Michel 'Aflaq (1910-1989) was the founder and spiritual leader of the Arab Socialist Resurrection party, called the Ba'th party, for more than 25 years. He lived in Syria until 1966, and after being forced into exile, he assumed power within the Ba'th party in Iraq.
Michel 'Aflaq was born in 1910 in the Midan Quarter of Damascus, Syria, to a Greek Orthodox family of five children. His father was a local wheat dealer. 'Aflaq was educated in Greek Orthodox schools in Damascus and won a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. He graduated from the Sorbonne with honors in history in 1936 and returned to Damascus to teach at the Tahjiz secondary school. 'Aflaq quit teaching in 1944 to concentrate full time on political activities.
While in France 'Aflaq was close to many Communists and wrote articles for several French Communist publications. In the late 1930s he became disenchanted with the Communists and the Syrian Communist party, and in 1940 he founded the Arab Resurrection party, known as the Ba'th party. He also in 1946 founded the party newspaper, al-Ba'th, which became a principal vehicle for his prolific writings.
Michel 'Aflaq was a dedicated Arab nationalist and a firm believer in socialism. A philosopher and visionary more than a practical politician, he had a strong personality and was highly intelligent. His long political career ultimately left him with influence in various parts of the Arab world outside his native land. In the 1940s and 1950s 'Aflaq organized political meetings and rallies in Syria and motivated party workers by providing long-range political analysis. He would often rely on his long-time friend, close companion since childhood, and party co-founder Salah al-Din al-Bitar to put these theories into policies.
'Aflaq's long political career took many turns. In 1947, and again in 1949, he ran unsuccessfully for the Syrian Parliament. But in between, in August 1949, he served as minister of education in a Hashim al-Atasi cabinet. In 1954 the party he and al-Bitar founded merged with the Socialist party of Akram al-Hawrani under the new name Arab Socialist Resurrectionist party. Al-Hawrani was a populist from the northern Syrian city of Hama. The new party also made the decision in 1954 to expand operations into neighboring Arab countries, and party leaders were present at several international socialist conferences in the mid-1950s.
Between 1958 and 1963, when the Ba'th party took power in both Syria and Iraq, 'Aflaq was engaged in considerable political maneuvering. He and his party initially supported the 1958 union of Egypt and Syria, but only 18 months later 'Aflaq fled to Beirut, Lebanon, disillusioned. He returned to Syria in September 1961 when the union with Egypt was dissolved and immediately tried to reassert his authority, which al-Hawrani had in the meantime tried to usurp. A May 1962 party national congress expelled al-Hawrani, but factionalism continued to plague the party as some in the party wanted to reestablish links with Egypt.
In February 1963 the Ba'th party took power in Iraq. The party also seized power in Syria the following month. But the party's rise to power only intensified party factionalism in Syria and Iraq, and the process undermined 'Aflaq's leadership of the Ba'th party movement. Over the years 'Aflaq had been unable to develop strong ties with the young military members in the Syrian Ba'th party who paid little attention to the older civilian leaders of the party. In 1965 'Aflaq lost his position as secretary general of the party, a position he had held for 25 years, but was given the honorary title of founder-leader.
Although he was in exile from Syria after February 1966, this was not the first time he had trouble or had to leave his country. During the 1940s and 1950s he was jailed frequently. He went into exile briefly in 1953, in 1959, and in 1964. In November 1966 the young military leaders of the Ba'th party in Syria threw 'Aflaq out of the party. However, he went on to become a leader of an international branch of the party from a base in Baghdad. Branches of the Ba'th party existed in most Arab countries, and 'Aflaq was the visionary for many of their leaders.
From the party's beginning 'Aflaq was the chief author of its ideology. The basic doctrine of the Ba'th party was summarized by its slogan: "Unity, liberation, socialism: One Arab nation having an immortal mission." This Arab nation was a permanent entity in history, and Arabism was defined as the feeling and consciousness of being Arab. For 'Aflaq and his supporters, the Arab nation comprised the entire area between the Sahara desert and the Atlantic and the Persian Gulf. The party proposed to make this Arab nation modern and secular, with full rights of citizenship for women. Islam would be secularized and made part of Arab culture, and all religious, communal, regional, racial, or tribal divisions would be subsumed into one Arab nation.
The overriding priority of the party was given to Arab unity, but the party did not develop a clear strategy for achieving unity. Liberation, the second Ba'th goal, was exceedingly popular with the post-World War II Arab generation, which wanted to be done with all forms of foreign domination. The third part of 'Aflaq's triad, socialism, in the early years of the party played a secondary role to concerns about Arab nationalism and unity and liberation. The form of socialism envisaged then was mild and allowed for private enterprise. Despite 'Aflaq's close ties in the early 1930s to Communism, the party constitution did not show any strong ties to Marxism.
The role of the party in 'Aflaq's conception was to be the vanguard of the people, and this vanguard represented the new Arab generation which would bring the people out of decades of neglect and backwardness into a new nation. Ba'th means resurrection. While the elitist role of the party was evident, in the early, formative years the system of government which the party espoused was not clear. The Ba'th party did use the electoral process to gain access to power in Syria, but abandoned that process in 1957 when the opportunity of unity with Egypt emerged.
'Aflaq clearly captured the imagination of politically aware Arabs in many countries, especially in the period 1946 to 1956. This was a time of incredible expansion of his party in Syria and elsewhere. The stress on nationalism, unity, and liberation won many hearts and minds. In the late 1960s and 1970s, however, when these parties obtained power in Syria and Iraq, practical considerations of policies and running governments divided the Ba'th party elites, and a new generation with different views emerged, leaving 'Aflaq with vastly diminished status in his movement in his later years.
'Aflaq lived his last years with the title of Pan-Arab General Secretary of the Iraqi Ba'th party, a position which ceremonially placed him above Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, though 'Aflaq's contributions to politics were minimal. He lived in Baghdad in virtual isolation until his deteriorating health necessitated a move to Paris to seek treatment. On June 10, 1989, 'Aflaq underwent heart surgery but never left the hospital, dying two weeks later. At the time of his death, a statement was issued by the Ba'th party leaders, stating 'Aflaq "led Arab masses for decades in their struggle against imperialism and for Arab unity." The statement also claimed that 'Aflaq had converted from Christianity to Islam during his life, but did not want this information to be interpreted politically, so he didn't make this announcement during his lifetime.
Michel 'Aflaq and the Ba'th Party are discussed prominently in several good books written about postindependence Syria. Among the better books are: Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa, edited by Bernard Reich (1990); The Struggle for Syria: Study of Postwar Arab Politics, 1945-1958, by Patrick Seale (1965); The Ba'th Party: A History from Its Origins to 1966, by John F. Devlin (1976); Syria, by Tabitha Petran (1972); The Arab Ba'th Socialist Party History, Ideology, and Organization, by Kamel S. Abu Jaber (1966); The Struggle for Power in Syria, by Nikolaos van Dam (1979); and Syria Under the Ba'th, 1963-1966, by Itamar Rabinovich (1972).