Saadeh's Position in Relation to the Pioneers of the Nahda
John Dayeh
It was not by chance that Antun Saadeh began his intellectual career at the age of seventeen with a series of essays dealing with Yusuf Al-Azmeh, General Gouraud and Syria during the era of King Faisal, the Syrian National Congress and sectarian violence. Syria had gained its independence on the 8th of March 1920 under the leadership of Faisal and the Syrian National Congress, only to lose it again the following July, with the help of sectarian divisions, to the army of the French General Gouraud. But Syria, which had not savoured freedom for centuries, refused to submit in resignation and humiliation. This can be attributed to two essential factors: the martyrdom of Yusuf Al-Azmeh in Maysalun, and the birth of Antun Saadeh in Dhur Shweir on the first of March.
The Syrian nation could have perished following the treachery of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, contrived by the imperialist powers. But the heroism of the Minister of Defence Yusuf Al-Azmeh's martyrdom, based on the principles of "Life is an honourable stand" and "The blood that runs in one's veins is the nation's blood: when the nation needs blood it finds it" ensured that the life force of the Syrian psyche was not extinguished. Yusuf Al-Azmeh's martyrdom coincided with that of Syria. The Nation survived through the sacrifice of one of its heroes and military geniuses. Like individuals, nations die if their cells are not continually "martyred". It is through the "martyrdom" of a single cell that the collective body of cells remains vibrant and strong.
But martyrdom alone is not enough, and following that of Yusuf Al-Azmeh, many people pondered Syria's fate, agreeing that the nation had squandered the enormous opportunities of July 1920 due to a lack of leadership. In order achieve unity, independence and cultural renaissance, a leader was indispensible. What Muhyideen Al-Nasuli wrote in the newspaper 'Al-Haqiqa', and what Habib Ilyas Al-Zahlawi wrote in the magazine 'Al-Mar'a Al-Jadida' about the lack of leadership and its necessity is less by far than what was written and said among the soldiers and officers who yearned for a historical leader.
At the time, Antun Saadeh was a 15 year old youth. He was still in Syria, not yet having joined his father Dr. Khalil Saadeh in Latin America. It is natural that this remarkable young man would have been aware of his nation's tragedy, having seen it torn apart and crushed underfoot by the French and British armies. Being from the Mount Lebanon region, he would also have understood the serious nature of the sectarianianism that had sunk its roots deep into the Syrian psyche, assisting the imperialists to extinguish that freedom, pride and independence that remained. As a gifted leader, however, Saadeh understood that the principal reason for Syria's loss of freedom and independence was that it lacked a "hero", to use Gamal Abdul-Nasir's terms. For Saadeh, the lack of leadership was not an isolated matter, but a matter of life or death. As he conceived it, leadership is both a doctrine and a party: a doctrine for raising the national and social consciousness of the people, and a party committed to realizing that consciousness.
By the beginning of 1932, Saadeh had completed the establishment of the Syrian Nationalist Social Party which, under his leadership, assumed the task of renewing the Syrian Nation. The young Party continued to grow clandestinely until the end of 1935, when its activities were discovered and its leader and membership arrested, tried and imprisoned. One of the lawyers who offered to defend Saadeh was Hamid Franjieh, who asked Saadeh in return to provide him with an account of organization of the clandestine Party which had occasioned the trial. Saadeh complied with Franjieh's request in a letter published in December 1935 in which he outlined the basic differences between his own position and that of other pioneers of the Nahda, particularly of the generation immediately preceding him.
In reply to Hamid Franjieh's question regarding the reasons that motivated his founding of the Syrian Nationalist Social Party, Saadeh answered that "I was a young man when the First World War broke out in 1914. But I had begun to feel and to think. The first thing that occurred to me, having experienced what I had, was this question: What has brought this misery on my people?" He added that "When the war came to an end, I began to search for an answer to this question and a solution to the chronic political dilemma that drove my people from crisis to crisis ... as the saying goes, 'one is not safe from a bear until it is put in a well'". Saadeh emphasized that he was not seeking an answer "simply for academic ends, since useless knowledge is like harmless ignorance. Instead, I sought an answer in order to discover an effective way to eliminate this misery. Preliminary studies that the foolishness of the national leadership was the principal reason for what had happened, and continued to happen, to my nation. This was the beginning of the period during which I studied the sociology and development of nations and of social groups generally."
Here Saadeh touches upon the fundamental point that distinguishes him from the other pioneers of the Nahda: "In the course of my studies, I came to realize the importance of the idea of the nation, and of the complexity of the many factors involved in its evolution. It was in relation to this question that my views began to differ from others who were active in my country's politics and its national problems. They were working simply for political freedom, and not nation building in the true sense. On the other hand, I sought true freedom and independence for my nation and for my people. There is a clear difference between this concept and the previous, more vague and simplistic one. Let us say that in relation to my nation's political pretenders, my position was gradually oriented towards a nationalist basis while theirs remained politically based. Politics for the sake of politics can never be a nationalist enterprise."
Saadeh then discusses the points of similarities between him and the early pioneers of the Nahda in his exposition of the Seventh Fundamental principle of his party’s national doctrine.
Saadeh states that "One of the most important factors in the loss of Syrian national consciousness, or in its dissipation, is the neglect of the Syrian Nation's true genius. This genius is evident in the great cultural achievements of its thinkers and artisans, such as the invention of the alphabet which was the greatest intellectual and cultural achievement to occur in the world. Other examples include the construction of the first municipal water works, the remains of Syrian colonies and material and spiritual culture and civilised character that Syria spread throughout the Mediterranean, the immortal achievements of great Syrians such as Zeno, Bar Salibi, St. John Chrysostom, Ephraim, Al-Maari, Deek-el-Jin of Emessa, al-Kawakibi, Gibran, and other great figures of ancient and modern times-To this list may be added the names of Syria’s great generals from Sargon the Great to Esserhaddon, Sennecharib, Nebuchadnasser, Assurbanipal, and Tigiat-pilasser; from Hanno the great to Hannibal (the greatest military genius of all times) and Yusuf al-Azmeh, the hero of Maysaloun."
We turn now to examine how Saadeh concurred and differed from the 19th and early 20th century pioneers of the Syrian Nahda, in the light of his own theory and practice and that of several of the pioneers, the Christians of Mount Lebanon in particular.
In nationalist terms, all proclaimed faith in Syria. That is, all agreed that Syria is for the Syrians. Saadeh recognized this, stating that "I am not the first to proclaim that Syria is for the Syrians, as the expression has been used before by a number of writers and political parties. The expression is current in both speech and writing, so I am not the first to say 'Syria is for the Syrians'. As for the expression "the Syrians are one complete nation", Saadeh confirms that it was "used for the first time by the Syrian Nationalist Social Party". Before examining the significance of the expression, we must first deal with the following question: Was Saadeh the first to express the view that the Syrians constitute one nation among the nations of the world? The answer, on the basis of the writings of the first pioneers, is both yes and no. The pioneers who preceded Saadeh did not, for the most part, approach the Syrian question from a sociological perspective in order to determine whether their people constituted a single nation with a distinct cultural personality. Their discussion about Syria was confined to the political arena, as they were seeking political independence, and their demands were expressed in the form of literature and journalism. To be fair, a small number did argue that the Syrians constituted a nation, on the basis of research of a sociological character. Take Anees Al-Khouri Al-Muqdasi for example, in "National Unity - Is It Possible?", published on November 1922 in the magazine "Al-Hilal". The publisher of "Al-Hilal", Jurii Zaidan, prefaced the essay with a number of searching questions, indicating that he realized the significance of its topic: "Do the Syrians, from the borders of Egypt to the borders of Anatolia, constitute a single nation? Can national unity be achieved in Syria? How? On what basis? These are the serious issues that the author of this essay deals with, in a historical, sociological and cultural study worthy of close attention."
In an introduction, Al-Muqdasi asks: "The narrow stretch of land that extends along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, contested by an assortment of movements and conflicting sects, and in the veins of whose inhabitants runs a strange mixture of bloods ... is it possible that a single nation joined by the bond of nationalism could be formed within it?" He answers that "National unity is the bond joining the different members of a nation together, the shared linguistic, religious, cultural and geographic traditions that distinguish them as a single independent entity; it is the national quality that makes the Englishman English, the Frenchman French, the Chinese Chinese, the American American, the Egyptian Egyptian and, likewise, the Syrian Syrian, as distinct from other nationalities and nations".
There is, therefore, a clear difference between the positions of Saadeh and Al-Muqdasi on the question of whether the Syrian people constituted a nation, not only in intellectual approach, but also in the comprehensiveness of their answers. Anees Al-Muqadasi believed that "Syria, which was once many nations and races, became a single nation by means of the Arabic language and its literary heritage". Saadeh on the other hand believed that the Arabic language, in which Syrian cultural and intellectual achievements had been expressed, had helped in the formation of the Syrian nation, but that it had not been historically nor would it be today the single most important factor in this process. In Saadeh's view, the nation was made up of the interaction between human communities and a single environment, a land bound by geographic borders, throughout the generations.
In contrast to Anees Al-Muqdasi's handful of essays on the Syrian Nation, Saadeh wrote the book "The Evolution of Nations" in which he set out and explained the Nation's fundamental principles, in addition to a number of lectures, speeches and essays on the subject. He outlined a theoretical model of the nation, and then applied it to the Syrian Nation. Among the many other subjects that he wrote and spoke about, this was the one that occupied most of his thought. An indication of the depth of Saadeh's research into nationalism and the Syrian nation can be gained from Kamal Jumblatt's statement that Saadeh was the first sociologist in the Arabic language, particularly as Jumblatt expressed this view during the height of his opposition to Saadeh and his party.
Another difference between Saadeh and the pioneers of the Nahda relates to the geography of Natural Syria. The pioneers considered Syria to be made up of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and a small part of Iraq around the city of Mosul. Saadeh shared this view for a short time after his founding of the Party in 1932, but he soon concluded that the rest of Iraq along with Cyprus were included in the geography of Syria. In this way, Syria came to include the entire Fertile Crescent in addition, to "its star, the island of Cyprus".
Saadeh's position also differs from other pioneers on the question of 'arabness'. Most of the pioneers did not distinguish between the Syrian nation and the Arab world, and would therefore write about the Arab world as if it was a single Arab nation. Then they would switch to defending the Syrians and their need for independence. Perhaps the best example of this is the writer Amin Raihani. Saadeh, on the other hand, was very clear on the issue right from the beginning. He argued for Syrian unity and independence on the basis of Syria's unique cultural identity. Once these had been achieved, he proposed the creation of an Arab Front combining the nations of the Arab world, with the Syrian nation as their vanguard.
Perhaps the reason behind this is that Saadeh had argued from the outset that the Syrians were a complete nation, and that 'Syria is for the Syrians'. In distinguishing between Syrian nationalism and Arab Front politics, Saadeh agreed with that minority of the pioneers of the Nahda who advocated a Syrian nation, particularly Anees Al-Muqdasi. He qualified his assertion of the 'Arabness' of his nation by adding "That does not mean that Syria became a part of the Arabian Peninsula, or that its people became like those of Hejaz, Nejd and Yemen, as there are many differences between them, just as the people of Mexico and Brazil differ from those of Spain and Portugal, and the people of Egypt and their Arab communities differ from those of Syria, Iraq and Hejaz. This difference was overlooked by proponents of the so-called ‘Arab Empire’ and so they faltered."
Saadeh was not satisfied with a simple academic distinction between Syria and the Arab world. Rather, he made his nation's joining of an Arab front conditional in that it must first be united, independent and renewed. Saadeh reiterated this frequently in "The Ten Lectures", "The Evolution of Nations", "The Two Messages of Islam", "The Enemies of the Arabs are the Enemies of Lebanon", and in a number of assorted essays published in the Party's press.
We turn now from the national question to the social question, in which Saadeh differs from some of the pioneers of the Nahda but agrees with others. The separation of religion from the state is the principal point of agreement between Saadeh and the Christian pioneers of the Nahda. From Butrus Al-Bustani to Jibran to Salma Sayegh, all of them advocated the separation of religion and state, or the separation of politics from political leadership as Al-Bustani put it. With the exception of Al-Kawakabi and a few others, the majority of Muslim pioneers agreed on the need to eliminate political sectarianism. This was particularly clear in the decisions of the Syrian General Congress in 1920.
Saadeh was a radical with respect to this serious and sensitive matter, not wanting to compromise with anyone over the cause of Syria's renewal and renaissance. Accordingly, he was not content with the general policy of separating religion and state, but went further with a policy that religious figures be barred from interfering in the affairs of state of the Syrian Nation, and from civil services such as marriage and inheritance settlements. Saadeh did not distinguish between Muslim and Christian clerics on this issue. Others advocated a separation of religion and politics, whereas Saadeh insisted on the need to separate religion from the state. The difference between the two is crucial: Saadeh's proposal contains a guarantee of civil marriage and a single civil legal system for all Syrians, while the call for the separation of religion and politics achieves separation only, without dealing with the political and religious power of politicians and clerics.
In addition, Saadeh went further than most of me pioneers of the Nahda in stressing the need to abolish feudalism and organize the national economy on the basis of production, a socialist proposal raised by only a few others led by Dr Shibli Shymmayil. He agreed completely with Shymmayil on economic matters, in both form and content. Saadeh did not use the word 'socialism' in anything he wrote on the subject, so it is therefore more appropriate to use the term "societal" to describe his economic theory. Shibli Shymmayil on the other hand used the term 'ishtirakiyya' rather than 'ijtimaa'iyya', which is the correct term for his economic theory.
In reply to the journalist Salim Sarkis, Shymmayil stated that "'Ishtiraldyya' is a translation of the French word 'socialism', coined by our early writers and now in wide current use. But it is a mistake in arabisation that carries with it a greater mistake in comprehension and understanding. 'Ijtimaa'iyya' derives from the word 'ijtimaa' (community), that is, the members of a settled community. But I used the term in any case, because even if mistaken it is in nevertheless in current use."
Regarding the question of the military, Saadeh also differed from the pioneers of the Nahda, particularly those who hoped to be key leaders in Syria after the decline of Ottoman rule in the region. Perhaps the negative motive for Saadeh's insistence on "the establishment of a national army is instrumental in deciding the fate of the nation" is what occurred in Syria in Phoenician times, and what was repeated in July 1920. On both occasions, the Syrians did not realize the importance of establishing a strong national army to confront barbarism, whether of illiterates or literates. Consequently, Syria's leading civilization was lost in Phoenician times. Furthermore, it lost the opportunity to revive Syrian civilization anew after independence had become a tangible fact. Herein lies the secret of Saadeh's fascination with Hannibal and Yusuf Al-Azmeh. Both these leaders had realized the importance of military strength in the preservation of freedom, independence and civilization. When they were unable to satisfy their political leaders in life, they chose to satisfy the alternative leadership with the logic of martyrdom. Saadeh believed more strongly than the leaders of other countries in the importance of establishing a strong national army, as "Power" was a basic principle among the four basic principles from which Saadeh believed that the Syrian renaissance would inevitably arise. Therefore, Power became one of the pointers on the Red Zawba'ah, one of the four mottos of the Nahda. The call for the creation of an effective army has a philosophical basis in Saadeh's thinking. His equation of power with the values of "Freedom, Duty, and Order" gives a clear indication of the distance between him and those pioneers who were intoxicated with the motto of the French revolution, "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity", to the extent of ignoring the role of power and the army in Syrian unity and independence.
Behind the army stands the Party, which will assume responsibility for organizing the army in the defence of the national renaissance. In this, Saadsh differs even from the pioneers of the Nahda who founded political parties. They established electoral political parties, while Saadeh established the Syrian Nationalist Socialist Party on populist principles with strong emphasis on youth, the social class most amenable to spiritual-material reconstruction. In their struggle, the pioneers relied on political work through committees, demonstrations and media campaigns, whereas Saadeh relied in the first instance on nationalist work that made use of armed struggle when necessary. The pioneers were content with just a handful of political and reformist principles, while Saadeh proposed nine political principles and five reformist principles, and explained them on two occasions. In addition, he wrote hundreds of articles and essays clarifying the nature of these principles. Perhaps a brief comparison between the Syrian Nationalist Social Party and the Syrian Unity Party - the best of the pioneers' parties - can illustrate the great difference between the populist party structure whose 'workshops' Saadeh led for 17 years, and the electoral party-political 'villa' led by Michael Lutfallah and some Syrian pioneers at the beginning of the 20th century.
Herein lies the reason for the collapse, when the going got rough, of all the political parties founded by the pioneers of the "Nahda, whereas Saadeh's party endured years in the face of severe difficulties like no other party. Yusuf Al-Sauda’s testimony that Saadeh’s party has outlived all other political parties in Lebanon, including his own party, speaks loudly. Sauda was Antun Saadeh's foremost opponent in Lebanon, particularly among those Lebanese advocating Lebanese nationalism.
We return now to the subject of leadership, which is vital to every nation if it is to be united and renewed. This leadership, when collective and therefore dispersed throughout a network of branch organizations that together constituted a complete, single party organization like the cells that make up the human body, is represented at the top of the party or national pyramid by a single leader leading the whole party or the whole nation on the path to greatness and power.
The leadership qualities of Antun Saadeh are evident in the exceptional talents his intellect combined. With respect to his knowledge and learning, Saadeh is unique, because he was not a university graduate and did not complete secondary education. Despite this, he was a philosopher, sociologist, writer and critic. Nicola Haddad was a sociologist but not a philosopher, and in any case was not Saadeh's equal as a sociologist. His book "Sociology" is merely an introductory textbook in comparison to Saadeh's "The Evolution of Nations". Is there a literary critic in Syria who can equal Saadeh? Take the great writer and critic Mikhail Naimeh as an example. Is it possible to compare his work ‘The Sieve' with Antun Saadeh's The Intellectual Struggle in Syrian Literature'? A reader may find the quality of both Naimeh and Saadeh's literary criticism to be of an equally high level, but Naimeh's ‘The Sieve' is poor in comparison to the richness of the new literature, based on a new vision of life, universe and art, outlined in Saadeh's ‘The Intellectual Struggle in Syrian Literature'.
Saadeh was in the forefront of those pioneers who defended the Arabic language and its role as the national language of Syria. He enriched the language with his prodigious intellectual and literary output, refusing to write in German or English although he knew both of them as well as he knew Arabic. In ‘The Evolution of Nations', the Arabic language became a language of sociology equal to that of French, while Saadeh's literary language is no less vigorous and beautiful than that of the great writers of the Nahda.
Like the rest of the pioneers, Saadeh was also a journalist. He worked as a professional in the field, but with the aim of getting his revolutionary message across to the Syrian people, and not for purely commercial ends as is the case with the proprietors of some newspapers in recent years. The newspaper 'Al-Nahda' (and later 'Al-Zawba'ah' and 'Suriyah Al-Jadida') which Saadeh published with the cooperation of his colleagues in the Party, reveals the formidable journalistic power invested in it.
Our aim of course is not to simply list the talents of the leader Antun Saadeh. It is sufficient to point that, on the basis of the comments above regarding these talents, Saadeh was a leader in every sense: of the Party, in politics, militarily, in philosophy and in literature. One may find any one of these qualities embodied in any one of the pioneers, but it is uncommon to find them all together in the same person, as was the case with Saadeh.
This is one matter, but the leadership of the Party and the nation is quite another. Leadership, if enjoying all these talents, must be successful in the planning and implementation of the national renaissance, regardless of the difficulties involved. And so it was, since Saadeh laid out the necessary plans for the renaissance of Natural Syria. He led the Syrian Nationalist Socialist Party with strength and success in order to put those plans into effect in his own domain, the party as a microcosm of the Syrian Nation, leading to their wider and more comprehensive implementation within the nation as a whole. When Saadeh was obliged to choose between physical safety and martyrdom, he chose the latter. This is another difference between Saadeh and the pioneers, who waged their struggles from Egypt, Paris and Latin America far from the dangers of the struggle on Syrian soil. But his martyrdom was one more episode in a series of martyrs among the pioneers of the Nahda, whether those who were hung on the gallows of Jamal Ahmed Pasha in August 1915 and May 1916, or Yusuf Al-Azmeh who was martyred in Maysalun while confronting French tanks as they advanced on Damascus.