Batatu, emeritus professor at Georgetown University, has now published two similarly large tomes dealing with a Middle Eastern state laboring under a radical regime.1 Both have long, obscure, and pedantic titles, a vaguely Marxist outlook, and a content that manages to be simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because Batatu has spent decades unearthing, compiling, and comparing data. Here is the place to find a discussion of the electrification of the Syrian countryside, Asad's personality, the evolution of the Ba‘th Party, or the various portrayals of peasants by Muslim and Western authors.
Infuriating because, as Batutu acknowledges, his study "does not seek to prove or disprove any particular thesis or draw from the accumulated evidence any general theory." Instead, the author is quite content to ferret out the information and leave it at the reader's doorstep, for him to make of it what he will. Infuriating, too, because the book meanders without discipline from subject to subject, lacking logic or structure. It does so on the macro level, with two sections devoted to the Syrian peasantry and two to the regime of Hafiz al-Asad—and no explicit connection between them other than the fact that Asad is "Syria's first ruler of peasant extraction." It also does so on the micro level, with one subject tumbling on top of another (Sufism as a source of political quietism among peasants; why mountaineers resort to force more than plains-dwellers; the appeal of communism to peasants).
Despite Batatu's disavowal of "any general theory," his choice of subject matter does point to his arguing on one side in the great debate of modern Syrian history: Does the character of the Asad regime derive from its rural or its ‘Alawi religious background? Batatu's opus represents a major, if diffuse, effort to prop up the increasingly discredited rural thesis.
3 The previous one was Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba‘thists, and Free Officers (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1978).