Books on Syria and the Syrian Revolution: Authoritarianism in Syria

Authoritarianism in Syria : Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946–1970

Steven Heydemann

Cornell University Press



For almost forty years Syria has been ruled by a populist authoritarian regime under the Ba’th Party, led since 1970 by President Hafiz al-Asad. The durability and resilience of this regime is a striking contrast to the instability and intense social conflict that preceded the Bath’s seizure of power, when Syria was seen as among the least stable of Arab states. This dramatic transition raises questions about how the Ba’th succeeded in constructing the institutions needed to consolidate a radically populist and authoritarian system of rule. The Ba’th’s accomplishment also poses a significant theoretical challenge to the widely held view that populist strategies of state building are inherently unstable.

Drawing on evidence from Syrian, American, and British archives as well as from published French and Arabic sources, Steven Heydemann explains the capacity of the Ba’th to overcome the obstacles that typically undermine the consolidation of radical populist regimes. He links the Ba’th’s adoption of a radical populist strategy of state building, and its capacity to implement this strategy, to the dynamics of social conflict, state expansion, and structural change in the political economy of post-independence Syria. Arguing that conventional accounts of Syrian politics neglect the centrality of institutions and institutional change, Heydemann shows how shifts in the pattern of state intervention after 1946 transformed Syria’s political arena.

Press Reviews
“Authoritarianism in Syria offers an accessible overview of major trends in the political economy of Syria during the two decades following the Second World War. The book presents useful data regarding the growth of local industry, the expansion of the central administration and the activities of the country’s labor movement throughout the 1940s and 1950s.”—Fred H. Lawson, Middle East Journal
“The argument is tightly reasoned and persuasive; the theoretical framework is marvelously conceptualized and executed. Along the way, the book provides, among many other insights, a highly insightful interpretation of the rise of the Ba’th party. . . Heydemann’s book is a first-rate contribution about the 1946–1970 period against which subsequent works will need to be measured. His analysis of how political continuity proceeded across a number of decades that witnessed often severe challenges to the country’s leadership goes far beyond the unidimensional caricatures of brutal suppression that often mark less sophisticated studies of Syria.”—Dirk Vandewalle, Political Science Quarterly
“Authoritarianism in Syria is a very useful addition to the literature. Heydemann takes authoritarianism seriously, and he highlights important characteristics of the Syrian case that remain applicable to other societies, both historically and to the present day. . . . Thought provoking.”—Jon Alterman, International Politics.
Experts’ Review
I read Authoritarianism in Syria with great interest. It makes an important contribution to our understanding of state-building processes in third-world states in general and of the political-economic development of Syria in particular.—Volker Perthes, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs)
“Heydemann’s book is an outstanding and richly rewarding study of reciprocally constitutive relations between politics and social forces in Syria. By tracing the mechanisms of Ba’th rule, Heydemann explains both the radicalization and stability of Syrian political life. Deploying classic techniques of institutional analysis, he also offers students of comparative political development an unprecedentedly convincing model of both the emergence and operation of populist authoritarianism.”—Ian S. Lustick, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Even as authoritarianism crumbled or was transformed in the 1990s, the Syrian state dodged the capitalist bullet. Steven Heydemann deftly employs a unique brand of historical political economy to show how.”—Joel Migdal, University of Washington

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