Revolutions Aesthetic
A Cultural History of Ba'thist Syria
Max Weiss




The revolution works in the new stage for the formation of a culture that aims at facilitating the mission of the revolution in construction, establishing the progressive national outlook among the ranks of the people and helping all other people in their struggle against backwardness and imperialism. . . . In doing this the state takes recourse to various means of spreading forms of culture, such as writing, translation, the theatre and cinemas, and all other arts.

—Regional Congress of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, Program of the March 8th Revolution (1965)1

It almost seems that the word “revolution” itself possesses such revolutionary power that it continually broadens itself to include every last element on our globe. . . . What is there in the world that could not be revolutionized—and what is there in our time that is not open to revolutionary effects?

—Reinhart Koselleck, “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution”2

the word “freedom” in my language

takes the shape of an electric chair.

—Muhammad al-Maghut, “After Long Thinking” 3

REVOLUTIONS AESTHETIC IS A CRITICAL-HISTORICAL STUDY OF aesthetics, politics, and cultural production in Syria during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, one that places literature and cinema at the center of the story. Historical scholarship dealing with this period tends to focus on politics, war, and socioeconomic transformation. By contrast, this book draws on rich sources that have gone neglected or underappreciated by historians and other scholars—novels, films, and cultural periodicals—in order to throw new light on the historical evolution of Syrian state, society, and culture. Some of these materials were produced under state auspices; others were made independently. Either way, Syrian art and culture have had a complicated relationship with the state and the political. Revolutions Aesthetic takes as its object certain dimensions of the cultural universe of the Baʿthist regime, nominally in power in Syria since March 8, 1963 and then fundamentally transformed with the coming to power of Hafiz al-Asad (1930–2000) through the November 1970 “corrective movement” (al-ḥaraka al-taṣḥīḥiyya). In addition to launching myriad economic, social, political, and military initiatives, this regime also embarked on a project I refer to as Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution, which ought to be apprehended as a “problematic and therefore potentially productive concept.”4 In my use of the term, Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution entailed the conceptualization, dissemination, and (often haphazard) implementation of a new aesthetic ideology, one that drew on existing modes of artistic engagement while also charting new directions for Syrian, pan-Arab, and Third Worldist cultural and intellectual life. State institutions and regime elites were enlisted to reshape Syrian culture through an aesthetics of power that hinged on communicative languages that I characterize as speaking-to and speaking-for. Despite the substantial efforts dedicated to state- and nation-building, the Syrian regime could never completely capture the cultural and intellectual fields. Competing artistic visions, comprehensible in terms of the aesthetics of resistance and the aesthetics of solidarity, were articulated respectively through what I term speaking-against and speaking-with and therefore coexisted with regime power and state culture in uneasy but sometimes unexpectedly untroubled ways. I elaborate on these concepts and categories at greater length here.

The title of the book—Revolutions Aesthetic—rhymes, imperfectly, with other concepts: “revolutionary aesthetics,” “revolution’s aesthetic,” “aesthetic revolutions.” While I am interested in all of them, none precisely captures or conveys the range of interpretive possibilities for understanding the relationship between aesthetics and politics in contemporary Syria. Revolutions Aesthetic sees works of literature and film as sites of agonistic struggle over aesthetic ideology. Thereby, I hope, it fundamentally recasts the cultural and intellectual history of contemporary Syria. The tangled histories of state power, ideological refashioning, technocratic reform, and social transformation can be understood through this evolving, dialectical relationship between aesthetics and politics. If the aesthetic ideology of Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution supported the wider aims of a revolutionary Arab nationalist agenda—the struggle to liberate the peoples of the Arabic-speaking world from Zionism, imperialism, economic “backwardness,” and cultural malaise—its exponents seemed untroubled by the consolidation of a cult of personality around Hafiz al-Asad and the concomitant solidification of an authoritarian security state under his rule and that of his son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000 as a consensus replacement acceptable to the most influential elements in the ruling apparatus. Despite gestures toward the conceptual foundations of Baʿthist Arab nationalism—the ongoing and comprehensive reordering of society as part of Arab nationalist “resurrection” (al-baʿth) and nods to the venerable slogan “Liberty, [Arab] Unity, Socialism” (ḥurriyya, waḥda, ishtirākiyya)—the aesthetic ideology of Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution during the late twentieth century entailed, however implicitly, the disavowal of early Baʿthists, including most importantly Michel ʿAflaq (1910–1989), cofounder of the Baʿth Party during the early 1930s. This ideological and personal falling out with ʿAflaq and all that he stood for was defined as much by the political-economic orientation of the new regime in its sputtering progress toward liberalization and détente with the capitalist West as it was by internal party factionalism. In place of that vanguardist pan-Arab nationalism with its Marxist or Marxisant tinges, the Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution was oriented otherwise: promoting Syrian nationalism as an iteration of pan-Arab nationalism; foregrounding the inspirational powers of a heroic leader and muscular leadership generally; and constructing an aesthetics of power that resonated with the signature style of al-Asad’s political rule. Salah al-Din al-Bitar (1912–1980), cofounder with ʿAflaq of the Baʿth Party, adhered more stringently to a left political project typically identified with the so-called Neo-Baʿth that seized power in February 1966, even though he served multiple terms as prime minister between 1963 and 1966. And while al-Bitar clashed with the program of the Asadist-Baʿthists associated with the corrective movement—he was shot to death in Paris in July 1980 in an assassination reported to have been ordered by the Syrian regime—he shared their views that revolution in Syria should not be exclusively political or political-economic in nature. “In the Baathist system,” wrote al-Bitar, “the Arab revolution is not only a social, economic and even national revolution, but a total revolution; or, to employ a modern term, a ‘cultural’ revolution, in which the first aim is to restore Arab unity and personality.”5

The revamped aesthetics of power attributable to the Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolution promoted specific visions of heroism, masculinity, virtuous leadership, pan-Arab unity, state sovereignty, cultural patriotism, and political commitment. State-affiliated institutions such as the National Film Organization (al-Muʾassasa al-ʿĀmma li-l-Sīnamā, NFO) and the Arab Writers’ Union (Ittiḥād al-Kuttāb al-ʿArab, AWU) were authorized to advocate for robust literary, cinematic, and cultural engagement at a time of regional military antagonism, domestic and international sectarian conflict, and economic crisis. The intellectual shift from what I have elsewhere called the “ʿAflaqism” of the mid-twentieth century to what can be thought of as the “Asadism” of the late twentieth century therefore constituted a sort of epistemic cultural revolution in its own right.6 Over the course of this period, the Baʿth Party—along with the military, the domestic security services, and the government bureaucracy—was instrumentalized in reshaping the institutional and political landscape of the country in a way that also transformed Baʿthism itself. Once a vanguardist Arab nationalist party with aspirations of becoming a mass political movement, the Baʿth hardened into one core component of a corporatist state anchored by pragmatic bargains with delineated sectors of national society rather than a revolutionary leadership pursuing more idealistic commitments. Given the parallels and overlaps between the political and aesthetic dimensions of this transformation, Syrian cultural and intellectual history can be profitably interwoven with scholarship on politics, military affairs, and social dynamics. I stage this encounter through, for example, a discussion of the intellectual dimensions of Syrian military history in the 1960s through the 1980s (Chapter 1); and a cultural analysis of the security state as reflected in literature and film produced during the early 2000s (Chapter 4).

Strictly speaking, there has not yet been a concerted effort to write concept histories of “revolution” in Syria or the broader Arab world. Nevertheless, a historical-linguistic analysis of “revolution”—through the Begriffsgeschichte associated with Reinhart Koselleck—might be a fruitful avenue for inquiry by intellectual historians of the modern Middle East.7 To the extent that “revolution” animated and addled Syrian intellectuals, artists, and bureaucrats—from Asadist-Baʿthist cultural revolutionaries of the 1970s and 1980s and subsequent keepers of the regime’s “revolutionary” flame during the 1990s and early 2000s to activists and artists who took up an altogether different revolutionary project to topple the Syrian regime in 2011—these discursive formations were articulated in the midst of a historical struggle around aesthetic ideology, one that I argue needs to be understood in relation to both political and cultural analysis. Revolutions Aesthetic draws these threads together in a cultural and intellectual history of literature and film in Baʿthist Syria that speaks across distinct fields of scholarly inquiry rarely placed within the same frame. The sections that follow address conceptual and methodological challenges for these three corners of Syrian studies—political science, modern Middle East cultural and intellectual history, and aesthetic theory—while the remainder of the Introduction is given to a thumbnail sketch of modern Syrian history.


1. Regional Congress of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, Program of the March 8th Revolution (Damascus: Ministry of Information, 1965), 140.

2. Reinhart Koselleck, “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” in Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 39–54, at 40.

3. Muhammad al-Maghut, “After Long Thinking,” in The Fan of Swords: Poems, trans. May Jayyusi and Naomi Shihab Nye (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1991), 41–42, at 41.

4. Sven Lütticken, “Cultural Revolution,” New Left Review 87 (May/June 2014): 115–31, at 115.

5. Salaheddin Bitar [Salah al-Din al-Bitar], “The Rise and Decline of the Baath,” Middle East International (June 1971): 12–15, at 13.

6. To be clear, this transition needs to be more carefully examined; I am not arguing, however, that the pre-1963 Baʿth Party was dominated or determined by Michel ʿAflaq or ʿAflaqist thinking. Instead, I wish to draw attention to the fact that splinter factions of the Baʿth Party in Syria have had political as well as ideological/intellectual dimensions. I thank Saphe Shamoun for encouraging me to clarify this point. On ʿAflaqism in modern intellectual history, see my “Genealogies of Baʿthism: Michel ʿAflaq Between Personalism and Arabic Nationalism,” Modern Intellectual History Vol. 16, No. 2 (December 2020): 1193–1224. The term “Asadism” (al-asadiyya) has long been used colloquially to refer to the system of rule in Syria. Scholarly evaluations of the term are less common. See, though, Najib Ghadbian, al-Dawla al-Asadiyya al-Thāniyya: Bashshār al-Asad wa-l-Furaṣ al-Ḍāʾiʿa ([S.l.]: Najīb al-Ghaḍbiān, 2006); Burhan Ghalioun, “‘Al-Asadiyya’ fī al-Siyāsa al-Sūriyya, aw, Dawr al-Siyāsa al-Iqlīmiyya fī Taḥqīq al-Sayṭara al-Dākhiliyya,” in Maʿrakat al-Iṣlāḥ fī Sūriyā, ed. Radwan Ziadeh (Cairo: Markaz al-Qāhira li-Dirāsāt Huqūq al-Insān, 2006), 15–45; Rustum Mahmud, “Al-Asadiyya,” al-Jumhuriyya, March 29, 2016.

7. Koselleck, “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution.” Among this vast literature, see, for example: Jack A. Goldstone, “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science Vol. 4 (2001): 139–87; Theda Skocpol, “Explaining Social Revolutions: Alternatives to Existing Theories,” in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 3–43; ʿAzmi Bishara, Fī al-Thawra wa-l-Qābiliyya li-l-Thawra (Doha: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, 2012); Fadi Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020); Mona El-Ghobashy, “Reviving Revolution,” The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion, and the Public Sphere (July 6, 2021).