The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Arab Socialism

  • Ozgur UsenmezEmail author
Living reference work entry


Championed by prominent figures like Baath movement leader Michel Aflaq, Arab socialism was a dominant, almost hegemonic ideology of the Arab World throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In addition to the Baath Party movement, Arab socialism also influenced Nasser’s Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Palestine, and Lebanon. Even though it identified itself with the term socialism, there were vast differences between Western Marxism and Arab socialism in their interpretations of reality, one glaring example being Arab acceptance of the importance of spirituality and the role of religion in societal culture. Other differences included Arab socialists’ relatively benign treatment of private property, the bourgeois class and its role in exploitation of labour, their emphasis on the revolutionary role of the whole Arab nation rather than just the working class, and finally their tendency to equate non-Arab socialism with Soviet practice. Hence, stemming from these philosophical differences, one may argue that Arab socialism, rather than being a movement of genuine resistance against prevailing conditions by the working class in the Arab world, was instead a pragmatic choice by Arab military/civilian bureaucratic elites in modernising their respective nations in the wake of their struggle for independence against Western imperialism. This then, leads us to an exploration of the historical causes that gave rise to what we call the modern state and its associated ideologies in the Middle East.

History of Modern Middle Eastern Societies

The most important determinant regarding Middle Eastern societies in their pre- and post-colonial history has been the structure of the state and how other prominent social forces position themselves and act against it. Although some Western writers have tended to view Ottoman and Middle Eastern precapitalist formations as identical to European feudalism, Ottoman-style land administration and the general organisation of agricultural production differed from that of the European model. First of all, the existence of huge tracts of state-owned land and communal properties in the Middle East played a primary role in preventing the emergence of a European-style feudal aristocracy within the empire. Second, peasants had more freedom in deciding which crops to cultivate: their main responsibility was tax paying and care of military men the state assigned to their land. In Ottoman lands, the state strictly controlled the use of its properties, since the entire edifice of government depended on the nexus between expansion of arable lands through conquest and their distribution among prominent military men (Quataert 1994). However, these military men largely acted as representatives of the sultan (a kind of a tax collector), rather than as the fully fledged landlords of medieval Europe. Another significant sign of the sultan’s control over relationships in rural areas was the appointment of kadis (religious judges) to supervise law and order, a system wholly dissimilar to the unbounded power of European feudal landlords in judicial matters within their territories. One should add that central control over land administration was not entirely homogeneous throughout the Empire: in some parts of the Middle East (such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq), privately owned land happened to be more widespread, leading to more pressure by landlords on peasants in the organisation of production (Gibb and Bowen 1957).

When European development began to surpass Ottoman technology and push the Empire from Central Europe in the late sixteenth century, military conquests which had formed the backbone of the perennial land administration system under Turkish rule came to a halt. The loss of a crucial source of revenue from conquests meant sultans faced the prospect of increasing taxes and other revenues from within their existing borders. The iltizam (tax farming) system was implemented to fulfil the urgent need for an intensive accumulation model to replace obsolete territorial expansion. This system envisioned a spur in revenues through delegating tax collection to regional ayans (landlords). After bidding for a region’s tax collection rights, the ayan tended to restrict the peasants’ freedom in organisation of production (Pamuk 1994). This development was concurrent with the erosion of confidence in the justice system of the Empire. Although ayans gradually became a source of regional power, their pattern of behaviour did not echo that of the European bourgeoisie: their fortunes generally fluctuated according to the political climate at the centre. Rather than being interested in overseas excursions and capital accumulation through investment, or in the formation of a political alternative, Middle Eastern ayans opted simply to increase the burdens on their peasant tenants and to buy political titles (symbols of power) from the Ottoman centre. The power of ayans varied greatly according to the specificities of certain regions. While land distribution in Anatolia was relatively fairer than in Arab regions, issues of irrigation, transportation, and proximity to markets determined the state–ayan power relationship. In this context, one may say that Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq witnessed a more unequal distribution of land and a more burdened peasantry, with the result that the first peasant rebellions against agrarian conditions erupted in these regions (Beinin 2001). From Anatolia to other parts of the Middle East, peasant rebellions opposed existing land distribution, arbitrary taxes and worsening regional living standards, but they were far removed from establishing any coherent political and economic alternative to the prevailing İltizam system. At the same time, the existence of these rebellions conflicts with Eurocentric Orientalist accounts depicting the regions’ history as largely stagnant.

By the late eighteenth century, major European companies had begun to penetrate the Middle East and the Napoleonic wars and British industrial revolution had facilitated military and trade expeditions to the region. The region’s rulers, mainly Ottomans, usually opted to collaborate with foreign merchants through benign trade deals with Europeans. The 1838 Baltalimani trade agreement, and ensuing capitulations given to foreigners by the Ottoman sultan in İstanbul and Mehmed Ali Pasha in Egypt, not only put local merchants and guilds at a disadvantage (since these deals meant that local traders paid more taxes than importers), but also accepted free-trade rules which greatly advanced the position of British and French manufacturing as opposed to Ottoman economic development needs (İnalcik and Quataert 1994). For example, in Egypt all manufacturing capacity was diverted to cotton-related businesses, which limited these regional economies to a single crop and indirectly made them dependent on British textile demands. These capitulations mainly stemmed from the Turkish Empire’s lagging behind Europe in economic and technological developments, especially since the Empire’s ill-fated second expedition to Vienna in 1688. Moreover, in the lands of the Middle East, industrialisation could not follow the same pattern of development as Europe. While European merchant and traders gradually freed themselves from the yoke of feudal aristocracy and initiated a town-based autonomous economy, the Ottoman manufacturing and trade system, dependent as it was on strictly controlled small-scale guilds and large land owners, resisted competition and delayed the emergence of the wage–labour relation in terms of a capitalist economy. According to Charles Isawi, these guilds, small property owners, and their production and competitive capacities were hugely diminished in the wake of European penetration into regional markets. Even early signs of factory-level production and efforts at industrialisation came from Christian minorities in the Empire, who had connections with foreign merchants and were thus protected by capitulation agreements (İssawi 1980). Furthermore, the nature of the relationship of dominance in the Middle East – landlord–peasant, guild master–worker – meant production was less efficient and more locally focused, which in turn narrowed the dynamism and scale of the markets. State-led industrialisation attempts, especially in the weapons industry, also adhered to the same methods, and were beleaguered by official corruption and inefficiencies that failed to create a healthy working class that could be counted on as a source of demand.

In retrospective analysis, from 1838 to 1918, the Ottomans and Egyptian elite opted to create an economic growth that led to ever increasing indebtedness and capitulations to Europe, and in which local landlords and bureaucrats were the bridgeheads linking the Middle Eastern economy to the developing world markets. The foundation of Duyun-i-Umumiye and official surrendering of the Empire’s finances to European control serve to summarise the hopelessness of the situation. Efforts at unionisation by the urban working class in the late nineteenth century were also precluded by ethnic and religious divisions, since most of these efforts were led by minority workers such as Jews, Greeks, or Armenians, and as we have mentioned above, peasant rebellions questioning existing power relationships and worsening living standards never came close to formulating a real political alternative that could be a source of social change. From 1918 to the end of the 1950s, what one saw in the Arab world was a relatively quickening economic development. This came about as a result of the Great Depression, which had the fortunate effect of leaving Middle Eastern societies to their own local means, since the great powers such as the British and French had to struggle with their own domestic problems. However, the semicolonial Western-supported monarchies of the Arab world at this time failed to diminish either rural or urban economic inequality, or to address the problem of independence. Moreover, their mostly urban-based development of industry and service sectors also brought with it a young generation of intellectuals and rural migration to the cities, both of which would help form the base of future populist regimes (Beinin 2001). Since the Sykes-Picot agreement, the French and British had taken over mandate of areas stretching from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of the Arabian peninsula, in addition to their direct rule over Algeria and Egypt. The Arab revolt of 1936 greatly influenced the psyche of the region’s inhabitants, as Arabs witnessed the brutal colonial suppressions of nationalist movements from Palestine to Algeria. Under those historical conditions, Arab radical socialists like Michel Aflaq, seeing no hope of real independence under Western-supported monarchies, decided to organise and rebel against the region’s comprador powers.

Era of Change: Populist Regimes and Socialism

The mainly populist regimes of Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, Arab Socialist and Baath Party regimes in Syria and Iraq, and the Algerian FLN all came to power through military coups, a fact that made the backbone of these regimes radical military and civilian bureaucrats rather than a wide cross-section of the popular classes. However, that does not mean that these regimes lacked ideological hegemony over wide sections of their populations. The ruling parties espoused the idea of Arab socialism to embrace the lower classes, but an inquiry into working-class influence on the political process reveals that only upper-income, highly skilled and unionised sections of the class were influential in decision-making circles (excluding poorer sections). In terms of their reformist and ‘revolutionary nature’, these authoritarian regimes opted for the highly protectionist state-led import substitution model, and large-scale agrarian reform that aimed to redistribute lands from the wealthier classes to the peasantry. Through these two policies, the ruling elite gradually built up a paternalistic relationship with both the countryside and the urban working class; a development which, in the words of Joel Beinin, empowered and disempowered the popular classes at the same time (Beinin 2001).

In order to understand the ideological framework of Arab socialism, one has to grasp the meaning of Arab nationalism, since it forms the kernel from which other associated ideologies like Baath emerged. Militaryled governments in the Middle East after the Second World War, seeing their movement as a response to Arab humiliation by Ottomans and then Western powers, defined their eventual goal as unification of the Arab nation. Centuries-long colonial ties and struggles determined the very essence of these regimes as anti-Western, a stand which unequivocally paved the way for adaption of the socialist development idea, in opposition to a post-war Western world strictly identified with capitalism. The last nail in the coffin of western credibility among Arabs was the uncritical support Western governments provided to the state of Israel and the division of historic Palestine. The predicament of Palestinians against a pro-Western force in the heart of the Middle East not only damaged the psyche of the region’s population, but also entirely undermined the position of pro-Western forces in these countries. In the words of two main ideologues of Arab nationalism, Michel Aflaq and Gamal Abdul Nasser, their cause was different from ordinary nationalism, and aimed to unite the spirit of the Arab nation, since they saw perennial subordination to colonial powers and internal divisions as the main causes of underdevelopment and backwardness (Sluglett 1992). In this grand conceptualisation of Arab identity, cultural components of that identity – such as Islam, Arab belief in social justice and so forth – were attributed uncritical positive qualities. Thus, the military coups of patriotic officers and the Baath Party were undertaken to overcome this apparent contradiction between Arab spirituality and material conditions on the ground in the Middle East.

After situating Arab socialist regimes in an economic and political framework, one may begin to dissect the glaring differences between Arab and Marxist socialism in terms of ideological and ontological subjects.

Theoretically, the main divergence between Arab socialists and what they consider Western Marxism is how the former understood the issue of exploitation. The movement’s leaders, like Aflaq and Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Haykal, identified exploitative practices with the decades-long Arab experience of Western colonialism and its collaborators in monarchies (Haykal 1968). Rather than trying to find a social foundation for the term, these authors had an arbitrary manner of diagnosing what constituted exploitation. Unlike Marx’s argument that it is the appropriation of surplus value during the production process, Arab socialists tended to see it as a form of contemptuous human behaviour, especially apparent in some upper-class greed for disproportionate wealth and the desire to display this wealth. Thus, logically, they stressed that if an individual truly subsumes the essence of Arab nationalism and works for national unity, that individual will not resort to exploitative practices. Hence, Arab socialism attributed the basis of exploitation to human volition. In fact, this idealist thinking pattern was not surprising, since it justified Arab military and civilian bureaucracies’ own position towards various social classes, as it theoretically facilitated the separation of loyal capitalists from exploiters. Also, this political understanding helped them control trade-union and communist organisation activities, since any proceeding from Marx’s original conceptualisation inevitably brought forth the question of the proportion of working-class involvement in the Arab socialist project. As a further step, and in light of the explanation above regarding the nature of exploitation, writers like Haykal and Aflaq refuted the Marxist notion of class struggle. According to them, the Marxist class struggle is too extreme in its conception and in its consequences of annulling human freedom and individualism for the sake of society’s well-being (Aflaq 1968). On this point, these authors, rather than engaging with Marx’s original writings on the subject, tended to divert their criticism to the practices of existent socialism in the Soviet Union. Like their counterparts in Baath, Mohhamad Haykal and Clovis Maqsud tried to abstract the USSR experience both from the historical and social conditions that influenced Soviet reality and from the intra-Marxist disputes pertaining to the nature of bureaucratisation and Stalinism. As a concomitant fact, one may stress the following: if the foundation of the class struggle is not the production process itself, then objectively determining the egalitarian distribution of society’s wealth in Arab socialism is controversial. Since the nature of trade-union activities were also evaluated on the basis of their primary loyalty to Arab national unity, Arab socialism further disempowered civil society, while criticising communism as an ideology that kills individual spirit (Maqsud 1968). Furthermore, emphasis on the free individual (accepted as an achievement of Western capitalism) by these writers ignored the historical struggles of Western working classes to gradually win their democratic rights against the powers that be. In the Arab socialist understanding, an Arab worker was already a free individual, as their government saved them from the yoke of tyranny and imperialism. In addition to all of the above, Arab socialist regimes tried to balance the USSR and the Western blocs in their quest for development aid, as a result of which the aforementioned authors were at pains to emphasise the differences between their socialism and what they called the crude materialism of the Soviet Union.

One significant issue that we can point out in terms of the variance of Arab socialists from Western Marxism was the role of religion in everyday life and politics in their countries. Unlike Karl Marx’s argument depicting religion largely as the opium of the masses, in the Middle East, socialist writers crafted a revolutionary role for religion, especially Islam. For example, in his writings on co-operative socialism, Ramadan Lawand argued that Marxism’s insistence on materialism turned it into a thought pattern that lacked spirituality (Lawand 1968). Former Al-azhar preacher Mahmud Shaltut, in his quest to reconcile Islam and socialist ideas, wrote that issues like social solidarity and the fight against behavioural excesses (i.e. luxurious consumption) were also part of Islam’s indispensible agenda. As a corollary to this, Shaltut pointed out the programmatic similarities between Islam and Arab socialists (Shaltut 1968). In a further demonstration of these opinions, Michel Aflaq tried to save Arab socialism’s secular leanings by referring to the erroneous application of genuine Islam in the Arab world, which in itself justified a renewal of religion through the socialist governments, this time by implementation of the correct and progressive nature of Islam. Hence, Aflaq professed the essence of Arab identity to be Islamic, and since their cause was a call for betterment of Arab society, their religion could not be anything but revolutionary (Aflaq 1968). All these attempts to integrate religion into Arab nationalist and socialist paradigms, albeit without a strong philosophical foundation, were the results of Arab socialists’ search for quick legitimacy among the population, since otherwise the narrow social base of the ruling elite would be too transparent. Also, in the Arab experience, a history that did not witness any secular struggle against religious institutions or any call for social justice and equality inevitably anchored its ethical reference to Islam, since the reversal of that would mean tacit acceptance of the Marxist critique of the social roots of religion.

In a short summary of these historical and ideological discussions, one may argue that Arab socialism and its immediate predecessor Arab nationalism were historically specific ideologues of Arab ruling elites, which were used by them to overcome problems of modernisation and underdevelopment (Karpat 1968). The heavy presence of bureaucratic authoritarianism, coupled with passive acceptance by trade unions and the Arab left of the status quo under Nasser or Baath Party rule, greatly disempowered the working class and prevented the emergence of a reliable opposition. This partially forced silence of the left was another reason – the biggest factor being the humiliating defeat of Arab armies by Israel in 1967 – that facilitated the transition from Arab socialism to neo-liberal forms of rule, beginning with Anwar Sadat’s rule in Egypt. In terms of their economic and social development goals, Arab socialist and nationalist regimes were more successful than their neo-liberal counterparts, which acted to integrate the region’s economies into the global economy under IMF tutelage (Kadri 2012). However, in the final analysis, Arab socialism was insufficient in constructing a viable alternative either to Western capitalism or Soviet socialism. As mentioned earlier, Arab intellectuals and statesmen lacked an ontological analysis of the system in their own time, which reminds us of Marx’s premise that any socialist ideology should be a ruthless critique of existing order.


  1. Aflaq, M. (1968). The socialist ideology of the Ba’th. In K. Karpat (Ed.), Political and social thought in the contemporary Middle East. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  2. Beinin, J. (2001). Workers and peasants in the modern Middle East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Gibb, H., & Bowen, H. (1957). Islamic society and the West: A study of the impact of the Western Civilization on Muslim culture in the near East. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Haykal, M. H. (1968). Communism and ourselves: Seven differences between communism and Arab socialism. In K. Karpat (Ed.), Political and social thought in the contemporary Middle East. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  5. İnalcik, H., & Quataert, D. (1994). An economic and social history of the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. İssawi, C. (1980). De-industrialization and re-industrializiation in the Middle East since 1800. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 12(4), 469–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Kadri, A. (2012). Revisiting Arab socialism. World Economic Review, 1(1), 91–113.Google Scholar
  8. Karpat, K. (1968). Arab socialism and its relation to social structure: Nationalism, communism and capitalism. In K. Karpat (Ed.), Political and social thought in the contemporary Middle East. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  9. Lawand, R. (1968). Cooperative socialism. In K. Karpat (Ed.), Political and social thought in the contemporary Middle East. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  10. Maqsud, C. (1968). The crisis of the Arab Left. In K. Karpat (Ed.), Political and social thought in the contemporary Middle East. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  11. Pamuk, S. (1994). Money in the Ottoman Empire 1326–1914. In H. İnalcik & D. Quataert (Eds.), An economic and social history of the Ottoman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Shaltut, M. (1968). Socialism and Islam. In K. H. Karpat (Ed.), Political and social thought in the Middle East. New York: Praeger.Google Scholar
  13. Sluglett, P. (1992). Tuttle guide to the Middle East. Boston: C.E. Tuttle Co.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of International RelationsMarmara UniversityIstanbulTurkey