The New Republic's latest issue includes a wonderful essay by Paul Berman recounting the utter insanity of Baathism. Berman says the disgusting ideology will remain with us despite the fall of Saddam and the mounting likelihood Syria's Baathist regime will soon crumble. While Berman's probably correct, here's why we should collectively mourn the refusal of this polluted idea to fade from the international scene.
Something in the Baathist doctrine is insane, and this is worth emphasizing. The Arab Baath Socialist Party has slaughtered more Arabs than any institution in modern history, though the French army in Algeria may be able to put up a rival claim. No one has definitively tallied up the deaths committed by the Baath in Syria, not in 1981, when Hafez Al Assad presided over executions by the hundreds, nor when he leveled entire neighborhoods in Hama back in 1982, nor in 2011 and 2012, when his son has gone about doing the same on what appears to be an even bigger scale. It is a matter of tens of thousands, though (and worse may be to come). The Iraqi Baath achieved a toll of many hundreds of thousands. The Baath in Iraq was the only government in the world, after the Nazis, to use poison gas on its own people. And here is Bashar’s Syrian Baath threatening to make use of its own stocks of poison gas, if only against foreign invaders—meaning, from a Baathist standpoint, against anyone at all who has taken up arms.
Will someone argue that, in Syria and Iraq, the Baath never succeeded in establishing total control, therefore should not be considered a totalitarian movement? But totalitarians never achieve total control. They merely give it an honest try. What marks a totalitarian movement is the vigor and lunacy that animates the honest try. Ultimately a totalitarian movement is a political tendency that, in a spirit of nihilism, is committed to achieving the opposite of whatever it says it is going to achieve, and will stop at nothing to bring this about. Soviet communism in the age of Stalin was ruthlessly devoted to constructing a gigantic slave-labor system in the prison camps. Nazism left no stone unturned to bring about the ruination of Germany. Baathism is an anti-Arab movement. Hasn’t this been obvious? But this did not prevent the Baath from thriving, in its day.