Labib Zuwiyya Yamak's book The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: An Ideological Analysis, published by Harvard University Press for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 1966, remained the only book available in English about the Syrian Social Nationalist Party until the mid-1990s. This is no doubt the reason why the book was often discriminately used as the only source of reference on the SSNP. Originally written as a Ph.D. thesis, the book was described by one reviewer as "a detailed study of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, using as primary sources the published writings of Antun Sa'adih" - a bold claim since the first edition of Sa'adeh's collected works did not begin to appear until the mid 1970s, that is, almost ten years after the publication of Yamak's book.
Yamak was ideally placed to write an objective analysis of the SSNP given that he had been actively and so recently involved with the party. Instead, he chose to put down a great deal less than what he knew. This can be adequately demonstrated by looking at his analysis of Social Nationalism in the book.
Yamak and the SSNP
In a published review of Yamak's book, the author was described as "a Lebanese who had been to some extent involved in the activities of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and therefore writes from first-hand knowledge." This is true. Yamak was closer to Sa'adeh than most people and some of the most detailed studies on Sa'adeh's philosophical system (al-madrahiyya) were penned by Yamak during the 1950s and published at various stages by the Cultural Department in the SSNP.
A glance at his treatment of the Syrian Social Nationalist party in that period and his book about the party in 1966 would immediately arouse one's curiosity, for Yamak had done a full back-flip that cannot be explained in mere academic terms. In his early writings Yamak regarded Social Nationalism as a signal event and presents both a persuasive and enlightening case for it. In the book, on the other hand, he is vindictive and less careful in his historical scholarship and critique of his former friend and mentor and his treatment of Social Nationalism is less sympathetic and instructive. So what caused this paradigm shift in Yamak's thinking?
There is no clear explanation for this to offer at this stage but my guess is that politics had something to do with it. For in 1952, three years after Sa'adeh's execution, the Arab World witnessed an important event that would change the course of its history: Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in Egypt and progressively rose to become the uncontested leader of his country until his death in 1970. Regarded as one of the most important Arab politicians in modern times, especially for his Arab nationalist and anti-colonial foreign policy, Nasser won a large following throughout the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s and became a symbol for Arab dignity and freedom. Apparently, Yamak was among the throng that was caught in the euphoria of Nasser's pan-Arabism. He shared its emotions, its sentiments, its expectations and, like many people of his generation, was captivated by Nasser's personality. There is of course no possibility at the present moment of knowing the exact date of this transformation, but it seems to have had a decisive influence on Yamak's attitude towards his former party.
Yamak's book appeared during this political climate, which enables us to identify a crucial weakness in the writer: a scholar he called himself, but he is a scholar with a political passion. Yamak wrote from a definite perspective and as such he has to be assessed in terms of that perspective. He accepted the predominant methodology that Arab nationalism was organically irrefutable and proceeded to evaluate Sa'adeh and the SSNP almost entirely on that basis. Whatever the prospects of Arab nationalism, its history to this point represents one of the most remarkable instances of the rapid birth, rise, and decline of any modern nationalism, and that in itself is a vital drawback to the credibility of Yamak's book.
1. Sa'adeh and individualism
In the chapter entitled 'Social Nationalism' Yamak describes Sa'adeh's conception of the individual as follows: "Sa'adih regarded the individual not merely as a social unit or a cell in the organic body of society but as an abstraction that has no real existence outside society or even within it. Outside it there is no human life per se, and within it man exists as a human potentiality by virtue of his sociality, not his individuality. The significance of this argument is in the conclusions that Sa'adih drew from it, particularly with regard to the issue of natural rights and the problem of values. Being a mere human potentiality the individual can have no intrinsic rights, since by definition he is not something real. He has no worth in himself except insofar as he is a member of society. This leads Sa'adih to conclude that whatever value the individual has is derived from his membership in society and not from his individuality. The individual who is motivated by personal desires instead of social values is, according to Sa'adih, acting contrary to the precepts of his sociality and therefore undermining himself.
The substance of Yamak's argument is not the main ground for criticism here. It is rather the perspective in which the matter is discussed and what the author had decided to omit, intentionally or not, that gives rise to the more serious misgivings. It is not what he says but what he doesn't say that matters. True Sa'adeh did indeed give society ontological precedence over the individual, as Yamak says, but he nevertheless regarded the emergence of the individual personality as a turning point in human history:
National consciousness [Sa'adeh wrote] is the greatest social phenomenon of our time - a phenomenon which marks this age of high civilization. While the emergence of the personality of the individual was a great event in the advancement of the human psyche and the development of human association, the emergence of the group personality was the greatest, most far-reaching, most genuine and delicate, and most complex event in the evolution of mankind. Group personality is a social-economic-psychological complex requiring the individual to add to the awareness of his own personality an awareness of the personality of his group and his nation; requiring him also to feel, in addition to his own needs, the needs of his society, to complement his understanding of his own self with an understanding of the psychology of his social community, to link his own interests with those of his people and to feel with every member of his society, to care for it and to desire its welfare like he desires his own.
It is clear from this that Sa'adeh did not dismiss the role of the individual and individuality completely out of hands. Nor did he propose their eradication from existence, which would have been highly illogical and difficult to swallow. Rather, he spoke in terms of "adding" "linking" and "complementing" between individual and society. Yamak completely overlooked the above extract even though it appears in the preamble of Sa'adeh's Rise of Nations - one of the primary sources of his own study.
But supposing that we accept, with all its implications, that Sa'adeh was anti-individual because he regarded the individual as a "human potentiality", the question arises: why did Sa'adeh take such an attitude? In other words, did Sa'adeh take a passive attitude toward individualism because he was anti-individual or because he was merely responding to specific conditions in his own society? Despite the theoretical value of this question, Yamak is almost completely silent on this!
A glance at Sa'adeh's writings on this issue indicates that he was concerned more about "unaccountable forms of individualism in Syria" than about individualism in itself:
Individualism, particularly in countries like ours, has never been exposed to proper national rearing or national awareness. It has been unable to foster anything national among the school children or among other strata or the society on the whole. The individual in our country grows up in this ambience without any sense of responsibility except to the narrow issues and problems of his immediate environment and personal future, and totally oblivious to the destiny of the nation, the state, or the wider community.
The worrying point for Sa'adeh was the spread of egoistic individualism (al-naza' al-fardiyyah) in his society - the tendency that holds that the individual is the primary unit of reality and the ultimate standard of value. He saw this tendency as an obstacle to national revival because it suited the needs and desires of the individuals who were widely regarded as responsible for the ills and tribulations of Syria - namely, the "individualistic capitalist"; the "individualistic feudal lord"; the "individualistic politician"; and the "individualistic individual". These were the 'individuals" who became the target of Sa'adeh's front-attack on individualism, not the individual per se. In fact, Sa'adeh, on numerous occasions, heaped praises on "individuals' for their work or contribution to the advancement of the nation or humanity at large - Gibran, Hitti, Butrus Bustani, al-Kawakibi, Farah Antun, etc. Yamak's failure to mention this speaks volume about his professional integrity.
All along Sa'adeh called for realism in the debate on individualism and collectivism. He was at pains to emphasize that different national and geographical requirements dictate how much a society can have of each or the degree to which it can oscillate between the two. Some societies can afford a high degree of individualism like the United States, for example, whose national security is safe from its neighbors; other societies, like France, whose national security is more vulnerable than the United States, have to tread carefully between the two (on a scale of ten, the US ranks 1 for individualism and France 10th); and societies that are extremely vulnerable to security problems, internally and externally, and are looking to revive themselves, like Syria, may not be able to exercise more than a limited form of individualism. Yamak refers to this seminar in his book but only sketchily and outside its proper context.
Sa'adeh outlined his views about the relationship between individualism and national interest in 1948 during a seminar organized specifically for SSNP activists. It is not unlikely that Yamak was present at that seminar, for a snapshot taken at the time shows him sitting beside Sa'adeh and Hisham Sharabi.
2. Sa'adeh and Democracy
Here again, the writer, reiterating earlier bodies, is keen on presenting Sa'adeh in the stereotype image of a dictator with a definite totalitarian bent: "Sa'adih's anti-democratic thinking is indicative both of his authoritarian personality and the irrational basis of the ideology of social nationalism."(p. 109) To prove that Sa'adeh was "essentially anti-democratic", Yamak cites the following passage of Sa'adeh:
Democracy is a form with various contents each of which has its own political and administrative characteristics. . . . But the democracy which the civilized nations have experienced so far has not been able to solve the many social and economic problems that developed with the progress of the industrial revolution.
Actually, this passage renders Yamak's contention unsustainable. The critical stance taken in it is not aimed at democracy as a fundamental principle but at democracy as a practical form in Western countries which certain groups within Sa'adeh's own society were keen to embrace without thought about its suitability or compatibility to Syria's conditions. For Sa'adeh, the problem lay not only in the dishonesty that characterized western democracy but also in the inability of democracy to function properly in an environment which did not appreciate the values that stemmed from it and the principles that held it together.
It may be argued further that Sa'adeh was more approving of democracy than any of his contemporaries. This can be inferred from his treatise "The Rise of Nations" which Yamak had used as a primary source. The analysis on the interrelationship between democracy and nationalism presented in chapter six of Sa'adeh's book leaves no doubt as to where Sa'adeh stood in relation to democracy:
Before the rise of nationalism, the state was a particular will which imposed itself on the group, but after the growth of nationalism it became both the system and the institution representing the will of the nation. Thus we see that, with the development of the state and the growth of the social understanding of its members in being conscious of their particular needs and the possibilities of meeting them through the political system, the power of the state proceeded to apply itself gradually to the service of this goal. The state and its government are not final social manifestations. They rest on something deeper: the life and will of the community.
For Sa'adeh, the national state represents the highest form of nationalism: "One distinguishing characteristic of the national state is that it is no longer a state which moulds peoples together over the area under its control, because it now faces the will of its own community, its nationalism, as well as the will of other nations. If the sphere of the state extends beyond that of the nation, the state becomes an empire or a colonial power, as in the case of the Great Powers today." Sa'adeh goes on to hail democracy as "the principle that sovereignty emanates from the people, and that the state exists for the people, not the people for the state", and follows it up with the following observation:
This is the democratic principle on which nationalism is founded. The democratic state is definitely a national state, since it rests not on an external ideology or imaginary will, but on a public will resulting from a feeling of participation in the same socio-economic life. The state has come to represent this will. Representation of the people is a national democratic principle which was unknown to former states. The democratic state represents, not past history, nor ancient traditions, nor the will of God, nor bygone glory, but the interest of the people living the same life as manifested in the public will, in effective, not acquiescent, consensus.
It is a pity that Yamak did not attempt to explore this matter further even though it is a central feature of Sa'adeh's national discourse. Had he paid some attention to it he would have reached a different conclusion and, furthermore, realized that Sa'adeh did not give totalitarianism any preferentiality over democracy. What Sa'adeh said is that, in any transitional period in which the aim is to make great changes quickly, the system of parliamentary democracy can actually impede, rather than facilitate, the movement of change. "The nations which are passing through a political transition, such as the Syrian nation,' he wrote, "need strong systems that would enable them to work earnestly and energetically and for specific goals ..." Parliamentary democracy is not of those systems: it has too many inherent weaknesses. Experience shows that it can actually turn tyrannical and be a cheap means of exploiting the "naiveté of the people." It is from this perspective that Sa'adeh went on to advocate a dictatorial form of government for an interim period. He spoke of the "objective dictatorship," as an embodiment of the national interest, as opposed to the old autocratic form, which derived its legitimacy from a variety of mystical and strange sources. As implied, the objective dictatorship is a provisional form of rule and should wither away once the nation attains a certain degree of political maturity:
Dictatorial rule must not and cannot be a permanent system. Rather, it is tantamount to the procedure of a teacher who must deprive the student of his liberty to train him in the right orientation until he gains sufficient strength. It is a temporary system of rule to transfer the people from one state to another, from a disorderly situation to an ordered one, from weakness to strength, from death to life. It is this that makes it an inescapable system for nations afflicted with intellectual, moral, political and economic paralysis.
In other words, Sa'adeh regarded dictatorial rule as a "necessary evil" defending it "on the assumption that it was what geographical Syria needed for unification and as the only means of enforcing the reform and political programs of the Syrian National Party." In the post-interim period, as the nation gradually attains the desirable level of "political refinement" (al-tahzib al-siyassi), a "national democratic state" will emerge. This state will acquire its legitimacy directly from the people and those in government will be accountable to the supreme interest of the national state. It will be a state based on the principle that "the people are not created for the state, but the state for the people."
3. Sa'adeh and religion
The vilification of Sa'adeh's person and his doctrine reaches its apex in the section "Social Nationalism: The New Religion". The SSNP leader is depicted as a self-styled prophet who saw himself as a precursor of a new religion destined to replace revealed religions and take over the world. Yamak arrives at this conclusion on the basis of individual statements that idolized Sa'adeh and various pronouncements from Sa'adeh about his mission to the people.
That Sa'adeh saw himself as the "teacher and guide of the nation" is undisputed, but not in a strictly "divinative" sense. He was a secular thinker and the whole objective of his mission was national revival, not a new metaphysic. To say that he "all but proclaimed himself a prophet is in complete contradiction with the argument current in his Yamak's book that Sa'adeh did not interfere in personal faith:
The SSNP [ Sa'adeh once said] declares that every Syrian has the right to hold any religious belief he wants about God, heaven, hell and immortality. But he should always remember that his correlative duty is to be a true social nationalist, true to his nation and his, country.
Yamak would like us to think that Sa'adeh had but one purpose in life: "to undermine the religious beliefs of the people in order to pave the way for the social nationalist take over."(108) He does not mention that Sa'adeh paid tribute to divine religions, Christianity and Mohammadanism, and that, in fact, considered them among Syria's principal contributions to mankind. Sa'adeh did not concern himself with metaphysical properties - God, death, afterlife etc: his writings were a sustained criticism of the religious institutions as an obstacle to social progress, sectarianism and religious fanaticism:
The Syrian National Party believes that sectarianism has bred divisions, religious fanaticism, and by its affiliation to religious authority outside the nation, it has created anti-national institutions. In addition to the harmful effect of dividing the nation, a political life based on religion, is of necessity, traditionalist and reactionary and is opposed to the principles of the nation.
This is certainly a far more value-neutral approach than the ones that ipso facto declare Sa'adeh to be anti-religion or, worse still, as a divine imposter.
According to Yamak a full expression of Sa'adeh's 'new religion' to Syria and mankind can be inferred from the following declaration:
There is no Syrian who is not a Muslim (literally submitter) to the Lord of the world. Be pious unto God and cast aside blind religious fanaticism, for Islam has brought us together. Some of us have surrendered unto God through the Gospels, others through the Koran and some through wisdom. Islam has therefore united us and made us one nation.
If Sa'adeh were to be put on trial for apostasy on this count, the judge would throw the case out without hesitation. There is no concrete evidence in the above declaration to suggest that a new religion was his intention, but merely a novel re-interpretation of religion. Had Sa'adeh said "Be pious unto God and I am God" then Yamak's case would stand; had Sa'adeh denied the Gospels, the Koran and the wisdom, then Yamak is not to be blamed; had Sa'adeh hinted that no Syrian "is a Muslim (literally submitter) to the Lord of the world", then Yamak is arguably right. But Sa'adeh did none of the above.
As far back as 1967, G. R. Field observed: Yamak's "greatest difficulty seems to arise when attempting to explicate the intricacies of Sa'adih's basic ideological doctrine of Social Nationalism." This brief study has shed some light on this "difficulty" by exploring some of the shortcomings in Yamak's book. In the end, the book is a valuable source but it cannot be regarded as a definitive statement on Sa'adeh and the SSNP. Nor is it a disinterested and wholly objective analysis of its subject-matter despite the authority it still commands today.
1. Yamak, Z. Labib. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: An Ideological Analysis. Harvard: Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 1969.
2. Beshara, Adel. Syrian Nationalism: An Inquiry Into the Political Philosophy of Antun Sa'adeh. Beirut: Bissan, 1995.
3. Makdisi, Nadim. "The Syrian National Party: A Case Study of the First Inraods of National Socialism in the Arab World," PhD, American University of Beirut, 1960.
4. Sidney Glazier's review in The American Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 , April 1967, p. 1045; Elizabeth Collard's review in International Affairs, Vol. 44. No. 3, July 1968, pp. 570-571; Leila Meo's review in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 90, No. 2, 1970, pp. 283-285; G. R. Field's review in The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4, Dec. 1967, pp. 1010-1011.
A. Sa'adeh, Nushu' al-Umam (The Rise of Nations), Beirut, 1938.
------------, al-Muhadarat al-Ashr (The Ten Lectures), Beirut, 1975.
Ibrahim Yammut, al-Hisad al-Mur (The Bitter Harvest), Beirut: Dar al-Rukin, 1993.
Abdullah Qubarsi, Ta'ssis al-Hizb al-Suri al-Qawmi al-Ijtimae': Bidayat Nidalihi (The Formation of the SSNP and the Beginning of its Struggle), vol. 2, Beirut: Fikr, 1982.
The Syrian Social Nationalist Party: An Ideological Analysis
A reliable reference?
Dr. Adel Beshara