Re-Embedding Citizenship in Revolutionary Politics

Written by Yavor Tarinski

To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!

When exploring social change, one has to examine all aspects of it. Developing strategies and institutions that will help facilitate the coming into being and functioning of a democratic and ecological society is of an immense importance, and so is the anthropological type that will consist it. In this latter aspect, the concept of citizenship plays crucial role.

Today, however, the term citizen has come to imply the belonging to a certain Nation-State and the right to vote, once every several years for its governing elite. The far-right, proceeding from this understanding has used it to discriminate against refugees and migrants.

Neoliberals, on the other hand, have advanced the idea of global citizenship detached from anything local. Lynette Shultz has defined this understanding by suggesting that a global citizen is someone who is a successful participant in a liberal economy driven by capitalism and technology.[2]

In the former understanding of citizenship, we have at hand a localist, semi-tribalist agenda, while in the latter there is a clear economistic one. Both however deviate clearly from the essentially political nature of the origins of the term. “Citizen” and “city” share the same Greek root word: citizenship by definition means that you belong to a particular political community. In Ancient Greece, for example, where the term originated, it was the body of citizens that directly participated in the management of public affairs of their urban environment. Although immense shortcomings like the exclusion of women from the citizen body and the existence of slaves were in place, there is still something significant in this particular historic experience – it introduced for first time a political framework of broad political participation based on passion for law-making, instead of power, blood ties, knowledge, etc.

Roots of Citizenship

For Aristotle, being citizen was more than living in a particular place, sharing in economic activity or being ruled under the same laws. Instead, according to him citizenship is a kind of activity: The citizen in an unqualified sense is defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office[3]. The city was not simply a densely populated space, but a vibrant multitude of active agents: Whoever is entitled to participate in an office involving deliberation or decision is, we can now say, a citizen in this city; and the city is the multitude of such persons that is adequate with a view to a self-sufficient life, to speak simply.

When Aristotle and his Greek contemporaries spoke of participation, they meant the direct participation of each citizen in the public assembly – and not by voting for representatives – and willingly serve on juries (through sortition) to help uphold the laws. It was within this setting that the great ancient thinker concluded that man is by nature a political animal[4] and that someone can be truly a citizen above all in a democracy[5]. It is the right for direct participation in the political decision-making of the community, and not the economic status or the belonging to an ethnicity, which distinguished the citizens from the rest of the inhabitants of the city.

Philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis points to the inseparable connection, which goes beyond mere localism, between citizenship and direct democracy, suggesting that:

Direct democracy certainly requires the physical presence of citizens in a given place when decisions have to be made. But this is not enough. It also requires that these citizens form an organic community, that they live if possible in the same milieu, that they be familiar through their daily experience with the subject to be discussed and with the problems to be tackled.[6]

Drawing on Ancient Athens, he underlines two basic traits of citizenship: isgeoria, the right for all equally to speak their minds, and parrhesia, the commitment for all really to speak their minds concerning public affairs.[7]

Being a citizen was not merely a title, a privilege, or a passive identity. Castoriadis notes that it was all about education or paideia, which could not be obtained primarily from books and academic credits. In this sense citizenship was a never-ending process based on active civic engagement. First and foremost, it meant becoming conscious that the polis is also oneself and that its fate also depends upon one’s mind, behavior, and decisions; in other words, it was the very participation in political life.[8]

This was not an abstract form of engagement, but it emerged from a very specific space that nurtured such attitude – the public space in the form of general assembly (ekkliseia tou dimou) and administrative councils of delegates (often selected via sortition). It was such democratic institutions that created the conditions for a vibrant civic culture and a passion for politics, which resulted in the rise of an active citizenship.

In this setting there was no place for the pseudo-dilemma that plagues contemporary though: the ‘individual’ versus ‘society’. The object of the institution of the polis, according to Pericles, is the creation of a certain anthropological type, the Athenian citizen, who lives in and through the love and practice of beauty and wisdom, as well as the care and responsibility for the common good, the collectivity, the polis.[9] In short, the Athenian citizen was not a ‘private philosopher’ , nor a ‘private artist’ , he was above all a citizen for whom philosophy, art and politics have become ways of life.[10]

Citizenship and the Paris Commune

The citizenship, as a revolutionary concept, reemerged during the Paris Commune. It was, according to communard Gustave Lefrançais’ account, during the public assemblies which have emerged from the sections, that the people began addressing each other no longer as mesdames et messieurs (ladies and gentlemen), but as citoyennes et citoyens (female and male forms of citizen in French)[11]. This change shows a major transformation that happened on the social imaginary level that reflected the genuinely democratic essence of these grassroots institutions. If the address “mesdames et messieurs” stood for the saturated time of the nation, where nothing is allowed to change, then the words citoyennes and citoyens represented a people who have separated themselves from the national-statist body and have, instead opened a public space that nurtures bottom-up change.

The clubs and sections, that during the days of the Commune transformed into popular assemblies, provided the necessary space for people to act as citizens. According to another communard – Elise Reclus – these democratic institutions were consisted by people who, for the most part, had never talked to each other until then.[12] As they were open to all for participation, they nurtured this passion for political engagement and law-making, that was vital part of the ancient Athenian citizenship. In this sense, as Kristin Ross notes, these institutions were schools for the people, where participants self-educated themselves and developed genuine civic culture[13].

Citizenship and Ecological Stewardship

Citizenship, as it appeared in the above examples, must be understood as the direct connection between the individual and its social and natural environment. Furthermore, it implies a certain degree of responsibility that the former undertakes in respect to the latter. The citizen thus does not care only for herself, but also takes active part in the stewardship of his community, as well as its natural environment. Researcher Andrew Light suggests that embracing the ecological dimensions of citizenship would be one way of fulfilling one`s larger obligations to this thicker conception of citizenship.[14]

The direct participation that people can experience in the public spaces of citizenship potentially nurtures their interest in public affairs. In the same way, if they undertake directly the stewardship of their natural environment, then this will, quite possibly, develope a deepening ecological trait within civic culture. This could, in turn, raise their awareness in global phenomena like climate change, which the contemporary statist and capitalist elites neglect in the name of profit, provoking instead grassroots coordination in unseen proportions. Urban ecologist Steward T. A. Pickett, in this line of thought, suggests that if the public bases its understanding of ecological processes on its local environment, then extracting ecological knowledge from urban systems has the best chance of enhancing ecological understanding worldwide.[15]

Beyond such hypotheses, however, this participatory understanding of citizenship strives at challenging the very root of the contemporary ecological crisis – domination. If people submerge in a civic culture of rational dialogue and cooperation on equal terms, then they will have to refute all together the logic of humans exploiting other humans, which in turn has gave rise to humanity exploiting nature. Because of this ecological potential of citizenship social ecologist Bookchin advances that:

The remaking of the constituents of republican representatives into citizens who participate in a direct democracy […] can potentially eliminate the domination of human by human and thereby deal with those ecological problems whose growing magnitude threatens the existence of a biosphere than can support advanced forms of life.[16]

Citizen Education

The emergence of active citizenry that will take active interest in public affairs and ecological stewardship depends, as noted above, on the creation and functioning of a proper public space that allows for popular direct participation. It is such spaces that will serve as schools for citizenship.

This comes in opposition to elitist approaches that view broader engagement with collective societal decision-making as something that should follow an educational process that will be provided “from above”, for example by a progressive government. But there is a logical contradiction in such reasoning – hegemonic rule does not teach people anything about self-governance; it only reinforces their habits of subservience and passivity.

Castoriadis underlines that there is only one way for people’s opinions and judgements on political matters to be educated, and it is by letting them to directly exercise political power, discuss, and make decisions.[17]  In other words, the means cannot be contrary to the ends. If we aim at bringing into reality a direct democratic society, then getting people to actively participate from now is of key importance.

Thomas Jefferson, an undoubtedly problematic and contradictory historic figure, who however advocated for a radically democratic ward-system (because of which Michael Hard suggests that his political thought belongs to the revolutionary tradition) and implied that the most important aspect of participatory democracy is how it changes people. According to him it has the potential to create citizens who will fight against any form of authority that tries to take power away from them:

Where every man is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic, or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man […] who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will the heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Ceaser or a Bonaparted.[18]


Ultimately this understanding of citizenship is all about people coming together and collectively reclaiming power away from centralized entities like the Nation-State or exploitative mechanism like the capitalist market. But it also implies an ongoing process of retaining power on grassroots level, blocking the emergence of new forms of domination and hierarchy. In our contemporary context one such understanding of civic culture could provide communities with the tools to think and act beyond the limitations of economism and social stratification of today’s system. And it most certainly has a crucial role to play in the reinstitution of a democratic and ecological society.


[1] Derek Heater: A Brief History of Citizenship (New York City: New York University Press, 2004), pp157

[2]  Lynette Shultz: Educating for Global Citizenship: Conflicting Agendas and Understandings in The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 53(3) (2007), p249

[3] Aristotle: The Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p87

[4] Aristotle: The Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p37

[5] Aristotle: The Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), p87

[6] David Ames Curtis (Editor): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p56

[7] David Ames Curtis (Editor): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p280

[8] David Ames Curtis (Editor): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p281

[9] David Ames Curtis (Editor): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p288

[10] David Ames Curtis (Editor): The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p288


[12] Elie Reclus: La Commune de Paris, au jour le jour, 1871, 19 Mars–28 Mai (Paris: Schleicher frères, 1908), p46


[14] Andrew Light: Ecological Citizenship: The Democratic Promise of Restoration, chapter in The Humane Metropolis: People and Nature in the 21st Century City, ed. R. Platt (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).

[15] S.T.A. Pickett, Mary Cadenasso, Morgan Grove & Charles Nilon: Urban Ecological Systems: Linking Terrestrial Ecological, Physical, and Socioeconomic Components of Metropolitan Areas in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics (No32 November 2003).

[16] (Last seen on 22/05/21)

[17] (Last seen on 22/05/21)

[18] Thomas Jefferson: Michael Hardt presents the Declaration of Independence (London: Verso, 2007), pp62-63

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