Throughout history, there are great men whose full impact occurs after death, in which the legacy of their spirit and truth in ideas later manifest; Antoun Saadeh was such a man. A Syrian nationalist leader, Saadeh founded a unique kind of pan-nationalism that changed Middle Eastern politics. We will explore Antoun Saadeh’s life and understand how his struggle illuminates our own in the United States.
Antoun Saadeh-early life
Antoun Saadeh was born on March 1st 1904 in the Ottoman province of Beirut Vilayet, modern-day Lebanon. Born to a well-to-do Greek orthodox family, Saadeh had access to many opportunities that many Middle Eastern people could not afford—attending the British Brummana high school in Beirut and later the Catholic college ‘Lycée des Freres’ in Ciro. In the early 20th century Middle East, many concepts were taken for granted in the West. Pan-nationalism, instead of tribalism, were utterly foreign concepts, which Saadeh later interjected into Syrian political discourse.
Being part of the Christian community and having attended westernized schools, Saadeh was exposed to European ideas of pan-nationalism and secularism from an early age, inspiring him to a revolutionary flare. Schooling was not the only reason for the young revolutionary’s nationalist ideas, as his father, Dr. Khalil Saadeh, was active in nationalist circles. In 1921 Antoun moved to Brazil, where his father was living at the time. Khalil Saadeh wrote for the Syrian diaspora newspaper of Al Jarida and Al Majalla magazine, pro-nationalist publications. While in Brazil, Antoun studied German and Russian, and following in the footsteps of his father, became an avid writer.
In 1930 Antoun Saadeh returned to Lebanon, where he began working for a Damascus-based newspaper until leaving to teach German at the American university of Beirut. While at university, Saadeh became enveloped in literature and ideas about socialism and mythic nationalism, harkening back to the Levant’s pre-Islamic empires. With the rise of Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany, Saadeh was excited by an atmosphere of change. Antoun Saadeh was not a self-proclaimed Fascist or National Socialist but certainly was sympathetic towards those movements. Saadeh borrowed both symbolism and authoritarian organization from Fascist movements, even speaking multiple times on Radio Berlin during the Second World War in fervent support of the Axis.
Reading German literature and learning about Syria’s ancient past, Antoun began to form his ideas of Syrian pan-nationalism. Not only did Antoun believe in a fiercely independent Syria (independent of German and Italian influence as well), he began to formulate a new social order, where the life of Syria spiritually and materially would change for a national goal. This sentiment led him to write his famous book, “The Rise of Nations”. In the book, Antoun Saadeh lays out the relationships between individuals and the collective and what he believed to be successful national social science—similar in some ways to sections of the “Doctrine of Fascism” regarding his attempt at establishing a basis for which to orient the Syrian nation. All this culminated in 1932 when Saadeh founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) with five colleagues in Beirut.
The early SSNP
The Syrian Social Nationalist party was in many ways the first of its kind in the Middle East. It embraced secularism while being both anti-colonialist, anti-Zionist, and pan-Syrian. The SSNP’s idea of pan-Syrianism is crucial because it is the basis for SSNP ideology. Antoun Saadeh and the party conceived Syria as more extensive than its current borders and older than Islamic times. Syrian identity was not defined as being Arab or Muslim; instead, it was a geographic area bound together in historical and practical terms. The people united in a new social order is what made one Syrian. It is here where I think the SSNP, as a semi third positionist party resembles our American Third Position (A3P). The coming story of how the SSNP operated in a diverse landscape of groups and how the party engaged politically will be our highlight.
The party began to stagnate in the 1940s. Its opposition to Arab identity in favor of a pan-Syrian identity was highly successful attracting minority groups but controversial to Syria’s Arab Muslim majority. After the Second World War, the party began to involve itself in a limited armed struggle against the new government of Syria and Lebanon and occasionally fighting other domestic militias. At this point, losing influence both in politics and on the battlefield, Saadeh began to water down pan-Syrian rhetoric and appealed to Arab Muslims by occasionally rebranding SSNP ideology as protecting Arab sovereignty against colonialist powers—therefore the party being a ‘protector’ of Arab nationalism. Initially, this rebranding had little effect, as most of the Arab nationalist movement was concentrated in the Baathist party, who were an enemy of the SSNP. Here we see how ideology began to limit the party’s broader appeal and ensured that it could have never been, at this time, a populist party (like that of its past rival, the Baath).
Despite the shifting rhetoric, the tension remained between the SSNP and Baathist parties. At this time, the Social Nationalist Party had many enemies—not least of whom the governments of Lebanon and Syria—as they were colonialist creations against the ideology of greater Syria in the party’s eyes. Revolutionary action led to further conflict, and in 1949, seeing the weakness of Arab states in their recent loss to Israel, Antoun attempted a coup. Saadeh’s coup failed, and on July 8th, 1949, he was executed by Lebanese authorities.
The initial lack of broader interest limited the party appeal to both the masses and elites alike—having never seized power, unlike the populist Baathists. Fast forward to today, and the SSNP is in a very different position; having reformed its ideology to appeal to Arab nationalism and having found common cause fighting alongside Bashar al Assad’s regime, the SSNP is in a strong position. Social nationalists ideas even became integrated into Baathist ideology, contributing to the Baathists ideologically fascist policies. Having found a political ally to provide resources and a base of operations, the SSNP is no longer the wandering stranger.
What we can learn from Anton Saadeh and his party is that in a diverse county, only appealing to a universal identity and not established ethnic communities is a losing strategy. In America, A3P must not make the same mistake. As Saadeh realized too late, people’s sectarian identities must be played off of, not downplayed; blood is thicker than water after all. Trump is a perfect example. Any time Trump implicitly appealed to white racial grievance, his numbers soared, but universalizing racial appeals fell flat. That does not mean we should only appeal to whites, but we must have a demographic home base as bedrock—another crucial lesson, do not be the lone man in the bar fight. The SSNP had enemies all around them and no elites willing to provide support. As for the American Third Position, we must find allies, foreign or domestic. Our ideology should not hinder us from appealing towards specific sectarian identities nor prevent us from seeking alliance out of puritanical pride. We must be flexible, have our eyes on victory first, and flesh out ideology and state structure.
Saadeh’s ideas influenced nearly every nationalist group in the Middle East, including the Baathist party. He is considered one of the most famous Middle Eastern intellectuals and revolutionaries the region ever knew. The lessons, good and bad, are vital in moving forward towards our political struggle. The dream of a greater social order is a spirit that animates men to action and some men to infamy—such is Antoun Saadeh’s legacy.