiz al-Asad. I said to him, “Your regime lacks legitimacy. You recall the great things that we did from 1954 to 1958. Today, only democracy could give a new vitality to Syria. Today, Syria is dead. It has only dictatorship. Syria’s weakness means that it can no longer act against Sadat. Only political democracy, which must be reestablished, can allow Syria to regain its vitality and play its role in the Arab world. You must begin by having a democratic opposition which could open a peaceful way to real popular legitimacy.” I spoke in this way for two hours, without thinking that he was going to respond. He said to me: “But democracy exists already! You see, we have a party of 550,000 members.” I asked him, “But how are they organized?” He replied, “We have the trade unions, the youth groups and so on.” I thought there was nothing more to say.
The “masses” today are the army. The army of the regime, not the national army. The army of the regime is the Defense Brigades (Saraya al-Difa‘) which are commanded by Rif‘at al-Asad, the brother of the president. What happened in Aleppo and Hama was done by this confessional army. The two real bases of the regime are dictatorship and confessionalism. The Baath Party, as a party, does not exist. Likewise, there is not any real government. The government which exists only manages matters of secondary importance, but policy remains in the hands of Hafiz al-Asad.
What is really the most important current of the opposition in Syria? Isn’t it the Muslim Brothers?
Yes. Because there is a complete break between the regime and the people on account of confessionalism and militarism. The people are not against the policy of Asad but against his regime. Who is against the regime? The Muslim Brothers. So everyone is with the Muslim Brothers. Aside from that, there are some small political parties which only ask for democratic reforms. These parties are not against the regime but against its institutions. All these parties, and even ourselves, represent little of importance, because the people no longer have confidence in the parties. I can affirm that the people are outside of all the parties. There is not any real political leadership in Syria.
Would you say that there is not any alternative to the present Syrian regime?
The Muslim Brothers do not represent an alternative?
They make mistakes, and anyway they could not be an alternative. But every party which wishes to be an alternative to the present regime must come to terms with the Brothers. There are some problems with that. To begin with, their ideology is utopian. Then, these are not politicians or intellectuals, but superficial mystics. There are not among them any theoreticians or any ideologues, as is the case today in Iran.
It seems that for you there is not any hope of change in the short term.
I am afraid that there will be a confessional explosion. That risks being the alternative if a strong opposition does not form in order to give hope to the people.
—Translated by Eric Hooglund and Jim Paul